By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: My father

My father, Kurt Kelman, died peacefully last night. He was 89 years old.

He was born in Vienna, Austria, and was 19 years old and just graduating from high school when Hitler took over the country in 1938. He immediately decided to leave. A few months later, he got a train ticket to Basel, Switzerland, just over the German border. But with no passport, he would have been unable to enter the country legally. Just over the German border, he jumped off the train as it rounded a bend and walked into the city to a refugee organization, which took him to a small village to hide. Turned in to the police by a suspicious local farmer, he was put in jail (he didn't have any money to pay a fine) and then expelled — fortunately to France and not back to Germany.

For more than a year, he was a refugee in France, living hand to mouth teaching German to French students. During this time, he came down with tuberculosis. Luckily, he had one relative in the United State and through him was able to get a visa, arriving in New York just as World War II was breaking out. The woman who became my mother was the daughter of the owners of the modest house in Brooklyn where my father rented a room.

When he came to the United States, my dad spoke no English. Because his education had been interrupted, his first jobs were as a window washer and then (with some English) at a lunch counter. Unbelievably, three years after arriving in the United States, he got a job on the city desk (what would now be called the Metro section) of the Washington Post. When I was a boy, though, his tuberculosis recurred, and he couldn't work for a few years.

Through a strange set of circumstances involving his journalistic skills and his science background from high school, my dad eventually ended up as a patent agent. I remember as a kid helping proofread patent applications. I've always had a warm spot for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and I have kept him up-to-date over the years on various IT and business-process changes at USPTO.

My father had a lifelong interest in politics and community service. I have a vivid memory from when I was 8 years old of sitting in a car with him that was equipped with a loudspeaker and driving around the community on behalf of a congressional candidate. I didn't really understand it when my dad said to me that he couldn't speak through the loudspeaker (another man in the car did so) because he had a foreign accent. Also when I was a kid, my dad left the house after dinner once or twice a week for meetings of the Long Island chapter of the Anti-Defamation League ("Daddy has an ADL meeting tonight"), which battles anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred and racism.

Through it all, he always had a smile on his face. He went to work twice a week until two weeks before he died.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 26, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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