Chicago Jew is 102 and still going strong

Julius Golembo

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The first question to Julius Golembo must be: Is there a difference between being 102 and 100?

His response is quick, with the equanimity one must possess to stay on Earth for a century-plus:

“Every day is the same for me, thank G-d,” said Golembo, his centennial birthday already two years in the rear-view mirror.

When the native West Sider and retired pharmacist was just half his age, a story on a centenarian would be a true standout. There were so few. Now, Golembo is not even the oldest resident of Weinberg Community for Senior Living, right by Lake Cook Road and Interstate 294 in Deerfield. Officials there report two women even older than Golembo in the house.

But make no mistake about it, the glib Golembo, described by admirers as “sharp as a tack,” is the life of the party. As he wheeled himself through the common meeting areas of Weinberg Community, he drew a crowd who engaged him in the lively art of conversation. He does not remotely look a withered 102. The only thing that slows him is neuropathy in his right leg that confines him to a wheelchair.

Just like so many other days in all the decades since 1915, Golembo reels in everyone with whom he interacts. Leading the pack are Sarah and Dan Alexander. Sarah is a cantor who leads services at Weinberg Community.

“Having real conversations with residents, before and after services, is part of what my wife Sarah does every time she leads a service,” said Dan Alexander, chief operating officer of Northwestern University Settlement Association. Sarah has commented to me that Julius has fascinating stories but, more than that, he’s always interested in hearing other people’s stories, drawing them out, sharing a laugh with them, or maybe a kvetch once in a while. 

“Julius goes out of his way to take an interest in people and what we’re all doing, and is always looking to do and know more.  He’d be at work in one of his pharmacies right now if it weren’t for medical problems.  I think he’d do prescriptions correctly, every time, even now, if he could stand.  But what’s truly remarkable is his spirit, to remain the vital person he’s been all these years of his life.  He seems to me to embody the secret to aging well, which is to live life to the fullest with all your spirit, and to seek connection to others with all you’ve got.  It’s his avodah (service).”

Sitting while moving is an odd stance for a man who spent a lifetime both working and thinking on his feet. By necessity, Golembo was a people person in the handful of pharmacies he ran from Logan Square all the way out to Lombard, where he was stranded for four days during the Big Snow of 1967. To make it to 102 with your wits about you is a supreme achievement with credit to heart, soul and good mazel.

No wonder Golembo is proud of his last visit to the doctor. More than anyone else, he understands a diagnosis, and can read between the lines. When he began his pharmacist’s career in the tag end of the Great Depression, he and his colleagues might have been “para-physicians.” Budget-squeezed urban residents could not easily afford the $2 or $3 price of a doctor’s visit. “The druggist had more respect than the doctor,” Golembo said. So they instead went to their local pharmacy for advice and a 25-cent prescription.

Now Golembo yields to the practices of the times. As long as they evoke good results.

“He takes my blood pressure,” Golembo said of his physical. “(The doctor) says, ‘Everything is fine by you. You’re an amazing man.’”

An old saying is G-d helps those who help themselves. In addition to having strong legs to work behind a drug counter, Golembo kept moving after retirement. In his 70s, he led an exercise class for seniors at the Mayer Kaplan JCC.

Golembo can no longer take comfort in realizing there’s someone always older, and likely wiser, than him. He always viewed age through a specific prism.

“Everything is in perspective,” he said in that trademark Douglas Park old-neighborhood, growing-up-Jewish accent. “When I was 10 or 12 years old, I’m talking with the guys and they say, ‘See that guy Larry over there. Boy, there’s an old guy for you. He’s a quarter of a century old. He’s 25 years old.’

“I said, ‘He’s 25. My G-d, that’s ancient.’ If you are 10 years old, 25 is ancient. If you get to be 40, you  see a guy about 60, this guy’s an old man, he’s 20 years older than you. I feel young compared to him. Everything to me is in perspective.”

But the perspective on aging changes as the 21st century matures.  Over the last two years, a trio of 100-year-olds, two men and a woman, celebrated their centenary by skydiving out of planes. “60 Minutes” recently profiled Ben Ferencz, a 97-year-old Jew, as the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremburg War Crimes trials. The diminutive Ferencz, who convicted SS officers solely via their own meticulous documents about shooting a million Jews in Poland and western Russia, is still active in campaigns against genocide.

Golembo won’t be flying through the troposphere or nailing the world’s worst criminals. But sitting at a table in a day room, he engrosses a visitor. For good measure, he clamps his left hand on the visitor’s right hand. That’s another sign of a people person comfortable in any surrounding.

A smart phone is inches away. Golembo can literally tune into the entire world through the little gizmo.  In his Lithuanian Jewish-immigrant home, though, such connectivity would have been straight out of Flash Gordon.  Radio was booming in the Depression – but not in the household of Saul and Jenny Golembo.

“We never had a radio,” their son recalled. “We lived on 16th Street and St. Louis.  When I wanted to listen to the Cubs game, I went over to (a store) on 12th Street.”

There was good reason to walk a half mile to hear the Cubs on any of seven radio stations carrying Wrigley Field games.  They were consistent contenders, making a World Series every three years. Then in Golembo’s early 30s, the team entered its Dark Ages. They would not make another Fall Classic, and win it, until he was 101.

At the same time, there’s  a sad backdrop to long life. Golembo has outlived his two wives (Beatrice and Lorraine) and two (son Leslie and daughter Darlene)of his three children. Daughter Sharon, living on the West Coast, is the family archivist. His social nature certainly masks the inevitable grief of seeing loved ones pass before you, while you retain all your faculties as the clock continues to tick.

But maybe his upbringing, part of the common Jewish West Side experience, toughened him up to emotionally survive the sorrows and gave him a purpose in relating to others at Weinberg Community.

Faith was constant when money was not among the Golembos in the first third of the 20th century. Julius, though, followed the track of other Jews away from old-world ritual with the demands to make a living in an America where Sunday, not Saturday, was a legislated day of rest.

“We were a very Orthodox family,” he said. “My father was in shul every day of the week. On the West Side, everyone was a shul member. My uncle was a rabbi. But once I started working (in pharmacies), I didn’t go to shul as much because I had to work Saturdays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper, though, I never worked, even when I had the bigger stores.”

Without a business to run and family to raise now, and with his full attention, Golembo has returned to his roots at Weinberg Community.

“Julius takes davening seriously,” said Alexander. “ He’s always in the front row at shul, always early, always with a special jacket on.  He needs a little assistance to get the jacket on and off –Julius has told me that he feels he owes that respect to what we’re all doing in shul.  You can hear his commitment in his blessing when he’s called up to the Torah.  He enunciates the Hebrew with feeling and understanding, and we hear the blessing for what it truly is.”

Away from services, Golembo certainly eats well now, compared to truncated meals of one potato and a piece of bread at the bottom of the Depression.

The Marshall High alum tried to better himself going to pharmacy school in 1933. The reward for graduate Golembo was eventually landing a job at Walgreen’s at Lawrence and Crawford avenues. He started at $30 a week. A breadwinner could survive in those times on such a payout.

“When you were a Jewish young man like me, that was a good job,” he said. “A half-a-buck an hour for 60 hours a week. You’d get a one-bedroom, four-room apartment for $25 a month. You could give your wife ten bucks to shop for groceries for a week, a week and a half. A pound of nice meat was about 13 cents a pound. If you were a guy who didn’t monkey around, you could save a couple of bucks.”

When he first met wife Beatrice in his pre-Walgreen’s days working at a small grocery on the West Side, he was not interested in courting.

“What does she want with me? She has nobody else?” he asked himself. “I have no time for her. Spend two bucks (going out) on a date?”

But fate and love had other plans. The couple was married in 1939 and had three children while Golembo worked his way up to $65 a week at Walgreen’s.

Deferred from World War II military service because of his status as a father and the presence of a pharamacist-protecting  Walgreen’s official on the draft board, Golembo was able to spread his wings with his own pharmacy at the corner of Milwaukee and Fullerton avenues by 1944. Soon afterward, though, he was offered an even better opportunity to run a pharmacy in west suburban Lombard.

At the time, the DuPage County town, with just 4,200 souls, basically hugged the Northwestern railroad tracks. Only one other pharmacy existed in the area. But Golembo opened with 6,800 square feet at 338 S. Main St.  The locals readily accepted their local mercantile Jew.

“Everybody thought I was Italian,” Golembo said.

In the pre-interstate days, Golembo had an hour’s drive each day to work from his Albany Park home.  He saved a little time moving to Skokie. On Jan. 26, 1967, the area was hammered by a record 23-inch snowfall. Golembo stuck by his store. Customers arrived toting sleds for their purchases.

In the meantime, he further expanded his drugstore empire. In 1960 he opened an outlet, eventually totaling 15,000 square feet, on the southwest corner of Harlem and Dempster in Morton Grove. Another store opened in Arlington Heights. Golembo knew the suburban market needed service in the decades before huge proliferation of chains.

“It was a camaraderie with the customers,” Golembo said. “I saw a person once or twice, I remember their names. I bent over backward with people. They sent my kids through college. Today in (chain) drugstores, you’re nothing but a number. They don’t know who you are.”

Later in life, Howard Warshawsky got to know exactly who Golembo was. Brother of his second wife Lorraine, Warshawsky has never met a character like Golembo in his own long life at 83.

“He’s in a special place,”” he said. “Why? He’s a mensch. My sister was a widow at 26. For 20 years, she raised a boy who was 1-year-old when his father died of Hodgkin’s Disease. She put him through the university.”

Lorraine and Julius Golembo fell in love a year after Beatrice’s death. Warshawsky feels he treated his new bride like royalty. “They were a beautiful couple, and she had a wonderful life” he said. But that was only part of the story.

“He’s just alive. He gets up in the morning and gets going. He’s independent. He’s got family values.”

Golembo charms the next generation coming up. Weinberg Community social worker Emily Mysel, 33, loves bringing son Max to gab with the great man.

“He loves Max,” Mysel said. “He’s only seen Julius a few times, but he feels a connection.

“Everyday’s a pleasure with him truly. He keeps us on our toes. He’s engaging, he’s interactive, he’s thoughtful, he adds life here.”

And the only way to keep adding life is maintaining the sharp, and retentive, thought process for which Golembo is renowned.

“If you’re mentally stable, you’re much better off than being physically (whole, yet impaired mentally),” he said.

Golembo’s mind-over-matter is a lesson for anyone moving up in years.

“I feel tremendous respect for Julius, his mind and heart and his long journey of life,” said Alexander. “He symbolizes the remarkable people I’ve met, davening at (Weinberg) with my wife and family, people who’ve built and sustained our community and who are a blessing to us, and part of us.  We can learn from them, talk with them, and face our own future elderly years helped by their courage and spirit.”

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