Donald, a miracle baby
Donald was born on VE day, marking the final defeat of the Nazis in Europe, an event of such monumental significance to Jews that Irving and Ruth must have seen this as a positive sign for the future.
The family had moved from Newark to Rutherford and lived in a brick house just off Park Avenue – the main thoroughfare – on a relatively quiet street, Gouverver – closer to State Highway 3 than to the traffic circle that marked the center of town near the railway station.
Rutherford was one of those towns that clung to prohabitionary rules meaning it served no alcohol. But it was progressive enough to give Ruth parking tickets, as were reported to the local newspapers in those days.
Rutherford, where Donald would later set up one of his first batch of retail stores, was located near Wallington, Garfield and Lodi where my family resided at the time, and near Passaic where I would live for a time while working for him at his new warehouse of Kaplun Drive in Fairfield.
Although geographically closer to St. Mary’s and Beth Israel hospitals in Passaic, Ruth gave birth to Donald at the more distant Irvington General Hospital, a massive relic of the 19 th century that sat on an imposing hill, later neglected and torn down.
This was located near where the Garden State Parkway would later intersect Route 78 when both were constructed more than a decade later. At the time, the main highway was Route 22 which connected Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne and Union with the inner parts of the state.
Irving’s successful career apparently allowed him to move over the next few years to west to the Livingston and West Orange area, part of a massive exodus of Jews from the inner city. His kids eventually attended local schools there, with all three attending West Orange High School, graduating in the 1960s.
As the middle child, Donald makes me think of that old rent-a-car commerical which claimed number two had to ry harder.
It’s hard to say for certain if Irving favored one son over the others and whether or not he hoped for Barry to live up to all the potential he showed in childhood. But Donald’s later success must have impressed Irving, partly because Donald seemed not to have all those talents Barry ddi, and so Donald had to work harder to get ahead – and for him to have gotten as far ahead of his two brothers as he did must have come as a complete surprise.
Known in his senior year of high school at “Don,” Donald was aparently involved with a school group called Cowboy Consolidated (Cow-con), a booster club that supported all the sports teams know as the West Orange Cowboys.
Unlike Barry, who took up wrestling and swimming, and his other brother, Bruce, who took up tennis, Donald does not appear to have been involved in sports while in high school – unless you consider jewelry-making a sport.
Yet as a member of Cow-Con, Donald and others were responsible for setting up the annual bonfire, football pep ralleys and distributing the booster tags most students from West Orange High were expected to wear. The group also held poster parties where the members designed posters that would later be put up around the halls of the school.
Donald was also a member of the International Relations Club that took an annual trip to the United Nations among other activities.
Donald’s classmates at the time painted a whole different picture of him than the Donald I encountered as his employee. To them, he was a gentleman with a kind heart. And perhaps this was accurate the the Donald I met felt compelled to put up a front, scared of being to close to those who worked for him. Indeed, even his relationship later with Stan seemed full of controdictions, a sincere effort to share wealth and success but still maintain distance – something that Stan (and I at the time) clearly misread.
While Donald may have come to high school as a geek – and somewhat freewheeling – he didn’t leave school that way, graduating a changed man, more dignified in some ways than Barry who had preceded him.
For those of us looking back at Donald’s frequent exclamations of “Where’s Susan,” who he meant remains a mystery – although most of his classmates likely knew at the time. He could have meant any number of Susans that shared clubs and classes he attended, although I’d like to think he meant one of the particularly popular cheerleaders.
While Donald like Barry got involved in community organizations, Donald seemed to focus more on his Jewish heritage and in helping Jewish immigrants. This may have been his motivation for getting involved in Valley Settlement House, a non-profit service organization that helped people in the four Orange towns, as well as Newark, Maplewood and Irvington. Although the immigrants the organization has well elped changed over the years since, many of those helped at the time where Jewish immigrants making their way to the United States from Eastern Europe.
Donald also got involved with the Young Men’s Hebrew Associatin located at the time on Chancellor Avenue in Newark – which was then making plans for its move to Northfield Avenue in West Orange. He most likely got involved with the centers first Israel Exhibtion and Trade Fair held there in 1963.
The Y’s original mission was to help new Jewish immigrants assemulate in urban areas like Newark, Jersey City and Bayonne. But after World War II as Jews began to move out of the cities, the Y’s role changed and became a key element in helping Jews move from the cities to the suburbs with the goal to keep Jews enaged with the Jewish community.
This not to say kids who belonged to the Y didn’t have fun, enjoying a variety of activities as well as trips to museums in New York City or even to the Naval base in Bayonne or the Ford Plant in Mahwah. This last is somewhat ironic since Donald’s son, Josh, would later play a critical role in rescuing what became an ailing car company.
How and where Donald met his first wife, Gwenn Kuskin remains a mystery to me as well. But their paths could have easily crossed during his trips to Bradley Beach, a sea side resort within spitting distance of Deal where Gwenn lived at the time.
While the Kuskins lived in Deal, the primary Jewish community was in Bradley Beach, and the Kuskins were very involved in their temple while living there.
Bradley Beach, two towns south along the ocean from Deal, was one of the few towns that allowed Jews in the post war years. Brooklyn Jews discovered Bradley Beach long before they started buying up land in Deal in the 1970s. Magen David Congregation opened in the summer of 1944 after which Jewish families began renting bungalos in Bradley Beach the way my family did at the time in Seaside and Point Pleasant.
While it is too much to hope that Donald and Gwenn became high school sweetheart or had a summer romance, they ironically must have passed each other during those years.
Although Donald was a history buff in high school, he apparently had less lofty goals than his brother, Barry, and attended Rutgers to major in Finance, opening Cosmetics Plus shortly after graduation.