Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dr. John Elisberg: A Non-Conformist and Good Guy


Just because I’m writing about somebody I saw once in almost forty years doesn’t mean I’ve run out of topics. John Elisberg was a true individual, and I’m fortunate to have made his acquaintance again two years ago.

I knew John since age 11, when he started at Camp Nebagamon in 1960 with my brother Frank and me. One year later, we met on the basketball court for the first time, as we South School 6th graders defeated John’s North School team, and the year after that we began six years in junior high school and high school. And somewhere along the line, we started religious school together.

John was a true non-conformist. He convinced some of his friends – including me – to ride our bikes to high school as freshman when that was decidedly uncool. Cycling became a lifelong love, although his idea to ride to Cobden in southern Illinois, whose high-school team, the Appleknockers, had almost pulled a Hoosiers-like upset in the state basketball tournament, was quickly nixed. His smooth jump shot pretty much meant I would be the loser in our driveway 1-on-1 matches. John’s position in baseball was – what else? – catcher, where he played for two years in high school, and he was a regular member of our Saturday summer softball games in Watts Park. He also had a great dry and wry sense of humor. Our grandmothers were friends, and his grandmother used to ask my grandmother about “The Twins.” John would call us The Twins, but always with the sappy grandmotherly inflection thrown in.

Central School varsity and jv basketball teams, 1962-1963
John is 3rd from right, 2nd row. Phil Toubus (aka Paul Thomas) is at his left
Frank is 4th from left, back row. I'm 4th from right, back row. Steve Glick is to my left


Everybody has a favorite Elisberg story, so here goes.

John and most of our friends weren’t the most interested students in the confirmation class of 1965 at Congregation Solel. We didn’t have speaking parts at the Sunday June ceremony, so we were relegated to the end of the line (done by height) to file in wearing our long white robes. We found ourselves standing by a tray of desserts, most notably tiny chocolate-covered ├ęclairs. As we looked at John, his face belied he was going to take one. Sure enough, he did. The warm sun streaming through a window made the chocolate runny, and it quickly coated John’s fingers. Just as he popped it into his mouth, the line started to move. A look of confusion crossed his face; what was he going to do? For a split second, he looked down at his flowing white robe. No, he’s not going to do it, we thought. With all eyes upon him, he resumed walking and licking his fingers at the same time. I think he hesitated on purpose, just to yank our chains.
 
Frank and I in confirmation robes, 1965
 
At camp, John was known for his canoe-trip expertise. He double-packed on portages or carried a heavy aluminum canoe, loving the experience. Among others who shared this talent were Reed Maidenberg and John Seesel – still my dear friends – who were with John on a two-week trip when it rained almost every day. John became a counselor and, try as we may, we coaxed maybe one letter in three summers from him about camp goings-on.

After our respective college graduations (John attended Wisconsin), we reunited when he enrolled at Northwestern Medical School. Some found it ironic that he followed his father’s footsteps to become a doctor, for John passed out watching a film of an eye surgery in 8th-grade science class, which had been brought in by Dr. David Schoch’s son, John. Janet and I married in January 1973 in New York City, and John traveled east that weekend to attend the wedding. His evening attire included a tweed sport jacket, corduroy pants and hiking boots. Between my married life and John’s education demands, we didn’t see much of each other thereafter, and he returned to Wisconsin for his internship, residency and a family practice in the Appleton area.
 
John (next to Janet) at our wedding, Jan. 20, 1973

As noted earlier, John wasn’t much of a communicator. In the days before cheap or free long-distance calling, email and other forms of electronic media, staying in touch took some effort, the “Reach-Out-And-Touch-Someone” canard notwithstanding. We knew John lived in northeastern Wisconsin, and some more than others tried writing but to no avail. He never attended a junior-high or high-school reunion, but he did send Frank written regrets that he wouldn’t be attending the big 75th anniversary camp reunion in 2003. All we knew was what we found on the Internet, which wasn’t much besides his office and home address and that he’d divorced and remarried.

In January 2011, his mother’s death notice appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Services were in The Glen, where his parents had moved after selling John’s childhood residence. I knew if I didn’t attend the funeral, I’d never have contact with him again. Realistically, there was never a question to go. Too much water under the bridge, as I always say.

Janet and I were his only contemporaries on that snowy weekday. John looked pretty much the same, sharing baldness with his father and younger brother Bob, a prolific Huffington Post commentator who appeared in a Naked Gun film with Leslie Nielsen and O.J. during his screenwriting days. We chatted for a bit before the service, as the bygone years pretty much evaporated on the spot, bringing me back to our bike-riding, hoops-shooting, summer-camping days. John had closed the family practice and was now teaching at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. After its conclusion, he told me something shocking: this fitness fanatic, who never smoked a cigarette in his life, had been diagnosed a year earlier with lung cancer. It was now pretty much in remission but by no means cured.

After returning home, my Google search found two rather surprising facts. The first was that he had been given only a few months to live when the cancer was diagnosed, and here he was, actively pursing life and enjoying activities with his grandchildren. The second was John was now a Mormon, having converted after his marriage to Harvada. Like me, John was hardly religious as a youngster – neither of us had a bar mitzvah – so a conversion wasn’t all that strange. He did, however, become a very devout church member, typified somewhat by his sadness that his three teams – Wisconsin, Northwestern and Brigham Young – had all lost the same day in the NCAA and NIT basketball tournaments two months later. And I know that because we kept in regular touch after that January meeting.

 I believe technology advances in the 21st century only played a small part in John’s seemingly newly found communicativeness. Any correspondence was always returned within 24 hours, with his cares and concerns for my minor medical maladies in the face of his greater challenges. I’d asked if it was o.k. to give out his information to his old friends, which he gladly assented. Most of them heard from John too. And to my surprise, he even remembered my birthday.

Through the emails and Harvada’s blog, I kept up on John’s changing condition. Often they included detailed information on treatments and dosages, as well as his general well-being. Still, I wasn’t mentally prepared for Harvada’s early January entry: it basically said, the end was near. I waited a day, then called his home. “Is this the Elisberg residence?” I asked and told it was. Virtually holding my breath, I asked, “Is John in?” “This is John,” the voice said. We talked for 30 minutes. His voice was strong and upbeat, despite his being in home hospice care. John could no longer walk, and his only expressed consternation was that he had to have two people lift him out of bed into his wheelchair. He knew about our 50th –year junior-high reunion in August and expressed wishes to attend, despite his lack of mobility. He also asked if I knew where I could get a copy of our yearbook; I told him I thought somebody had scanned a complete edition and I’d check into it.

Word came via email that John passed away peacefully on January 28, with many of his family members comforting him at the end. So many emotions rushed through: sadness about his passing, happiness that we got to speak, regret that we hadn’t kept up over all of the years and relief that he no longer had to suffer. He left me with what I told him during our last conversation, barely keeping it together: Your courage is an inspiration to me, for it reminds me about what’s really important in life. For John, it was his family, friends, faith and a profession of healing. For the last one, you may read the comments on the death notice in his former hometown newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/postcrescent.  Here’s Bob’s take on his brother in the Huff Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-j-elisberg/the-tao-of-plink_b_2589921.html.

One of our mutual friends and his Freshman B squad basketball and freshman and sophomore baseball teammate, Steve Glick, found the news more difficult to take than he’d imagined. I knew why, and it wasn’t just our fleeting sense of our own mortality. The week before I’d seen the intense play, The Motherf***er with the Hat, and remembered an exchange starting with the “I thought you were my friend?" question. The reply: “Anybody you meet before the age of, say, 25? That’s your friend. Anyone after that? That’s just an associate. Someone to pass the time. Someone who meets maybe one or two specific needs. But friend? . . . Friends are at the playground.”
 
John was with us on the playground, basketball court, softball fields and baseball diamonds, bicycle paths, Northern lakes and wedding ceremonies. I announced his passing to his junior-high classmates via the group email list set up for our 50-year reunion. Most of the many replies had a single common thread: John was a “good guy.” He was and very much more, and I’m really going to miss his birthday email next month.