Lessons In Leadership From Ed Koch.
This special Struming is about the passing of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. I knew Ed, though not well, as he is my cousin. His mother, Joyce, and my grandfather were sister and brother. Genealogists will therefore say that he was my first cousin once removed. My late mother Pauline, Pearlie as she was known to family members, was his first cousin, and they both grew up in Newark in the 30s. The Kochs moved from the Bronx to Newark in the 30s during the Depression, a difficult period for all. I don’t think Ed had fond memories of South Side High School or Newark. He made his mark as a Congressman in the “Silk Stocking District”, and obviously later as Mayor of New York City from 1977-1989. He remained active, vocal and in the spotlight until his passing.
To him I was merely Pearlie’s kid and we’d have short conversations at Family Circle gatherings (that’s what they were called) which we used to have regularly up until 10 years ago. I did enjoy our Family Circle meetings at Gracie Mansion in the 80s which we did often. That was cool. I do remember that we brought in our own food to avoid the inevitable New York Post headline had we not done so, Koch Bilks City for Family Circle Deli. I do have a photo of him at my bar mitzvah party, an evening which was clearly not a life highlight for him. Perhaps the gold dinner jacket I wore to the party (no joke, I say embarrassingly) was too blinding.
The last time I saw Ed was not at a Family Circle gathering or at a funeral, wedding or bar mitzvah. It was in Cherry Hill, NJ just a couple of miles from our home. Ed came to Cherry Hill on a Thursday evening about 5 years ago to speak to group of largely “alter kakers” (aka old farts) at the local Jewish Community Center. Ironically this was also the place where I play basketball in the Masters (over 40) League. Nothing masterful about our style of play, but hey I still love it. After playing and showering I changed into sweats and sat in the back of the audience and listened to Ed tell stories and entertain the group. His mind was quick and his tongue sharp as it always was. I said hello at the book signing after the event and exchanged a few words, while he tried to figure out why “Pearlie’s kid” was there to see him.
Ed was Mayor of New York for three terms from 1978-1989. This coincided precisely with the years I worked at BBDO in New York. I never lived in New York City as I always have lived in New Jersey, and still do. However, obviously I worked there daily during this era, so I was very attuned to New York’s many issues—and there were really big issues during his tenure—financial issues, subway strike, racial strife, crime, AIDS to name a few. He led the City through a period of turmoil and New York City was a far better place when he left office than when he began. Though no longer an elected official he was still “The Mayor” until his passing.
Again though I was hardly close to my cousin, I was proud of his success. I admired his feistiness and intelligence. Things I admired most were:
1. He spoke his mind. He never gave a PC answer and was brazen, intelligent and most often right in his points of views. He said he that gave ulcers rather than had ones of his own. He called Donald Trump “Piggy” and called former Mayor Giuliani a “Nasty Man”. No argument from me on either.
2. He could also say he was wrong. I recall he came back from a trip to China with the brainy idea of bike lanes throughout New York City, he later admitted that he screwed up.
3. He was proudly Jewish and a staunch defender of Israel. He never gave an inch on this critical issue.
4. Though he was a lifelong Democrat, he often took Conservative points of view. He did not merely “support the Democrat” just because they were in the same party.
5. Most of all he was a leader. He sought feedback, through his trademarked “How’m I Doing?” comments to New Yorkers.
Ed was a 3-time Mayor, but was defeated in the Democratic primary in 1989, when David Dinkins would become Mayor. Neither the Mayor that preceded Ed, Abe Beame, nor his successor, David Dinkins, were effective, nor did they have the distinctive legacy that Ed did. In 2011 the Queensboro Bridge, also known as the 59th Street Bridge and celebrated in Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy), was renamed The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
New York City and its residents benefited from Mayor Ed Koch. Ed was proudly Jewish and proud to be a New Yorker. He was a good man and a great Mayor. You did good, Ed.