A LIFE WELL LIVED: At age 98, Bee Crain is still doing and giving

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Driving toward one’s 100th birthday does not seem as uncommon as in past decades.

But if a would-be centenarian is still up and about, full of what was once called vim and vigor, the question is still asked: What is your secret?

“In my 90s, I told my secretary I don’t have time to die,” responded Beatrice Crain, 98, known to all as “Bee.”

Bee Crain with Dr. Joseph Kirsner,  one of the world’s leading experts on inflammatory bowel disease.

“You should see my desk. I have many things going on at one time. It keeps me going.”

Move it or lose it? Mind over matter?

“It’s all of it,” said Crain, a great-grandmother of three and resident of Lake Point Tower, the downtown residential landmark high-rise. “You have to have a fight in you. Every day is a good day, if you want to accomplish something.

“It’s a gift from G-d. This is not something anyone can do on your own. Don’t abuse your body with alcohol or tobacco.  I listen to my body. If I’m not hungry, I don’t eat.  Your body is the greatest determiner of how you act. It is not easy to get out. But I do have to fight my feelings to stay home.”

Crain cannot be a shut-in. That would besmirch the family name and reputation. She is the relay person in a three-generation collection of Chicago Jewish philanthropists and business owners who have benefited a wide variety of causes. Religious institutions and medical centers alike have been financially supported by the family. But even more importantly is the elbow grease, activism and advocacy.

Crain with Dr. David Rubin, one of the leading GI physicians today and a protege of GI giant Dr. Joseph Kirsner.

“It’s important to do whatever you can to make this a better world,” she said. In Bee’s case, there are hundreds of people to meet, hands to shake and hugs to give out. She is co-chair of the GI Research Foundation’s 58th Annual Laughter is the Best Medicine Ball, a black-tie affair scheduled for June 1 at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Crain is continuing her decades-long support of digestive-system illness research by some of the country’s foremost experts at the University of Chicago. She counted among her closest friends two generations of Jewish healers. Dr. Joseph Kirsner practiced until age 100, no doubt inspiring Crain to keep on keeping on. Kirsner protégé Dr. David Rubin is now the top GI medico.

Bee’s father Sam Goldberg founded the family retail business on the South Side, and then began his support of worthy causes.  Crain’s son, Dr. Michael S. Maling, is now point man in the Crain-Maling Foundation. Among the causes the foundation backs are dogs trained for medical use and assistance for veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One offshoot is the opening of a counseling office for wounded veterans at the University of Illinois.

The backing of the Hebrew Theological College is the longest-running family philanthropy. Goldberg was one of the founding directors of the institution, which opened its doors on the West Side in 1921, eventually moving to Skokie 37 years later. He also assumed the role of treasurer for decades.

“They wouldn’t let him resign,” Crain said. “On the day he died at 80, he still was treasurer.” The menorah topping the college’s dome is named for Sam and wife Eva Goldberg.

Crain also sits on the board of the American Jewish Committee. She has helped sponsor youth auditions for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the Crain-Maling Foundation.

The last surviving child of Sam Goldberg, Bee is the keeper of the oral history of yet another classic Jewish immigrant success story. “Sam, may he rest in peace, came here from Russia at 16,” she said. “His parents loved him enough to send him away for life. They never saw him again. It was a miracle to get passage here.”

Reportedly starting with just $5, Goldberg opened a men’s clothing store at 48th and Ashland in 1904. Eventually named Goldberg’s Fashion Forum, the company opened more outlets and featured women’s apparel.

“My father was really of the very, very first advertisers on radio,” said Crain. “He sponsored a reading of the comics every Sunday. He had a live audience and live entertainers for kids during the spots.”

When three Chicago TV stations signed on during 1948, Goldberg jumped enthusiastically into the new medium. Goldberg Fashion Forum sponsored a two-hour movie weekly on WGN-TV.

“We had six models come in to show off the clothes on TV,” said Crain, who by now was busy working for the family business. She could not recall if Jack Brickhouse, who worked every conceivable program and commercial in WGN’s early days, was the announcer.

Bee helped with commercials and live fashion shows.

“I loved the world of fashion,” she said. “I never modeled, but I always enjoyed getting clothes together,” she said. “The most satisfying thing was to create a vision of beauty. There’s the coordinated colors and styles. It was a symmetry and balance to it, like painting.”

Crain surely applied her psychology degree from the University of Illinois to both handling fashion models and customers in the business, which lasted until 1988. All the while she started a family, marrying Arthur Gordon Maling. In addition to son Michael, the couple had a daughter, Evan, who later died after complications from melanoma.

Her second marriage, to Richard Crain, brought Bee in touch with her 57-year commitment to GI research. Crain had been a member of the U.S. Army engineering corps landing with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan upon their surrender in Sept. 1945. There, Crain met Kirsner, an active Army physician of Ukranian Jewish origins who seemingly had been everywhere in the final year of World War II.

Already notable for pioneering gastrointestinal research at the University of Chicago, which he joined in 1935, Kirsner joined the Army in mid-war. He treated wounded GIs, captured German officers and survivors of Nazi concentration camps who had complex nutritional issues in 1945. One day, Kirsner overheard the Germans complaining they’d be treated by a Jewish doctor, so he made them wait out in the rain while he tended to other patients.

After V-E Day, Kirsner was transferred to the Pacific Theater. Among his patients were Dutch POWs, suffering from burns from being interred too close to Ground Zero of the U.S. nuclear attack on Nagasaki.

Returning to Hyde Park, Kirsner became one of the world’s leading experts on inflammatory bowel disease. He trained platoons of doctors in learning how to care for patients – both in body and mind.

“Kirsner was an inspiration to me,” Crain said. “He was one of the most incredible people I had the pleasure of knowing. I loved that man. He was a true friend.

“He was the father of gastroenterology. He was a prime example of tikkun olam.”

Kirsner particularly impressed Crain with his bedside manner. “People who suffered from GI diseases incur a great deal of pain,” she said, fortunate to not have any of her own family members afflicted. But Kirsner did not limit his patient care to GI diseases. When daughter Evan was hospitalized with cancer, Kirsner checked on her, monitoring her chart to make sure she was properly cared for.

Kirsner helped establish the GI Research Foundation in 1962. Crain has been a supporter ever since. Where once Kirsner was given $100 to fund studies for an entire year, now the GI effort pulls in multi-millions of dollars.

Like Crain, Kirsner was granted long life as a seeming reward for decades of mitzvahs. He kept regular office hours well into his 90s. Crain sat with him at his 100th birthday celebration at the U. of C. in 2010. A speech was demanded.

“He went up there without a note for an hour, and talked about all these names, dates and places,” she said.

Kirsner died on July 7, 2012 after a life well-lived. Treatment and relief for GI sufferers has improved to the point drug manufacturers can run TV commercial campaigns depicting patients not being afraid to eat meals away from home or tie emotional umbilical cords to nearby bathrooms.

“To be attached to a bathroom – how humiliating and embarrassing,” Crain said. “You know how debilitating these conditions are. Now, thanks to the research, I find that many people who have these problems are completely functioning individuals. To see these people suffering before, and now being helped is a blessing. We lay people worked so hard to help humanity.”

Crain with comedian Jay Leno.

But Kirsner’s, and now David Rubin’s, work is far from done.

Thus the 58th annual GIRF gala will be staged from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday, June 1, at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, 350 E. Water St.  The goal is to raise $1 million for research “Saturday Night Live” alum and actor David Spade is the evening’s entertainer. Emcee is WMAQ-TV reporter LeeAnn Trotter. Live music, dancing and a 50/50 raffle will be included.

Institutional memory will be provided by both Rubin and Crain. The latter likely will have more stories than the sawbones.

Like the time she got into an elevator at Lake Point Tower to encounter Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who had taken over an entire floor for himself and his extended family.

“Sammy and I were alone in the elevator, and he was wearing a T-shirt,” she said. “He was very friendly, and it was the first time in my life I was up that close to a star like that.

“I remember those bulging muscles.”

“I cannot understand the lack of appreciation of so many Americans living in this country. We are so blessed here,” she said.

Crain is blessed personally living nearly a century.

“It’s worse if your mind goes before your body,” she said. “If your mind goes, you’re nothing but a vegetable. I see that all around me. A woman on my floor, she was so gorgeous, like a butterfly, an artist. But she got lost by my door.”

Witnessing others, “I cannot complain of anything in particular.”

Tickets begin at $600 for the Laughter is the Best Medicine Ball. Sponsorship opportunities are available starting at $10,000. RSVP via The GI Research Foundation’s web site or e.givesmart.com/events/ci3/.

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