'Incredibly persistent' author of Philly nostalgia dies


In December 2020, Paul Williams of East Mt. Airy, then 79, who had a career almost six decades ago as a Doo-wop singer and who later spent decades as a social worker for troubled youth, told me about a friend of his, Rich Krassen. Krassen, then 80, had written an interesting memoir called "Breadcrumbs on my Journey." Williams had met Krassen when they played basketball against each other - Williams for Central High School and Krassen for Lincoln High School - and they became lifelong friends.

When I contacted Krassen, a former resident of Germantown and Oxford Circle, and asked if I could interview him, he told me he had just received the worst news of his life. “I just found out that I have stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” he said. “Your life and the lives of your wife and family and friends are turned upside down. Being 80 is not just a number now, but a number that may go no higher.

“All those wonderful years that led up to this seem not to matter anymore. It is now days of pain and uncertainty ... This pancreatic cancer is terminal. I was told that six months to two years is most likely with treatment.”

We stayed in touch periodically, and during the last conversation we had a few months ago, he said, “Len, please write an obituary about me. I trust you to say the right things. I just want my book to be legendary!”

How do you respond to such a plea? I said, “Rich, don't be silly. You may wind up writing my obituary.”

Since I had not heard from Rich for a while and he did not answer my emails, I stopped reaching out, afraid of what I would find out. Finally I overcame my reluctance and trepidation, Googled his name and found out that he recently died at age 81 of pancreatic cancer.

Over the years I have met and written about dozens of local self-published authors. Most of them sell or give away books to their family and friends, usually one or two dozen. Selling them to strangers is about as easy as scoring touchdowns without a football.

But by the time he became too sick to live even a semi-normal life, Rich sold about 1,600 copies of "Breadcrumbs." He refused to give them away, on principle. So he sold them one at a time, for $20 plus postage, and it took him almost two years.

If there were such a thing as a self-published author Olympics, Krassen would have easily won the gold medal. A long-time insurance salesman, Krassen told me, “I do not take no for an answer. I have sold insurance to people who had turned me down 10 times. I wear them down. I keep going back to them. And now that I am retired from the insurance business, I do the same things to sell my book.”

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Rich said that selling his book was “more than a full-time job.” Every day he would go to men's groups, book clubs, non-profits, sports teams, churches, synagogues, libraries – essentially any place where there were warm bodies who might care about recent Philadelphia history.

Krassen was funny, a terrific conversationalist and as previously mentioned, incredibly persistent. “Breadcrumbs on My Journey” was published in February of 2019. 

“If you start reading it, you won't stop. At least I didn't,” said Mike Jensen, a sportswriter for the Inquirer for more than 30 years.

I agree wholeheartedly. I absolutely loved this book. I have to admit it's because Rich and I were contemporaries, and I could relate to the people and places in Philadelphia that Rich wrote about. 

Singers like Lee Andrews and the Hearts, Bobby Rydell, and Solomon Burke, and athletes like Del Ennis, “Pickles” Kennedy, Joey Goldenberg, and Walt Hazzard. These names probably mean nothing to out-of-towners or young people, but to a Philly kid who grew up in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, they evoke a flood of (mostly good) memories.

Rich was seemingly able to remember every detail from events that happened five or six decades ago.

 “I had a wonderful childhood growing up in Philadelphia in the '40s and '50s,” he explained, “and I have a photographic memory of my past. I remember every detail … I woke up one beautiful June morning and made a decision to write the book I always promised someday I would do. I believed I had interesting stories to share.”

I've read many outstanding self-published books by local authors in recent years, but "Breadcrumbs on my Journey" is in my top two. 

Krassen is survived by his wife, Carole Cohn, sons Josh, Adam and Paul; stepchildren Alexander Cohn, Deborah Cohn and Sharon Cohn, sister Ellen Rosen and six grandchildren.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com