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spevackMythbuster: Violet Spevack

Interview Date: July 2011

Violet Spevack turned 95 July 14th. Sitting in the living room overlooking the "garden" husband David has planted on the balcony outside, Violet shared memories of growing up on Cleveland's East Side; what it's been like covering the Jewish community's activities, events and mitzvah's, for 46 years; and her very Violet take on what it takes to age successfully.

When and where were you born? And what's your maiden name?

I was born in Denver, Colorado and my maiden name was Goldhammer. My paternal grandparents came from Austria-Hungary in the 1860s to look for gold. They wanted to make enough money from a gold mine to be able to move to Palestine. They had a couple of mines, both of which were worthless. After they gave up on mining, my grandparents went to Denver and built Goldhammer Hall...The ground floor held a saloon. The second floor was where they lived and there was a social hall, too. It's where the unions got started.

My grandparents had three boys, the oldest was my father, Abel Goldhammer. When he was old enough to get married, [my grandparents] wanted a nice Hungarian wife, so they sent "home" for a wife, a second cousin. She came and they had two children, Harry and Morris. She died with the birth of Morris.

Listen to Violet Spevack''s interview with Regina Brett on WKSU: Aging Gracefully (aired Jan 25, 2012)

So they sent away [to Austria-Hungary] for another bride, and that was my mother, Bertha Goldstein, another second cousin. She became the mother of the two little boys, until the grandparents decided to leave Denver and go back to Hungary, taking Harry with them. Leonard [1912] and I were born [1916] while we lived at Goldhammer Hall.

My mother came to Cleveland to have my sister, Gertie [Gertrude]. My father passed away a year and a half later, and we moved to the family home on Somerset Avenue off E. 105th, where I grew with wonderful aunts and uncles.

In 1930, my mother married Jacob Saltzman. He was a widower with three children and they met at a neighborhood widows'and widowers' club.

I have steps, halfs, and wholes and from all my siblings now there's only my sister Gertie and Aaron Saltzman, my youngest stepbrother.

You grew up in the Glenville area in the 1930s, which was then considered a good, middle-class Jewish neighborhood. What do you remember about growing up there?

It was a great neighborhood and I remember growing up in the area around E. 105th like it was yesterday. The center of the neighborhood was The Jewish Center (now Cory United Methodist Church) and that's where I learned Hebrew and how to be a proud Jew, and how to swim, too. And it's where I fell in love with reading. I loved the library there.

It was a vibrant Jewish neighborhood so the stores were all closed on Saturday till sundown, then the streets were alive, with activity, with families. It was a great neighborhood to grow up in, a real community...with long, graceful, tree-lined streets.

You came of age during the height of the Depression. How to you think that helped make you the person you are today? Or do you think it did?

I absolutely remember the Depression, but I'm not all that sure that it left that much of an impression. Yes we were poor, but so was everyone else in the neighborhood. I didn't really think about there being a "depression." My life was focused on going to school, piano lessons, activities at The Jewish Center...I was one of the top two students in my confirmation class [1932].

...When I was at Empire Junior High School, the Cleveland Press sponsored a city-wide health contest. I was selected by a panel of teachers because I was gym leader at the time, and my grades were good, [laughs] and my teeth were good — and I won...The reason I'm telling you this was that I had to have my picture taken for the Cleveland Press and this is the first time I can remember my mother every buying me an expensive dress. It was a green silk print, and it cost, I think, $12.

In the 1930s, Glenville High School was one of the top schools in Cleveland. What were you good at there — and not so good at? And when did you graduate?

It was absolutely one of the city's top schools. I was a good student in all my classes, and I was editor of The Glenville Torch. The first person-to-person column I ever wrote was for that paper. That was the forerunner for the column, "Green's Pastures," I did at Temple Emanu El, for 16 years. And that temple column was the precursor for "Cavalcade" at Cleveland Jewish News.

I graduated in January of 1935. That was when the schools had two graduating classes a year. I had a scholarship to Cleveland College [then Western Reserve University's adult education division], but we didn't have the money for college, so I continued working at The May Company, where I'd been working in high school, too. I was in the basement hat department and loved selling hats. I had my own station and sold sporty little women's hats —bowlers— for a dollar.

But, you know, every time we had an event there I'd write something for it...poems, songs, things like that.

In 1938, you graduated from the Institute of Jewish Studies (precursor to today's Siegal College of Jewish Studies). What were you planning on doing with a degree in Jewish studies?

I didn't get a degree in Jewish Studies, I got a degree in Jewish Education, and I was going to be a teacher. In fact, I'd already started teaching. I was teaching fifth grade at the Jewish Center [laughs], where I'd been a student only a couple of years before. I think I'm a born teacher. When I was a kid — not even 10 — I had a "school" in the backyard. I was always a teacher.

The teachers there were phenomenal: Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Rabbi Barnett Brickner, Libby Braverman—who really encouraged me to become a teacher—and Nathan Brilliant.

And I also went to Cleveland Hebrew Schools [afternoon supplemental school for instruction in Hebrew and religious studies], and to Bais Hamidrash L'Morin, a school of study for Hebrew teacher, while I was also going to the Institute of Jewish Studies.

You and your husband, David, who is 99, have been married for 70 years. When and how did you meet him? And when did you know he was "the one?"

That was in May of 1939. I belonged to Junior Hadassah, and I was leading a panel at a regional meeting in Toledo. A friend of mine knew a guy who was going to be visiting a friend there, and we each paid the guy $2 to ride there and back. When he drove up and we got in the car there was a friend of his, a guy named David Spevack. My friends sat in the front with the driver and I sat in the back with David, and we ended up singing songs all the way to Toledo.

After the meeting, there was a big dance, and I was supposed to go with a date a guy who lived in Toledo, but he had to leave town so I didn't have a date. After the panel, I saw David at the bottom of the stairs, and I asked him if he'd like to go to the dance with me and he said "Sure." The next day we met for breakfast. And then we drove back to Cleveland that afternoon. And that was it. We became a twosome. I was — well, not exactly engaged, but almost — and I broke it off. There was just something about David.

We married September 29th, 1940. David's father was sick, with lung cancer. And his mother was not really able to care for him, so when we married, we lived with his parents, and became the heads of the family, with his younger brother and sister. A lot of people thought, when I married him, that I'd married a widower.

You were married a little more than a year when World War II started. What did you do during the way years, and what did David do?

In 1942, David was called down to Cincinnati to register for the service, but at that time, anyone who was the head of a family — and by then we'd had our first child, Bonnie — was exempted. And he was also caring for his brother and sister, too. During the war he worked in for SCF Cloak Company, as a shipping clerk.

I worked at May Company, and I was a mother, too. And I taught every Sunday at the Jewish Center. I think I was maybe paid $1.50 for that.

Most people know you because of your "Calvacade" column in Cleveland Jewish News, which you have been penning weekly since March 5th, of 1965. What got you started doing the column?

I'd always written columns...I remember doing one when I was 10 years old for the paper at Camp Wise [a Jewish summer camp]. And you know, on Ophra's last show, she said everyone has a calling and she knew, when she got on TV, that that was her calling.

Well, when I started to write the column, I felt that this was right. It was my calling. I'd always been writing, skits and plays and poems, but my calling was to be a columnist. And not just any kind of columnists, but one who wrote about people in the community, my community.

And I knew this was my calling, because I'd already been doing it, on a much smaller level at Temple Emanu El. When the temple's executive director, Bill Gibberman went to a national convention of reform temples, my column in the temple's bulletin was singled out as unique in bulletins across the country.

You have been writing "Calvacade" for 46 years. Why do you keep doing it?

I like people, and I love my community, so "Cavalcade" is a people column, but it's a people column with insights — about peoples' activities, their honors, the high points in their life. When I go to an event, it's not the food or the decorations I'm focusing on, it's people, people, people.

Journalism is dominated by computers and PDFs and JPEGs and dozens of other electronic files, yet you take all your notes in 3-inch-wide journalists notebooks, type your column on what you call "my trusty Smith Corona," and you hand deliver it to Cleveland Jewish News every Monday. Ever think about getting a computer?

I'm a low-tech lady in a high-tech world. But I may be ready for a computer. The problem isn't using it, because I know how to type. It's space. We just moved into a small apartment, and you need a whole corner's worth of space for a computer.

But I think I'm almost ready, so maybe I'll get one. A little one.

In addition to your weekly column in the paper, you have also profiled hundreds of actors, authors, politicians, corporate heads and community movers and shakers. Who is your most favorite interviewee—and why?

I've interviewed many people, but I can't single out just one as a favorite for a lot of reasons. One is that I get marvelous insights into the lives they are living, and I like that because — and it always comes back to this — I'm a people person.

Also, every person you meet has something unusual or unique about them. Yet everyone is the same, too. We all have ambitions, we all have talent, and it's up to the person doing the interview to bring that out.

Many people I've interviewed have really touched my soul...They are so dedicated to what they do—teaching, acting, working in the community. Those are the people I never forget.

So, do you think you learn something about yourself, too, when you do an interview?

Oh definitely. When I interview people I'm always identifying with them. And I don't just write them up and then file them away. I dream about them. With some of them, I've kept up with where they've gone, what's happened with them.

Who— you don't have to give their name— is at the bottom of your interviewee list? And why?

I don't even have to think about that: it's comedian Buddy Hackett. Before I interviewed him I went to his show at The Front Row. His jokes were at the bottom of the toilet. I admire the fact he came up in the world, not his material. And that's what I wrote about, him, not his material.

You do a lot of community presentations: about show business personalities, about the history of Jewish Cleveland, about aging. How did you get started doing presentations?

You know, I have two callings: one is to be a columnist and writer, the other is public speaking.

I've always been good at oration and won contests when I was in Hebrew School and in high school. I can remember the opening lines for the presentation I did at The Jewish Center the year I graduated high school: "The fires of anti-Semitism have smoldered through the centuries and burst into flame again right now." And you know, that's as true today as it was in 1934.

...I first started doing public speaking when I did programs for a couple of years for the Jewish Welfare Fund...Today the programs I'm doing are based on humor and the world about us. As I've gotten older, a lot of what I've been talking about has to do with aging.

I'm sure this [the presentations] all comes out of my education and teaching background. When you are teaching, you are speaking. The best speakers—and teachers—are animated, look at the audience and are connecting with their audience... And I know from experience, covering a lot of speakers, that there are some really bad speakers, doing some really important presentations, out there: they read their presentation, they never look at the audience, they never make a connection with the audience, they don't even know how to use a microphone.

[Laughs] Now there's an idea for a column: How to talk to an audience.

Everyone has mentors, people who are in their corner, who point them in the right direction. Who have been your mentors, not just in journalism but in your involvement in the community, too?

First there was Libby Braverman, one of my teacher's at the Institute for Jewish Studies. She had an electrifying personality and a very colorful way of being a teacher. She was demonstrative and alive, and I wanted to be like her. She was a real role model.

And of course, the former editor at Cleveland Jewish News, Cynthia Dettlebach. She was a superb editor, writer, and role model. She taught me how to be a better columnist. No, that's not right, she brought out the best in me. And two others, Rabbi Armond E. Cohen and Rabbi Alan S. Green, brought out the best in me, too.

And my husband David, too. I wouldn't call him a mentor, but he's always allowed me to be "me." And I've given him the latitude to be "him."

You have been named one of Cleveland Magazine's Most Interesting People twice: in 1986 and in 1997. You probably read the write-ups in the magazine about why they thought you interesting. My question is: What do you think makes you interesting?

Probably it's that I really do care about people. That's not fake. Also, I have a zest for life and I share that with people. And I really do love the entire community.

You do a lot of programs — at centers, at temples, etc. — on aging: in fact, you gave one yesterday. What do you talk about in your programs?

[Laughs] I added that to my repertoire when I started to age myself. And that was in the early 1980s, when I turned 65.

At first I did some two-person programs — more like skits — with Lou Hirsch from the Jewish Community Federation. Then, because I had done some volunteering [she conducted Shabbat services for seven years] at Manor Care Nursing Home, and learned a lot from the residents there, I started doing programs out of my experiences there and my own life experiences.

My first programs were really based on what I'd experiences working with the older people at Manor Care. And some of those people were pretty remarkable.

Speaking of remarkable people, you are 95 and in really excellent physical shape. What are you doing on a daily basis to stay so fit and healthy?

I have to say that a lot of it is genes. I've got a pretty good body and have always been in pretty good shape. And it was the same with my mother, who died two months short of her 95th birthday.

For exercise, I'm always on the go. And I used to do a lot of walking for exercise, too, but I'm not doing that so much any more. And I never went to a gym, I walked outdoors. When we had our house, I used to do a bit of exercise at home, too.

What are you doing on a daily basis to stay so mentally sharp.

I'm in the "mental" mode from the minute I get up. I'm doing an interview or writing or something. And I'm always thinking in verse and poetry. [Tapping a nearby notebook and chuckling] And think I write in my sleep, too, because I'll wake up at 2 am so that I can jot a note.

And I'm always reading, poetry of course, and [pointing to a crammed bookcase] other stuff. [Laughs] There were more books, but when we moved to this apartment there just wasn't room, so I gave away three bookcases of books. Most of them were biographies. I love biographies.

Doing what you do, you could really have an ego, but you don't. How do you stay so emotionally and personally grounded?

There's no time for egotism in what I'm doing. Which isn't to say I'm not a proud person. I'm very comfortable in my own skin, and I'm a happy person, in general. And I'm a proud wife and I'm a proud mother. That kind of contentment and pride has nothing to do with egotism.

You are constantly on the go: doing programs, attending events that appear in your column, doing interviews for articles, working tirelessly in support of Temple Emanu El, which you and David helped found in 1947. So the question is: Where does all the energy come from?

It's always been there. That, and a generally optimistic disposition, that is who I am. But that doesn't mean that I don't sit down and read for hours, because I do.

This profile is all about successful aging. There are many definitions for that. What's yours?

It's not just age, appearance or lifestyle that make a person young when they aren't so young anymore. Growing old gracefully has a lot to do with attitude and openness to life, enabling you to reach out beyond yourself. And that's really important for aging successfully.

What do you think people should be doing to age successfully?

The first thing is the very thing that I need more of: exercise.

People shouldn't rely on others to do the things they can do themselves. I try to do as much as I can by myself. If you have help in the house, you should still make your own bed.

And it's important to keep your sense of humor. Humor is important in balancing things. A good joke never hurt a situation, and it's often helpful. I really emphasized that in my program yesterday.

You know, research supports that laughing for 10 minutes is the [aerobic] equivalent of rowing a boat for two hours. There have been a lot of studies about the impact on the physical body of laughter. My take on that is if you go around with a grumpy face you aren't doing anything good for your body.

What did I not ask that I should have?

About something that I think is very good for older people: reminiscing.

That was something I realized when I first started volunteering at Manor Care. Regardless of age and sickness and the fact that their life was so different from what it had been, when people could remember something from when they were growing up, or about their family or their friendships, it didn't just make them happier, it brought out the smiles. It's wonderful, not just for the person reminiscing, but for the people listening, too. It gives them an idea of how things have changed.

And you know, it was really sad when people couldn't remember good things that once made them glad and gave them joy and happiness.

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