Jewish Journal

Sherman Grancell, 100, shows his pioneer spirit

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Sep. 8, 2010 at 12:13 am

Sherman Grancell

Sherman Grancell

Politicians may well envy Sherman Grancell, who is regularly re-elected without any campaigning or attack television commercials.

“I am president of the Pioneer Bruins,” he explained, sitting in his large, airy home off Coldwater Canyon. “To be a member, you must have attended UCLA, then known as the Southern Branch of the University of California, on the old Vermont Avenue campus, before the move to Westwood in 1929.”

Pioneer Bruins counts seven members, all over 100 years old, and annually the shrinking remnant celebrates its survival at a champagne brunch at the UCLA Alumni Center in October or November.

“I always bring the champagne, so they keep re-electing me,” Grancell explained.

Grancell himself hit his centennial on Feb. 5 of this year, and, except for occasional use of a cane to steady himself, he shows none of the physical, and certainly none of the mental, impairments common among considerably younger men.

Since his wife’s death four years ago, he has lived independently, with Rolando, his aide, doing the cooking, driving and any repairs to his computer. Grancell credits his admirable condition to daily swimming in his spacious outdoor pool, keeping mind and body busy (“use it or lose it” is his motto), and a genetic predisposition to longevity.

To history buffs, it’s awesome to realize that Grancell grew up in a pioneer homesteading family. Although he was born in Pasadena, the family moved when he was 3, to Inyo County, south of Lone Pine, where any man could stake out a 160-acre parcel of land, and become its owner after three years.

The property was densely covered with sagebrush and the Grancells lived in a one-room house.

“We raised a few vegetables, but the roaming cattle ate them and we couldn’t afford to build a protective fence,” recalled Grancell, taking his ease in a short-sleeved white shirt, shorts and tennis shoes.

After three years, the Grancells gave up homesteading, moved to Lone Pine and a few years later to Los Angeles, where father Isaac Grancell worked as a gunsmith, tinsmith and plumber.

When oil was discovered in Southern California, the inventive Isaac developed a thread compound that facilitated the drilling process and was marketed around the world.

The family’s fortunes looked up, but the Depression put a halt to oil exploration, and after Sherman enrolled at UCLA at 16, he worked during his senior year as a soda jerk and as banjo player at weddings and bar mitzvahs to make ends meet.

After graduating from UCLA, class of 1930, he enrolled at the USC law school, got his law degree at 23, and embarked on a 57-year legal career, interrupted only by three years service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

Grancell spent 20 years as a workers’ compensation judge and then went into private practice. Today the firm, headed by his son Norin, operates 10 offices and employs some 100 attorneys.

A sign of Grancell’s astuteness is that he does not pine for the good old days.

“Human nature hasn’t changed in the last 3,000 years, and sex hasn’t changed either,” he observed. “Some people are decent, and some are not decent.”

What has changed, at an ever accelerating rate, is the technology, and Grancell stands in a certain awe of the young college students he meets during his frequent visits to the campus and as a volunteer at orientation sessions for new Bruins.

“How did our kids get so smart?” he wondered. “When I started college in 1926, it took a B average to get in, now you got to have an A average and better.”

When Grancell reached his centennial, some 10 organizations, beneficiaries of his considerable philanthropy, vied to throw birthdays parties.

UCLA rolled out the largest cake for the man reputed to bleed blue and gold, who visits the campus three to four times a week, eats at the Faculty Center and supports the alumni association, credit union, Friends of Archaeology, UCLA Live and Design for Sharing, and is a rabid fan of the basketball and football teams.

But most recipients of his large gifts are Jewish institutions and organizations. Among them are Hillel, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Los Angeles Jewish Home (with its Grancell Village), The Jewish Federation, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, Hadassah and the Skirball Cultural Center.

Yet, all these charitable activities do not reflect a particularly Jewish life, in the traditional sense. When asked, “What kind of a Jew are you?” he replied, “Not a very good one.”

His lack of religious involvement stems from his youth, when “we were the only Jewish family in Inyo County and my parents were largely secular,” he said. He and his wife visited Israel only once, some 25 years ago, and, at best, he attends annual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Yet, the “secular” Isaac Grancell founded Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach in 1946 and Sherman Grancell worries a great deal about the Jewish future.

“Thank God for Chabad; I think they are the saviors of our race,” he said. Though some of his descendants have intermarried, “I’m tickled to death that my five great-grandchildren are being raised as Jews,” he said, adding that he regrets never having learned Yiddish or Hebrew.

Why is Jewish continuity so important to him? “Well,” he answered, “I’m a Jew.”

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