Leonard Leon Abel - Aryeh Leib ben Yosef v’Itaby Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Passover comes next week, that Jewish holiday whose essence is found not only in the table we set and the food we share, but in the way we tell the tale. That telling changes, over time, as much a reflection of our needs and our lives as that of any connection to the original events.
And so it is with the stories we tell of ourselves and our families. Is it the truth that comes out at last, or another invention, a yarn spun out of the fabric of our lives?
The first thing I saw, coming over to Len and June Abel’s house the other night, was a warm web and close connection with extended family. And practically the first thing I heard about Lenny Abel, in sitting down with that family, was the story of how his brothers tried to kill him.
Well, that’s not the way the family heard about this episode over the course of years. For almost a half a century the officially approved version went like this: Lenny was leaning against a window as a toddler, they always heard, when the screen fell out. It was only on his death bed that Eddie revealed that no, actually, he and his brother David had Lenny by both arms, were swinging him back and forth, and they let go at the wrong moment, whereupon Lenny swung right on out the window. A pushcart vendor of their acquaintance happened to be coming by at the exact moment, and rushed Lenny to the hospital.
Leonard Abel was born on September 9, 1926 – September 9, everyone knew, because on September 10 they would all get a reminder that his birthday was coming up in 355 days. He was, as we already heard, the youngest of three brothers, born to Joseph and Ida Abel. Ida was born here but Joe had come to this country in 1908 – he was a fireman in Russia, and then served in the Czarist army – a year and a day, a minimum amount of service so that officials would not come to exact retribution on one’s family… and then he packed his bags and left, first for Liverpool, and then to Boston.
In this country, Joseph was working in a grocery store when Ida’s mother approached him about a possible shidduch, a match made with her daughter. Joe indicated that he was amenable and receptive to the idea with the open-minded response “if she’ll vant, I’ll vant.”
Len and his older brothers went to school in Boston, but the Depression hit, and the family was pressed, and first David, and then Eddie found work in this area, government jobs in DC. By 1940, the rest of the family relocated here as well.
Lenny went to Roosevelt High School, sold newspapers, and continued to hang out with, and be inadvertently injured by, his older brothers. David and Eddie liked to play golf, and one day they had Lenny with them, off 16th Street near Carter Barron, when they sent him up ahead to see where a golf ball, when hit, would go. One of their shots ricocheted off a tree, bounced in several directions, and came to an end right in Lenny’s mouth. I’m only speculating here, but when World War II came, and Lenny enlisted, I wonder if he thought that the army might be safer.
He was young, though, 17 when he signed up, so they army considered him too young to be shipped overseas. That, and the fact that his own talents and inclinations may have pointed in a different direction. It is true that, when he was told to load a mortar, he did so upside down. And as a squad leader of 20 men, younger and less experienced than he was, he was to take them from point A to point B, but he got everyone lost, two hours for what should have been a several minute trip. Which reminded the family of his short career packaging goods in a market… three days, until he was permanently relocated, having placed a gallon of milk on top of a dozen eggs.
No, Len Abel’s aptitude lay elsewhere. When Ed was attending GW, but he was missing a test in order to get married and go on a honeymoon, he, well, he had Lenny show up and take the test for him. Len got an A on the test for Ed, who managed to bring the grade down to a C by the end of the semester. So it was no surprise that the army wound up sending Len off for an education, first to the University of Maine, for a degree in engineering (civil engineering, as everyone in the family pointed out since, as June helpfully added at this point, the man couldn’t really manage to turn on a light bulb), and then, after the war, on the GI Bill, to Law School at GW. Heading to Maine instead of Europe may well have saved his life; in his class, he was one of only four who survived the war.
In 1948, June went to a party with a date, when the hostess decided that she did not want to continue the party, declared the evening over, and went out herself… taking June’s date with her. Len Abel was at the party, and felt so sorry for June that he came forward, asked her to go with him, and took her to the Hot Shoppes on Gallatin Street. He must have been happy that evening, since he danced around, jumped down a set of steps, found the exact spot with oil on the bottom of the steps, and fell down. He called June the next day, and she innocently asked why he was calling. Apparently, his response was to tell her: “I thought you’d like to know that I broke my leg.” June went to see him, and would later learn that Ida, after meeting her for the first time, said, “He’s going to marry that girl.”
Len and June began dating… he took her to a fraternity picnic in Rock Creek Park, at Pearce Mill, while his leg was still broken and, as Doug told me on Tuesday night, “my father has been devoted to my mother ever since.” Len asked June to marry him in the living room of her parents’ house; he didn’t give her a ring but a stone, so that she could pick out her own setting. They were married over 61 years ago, in 1950, at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Before the wedding, and while they were engaged, however, in a tough economy Len had a hard time finding a job, and he said something in his future father-in-law’s hearing about going back into the military. June’s father, on hearing this, decided that he needed help at work. “I need an associate,” he said to Lenny; “you’re going to the Ben Franklin School to study accounting.” Years later Lenny would teach at the school he attended; the more immediate effect, though, was that this decision served as the first step towards a partnership that lasted over 40 years, at what became the Rockville-based accounting firm of Kershenbaum, Abel, Kernus and Wychulis.
Accounting, though, as you know, was not Lenny’s only professional endeavor. Over 40 years ago now, deciding that he wanted more or was spinning his wheels a bit, he was told that Central National Bank was having a big problem, that it needs help, and that he was good at this – fixing banks – or at least, that he would be. Whoever said that to Lenny was right. He was good at fixing banks, and founding them. He took over Central, became Chairman of the Board, reshaped it, watched as it became Citizen’s Bank of Maryland and then SunTrust Banks. Many of the people he worked with there remain close family friends to this day, even if they have moved on to other places. He was chairman of the board of Allegiance Banc Corporation until their acquisition by F&M National, and then BB&T Corporation. And in 1998, he founded and served as Chairman of the Board of Eagle Bank, although June says that she chose the name.
Julie and Seth, who are the Abels’ godchildren, had two business stories to share. Julie went to work with him once when she was young, and she got to make hot cocoa, and he took her to lunch at Duke Ziebart’s, where they say “at Uncle Lenny’s table,” and she was amazed how, in the heart of the business world, all these people kept coming up and greeting them, everyone knew who he was.
Julie also recounts that, when her daughter was in Kindergarten and their class was learning about money, Lenny arranged for them to take a field trip to Eagle Bank, and had them all sit at the Board table, told them that they were the Board for the day, and charged them with deciding whether the employees deserved a raise. The kindergarteners debated and deliberated and finally decided that they should. They had been introduced to the world of money using the smallest possible coinage, so that day everyone at Eagle Bank got a raise of one penny. Lenny also took the young students into the vault on that field trip; apparently that was the first and also the very last field trip of kindergarteners to Eagle Bank.
Doug was born in 1955, when the family was living in Silver Spring. He remembers planting peanut butter once, as a young boy, because he wanted to grow peanuts. Magically, inexplicably, somehow… well, there were peanuts there, the very next day, right where he had planted that peanut butter.
Lenny did try to groom Doug for the banking industry; he got him a job as a teller at a branch of Central Bank in Wheaton one summer. Doug promptly agreed to cash a stolen check; it was a $900 check for which the customer requested $600 back in cash, and Doug didn’t see why a Sears' Card wasn’t a good enough ID. They let him finish the summer, he said, but they put him somewhere in back.
The Len Abel I knew had a dry sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye, and a razor sharp wit. He would look at things you would not think could be turned into toys, and promptly give them new uses as projectiles, or objects of amusement: a fork, salt, cream on a table. On a cruise in Alaska once he flipped a sugar cube through the air… right into the face of a woman at another table. June remained calm, but claims one of her favorite pieces of jewelry was part of the repentance for that act. One of Len’s nieces said to me that “Aunt June kept him on a short leash…but he would always escape.”
What I did not know was that Len Abel was a poet. He had a fondness for haiku. When June was in college and Lenny and June were dating, she had a term paper due on the topic of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” She wrote the paper, but Len rewrote the whole thing in poetry. She got an A on the content, and an F on form, since she had not gotten permission to do that in advance.
Len Abel loved baseball and Jeopardy, the Redskins and the Red Sox, Starbucks and Crossword puzzles, mini-golf and 20 Questions, Scrabble, and small children. Brad remembers mini-golf at Cape May, $1 on the table for the first hole in one, $2 for the second, and so on. Apparently he tried to introduce American baseball to sub-Saharan Africa, using a stick and whatever evidence there was nearby of zebras having been in the area.
His goal in life seems to have been to make people laugh at something you would not have expected to laugh at – in one memorable line I am including at the urging of the family, “if your pants were dry he wasn’t done!” Lenny was innovative in his techniques of child care – June got home once while Len was babysitting for his godson Seth, and found Seth on top of the refrigerator and… well, let’s just say that solo babysitting was not in the immediate future after that.
Anyone who has been in the Abel home knows, just with one immediate look around, that Len and June loved to travel. There is a story behind their travels, though. In the early 1970’s they had made plans with their next door neighbors, a Greek American family, that when their sons were older they would go to Greece together. The wife of the family next door was not feeling well one Sunday, and when June got back from a trip downtown she learned that her friend had died. Monday morning she called a travel agent. And Len and June never stopped travelling ever since: from the North Pole to Antarctica, five times to Africa, twice to Israel, to China… they have been to every continent.
Among the institutions that Len and June Abel founded… is the one we are in right now, right here. Temple Shalom began when a group of families had an issue with another area synagogue; Lenny personally arranged for the financial package without which this congregation could not have come into being. Their generosity continued over time and even during my time here, but it is my hope and prayer that the family got even a partial measure out of this connection as what they put into it.
One thing I do know, and I can see for myself: there were friendships formed here that carry on, even now. The Jason family, newly relocated to the Washington area, saw an ad in the Washington Post, announcing that a new congregation was forming, and they showed up for a New Year’s Eve party, just a few months after the synagogue was founded. Someone remembers that first building that we used, having to stomp your feet on the wooden boards as you entered, and you could hear the mice scrambling out of the way upstairs.
At that party, the Abels and Jasons found each other, asked each other if they knew anyone else, and sat together. Lenny was a bit… well, he celebrated the secular new year in a traditional American manner, and Larry Jason… if a friendship could survive that introduction it could survive anything.
Len Abel’s family said that he taught every generation the same important values: how to play marbles with grapes, how to fling sugar, how high you can make a cloth napkin stand up, and other tricks with utensils.
The playful part was always there. But Doug adds one more comment. That his father really was a teacher… in the best possible way. For Doug said: “my father never told, he showed.”
There is more, still, that I could add, my own sense of a mensch of a man, gracious and caring, a keen mind and a kind heart. When he offered advice I found it on target and wise in the ways of the world. But we should end, for now, I think, with words of his sister-in-law, the other June Abel… So many years ago, separated from his family, facing an uncertain future, Len Abel left where he was, because he wanted to be with his brothers. For all his travels since that day when he left Boston… for all he has seen and been through… Len Abel is… with his brothers again. Somewhere. Even now.
To June. To Doug and Roberta, and Brad and Marta. To June, Martin and Linda, and Marilyn. To Shannon and Paul, and Jarred. To Bobby and Diane, Joe and Serena. To Julie and Seth. To any other family members or step-family members I have left out, and to all of us… may Len’s wit and antics, may the twinkle in his eye and the devotion of his heart be with you at the tables you set, in the food you serve in the days to come. May we continue to tell and to share the stories of his life. May his presence be with us still, and may we hear his voice as we add to our own stories. Zecher tzadik livracha, may the memory of this special man be a blessing, to all who knew him, to all who loved him.