A Life Well Lived

I am slowly emerging from the initial period of mourning and trying to re-enter the world. My father and my concern for my mother continue to fill almost all the spaces of my brain and heart. But Jewish tradition encourages one to return to a regular routine—to work, to school, to ordinary life—once the initial period of mourning is over. So I am going to try.  And that means returning to my family history work and to my blog. It also means picking up where I left off in reading the blogs I follow.

For today, let me just share a bit more biographical information about my father. I described his personality and interests a bit in my last post, but I’d like to tell a little more about his life, especially his early life.  Next time I will return to the Goldsmiths, my father’s cousins through his maternal great-grandmother Eva Goldschmidt Katzenstein.

My father was born on November 15, 1926, in Philadelphia, to Eva Schoenthal and John Nusbaum Cohen. He was named John Nusbaum Cohen, Junior, which is an unusual thing to do in Ashkenazi Jewish families where the tradition is to name a child for a deceased relative. But that break with tradition was consistent with the assimilation of his family. Although my father was confirmed in a Reform Jewish temple, his family was not religious or traditional in any way.

When he was just a young boy, both of his parents became ill and were unable to care for him. His father had multiple sclerosis and eventually was institutionalized; my father had no memory of him walking unassisted. His mother suffered a breakdown and also was hospitalized and then cared for by her parents. My father and his sister Eva were taken care of by their paternal grandmother Eva Seligman Cohen, whose kindness and generosity I’ve written about before.

Eva and John Cohen, Jr. (my father and his sister)

My father was an excellent student; he also loved music and art. One of his favorite childhood memories was playing the role of Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore when he was at an all-boys summer camp. He often sang his parts from that show to us when we were children. He also enjoyed summer trips to Atlantic City with his grandmother and sister.

Just weeks before his thirteenth birthday, his beloved grandmother died in Philadelphia. The doctor who came to attend to her at home had to tell my father and aunt that their grandmother had died. There was no one obvious to take care of the two children, and for quite a while they were shuttled back and forth among various cousins for a week or so at a time. Eventually their mother was healthy enough to come back and take care of them.

My father graduated from high school and started college, but on February 14, 1945, when he was eighteen, he was drafted into the US Navy to serve during World War II. He was based in Chicago and then in Newport News, Virginia, doing intelligence work, until he was honorably discharged on August 1, 1946. He returned to Philadelphia and to Temple University to continue his education, but later transferred to Columbia University’s School of Architecture to complete his degree. He was encouraged and inspired by his uncle, Harold Schoenthal, to pursue a career in architecture, a decision he never regretted.

In the Navy

During the summer of 1950 when he was still a student at Columbia, my father worked as a waiter at Camp Log Tavern, a resort in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.  One weekend he spotted a young red-headed woman across the room and said to a fellow waiter, “That’s the girl I am going to marry.” Although she was more interested in another waiter during her stay, my father asked her for her number before she departed. She gave him the wrong number and a shortened version of her last name, which was Goldschlager. According to family lore, he searched the Bronx phone book until he found her. She was so impressed that she agreed to go out with him, and after that, they became inseparable.

They were married one year later on September 9, 1951. I came along eleven months later, just two months after my father’s graduation from Columbia.

My father and my grandmother at his college graduation in 1952

In the years that followed, my parents had two more children, moved to the suburbs, and lived a good life. Theirs was a true love match, and they adored each other through 67 years of marriage. Yes, there were hard times and harsh words at times, but I never once doubted that they were devoted to each other.

My father worked first for an architectural firm in New York City, commuting with all the other fathers. But not many years later he left the firm and established his own practice, a practice he maintained into his 90s, working with people and developers on houses, office buildings, additions, and other work.

Although my father had a hard childhood, his adult life was happy and fulfilling. He loved his family, and he loved his work. He was active in his local community, working as a volunteer fireman and as a member of the planning board.  When he died at age 92 on February 16, 2019, he was a well-loved and much respected member of his community and an adored husband, father, grandfather, uncle, and great-grandfather. His was truly a life well lived.



Part III: My Grandmother and Her Brothers 1942-2004


As I wrote in my last post, my Schoenthal great-grandparents died in 1941 and 1942.  At that time, three of their children were living on the East Coast: Harold in Montclair, New Jersey, Lester in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and my grandmother Eva in Philadelphia.

Gerson/Gary, the son whose asthma had taken them to Denver in 1907, continued to live in Denver with his wife Maude for many years, but in May, 1954 they decided to move to Desert Hot Springs, California, due to Gerson’s continuing health problems. The Desert Sentinel of Desert Hot Springs reported on June 10, 1954, p. 4, that, “Mr. and Mrs. Gary Sheridan are the lovely couple renting the Herb Ecclestone cottage for the summer. They are enamored of the village and will build a home here.” Sadly, within a few months of moving there, Gerson’s asthma finally took its toll, and he died at age 62.  As this article from the July 1, 1954, Desert Sentinel reported, it appears he and Maude had quickly made friends in their new home.

Gerson Schoenthal death Desert Sentinel July 1, 1954 p 1 Desert Hot Springs CA

How very sad that a fluke in the weather contributed to his death from the asthma he had battled for so many years.

Lester died five years later in August 1959, when he was seventy years old and had retired to Florida with his wife Juliet Grace “Julia” Beck.  She lived another fourteen years, dying in 1983, dying in and buried in Livingston County, Michigan.

Neither Lester nor Gerson had ever had children and thus have no descendants living today.  I never met Gerson or Lester, although I was two when Gerson died and seven when Lester died.  I had known virtually nothing about their lives before I started doing this research.


Harold Schoenthal

Harold Schoenthal


I did meet my great-uncle Harold, however. He had lived with his parents until they moved to Philadelphia in 1941 and had remained single.  When he was in his late 40s, he married May Gunther, and they had one child, my second cousin June.  Harold was in many ways a role model and mentor for my father.  He encouraged my father to pursue architecture, and my father took his advice and following in his footsteps, going to Columbia to study architecture.  Harold was not only a designer; he wrote poetry and painted.  He lived to 103, dying in 2004, in Montclair, New Jersey, where he had lived for almost eighty years.  Although I only saw him a handful of times, I remember him as a very gentle and kind man with a good sense of humor and a positive outlook on life.  I wish that I had been interested then in family history because he would have been an amazing source of information.


My Aunt Eva, my father, May and Harold Schoenthal

My Aunt Eva, my father, May and Harold Schoenthal

Uncle Harold and Aunt Eva

Aunt Eva and Great-Uncle Harold

Uncle Harold older


As for my grandmother, I knew almost nothing about her childhood before I started my research.  When I found the pictures and news stories about her in the Denver papers and in her high school yearbook, it made me think that she might have had a happy childhood growing up in Denver.  But her life was filled with challenges once she left Denver.  She was only eighteen and just out of high school when she married a man she had known for only half a year and who was nine years older than she was; within a year she had had a child and before she was twenty-three, she had two children.  She was living halfway across the country, far from her parents and two oldest brothers.  Only Harold was nearby.

Eva Schoenthal Cohen

Eva Schoenthal Cohen

Then her husband became disabled, and she just was not strong enough to deal with it all.  When she finally started getting her life back together in the early 1940s, she lost both of her parents within a year of each other. Soon thereafter both of her children became adults and left home.  She remarried in the 1950s to a very nice man named Frank Crocker who cared for her until she died in 1963 when she was 58 years old.

It was when she was married to Frank that I knew her, and we would see her a few times a year when we would make day trips to Philadelphia to visit. My clearest memory involves Frank more than my grandmother; he and I watched a Dodgers-Phillies game together on television during one of those visits, and if I remember correctly, Sandy Koufax was pitching.   I thought of that day when I saw last week that Sandy Koufax had turned eighty years old.

My memory of my grandmother is of someone who was fragile and insecure with a reserved and genteel presence.  But to be honest, I really did not know her well at all.  Doing this research has given me a somewhat fuller picture, and although she remains largely a mystery to me, at least I now know more about her brothers and her parents and the lives they led as well as more about her and her life.

My father and my grandmother at his graduation from Columbia, 1952

My father and my grandmother at his graduation from Columbia, 1952