|Shirley Horowitz preparing to skydive and in midair.|
It’s pretty unusual for a whole new life to grow out of a newspaper ad for a federal civil service exam, but that’s what happened to Shirley Lebowitz Horowitz of Fort Lee.
Horowitz, 90, grew up in Borough Park in Brooklyn; she went to New Utrecht High School, was skipped frequently, and graduated at 16. Her family, which was Orthodox, as she is, cherished education in ways that seem familiar to us now, but were not as common then – all four siblings went to college. Shirley Lebowitz graduated from Brooklyn College, majoring in economics, worked as a market researcher in a chemical consulting firm, got married, became pregnant, “and then I left and I went home to have a family,” she said.
Shirley and Ruben Horowitz, a CPA, lived first in Borough Park and then in Flatbush, where they brought up their daughter and two sons in one of that neighborhood’s rambling, charming Victorian houses. Horowitz was a textbook midcentury mom, using her formidable brains and driving energy as president of the sisterhood at their shul, Beth El in Borough Park, and in the PTA of her sons’ school, the Etz Chaim Yeshiva there. She always had been athletic, and for eight years she was a tennis instructor at the summer camp to which her children had gone.
“We traveled quite a bit,” she said. “We had a very good life.”
By the time her children were mainly grown, though, she was getting bored. “I had been working in all these associations as a volunteer, and you know, you get very tired of it,” she said. “I did it for years and years, and then I started doing it less and less. I spent a lot of time playing mah jongg. It was pointless.”
Then her husband saw that ad.
Horowitz took the test, and “I did well,” she said. She always loved mathematics and had a real aptitude for it; now that love, theoretical up to this point, had a very practical application.
She worked for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Everyone else who worked there was my children’s age,” she said.
At first, she worked in the field, collecting data for the Consumer Price Index. “We used to price a list of items in the grocery store, and then reprice it and measure the change,” she said.
She earned promotion after promotion, and “then I graduated to a much better job inside,” managing the survey from the bureau’s offices on 45th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, she said. Her next promotion, to senior field economist, took her back into the field, this time for the Producers Price Index. “That was fascinating. It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
In that job, Horowitz’s task was to study the industry, to determine which four or so materials to price, and then to interview executives to gather information from them. Cooperating with the bureau was not mandatory for the executives, “but 85 percent or more would cooperate,” she said. “I’d see people at the top – the president, vice president, comptroller of the company. I went to IBM, to Mobil Oil, to some of the biggest companies in the country.” Often, they’d be surprised when she walked in, not expecting “a middle-aged lady,” but that was nothing she couldn’t handle.
Horowitz’s region centered on the tristate area, which for some reason included Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. “I was forced to go to the Virgin Islands maybe 15, 16 times,” she said with mock dismay.
She worked at the bureau for 24 years, until she was 74. “I didn’t retire because I had to, but one day, that’s just it,” she said.
There was another constant in her life.
Shirley Horowitz is a daredevil.
“I always was a tomboy,” she said. As a child, she swung on a fire escape and fell through an open cellar door. She broke her arm. Another time, she jumped from stone to stone in Prospect Park. She broke her arm.
As she grew older, she broke fewer bones, but not for lack of trying.
When she and her husband were newlyweds, they were on vacation, driving on a back road in New Hampshire when they passed a sign saying “Plane Ride.”
“It was a little Piper Cub, with an open cockpit,” Horowitz said. “Nothing on top. The pilot gave me a cloth helmet and a seat belt.”
The ride cost $25; the pilot offered to take her husband, too, for another $10, but “Ruby said ‘I wouldn’t go if you paid me,'” his widow recalled. “Instead, he asked for my ring and my watch before we took off.
“Ruby was a very practical man.”
She also went soaring in Elmira, N.Y. “It’s the best,” she said. A glider is hooked onto a small plane, which takes off from a mountain and then drops the connecting cable. “We’re up in the air, with no motor. No nothing. You go around with the current.
“There is such quiet. Absolute quiet.”
And it is otherworldly.
“You feel that there is – somebody – on your shoulder.”
Compared to that, “parasailing is okay, but you are being pulled by a boat, so you don’t have the same freedom.”
Horowitz found a hot-air balloon “not bad, but not so exciting.” She went sky diving when she was 86 – “there is no way to explain what that feels like”; took a helicopter flight so close to Mount Rushmore that the huge faces seemed within touching distance, and flew another helicopter over an active volcano in Hawaii. She rode a Harley Davidson outside Boston for half an hour when she was 87.
Her life has not been all work and play; there has been great sadness as well. Shirley and Ruby Horowitz moved to Fort Lee in 2001 to be close to their daughter, Darlene Fried, who lived in Teaneck and died of breast cancer a few years later. Horowitz herself was diagnosed with breast cancer as she sat shivah for her daughter; she is now cancer-free. Ruby Horowitz died three years ago.
Still, she says, she has had a very good life.
The one thing she would have liked to do that she did not get to? Bungee jumping, she said. She’d do it, but she can’t. “I don’t have the reflexes for it now,” she said.