Wednesday, October 20, 2004

He remembers the 'ups' and forgets the 'downs'

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

John Straus of Loveland and his wife, Margo, inside Jewish Hospital's gift shop in Kenwood, one of two hospitals for which he volunteers. Always quick with a quip, he turns 100 on Nov. 12.
KENWOOD - John Straus must fill his water bottle from the fountain of youth.

Wry, spry and full of mischief, he makes everyone feel young.

"They should," he deadpanned. "Everybody's younger than me. On Nov. 12, I turn 100."

Straus' age qualifies him as the region's oldest hospital volunteer. His approach to life, witty and optimistic - even in the face of Nazi Germany's evil - ranks him as the most philosophical.

"I've had some ups and downs in my life," he said. "The downs I've forgotten. The ups I remember."

On Wednesdays, Straus works the cash register in the gift shop at Jewish Hospital. That's the site of today's birthday party, the first in a series of such events to be held in his honor.

On Fridays, he pushes the hospitality cart into the waiting rooms of Bethesda North, where he will be feted Oct. 29.

His career as a hospital volunteer came late in life.

Straus and his wife, Margo, arrived in Cincinnati in 1947. They raised two children, Tom, now a Middletown ophthalmologist, and Hazel Goldberg, a speech pathologist at Bethesda North.

The birthday-boy-to-be worked as a credit manager for two Cincinnati firms until he was 80. Then, he retired. For one week.

He started volunteering - "when I was young and pretty" - at Jewish and Bethesda North. He's donated 11,387 hours of his time.

"I've never met a more selfless man," said Karen Calligandes, Jewish Hospital's gift shop manager. "I hope his spirit for helping others and bringing a smile rubs off on the young people who come into the store."

Ever the quipster, Straus has puckish advice for anyone wanting to reach the century mark:

• Stand on your own two feet. "I do," he said, standing behind the gift shop's cash register. "And after all these years, they're not flat."

• Stick around for the long haul. He's been married to Margo, 88, his one and only love, for 65 years. "It was love at first sight. When I asked her if it was love at first sight for her, she didn't say yes, she didn't say no. After 65 years, I figure it's yes."

• Eat right. "I never take vitamins," he said. "I just eat whatever she cooks," he added with a nod to Margo.

"John eats lots of vegetables," she said. "But he is a meat-and-potatoes man." With a sweet tooth.

"I can't keep him away from sugar," she sighed. "To him a meal isn't complete without dessert."

His favorite: Rice pudding.

• Exercise. "When he's not volunteering," his wife noted, "John rides a stationary bike 30 minutes a day."

• Stay healthy. "I don't have arthritis. I've never had a cataract," Straus said. He only takes two medications, a blood thinner and a baby aspirin.

• Honor your parents. "My mother lived 98 years and 10 months. People tell me: 'Living long is in your genes.' I tell them: 'I don't wear jeans.' "

• Keep the customer satisfied. With every purchase, everyone gets a gift, a zinger or a compliment. To the doctor buying one stamp, Straus asked: "Just one? Can you afford it?"

To nurse Chris Holmes, who told Straus she was a 31-year veteran at Jewish, he remarked: "Can't be. You're just a teenager."

Holmes laughed and stepped back to gaze in wonder at the soon to be 100-year-old man.

"He's amazing," she said, "I've never seen him have a sad day."

• Accentuate the positive.

Margo and John Straus got married in their native Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 8 and 11, 1939. The first was before a swastika-wearing government toady. A rabbi performed the second ceremony.

They tried to leave the country for Australia and Trinidad. No deal. They got on a waiting list to come to America, but their numbers never came up.

Their luck changed, Margo said, "on Aug. 27, when we left for England." Five days later, Hitler launched World War II.

During the war, they had no inkling about the horrors Hitler created with the Holocaust.

"We only learned about the Holocaust after the war," Margo said.

"We never thought we would never see our family again. We lost 80 family members, cousins, aunts, uncles. And my mother."

In England, they found work as domestics. Straus scrubbed floors on his hands and knees. He broke "chunks of coal into little pieces. I had never done work like that."

Someone else might have found that work demeaning. But not John Straus.

"It didn't bother me," he said. "When I came home, I took a bath and I was still the same person."

They had bad days in Nazi Germany before the war and in England during the war. When they came to America, they struggled to make ends meet and raise a family on $35 a week.

Through it all, John told his wife what he believed in his heart:

"Tomorrow will be better."


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