Renaissance Man and His Woman for All Seasons
Louis Epstein likes to tell a story about a conversation on the Shenango River Bridge in downtown Sharon early in the 20th century. Two sons of East European Jewish immigrants, Nathan Rosenblum and Sam Lurie, were discussing their businesses – Nathan’s grocery store and Sam’s men’s clothing store.
“Nathan,” Sam said, “you’ve got the best business – no seasons, no sizes, and everyone has to eat.”
But that didn’t make it an easy business. Nathan, Louis’s maternal grandfather, had started out by making the rounds with a horse and buggy selling retail items to families throughout Mercer County. Then he opened a grocery store in downtown Sharon. But the hard work paid off – not only for him, but for the next two generations of his family. He built the business into Golden Dawn Foods, which he passed on to his children, who in turn passed it on to the next generation.
Louis began working in the business when he was still in school. One of his summer jobs sort of emulated his grandfather’s start.
“A couple of cousins and I went to Oil City, Franklin, all over the place door to door leaving rolls of Charmin toilet paper as a sampling campaign,” he said. “That’s how I got started in the grocery business.”
After graduating from Sharon High School in 1943, Louis enlisted in the army. Instead of being shipped off to basic training, he was sent to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Tech.
“It was a kind of college program to train you to go into specialties in the army,” Louis said. “We studied engineering, physics, chemistry, that sort of thing.”
But the program was disbanded after a semester or two. Louis was shipped to the Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, VA.
“They tested everyone for their ability to recognize rhythm sequences, which is related to musical ability. I played clarinet and piano, and I rated almost a perfect score, which indicated that I would be good with Morse Code. I became a high-speed radio telegrapher.”
The Corps of Engineers sent him to Seattle, Washington, where he transferred into a top-secret Signal Corps Intelligence unit. They intercepted radio traffic in the Far East with 120-ft. rhombic antennas aimed at Japanese communications centers. They were also able to precisely locate Japanese radio stations in the Pacific by triangulating from Fort Lewis, the Aleutian Islands, and California.
“It was interesting and mentally challenging work,” he said, “and I think we made a major contribution to the war effort.”
After the war, Louis went to the University of Rochester. He majored in General Science, in spite of the fact that his future was likely to be in the grocery business.
“I took an extra year and studied business related courses,” he said. “They used to kid me that I was the only grocery buyer that used a slide rule.”
Meanwhile, back in Sharon, Sam Lurie’s Clothing Store, like the Rosenblum’s grocery business, passed through the next two generations, first to Sam’s son George, then to George’s son Sammy.
George also had a daughter named Marlene. Louis knew her, but she was five years younger than he. She hadn’t even started high school when he went into the army.
“When he came back from the service,” Marlene said, “my mother took me over to his house on the pretext of visiting somebody there, hoping he’d notice me, and he did.”
Marlene and Louis were married in 1950 at the old Pic Ohio Hotel in Youngstown.
“We had a problem with the guest invitation list,” Marlene said. “We joked that when we were married we were related to half the people in town. We had to make the cutoff at first cousins.”
Louis continued with Golden Dawn, along with his cousins Harold Rosenblum and Francis Miller. Louis became its president shortly before the family sold it in 1982 to Peter J. Schmitt, a large Buffalo NY wholesaler. For the next nine years Louis worked as a vice president of Peter J. Schmitt.
Then he retired – actually, semi-retired. He served the next 10 years as vice president, treasurer, and general manager of the Buhl Farm Trust. While there, he improved and computerized the Trust’s accounting, business, and investment practices.
Louis gave back to his community through extensive public service. He served in a number of Jewish organizations and activities, including Temple Beth Israel where he served as board member, treasurer, brotherhood president, assistant organist, and choir member. In 1998 he was the recipient of the B’nai B’rith Guardian of the Menorah Award.
He was also active in the Sharon Kiwanis Club, and served as president of The Shenango Inn, The Mercer County United Way, and The Sharon Country Club. He is past president of the Shenango Valley Community Concert Association, board member and past president of the Youngstown Symphony Society, and member of the New Castle/Shenango Valley Pittsburgh Symphony Board of Directors.
The Epsteins had three children: Richard, Susan, and Georgia. While raising them, Marlene also did extensive community service work.
“I was almost a full-time volunteer,” she said.
She was president of the Shenango Valley section of the National Council of Jewish Women. With the Youngstown Symphony, she founded Children’s Concerts in the Schools. She helped secure a Pennsylvania state grant to form the original Mayor’s Committee on the Arts (now the Shenango Valley Performing Arts Council), and was its first president. She also founded the Summer Friends Program for disadvantaged children. Marlene is also chairman of fundraising for the local chapter of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization.
For a while, Marlene worked for Ed Bortner’s travel agency. This experience turned out to be very useful.
“The old First National Bank downtown had a travel agency in their Sharon building,” she said. “They wanted to get out of the travel business, so they offered it to Peter Mortensen. He said, ‘My wife has been in the airline business and I think she’s looking for something to do.’ And Mary Wellman, whom I knew through volunteering, was also looking for something to do. They knew I was conscientious and would work hard, so they invited me to join them.”
They met to talk about it at Mary’s house.
“Mary’s husband asked the accountant if he thought we would make any money. The accountant said, ‘Well, I don’t know, but it will keep them out of the stores.’”
As it turned out, the business was profitable from the get-go. It was also fun – and still is.
The business gave them the opportunity to travel – a lot. Marlene’s theory was that you can’t sell what you don’t know. Their most interesting trips were to Egypt, China, and the Galapagos Islands.
The Epsteins’ businesses and public service would not have been possible if it weren’t for the closeness and strength of their family. These characteristics were tested about eighteen years ago. Their daughter Susan and her husband, Dr. Robert Gluckman, had two daughters when she was diagnosed with mylodysplasia, a disease which turns into leukemia.
“The best place for treatment was UCLA.” Marlene said. “We stayed there for six months with some of Louis’s cousins. The only hope was a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor.”
One of Marlene’s nephews volunteered to be a donor.
In spite of the bone marrow transplant and a liver transplant, Susie passed away within two years. Through it all, the Epstein family grew closer. It also made them appreciate the community in which they live.
“People will say, ‘How can you live in Sharon. What’s in Sharon?’” Marlene said. “Living in small towns has a terrific advantage because you know everybody. The outpouring of friends, and of people we hardly knew, showed us how much people care.”
Their daughter Georgia lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, Dr. Murray Robinson, and their four children. Louis’s older brother, Marvin, is a retired internist/cardiologist living in Walnut Creek, California.
After the untimely death of Marlene’s father, her mother Ella married Dr. David Ekker, a Shenango Valley dentist. As a result, Marlene gained another brother, Henry Ekker.
Their son Richard is the managing partner of the Ekker, Kuster, McConnell, and Epstein law firm. Like his parents, he is very active in community service. He was recently honored as “Man of the Year” by the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Marlene and Louis continue to live life to the fullest.
“I’m a people person,” Marlene said. “I love my clients, I love my staff, I like what I do. I could retire but I would miss the people contact. I’m only working three days a week now, but I’m still very active.”
Louis’s love of music has continued unabated. He still takes piano lessons, and took clarinet lessons until last year. He plays in the Mercer County Community Band that presents concerts on the courthouse lawn, and in the Buhl Farm Band.
He also continues his life-long love of photography. At age 8 or 9, he earned reward points selling Ladies’ Home Journal, and redeemed them for a basic camera and dark room set. For years he developed his own film and prints, but now he works completely in digital photography. He loves the marriage of the computer and photography, which allows so much more versatility, and eliminates the need for boxes and boxes of photographs. He began with a PC, but now he’s also learned MAC, and he’s still taking computer lessons.
Because of his broad interests and abilities, Marlene calls Louis her “Renaissance Man.” Because of hers, he calls her his “Woman for All Seasons.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009