Monday, April 23, 2012

Shreveport's First Family

    At Shreveport-Bossier's 29th annual Holocaust Remembrance Service on Sunday night, Ron Nierman presented an emotional tribute to my parents. It was well done, and we much appreciate it.
    Because they were Holocaust survivors -- but not the only ones in the city -- the service was always special for our family. And my mother was featured -- either making a speech or reading her poetry -- almost every year of the first 27 services.
The Gilbert family, with my mother on her final birthday.
    Last year was the first year without her presence; the fourth year without my father. But as Ron pointed out, their stories -- and the memories they left -- should be carried on at this service.
    That Ron would be the one speaking about my folks isn't a surprise. He wrote beautiful tributes for each of their memorial services. He knew them as well as anyone.
    It is appropriate, too, because he is a grandson of Abe A. Gilbert and Rae Gilbert, and he is part of the extended Gilbert family. In our eyes, they are the First Family of Shreveport. That's how much they mean to us. 
  Among those at Sunday's service were 91-year-old Pauline Murov and 88-year-old Ruth Nierman -- the Gilberts' daughters. They are the family matriarchs, still bright, still active ... and still generous.
     I look at them, and it takes me back many years because Ruth looks exactly like their dad; Pauline looks exactly like their mother.
    When plans were made to have dinner with Ron and wife Jackie, and Helaine (the Niermans'  daughter) and son-in-law Bill Braunig, Pauline and Ruthie said that "if you'll let us come, too, we'll pay for the dinner." That was a deal.
      And then they good-naturedly argued about where Pauline's car was parked. They're still feisty, too.
       Ron and Bill now run A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply, where my dad worked for 28 years. But he didn't just work; we became part of the family.
       Mr. Gilbert didn't provide the Shreveport Jewish Federation with the original sponsor money that helped bring us from Holland to the United States. That was someone else. He did offer to provide a job.
       My dad knew nothing of oilfield pipe, and he didn't speak much English. He would learn, but it would take time. The start was difficult.
        The outcome of our lives in Shreveport and the U.S. is a heckuva success story. But we owe Mr. Gilbert and his family a great deal of thanks. They became our true sponsors.
     On the Sunday of our first weekend in Shreveport, my dad asked for directions on how to find the pipeyard on Mansfield Road. He wanted to see it and know he could get there to start work the next day. We were told to take the Line Avenue bus that ran just a block away from our new little duplex on Jordan Street.
      Off we went. In a strange new place, the bus ride seemed to take forever ... like we were going to the end of the world.
      We exited the bus at Mansfield Road and Kings Highway, and walked to the pipeyard from there. It was perhaps about a quarter mile, but again it seemed like a long, long walk to an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old (my sister). After we saw the yard -- with stacks and stacks of pipe -- we walked back, then took the bus ride home.
       My dad went to work as a laborer with the crew -- loading pipe, cleaning pipe. It wasn't what he imagined. After a few weeks, he told Mr. Gilbert -- and the Shreveport Jewish Federation -- he wanted to look for something else.
        He became a carpenter's apprentice, or so he thought. Again, it didn't work out. Perhaps the language barrier got in the way. On to a new job.
      By now, someone in Shreveport had told us of a Dutch native who worked in town. Ed Vandenberg was a plasterer who lived outside Arkadelphia, Ark., but was working on the Beck Building then being constructed. He and a daughter, Janet, in her early 20s, worked in Shreveport during the week and went home on weekends. They would become our first good friends in this country.
     Ed helped line up a job for my dad on the Beck Building construction crew; just a cleanup-type job. My dad didn't like that much, either.
      And here came a critical point. My dad went back to Mr. Gilbert, asked for another chance. Mr. Gilbert, with his sons-in-law Lazar Murov and Neal Nierman helping run the business, decided they would teach my dad -- his English somewhat better -- the insides of the business, aiming to make him a foreman.
      The rest is sweet history. Not only did they take him back, soon they provided him a car. And many cars over the rest of the 28 years. And gasoline, repairs, bonuses, time off, time to attend sports events when they just happened to coincide with where he needed to look at some pipe (amazing how often that happen).
      He rewarded them with hard work. He traveled thousands of miles to look at pipe, recommend  whether the business make a purchase, get the crew to load the pipe on trucks, paid the fines for overloads, did many favors for people who needed second-hand pipe for various reasons, and helped run the yard at home.
      The Gilberts gave us our first TV, helped us buy our first home just a year and a half later, treated my mother and Elsa and me like we were their own.
       When Mr. Gilbert passed away in 1966, Mr. Murov became head of the business (Mr. Nierman had gone back to dealing in investment and stockbroking -- his first love). Eventually the business passed to Ron and Bill, who became my dad's best young friends and, at his request, were pallbearers at his funeral.
       (There's another neat connection to the Gilberts; they were longtime Fort Worth residents. Bea and I have lived in the area near TCU for the past six years. Before they came to Shreveport in 1950, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert, Pauline and Ruth lived in this very neighborhood; the girls graduated from Paschal High School.)
      There were lots and lots of people who greatly enriched the Van Thyns' lives, and I hope to write about more of them soon. But all the Gilbert family is at the top of the list, and their love has never diminished. To be thought of as part of their family is indeed a privilege.


  1. Part 1 of 2
    I would like to add a few comments to Nico’s fine piece about the Gilbert and Van Thyn families. I am Mark Gilbert Murov. I was born in 1948 and am the eldest grandchild of Abe Gilbert and Rae Marks Gilbert. I have not lived in Shreveport in my adult life, but am definitely part of the Gilbert family.

    I could provide quite a few observations but will limit myself to a few. Plus, these are memories and perceptions, not guaranteed as totally factual or everyone else’s reality.

    First, Abe Gilbert was a business leader in the days before the traits of business leadership were as defined as they have been in recent decades. He inspired and motivated others to perform in order to please him, and he understood how to give people a sense of self worth. He was also more generous than it would seem, because he was not actually wealthy. A bunch of used pipe sitting on a rented piece of land is not a liquid asset. Shallow oil wells sometimes require huge infusions of capital with months or years of no actual net income. Abe always owed banks, sometimes so much that he borrowed money at high interest from private lenders. He employed a large number of people, and he worked hard. He kept a razor and shaving cream at this office because many times he raced over to the Pipe Yard early to load a truck, or pay a supplier or take care of other business. There were no computers and he worked out all the math on his deals by longhand arithmetic, calculating his costs and setting his prices after pages of yellow legal pads were covered with math calculations. He was believed to be a rich man because he pledged and paid Federation and other Jewish charity organizations at levels that the actually wealthy Shreveport Jews did. He also gave quietly to others in need, including gentiles and strangers, and of course “schoors” from the Yeshivas who got off the bus and headed straight to the pipe yard, and he did this many times without tax deductions or public recognition. There were numerous of his Texas cousins who were “vest pocket operatives” with no pipe inventory and he would send them out to close some pipe deal and pay them a commission when their value added was questionable (of course that nourished their bringing him other deals -- he was a businessman in addition to a mensch). People loved him, and with good reason. Nico does not exaggerate when he describes how his parents felt about Abe, and Rae. But the generosity my grandparents lived and taught was not based on an abundance of assets or income; rather it was the product of an abundance of character.
    (continued in next comment)

  2. Part 2
    Abundance of character is a good segue into some comments about the Van Thyn family, because Nico only tells half the story. People in Shreveport and beyond admired the Van Thyn for surviving the camps, surviving the loss of their original spouses in the camps, the journey to America, the financial hardship, the culture shock, all of that. But what I found most admirable, as I became old enough to understand, was what they accomplished after arrival and for the rest of their lives, and which in Nico and Elsa’s case is ongoing. Louis and Rose did not want, and would not accept, anyone’s pity. They made their lives on their own terms, with a dignity which cannot be conveyed in words, or for that matter even understood by those of us who were born into the privileged life of post-war American affluence and security. Louis and my father would argue like brothers who loved each other but had to work together, and I remember Louis as fearless in dealing with anyone. I believe I learned the word chutzpah from my dad’s complaints about Louis. Most of all, Louis and Rose transmitted to Nico and Elsa a remarkable strength. Childhood and adolescence is hard for everyone, but imagine you started your life in postwar Europe as the child of survivors and arrived in Baptist North Louisiana as a shy Jewish kid whose parents had accents and were very different from the parents of your schoolmates. Imagine that the other Jewish kids from Temple and Religious School lived in a different part of town, went to different schools, and had friends whose parents were businessmen, doctors and lawyers. I wish I could report that the Shreveport Jewish community accepted the Van Thyns with open arms and immediately, but the reality is that many Jews, and perhaps especially Southern American Jews, wanted to fully assimilate and felt a sense of shame about their European brothers and sisters having been victims. The high regard for the Van Thyns did not come quickly or easily and it was earned by them on their own; the Gilbert family could not grant them anything but an opportunity to do it for themselves. I have always believed (and I told Louis and Rose more than once) that the Van Thyns did more for the Gilberts than the Gilberts did for the Van Thyns. They showed us by example that one hand washes the other, and that helping others is its own reward, and it is can be a rich one indeed. I am proud to be a Gilbert (and a Murov, by the way), but I am equally proud of Louis and Rose, of blessed memory, and have absolute admiration for Nico and Elsa, for bringing the Van Thyn legacy into the next century and being an inspiration to all who face hardship and thrive.