Spending a few minutes with Howard County resident Murray Simon in his Columbia apartment, it quickly becomes obvious that every picture on a wall and trinket on a shelf tells a story. But what is not as obvious is how many people Simon has influenced, and the extraordinary depth with which he has touched their lives.
Simon, 90, was born in East Harlem, N.Y., during the Great Depression and for much of his youth he was a “lackadaisical student,” he said. So much so that he was once dismissed from a yeshiva.
“I think what is extraordinary is his transformation from almost a juvenile delinquent to a very serious student,” said daughter Barbara Simon, who lives in Manhattan and teaches Hebrew at the Jewish Community Center. [He became] very academic and he made a choice to be a lifelong student.”
She attributes her father’s change to when he had pneumonia at age 12 and was hospitalized at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Despite his young age he stayed in the adult ward. This was a transformative time in Simon’s life as he “met people who took an interest in him intellectually. The world of books opened up, and he began to gather mentors that would be important to him throughout his life,” she said.
Barbara Simon said her grandmother always stressed the importance of a good education, and that message has come down through the generations.
“After I completed junior high school, I selected a high school in Brooklyn and … it turned out to be one of my good decisions,” said Simon. “I haven’t made all good decisions.”
Barbara added that her grandmother, Simon’s mother, Sarah Markman Simon, went to the high school to personally thank the principal for allowing her son to have the education he did. Following his high school graduation in 1942, Simon attended New York University, but World War II quickly disrupted his education, and Simon enlisted.
He was assigned to an Army student training program that was meant to be an “army of occupation” despite the bleak outlook of the war at the time. Simon said, “We had this attitude that we would win.” Toward the end of his training, due to heavy casualties in Europe, the Army canceled his program and sent him to an infantry unit. By October of 1944, Simon was on the Queen Mary headed for Europe as a machine gunner in the 3rd Infantry Division.
“Later, they called me to become a radio operator. I told them ‘as a machine gunner, I’m shooting at them. As a radio operator they’re shooting at me,’” said Simon. “But I accepted the position.”
When I taught the class in 1956, they were all 12 years old. Last September when they were 70, we had another class reunion
The following year, Simon and other veterans, were appointed the title of Chevalier, or Knight, in France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Legion of Honor was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to acknowledge services rendered to France and holds five of the country’s highest decorations.
“We began having Sunday morning services and we would go to the work camps, pick up survivors there and bring them to services,” said Simon. “At the end of services we’d put money or cigarettes [into a collection bin] so that we could give it to [the survivors], and they could share it amongst themselves.”
Simon and his fellow soldiers later found out to their amusement that some of the items they donated were sold on the black market by survivors. Eventually, Simon and his division took Nuremburg in April 1945, and although he was offered other positions, by then Simon knew he wanted to return home.
When he returned from Europe, he continued his education at New York University and eventually earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degree. Although he’s worked as an educator and administrator in the United States, Latin America and Africa, Simon had one class that he described as his “dream class.”
“We’re talking about 1956, at what really qualified as an inner-city public school which was crowded, and most of the teachers there were tenured into their position; totally bored, just trying to do their best to maintain discipline,” said Dr. Robert Kolodny, who was a part of Simon’s class 7-4B at Nathaniel Hawthorne Junior High School in Yonkers, N.Y.
Kolodny said that Simon stood out among other teachers because he taught skills that were unheard of in the public school system from critical thinking to reading and understanding The New York Times.
“Picture a group of seventh-grade students who were not inspired by their schooling. But when you walked in that classroom, you felt like a freshmen in college,” said Kolodny. “He treated us and made us feel like our opinions were important and needed to be aired, debated and mulled over.”
Kolodny added that of Murray’s class 7-4B; two became doctors (including Kolodny), four became lawyers and several attended Ivy League schools.
Simon’s part in his student’s lives didn’t stop — figuratively or literally — after they graduated from junior high school.
“When I taught the class in 1956, they were all 12 years old,” said Simon. “Last September, when they were 70, we had another class reunion.”
The class has continually reunited at different locations and for different celebrations, one of the latest being Simon’s 90th birthday. Simon has attended several of his former student’s weddings as well as their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs.
Despite lengthy conversations about World War II, Kolodny and his classmates never knew about their teacher’s service in the military until later in life.
“I have no idea why he didn’t talk about World War II,” said Kolodny. “I was astonished to find out Murray had grown up in East Harlem. It was very surprising to me because my father had run a medical clinic not far from there.”
Barbara Simon said her father never discussed his time in the military with her either, but she attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C. when he was appointed a Chevalier. While she is moved by the sacrifices that her father and others in his generation made, she recognized that the subject of World War II is “still very raw.”
“I always think about people in my father’s generation as having lived through spectacular years. Living through the 20th century with all the technological innovations and changes in politics and society,” she said, “it’s almost mind-boggling the changes [my father] has gone through.”
Today, Simon and his wife, Juana, are active members in Columbia Jewish Congregation, led by Rabbi Sonya Starr.
“[Simon] has been a dedicated member of CJC since he joined, and he’s always a gentleman, knowledgeable but respectful, kind and willing to help in any way he can. … He’s really an incredible mentsch,” said Starr. “One of the other things he is known for is playing Jewish geography better than anyone.”
While Simon’s personal and professional endeavors span far beyond a school in Yonkers or his time in the military, his daughter said the people he has met and relationships he has built are a testimony to his ability to inspire those around him.
“I think my father has a lot of warmth, and over the years it has been very difficult for him to articulate the depths of all his emotions and love for people,” said Barbara Simon. “But I think his soul has always been involved in tikkun olam.”