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Mina KulberMythbuster: Mina Kulber

Date of interview: May 2008

Native Clevelander Mina [Neiger] Kulber has been teaching-guiding-mentoring since she set up a "classroom" in the backyard of her parents' home in the late 1920s. In her antique-filled kitchen — "They may be antiques, but I'm still using them," she explained with a chuckle — she shared her thoughts on how her family, her faith, her community and her "can-do" approach to life shaped her "attitude" about aging.

Tell us a bit about yourself: your parents, when and where you were born and raised, where you went to school?

My mother and father met when they were both at the Outhwaite Night School [at E. 55th and Outhwaite Avenue].

At that time, he was the principal and my mother was one of the teachers at the school where foreigners learned English so they could become citizens.

I was born in Cleveland on May 21st, 1923, at Women's Hospital, kitty-corner to what is now the Sight Center. I was the second daughter [of three] When I was four, we moved to Cleveland Heights [opposite the then-John L. Severance estate]. When the Depression came, we moved to the Kinsman area, where I went to Alexander Hamilton Junior High and John Adams for high school.

When it was time for the Class of '41's 65 th reunion, I organized a visit to John Adams to present a plaque. The superintendent, Dr. Eugene Sanders, was there.

You grew up during the Depression and World War II. How do you think that affected who you are today?

Tremendously. I'm a bargain hunter to this day because during the Depression every penny mattered.

The only time I every heard my parents argue was when my mother told my father she was going to work. She got a job with the Cuyahoga County Relief Association...and tramped the streets of Cleveland visiting people on relief to make sure they got their food stamps and were OK.

Our entertainment was family centered. We girls would do the dishes after supper and then we'd sing at the piano, where there was always a stack of sheet music.

Ruth [older sister] was good at sight reading and sang alto. Mimi [Miriam, her youngest sister] had a gorgeous soprano, and I'd sing the middle melodies. Some nights, we'd listen to Little Orphan Annie and on Saturdays we'd listen to the opera with our father.

The war turned our lives upside-down. I can remember my grandfather, who'd been in two wars [Spanish American War and WWI] sitting in his rocking chair so dejected.

The summer after I graduated, to get money for college, I worked at the Army Navy Store on Prospect. The next summer I worked in a war plant that made stainless steel fittings for airplanes. We wore uniforms, had badges, punched in on a time clock. I worked from 3 p.m. to midnight and made $16 a week. Every night, one of the other employees gave me a ride home on his motorcycle.

I met my husband [Sanford "Shy" Kulber] the summer I worked at Sterling and Welch, a very exclusive gift and furniture store on Euclid Avenue. It was an office job. During a break, one of the other girls was typing a letter to her cousin who was at Ohio Northern University studying pharmacy and asked me if I wanted to add a "PS" to it. So I added something to the bottom of her letter.

The next weekend, Shy hitchhiked home and we had our first date. [Laughs] It was not love at first sight. He was too cocky. And he thought I was, too. But we eventually made a wonderful team.

He was at Ft. Louis in Washington and sent me a telegram: "I'm getting a furlough. Let's get married." We married in the chapel of The Temple on East 105th Street on January 15th, 1945, during a huge snowstorm, and we spent our honeymoon at the Statler Hotel. The total bill was $34.47.

When Shy a medic because of his pharmacy background went back to Washington, he was sent overseas to the Philippines.

Shy and you were married for almost 57 years. To what do you attribute your marriage's success?

Dedication to one another. [Laughs] We were always making deals.

Dedication to family – we had four wonderful children [Sarah, Theodore, Deborah and Laura].

And dedication to our congregation [The Temple/Temple Tifereth Israel ] and community. Both of us were active in many organizations here and when we lived in Florida.

You mentioned that you'd worked your way through college. What was your major, and why that particular area?

I'd gotten a scholarship to the School of Education at Western Reserve University. I majored in elementary education and English. In my junior year I started student teaching at Mt. Auburn School [in Cleveland ] and Taylor School [in Cleveland Heights ]. Before I graduated in January of 1945, I got a job with the Cleveland Board of Education at Hough Elementary School. There were 34 children in the class which was in the basement and 26 desks. All the kids brought pillows, and when they weren't sitting at a desk they were sitting on the concrete floor on their pillows. Later I taught at Coventry School [in Cleveland Heights ] and at The Temple's religious school. From kindergarten through the eighth grade, I taught there almost 40 years.

And if I had to choose a career again, I'd choose teaching again.

You are known for your writing, especially your poems and your musicals. What got you interested in writing, and especially, what got you interested in writing musicals?

Literature and music have always been important in my family. I've written all my life and I've been writing shows since my teaching days. [Laughs] When we went to Florida each winter, for me to keep from going insane the people there were mostly interested in making reservations for dinner I got a part-time job and I got involved writing shows for the country club's bowling league.

I returned to writing musicals after Shy died in 2001. I had two choices, curl up in a fetal ball or get busy. And I chose to get busy.

My daughter Debbie [then marketing and public relations director at Menorah Park ] suggested that I get involved with the seniors at Myers Apartments at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living. That was the first time I'd ever written for seniors, for people my age. So far, I've written eight shows, and the last one was standing room only.

[Laughs] I think getting involved there did me more good than it did them. Our first show, Our Little Corner of the World, looked at people coming to terms with living in a retirement community and getting involved in different things, exploring options, coming to terms with who they were and where they were in life. They loved it.

In our last show in December 2007 – because I'm volunteering with children at the Temple and Laurel School I incorporated children in the show, made it intergenerational.

People who write are usually "creative" in other areas. So, what else are you doing?

I have two sewing machines, so I'm always designing and sewing. For my Bat Mitzvah [celebrated when she turned 60] I designed and made the dress I wore for the ceremony because I wanted to use a lace collar that my grandmother had made that I'd found in a cedar chest.

I knit and I often don't use a pattern. I've done silversmithing at the Jewish Community Center and when I wear the things I've made people can't believe I made them. I've thrown pots, but I'm left handed, while most potter's wheels are for right handed people, so I've never had much success with that. And [waving a hand in the direction of her well-laid-out kitchen] I'm a very good cook.

Song writer/pianist Marvin Hamlisch came to Cleveland to help celebrate Shy's 80th birthday in 2001 and he attended the program you produced at Montefiore in December. How did you meet him and how did he become a family friend?

That was in 1979. I was working at Saks Fifth Avenue, the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, and three fellows looking very much like flower children from Coventry Road – came in. One of the men wanted to buy two very expensive shirts in size large. When I told him I wouldn't sell him the shirts in that size, that he should have them in medium, he turned to this guy in a torn T-shirt and jeans and said, "Marvin, what should I do?"

He said, "Listen to her, she sounds to me like she knows what she's talking about." Then he turned to me by then I'd realized who he was and asked me my name and when I told him, he said there would be two tickets for me at the box office for his show that Saturday night at the Front Row.

When I told Shy we were going to the Front Row to see Marvin Hamlisch, he was not excited. And when we went that Saturday and asked for tickets for the Kulbers there weren't any. Shy wanted to go home, but I asked the person if the tickets weren't maybe under the name Mina.

She said: Oh, are you Mina? He's waiting for you backstage. And when we went backstage Dudley Moore and Susan Anton were there and there was all this food.

[Laughed] Shy was so impressed.

Our friendship grew from there. We met his wife, Terrie, and eventually we met his aunt in Florida and became friends with her.

You do a lot of volunteering; at the art museum, at Laurel School , with your On Stage group at Menorah Park. What do you think it is about you, personally, that makes you get so involved in things?

I'm outgoing I really like people and I do not like being alone. But I'm not talking about just doing lunch with friends.

I want what I do to be meaningful. And what better way to do that than to give of myself. When you do that, you get back as much as you give...I learned that while I was a volunteer at the Sight Center for 20 years.

Besides the shows at Menorah Park, my other favorite volunteer activity is working with the nursery and pre-kindergarten classes at Laurel School. Last week, I did a demonstration about how to make charoses [a food typically served during Jewish Passover]. Each child got to chop apples and nuts and mix-in the spices and then they got to taste what they'd made.

I'm involved in University Hospitals Case Medical Center 's Memory and Aging Center. I've been interviewed and been tested for memory and recall and recognition.

You know, volunteering is a two-way street. [Laughs] If I were being paid, I think something would be lost.

You'll be turning 85 on May 21 st 2008 and you are tremendously active and energetic. From your perspective of "being there/doing that," what's your secret for "successful aging."

That's a hard question, so I'll answer it in a roundabout way.

I admire Joann Woodward [actress and wife of Shaker Heights native Paul Newman] tremendously. She was in a marathon, not to win, but to run, and when she was interviewed she said: "In order to stay young you have to be willing to grow old." She doesn't use a lot of make-up. She's not had plastic surgery. She doesn't care that she has gray hair. She doesn't mind that her body is sagging a bit. She isn't concerned that her shoes look exquisite; she wants them to be comfortable. Her decision to grow old gracefully to accept who she is is keeping her young.

Like her, I've learned what's important, what works for me. For example, I listen to radio station 91.5 FM. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the station offers listeners music that comforts and uplifts. It's my station. When they play a Frank Sinatra song, I remember when I was at the Palace Theater and he was up on stage and girls were fainting in the aisles. The memories the station evokes are priceless. And they are free.

Speaking of "free," most of the things you have mentioned that keep you connected and engaged are free.

[Laughs] Definitely, but still priceless. Some of the most valuable things in the world are free.

Are you doing anything special, with regard to diet and/or exercise, to stay healthy and active?

Diet? I eat several small meals a day and I eat healthy foods. I eat nuts and grains and green vegetables and fruit. I drink juices. I try not to have too many eggs or too much milk and I don't use any of the nutritional supplements. And I don't deny myself chocolate.

Exercise? I'm a walker. I walk around the grounds here where I live. If the weather is good, I walk to Beachwood Place and up to Legacy Village. And I have hand weights that I use, too.

Once in a while there's a small cold, but I've never had a major illness, except for a problem with my esophagus [spasmodic esophagus] which I've been dealing with since 1963. I know the triggers for the problem anxiety, fatigue, etc. and I know what to do to manage things.

When I think about aging well, I think about the good genes I inherited and the role models I "inherited," too.

Both my parents aged well, and my aunt was a woman who definitely followed her own drumbeat from the time she was born. She was always independent and she was living on her own when she died after having attended a family Hanukkah party at 92. She died in my arms in an elevator doorway.

A MythBuster once said: "Today there are more and more programs to encourage seniors to stay active and involved socially, physically mentally." Yet so many older adults aren't participating in them. Why do you think that is?

Fear of being offensive or fear of being offended.

Lack of energy. Feeling more comfortable in their own surroundings. Feeling that they are doing the best they can for themselves. And feeling they have "done their share" of whatever. I've heard that a lot.

One way to get around all that is to be encouraging. No matter what I'm doing or where I am, or whether I'm working with children at Laurel School or the people at Menorah Park, I think I'm always encouraging them to go that little extra, try something they haven't, look at something in a different way.

Mina Kulber passed away in May 2011 at age 88.

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