This blog has been quiet for a few days because my father, Edgar Gunther, died last Saturday morning. My dad was 88 years old. He’d suffered since last fall from an irreversible heart ailment that left him increasingly frail; his death was peaceful and not unexpected. But you are never quite prepared for the loss of a parent. I’m writing about him today because, despite an often-difficult relationship, his experiences inevitably helped shape my thinking on a number of topics relevant to this blog…immigration, globalization and religion, among them.
Immigration: My dad had lived in Greenwich Village since the late 1990s. This week, as I’ve wandered around New York, making funeral arrangements, seeing family and thinking about his life. I couldn’t help noticing: The waiters, the cab drivers, the doormen—they’re all immigrants. So were the health care workers who cared for my dad during the last six months, in particular a wonderful Filipino woman who lived with him for the past month or so and offered her love and care.
My dad’s is a classic immigrant story. A Jew born in the Saar region of Germany in 1921, he escaped to New York with his family as a teenager in the late 1930s, fleeing Nazi persecution. Powered by his ambition, energy and intelligence, he created a rich and interesting life for himself. He learned English, worked his way through City College of New York – tuition was free — by doing odd jobs, including a stint as a short-order cook. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, translating German documents. (His younger brother, who, of course, was also an immigrant, also served in the U.S. Army and died in Italy fighting the Nazis.) After the war my dad went to Paris, and got a PhD in economics from the Sorbonne, thanks to the GI bill, which he thought was just about the greatest law ever passed by Congress. He came back to America to make himself a business success—he worked at FORTUNE magazine (as I would, decades later) and then with a friend started an investment company and moved to London. He put his three sons through very expensive schools (Yale, Harvard Law, Michigan, Wharton) and we left without a nickel of debt.
Maybe that’s why I can’t understand why so many Americans resent or fear immigrants. What a poorer place—in every sense of the word—America would be without them.
Globalization: My dad thought of himself as an American—he shed his German accent quickly —but he understood that the world was flat long before Tom Friedman popularized that notion. He spoke French and Spanish, as well as German, and he lived for years in London and Paris. His company, called NORAM, enabled middle-class people in developing countries to invest their money safely in the U.S. (Yes, I know that’s is a controversial idea, but I believe that money, people and goods should all be able to travel freely across borders.)
My dad traveled everywhere, and although he was wealthy, he would try to eat at a local place and never in a chain hotel. This past winter was hard for him because of his illness but the winter before that –at age 87—he lived in a small beach resort in Cambodia, in a hotel that he was proud to say cost him only $20 a night.
This worldview, too, affected me. He urged me to read the Financial Times instead of the Wall Street Journal because its international coverage is superior and its point-of-view less parochial. He was right. I’ve never been able to get worked up about the need to preserve “American jobs.” I mean, don’t Chinese and Mexican and Indonesian people deserve jobs, too? Is the world better off because toys are made in Shenzhen, cars in Japan and software in Silicon Valley? Of course it is.
Religion: My dad all but abandoned Judaism after he came to America. He wanted to assimilate and, surely because of what he’d seen as s a kid, he worried that Jews could be victimized here. He sent my brothers and me to a WASP-y sailing camp on Cape Cod. More recently, he got us German passports, so we could leave this country if things turned nasty. By contrast, I rediscovered Judaism a decade or so ago and subsequently wrote a book, Faith and Fortune, arguing that business people and companies that do good will over time also do well. I continue to believe that universal religious principles—love thy neighbor, tell the truth, be a steward of the earth—can and should help curb the worst practices of market capitalism. My dad was more of a cynic.
Last week, I talked to my dad about his funeral. He said he didn’t need a rabbi to preside but, to my surprise, he asked that a few Hebrew prayers be read. So we will bury him today and read the Mourner’s Kaddish, as it has been read for thousands of years.
We’ll also read this excerpt from Life After Death, by Laura Gilpin (1950-2007), a poet, nurse and health care activist.
The things I know:
How the living go on living
and how the dead go on living with them.
So that in a forest
even a dead tree casts a shadow
and the leaves fall one by one
and the branches break in the wind
and the bark peels off slowly
and the trunk cracks
and the rain seeps in through the cracks
and the trunk falls to the ground
and the moss covers it
and in the spring the rabbits find it
and build their nest
inside the dead tree.
So that nothing is wasted in nature or in love.
May my father’s memory be a blessing to those who knew him.