I’ve been blessed with many role models for guiding my values. My father, Sam Coopersmith, was the earliest.
He was the youngest child of Jewish immigrant parents who came to the U.S. from Europe when they were in their teens. Growing up in a neighborhood of crowded tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, young Sam’s dream was to attend college, become an accountant, and be able to live comfortably with a family of his own in a nice house in a nice neighborhood away from the city.
But the hard times of the Great Depression put an end to that dream. Like everyone else during the the depression, he had to work wherever he could find it. After he married my mother Florence, her father, my Grandpa Max, gave Sam a job as a shipping clerk in his dress factory in Jersey City. Sam was hard working, smart, and ambitious, learned the business quickly and soon was able to open up a dress factory of his own.
His business thrived, and my two younger brothers and I grew up in a nice house in that quiet, affluent suburban town that my father had dreamed about.
For a few weeks each summer when I was a teenager, I’d ride to work with my father at 5:30 AM, travelling on the Jersey Turnpike as the sun was rising, from our quiet, tree-lined little town, to the grimy, grey, industrial section of Jersey City. I got to earn some money, and he got to educate me about the family business. I started as he had, as a shipping clerk.
And I got to see his values on full display, in his kindness to his workers. He seemed to be on close personal terms with every one of his hundred or so employees. The union would repeatedly try to organize his workforce, but they never made much headway. Because on his own he always paid them higher wages, and offered better benefits, than the union contract offered. It was clear to me what he was about: work hard, show an interest in people, and treat them well, always be honest, and always keep your word.
One day a guy in a very fancy suit came into the factory, and asked me where Sam was. I pointed to the loft above us, above the factory floor, reachable by a creaky wooden stairway. The man thanked me and walked up.
I had never seen anyone dressed like that in the factory, so I was curious. I went up to a dark place in back of my father’s office where there was a crack between the boards and I could see in and hear what was being said.
“Sam,” the man was saying, “the Boss sent me here because he really doesn’t understand why you’re not using our trucking services. And between you and me, I don’t think he’s going to be patient much longer. You understand?”
It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. Most of us growing up in Northern Jersey in the 1950s knew about the Mafia. But I had never seen them. Now I could see it — the Mafia was right here, putting the squeeze on my dad!
“Look Mario,” Sam said, “I understand your point, I really do. But like I told you before, my hands are tied. My contract with my customer (a department store chain) says I have to use their trucking. I can show it to you if you want.”
Mario shook his head, waved him away, and they went back and forth for a while. Then Sam went and opened up a cabinet, and pulled out an elaborately wrapped present. “Mario, I think your wedding anniversary is coming up later this month, am I right?” He was right. “I think your wife will really like this,” he said. Mario took the present.
“And by the way, I know the boss’ son has a birthday coming up. He’s a Yankee’s fan, right? I think he’ll like these. Great seats, right behind first base.” And he have him an envelope with the tickets. They talked some more and Mario left.
I didn’t mention anything to my father as we drove back home at sunset. I knew he wouldn’t me to know about such things. But I saw what I saw, and knew what I knew. My father had managed to avoid the clutches of the Mafia, not only because of his street-smarts, which clearly were considerable, but mainly because of the way he cared about, and understood, people.