This is Bill Cohen from the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and we are interviewing Reid Wasserstrom at his home in Blacklick, Ohio. The date is Monday, November 14th .
Interviewer: And, let’s start Reid Wasserstrom, the Wasserstrom family has a rich and huge history in Columbus. Can you just give us kind of a brief overview of the first Wasserstroms as you know it who came to the United States, maybe not to Columbus, but how far back can you trace the family?
Wasserstrom: Welp the, my grandfather came to Columbus in 1902 and so people ask, “Well so how did he come to Columbus. Why’d he come to Columbus?” He lived in New Jersey with his wife, Rebecca and he had emphysema and they said, “Go West” because the weather was better. And so when he was going west, he stopped, he had an uncle, Uncle SJ Wasserstrom. And he stopped and saw Uncle SJ.
Interviewer: Now, now your grandfather’s name was?
Wasserstrom: Nathan, Nathan and so, Nathan met Uncle SJ and never went any further. And this is going out west, so if you go to the Temple Tiferth Israel synagogue, one of the founders of the synagogue was SJ Wasserstrom, who was my grandfather’s uncle. And that’s how they ended up in Columbus. You know, they would have taken a left turn, they might have ended up at Florida, I don’t know. But, he resided here and he had a total of twelve children over their lifetime. Twelve, eleven made it to maturity, one died very tragically, he was hit by a street car at the age of, I think it was seventeen or eighteen. But the rest of them, three girls and eight boys all were in Columbus, Ohio and ten of them stayed at Columbus. The oldest daughter, Doris who married Dave Kaplan and moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Other than that, they all resided in Columbus over the years. So, if you can imagine, how many first cousins and relatives I had, it was unbelievable and we got together. My mother who was Krakoff, was also in Columbus, and she lived relatively close to the synagogue. So on Friday night, after we went to synagogue, on East Broad Street, we would first stop and go to their house at 138 Wilson Avenue and see them Friday night. Then on Saturday after services, we’d usually go to my grandfather Krakoff’s, Nathan, and he lived at 799 South Ohio, which wasn’t that far away. And my grandmother Rebecca died in 1943 and if you look on our family tree, there’s about fourteen relatives that all have the first initial “R”. Rodney, Richard, Rebecca, Roberta, Reid, Robin, you know it goes on and on because I had so many relatives, and they were all bearing kids right around that time. So everybody, the first initial was always “R”, of all these kids. So always kidding, we could put our credit card “R. Wasserstrom” and everybody could use it. So, that was the beginning and it was quite an experience.
Interviewer: Now, Nathan was your grandfather on your.
Interviewer: On your father’s side.
Wasserstrom: Yeah, right.
Interviewer: And any other, what else can you tell us about other grandparents?
Wasserstrom: Well my grandmother Rebecca, was Goldman and she had no relatives here. And then on my mom’s, my mother was a Krakoff. And she had four siblings, one of which passed away in early age. And most of them. Let me start, I’ll go through them and then maybe we can piece it together. My mom had Irene Krakoff, whose husband was Maury Krakoff, he was a physician in Columbus and I know as a kid I could never figure out, I said, “Why was her married name the same as her maiden name?” Couldn’t quite figure that out. So one day I asked my mom, I said, “Why is her name Krakoff Krakoff, but your name is Krakoff Wasserstrom?” And she proceeds to tell me, she actually married a distant relative. Maury Krakoff was a distant relative of Irene Krakoff, so she became Krakoff Krakoff. And then there was Beadie and Lou Krakoff, he lived in Columbus and had a daughter and three sons. And none of them stayed in Columbus. And then had a younger sister, Dorothy Lackritz, who was here for probably, Marc Lackritz who’s rather famous in the Washington-scene for many years. They eventually moved up to Cleveland and Marc had a brother, Jim and a sister Kathy, who died very tragically as a freshman in Indiana, back in I can’t remember when. So that was my Krakoff side. The Wasserstrom side obviously is rather involved and there were eleven children that made it through maturity as I said. My uncles and aunts and uncles and it was the, the whole social aspect, revolved around family. You know, they had a lot of friends outside the family, but when it came to it they’re all, there’s so many of them, that was what life was all about. And there were two twin dentists, Leonard and Stanley, who were in World War II together, practiced together as dentists. And they were just, you know they were like, thirty-five years apart from the oldest to the youngest. And my dad would always tell me the stories about and so many kids, nobody and they didn’t have any money, they were always, nobody wanted to rent the houses to them because there was so many kids. And so they, the stories they would tell me is that they didn’t have enough bedrooms or anything, so they would sleep head-to-toe, head to toe in beds, so to get everybody in, in a bed somewhere. And worries of growing up, they in 1940, 1939 they were doing a little better and they decided to buy a farm out in Johnstown, Ohio. So why did they buy a farm? Well [?], two things. One, with this many family, that was just starting World War II. They felt they needed a place of refuge for the family, since it was so large. And they could grow crops and exist out there. So they bought three hundred and thirty-three acres in Johnstown, Ohio, which is still in existence and we don’t grow many crops out there, but I go out there on occasion. And I spent many, many a weekend out there. There was an authentic log cabin in the middle of the woods that my father would take me and we would stay out on the weekend with some of my relatives and we’d help you know, bail the hay when it was the season and milk the cows. And I always tell people that I went and showed sheep at the Ohio State Fair. They say, “What’s a good Jewish boy showing sheep for?” And that was you know, it was an interesting experience. I slept up in the sheep barn with the farmers. We had a tenant farmer and I slept up at the farm for a couple days and showed sheep. That was an interesting experience.
Interviewer: So this farm was owned by your grandparents?
Wasserstrom: Yes. It was called Na-Wa-So Farms. Nathan Wasserstrom and Sons farms. And it’s still there. And there’s a tenant farmer there. And nobody goes out there much anymore, but it’s part of our history. Kinda, it’s an interesting aspect that sometimes you think about and [?] kind of a different side of the family.
Interviewer: Now, when you were growing up, you were, when you were born, your parents lived where?
Wasserstrom: On Lily Avenue, oh excuse me. My parents, when my parents, my parents. I was born in 1944. My older brother Alan was born in 1940. My parents, before I was born bought a house at 345 South Cassingham, right across from Bexley High School. They lived in an apartment before that, I think on Lily Avenue, down the south-end. But they lived on South Cassingham that was the only house they ever lived in. And it was right across, if you come out of the parking lot of the high school and kept going straight, that was the house I grew up in.
Interviewer: So while many Jews lived in what we would now call the inner-city until after World War II and then moved to Bexley, and Eastmoor and Berwick, instead your family, your parents, pre, before the war was over, bought a house in Bexley.
Wasserstrom: Yeah, well they moved in like, ’40, I think ’42 was when they bought the house in Bexley. It was before, I know before I was born. My brother was born in ’40 and they didn’t have the house then, so it was ’42, ’3, something like that.
Interviewer: So you went to Bexley elementary schools and?
Wasserstrom: Yep, one of my great regrets is that I never get to drive to school. Because you know, it was a big thing when you got old enough you get to drive to school. But because I lived right across the street, I never got to drive to school. So, my parents would go to Florida usually in the wintertime for a couple weeks and I would go home. And so one day I pulled out of the garage and parked in front of the house and that was my driving to school. The one time I ever did it.
Interviewer: Because you lived just a few feet from the Cassingham Elementary and Bexley Junior High, it was called then and the high school?
Wasserstrom: Right, right. The other thing that is kind of interesting is I never ate lunch at the cafeteria because it was closer to my house than it was the cafeteria. So, you know it was an interesting experience living that close to the schools, because the dynamics changed, a lot of people and after school, my friends would come over to the house and hang out and if I would go to a football game, or the Fourth of July, the fireworks used to be on the football field and I could watch it from my front yard. So it was an interesting experience. And then everybody, I had so many relatives, there was rarely a year that went by that there wasn’t a Wasserstrom in the school system. And that’s, you know, after years and years, there aren’t as many of them now, but there’s still my grandchild goes to Bexley elementary, and a number of my relatives still go to Bexley.
Interviewer: What was it like in the late-40’s and the 1950’s, post-War, for at least for you as a Jewish child? Did you have mostly Jewish friends? Or what was it like mixing with non-Jews?
Wasserstrom: Yeah at Bexley, there was two sides. The Jewish-side and the non-Jewish-side. And we really, you know, almost exclusively hung out with Jews. And I remember we used to play Upper Arlington in football and it was really, they didn’t like the Jews at all. And I don’t remember if there were fights, but there was a lot of tension involved back then. There isn’t today, but back then there was a lot of anti-Semitism going around. It was a different situation.
Interviewer: Did you witness, or were you the target of anything?
Wasserstrom: No it was always like, undercurrents. If Upper Arlington would come to play football at Bexley you know, “We’re going to play the Jews”. It was, I wouldn’t say it was overt but, it was there. And it was something that I recognized and you know, it’s the way it was.
Interviewer: But now, Jews were not even a majority in the Bexley schools, so what were your relations like with non-Jews, did you feel an anti-Semitism from Bexley?
Wasserstrom: No, no none at all. But it was distinctively the Jewish group of people and the non-Jewish group and it was two elements that were very distinct and different. There was the Jewish groups all stuck together and the non-Jewish group all stuck together. And got along but you know it was almost like a racial divide. It just, you didn’t, I didn’t, I had, I mean I knew them and I was friends with them but when it came to socializing and doing things, you did it with your Jewish friends.
Interviewer: How about dating?
Wasserstrom: Always dated Jews. My parents were pretty observant and not that, it was, they never told me, “Don’t date non-Jews.” But it was kind of expected of you. It was understood that that’s what you do. My parents were very very active in the community. My father was president of the synagogue when I was born actually. My mother was president of the sisterhood at the same time as the synagogue. My mom was PTA president and they’re very very, both of them were very very community oriented. My mom was a “who’s-who” in American women and a “who’s-who” of Jewish women and she was president of the library board, Bexley library for many, many years. In her later years, she went and got a substitute teaching certificate so she could substitute in Bexley schools, which was kind of interesting. My dad was an attorney. And my dad really wanted to be a rabbi. But as is told to me, going back a long time, my grandfather went to my father and said, “We need an attorney in the family because we’re so big.” And thus he became an attorney. So it was [?] kind of all the elements of the family having eight sons and everybody dabbled in different things and it was, they were called “the boys”. The boys always had lunch together on Saturday because the boys got together it was the eight brothers and if you were fortunate enough as one of the children that you got invited to dinner with the boys, you didn’t talk though. I mean, you listened, but you didn’t talk. And they talked about business, and all these things that us as little squirts, we just sat around and absorbed.
Interviewer: As you say, there was kind of a directive that among all these children, they needed to go into different areas. Kind of to help the family?
Wasserstrom: Yeah and even though my father was an attorney and two of his brothers were dentists (twin dentists), it was always “everybody did everything together.” I remember the story during Prohibition, they used to buy train carloads of bottles and things, and they’d sell for making home brew. And they would all go down on the weekends and help unload, whether it was my father who was an attorney, the dentists, they would all group together because you needed a lot of bodies and the family was the central element of what it was all about.
Interviewer: So you were a member of what synagogue?
Wasserstrom: Tifereth Israel. I think all of them except for one of the brothers was a member. And they were very active. One of my aunts, Janet Wasserstrom Goldsmith was married to David Goldsmith, who was very very active in the community. Also he was president of the synagogue I remember, when I was bar mitzvah’ d. He was also president of the Jewish Center. The family goes way back in terms of commitment to the community and to Jews in Central Ohio and everywhere.
Interviewer: Did you wind up having to take some kind of a school bus from Bexley after class let out and were you schlepped to Tifereth Israel for Hebrew school or something like that?
Wasserstrom: No, I think my parents drove me. Or my mom drove me, my dad always worked. But I remember going there quite distinctly. You know we’d go I think one or two days a week and on Sunday we’d go. And it was an experience I wouldn’t give up for anything. It created who you are. Who you are is a combination of all your life experiences and this was part of my life experience. And the synagogue, which is important to me today. I’ve been very, very active many, many years. I was personnel chair, I am still chairman of the Tifereth Israel Foundation. I was on the Board for thirty-some years and it’s an important aspect of the community and it reflects who you are. The commitment to give back is really important to me.
Interviewer: Looking back, I know a lot of people value their Jewish education, Sunday school, but when you were a child?
Wasserstrom: Oh it was terrible [laughs]. It was not real professional. People always complain, “Oh it’s not good and they don’t give you anything.” I was lucky my, I think I was a junior in high school, Sam Melton started the Melton Program and he brought in Saul W[?]. I’m pretty sure I was a junior in high school. And there was two women that came in with him. One of which named Bonnowich who is still here and they really helped develop a curriculum and also a methodology teaching that embraced people much beyond what it was. Sam Melton had a fabulous vision. He was a real visionary of his times of he understood that we needed to teach Jews differently. The conservative movement and he started The Melton School and it’s thriving today and a lot of people benefited far beyond the times.
Interviewer: So you were bar mitzvah’d and did you go through confirmation?
Wasserstrom: Now you’re pushing my brain. I think I was [laughs]. I’m pretty sure I was. Yeah, I think they did that back then.
Interviewer: Any other memories of your teenage years in Bexley and anything with a Jewish [?] to it?
Wasserstrom: Well one of the interesting, well a little bit off track. But, I had so many first cousins and we always went to my grandfather’s house. That was kind of where everybody met. And in his later years he was pretty, he had emphysema, he was on oxygen and the brothers bought him a television set. And this was a black and white tv that must have been one of the first ones that came out. And I remember all my relatives, there must have been fifteen of us, stacked up in a pile watching this little black and white tube at my grandfather’s house, in amazement of “Wow! What is this television all about?” And it was an interesting experience plus they always had Passover at their house and he had pretty good size house. So they’d put all these tables together for the family and the big trauma was when the youngest male would do the four questions and I remember like it was yesterday, it was my turn. Wow! This was like, scary because all these old guys and if I didn’t perform, you know, and I remember just being traumatized by doing the four questions and all my uncles and aunts and they’re watching me. There must have been, I don’t know, forty, forty-five of them sitting there and my knees were probably shaking.
Interviewer: But you got through it.
Wasserstrom: I got through it and somehow I made it through today.
Interviewer: Now this was your grandfather, Nathan.
Interviewer: And his wife.
Interviewer: Rebecca. And when you were growing up, did they still live in the, what we might call, the old Jewish neighborhood?
Wasserstrom: Yeah, well my grandmother died before I was born. That’s how I became Reid. She died in ’42, I think, ’41 or ’42. Because Rodney is two years older than I am. He was the first “R”. And I believe, it was 799 South Ohio that they all lived there and I believe that is where my grandmother also lived. I guess, after bearing twelve children, you know, it’s a little bit challenging to make it very long [laughs]. At that age, medical science what it is, it was, to bear that many children and over that span of a time, was quite an accomplishment. But that’s more tradition of Jews, today they still do it. You know, we got a lot of kids.
Interviewer: So, 799 South Ohio is where your grandparents lived.
Interviewer: And where all these Wasserstrom children? That’s where they came out of, that house.
Wasserstrom: Yeah, yeah. Well some of them were born before my grandfather, my dad was born in 1906 and I think he was the first brother, the child to be born in Columbus. There were three older children that were born in New Jersey. But the rest of them were all born in Columbus.
Interviewer: Do you know, is that house still standing?
Wasserstrom: Oh yeah. It is. It’s absolutely there. My brother he says, “Let’s buy the house.” Not exactly the best neighborhood. I said, “What would you do if you bought the house.” He said, “Ah, all the memories.” I said, “Well you can drive by and still have the memories.” It’s still there. It’s just south, it’s about a block off of Livingston Avenue.
Interviewer: So you graduated from Bexley. And then what happened in your life?
Wasserstrom: I went to two years at a small school up in Boston called Dean College. I wasn’t the best student. My brother was the student and it didn’t rub off on me very well [laughs].
Interviewer: Your brother, Rodney.
Wasserstrom: Uh no. It’s interesting you should say that. Everybody thinks Rodney is my brother. Rodney is my cousin. Alan is my brother.
Interviewer: Ah yes.
Wasserstrom: And so, I went to Dean College for two years and really kind of got my act together. Came back and I graduated from Franklin University in Marketing. And it’s interesting you should say about Rodney because Rodney, Alan and I have spent our entire lives together. He was born in 1940, Rodney was born in ’42 and I was born in ’44 and I have pictures when we were little kids, and I’ll show you when we get done. We’ve literally spent our lives together, both personally and business. And we all were active in the business. We ran the business until our children took over.
Interviewer: Now what business was that?
Wasserstrom: Well there was multiple businesses but, we were in the restaurant equipment supply business. We used to be called the Wasserstrom Fixture and Supply Company. This was in the ‘40s. And eventually it was changed to The Wasserstrom Company that we distributed restaurant equipment supplies and then we have a factory that is called N. Wasserstrom and Sons. Nathan Wasserstrom and Sons. That is our manufacturing side. And we’ve been very, very blessed over the years to have a very successful business. We’re spread all throughout now. When I got into the business in ’66 it was just a little business. We had maybe 25 to 30 employees and as the story goes, which I’m sure Rodney has told you but it’s worth repeating, is Rodney was a salesman for the company at the time and we sold Kentucky Fried Chicken, their pots and pans and glasses and so forth, plasticware in Columbus. And so one day he got a call from the guy who owned the franchise for Columbus of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The guy’s name was Dave Thomas. So Dave says, “You know, I’m going to start a hamburger place.” And he said, “There’s a guy that I know who’s in the bakery business by the name of L.S. Hartsock.” He said, “Why don’t you, Rodney, and L.S. and I, there’s a place up in Lima called Cupies Hamburgers.” And he says, “Let’s ride up there and take a look at it because I want to start a hamburger place.” The rest is history. We’ve done thousands and thousands of Wendy’s and vastly expanded the business.
Interviewer: When you say you’ve done all those Wendy’s, you supplied all those Wendy’s stores with?
Wasserstrom: All the equipment and everything that goes into them really other than the food.
Interviewer: The French fryers, the griddles.
Wasserstrom: Yeah, the griddles, the fryers, the worktables, the tables, the chairs. Used to be the original Wendy’s had leaded glass shades, if you can remember that. We supplied those. In fact, funny story. The first store opened in 1969 on East Broad Street and I was running the Installation department at the time for the company. So we were working our tail off to do this installation. They always have a press party before they open the restaurant and it gives us a chance you know, free food, but they practice. And I ran home and when I got changed and came back for the press party, and when they took pictures and everything and I was fortunate enough I was standing right in the middle of the counter getting my free hamburger and they took a picture. And every five years they do a yearbook and I always get my picture in the Wendy’s yearbook standing in the line getting my free hamburger. And my wife Fran, and Rodney’s wife Donna, they used to hang beads, I don’t know if you remember this.
Wasserstrom: And Donna strung the first beads in the stores. They used to do that, I don’t know, they didn’t last very long but they did the beads that went in the stores. It was really a family affair.
Interviewer: I didn’t realize that Wasserstroms and Wendy’s had such an important link.
Wasserstrom: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It’s a very important link in our history that really allowed us to change our fortunes of fame, that’s not a good word but, how we were headed. You know, we were a small local manufacturer and distributor of pots and pans and ladles and so forth. We started in Wendy’s and we expanded from there. We have factories around the country, distribution points, we employ now over 2,000 people, we ship overseas. We’ve come a long way and really the big start was with the Wendy’s. Although before that we got a taste of it when we did Burger Boy Food-o-Rama’s. You remember those? And the whirling satellites. We did all the whirling satellites for Roy Tuggle and Milt Lesinhauer. Those were two guys that started it. One guy owned a drive in, which the name escapes me, but they were two restaurant guys that got together that started this chain. They eventually sold to Borden’s.
Interviewer: Now when you say you did the whirling satellites for BBF, you mean you actually helped to design?
Wasserstrom: No, no we didn’t do the whirling satellites, but that was kind of there.
Interviewer: Oh, that was their symbol?
Wasserstrom: Yeah their symbol, but we did all the interior work. The you know, all the seating, the fabrication where you make the stainless steel equipment and all that. That was way back when.
Interviewer: Of course there were several in Columbus, Jewish owned businesses. Lazarus and so forth, and Wasserstroms. What was that like being a Jewish businessman? What were the relations like with the non-Jews who were in business?
Wasserstrom: Tifereth Israel was a conservative congregation. It was originally called, I think the first Hebrew-Hungarian congregation. It was all Hungarians “Hunkies”. And as my mom, she was from [?] which was a traditional orthodox synagogue. And when my mom and dad got married, it was kind of going out of the faith almost for my mom to leave orthodoxy to go with my dad. But they had as I’m told, they had both rabbis at their service. But it was, you know the “Hunks” were not viewed very favorably by the German Jews and some of the other ethnic Jews around the area. It was different. But it’s all blended together now. But back then it was a little different.
Interviewer: So you’re saying even within the Jewish community there was, there were differences and conflicts?
Wasserstrom: Yeah. I mean, probably no different than it is today. If you get ten Jews, you get twelve opinions. But Judaism is changing. It’s not what it was, you know the [?] of fifty years ago is spread out. And Jews are challenged today through assimilation in a lot different way than what it was when I was a kid. Back then everybody lived in Bexley and everybody knew everybody. It was unusual that my parents didn’t know, most all the Jews in Columbus. Now they’ve spread out throughout the city and it’s just a lot different than what it was.
Interviewer: Yeah we have Jews in of course in New Albany and now here in Blacklick where you are. And Upper Arlington
Wasserstrom: Westerville, Dublin, Worthington, you know they’re all over.
Interviewer: But so, give me your analysis of has that been a good thing or a bad thing?
Wasserstrom: Well, I think it’s an evolving thing. My personal feeling is [?] a tremendous amount of intermarriage and Judaism, I believe needs to, American Jews need to reinvent themselves. Because otherwise another fifty years, I don’t know what will be left. So that through assimilation and you know it’s different and you have to recognize that. You have to find a different way to understand what you’re roots are and what your beliefs are and your traditions. It’s dramatically different than what it was when I was a kid. I mean personally, I try to maintain what I can. My kids, both live in Columbus, one’s married, one’s not. And we have Friday night dinner at the house every Friday night when we’re here. And we say our prayers and it’s just kind of a gathering point of the family. And to me it’s all about the family. And some of those bonds are different in different families and I recognize that. To me, it’s all about the family. You know, because in the end that’s what it’s all about. Your relationships with your family and friends. So we keep marching forward.
Interviewer: Let me ask you about Jewish institutions, perhaps different than the synagogue. You and your family are very active in the synagogue. What about other Jewish institutions, for instance when you were a kid or a teenager, were you active at all at the Jewish Center?
Wasserstrom: I wasn’t very active in the Jewish Center. I was very active in the USY, which is the youth group at the synagogue. I was Vice-President of the USY and I used to go to conventions all the time and to this day I know people that I met way back when in high school when I went to conventions that I still know and have moved to different parts of the country and it really was a great experience. What I’ve done more recently is, one of the things I’ve become, was very active in is the Columbus Jewish Foundation. I was treasurer there for many years. I was investment chair for many years there. And I strongly believe in endowments and commitments to Jewish causes. And we’ve tried to be as philanthropic as we can, starting several funds there. And also recognizing the importance of it because its Jewish philanthropy is changing. And the model of the Federation which, “give me a little bit more every year, here’s the most urgent cause of the day,” is challenged now. People, millennials want to see, “Where’s my money going? What’s it doing?” And with the Foundation, they have the ability to recognize, “Jeez if I start a fund and I want to give for Jewish education, to whatever, they can see direct connection. And we started several programs ourselves, Frannie and I, my wife, that’s been very successful. We started a program, a Jewish Family Service that was funded by the Foundation, called the Max Program. And one of our children is a little challenged. And we recognize that kids when they get out of college need help. You know if you’re not in the center line, you need to have the ability to test yourself and often help, so we started the Max Program and we funded it totally for a number of years. And what it does it takes children that graduated college, that don’t have a job and maybe are a little socially inept and they work with them. Help them to get jobs, teach them how to socialize, how to interact with people, how to dress even because some of them just don’t know how to do that. And it’s been wildly successful, which is really, really nice. And I get rather emotional about it. So we’re very proud of that. We still support that but you know there’s so many needs that, actually most of what we do, we do it anonymously. And I don’t talk about it, because I don’t want to be prejudice on where the money goes. So I have a methodology that I use to do a number of things anonymously. And I don’t want to know where the money goes nor do I want to know what’s done with it because I don’t want to be prejudicial and judgmental. So it’s been very, very gratifying to do that. Some people think I’m nuts but it’s really a lot of fun and it’s immensely gratifying to be able to do that and not expect anything in return. Not knowing where it goes. It’s something that’s fun.
Interviewer: Those are the highest levels of charity.
Wasserstrom: Yeah and we try to live up to those. And you know sometimes it’s a challenge, but it’s something we really, Fran and I, are deeply committed to doing.
Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about your wife Fran and how did you meet and what is her background?
Wasserstrom: That’s an interesting story. Fran is from Cleveland and I only knew her for three months before I got married. So and next month, we’ll be married fifty years. So the story goes like this, because it’s kind of interesting. So, a common friend of ours introduced us.
Interviewer: How old were you at this point?
Wasserstrom: Twenty. And she was going to, she’s a year younger than I am. And she was going to Ohio State. Teaching. And we dated and kind of hit it off pretty well. And she went to Europe for the summer. And we communicated a little bit. Back then you couldn’t, you know, it wasn’t as easy to communicate. So this was in 1966, the height of the Vietnam War. And nobody in my family, in my generation, was ever inducted into the service. My brother, my cousins, nobody. For all the reasons that you can imagine. So it must have been the summer of ’66, I got called to take my physical. And I got asthma and I got all these things and I go to the draft board at Fort Hayes and he said, “Son! We’re taking everybody!” I said, “Holy cow!” So I got married, knowing my wife for three months. She was a little nuts I guess for doing it. So I said, “Well, it will keep me out of the army.” So we got married on December 26, 1966. Well by that time the Vietnam War was really heating up and they started taking married people. I said, “Holy cow, what am I going to do now?” So I enlisted in the National Guard. So after knowing her for three months and getting married in December of 1966, I went on active duty for my basic training in April of ’67. So out of the first year, I knew her for three months, we were together for four months and I left her for six months. I went down to Fort Knox, Kentucky. So, I don’t know if you can draw a conclusion about that or not [laughs]! But she moved in with my parents and she hardly knew my parents, let alone me. And my parents were very, very appreciative of her because they never had a girl before. They had two sons and they got along fabulously well. And I came back in, it must have been October of ’67 and that was the start of our life together.
Interviewer: And it’s lasted for half a century.
Wasserstrom: Yep! So it’s been a good ride [laughs].
Interviewer: Quite a story. And has Fran been a housewife or she’s been a professional?
Wasserstrom: She’s had nine different jobs. When we first got married, she was a clerk of courts at probate court. She worked under, then it was Judge Metcalf. My dad being an attorney, knew the judge and got her the job for her. She also was a teacher. She had a teaching certificate but when our oldest daughter was born, when she showed, you were pregnant, you had to quit teaching. So she only taught for like, two years. So then she went to clerk of courts, then I don’t know if you remember, there was a “Hands Across America”. She was the Ohio coordinator of everybody holding hands across Ohio. And she did that for a number of years. She designed kitchens for our company. We used to be in the residential kitchen business. We did all the kitchens at Waterford Tower. For Jack Wallach, and she did that. And then she became a travel agent. So she’s had a number of different occupations over her lifetime. And she’s enjoyed them all. So it’s been a great ride.
Interviewer: I wonder if you have any memories of any other Jewish institutions. I’m thinking places like Martin’s.
Wasserstrom: Well yeah, Martin’s yeah. My parents kept kosher until the war. And after, during the war they found it very hard to have kosher meat so they never had any pork or they never had any shellfish in the house and so they didn’t buy kosher food, but they lived kosher-style I would call it. But I remember always going to market at Godovsky, going there and some of my friends you know, worked there and bagged groceries and did that kind of stuff. And you know that’s part of the history of what Columbus is. You know you look at these different Jewish institutions that kind of framed what Judaism, Jews evolved in Columbus, Ohio. So that was probably the most, but you know, there’s so much of it. You know the Lazarus’ and the Levy’s and the union department stores and it was, you know. I was, one funny stories is Les Wexner is the same age as my brother, had a daughter, had a sister Susan Wexner. And I know Susan very well because Wexner, Wasserstrom, we sat next to one other and so forth. I always kid my wife and say, “You know what would have happened if I would have turned left instead of right [laughs]?” But it was interesting. I always tell that story and Leslie has brought immense, immense contributions to the city that has made such a difference and I give him high, high marks for developing the Jewish institutions that are important to the city, nationally and internationally. And he recognized that I think, at a very early age. And has really spent enormous amounts of money making sure that those things live on. Whether it’s the synagogues or whether it’s the Wexner Heritage House, it’s been a fabulous development for the, what it means to Central Ohio. I mean what he’s done nationally and internationally is amazing.
Interviewer: I’m always interested in whether Columbus Jews, especially when they were younger, did they have a Jewish identity in their head? And did they say for instance, if you would go downtown to Lazarus on Saturday to shop, did you, was it in your mind, “Oh this is a Jewish institution. This is a Jewish-owned business.” Or was that really too much to ask of a child really?
Wasserstrom: No, that really didn’t enter into it. Probably one of the funnier things is my dad was an attorney, worked downtown, his office was at 4044 East Broad Street, where the office building is now. And I would go with him a lot of times on Saturday when he, I don’t know what he did with the court or looked at his papers and you know I was maybe a little naïve so, we’d walk around and you’d see these manhole covers that said “WW” on it. Waterworks. So I say, “Wow! My dad really knows what’s going on. He’s got his initials on all these things around the city!” Kind of a funny story but he practiced law for many, many years, was very highly respected. And when I would go downtown with him, he liked everybody. “Hi Bill! Hi Bill! Hi!” and it was, it framed a lot of what I am today. You know those Jewish experiences but also how Jews interacted in the city. How it developed what we are today.
Interviewer: So you saw your father interact with Jews and non-Jews.
Wasserstrom: Oh yeah.
Interviewer: And steer a course through both worlds.
Wasserstrom: He was very, very active. He was president of the synagogue as I mentioned before. He got elected to the, when I was moving I found all these old papers from my parents, one of them was he was elected to the B’nai B’rith Ohio chapter something. That was a big deal and there was letters that sent out to people asking for their vote. It was a highly sought-after position. And both of them were very active. When I was growing up, because they were so active, they weren’t home a lot. And so they always hired Cap girls to live in the house with us. Capital University students. And we lived relatively close to the school. And we had an extra bedroom. And my parents were in meetings all the time and the Cap girls took care of us. I remember we became, they were very close and we’d got to Florida usually in the summertime and we’d take the Cap girl with us to watch us. But they still were very sensitive to who we are and what we are and did amazing things with us, because they were amazing people.
Interviewer: Now you’ve got a photograph here, it’s a color photograph and it’s some kind of family reunion? Of the Wasserstroms?
Wasserstrom: Yes in 1993, my aunt Margie wanted to have a family reunion. And she and I worked on it for, jeez probably a year. Or maybe more. And we invited all our relatives that were in any way related to us. The Schottenstein’s some of them, the Schlessinger’s, everybody was invited. And we had this big gathering up at a park in North Columbus. And there must have been, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty of us there. And it was really a special time. Which I’m going to leave with you is this tree of, The Wasserstrom Family tree. And when you look at it, there’s all these names. Some of which you’ll recognize that aren’t in Columbus, other parts of the country. That Michael Milkin was just a relative of mine. All these weird things that you uncover. Some of which you want to know and some of them you don’t want to know. But it was a really special time and the family now is like, spread out everywhere. And there’s a lot of Wasserstroms and all the siblings. What’s kind of interesting is my brother Alan, has a son who has three girls. He had a daughter who was tragically killed at a young age but, so he has three girls. Their grandchildren. I have one grandchild, who’s a daughter. And Rodney has four grandchildren who are all girls. So there’s a bunch of girls. So, not that the name will go away, but it’s a little different. So I have two daughters. One is not married, one is married. I have one granddaughter, Shari. So I get rather emotional but sorry. You know it’s a special place to be in Columbus, I really believe. I spend half the year in Scottsdale, Arizona now and I have a lot of friends there. But they’re friends in different ways and most of them are Jews. But it’s a different relationship when you meet somebody three or four years down the line versus spending your whole life together. And I mean the good news and the bad news is that you don’t have any baggage [laughs]. But you know, it’s always nice to come back to Columbus and see family, see friends, get together.
Interviewer: We’re talking just a few days after the November election in 2016 and the nation has been bitterly divided. When it comes to the Columbus Jewish community, are you optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, worried? How do you view the future of Columbus’ Jewish community?
Wasserstrom: Well it was interesting when the high-holidays, the Rabbi Michael Unger, who’s the chief rabbi at the Tifereth Israel, he gave a sermon. And it involved around, things have got to change. It’s not “business as usual”. And recognizing that you have to have different ways to motivate Jews. And to understand that it’s different than it used to be. You know it used to be you’d go to shul Friday night, Saturday morning, during the week. People don’t do that much anymore. I do. My kids don’t. And so how do you look at things differently? How do you attach, get the interest of the young Jews today so that they still become attached? So that they recognize what their roots are. So that there still will be Jews in America fifty years from now. You know my mom used to say, she recognized way before her time that maybe Orthodoxy is what’s going to save the Jews. Because they don’t typically spread out and assimilate. And the reform and the conservative Jews do. And maybe that’s the future of Judaism. You could make a case for that. I don’t know, but the conservative movement, which I’ve been a part of all my life is changing. But I think the good news is that leadership understand that it’s not “business as usual.” That you have to reinvent yourself in different ways. And recognize that so that people still will recognize their roots and want to be a part of something special.
Interviewer: And with that, we’ll close this interview with Reid Wasserstrom on November 14, 2016. And this is Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Transcribed by Sarah Montz