It is a funny thing how people often attribute great value to things and people in far off places and to compare things and people in their own immediate orbit as being of less importance. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. How could my Dad know the answer to what ever it may be? He’s my dad.
New Yorkers are perhaps more guilty of that type of thinking than anyone else. We run away to far off beaches around the planet when the ones we have on our own islands right here are perfectly lovely. We are the last ones to visit the tourist attractions that people from across the globe come here to experience. This or that restaurant across the pond has got to be better than the ones right here in town.
How important could an activity be if it is conducted hidden away in a basement gymnasium that looks like it was supposed to have been a swimming pool and is being run by two nice men who are as old or older than one’s own parents and wearing weird looking metal mesh masks and protective gear that had probably been new twenty years ago?
I was a senior in 1964 at MTA (the Manhattan Talmudical Academy or, as it was starting to be called just then, Yeshiva University High School for Boys of Manhattan), [put that on a sweat shirt], and I already felt like a fish out of water having transferred to the world of Orthodox Jewish thinking and practice from a completely different planet; a Conservative Synagogue near my home in Seaford on Long Island. Nothing was the same. But, like the name of the school, which was morphing into a new nomenclature, I was doing my best to adjust. I had done what seemed to be impossible; I had become accepted among the students, having just been elected by them as the Vice President of the GO (General Organization), even though, except for but about twenty of us, they were all from similar backgrounds; i.e. Yeshiva day schools, and they were “New York Cityites” and basketball players to boot.
I had been advised (read: told) by my gym teacher in my old school to take up tennis, or swimming, or softball and to forget basketball because I was too short. So, at MTA, there was simply no sport for me until, one evening, I heard the clanging of sabers in the main building and followed the noise to its source. You greeted me and invited me to join in. You never even asked if I should be there. Later, when I had been “made” a “Sabre Man” I began to really feel like somebody. I was OK with college guys since I was already taking JSP (Jewish Studies Program) classes every morning with them, so fencing with them was fine.
I didn’t get a jacket. But, I got to fence. I didn’t get a record. But, I got to take lessons with you and with your assistant, Lorand Marcel, who shared your fire of enthusiasm for the sport and for life, but who was different from you in one very important way to me; he was short. He was short, but, like you, man, could he fence.
You allowed me to fence in exhibition bouts at home matches against Junior Varsity fencers from visiting schools, and, when it came to the “big trip” to fence against Brandeis University in Boston, you made it possible for me to come along and to fence an exhibition bout up there as well.
I watched every move you made. I saw you and Lorand (Marcel) work with hopeless non-athletes and turn them into fencers who could score at will against anyone from any team. I yearned, with mixed emotions, to find out what you said to fencers in those rare time outs during matches when things were not going so well for one of your fencers. I wanted to know what you would say, but, at the same time, I did not want to do so poorly as to need such a coaching moment. But, those moments did come and I learned what to say and how to say it for the benefit of my own students in years to come.
I took fencing with me almost everywhere I went. In graduate school in Athens, Ohio, (yup), I adapted things you taught me to teach actors how to make fencing scenes look real and yet be safe. I worked out with fencers in the Brown University Marvell Gym, which was next door to where I worked in Providence, and shared some of the things you had taught me. In Poughkeepsie, I taught fencing and coached squads for Dutchess Community, New Paltz State and, Vassar Colleges.
One year, you were kind enough to host my fencing team from Vassar College, which had only recently become a coeducational institution, and was just recasting and developing its physical education and athletic programs to include men. The match would serve as a kind of tune up for the Taubermen since Vassar’s team was not as yet “official”, but for me, it was, perhaps the fencing match of my life. My rag-tag team fenced well against my alma mater, but lost the match by one bout as I recall. I am not sure if any other of my Yeshiva College Fencing Team compatriots can fully appreciate the feeling of having passed on the knowledge of the sport and the zest for life that you instilled in us in almost the exact same way using the same tools and working with people similarly unschooled in fencing as you did. Though, I must admit, I was fortunate to have attracted some very talented and capable athletes onto my teams in the various schools in which I taught that made my limited abilities as a fencer go a lot further than they might have with students of lesser ability.
When I moved back to Long Island and eventually started my own business, I put fencing on the back burner. I had enjoyed meeting fencing coaches from across the country as a member of the National Fencing Coaches Association of America. I had fenced in the 1979 Empire State Games and won a Bronze Medal in Sabre. I had traveled to Colorado to see my team members fence in the National Fencing Championships that years as well and I met many wonderful people along the way.
I needed a sport to replace fencing. I played golf, tennis soft ball and enjoyed them all. But, something was missing for me. Then, I remembered what a friend of mine, Bob Murphy, who was the basketball coach at Dutchess Community College when I was coaching there had said, “Drew, you really ought to try basketball. You will love it.” At 44, I found a game in Patchogue (yup) Long Island and have been loving it ever since. I play from 6 to 7:30 AM three mornings a week at the Mid Island Y JCC in Plainview on Long Island and dread missing a minute of it.
At the Yeshiva College Senior Diner in 1968, you took a moment to write a note to me on my copy of the evening’s program,
Who knows if I would have ever paid attention to the noise of the clashing of the sabers those many years ago had I been encouraged to play rather than discouraged from playing hoops? Who knows if I would have met anyone who could have had as strong an influence on me and on how I approach life as you have had?
I often wonder why you were there at Yeshiva College, of all places, to teach us fencing of all things. I often wonder to whom on the faculty or the administration at the time do I owe, really do we, owe a thank you for having brought you into our orbit and us into yours.
Thank you for your life of dedication and example. Coach, our Nation needs more men such as you. You are a highly motivated man who has motivated many to succeed in life. My best warm wishes to you for a continued healthy and full life to a hundred and twenty.
Drew Kopf, Class of 1968