Walter's moving tribute to Mel Brenner

Walter's moving tribute to Mel Brenner

Here is the text of Walter Ruby's eulogy for Mel Brenner, delivered as part of a memorial service for our family member on June 27, 2013 at Jefferson's Ferry Retirement Community in Setauket, NY.

I am Walter Ruby, Mel’s nephew by marriage. Sandy is my late father Stanley Ruby’s first cousin. Besides the familial connection, Stan and my mother Helga were lifelong dear friends of Sandy and Mel. They lived in different parts of the U.S. but sometimes vacationed together, in Shelter Island, California or elsewhere. I want to thank Janis, Amy, Leslie and their families and of course Sandy for giving me the chance to speak today.

Like everyone here today, I am with the Brenners in their deep sorrow over Mel’s passing. Yet it feels appropriate today to accentuate the positive; to celebrate Mel for his sheer joy in life and the joy he transmitted to all of us with his effervescent personality, with his delightful sense of humor and love of people and nature. Let me start by sharing a sense of inadequacy for this task. The truth is that while I considered Mel my favorite uncle, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I would have liked. When I was 6 years old, my family left Massapequa Park where we had lived for a year, and moved west to Pittsburgh, Pa and later to Chicago.

So during childhood we saw Mel, Sandy and girls no more than once a year and often less; when we would travel to NY to visit the family or when they would stop off and see in Chicago while driving around the country in their RV. Later once I was an adult and living in NYC I saw Mel and Sandy occasionally, often on family occasions—they were at my second wedding in 1983, at Joan Felenstein’s funeral and we had several memorable visits to their Massapequa home, especially one in 2006, when we took a lot of photos and put it up on our Ruby Family History blog, including cardinals and other beautiful birds lining up at Mel’s bird feeders. And then of course, I took a trip to Rhode Island last summer with Mel for the annual reunion of his 87th U.S. Army Infantry Division—where he served as infantryman in World War II, from the Battle of the Bulge across Germany to the Czech border the day the war ended. I will come back to that in a minute.

When I think back to childhood encounters with Mel, I have few specific memories just a sense of ease and fun of hanging out with him. I remember a wonderful visit to Long Island when I was 11; together with my parents and my siblings, Danny and Joanne, we were about to depart on our year long sabbatical year in Israel where my father was a visiting physicist--sitting on the floor in the living room of Joan’s house in Rockville Centre showing Mel my baseball card collection of which I was immensely proud. I believe I left them with him for the year, so I wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting. The point is that he was the kind of grown up who could get on the floor with a nephew and flip baseball cards—and feel completely comfortable. I could see how he must have been a marvelous teacher.

Recently, after Mel’s passing, Leslie wrote a letter of memories—one of which involved a game Mel inspired of dropping sticks into the stream in the woods behind their house and seeing whose came out first. A few years later we were doing that in the stream in the woods behind our house near Pittsburgh in a game called Poohsticks, which Stan had adapted from a Winnie the Pooh story—or so we thought all these years. It turns out it was likely adapted by Mel from Winnie the Pooh in a stream in the woods behind the Massapequa house and then Stan took it from him. In any case, the game was infused with Mel’s gentle spirit and sense of fun…

Nine years ago, after my parents died, and Joanne, Dan and I got interested in family history, Mel let me read his World War II reminiscences and I found out for the first time about the horrors he had experienced as his unit moved from the Battle of the Bulge into Germany—face to face with death as a 19 and 20 year old, one of only 7 guys in his unit of 42 who survived till the end of the war. But I didn’t really connect with Mel’s story at that time as I was so totally focused on our immediate family’s story, and somehow assumed Mel would be around forever…But then when I visited him and Sandy at Jefferson’s Ferry about a year ago, he told me that he had just about given up on going to his reunion in Warwick, RI because his health was shaky and he didn’t know how to get there, and something in me caused me to say, “Well, maybe I could drive you there.” And he broke into a huge smile and exclaimed, “Gee…you would do that for me?” And I replied, “Sure, why not? I’m sure it will be great fun.”

In fact, the experience of our round trip drive to the reunion and back including two crossings from Orient Point to New London and back and the experience of the it indeed turned out to be great fun, but much more than great fun. It was getting to know Mel really well, and to learn not only about his life experiences, but somehow a wonderful affirmation of life itself. Honestly, it felt like one of those 70’s road dramas about cross-cultural bonding with a Jewish sensibility—something by Paul Mazursky like Harry and Tonto.

Mel hadn’t been very mobile for a few years and from the moment we got started, he was as giddy as a kid in a candy shop about the sights—especially the North Fork of the Island, where he knew every village and every cove—he had sailed the whole shore with a friend who had a yacht of whom Mel said, “I loved sailing with him all around Long Island, but I got mad at him for two reasons; he died and he didn’t leave me the yacht.”

One thing that made Mel genuinely angry he showed me on the return trip; a hidden slave graveyard in Orient Point almost no one knows about…Mel showed me where it was…pointing out that few people are aware that slavery continued to exist in New York State well into the 19th Century…one could see the graves of the Lord and Lady of the Manor with their birth and death dates marked and around them some little stones without inscriptions were 5 or 6 slave graves looking like pet graves. How was such a thing possible, Mel demanded, in a country dedicated to the premise that all men are created equal? He loved this country and risked his life for it, but he wasn’t about covering up the blemishes.

On the trip up, I debriefed Mel on his experiences in the war; how he went to school to be in an elite technical unit, but how it was disbanded and he ended up in the infantry instead, about his baptism of fire in the Bulge where it was so cold that when they slept outside in their sleeping bags it was so cold that the sleeping bags froze to the ground and they had to slither out of bed in the morning and then cut the bag loose with a pocket knife. Mel told me about seeing friends killed before his eyes and about the random quality of who lived and who died and about his own close calls; how he was once blown high into the air by a shell and somehow came down unharmed.

Mel recalled how on several occasions he, the only Jewish member of the unit, had talked other members of his unit out of shooting to death German soldiers they captured; that not only was it morally wrong and might besmirch the reputation of the unit, but if found out on the German side, it would discourage soldiers and civilians from surrendering. On one occasion, Mel had to summon all his self-control to prevent himself from shooting a teenage member of the Hitler Youth who had fired at him from a house. Even amidst the horrors he was immersed in, amidst a psychology of ‘kill or be killed’ Mel’s quiet voice of conscience never left him. After the war, Mel was then all of 20, in his own words, “went back to being a kid” and went to college before meeting and marrying Sandy and starting his teaching career.

Like so many others I experienced Mel as one of the warmest, kindest and funniest people I ever knew and on that trip I wondered, “How did he managed to process his wartime experience and stay sane? The chasm between that experience and the rest of his life seemed immense. Apparently, he tucked it away for many decades, but the older he got and the further away from the war chronologically, the more he seemed to need to grapple with it and deal with what he had experienced…

On that trip also I learned a lot about other parts of Mel’s life, including his political activism; his deep involvement in Democratic politics, including his unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1970 and the excitement of serving as a McGovern delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1972. Concerning the prior experience he talked to me about what it was like going door to door and asking for peoples’ votes in the most solidly Republican area of Long Island. He said he knew his chances of actually winning the election were slim, but he enjoyed the experience greatly because he loved retail politics and he was glad to have the opportunity to share his passion for liberal ideals with people. As he spoke I was struck by how little personal ego seemed to have been involved; that for him—and for Sandy, who was also deeply involved in Democratic politics--it was really about leaving the world a better place than they found it.

Mel believed fervently in free speech and was a founder and past president of the New York Civil Liberties Union-Nassau County Chapter. The last time I saw him about a month before his passing at a modern dance performance at Julliard, including a dance piece composed by his daughter Janis, a dancer and choreographer of whose career he was immensely proud, he told me that he a bit down to see that with all the work he and so many other wonderful people had done over the decades, the political situation in America and especially the state of civil liberties was no better than it had been 50-or 60 years ago, when he first got politically active. Had it all been worth it, he wondered, had anything really been accomplished? Janis, who was standing with us, and I assured him with considerable conviction that without the work that he, Sandy and other activists of their generation had done, things would be considerably worse. I hope that gave him some solace.

When thinking of Mel, I come back all the time to the hackneyed, but terribly apt phrase, “A life well lived.” He did it all, pretty much everything he wanted to do in his life, a beautiful family, a successful and emotionally satisfying career, including a glorious 30 year retirement during which he rode his bike across France on several occasions and many other wonderful trips. He was witty, charming and incredibly kind. He gave so much more than he took. He left the world a better place. What more can one ask of life and what more can one ask of a human being? Mel, we miss you and love you.