As Phyllis was my surrogate mom, Mr. Segal-my name for him always-was my surrogate dad. When I first met him in 1958, I was the 13-year-old friend of his second-born daughter. In 2002, a few weeks before his death, he asked me to help him write something about his life. I jumped at the opportunity. This was the second time in my life that I’d had that privilege-in 1991 I’d interviewed him for a paper I was writing about the 1930s. And it was with his narrative of that first paper that I begin his story in his own words:
My father migrated here from Russia around 1892. He ran a manufacturing business before World War I-ladies’ coats. After the war ended, things went bad, but my father, who was a very proud man, couldn’t close the shop-if he did that too many people would be out of work. He ran split shifts instead. By 1925 though, things were so bad, he was forced to close up. But he paid everyone what was due them-in other words, he did NOT declare bankruptcy.
My father, as I said, was a very proud man, and in those days, when someone went out of business, he went to live with a child or to the poor house. We struggled. Every cent we pooled. In 1930 our house mortgage was called in by the bank. My father scraped up $21.00, rented a horse and wagon, loaded all of our furniture, pots and pans-and like gypsies! we moved from our four-story house on 3rd and Spruce Streets to a two-room apartment at 6th and Cambridge.
Two years later in 1932, when I was fourteen years old, my mother died. What I remember most about the thirties, as a kid, I watched people walk through alleyways, open garbage cans, and eat whatever scraps they could find. I also remember men standing on the corner selling apples.
My father was very, very honest, and he demanded honesty from all of his children. He told us in Yiddish:
A liar is a thief;
A thief is a murderer;
A murderer goes to the electric chair-
And if you ever tell a lie, I’ll kill you!!
People were different back then. They looked out for each other. My brother had to go away for a few weeks and left instructions: “Go see Mr. Nititsky and Mr. Lapushkin to see if they need coal.”
These stories, these people, are what shaped Mr. Segal and made him into the man he’s been and is today. Last night I asked him to describe the proudest moments of his life. He said,
I’m proud of every moment of my life. I was raised to care about others, and I’ve always cared about others. I was raised to respect women and to treat them with kindness, and I’ve done my best to do that too. I was in business my whole life and always tried to treat everyone with kindness and caring. I’ve known people who tried to cheat others out of money-that was always a warning sign to me that I didn’t want to have any further dealings with them.
Mr. Segal owned a fur shop during World War II. It had been his brother’s shop, but when his brother went into the Army, he told Mr. Segal, Milt, as he was known to his family and friends, that it was now his. Mr. Segal said he didn’t know a thing about making coats, let alone fur coats. As he described it to me, when he first began, Mrs. Segal would read the directions to him as he would line up the pelts and try to figure out how to construct a coat out of all the different pieces. Before long, he became quite good at this and not only made coats, collars and hats, but even designed snazzy bow ties made of fur!!!
Later Mr. Segal owned and operated a busy hardware store. He worked hard and long hours and always strove to treat people fairly and with compassion. Mr. and Mrs. Segal often walked downtown together. Whenever Mr. Segal spotted a penny on the pavement, he reached down and pick it up-“Through the years I’ve watched,” he told me, “nobody bothers to pick up pennies. I pick up pennies and give out quarters to anyone on the street asking for money.”
Mr. Segal told me he’s very proud of his family-his wife and the three daughters he and Mrs. Segal raised. One of those daughters, Louise-the first born-died from leukemia at the age of 21. One might think that such a tragedy would embitter both parents, but this was not at all the case with either Mr. or Mrs. Segal. Last evening, with the four of us by his side-Sadie, his wife of 65 years, Helene and Janis, their two daughters, and me, their surrogate daughter, Mr. Segal told me how much he loved his daughters and wife and how they’d each let him know how much they loved him. He said he felt he’d accomplished everything he’d ever wanted to-everything, that is, except one last important item.
All of his life, Mr. Segal loved solving problems-the more complex, the more baffling, the better. About ten years ago, he began thinking about the problem with fire hydrants throughout the city. They were constantly being damaged by vehicles smashing into them; in the summer they were being broken open by residents wanting to use the rushing water to cool themselves off; and then, in the wake of a raging fire, they were consistently found to be dysfunctional-because of all the vandalism, destruction and illegal use. This was no small problem-it was costing the city of Philadelphia about 50 million dollars a year!
And so Mr. Segal set to working on a solution and didn’t quit until he’d successfully designed a unique, highly cost-effective and incredibly efficient hydrant that is virtually tamper-proof, damage-proof and always fully functional. He had a prototype made and even recorded a videotape to present to city officials. But bureaucracy being what it is, Mr. Segal’s hydrant, while applauded for its efficiency, effectiveness and economy, is still not being used. “It’s not because of the money I’d receive that I want my hydrant used,” Mr. Segal told me last night, “it’s that my hydrant works so much better and so much more cheaply than what’s out there now-it would save the city so much money which could be used for other programs.”
That’s just the kind of man Mr. Segal is. He may not be my father, but he is very much my hero.