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Harry Gottschalk died April 29, 2014, in Dover, New Hampshire. He was 92 years old. Those who saw him in his French beret shopping for fresh produce, or heard his window-breaking laugh, or ate the bread he kneaded after painting in his studio all day, witnessed his deliberately optimistic life.
Harry was one of five children, abandoned by a father and raised by a single mother in Illinois. He had many and varied careers over the course of his life, some simultaneously. He was a successful farmer, a chef, a finish carpenter, an adjunct professor (though he had not been to college himself).
After moving to Boston, he taught furniture-making in the North End, a highly segregated part of town at the time, and used to walk his non-white students to the subway after class. His arms were the size of tree trunks; their safety was assured.
For a long and important period, he worked in the first housing court in Boston, negotiating conflict between tenants and landlords. His moral standpoints were firm, but it was his oddly, wonderfully wide employment history that brought perfect expertise.
People said there was no Harry without his wife Ruth. They met in late adolescence. Her disapproving mother sent Ruth to a convent school to avoid the blossoming romance, but eventually, perhaps feeling guilt or just the recognition of unstoppable love, she softened, and began to smuggle Harry in for visits.
When they moved to Boston, they created a salon on the top floor of an inner-city triple-decker, and filled it with reading lamps, poetry, animals, and Harry’s paintings. Together they raised two children, and together they mourned when one, a Marine, was killed in the Vietnam War. Ruth never gave away her son’s clothing, and became profoundly anti-war. Harry became political, too. During World War II, he had been a Marine drill instructor, and it was the one career he later rued.
Peace activists congregated in the house that smelled of baking bread. During that same time, Harry taught his granddaughter to flip pancakes that weren’t spongy, and joyfully sneak a Burger King Whopper every now and then. After tragedy, he understood the need for happiness. And he kept painting, painting, painting. His grand-daughter inherited 150 paintings, and his pancake recipe.
Towards the end of his life, after caring for Ruth at home through the arc of her dementia, he read biographies of political leaders and military generals, and told stories about the days before his many careers and causes had begun — stories about farming, and camping with horses and packs under a starry sky.
Did you know Harry Gottschalk? Share your memories in the comments section.
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