My brother was a big brother in the truest sense. My first real memory of him was when I was between 5 and 7 years old, walking down Solvay Street in the multi-cultural section of Detroit called Delray to the Delray Presbyterian Church. We would go to the second floor gymnasium. He would seat me on one of the benches, and I would watch him, my brother George, Bill Chunko, Frank Sabo, Suren Sabrian, and others play basketball.
One day he said it was time for me to learn how to play. He enrolled me in a practice program every Saturday morning at 9 am. I would pack my satchel with a jersey and shorts and gym shoes and sweatsocks and go with him to the church basket ball court. Chunko was my coach. Chunko went on to be an all-state basketball, football, baseball player and went from there to coach the University of Georgia football team.
Over the summer I practiced every Saturday with a group of kids my age, and at the end of the session, my coach gave each of us an evaluation card. I will never forget what my card said, “Tommy, you will never become a basketball player. Try ping-pong, or chess.” With the card in one hand and satchel in the other, I went home crying to my big brother. I showed him the coach’s appraisal. Robert responded, “Don’t let other tell you who you are. Go prove him wrong.” I believe I did.
The second life lesson that my brother taught me was when he was training to become a US Naval pilot in the early days of WWII. He was stationed at Grosse Ile. One weekend he was on furlough. He came home and he brought his whites with him. He went out with the gang in his Zoot Suit to dance the night away. While I was picking up my room, I saw the dress uniform. Since I knew I was going to be in the Navy someday, since I knew I would be following in my brother’s footsteps, I tried it on. I looked handsome. I thought my girlfriend should see me in “my” Navy uniform. I was 14/15 years old. Because both my brothers were serving in the Navy, and my father couldn’t drive, I had been issued a temporary driver’s permit.
I jumped into our car, drove over to Clark Street and went to my girlfriend’s home. She came to the door, looked at me, and broke down in tears, thinking that I joined the Navy. I quickly explained that this was how I would look when I joined. Relieved, she smiled and gave me a kiss. I turned around, got in the car with my ego inflated, and went home to take off the uniform. Unfortunately, on the corner of Clark and Lafayette, there was a red traffic light that I hadn’t noticed because I was riding high. I turned onto Lafayette and didn’t even realize that there was a law enforcement vehicle behind me. He pulled me over and got out of his car. I rolled down the window and the officer saw me in Bob’s naval uniform. “Oh, you’re in the service.” I didn’t answer. He said, “I have to look at your license, please.” I handed him my temporary license. He saw that I was only 15 and told me to get out of the car. Off I went to Fort-Green Police Station.
I was tossed into a cell. I tried explaining to him that it was my brother’s uniform and I was going to go into the navy when I graduated and I wanted to show my girlfriend what I would look like in Navy Whites. Hours later Robert showed up, talked to the officer in charge and somehow or other he got me out of that jam, apologizing for my ignorance. As we walked out of the building Robert paused and as I continued walking he kicked me in my ass, so hard that I can still feel it. He said, “Never try to be something or someone you’re not.”
Finally, in the pivotal year of my life (1947) shortly after graduating from high school, I decided to go to the Soviet Union. Big brother felt the need to intervene. He took me out to lunch, sat me down, and said, “You have all of these athletic scholarships. You’re in Lawrence Institute of Technology now. Finish your schooling and you can go wherever you want.” My answer to him was, “You had your adventure, and so did George, and the Soviet Union is our friend. They fought side by side with us…I want to go.” He said, “Don’t. They only fought with us because if they didn’t, their country would have lost. Do not go.” I didn’t listen to him and that is probably the only time in my life that I didn’t listen to wise advice.
In his eulogy the priest pointed out that usually when one reaches his 90’s, there are only few to gather and mourn the deceased. But in Robert’s case, there was an overwhelming number. The room was so crowded that the funeral home rushed to find more chairs for the mourners. People who knew my big brother, knew him as caring, loving, and committed to do anything to lift their status in life. He has touched so many that he will never die; he lives in the hearts of those who have known him. What we need in today’s world is more people like him…more decent, honorable people.