Cherishing the azaleas blooming
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Cherishing the azaleas blooming

Family and friends remember entrepreneur and philanthropist Norman Seiden of Tenafly

When G.I.s came home from Europe or the Pacific in the late 1940s, tired, war-weary, but also young, victorious, grateful to be alive, and ready to move on from fighting, ready to settle but open for adventure, many of them moved to the suburbs.

The G.I. Bill made it possible for many more people than ever before to live outside the city, and builders threw up as many new houses, standing ironically soldier-like in ranks and files of ranches and cape cods and center-hall colonials, for the vets and their families. The country was full of new opportunities, new starts, and new ideas.

Canny young entrepreneurs were able to make their names, and at times actual fortunes, by filling in niches that no one had noticed, or maybe even hadn’t existed before.

Norman and Barbara Seiden

Norman Seiden, who died at 94 on June 26, was one of them. A mechanical engineer, a real estate developer and investor, later a developer and funder of medical research and healthcare innovation, and always a philanthropist, his career took off when he invented the oscillating sprinkler, and it just went on from there.

Mr. Seiden was born in Worcester, Mass., but his parents, Anna and Samuel, moved the family to Kingsbridge, in the Bronx, when Norman was just a year old; he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and then from Perdue University. He trained as a mechanical engineer, his sister, Millie Seiden Graye of Norwood, said; he wasn’t going to be drafted until he graduated, but the war ended first. He married another student, Barbara Cohen, who was working on a degree in mathematics; she grew up in an Orthodox family in South Bend, Indiana, and they remained each other’s true loves, despite extraordinary health problems, until Ms. Seiden died in 2014.

Barbara and Norman Seiden moved to Hollis Hills, Queens, and Norman went to work with his father and an uncle, Louis, who had emigrated to the United States from Grodno, in Russia. The family’s business was tool-and-die making; they had devised a system that allowed them to “make bullet dies that could hold a lot of bullets without breaking,” Ms. Graye said. Samuel and Lou Seiden had two brothers and two sisters; two of their siblings had gone to Palestine, and the brothers did business there as well.

They also manufactured metal compacts and cigarette cases.

“When Norm came into the business, they were still making compacts but getting ready to do something else,” Ms. Graye said. But they weren’t exactly sure what that something else might be. That’s when Norman Seiden thought about sprinklers.

He’d noticed that most of those new postwar houses that sprouted in the suburbs had neat little green lawns — but the lawns wouldn’t stay green if they weren’t watered. There were sprinklers, but preexisting technology allowed those sprinklers to water only the middle of the lawns, and they would supersaturate those sections. The corners would remain beyond their reach. But Mr. Seiden’s invention would get water to the corners, and protect the center from turning into mud.

Given his lifelong connection to Israel, it is not surprising that “he set up a kibbutz that would manufacture sprinklers,” Ms. Graye said. “That kibbutz — Kibbutz Na’an — is still in existence.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner — who heads Temple Emanu-El of Closter, was Mr. Seiden’s rabbi, and officiated at his funeral — saw a metaphor in those sprinklers. He compared it to the bits of crops left in the corners of the fields that we read about in the Book of Ruth, crops that the farmers had to leave ungathered for people who needed them. He had to take care of the people in the center, his family and friends, the people he loved, but he also worried about the others, the ones who depended on what they could glean, the ones out in the corners.

The Seidens’ company, Melnor Industries, flourished. Barbara and Norman had three children, Stephen, Pearl, and Mark. They moved to Tenafly in 1961, and became deeply involved in the local community. Barbara volunteered for many organizations, and found happiness as a stay-at-home mother. In 1966, the Seidens sold Melnor to Beatrice Foods. Norman also did a great deal of work in the Meadowlands, recognizing it as prime industrial real estate.

In 1976, Barbara Seiden went to the hospital for what should have been a routine procedure. It was not. It almost killed her — she was in a coma from which she was not expected to awaken — but she survived.

From then on, Norman devoted himself to her care.

He retired from his business positions, but in fact he never stopped working, his sister and his children say. He threw himself into both philanthropy and medical research; his formidable energy went not as much toward finding his wife a cure as to enabling the research that would help scientists understand what caused it, and therefore what could cure not only Barbara Seiden but other patients with similar brain injuries.

Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood knew Norman Seiden for more than 50 years, she said; Mr. Seiden and her late husband, Dr. Arnold Gold, who died in February 2018, used to talk on the phone just about every day. They’d normally talk sometime between midnight and 1 in the morning, and those calls would happen no matter where in the world they happened to be. There were times when the phone wasn’t necessary, though; the Golds and the Seidens often would travel together, even after Barbara’s accident made travel challenging.

Norman and Barbara Seiden, top, with Drs. Arnold and Sandra Gold.

Dr. Gold met Mr. Seiden soon after they all moved to Bergen County and got involved in building the Jewish community center that now is the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. They’d go solicit funds together, Dr. Gold said; “I would talk and talk and talk, and then Norman would be the perfect closer.”

One of her friend’s most noticeable characteristics was his silence, she said. “He was quiet. He wasn’t a hand-waver. He wasn’t the kind of leader who talked all the time. He was a thinker. He was a person who got things done. He influenced people because of his intelligence and judgment and good counsel.

“He was a person who had many interests. When he saw the need for something, he jumped in. He didn’t wait to be asked.”

Mr. Seiden sat on many boards and was the power behind many thrones, but “he didn’t like being the head honcho,” Dr. Gold said. He was the person who would come to a meeting, sit unobtrusively, listen quietly, and then, when everyone else was talked out, would summarize pithily and then come up with solutions and creative paths forward. “He let people run with the ball, and then he would catch it and make the goal,” she said.

Locally, he was deeply involved in the JCC and the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, and in the Russell Berrie Foundation.

“He was the instigator of so many projects, and he was relied on for major gifts,” Dr. Gold said.

“I have noticed that people who have received the benefit of a good deed have a varied ability and capability to remember that kindness,” Dr. Gold continued. “There is a limited time for gratitude with a lot of people. Some people remember for an hour. Some remember for a week. But Norman Seiden never forgot a good deed that was done for him, and he sent it back into the world a thousand times.

“He was a very good person.”

Mr. Seiden developed his interest in medical research because of his wife’s condition, and he funded it. He worked closely with the Golds and their Englewood Cliffs-based Gold Foundation For Humanism in Medicine. “He was my vice president for 25 years,” Dr. Gold, the foundation’s president, said. The foundation, as its name makes clear, works to infuse the science of medicine with an appreciation of the humanity of the patients to whom doctors apply that science. She remembers telling a board meeting about an administrator at the University of Virginia’s medical school who said, “We know a lot about the academic credentials of the people who are applying for residencies, but we don’t know nearly enough about how they take care of patients.

“And Norman said, ‘Let’s make a new honor society for medicine.’

“We did it. There hadn’t been a new honor society for medicine for 125 years, and in the AOA” — that’s the Alpha Omega Alpha — “the first screen is for your grades. So Norman got a grant to research the worth of grades in great doctoring. And we started the Gold Humanism Honor Society. We opened it in 2002 with two chapters, and we now have 160-plus chapters. We now have 40,000 people elected to the honor society, and now the electronic records of people applying for residencies show their membership.

“It was Norman’s idea. He was brilliant. He influenced the future of medicine. He could foresee a need, and fill it.”

Mr. Seiden was particularly interested in neurology; he was one of the founders of what came to be called the Barbara and Norman Seiden Advanced Optoelectronics Center and the Nano Technology Center at the Technion.

“He was a driving force in optoelectronics,” his son Stephen said. “It was important to him to provide the platform on which nanotechnology occurred at the Technion. “He was one of the driving forces, with the help of the Berrie Foundation and the Israeli government, in making sure that Israel — and specifically the Technion” — the Seidens were prominent among that university’s American Friends — “were well established in that field.

At a Gold Foundation dinner, counterclockwise from bottom left, Angelica and Russell Berrie, Barbara Seiden, Elaine and Myron Adler, Drs. Arnold and Sandra Gold, an unidentified couple, and Norman Seiden.

“And then the other Israeli universities were upset that they didn’t get the funding that the Technion got,” he continued. That goaded them to put more into the field themselves, and that propelled Israel into its position as the start-up nation, intellectually and scientifically agile and forward-looking. “So my father, you could say, in some ways was behind Israel’s primacy in technology,” he said.

His father was “always a very plan-ful person,” he added. “He was always looking to what he or the community could accomplish in the future. He was very strategic, and also very detailed.” And he always was early for meetings and appointments, he added. “Always always early.”

Mr. Seiden’s daughter, Pearl, talked about another one of her father’s most prominent characteristics — his willingness to change, to adapt to circumstances rather than letting them break him. “When my mom got sick, my dad had to adapt,” she said. “She’d been the homemaker, and he always was out, and all of a sudden he was at home, watching over her care.

Mark Seiden stands above his mother, Barbara, and Stephen is above his father, Norman; they flank their sister, Pearl.

“My father learned everything that he could about her malady, because until that time few people had survived what she had survived. So he searched around the world for medications and doctors who might have the expertise in that field. He developed the Myoclonus Research Foundation” — myoclonus is a movement disorder from which Barbara Seiden suffered — “to provide grants to doctors to do research to find out more about the malady, and ultimately to ensure results. He held symposiums where top researchers from around the world got together to talk not only about myoclonus but about basic brain science. And it helped the entire field of brain science.

“He was brilliant, he was very well-read, and he read, he learned, and he studied about everything he did. And on a more human side, my father understood what it was like to have a spouse with a chronic illness. He was able to set his sails and then turn them, so he could deal with the crisis. He always said that you have to make lemonade out of lemons, so he did.”

There was something else behind Mr. Seiden’s drive and his intellect, his family and Dr. Gold agreed. He was deeply kind.

“He was able to help many people in the community,” Pearl Seiden said. “People who had heard about what happened to my mother and had experienced something similar would call him to ask for advice, and he would spend hours talking to people he’d never met.

“He took that deep experience of what is was like to have this tremendous crisis, and he was able to be helpful to his friends as he got older.

“I spoke to him almost every single night, and I would say, ‘What did you do today?’ and it would always be that he went to see so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so, someone who was sick in the hospital, someone with a chronic illness, someone who was just lonely. He had empathy and compassion, and he could just sit and listen to people, and dispense his wisdom as needed, in a very quiet way.

“He felt compelled to do that. He felt that it was something he needed to do. My father believed that his reason for being on this earth was to make the world a better place. That was his fundamental drive, from sprinklers to medical research to building a better Jewish community. It was all to leave the earth a better place — and he did.”

Some of Norman Seiden’s many grandchildren and great-grandchildren surround him here.

Norman and Barbara Seiden’s three children all live in New Jersey; Stephen in Livingston, Pearl in Franklin Lakes, and Mark in Tenafly. They have 11 grandchildren and so far they have 20 great grandchildren. The youngest one was born just 12 hours before Mr. Seiden died. “Norman dedicated a nursery school in Israel for every one of his grandchildren,” Dr. Gold said.

Pearl Seiden remembers the way her father noticed natural beauty, and how he loved it. “One of his favorite times of year was the spring,” she said. “He would love to see the azaleas bloom. I remember him saying that you are lucky if you get to see 60 or 70 or maybe if you are very lucky 80 springtimes in your life.

“Sometimes he would say, ‘I have maybe only five years of azaleas to see,’ and we would always cherish when the azaleas bloomed.

“He would love to see the seasons change; sometimes he’d just take a ride up north to see the leaves turn color. Even in the last few years of his life, he was able to appreciate the beauty of the sun. It was very important to him. He would watch the sun. He didn’t take anything for granted. Not the sun. Not even the flowers blooming. Not even the azaleas. That was a very important lesson for me.”

“Having Norman’s hechsher” — his certificate of kashrut, of approval — “was like a path to getting something done,” Dr. Gold said. “He was an architect of the community, He was a doer. He could get things done.

“And he really respected people. He was a listener.

“Winston Churchchill said that it takes courage to stand and speak — and it takes courage to sit and listen.”

Norman Seiden sat and listened, and he gave and thought and read and did. And he watched the azaleas bloom.

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