On Sunday Jan. 26, Sam Gertner — father to three, grandfather to four, great-grandfather to five, accomplished musician, voracious reader, seasoned writer and avid traveler — celebrated a century of living surrounded by family and friends. The party took place at Springhouse of Pikesville, a senior living facility on Reisterstown Road, but Gertner has come a long way in his 100 years.
In the early 1900s, Gertner’s parents, Jacob and Jenny, fled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to escape Polish pogroms. They stayed with family in Denmark, and Sam Gertner was born there in 1914. Soon after, the family immigrated to the United States, first to Brooklyn, N.Y., then to Baltimore, all by the time Sam Gertner was 6 years old.
Gertner grew up on Broadway near Lombard Street, playing basketball and softball with friends in the Spartan Club at the Jewish Educational Alliance on East Baltimore Street and in Patterson Park. When asked about life near Lombard, Gertner recalled with a smile street vendors, special food stands, busy storefronts and friendly neighbors.
His father, Jacob, worked as a tailor at Silverstein and Schlossberg on Greene Street. In the mid-1920s the Gertners moved to 4204 Park Heights Ave., and Sam’s father started his own tailoring business, working out of the family home.
Gertner attended Baltimore City College, “the Castle on the Hill,” and also received musical instruction at Peabody Conservatory. He played the violin, guitar, bass fiddle and saxophone. Gertner won a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison journalism school but stayed in Baltimore to take care of his ailing mother.
Like many young Jewish adults at that time, Gertner met his future spouse, Katherine Friedman, at a JEA event.
“The girls liked to dance and sing. If you saw one you thought was a bit better than the others, you’d go talk to her,” Gertner said with a laugh.
He joined the Army Air Force in 1942 and married Katherine in 1943. The couple had three children: Alan, Larry and Mark. While in the military Gertner traveled and performed with the U.S.O. across Europe and South America. He played with bandleaders such as Ted Weems, Kay Kyser, Glenn Miller and Freddy Martin. He also backed up Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Shore.
But Gertner’s most memorable concert was performed without a bandleader or celebrities.
“When we came home and had knocked the hell out of Germany, on that Air Force plane we played [music] … coming home,” said Gertner. “[We] were just fighters but played music on the sidelines.”
After his military service Gertner continued to play locally for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
“Next to the ironing board in the basement was a stand-up piano,” said Sam’s oldest son Alan Gertner. “My grandfather would be sewing, and my father would be practicing with his band next to him.”
The elder Gertner began working at Enoch Pratt Central Library soon after he returned from the service, staying there for about 30 years until his retirement in 1977. He read and reviewed books for the library and ran filmstrips and films in the media department. He spoke passionately about writing and, most of all, about reading so many books.
“Those are some of my favorite memories,” he said.
In retirement he continued working in the audio-visual arts, showing filmstrips and films for organizations and showcasing cartoons at children’s parties and for his grandchildren. Gertner continued to read, fervently.
At 100, he is engaged with those around him, sporting an upbeat and lively attitude. He still manages the library at Springhouse and chats with the residents and staff. If there’s one thing that frustrates him a bit, it is that about one year ago an illness made it difficult for him to read as much as he likes.
“Up until then he could read five books a week. Anytime we would go over to the house, I knew where he’d be: in one room, sitting at a table reading a book,” said daughter-in-law Ellen Gertner.
Though he grew up as an only child, at his 100th birthday party, Gertner was flanked by a great progeny of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Robin, Amy and Eric — three of the grandchildren present — have fond memories of spending Jewish holidays and Shabbat each week with their grandparents.
Gertner was a member of Agudas Achim before the family joined the Liberty Jewish Center, which became the current-day Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation.
Gertner claims one of the secrets of living to 100 is to keep learning. And judging from his continuing love for literature, he plans to keep going strong.
Watch Sam Gertner and his family celebrate his 100th birthday below!