Remembering Doctor Fred Goldfrank

By Herbert Goldfrank
September 11th, 1997 -- My 90th Birthday

He was known to all -- to students, teachers, and everyone else who came to know him -- simply as UNCLE FRED. But he was almost a true Uncle Fred to me for several special reasons. Uncle Fred was a first cousin of my father John -- their fathers were brothers. And also Uncle Fred was a first cousin of my mother on the Pfeifer side. My mother Elsa's mother and Uncle Fred's mother were sisters -- it is their father, Philip Pfeifer, who with Felix Adler, founded The Ethical Culture Society in 1886. Also an additional special reason for a special affinity is that my father for some half dozen of his teenage years, lived in his Uncle Max Goldfrank's brownstone home in New York, and slept in the same bedroom with Uncle Fred. In concluding the above bit of ancient history, I must comment that my father once told me that over these years that he shared a room with Uncle Fred that they never had a single argument or unpleasant word -- a real friendship.

Dr. Fred Goldfrank graduated from Harvard University, and then got his doctor of medicine degree, also from Harvard. Some short time after finishing his medical internship and residency, his niece Beatrice, the daughter of his sister, now Mrs. Gerda Stein, got polio, in what I believe was then called "The Lake Placid Epidemic." Dr. Fred and the medical profession could do nothing -- nothing at all. The young niece, Beatrice, could not walk, or ever would walk. The family was devastated, and in a very special way Uncle Fred. Thereupon Dr. Fred Goldfrank decided to give up his medicine, just become Uncle Fred, and devote the rest of his life to educating his little niece Beatrice, and preparing her for, and adjusting her to, the very special kind of life she would have to lead.

At that time Beatrice's parents, Leo and Gerda Stein, owned a large estate in Stamford, Connecticut, including a very large house in which they lived with their four children -- Ed, Bea, Harold and Bob. (Incidentally, there was a small cottage on the place where my parents, my brother Lewis and I, lived every summer for some ten years). This estate was called Cherry Lawn, because in the great lawn four giant cherry trees grew. This is the place where Uncle Fred started The Cherry Lawn School in 1915 -- with four students the first year, Beatrice, Harold, and Robert Stein, and one young non-family outsider, the son of a family friend. Thereafter, each year the school grew, and grew; soon almost all the students were not of the family. Harold went on to college, later even taught briefly at The Cherry Lawn School after it had moved to Darien in 1919. Robert went on to Yale University, and ultimately into the business his father had started, Stein Hall & Co. And Beatrice, in effect the founding mistress of The Cherry Lawn School, became a volunteer children's story teller, much in demand, going from settlement house to school after school. And then Bea was very happily married to the renown writer, Francis Stiegmuller.

But the Stein family, along with the Strassers, continued to be the driving force and supporter of the school for many years to come. I, of course, also went to Cherry Lawn for my four years of high school, graduating in 1925, and so had much contact with Uncle Fred. (Incidentally, my brother Lewis, brother-in-law Sam, my daughter Deborah, and a double first cousin George also went to the school).

May I now insert at random some well remembered Cherry Lawn School incidents that have strongly affected this student of Uncle Fred. One year when I was at the school, a classmate of mine wanted to study the Greek language, but there was no teacher on the staff able to it do. So Uncle Fred want back to Harvard summer school, studied Greek, and taught the child, all himself, one in the class. Some deed, some commitment to education.

In those days it was school routine that after dinner, all students were invited to sit near a fireplace in the living room, and hear the house mother read aloud some great book -- perhaps something by Mark Twain -- I also remember well George Elliot's Middlemarch. Perhaps fifteen of us were read to every night, four nights a week, and then on Friday night, Uncle Fred would read to us. What a treat! And how it developed my love of reading.

Here's another incident I will never forget. I was having a tussle with a boy in the dorm, held him on the floor, finally released him, and left the dorm closing the door, the upper half of which was opaque glass. The boy threw a shoe at me, but I was gone, the door shut, but it shattered the glass pane. The Student Council met, and they fined me the cost of repairing the pane. I could not see the justice in this, and so resigned my set on the council. When Uncle Fred heard this he then at an assembly spoke out to all, and directly at me saying "If you leave the Student Council, just go to Spain, with all the anarchists, or stay here and try to change understandings and improve the process." Boy, did that have an effect on my life.

Once at the usual 10:30am morning assembly, where Uncle Fred led a discussion on current events, another teacher interrupted the session and a terrible altercation took place, lasting perhaps five minutes. Then Uncle Fred told the teacher to leave and he would talk to him later in his office. The assemble them resumed. In another ten minutes Uncle Fred stopped the current events discussion, and told us that the so called fight was a put-on -- a staged affair. He then distributed a questionnaire with perhaps twenty five questions, such as who struck the first blow? What was the teacher wearing? Who said what? etc. etc. Well, the students gave the wrong answers, as I recall, to over three quarters of the questions. Uncle Fred's lessons were "Facts are hard to find", "Don't trust your first impressions", and "Search for the truth before you leap." What a lesson for me!

This reminds me of another significant event, at least for me. Once Uncle Fred, at another current events meeting, told us that he was giving each of us a week to search for the reason Columbus discovered American. We knew it happened in 1492, but why? And so we learned of the fall of Constantinople, and the need of a new route for spices from the east. What a way to teach me to look for the facts behind events and history.

Nor will I ever forget those classes -- all except chemistry and physics -- that were held out of doors, in those days in converted chicken sheds. And sleeping on an outdoor porch -- open all winter long -- even waking up with a foot of snow on my bed. Good for my health? Now I sleep under a feather quilt all summer long. And yet Uncle Fred smoked a pipe from the moment he got up until he went to bed. He was a true health bug.

And I want to mention something very personal. My father, as his pro-bono service to the school, assumed responsibility for the land problems and the farm at the school in Darien. And I fondly remember tagging after my father and Uncle Fred, as they toured the property checking up on the three cows, discussing quarts of milk per cow, per day, or whether or not to put copper sulfate in the school lake. I sure enjoyed those walks. All of us students learned something about scientific farming -- just another aspect of Uncle Fred's devotion to teaching, always teaching, and always striving for new ways to teach.

Now to another aspect of Uncle Fred and his family. A true nephew of Uncle Fred, Roger, had gone to Cherry Lawn when I was also a student there, but he was a class or two ahead of me. Roger was the son of another sister of Uncle Fred, Edna, who had become Mrs. Edna Strasser. I must admit Roger was a more serious student than me, but what impressed me even more was that he looked so much like his Uncle Fred. In due time, Roger went to college, graduated, and became a teacher, of course, at Cherry Lawn. And so it was that the Strassers, under the leadership of Roger's mother, Edna, supported the school for so many years, continuing the educational ideas of Uncle Fred.

To the very end, the Great Cherry Lawn School thrived and survived due to the continued support and forceful drive of Uncle Fred's nephew, Roger Strasser, and his good wife, Clarice. Started with an act of devotion to help his niece Beatrice to live a full and meaningful life, through the school Uncle Fred devoted himself to developing a system of education that enabled each young person to grow, and reach his or her full potential.

Uncle Fred will long be remembered by all -- family, friends, and above all students, like me.

Submitted 7-October-1997