Monday, January 12, 2009


Most of you who read this blog regularly come here to hear about politics, pop culture, New Orleans and the media industries. Today, I’ll ask you to indulge me while I tell you a little something about Bill Greenberg. Most of you never met Bill (pictured at right, at age 22), but since he was my father, and since he died two days after Christmas, it makes good sense to me to introduce you to him, albeit a bit late. Bill was the true definition of a “standup guy.” You’ve heard the expression. Now, meet the man:

Bill’s last year on earth was typical of his whole 92-year journey through life. His last year was fraught with struggle, determination, grit and virtue. Listen, if they can say that about you after you die, you’re a success story. Bill was truly the story of the 20th century in America. Like so many other kids born in the early 1900s, his father had emigrated from far away – Romania. His mother died when he was nine years old. He was on his own by 15. Liked baseball. Pitched with his left hand. They say he had a very cool wardrobe as a young man – hip suits, bright colors. Others say he was laugh out loud funny when he was a kid. I never saw that side of him. I wish I had.

By the time I came along, Bill, having weathered the Great Depression and World War II, was a considerably quieter man. He never had the opportunity to finish high school, and when the War came, he enlisted. They sent him overseas, and at one point I’m told he trudged through Belgium. He even won a bronze star in the Battle of the Bulge (below, right). He never mentioned it. I only found out about it at his funeral. He ended up in France, where his higher-ups ordered him and just two other soldiers to guard about 100 prisoners in a field without barriers. Naturally, some of them escaped. He was court-martialed. It must have been a terrifying, demeaning experience. I can’t say. He never spoke a word about it in the entire time I knew him. I do know that ultimately he was exonerated and honorably discharged. And in those times, the honorable discharge was the thing, you know. It was everything.

There was something in Bill that just always leaned toward doing the right thing. He was steady, forceful when necessary, much more of a giver than a taker and the kind of guy you would probably like to have in the room during a crisis. When I was 16, Bill had a brain tumor. He had an extended stay in the hospital and a protracted recovery. I never saw a moment of fear on his face, and I do not think the phrase, “Why me?” ever crossed his mind. Once he was back on his feet, he went back to work, never mentioned it again and resumed his habit of walking through the house whistling a happy tune. If you ever wanted to see a guy who could just roll with whatever came his way, you needed to know Bill Greenberg in those days.

When we were kids, Bill used to give us presents on his birthday. How cool was that, right? Knowing my own affinity for words, when I was about 14, he gave me a dictionary on his birthday. Never one to gush or overstate his case, here’s what he wrote on the inside cover: “14,000 ways to better express yourself. Love, Dad.” That pretty much sums up Bill right there. I never forgot it. I still have the book. When I was even younger, taking piano lessons, I always wanted to play popular music. But one day, while I was practicing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Bill came into the room to listen to me play for the first time. When I was finished, he said, “You’re making real progress.” High praise from my typically stoic, World-War II dad. I never forgot it. In 2006, at a family gathering on Thanksgiving, Bill and I ended up in a room by ourselves for a while. By then he spoke very little. But he did look at me, eye to eye, and said, “Paul, we appreciate you.” You can only imagine.

Always the picture of health, no one could ever have predicted the hellish experience my father would have at the end of his life. In a two-year period: Two broken hips from two separate falls; double pneumonia; a stroke that left his speech nearly unintelligible and made walking a few feet an almost dangerous experience; pneumonia again; lost the ability to swallow; ended up on life support and in need of a feeding tube. And finally, mercifully, full morphine sedation until ultimately everything stopped. All apparatuses, breathing tubes and feeding units were removed. A few days later, with only my sister present in the room, he quietly left. My plane landed just moments before he died.

Several family members met with the Rabbi one day before the funeral, in order to help her prepare the eulogy. She asked us to tell her who he really was. I said, “If I had to tell you who Bill Greenberg was, these are the words I would use: Decent, kind, respectable, honest and a finisher. By that I mean he finished everything he started, and he believed in quality.” I think I never knew of one lie that he told, and I believe I may have heard him cuss maybe three times in his life. He was highly opinionated but his positions came from a place of strength, because he kept up with what was going on around him in the world. He may have lacked the formal education, but he educated himself on an ongoing basis. One time, he instituted a new policy in the house that a different person had to bring a new vocabulary word to the table at dinner every night and tell the rest of the family what it meant. Just now, as I am writing this, I’m realizing what a very cool thing that was for him to do.

Bill Greenberg – smart, humble, generous, tough guy.

Rest easy, Dad.


Joan Eisenstodt said...

What a mensch your dad was, Paul - what a truly good man. And how handsome and how much you look like him. I cried as I read this -- because he is gone, because, like all the fathers of his era (mine included) he never told us about "The War" and his role. I have photos too but there are not enough. And I cried bec. this is the week of the 22nd yahrzeit for my dad -- who died just short of his 65th b'day. I miss him as if it were yesterday. To Bill and to Harv - two stand up guys who had two stand up kids who grew up to be friends.

Paul A. Greenberg said...

That's the thing about these World War II guys...they just did what they had to do and never really talked about it. You know us...we talk about everything! I think maybe our generation has perfected the art of patting ourselves on the back, while their generation was all about watching each other's backs. I'm only starting to understand that, thanks to Bill and Harv and their ilk.