Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Memory of Ben Olinsky

Ten years ago, I had no idea what a blog was.  If I had, I'm sure I would have published this at the time.   This Monday morning, October 31, 2011, I was cleaning up in my office and came upon a CD on which I had archived old documents from a computer that had long ago been recycled.  I had been on the lookout for years for a copy of a story that I had written in November of 2001.  It was on this disc.   If there was a point when the groundwork had been laid for putting together the Trenton Jewish Project, this was probably the it.  I've done just a little editing, changing some present tense sentences to past tense and updating the information about my kids.  But 99% of what you about to read was written a decade ago.

It was a sad time, for 9/11 had happened just two months earlier and there was much uncertainty.   The weather was changing.  Another winter was approaching and with it, an inevitable case of Seasonal Affect Disorder.  I had also just gotten some very bad news.  Someone who I had met only once, but made a lasting impression on me had just passed away.

                                                             By Ed Alpern

     If life is a game, then the measure of your accomplishments should be able to be totaled up shortly after your death.  The final buzzer sounds and the score is up there on the big board for all to see.  The tally includes all the people who you touch along the way and the impact that you have on them and your community.  This is the story of a man who won big.  He gave and touched and he deserves to be remembered.

     I didn’t meet Ben Olinsky until he was 82 years old.  By then, he was having trouble walking.  I only met him once.  We spoke for a little over an hour.  Almost a year to the day later, I attended his funeral.

     I first became aware of Benjamin C. Olinsky while doing a community service project at the Jewish Community Center of the Delaware Valley.  Both of my sons had attended Ring Nursery School at the Center and my oldest, age 8 at the time, was intensely proud of the 12 trophies he earned through the sports programs that were run year round.  After years of walking past yellowing and faded photos stapled to a bulletin board, I decided that these pictures needed to be preserved.  There were 226 of them.  They spanned the decades, beginning in the 19-teens with activities from the Trenton YMHA (Young Man’s Hebrew Association) and ending in the 80’s.  Most were black and white, many were ripped, almost all had neatly typed captions with names of people who had played basketball, wrestled, swam, played baseball, organized dances, supported soldiers, taught children how to play sports and be good sports.  It was a collection that demanded attention.

     As I removed the staples and faithfully made piles for the different decades to which the photographs belonged, I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were.  One face kept staring back at me.  I first noticed it in a 1933 picture of a basketball team.  There, in the center of the back row, was a handsome, skinny man, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a very faint smile.  “Wait a minute,” I said to myself.  “I’ve seen that face before.”  

I rifled back through the 1930’s pile, then the 40’s pile.  The skinny kid had put on some muscle and before I got to the end of the 1940’s, it was clear that Ben Olinsky was some kind of a gym rat. He must have lived at the Y. 

     At the top of the 1950’s pile I started seeing pictures of Ben Olinsky, not as a player, but as a coach.

And then I came upon a photo from 1955, there was a picture of five women who were members of the Dance Committee.  On the far right, the caption identified a Muriel Olinsky.  She didn’t look like a sister, but maybe a wife.  

Muriel Olinsky on the far left.
 It turns out that in the late 1940’s a woman named Muriel came to Rider College.  She played basketball and found her way down to the Y.  The athletic director of the Y at the time, a Scotty Mosovich, worked with Muriel on her free throws and happened to introduce Muriel to the gym rat.  An 82-year old Ben Olinsky described it as “the worst decision that Scotty ever made.”  The mating ritual was far from typical, but what else could you expect.  Ben challenged Muriel to a free throw shooting contest.  She won.  “I beat him at his game and he had to marry me,” remembers Muriel.  The match lasted 54 years.

     The 1950’s pile also provided me a more personal link to this mystery man, Mr. Olinsky.  From 1954, there was a picture of a an adult handing a basketball to a couple of boys who looked to be 7 or 8 years old.  The caption said one of the two kids was named Tal Brody.  

 It was a name that I knew from my teenage years.  I went to Israel in 1973 for six weeks with the summer camp I attended.  We went to the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah games (The Jewish Olympics).  At my aunt’s apartment in Jerusalem, four of my friends and I watched as this same Tal Brody led the Israeli team to a spirited win over the United States team in the gold medal game.  Now, I held in my hand another picture.  One that made this public service project even more compelling.  Tal Brody, who grew up in Trenton, became a star at Trenton High, was an All-American at the University of Illinois, played on the U.S., then Israeli national teams, was a member of the ill-fated 1972 Israeli Olympic games and later became a national hero in Israel, and Ben Olinsky had crossed paths.    The photo brought a flood of my own memories of that summer of 1973.  We played many a basketball game that ended with one of us hitting a jumper from beyond the three point line (ABA rules, back then) as time ran out and another of us screaming…”Tal Brody at the buzzer…it’s good!!!”

By the bottom of the 1950’s pile, my man Ben was the guy giving out the trophies to the kids.

  He had started a program called the Biddy League, and he was now its president.  The Biddy League was the place where hundreds of kids, starting at the ripe age of 7, got their first chance to learn about and play the game of basketball.  One of the rules of the Biddy League was that everyone played at least a half.  When I finally met Ben in November of 2000, that rule was one of the facts he made sure to tell me. “Everybody got to play at least a half.  Whether they were good or bad.”  Tears actually started to well up in the eyes of this strong man who could swear like a sailor (he was one—Navy 1940’s) when he told me, “That was what I was the proudest of, I felt noches (yiddish for pride) when I saw the kids learning how to play.”  Tal Brody was one of those kids.  By the time I met Ben, Brody was a middle-aged insurance executive.  The man who is still considered Israel’s Mr. Basketball has lived a charmed life because of basketball.  I found Tal Brody's telephone number and interviewed him in 2000.   Brody told me, “I started playing basketball at the Y in the Biddy League, that was really where I got my start.” 

     Brody isn’t the only one with fond memories of the man and the program.  To this day, many of them still keep in touch with each other, sharing a link they forged as kids on the basketball court.  One was a weatherman in Israel and another a stock analyst for Robertson Stephens in San Francisco.  There’s a lawyer in Lawrenceville and a Rabbi in Jerusalem.   In fact, there are hundreds of people whose lives were touched by Ben Olinksy.  And I guess that’s the point.  Even though you won’t read about someone like Ben Olinsky in the pages of People Magazine or see his story on a TV magazine show, he was a man who gave of his time and volunteered so that future generations would have a positive experience and a love of sports.  So, I really wasn’t surprised on that bright and sunny day in November 2001 when the chapel at the funeral home was packed and more than 100 people came to say goodbye to Ben.

     I didn’t meet Ben Olinsky until he was 82 years old.  In November 2000, we sat and talked with a video camera rolling for a little more than an hour.  In the middle of the interview, a client called and I had to rush off to a meeting. We didn’t get a chance to talk again.  Almost a year to the day later, I ran into his wife at the local supermarket.  I asked how Ben was doing. “He was hanging in,” Muriel said, but knee problems were hobbling him physically and Alzheimer's was robbing him of his mental agility.  I promised to get her a copy of the interview.   It would be ready on the following Monday when Muriel would be at the Golden Age meeting at the JCC.  My wife dropped in to give her the tape as promised.  Muriel wasn’t there.  One of her best friends informed my wife that Ben had passed away on Sunday, four days after I ran into Muriel. 

     Ben Olinsky was 83 at the end of regulation.  I met him almost a year to the day before he died.  The seats were full at his funeral.  There might as well have been a big scoreboard at the end of the chapel where the rabbi spoke.  His friends and at least one acquaintance had come to celebrate a life that was a lopsided victory.

A side note---Last week, I included a color picture of the Saperstein brothers sitting on a bench.  One of our readers, Mary Lou Byer recognized the setting instantly as Ahavath Israel.  Not only that, but Mary Lou knew that the bench had made the trek from Ewing to Lawrenceville when Ahavath and Adath merged earlier this year.  Well, a little bit of detective work uncovered the wherabouts of that bench and a matching one.  In the synagogue offices at Adath, the benches have a home.   The benches are inscribed with a plaque commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Albert & Anne Hirsch.   Case solved.

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