Shirley and Morris Beider of Waterford, 96 and 94 years old respectively, know a thing or two about wishing each other a “shanah tovah” — they’ve been saying it to each other for 72 years; 76, if you include their courtship, which began when they met in 1941.
Morris and Shirley were spending their respective summers working at separate boys and girls camps across the lake from each other in Browns Lake, Wis.
Morris was on a day hike with some of his campers when he stopped on the girls’ side for a drink of water; that’s when he laid eyes on Shirley Greenspan of Omaha, Neb. It was love at first sight. Morris was now far more interested in Shirley than quenching his thirst.
After some small talk, Morris asked then 19-year old Shirley if he could see her that night. “Perhaps go into town and take in a movie,” he suggested. She accepted the invitation. Shirley told me during that initial conversation that Morris, 18, and over one year her junior, conveniently didn’t reveal his age. “That’s because he didn’t want me to say no,” she told me with a blushful smile, implying her dating a “younger” man would have created the romantic scandal of the summer.
Any doubt Morris was smitten with Shirley was put to rest on only their second date that summer. “I asked her if she would keep kosher when we got married,” he recalled with great pride. “And she said she would!”
Shirley’s reaction to Morris’ account? It was a sweet, schoolgirl-like chuckle that came from across their dining room table that made me feel like 96-year-old Shirley had been instantly transported back to that magical summer.
This was just one of the many heartfelt remembrances the Beiders graciously shared with me recently about their lifelong love affair. Though parting ways in the summer of ’41, Shirley returning home to Omaha and Morris to Chicago, they remained steadfastly committed to each other, though their lives would temporarily take them in different directions. It’s a journey that would endure a four-year long-distance courtship and a world war for which they both proudly served their nation.
After summer camp, Shirley remained in Omaha until her acceptance in the Philadelphia School of Occupational Therapy (OT) would take her more than 1,200 miles away from home. Morris, who continued his education in Chicago for a while, eventually moved to Detroit to further his education and seek employment.
Serving Their Country
Upon receiving her degree in 1943 as a registered occupational therapist, Shirley put her talents to use where they were needed most — in service to her country. She enlisted in the Navy; serving during WWII as did her sister and brother.
Remaining stateside, Shirley worked tirelessly to help returning servicemen recover from their battlefield injuries, utilizing her skills in what was then a burgeoning new field of medicine.
However, despite her expertise, Shirley wasn’t given a commission in the Navy, something that still infuriates her husband more than 70 years later. At the time, you needed an undergraduate degree to receive an official rank. OT, whose development was still in its infancy, was not yet given the respect it rightfully deserved.
Shirley wasn’t looking for recognition — she was only looking to help. So, despite the fact her educational credentials should have afforded her the rank of corporal, she humbly accepted the role of Hospital Corpsman Second Class. In that capacity, she went on to become a pioneer, a true trailblazer in her field and for women. During WWII, Shirley trained officers, developed innovative new therapy techniques and went on to be the chief of OT departments in Naval hospitals that she helped create in San Diego and Seattle.
War had other plans for Morris as well. His education and employment pursuits were interrupted when he, like his beloved Shirley, enlisted in the Navy in November of 1942. “I was anxious to get in,” he said. “I would listen to the war on the radio, what was going on in Europe as far as what Hitler was doing to the Jews. I wanted to personally get there.”
Having already completed a variety of courses in biology, science and first aid, the Navy deemed Morris well suited to be a Hospital Corpsman First Class and assigned him to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois for formal training.
Over time and with additional training, Morris rose to Pharmacist Mate Third Class and served in that capacity aboard the USS Norman Scott and USS William C. Miller. He took direct orders from medical officers and played a critical role in the administration of hands-on care including giving physicals and, as Morris vividly recalls, even “scrubbing and assisting on surgeries.” At one point during his time at sea, the Miller was without a physician, essentially thrusting Morris and one other pharmacist mate into the role of ship’s doctor.
Their love and devotion to each other, like so many of their generation, had been sustained by letter writing.
More drama on the USS Miller lay ahead for Morris when on Feb. 23, 1945, he would have a front-row seat to history as an eyewitness to the iconic raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima. “We were about 300 yards away from the shoreline,” Morris said. “I watched though a pair of borrowed binoculars. You could watch it like it was in a movie.”
Morris had already witnessed his fair share of historical milestones while in the armed services; his return home from overseas would provide yet another. “I arrived home on April 12, 1945, the day President Roosevelt died.”
After reuniting with his family in Detroit, Morris called Shirley, who was still on active duty in Seattle, to let her know he was coming to see her. “We had only seen each other a handful of times,” Morris recalled of their time apart since the summer of 1941.
Their love and devotion to each other, like so many of their generation, had been sustained by letter writing; treasured letters that remain in a box in the Beiders’ home that Morris and Shirley respectfully asked to keep private. She did share with me, however, that “they included a lot of I love you’s.”
Of his impending visit to Seattle, Shirley informed Morris: “If you’re going to come, we’re going to get married; otherwise, don’t come.” Less than three weeks later, on May 2, 1945, they were married in the home of a Seattle rabbi. In December of 1945, they moved to Detroit to begin their lives anew.
Shirley went on to become the first student at then Wayne University to earn a bachelor’s of science degree in occupational therapy.
Her first job interview at Ford Hospital was one she’ll never forget. “They needed an OT to run their department but after my interview I was asked what my religion was. I said, ‘Is that important?‘” The interviewer replied, “Yes.” Shirley responded that she was Jewish, at which time she was informed: “I’m really sorry but we can’t hire you.” No further explanation was given. None was needed.
To say the least, her next interview at the Veterans Administration in Dearborn had a far different outcome. After her experience at Ford Hospital, a resolute Shirley informed her interviewer that she was an observant Jew and needed “to take off every religious holiday. I am leading an observant life and I want you to know from the beginning. If you can’t do that then I’m not going to work for you.” The interviewer responded emphatically, “No, no, no. You’re perfect! We need you right now. Can you start today?” Shirley did.
Shirley went on to an accomplished career in occupational therapy. She took a break while helping raise her three children, but eventually returned to her passion of OT on a part-time basis when they had grown. To this day, Shirley is sought after by young people seeking advice about the field of occupational therapy.
With support from the GI Bill, Morris went on to receive his undergraduate degree and teaching certificate from Wayne University and a master’s of art from the University of Michigan. After working in a variety of occupations, he accepted a teaching position in industrial arts at Ferndale High School, where he became a beloved, award-winning teacher for 28 years until his retirement in 1983. During his tenure, Morris would also proudly serve as the first chairman on the Committee for Negotiations for the Michigan Education Association.
The Beiders have spent their retirement traveling the world and enjoying their 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Today they stay close to home and look after each other with the same love and devotion they had the day they met and fell in love at summer camp 76 years ago.
Like I find when I write about everyone from our Greatest Generation, the Beider story includes far too much history to share in just a single column. You might say they are far more deserving of a book. A “Book of Life” perhaps? At this time of year, I can’t think of two people more deserving.
Morris Beider was on the USS Miller when it escorted the USS Indianapolis to the island of Tinian on July 26, 1945. Only after the fact would he and his crew learn that they had been part of a secret mission that would change the course of the war.
“We took the bomb to Tinian,” said Morris of the startling revelation that he was an unknowing participant in the Indianapolis’ delivery of components for the world’s first atomic bomb that was destined for Hiroshima.
Sadly, four days later, the Indianapolis, the ship that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo; 880 of the 1,196 on board perished — the single largest loss of life at sea in U.S. naval history. Its final resting place remained a mystery until just this past Aug. 17 when a civilian research group, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, announced they had discovered the long-lost wreckage of the Indianapolis in 18,000 feet of water in the North Pacific.