During my junior year in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Self, had us write an essay to practice for the multitude of college admission essays we would be writing. From the list of topics, I chose “Who is your biggest role model in life and why?”
I wrote about my grandfather.
When I was a child, there was nobody I looked up to more. I had an alcoholic mother and an absent father I had never met. My grandfather was my North Star, one of the few guiding lights in a world of darkness and instability.
Papa was born Abraaham Ysaak Dvorjik in Pyatigorsk, Russia, in 1912. My great-grandmother, Isaskovna, brought him to America when he was 3, in search of a better life. She married a man named Shapiro and they settled in Nashville, changing Papa’s name to Isadore Abraham Shapiro. In high school, Papa played football and was named All-State twice and All-American his junior and senior years. Shap, as he was called, was also president of his senior class and was voted most popular by his peers in the 1929-1930 school year.
But Papa never talked about any of this. I learned all of it from a plaque he received from his alma mater, which he kept tucked away in his room. He was far too humble to share his accomplishments.
I don’t remember a time when Papa wasn’t around. He tried to help my mother raise us after my dad left, but her drinking got so bad that we moved in with my aunt and uncle when I was 5. Papa came along to help. My uncle was arrested for various white-collar crimes and my aunt caught him cheating, so they divorced. Papa helped my aunt raise my sister and me, along with her own three children.
He had sort of a grandfather uniform — a cardigan over a knit shirt, slacks, black boots and, when going out, a ball cap that he wore tilted slightly to the side. Bald, with white patches of hair on the sides of his head, Papa was short, maybe 5-foot-7, and smelled of Chaps. He had a round belly and always wore black-rimmed glasses when he read the paper.
It seemed as though everyone knew my grandfather. People always asked me how Shap was doing. When I had friends over, he greeted them with a grandfatherly laugh, saying, “Hey, how are you doing? How about if I fix you boys a nice big cheeseburger?” He said McDonald’s hamburgers were nothing compared to his. And he was right.
When Papa started making regular trips to the hospital, I knew it wasn’t good. He lost a lot of weight from his chemotherapy, and his olive skin turned pale. My sister and I sat in his room — which was eventually outfitted with a hospital bed — and kept him company, sometimes fixing him meals. Over time, his hospital stays became much longer, and his stays at home were increasingly brief.
During one of his rare visits home, the whole family was gathered around his bed, talking amongst ourselves when Papa started crying. My aunt cradled his head in her arms and told him it would be alright, that he was not going to die. It was the only time I saw my grandfather cry.
It took me years to cry over the loss of Papa. It wasn’t until after he died that I realized how special he was. I had just barely graduated from high school, and my aunt was worried about my future. To her, it must have looked as though I was following in my mother’s, father’s and uncle’s footsteps. My future looked bleak because I just didn’t care.
But she didn’t realize that, even though I looked lost, the memory of Papa kept me from going over the edge. His plaque — which by then hung on my bedroom wall — was a reminder of what I had always wanted to be, even if I wasn’t sure how to get there. Every night before bed, I looked at it and whispered, “I love you, Papa.”
Though his accomplishments in football were remarkable, other things on Papa’s plaque stood out more. These are the lines I read over and over as a teenager, and that helped guide me into manhood:
With all his deeds at his alma mater, in 1928
He rescued 4 families from the East Nashville flood,
At the risk of his own safety.
With all the publicity that he had received
He still had time to stop and help his fellow teammates without any big head.
He was small in stature, but a giant in deeds.
He was shy, but very courageous in every undertaking.
Being the only member of the Jewish faith to ever attend Central High, he brought a closer relationship between Christian and Jewish students in the Nashville schools. He was very proud of his heritage and would let you know it.
He was loved by everyone he came in contact with. His sincerity, modesty and sportsmanship was something to be marveled at.
To all who come in contact with Shap, be proud of him and love him, as his type comes along only once in a lifetime.
I’m no football hero. And I’ve never risked my own safety to save anyone’s life. But what I’ve tried to do, and what I expect my boys to do, is to be a good person, to be modest and to bring people together, despite their differences. I want plaques made for them based on the kind of human beings they are, and the difference they make in this world. I want them to be good role models, the kind of role model Papa was for me, and the kind of role model I try to be for them.
All these years later, I still have Papa’s plaque. After having it tucked away in my closet, long neglected, my wife pulled it out and hung it on our bedroom wall above my dresser, as a reminder of the standards I set for myself so long ago, and of those same standards we have set for our boys.
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