Interviewer: Okay, this is Bill Cohen and we’re at the headquarters of The Columbus Jewish Federation and we’re talking with Rodney Wasserstrom. The date is August 30, 2016 and let’s start off Mr. Wasserstrom with maybe just a little bit of background on your family. I don’t know how far back you can go, but do you know anything about your grandparents or your great-grandparents and where they came from?
Wasserstrom: Okay, for this afternoon, or forever, it’s Rodney, not Mr. Wasserstrom. Mr. Wasserstrom was my father, grandfather and so on.
Interviewer: Rodney. Rodney Wasserstrom, yes. Yes, sir.
Wasserstrom: I don’t remember my great-grandparents on either side of the family. My mother was a Ruben, R-u-b-e-n. I remember my grandmother, I don’t remember my grandfather. And on my father’s side, the Wasserstrom side, I remember my grandfather very, very well and not my grandmother. And like I said on both sides, I never met any of the great-grandparents.
Interviewer: Your grandfather, who you did know, his name was…
Wasserstrom: Nathan. And Nathan came to the United States from Hungary. And Nathan ended in New York City and was working in the sweatshops as I am told. In a traditional New York building, many flights up, he went to work every day and did whatever it was, textile-wise. Was not well, had some chest congestion type thing and the doctors had suggested that he go west for a dry climate. He purchased a horse and a wagon, inventory of notions: combs, brushes, whatever that is. And he worked his way west. He got as far as Columbus and had relatives and friends that were here in Ohio. Chillicothe, Circleville and Columbus. He at that point, did not go further west as he had originally planned. But got a job as a bartender part-time and part-time he was taking the wagon around town and selling notions. Shortly thereafter the bar was headed for bankruptcy. Somehow, I don’t know the detail but he was approached by the bank and was asked if he wanted to buy the business, which he did. And that put us in the saloon business at that time.
Interviewer: This was in Columbus?
Wasserstrom: This was in Columbus on Livingston Avenue. Approximately the area where Children’s Hospital is now located. So right around Parsons and Livingston. Everything was going well, my grandfather, my grandmother and twelve children. Nine boys and three girls. At that time all living in Columbus. Unexpectedly Prohibition hit and what do you do in Prohibition time and you have a bar and that’s the means of livelihood other than the wagon? And ominously had to stop selling liquor. And the family then met as the story goes, and tried food. I guess you know, Jewish recipes whatever those were, I don’t think it was the Wendy’s type of chili. Having said that, the food didn’t work. The family huddled again and the decision was to change from this bar to the food to now selling all the accoutrements that you needed to make home brew. I don’t know the amount that you were allowed, but everybody was allowed to make a certain amount of home brew. So they had all the malt, the hops, the grain, the glassware, all the cooperage items that were needed for home brew and it took off extremely well. And in a very short period of time, had over twelve stores in the core of the city selling what you needed to make home brew. Long story short, Prohibition ends. What do you do with all these stores? There was not the need, people were not buying then, the end of Prohibition, so they closed all but one of the stores. And the store that was left then became what we know today as the Wasserstrom Restaurant and Fixture Company et cetera. So that’s kind of what I can tell you about the background of coming to Columbus et cetera. In other interviews that have been done with some of my uncles and aunts there is more detail than I have given you regarding what would be their father, themselves.
Interviewer: This was the story of your grandfather who started all this.
Interviewer: And he was your father’s father?
Interviewer: And then your father took over? Wasserstrom food?
Wasserstrom: Well, my father and his brothers. As I said, there were nine children, or twelve children, nine boys. Everybody in some way participated in the business at some time. Whether it was stocking shelves after school, whether it was cleaning the floors, the windows, whatever needed to be done, everybody chipped in. Some went to college, some didn’t. My two twin uncles became dentists and practiced dentistry. My one uncle became an attorney, had a very successful law practice here in Columbus and handled all the legal matters for the family and the companies. And another uncle then oversaw the distribution and production of wine. Take a break? [Rodney takes a telephone call.]
Interviewer: So everybody in the fam? And the job that your father had in this? What was his? Obviously he may have started at a low level but what did he rise too?
Wasserstrom: There was really two parts of the business. One was manufacturing and the other is distribution of restaurant equipment, restaurant supplies. My father was in the distribution, or excuse me, my father was in the manufacturing side of the business. And there were three brothers that were predominately manufacturing side of the business. And there were two that were dentists, one was an attorney, one oversaw the wine distribution business. And then there were two brothers that were predominately in the distribution restaurant supply part of the business. They were all owned by the same such equipment brand, there were two different operating entities.
Interviewer: So you were born what year and where did you live when you were born?
Wasserstrom: I was born May 18th, 1942. And we lived on South Ohio Avenue. And it was just about a quarter of a mile south of where my father was raised.
Interviewer: Was that near Livingston or?
Wasserstrom: Just south of Livingston, less than a half mile.
Interviewer: What are your memories at all of that neighborhood and growing up in those younger years? In the 40s that was still somewhat part of the Jewish community.
Wasserstrom: Oh definitely it was part of the Jewish community. We lived in a four family and to my knowledge three of the families were Jewish. But I remember it as a great place. I don’t think I knew anything different. I don’t think I knew that it was for the poor, middle-income, wealthy, whatever. I think it was just you know, a mixture of a lot of Jewish families and that’s who I predominantly knew. I had a, as I can remember, a great childhood there. But we moved from there when I was in the second grade. So you know, it was just a small part of my childhood that we lived on South Ohio Avenue.
Interviewer: Now on South Ohio Avenue, there were a lot of Jews around you but were Jews, they weren’t a majority were they? Or were they?
Wasserstrom: Oh no. They weren’t a majority. There was a fair amount of them in the neighborhood where we were.
Interviewer: Any feeling for how the Jews got along with the non-Jews? Or didn’t?
Wasserstrom: Well, you know I really don’t know, if you look at this globally. I don’t remember that being a topic that the family, my parents really discussed. Other than we did things business-wise with everybody. There was no difference whether it was you know Jewish, non-Jews. Whatever. Wherever you’re from, wherever you are, everybody was always welcome. And I remember my parents having a number of non-Jewish friends.
Interviewer: And what elementary school did you go to? At that point? Did you remember?
Wasserstrom: Well being the second grade, I went to the Jewish Day School, it was on at, I don’t remember but it was right in the south end. I believe it was the forerunner to [?]. But I’m not actually sure what that is and then the second grade I entered the Bexley school system.
Interviewer: That was after you moved from South Ohio?
Wasserstrom: Yes, right.
Interviewer: And the family, and that the year approximately would have been? You were born in ’42, so you were about 7 or 8?
Wasserstrom: Yeah, so ’49 or ’50, yeah.
Interviewer: Okay so your family moved a couple years after the war.
Interviewer: Like a lot of Jews from the Parsons, Brighton area.
Wasserstrom: Yeah, right. And you know, all of, not all of my family, most all of my family moved to the east side. Around Bexley area, in Bexley. So as I grew up, I had family surrounding us all the time. It was like a nice warm, fuzzy blanket.
Interviewer: So the Wasserstrom, the big extended Wasserstrom family in the space of a few years, all moved from the old Jewish community to the new one.
Wasserstrom: Right, yes, yes. And I think that all except for one lived in that area and I had one aunt and she married a gentleman from Allentown, Pennsylvania. So she was the only one of the twelve or so that didn’t live in the Bexley area.
Interviewer: Do you remember what your feelings were after you moved to Bexley? Did you feel it was better? Worse? More friendly? Less friendly?
Wasserstrom: Well you know, we’re talking about second grade. I don’t think I had any feelings, to tell you the truth. Other than I know I was sad that I left one of my friends in, on Ohio Avenue. And that would have been Diane Mathilus [?] who’s now the owner of Katzinger’s, lived in the same building as we did. So but, I don’t remember anything other than that. But I know that I liked our new home. It was not new, it was they bought it. I liked living in Bexley. And I have very fond memories of growing up there. And my friends, etc. and had a lot of family all around.
Interviewer: So what street were you on?
Wasserstrom: We were on Bryden Road. 2648 in between Remington and Roosevelt.
Interviewer: So you went to Cassingham Elementary School?
Wasserstrom: Cassingham Elementary School. And I went to, through junior high and high school.
Interviewer: Any particular memories of any activities with a Jewish link to them? Jewish Center? Or your synagogue?
Wasserstrom: Well, both. I spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center. I was pretty active in the Jewish Teenage Council, TAC at that time. I bowled at the Jewish Center, participated in athletics at the Jewish Center. Very fond memories of going to the Jewish Center and next-door to the Berwick, to get a slice of pizza and some French fries. And they would drop me off at the center and I felt like it was, my second home or whatever and I really enjoyed the Jewish Center. It was good, everything I remember was good. As we sit here I can smell walking through the bowling alley and…
Interviewer: The smoke?
Wasserstrom: Eh, I don’t remember the smoke but everybody smoked back then but that didn’t, yeah that didn’t bother me then. Now it bothers me when it’s third-hand smoke or something. But I do remember that very fondly and the synagogue, which was Tifereth Israel. We were members from the very beginning, as my grandfather and his brothers and so on were founders and so on of the synagogue. And we went and we did Sunday school, we did Hebrew school, we did bar mitzvah and all the things that you do at the synagogue. We were not a Jewish family that went to the synagogue every Friday night or Saturday morning but we went more than just the high holidays. And enjoyed it. My mother came from a Orthodox upbringing and my father was conservative but ended up in a conservative synagogue. Had a kosher home. Which came from my mother’s side. And somehow my father worked his way around that when no one was looking.
Interviewer: Do you mean your father would eat out something that was not kosher?
Wasserstrom: Well he loved that stuff that’s pink.
Wasserstrom: Oh ham, yeah that’s right. He loved that. I remember the word is catching, lovingly catching him at a diner, a place whatever, having a ham sandwich. Yeah, he loved his ham but we didn’t have it in the house. If Sunday night was a night for Chinese food and my mother kept dishes and silverware underneath in a cabinet and the silverware was in a shoebox and she had some dishes there that, I fondly remember that and it was these things, and we brought them out for the Chinese food. But there was nothing else we brought in the house that was. My mother bought all of her meats at Martins and kept a kosher home.
Interviewer: Do you remember Martins yourself?
Wasserstrom: Oh I remember Martins on Livingston Avenue and I can remember going in that store.
Interviewer: On Livingston, in the 1940s then?
Wasserstrom: Yeah, I remember going with my mother many times. And then I remember very well the store he moved to on East Broad Street. The first move. And I remember being in there and I remember Martin or Marty very well and every business should have someone like that at the door greeting you and saying hello and thanking you. He was wonderful. And then me moved and he aged and et cetera but it’s one of those things when he went out of business, they broke the mold. It’s hard to find that today. I don’t know where you’d go to find that but it was a great experience and anyhow.
Interviewer: You mentioned being on the teenage council at the Jewish Center. Is that because you were active in one of the youth groups? The B’nai Brith? I forget their names but? You know fraternities?
Wasserstrom: Well I was a US-wide through the synagogue, et cetera. And I don’t remember exactly how I got involved in the teenage council but I did and that’s where my friends were at that time. My Jewish friends. I liked that. I think that was actually as I think about it, probably my first foray into being involved with non-profit, philanthropy type of things. Was the TAC.
Interviewer: Because the group would do some charitable event?
Wasserstrom: Yeah, we did charitable and we had the dance corsages and all those kinds of things. We would meet, I believe it was every week and it was during the week and I think maybe a Tuesday night or so.
Interviewer: So at Bexley High School, Jews were not the majority but there was a good concentration. Did you have Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends?
Wasserstrom: I had both. Predominately one of my Jewish friends were my close friends if you may, but I definitely had some close non-Jewish friends who I still today am friends with. You know at that point, there was never a discussion in my home that you don’t associate with, have to associate with, there was no difference. You know really, there was no difference.
Interviewer: So you yourself, did you ever experience anything that you, looking back now label anti-Semitism?
Wasserstrom: No, I didn’t experience anything in school. I don’t really believe that I ever experienced anything until much later in my life, after I was married actually and just a couple of things that. You know, one we were in Austria and had something with a cab driver and something else where people said things that shouldn’t have been said and so on. But I think that maybe people didn’t know I was Jewish. But, or whatever the reason but, I had a wonderful rapport with a lot of people and they were not Jewish and I look at some of those people as making a real difference in my life in a very positive way. I think that I was accepted. They were accepted and that was everything. There was never, talked about religion, talked about their holidays. Talked about my holidays. But there was never any, one is better than the other. Maybe as a child I thought Christmas was better because there were presents for twelve days or whatever and we only had eight days. No, nothing. I think that, while we’re talking we kind of skipped and moved forward with the Wasserstrom side of the family but I also recall the Rubin side of the family. My mother’s side of the family, which was German. My family it was a different, completely different type of family, not better or worse but they were just different. They were a culture, was a little different. And where in the Wasserstrom side of the business, side of the family, a lot circled around the business. There was always discussion of the business. Whether it was around the dinner table or my grandfather’s house on Sunday after Sunday school. People were there doing or it was a Friday night dinner, or it was Passover with forty-five people, I mean the business was something everybody was talking about. My mother’s side of the family, her brothers and sisters were in a number of different businesses and not that those businesses weren’t discussed, but it wasn’t the same thing where everything revolved around the business. But my mother was a twin. She had a twin brother. And I was very close with a number of my cousins on that side of the family, growing up. And all stayed also in Bexley except for one sister who moved and then later in life came back to Columbus. But they were all, including my grandmother, living in Bexley. Like on my father’s side, my grandfather always lived on Ohio Avenue. My grandmother on the Rubin side actually growing up, she was living in the Royal York apartments which are catty-corner from Tifereth Israel on East Broad. A lot of memories of spending time playing at her place and sleeping over and the holidays there. But I also remember when she moved to Bexley. She moved on Bexley Park and then when she passed away one of my aunts bought the house and she moved into the house and then we she passed away, my mother bought the house and moved into it so it was kind of like a family heirloom, if you may. The Rubin side of the family then, there was Louis Rubin who was one of my mother’s brothers and he lived just four doors from us. And I grew up with his two sons, Billy and Donald and today Billy and I are still very close. Billy lives in Phoenix. And then the Mellman side, Selma Rubin married Meyer Mellman and I was very close, especially with Dennis. They had two girls and a boy. Dennis has since passed but his sister Diane lives in Baltimore and Patti lives here in Columbus. And then Bernard, Bunny was my mother’s twin. And Bunny had girls, four girls. And Gail Rosenblum is today, is one of those girls. Two of the girls, Stacy and Marsha live in Phoenix. And the fourth girl Idel, lives in LA. And there was Pauline, who husband passed away at an early age, was a doctor. Remarried Harry Schaffer and she had two boys and a girl. Jerry who’s passed away, Bob who lives in Detroit and Joyce Schiff, who married Leonard Schiff, who lives in Florida now. And then the other family member was Jeanette Berman and she had moved to South Bend and then moved back to Columbus and her daughter lived in Phoenix, who has since passed away. And that’s kind of the family. My mother was also very close with her family, extremely. I mean I guess it shouldn’t, mother-daughter and so on, but she was, you know her sisters were inseparable and they just. So there was this tear between my parents, where do you go which Friday night and they’re all here in Columbus and they’re large families both of them and a lot of cousins. So where do you spend your Hanukah and they all had to sort out first night Hanukah, second night Hanukah, which year you’re going to do. Rosh Hashanah, etc, etc. Nice problem to have. Wonderful. And we still have the problem today because there is so many of us.
Interviewer: I want to trace a little bit more now you and your profession over the years. When you were in high school or in your 20’s, you started work for the family business? The food equipment?
Wasserstrom: Well I did, but I had to start my own business first. Between Billy Rubin and myself we had lemonade stands for two summers and sold a lot of lemonade and it was a great business. When there is no cost to the lemonade or the cups or anything else and all you do is
Interviewer: Because your parents paid for it?
Wasserstrom: That’s exactly right. So that was a wonderful business and then we went from that to grass cutting. Had a number of very nice customers and we enjoyed that. We both enjoyed working in the yard and doing that stuff. So our customers enjoyed having two young men that had a passion for what they were doing. Giving them a really nice hair cut on their yard, if you want. And met some very interesting people through that process, made some nice relationships. And then I went to work during the summers and the business. But I always went with my dad on Saturdays or Sundays he would go and do some work, whatever. And since he was the manufacturing side if it was a day that they were working, he’d turned me over to one of the guys in the factory or so on. They’d take me for a ride around one of the freight trucks and that kind of stuff.
Interviewer: This would have been when you were in high school?
Wasserstrom: A little bit before high school and high school. And I enjoyed it. I can, I mean again, I’m smelling here, but I can smell the wood and the glue and the paint booth and all those kinds of things.
Interviewer: Where was the actual factory?
Wasserstrom: The actual factory was 878 Michigan Avenue. Kind of Michigan and Buttles. So if you know where Buttles comes to High Street, just go back through there.
Interviewer: What we would now call Victorian Village?
Wasserstrom: Yeah. Victorian Village and it was an area called Flytown, dominated by the Italian families. And had wonderful memories of Flytown and my dad had this regular thing we would do. Is behind our factory about a couple blocks, was a bakery. New System Italian Bakery and so we would go there on Sundays mostly. And we’d go there and the bread, I don’t remember the gentleman’s name. We’d pull up in the car and go inside and my dad would get a couple loaves of bread and we’d be going home with hot bread. And we’d eat some of that before we ever got home. That was a great area and then the city decided that they were going to take that area and do some wonderful things there. And with that, we made the move to Lockbourne Road.
Interviewer: The factory moved to Lockbourne Road?
Wasserstrom: The factory, yeah. And our store at that time, where we sold fixtures and et cetera, was on Chestnut Street where Nationwide Insurance is today.
Interviewer: So after you graduated Bexley in the year?
Wasserstrom: 1960. May of 1960.
Interviewer: Then what did you do then?
Wasserstrom: Went to college. Went to Miami of Ohio. Didn’t like it for studying, liked it for its social pieces. Enjoyed that part of it too much. I didn’t want to go back. Parents were very unhappy that I didn’t want to go back. Came home. Had no money. So stayed with my parents. And went to, I think it was called CBU. Columbus Business University for a year and was working part-time. And CBU was downtown, our store was downtown so I would park at the store, walk over and go to school in the afternoon and come back and work. And then beside that after a year I decided that I didn’t want any more school, I thought I knew it all. I knew very little, but I thought I knew it all. So joined the company really full-time at that point. And just grew up in the business. Very small business at that time, compared to what we have today. But I gravitated somewhat from the manufacturing side that my father was involved in to the distribution, selling to the customer type-thing real quick. Love to do that.
Interviewer: So the customers we’re talking about are not so much average people, but instead they are restaurants who needed big equipment?
Wasserstrom: Yeah, they weren’t the public. The public was welcome in our showroom. But no, it was selling at that time to the Jai-Lai’s and the TAT’s and the Massey’s Pizzas and on-and-on-and-on. Those independent restaurants. Chains were not at that point evident yet.
Interviewer: Did those restaurant owner, did they come to you or did you have to go out and call to them?
Wasserstrom: It was a combination of both. I thought that people would come to us because we had this showroom and displays and et cetera. But people came to us because of what we had done in the past and the brand that we had. But they also came to us because the sales people that we had out knocking on the doors and so on, were telling the story of Wasserstrom and they would come to us. Many customers never even came to the showroom, they just bought from the salesperson and we delivered to them.
Interviewer: I’m sorry, say that again?
Wasserstrom: Many of the customers never had to come into our showroom. Salesman would come and see them and say “this is what we offer” and they would order and we’d deliver.
Interviewer: So you found you could be a success at this without a college education?
Wasserstrom: Yeah, I do have to tell the truth and I tell that to young people, but I also tell them how important a college education is. I think that luck has something to do with it. Timing has something to do with it. Sometimes it’s just natural instincts and so on. I took to a business like fish take to water and loved every moment of it and couldn’t understand why I needed to go on to college. I could still get the same fun time, not going to college and working and et cetera. Living at home, not having bills and so on.
Interviewer: So, what other major changes happened in the 60s and 70s to you personally? Any major milestones that happened?
Wasserstrom: Well a little earlier than that, I have a brother and a sister. A sister that’s three years younger than I am and a brother who’s thirteen years younger than I am. So one of the major changes was in 1954 when my brother was born. My sister and I wanted a baby around the house because other families we knew had babies. So my parents delivered Bruce to us. And for my sister and I, it was a wonderful thing and it was a great addition to have. So that was a real pleasant milestone at the time. And then my father was not real well. He had his first heart attack, when he was 45. So and he passed away at the age of 60. So there was a period of time right then because it was in 1975 when he passed away so there was a period of time when he wasn’t really well. And that was a milestone in the family. He continued to work, but he had his problems and he had three heart attacks before he passed. But I took to the business and the business was everything to me. I put everything into the business. All my time, I just loved it. So whether I was there at the office or whether I was on the sales floor, whether I was out calling on restauranteurs, I lived and the business. I lived it seven days a week and it didn’t bother me to go in on a Sunday and change the windows and sweep the floors or do whatever I thought should be done. And I just thought that’s the way you do it. Someone offered me this opportunity and so I’m going to take this opportunity and I don’t think I had any long term plan, I just knew that I loved what I did.
Interviewer: So what was the highest position? What was your title in the end?
Wasserstrom: Well in the end I guess, which to know it’s not the end, I’m still participating. I am CEO at this point. But I went through being a salesperson, a sales manager, an assistant sales manager, sales manager, an equipment sales manager, vice-president of equipment, vice-president of sales, president and then CEO. And I share that title with my cousin Alan, who’s a year older than I am. We’re both CEO’s of the companies.
Interviewer: And today Wasserstrom Restaurant Equipment remains?
Wasserstrom: Yes, it does. Vibrant. Eleven family members in the business. A brother, a son and eight cousins. Actually, I’ve got to back that up. A brother, a son, a daughter and eight cousins.
Interviewer: So let’s talk a little about your family?
Interviewer: Give us a little history. From not your grandparents or parents, but you.
Wasserstrom: Okay. I married Donna Friedman. Donna was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Richard and Charlotte Friedman. She had a brother, Jim Friedman. And met Donna in Columbus, she had just graduated from Ohio State and was working at Lazarus in some type of a fashion, executive program and I think she really excelled at what she was doing. She’s an extremely smart person with a great knowledge of art, very artistic herself. So whether she is going to paint or sew or she’s got an eye for whatever, she’s amassed some wonderful collections through our lives together. And we met each other in the summer and got engaged in the fall and got married in the winter.
Interviewer: Wait, what year would that have been?
Rodney: 1969. We got married, so 1969, the summer of 1968 when we Wasserstrom met. We met each other kind of through a fix-up. My mother was playing cards with some of her Jewish friends and one woman said, “I met this darling girl today at Lazarus and she’s single.” Working at Lazarus and she was, this woman was telling another woman about it and my mother then said something to the effect of, “Well what about my son?”. So my mother comes home and I was like I say, living at home at that time. Came home with the number and that after dinner, I called Donna. And said, “Got your name and liked to take you out. So took her out and she wasn’t real happy with me the first date. I took her to a bar. Did some drinking and she really wasn’t into drinking, but she sipped her beer. But I probably spent, I don’t know, two-thirds of the evening talking to customers and that wasn’t what she liked.
Interviewer: You were talking to customers?
Interviewer: Whether you’d see other people at the other tables?
Wasserstrom: Well it was actually customers, the guy that owned the bar. This was, he’d just opened it up. But I took her there. But I have a habit, that’s a nasty habit of spending too much time talking to customers when my family’s around or friends or whatever. I just get engaged and we had a, there was a family here, the Max Schell family. You might know those Larry and Steve Schell and their father had a restaurant called Max’s downtown. I went there frequently for lunch and became friends with Max. I mean he was a great guy, I just loved him. And I’d take my wife there in the evening for dinner and he had a great corned beef sandwich and other things and before I met my wife, Max would fix me up with girls ‘cause long story, we’ll forget that. But anyhow. I took my wife there and Max would sit down at the table and Max was a cigar smoker and he’d consume the evening. And after the second night of that, my wife said, “We’re not going here again.” Not that she didn’t like Max but you know the whole evening, you’d have two guys sit there and talk business and he smokes a cigar. So anyhow, Donna and I got married. Met her in the summer, did a little bit of dating, wasn’t very long. I knew right away, moments after that first date, and I said to my parents, “I’m gonna marry this girl.” And it was short and sweet. We got engaged the night before a football game. Got engaged and Donna called her parents. They were in Hawaii and she says, “I just want you to know I’m going to get married.” And so they said, “Rodney who?”. We had never met, never spoken. So I got on the phone, I said, “Hi mom” and everything was fine. So that was football game and then after the football game we went home to my parents’ house and I can remember my mother, well let me back up. Cause we go to the football game and my parents
Interviewer: This is an OSU game.
Wasserstrom: OSU/Purdue. And this was the summer of ’68 and we’re sitting in the stands and we hadn’t said anything to my parents yet. And it’s right before kickoff. And I pull out a bottle of champagne and four glasses. Now you know it’s not today when I pulled out bottle of champagne and four glasses and I said, “Let’s have a toast.” My parents looked at me like, “What?”. So at that point I announced to my parents that we’re engaged, we’re going to get married and went home and I’ve already told you what a large family I had. And my mother got on the phone and called everybody. And within a half hour the family was swarming all over Donna. And my uncle that at that point had already taken retirement, was about to go to Florida in a couple months and he said, “I think you should get married immediately. And so I can be there at the wedding and so on.” Well it didn’t work out to do it immediately but that was in October and we got married in January. And happily, I can tell you that it’s been a lucky marriage.
Interviewer: So, you had children?
Wasserstrom: Two children. Brad, the firstborn and Kelli, the second born. Brad lives here in Columbus and Kelli lives in Cleveland. Brad has, he married Julie Cooper and a wonderful lady. And they have two children, Chelsea and Emily. And they live in Bexley. Just a five-minute walk from our house. Kelli married Jeff Gellis who is from Erie, Pennsylvania. And they have two children also. Two girls, Sophie and Mia. So I have four granddaughters I dearly love and hopefully they love me.
Interviewer: Did your kids, did you raise them Jewishly [?]
Wasserstrom: Yeah, we did. They both went through bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, went all through the TI, USY involvement. Sunday school and Hebrew school. Spent all the holidays together and yes we definitely have a Jewish home. Now we did not keep kosher in our home. Donna grew up in a home that both parents Jewish but the father really didn’t celebrate being Jewish in any way and mother did. So, they kind of did somethings for all kinds of holidays. But Donna went to Sunday school and went along to the Temple, etc. Yeah, the kids grew up Jewish and their both, have to say this, but they’re both more Jewish families now than we ever were and they seem to thrive on it. Both families are very involved in the synagogue and school and Sunday school and etc.
Interviewer: In your lifetime, you’ve seen the Jewish community move from Parsons and Bryden and Ohio Avenue, in the inner city. You’ve seen them move to Bexley, where a lot of the Jewish community was for a couple of decades. Then the Jewish community started moving out to various places further east, northeast and even some northwest. Any feeling at all for whether that’s been good or bad or just the way things are?
Wasserstrom: Well you know in the very big picture, I think it’s good. I think it spread us around. You know, tell the story. I think that, you know I grew up like you said, everybody lived in this little area in Bexley and near east side and so on. But as the city has grown, so has the Jewish community and not everything works the same for everybody. And I think that Bexley works for many. For many living further east or north, it works better for them. Because maybe their job or the school they want their children to attend, or the spouses or whatever it is, but there’s not anything wrong with Jewish people living all around the community. And I think there was, what is it, three or four areas where groups of us being Jewish, live together and there’s plenty of people in the neighborhood and synagogues all over the city. So, I think it’s wonderful. I have many Jewish friends that live all over the city.
Interviewer: Now do you still live in Bexley?
Wasserstrom: Still live in Bexley. We lived on Sherwood, well we lived on Roosevelt first for a few years, then we moved to Sherwood and now we live on Parkview and it’s five to seven minutes to the office. Ten minutes to any of our facilities. It’s less than ten minutes to the airport. You can go to Easton. I mean Donna and I really like to go out in the city, so we drive to Dublin or Powell or wherever it is and we don’t think anything about it. It’s a great city.
Interviewer: What’s your feeling about the Jewish community right now? Do you think it’s strong or is there big problems or what’s your general feeling?
Wasserstrom: You know, I’m not sure what the problems are. I’m sure there are problems. I don’t know if they are really problems, or challenges. But you know, a concern about assimilation and you know, where is the Jewish home of tomorrow going to be? I’m very fortunate as I said earlier, both of my children and their families are very much involved in the Jewish community. So, I see what they’re doing and who their friends are, Jewish and non-Jewish. But they’re very much involved in the Jewish community. I would hope that more would like to be that way. I think there’s a challenge though going forward. There’s a lot of people that just don’t want to practice. They want to be Jewish but they don’t really want to practice it every day. And I’m really okay with that. I mean, you should do what makes you happy. And spiritually if just going to the synagogue once or twice a year or so makes you happy and satisfied then that’s okay with me. But I’d like to see more children grow up with a Jewish background so they really have a choice as they enter high school, college, whatever and they understand what a wonderful religion this is and what a great opportunity you have by being Jewish.
Interviewer: We talked about earlier about what you did in the Jewish community as a teenager. Being active at the Jewish Center for example and going to Sunday school and Hebrew school and so forth. As an adult, what kinds of things have you done? I know of course you’ve been active with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Wasserstrom: Let me just back up because I think there’s a piece of what I’ve done because of the things that I was part of in growing up. And Billy Rubin, who I had mentioned earlier, was a first cousin and we were close. And we did the lemonade stand, we did the cutting and so on. There was a desire on both of our parts I think, we didn’t announce this or I don’t even know if we knew what we were doing but we wanted to be philanthropic. And I can specifically remember when we were just a little bit before bar mitzvah, so ten, eleven years old or something, we would collect at Easter. We would collect cottage cheese containers. They were pint containers that cottage cheese came packaged in and those containers would have colorful eggs on the outside of the containers and people would use those at the holiday time. And we would ask our friends and neighbors and family and so on, to save those. And Billy and I would then save our money up and we would take those and fill them with grass, artificial grass. And take a pipe cleaner and put a handle on them. And then we’d put candy inside those baskets and we would take those to orphanages, the state schools on the Hilltop and make a gift of those to them and that was, as I remember, it was a wonderful thing. To this day, I think that was kind of a major start to my philanthropic feelings about things. As a young teenager, in college and so on, I don’t know in college, excuse me. I got involved with the Columbus Junior Chamber of Commerce. As Billy did too and a number of other people, but predominantly non-Jewish things. And did a number of things there in fundraising to help others in the community. I remember in the teenage council, we would enlist other Jewish teenagers in the community to help agencies such as March of Dimes and we would go downtown and we would have boxes that we’d hold and ask people to donate and so on. And did a number of that for a number of different charities. So I think that those things early in my life, set the path for being involved in community endeavors, many non-Jewish, but for the community.
Interviewer: Did you have a feeling there was a link to Judaism in that? Or is that just kind of a general thing? Well it’s a good thing to be charitable?
Wasserstrom: To tell you the truth, I probably thought this is just what you’re supposed to do. I don’t think I ever, never gave a second thought to the Judaism part of that. But there was always a Tzedakah box around the house. So I understood that and Donna and I, from the time our granddaughters were able to crawl, walk and so on, we’ve had Tzedakah boxes in the homes. And ask the children to participate, put money in the Tzedakah box and truly understand that and participate in that. And I think that one of the great things, I think that we’re going to be able to pass on to our grandchildren is the understanding of Tzedakah.
Interviewer: I think we’re probably getting close to the end here. I just want to make sure I didn’t miss anything in terms of your later life. The last two or three decades. And what if anything, you’ve been doing in the Jewish community. In terms of groups or institutions.
Wasserstrom: Well, I think probably I’ve immersed myself in the Columbus Jewish Historical Society but there were periods of time in my adult life that I was involved in the Jewish Center and I was on their board and a number of committees. Enjoyed that. I was involved in the Federation and a number of committees and that. So I was involved in the Jewish community and doing things. But I have an aunt, Margie Gross and she was one of the founders of the Jewish Historical Society and she asked me to come to a meeting one night and I go to the meeting and then she announced me as the new board member. But through my love for my Aunt Margie, it was great that she took me here and I’ve loved my tenure in the Jewish Historical Society. I just think that it’s something I relate too, it’s something that has meaning, something that not everybody clearly understands the importance of. But if I can help it move the next step, that’s what I want to do. We’ve had some wonderful people that have been involved in the historical society, that have now become very good friends. Some with us today, some that have passed. Some that taught me a lot. [?] taught me an awful lot about not just the historical society but the whole piece of Tzedakah and giving and taking care of and how to solicit.
Interviewer: Before we end I just want to ask is there anything else? Any other points you want to make? Any other story you want to tell?
Wasserstrom: I didn’t give this much thought in of stories I want to tell. I think if you have the opportunity to help others, jump in and don’t hesitate. The feeling of helping others and doing something for somebody else is a mitzvah. And it’s that you’ve done all the right things in life when you are able to help others. And some people have said to me something, talking in financial circles about money and so on. I said, “If I could earn more money, I could give more money away.” And I just think there’s a lot of people out there that don’t have what many of us have and if there’s some way to help them along the way, that’s a responsibility that we have whether it’s the Jewish community, whether it’s the greater community, whether it’s the world. There is just, people need to help people.
Interviewer: Okay, with that we’ll end this interview with Rodney Wasserstrom. It’s August 30th, 2016. Here at the Columbus Jewish Federation building. I’m Bill Cohen and we thank Mr. Wasserstrom for his time.