Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Herbert Greenhut - RIP

By the time I got to the office, I was already late. On top of that, a stubborn cold and lingering bitterness over Sunday's Giant loss at the New Meadowlands, had put me in no good mood for the demands of yet another work day.

But my concerns and complaints were soon petty once I opened my email to discover a former Part Time Faculty member, and friend, Herbert Greenhut, died on December 16th. "As were his wishes, there was no funeral service, no death notice and no memorial. He left his body to Albert Einstein College. He was born January 11, 1927." Admittedly, this news was nothing shocking. Herb had called me three weeks ago and left a message: "Nick? This is Herb. The doctors say I have about two weeks to live... Just thought you might like to know. If you want to call me, I'm here..."

Now, Herb isn't here and I never did return that phone call. But what does one say to someone with a week or so to live? No sense in idle talk or chit-chat; fortunately, Herb was never one to entertain such practice either. Sure, he would talk (...and talk a lot), but it was always about the real things: he told you what was on his mind and exactly how he felt. Admittedly, his observations and opinions were not always what you wanted to hear. In fact, most of the time his comments were downright grim. But, that's life, right?...not always pleasant.

I suppose a part of me feels like a bastard for not calling Herb back when I had the chance. But I know he'd understand - I'm a busy guy and only have (like he did...) one life to live. Of course, if it's any consultation, I can recall back to the good times. Like the time a crew of us all went to see "Public Enemies" at the movies. It was nice to watch that film with someone who could actually remember hearing about John Dillinger on the radio.

I also recalled back to those last few visits with him this summer and fall at his apartment on the Upper East Side. By then, Herb was unable to leave his home. Old age had crept-in to make it extremely difficult for the old man to even make it to the corner. Food was no longer served as a solid. I would like to say Herb sat peacefully in his easy chair reading from his many piles of books (some so tall, I warned him about the danger of a pile falling on top of him), listening to music, or watching films. But, this would be an incorrect recollection. Honestly, every time I visited Herb, he was determined to "teach again." He would think of ways to get to school. If only he could get in front of class again. He was very annoyed with the physical restraints that had immobilized his failing body.

Herb's life was fully inspired by teaching. Without it, he just didn't care. Even when his health restrictions made it almost impossible to come to class - he pressed on. (At one point his students at the 92/y had to call the ambulance, because Professor Greenhut had only an hour before stumbled and was scalded in his own shower.) Herb was in and out of the hospital, but never missed a week of class (despite doctor's orders), nor, to properly correct and comment-on his many student's work. Herb Greenhut always said he wanted to "die teaching." Sure, he may not have croaked right there in front of the class, but there were days when I thought he might come pretty close. Professor Greenhut made it his life's mission to teach and for this, I think it's significant to take a moment and honor him for that quality.

Although it was admittedly difficult to see Herb so weak in those final months, I didn't want the reality of his imminent death to taint all our conversation. Unfortunately, he would invariably digress over the gory details associated with his demise. In fact, moments like this made it difficult to even want to see him. After all, the human has a natural aversion to death - we don't like to see it, for real - only sensationalized on TV. However, that is not the reality of death. Death is more commonly experienced as slow and painful. Needless to say, I'd always try to direct our conversation back to brighter times. Sure, I had only ever known Herb as an "old timer", but I also knew that at some point, he was as young and energetic as myself. Why not talk about the times in Herb's life, when he was proud?

When I first met Herb Greenhut in 2005, he had already been a professor of American History and popular culture at the New School since 1991. Before that, Herb had a long history of teaching in public schools, synagogues, and cultural centers. Herb would always walk into our office and say something like, "Good afternoon, I'm here to see Osama Bin Laden." (...or "John Dillinger", or "Bernie Madoff", etc.) Yeah, his humor was dark, but the smiles that came afterwards were always bright. Herb would stand stern-faced and serious, until someone started laughing, then he'd take "his" seat and proceed to talk politics and opine about the news of the day.

Herb's visits became (much to the dismay of upper administrators) routine. Of course, Herb came from "a different University." Perhaps there was a time when a professor's visits and conversations were actually the routine? After all, Herb's University existed before most of the administrators had even started here. Herb's University was also one without computers, smoking lounges - definitely, but no PCs! Herb was most certainly an "old school" New York, Jewish, liberal. He even volunteered hours of his week teaching classes at senior homes. Thus, despite the demands of my own schedule, I always tried to make some time to listen and talk with Professor Greenhut. (Respect for the elders.) Also, I have admiration for old dudes like him - I always respect the way Herb never seemed to bullshit. Maybe he came from a different -more direct- time? Or, maybe it was just that when you don't have anything left to lose, who cares what others think about what you say? I think Herb never considered the University an "office" but as the best place to discuss and debate the issues of the day.

Herb Greenhut was a dedicated professor and always straight-forward in his communication. He cared about his job and students more than anything else. I will miss hearing his stories from the Depression, World War II and (my favorite) the sixties. In a world so full of bullshit, it's a shame we're now deprived of one less voice that always got to the point.

Peace out Herb.