Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Remembering Dad
A hundred years ago today my father -- Michael Gabriel Wanniski -- was born in Minersville, Pa., the third of 13 children born to Andrew and Karolyn, who had emigrated to the coal country of Pennsylvania from towns not far apart in the Ukraine and Poland. Neither parent had attended school, but my father went to the 6th grade before he went into the coal mines, 13 years old. A Negro miner befriended him and maybe even saved his life, an event which insulated him from the racism of the day, a tolerance he passed on to his children. A turning point in his life occurred in grade school when the nuns discovered he had perfect pitch. They taught him to sing and play the piano, and as a young man he became organist and choirmaster at St. Mary’s in Minersville.
The experience stirred him to think of the priesthood. In his early 20s, he left the mines and went to Philadelphia to work as a sexton in a church and educate himself toward acceptance by a seminary. Before he could reach that point, his mother died of pneumonia, leaving small children motherless. He decided it fell to him to raise his young brothers and sisters and so returned home, his father and adult brothers working the mines. Through the late 1920s and into the Depression, he became the “mom” who taught himself to cook, to sew, to keep the house, to raise chickens and to distill Prohibition whisky for sale. [In his 86 years, he took only a single shot of rye at weddings and wakes and almost always skipped the sacramental wine.] Most importantly, he taught himself to a high school level so he could help his siblings do their homework. This was to be of great importance to my education.
Into the 1930s, his siblings old enough to fend for themselves, Dad went to work at the A&P in Minersville, for 10 cents an hour, but exploited the opportunity to have the butcher take him on as a helper. In 1933, the most important Jew in Minersville, Sam Zubroff, hired Dad to be his butcher at his market on Sunbury Street. As with the Negro miner, this began Dad’s lifelong appreciation of American Jews. In 1934, Zubroff hired my mother, 17, to sell the veggies, and my mom became buddies with Julia Zubroff and soon began dating Dad. They married on September 2, 1935, he 33, she 18. Her parents, Lithuanian atheists and Communists, did not attend the wedding. Mom converted to Catholicism, of course, and to this day, 85 years old, never misses Sunday mass.
He bought a few acres in Jonestown, near the homestead, and with his younger brother Tony built the two-storied duplex home with their own hands. Unable to make enough money at Zubroff’s, he decided to go back into coal mines with his brothers Jack and Tony, as “bootleggers.” They would mine coalholes that had been abandoned by the coal companies. For extra money, Dad built a chicken coop big enough to hold 200 chickens, selling them and their eggs in town. He kept up his music and my earliest memory is of him holding me on his lap and singing Che Gelida Manina from Puccini’s La Boheme. In other words, he jumped from church music to Grand Opera. He did both to the end of his life, a perfect-pitch tenor who taught himself Italian so he could handle the Italian operas. He never stopped teaching himself and eventually could converse in Polish, Ukrainian, Italian and Spanish. He also knew Latin and a bit of Russian and Lithuanian.
Because he could learn so easily, he also taught easily. Having spent so much time at the homestead helping his young brothers and sisters with their homework, he taught me when he came home from the mines, looking like a black man before he bathed. Using the phonetic method, he taught me to read anything put in front of me by the time I was 4. That same year he moved the family to Brooklyn where he worked as the superintendent of an apartment house of 53 families. We were the only Catholics in the building, which housed 52 Jewish families, most of them observant.
My brother Terry, who got the same treatment, says what he remembers first about Dad is him saying: “Every job begins with a single step.” Instead of saying you can’t do it because it is too big, or too complex, just take the first step and get closer to it. When he was 50, in 1952, the new television set he bought for us went on the blink. He had a repairman come in and fix it for $6. Dad was horrified. He filled out a form on the back of a comic book for a book on how to fix tv sets. The book came in, my Dad read it, and thereafter not only fixed our TV, but also anyone in the apartment house where we lived who asked for his help. For several years he tried valiantly to teach me and Terry how to play the upright piano in the living room. Terry can still rip off a Mozart piano sonata or two, but I gave up in frustration when my fingers would not do what I wanted them to do. When my cousins Ron and Billy showed more interest in the violin, Dad bought an old fiddle, taught himself how to play, and then gave them lessons. Mind you Dad did not play like Jascha Heifitz, but that did not bother him. The object was to get the boys playing and they soon were motivated to take private lessons, where they became respectable fiddlers.
He tried his hand at painting and after producing several respectable landscapes decided that was that. He learned how to knit and to tat, undaunted by the “fact” that these were crafts for women. His voice was still his strongest suit, and after some years in the chorus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he studied opera seriously and performed in opera workshops in Manhattan, Rudolfo in La Boheme and the Duke in Rigoletto being his favorite roles, among the several he knew by heart. I tried to be out of the apartment every other Saturday evening when my parents' closest friends came to visit, Max and Esther Wachtel. Max was a postal worker and an accomplished pianist, so he and dad would play piano duets or Max would accompany Dad in arias from the operas. What a racket they made. On alternate Saturdays, Dad and Mom would go to the Wachtel's, so my brother and I had peace and quiet while watching the Dodger games.
Dad was only the "super" for a year or two when Pearl Harbor came. He quit and got a job as a machinist at the Arma Corp., making munitions. We really only saw him on Sundays as he worked 60-hour weeks. At war's end, he was laid off, but with the help of Mr. Weinstein on the 6th floor, who worked for Superman DC publications, he got a job as a 43-year-old apprentice bookbinder at $30 a week. He finished the six-year apprenticeship in six months and went to $60!! I remember how he told my brother and I that WE WERE RICH! The proof, he said, was that he had to pay income tax on his wages!! My first exposure to the idea of "taxes" came in that positive way, where he indicated how proud he was that he could help support the government. The tax was $1 out of $60, as I recall. My brother Terry and I were the most admired kids in the neighborhood, as Dad every day brought home in his lunch bucket whatever new comic book he'd bound that day! We got them two weeks before they came out to everyone else, at 10 cents each.
It was too good to last. Through his union, he heard about a better job in a bindery in Woodside, Queens, at the George Schirmer plant, where classical music scores were printed and bound. There he worked for 20 years until he retired in 1967. He learned to operate every piece of equipment in the plant and taught himself to be a master binder of custom albums, both because of his thirst for learning and to relieve the boredom of operating the collating machine, his primary job. I worked summers and at Christmas with him as a boxboy, and remembering when the machines were running full blast I could see his lips moving and realize he was full throat into Rigoletto. It was through another boxboy who worked full-time, a Puerto Rican boy, that Dad learned Spanish. Before work began at 7 a.m. and at the lunch break, he would teach the boy English and the boy would teach him Spanish. When he spotted another young man named Frank reading a book upside-down, he realized Frank was making believe, as he was illiterate and ashamed of it. So Dad taught him how to read.
I've told the story here before, but the single most important memory I have of Dad took place after one Sunday Mass, when I was 10 or 11. I went with him to the Rectory at St. Catherine's on 40th and Fort Hamilton Parkway, and he knocked on the door and asked to see Father Mullaney, the pastor, who had just said the Mass. Very sternly, Dad admonished the Irish priest for using in his sermon a reference to the Jews as being Christ-killers. To me, a student at the parochial school, Father Mullaney was the most important man in the world that I actually knew, an older man with a deep voice of authority. I was shocked to observe my father dressing him down, telling him that if it happened, he would take the family out of the parish. I don't remember any of the other words exchanged again, but I never again heard the priest – who went on to become a Monsignor in the church – refer disparagingly to Jews. When we left, I asked Dad about the confrontation and he told me that I should never be afraid of important men because "they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me."
It wasn't that he did not appreciate authority and a chain of command. I remember him very clearly explaining that General MacArthur was in the wrong in openly challenging President Truman over the conduct of the war against North Korea. The only real tension between us was when I went to UCLA in my sophomore year and decided I was a socialist, halfway between my Dad's capitalism and my grandfather's communism. At the end of the next summer home, at the last minute before heading back to California, I decided I had to tell him. He was apoplectic: "Socialism is akin to communism," he barked. In the following year, I never heard from him with the typed letters he sent weekly to keep me up on the Brooklyn news. (Long-distance telephone calls were prohibitively expensive in those days.) We patched things up in my senior year when I decided socialism didn't make sense, as I observed the collapse of the socialist economy in Britain.
The other great lesson he taught me, from little up, was that before I got angry with my friends, I should put myself in their shoes, and try to understand why they did what the did or said that made me angry. It was a lesson he repeated over and over again as I brought home stories about one encounter or another, so I was eventually trained to do it automatically. Most often it helped abate my anger or confusion as I would use my imagination to see things from another point of view. It stayed with me in my political life, as I've often used it to figure out conflict and war between nation states. It's often made me unpopular with folks who would prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. It was in me when I warned that unless we figured out why our "enemies" bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, they would come back and do it again and succeed. We had to put ourselves in their shoes, not to justify their criminal acts, but to understand what had driven them to such inhumanity. As I wrote here yesterday, it is a way of thinking that is necessary to a defense attorney or a "devil's advocate."
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Dad was above all a good man, who lived his life trying to live the way he was taught Jesus had lived. He was devoted to my mother and I cannot recall him ever raising his voice to her. To the day he died, I never ever heard him use a curse word, never knew him to miss Mass, and never heard him speak ill of another person we knew. "If you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything at all." He prayed when he woke up at his bedside, on his knees, and at night he did the same, right up to his death in Morristown Memorial. He'd gone into the hospital for minor surgery the day before I'd planned to drive across country with my two boys, Matthew and Andrew, just for the fun of it. I visited him in his room and said I should stay, but he would hear none of it. It was nothing to worry about. We left the next morning at dawn and several hours later stopped for lunch in Ohio. I called my office and was told he had a massive heart attack in his hospital bed, just before the planned surgery, and was not expected to live. We turned back and I drove another seven hours to get to the hospital. I saw him in ICU, where a nurse cheerily said to him, "How are you doin' honey?" He said brusquely: "I am not your honey. I am your patient." He was glad to see me, knowing he was close to death. My last words to him were that he was cheating us out of four years, as he had promised me and Terry when we were in short pants and fearful of the deaths we heard daily on the radio from the war, that he was definitely going to live to be 90. He smiled at that. His last words to me were to take care of my mother. Then he finished with: "You have been a good boy."
I still dream about him with some frequency, always when I need some guidance. And there is always something in the dream that seems to help. I thought it would be a good idea to remember him with this memo on the margin, so you would know how good a man he was and how good a dad can be.