There is a beautiful scene in “The King and I” where the king’s wife sings to Anna about her extraordinary husband.
Rarely does this scene replay in real life. Yet listening to Sheila Scherl speak about her husband, Newton, who died on October 20 at 86, comes close. Listening to her, you get a sense not only of how deep their bond had been but of how remarkable Newton Scherl really was.
A beloved doctor, doting husband and father, lifelong poet and joke-teller, there was something about him that elicited expressions of affection not only from family and friends but from patients as well.
Mrs. Scherl said she has dozens of letters from former patients, some several pages long. “They spoke about him as an individual,” she said. “About who he was.” And on his 85th birthday, his children, Zev and Rachel, honored him with a poem expressing their admiration for his accomplishments, character, and devotion to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Not surprisingly, when he died at 86, he was surrounded by loved ones.
A poet in his own right, “Newton started writing poems when he was 10,” said his wife, showing the book in which her husband recorded these works. His earliest poems dealt with topics from “Spring” to “Rudolph Hess,” reflecting his wide range of interests even then. Later poems deal with World War II — the liberation of Paris, General Douglas MacArthur, and D-Day. Always there are poems on Jewish themes, from Chanukah and Purim to his own bar mitzvah. Most of the works, however, are dedicated to friends and family, celebrating their accomplishments and milestones.
Dr. Scherl also wrote a memoir, a copy of which he gave to every grandchild — using the concluding pages to leave what you might describe as an ethical will. In it, he writes of the importance of giving tzedakah, “living a moral life and teaching by example,” the value of friendship, and his love of Judaism. He prays that his family will remain close and will cherish these values.
Newton David Scherl and Sheila Meisler met cute. After graduating from medical school in 1955, Dr. Scherl served his internship at Mount Sinai hospital. There, in the operating room, “he was holding retractors with the patient’s stomach open,” recalls Sheila. She was the nurse.
Their eyes met, and he asked to see her outside. She was dating someone else, but that relationship soon ended, and she and Newton married in 1957. His parents were taken aback, she said, unused to the concept of a Jewish nurse. Women then were expected to become teachers. (Newton and Sheila’s own daughter, Sharon, attended nursing school as well, but then raised the bar a bit higher, announcing that she wanted to become a doctor.)
After a two-year stint in the Air Force, Newton Scherl did a fellowship in gastroenterology and was an early user of fiberoptic endoscopes. When his father, Sam, died, he took over the latter’s medical practice in the Bronx. “His father died at a young age, so he took over his practice,” Ms. Scherl said. “It was connected to the house, so he saw his mother three times a week.”
But she wanted to move back to New Jersey. “I grew up in Weehawken and Fort Lee,” she said. As a result, the couple moved to Englewood Cliffs 52 years ago. “We stayed in the same house,” Ms. Scherl said, adding that it grew to accommodate their expanding family. Indeed, they remained in that house until just a few years ago, when they moved to an apartment in Fort Lee.
“We had a family room on the lower level,” she recalls of their Englewood Cliffs home. Their family grew to include four children and 10 grandchildren. “At some seders, we had more than 40 people.”
Newton Scherl’s reputation as a gastroenterologist is as impressive as his devotion to family.
He practiced at Englewood Hospital for 40 years, where he served as a president of the medical staff and chief of gastroenterology. He clearly was respected by his colleagues. He retired in 1999, but he meant so much to the hospital his funeral was held in the medical center’s auditorium.
He also was treasured by his friends. Among them was Rabbi Irving Spielman, then the rabbi of Gesher Shalom, the Fort Lee Jewish Center. The couple joined the synagogue in 1962 and have remained members throughout the years. “I still keep in touch with Rabbi Solomon Rothstein, who’s now in Florida,” Ms. Scherl said. Rabbi Rothstein was the shul’s spiritual leader when they first joined.
Sheila Scherl uses the word “love” frequently when describing her husband. “He loved his family. He was very close to his parents — he adored them. He loved his children, and me, unquestionably. He loved Israel — we went there 22 times, almost every 18 months. He found members of the family who were saved from the Holocaust and re-established a connection with all of them.”
And then there were the jokes — particularly an old Red Buttons comedy routine that Newton Scherl mastered and performed at every opportunity. “At every big festival he would get up and do a whole 20-minute routine,” his wife said. “Some jokes were a little risqué, but none were vulgar. Just funny, and they got a good laugh.”
Newton Scherl continued to work even after three open heart surgeries. “He was still practicing, but he realized it was too much stress,” Ms. Scherl said. But there are other Drs. Scherl — their daughter Sharon and son Michael.
Dr. Newton Scherl is survived by his wife, Sheila; brother, Burton; children, Michael (Stephanie), Sharon (Eric), Zev (Rachel), and Saul (Jodi); grandchildren, Dr. Sophie, Jacob, Zeke, Randi, Isabel, Jen, Hannah, Adinah, Sam, and Jonah, and many nieces and nephews.