I’ve written several times about my father’s life in the book business, which shaped quite a few careers, including mine. Here’s one. Andanother. This post, for Mother’s Day weekend, is about my father’s other great passion: my mother.
Eleanor Oshry Shatzkin — Elky to everybody who knew her — was the first woman to graduate from the engineering school at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon), earning her degree in physics in 1941. She was, in a way, a management consulting pioneer, running the consulting operation for the accounting firm J.K. Lasser and Company from 1957-1962. For a dozen years after that, until Dad dragooned her into the family book distribution business, Two Continents (the place where I really learned about the trade), Elky ran her own consulting company. She was a “better, faster, cheaper” consultant: a designer of systems and the rigorous author of “procedures” (as workflow documentation was called then.) Her clients included substantial law firms, for which she designed billing systems in the days before computers, and the Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency.
One of Mom’s clients for many years was The Longacre Press, a printer of book jackets based in Mt. Vernon, New York. Among other things, she designed a scheduling system for them. Working for Mom on that project was a critical piece of my early education in the book business.
She was a feminist before Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique”, although she explicitly resisted the label. But she was so totally devoted to my Dad that there were aspects of her capabilities and personality that we didn’t see in full flower until after he died when they were in their 80s.
Elky Shatzkin grew up in Pittsburgh, the younger child and only daughter of a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist family. Her father, Sam Oshry, sold life insurance in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. It was family lore that when Sam encountered a person begging for money for a meal, his frequent response was to bring them home for dinner. Mom’s older brother, Howard, was her intellectual inspiration (before she met my Dad) and since he became a physicist, her inclination was to follow in his footsteps.
Elky and Len got married in Harlem in 1940 (Len’s family lived in New York) and went back to Pittsburgh for their senior year at Carnegie Tech, living together at the Oshry home. Their marriage was not announced on campus to protect Elky’s scholarship, but they were serving together on the school paper, the Carnegie Tartan: Len as editor-in-chief and Elky as managing editor.
In the winter of that year there was a strike at Kaufman’s Department Store in Pittsburgh and scabs were hired to break the strike. Len wrote and published an editorial castigating that practice in the Tartan; the problem was that the Kaufman that owned the store was a regent of the university. About two months later, the administration used the claim that an April Fool’s issue that imitated past practices of lampooning faculty and staff was in bad taste as the excuse to fire Len from his position. My mom, his secret wife, took over as editor for the balance of the school year and, in effect, nothing changed. That incident characterized their 62 years of marriage: they had each other’s backs.
During World War II, Elky worked for Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, doing pioneering work with radioactive isotopes. In early 1943, she was getting bored with the job and she went to Columbia University to apply for another position. It didn’t sound appealing to her, so she decided to decline it by saying she expected Len to be drafted soon and she expected to be going to wherever he was in basic training and interrupting her career. “What does your husband do?”, she was asked. “He’s a printer,” she said. Len was then Production Manager for House Beautiful magazine. “Where is he?” “He’s waiting for me downstairs.”
This led to Len being interviewed and hired to work on the Manhattan Project, which kept him out of the war. But while the war was going on, he didn’t tell Elky what he was doing. The secrecy requirements were stringent and she would have understood that and not pressed him.
About a year later, Elky and Len went to the theater with a woman friend who had a loud voice and a vivid imagination. Len had to visit the draft board every six months to get his deferment renewed, and that was the night, so he didn’t arrive at the theater until the intermission. While they were outside between acts, friend Florence said, “I know what you’re doing, Len. You’re working on that new atomic bomb!”
Elky jumped in immediately. “Oh, no, Florence. Of course, he isn’t. We discussed the possibility of an atom bomb in my senior class in physics at Carnegie Tech. It’s simply not possible to gather enough fissionable uranium to create a chain reaction. You can’t make an atomic bomb.”
Elky could never have told a lie. If she didn’t believe that to be true, she wouldn’t have said it!
After the war and after my sisters and I were born, she got a job, with her physics background, working for the Picker X-Ray Corporation in White Plains. In short order, she was reorganizing their files and systems. That piqued her interest in management consulting and she was lucky enough to get a meeting with Peter Drucker for career advice. He hooked her up with a consultant named Bill Porter, who took her in and trained her. That led to her consulting career.
Aside from being a devoted wife, career woman, fantastic hands-on mother (she created a Benjamin Franklin costume for me on Halloween in 1957 that was definitely the coolest one in the entire village of Croton-on-Hudson that year), and running a complicated house that always had guests coming and going, Elky was a very active “citizen.” For example, she went by herself to the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. (I never really got the story about why she went and Len didn’t and we didn’t and now it is too late to ask.)
Elky’s greatest civic achievement was the Croton Shakespeare Festival, which she organized in 1962 with two other local Moms and which ran every summer, introducing the Bard and theater skills to local students and their parents, for 25 years. The full story of the Festival could take a book, let alone a blogpost, but it was a product of her boundless energy, unbelievable organizational skills, and public-spiritedness.
Over the years, Mom mentored countless young people. I have many childhood memories of the children of her friends coming to our house to be tutored in algebra. My sisters and I have many contemporary friends who learned office and organizational skills working for Elky. She was a tough boss: a perfectionist who never tired of making you go back and do it again to get it right. She could yell and scream at you too, and she terrified some people. But you found out pretty quickly that she had a heart of gold and unlimited generosity and, in fact, her demanding perfection of you was a compliment, because she knew you could do it.
For the last few years before Len died in 2002, Elky’s singleminded focus was helping him maintain a high quality of life as congestive heart failure progessively weakened him. They didn’t cut back much on their lifelong habit of traveling as often and as broadly as possible. In the last two decades of Len’s life, they traveled to every continent and spent months at a time living and doing volunteer work in Brazil, Venezuela, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Russia, India, and other places too numerous for me to recall. They maintained a wide circle of friends the world over.
When Len died, Elky lost the focal point of her life, but it didn’t slow her down for very long. A month or two later she was bouncing back, joining a weekly vigil and protest of America’s impending entry into Iraq. In 2004, she spent the last week before the election walking the precincts of Florida, trying to get John Kerry elected.
In the winter of 2006, Elky discovered a Democratic Congressional candidate in her local (always Republican) district named John Hall. She quickly “sold” him to my activist sister Nance (whose family had lived since 1990 with Elky and Len in the house we grew up in) and they joined the campaign. Elky didn’t let the pancreatic cancer diagnosis she got six weeks before Election Day slow her down; she ran phone banks and volunteer operations for Hall right up until Election Day. And the very last trip she took was to Washington in January, 2007, to be in Hall’s office to congratulate him when he came off the House floor after being sworn in. She died about two weeks later.
My mother was a great person, a great teacher, a fabulous parent. She didn’t teach me as much about the book business as my Dad did, so she doesn’t show up on this blog as often, but she sure taught me as much about life.