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Jewish Journal

Dad’s drive

by Susan Freudenheim

June 12, 2008 | 2:38 pm

My father, Milt Freudenheim, retired a couple of weeks ago from a job that he couldn't let go of. Despite the fact that he is 81, he said he still plans to go on working for as long as he's able.

I bring this up not only because it's Father's Day this weekend, and I feel that anyone who works for 60 years in the same profession probably deserves more than a gold watch (he didn't get one, actually), but also because I have followed in my father's footsteps in ways that seem to exemplify all that is Jewish in our family -- caring about the world, a need to prove oneself and, of course, guilt.

My dad is a journalist, too. For the past 29 years, his byline ran in The New York Times, mostly on articles covering the intersection of business and health care. Before that, he was a national and foreign correspondent for 25 years for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, and he also wrote for several other smaller papers across the country. When he left The Times, he was, we think, the oldest person working there, and on his last Sunday on the job, he had a byline on the lead story on the front page of the paper. I was proud; his response: "I guess I don't have to please them anymore."

It's that perpetual striving to please that stops me in my tracks.

Dad has always been reaching -- not just to satisfy himself, but also to prove himself to the big guys, the great newspaper people in his head who might, somehow, in their wisdom, someday give him their blessing of approval. I have often thought it odd that one would want to stay in the game -- any game -- so long. That as he got older and his colleagues younger (isn't that the most disconcerting aspect of aging?) -- he should continue to worry whether he could reach the top of the heap. But Dad loves his work; he loves digging around for stories. He loves the potential of unearthing wrongs and of defending the little guy. He's an old-school investigative reporter with a Rolodex (remember those?) to die for and a tenacity that is matched only by the best of them.

He's also driven by that funny kind of unsettled feeling that he'll never do quite enough, that the powers that be might require one more insight before they'll let him rest. I don't know whether this kind of self-questioning is justified in his case(I suspect not), but it does seem peculiar to the Jewish character, or at least it's common among many of the Jews I know.

We've got 613 commandments to keep track of, the Torah tells us, and we can all think of a whole lot more we need to do to please everyone else (and ourselves). Although my father is a mostly secular guy, he's got that particular bug that keeps him always working harder. And, for those of us who are in his sphere, it's a trait that is both lovable and very annoying.

There's never been a Sunday when he wouldn't take a call from "the paper." There's never been a morning when he didn't rush out to read "the paper." There's never been a day when I didn't know that his love was divided between his family -- including first my sweet and undemanding late mother, and now my similarly driven and much beloved journalist stepmother, art critic Grace Glueck -- and "the paper."

The nobility of Dad's calling was never in question when my three siblings and I were growing up. In those days -- the 1950s and '60s -- journalists were not seen as "the media," with all the negatives that implies today. The authority of solid reporting generally went unquestioned, and the lofty goals of the crusty typewriter-toting newspapermen (and women), as they called themselves, were seen as a high calling. I'm sure there were lapses in the field -- power plays, inappropriate moves, just like today -- but my father was always enormously principled and was willing to earn less money than many of our more business-minded neighbors just for the pleasure of interviewing some of the greatest people of his day.

I followed him into his trade, through different channels -- as an editor (the enemy, in his eyes), at the competition (for many years, the Los Angeles Times) and in the arts (soft!), and since coming to The Jewish Journal, my taste in writing for a small community (relatively) that I can address in a very direct way has grown, where he's looked for the big impact that perhaps only The Times and very few other newspapers can hope for. But from him I've learned never to willingly settle for less than the best -- deadlines permitting -- and never to trust only one authority.

I've learned that revelations in the press, small and large, can change the world. That one person's willingness to listen to other people's concerns -- and then share those concerns -- can affect how we all live. Dad's dedication to unearthing bad business practices in the health care industry has, I know, affected national policy on some level, if only to remind the powerful that they are accountable.

I went back East for his retirement lunch and listened to his colleagues laud and cajole him a bit, and then listened more as he told his own war stories about meeting the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and others decades ago. It's hard to imagine the time span that such stories transcend, but the pleasure he got in talking about those highlights was shared by his many friends.

For me, Dad remains an inspiration: Never to rest on my laurels. Never to imagine that the job is completely done. Never to lose the curiosity to ask more questions, to wonder who, what, when, where and how something came about.

But I also have earned my own bit of wisdom that didn't come from Dad. I'd like to see my octogenarian father feel comfortable that, even if he wants to go on writing -- and we know he will do it -- that the powers-that-be, if not some Power even higher than that, already are looking down on him and saying, "Good job, Milt. Enjoy your retirement."

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

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