Thursday, January 28, 2010


Mannie was an unusual guy. What they call in Latin a rara avis: a rare bird.

How else do you describe a Jewish kid in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the youngest of seven sons? “Rare bird” only scratches the surface.

He was a sharp kid, this Mannie. Not only a high school graduate - unusual in those days - but valedictorian of his class. Had a head for numbers. The kind of head that could help a person succeed in business. But first things first. Mannie needed an education... and so he set his sights on the University of Arkansas.

Back in the early 1930’s, a college education cost a minute fraction of what it does today. But in the Depression-era South, money was thin on the ground. Very thin. Tuition, cheap as it was by today’s standards, was completely out of reach for a dirt-poor Jewish kid from Pine Bluff.

That’s when the Jewish community of Pine Bluff stepped in. Yes, there were other Jews in Pine Bluff... rare birds all, yet with sufficient numbers to constitute a community. And there were enough of them so that when they pooled their resources, there was enough money to send Mannie to college in Fayetteville.

As a student, Mannie watched his nickels and dimes. He kept a ledgerbook in which he would write down his expenses. Streetcar fare. A quarter-share in a textbook. (Who could afford to own an entire textbook? Rockefeller?) One day he found a half-dollar and dutifully noted the unexpected income in his ledger.

He pinched his pennies until Lincoln groaned, squeezed his nickels until the buffalo moaned. And eventually he got his degree.

Within nine months of his getting out of school and taking a penuriously salaried job, Mannie had paid back the tuition money the Jewish community of Pine Bluff had given him. Every thin dime.

* * *

Mannie died this past Sunday after a brief illness, waiting until his son Barry arrived at the hospital so he could say goodbye. But he had delivered his valedictory two months earlier at a post-Thanksgiving dinner, a dinner we were privileged to share with him. That night he was animated, full of life and stories... ninety-three years’ worth.

Barukh Dayan Emet: Blessèd is the True Judge. Farewell, rare bird!

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