by Len Lear
In May, Howard Aronson, 70, was “Face-Timing” twice a week for 15 to 20 minutes each time with his dad, Richard, 94, who was living at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales. Family members were not able to visit Richard in person because of the pandemic.
“His health was reasonably good for his age,” said Howard. “I was 'kibitzing' with him on a Tuesday about an article he had read in the Inquirer that day about Drexel. We both graduated from Drexel, so he was interested in the article. He told me he had a cold, but he was enjoying his meals and reading the Inquirer every day, and the following Monday he was dead from the coronavirus.”
Richard may have been just one of the more than 120,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19 in less than four months, but he is now known to millions of Americans because of a two-minute Today Show tribute on Sunday, June 7. It was the day after the 76th anniversary of D-Day, and the Today Show regularly does profiles of people of all ages who have died of the virus. On that day they chose to feature Richard Aronson.
“We knew the day before that the Today Show might possibly be doing the feature,” said Howard. “They had contacted us and asked for photos at various stages of his life, which we sent. They wanted a World War II veteran, and there were some other twists (angles) they really liked, such as the fact that he led the company that laid the brickwork for the home of the Liberty Bell during the last part of the 20th century. I can't believe how many people saw the Today Show piece.”
A Philadelphia native, Richard raised his family in a rowhouse in East Mt. Airy. “It was a Jewish ghetto back then,” said Howard. “We had a great life. I walked to Edmonds Elementary School and Leeds Junior High and took a bus to Central High. My sister, Sue, went to Girls High. We never even thought about bad things happening. We would leave the back door open and didn't lock the car.”
Richard receiving a scholastic merit award for the highest grade point average one semester while attending Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), but he transferred to Drexel, where he was the editor of the school paper one year and earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
In the Army during World War II, he was a sergeant in the Armed Services Radio and was known to broadcast horse races that the troops bet on by replaying races that had run “back home” a day or so earlier. “So a few precious few actually knew the outcome, and the stories of betting arguments were told in my house for years after,” said Howard, who now practices intellectual property law.
“He played music for his show that at the time was done with glass 78-RPM records on a record player. He came back from the war with boxes of glass records that we later could not play because by then record players were only for 33 or 45-RPM records. During the war he had a jeep or jeep access, a rare accommodation, as he had to get around to do research for broadcasting, and told me stories of heating up coffee in metal mugs by placing the cups on the running engine block. He was lucky not to have been in combat.”
After the war, Richard became the owner of the Jack Casper Bricklaying Company and long-time president of the Employing Bricklayers Association, the management that negotiated with unions. He also founded the Beachcomber Swim Club (“They sold bonds to build it”) and the West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center “to fill a religious void in a predominately new Jewish area … The original edifice was constructed for other purposes, but it was purchased and converted to a Jewish Temple and community center. The building loan was arranged by my father and his neighbors at his urging and direction.”
Richard was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Bettina (“Tina”), in 2012. “But my mother only cooked for 20 of them!” said Howard. In addition to Howard, Richard is survived by his daughter, Sue Samuels of Upper Gwynedd; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org