Combining creativity, kindness, and steel

Combining creativity, kindness, and steel

Family and friends remember Myron Adler of Franklin Lakes, 1924-2015

When the businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Myron Adler died on September 15, the responses from across the local Jewish world — and the non-Jewish world, and the non-local world — were astonishingly consistent.

Mike Adler (because no one called him Myron) was real, everyone said. The team that was Mike-and-Elaine — because the husband and wife, married since June 12, 1949, were a full and indissoluble partnership — combined a level-headed, even steely analytic intelligence with a basic, gut-level goodness that led them to help others not out of ego, nor out of noblesse oblige, but instead from a genuine desire to help.

Mike and Elaine Adler formed a formidable business and philanthropic team.
Mike and Elaine Adler formed a formidable business and philanthropic team.

The Adlers applied their combination of steel and heart in a unique way (note that the word “unique” is overused, but here it’s simply accurate) in 1993, when Mr. Adler suffered a stroke that left him aphasic. The result of their loving efforts, the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, not only helped Mr. Adler but also has provided care, programming, and hope to many other people confronting aphasia.

Or, as Kathy Burke, the assistant dean of nursing programs at Ramapo College — one of the many institutions the Adlers have supported — said of Mike and Elaine Adler, “They were magic.

“Really. They truly were magic.”

Myron Adler was born at home — 318 Second Avenue in Manhattan on August 6, 1924. His father, David, was a doctor, a general practitioner who worked at Beth David Hospital; Myron was born with the aid of a midwife, but his father, who made house calls, “delivered something like 25,000 babies,” Elaine Adler said.

His uncle published a green sheet with tips about racehorses, the Adlers’ daughter, Marie Adler-Kravecas, recalled having been told. “My father would say that his father would sit next to his brother, studying the anatomy of people, and his uncle would study the anatomy of the horses.”

Mike Adler tested into Stuyvesant High School and then on to NYU, but World War II interrupted his education. “He was in ROTC at NYU, and he enlisted when he was 17,” Ms. Adler said. “He was in Patton’s 13th Armored Division; he was in the thick of it. He and his group freed a Polish women’s camp; all he would ever say about it was that it was horrible.” She paused.

“He was overseas for about three years, and then the war was over and the government gathered the troops in Europe to be shipped out to the Pacific. He was in California, all ready to go, on his birthday, August 6, when they dropped the atomic bomb. So that was his birthday present — the war was over.”

When he came home, Mr. Adler went back to NYU — he was at the school’s so-called uptown campus, actually in the Bronx — and he finished his undergraduate degree. He had been planning on going to medical school — he had been accepted at Flower Fifth Avenue — but “he decided that he couldn’t sit still for another six years of school,” Ms. Adler said. “We already had met, and I said ‘I’ll support you. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s through six years of medical school or if you’re starting a business.’”

Mike Adler and Elaine Finkel met through her brother, Jerry, who was a good friend of Mike’s; Mike and Elaine knew each other for a year before they started to date, and three years before they married. “He was my brother’s friend — I had my own friends!” she said.

“Mike did not come from a business-oriented family, but his sister had married an entrepreneur, and they discussed going into business together,” Ms. Adler said. They began small. “Someone came to Ben,” the brother-in-law, “with a small wallet that he wanted to promote, but he didn’t have anyone to make it. Ben showed it to Mike, and Mike realized that it had to be sewn, so he bought a sewing machine and learned to sew. I said to him, ‘Boy, the only men who really sew, other than tailors, are in jail.’ But he learned, and then the 14th Street YMCA gave him an order, but he couldn’t finish it in time because he had to go on our honeymoon.”

It was okay. The Adlers got married, and Ben finished the order, the first of many. “Then a man came to him and showed him a new machine, a heat-sealing machine,” an innovative way to work with vinyl. “He made eyeglass cases for American Optical.” That was a huge order. “And then they got smart and bought their own machine.” He also realized that plastic wrap would keep silver from tarnishing; that worked until his clients realized that they could do it themselves.

During all these explorations and initiatives, the business — Myron Manufacturing — kept growing; it expanded into foreign markets and “now has 14,000 employees in at least 10 countries,” Ms. Adler-Kravecas said. At its core, the business-to-business company makes and sells “personalized business gifts or advertising specialties — anything that helps a business build a product or a brand,” she added.

Her father “was as creative as he was logical and technical,” Ms. Adler-Kravecas said. “He was so unusual — both sides of his brain, both hemispheres, worked so well. He was an amazing marketer and he was great with people.

“And of course Elaine and he made a great couple. She is also highly creative and worked on expanding the company. She made the products not just utilitarian but really beautiful. They really grew the business together.”

The business started in Manhattan, where the family first lived, but by the mid-1950s it needed more space. The Adlers moved the company to Teaneck, and then to Paramus; about 30 years ago, the family moved to Franklin Lakes, where Elaine still lives.

Mike and Elaine Adler had four children — William, Richard, Donald James, and Marie — and eventually they had 11 grandchildren as well. Life was good. They were dedicated philanthropists and community builders, believing strongly in their obligation to give back.

And then, in 1993, “Mike had bypass surgery, which was very successful — except that five days later, a piece of plaque broke off and went to his left brain, which became aphasic,” Ms. Adler said. He could no longer talk. His cognitive abilities were unimpaired, but his thoughts seemed stuck inside his brain.

“Mike realized that we were the lucky ones. We could handle it financially,” Ms. Adler said. “Just think of when this happens to a breadwinner. What torture that becomes. What double torture.

Mike and Elaine Adler with their children and grandchildren.
Mike and Elaine Adler with their children and grandchildren.

“He said that he would like to do something to help others, and he hired a woman to go onto the computer to see what was being done in the world of aphasia. The truth is that almost nothing was being done. But there was a woman who was considered the aphasiologist; we met her, and she is still working with us.” That was Dr. Audrey Holland, the Adler Aphasia Center’s research director.

“She is known around the world, and she was able to help us get started.”

In order to start the center, the first hurdle to be jumped was finding a space for it. “We happened to own a vacant building in Maywood,” Ms. Adler said. “When you want to start an organization, the toughest thing in the world is to find a space.” There are so many regulations, she said — zoning, parking, all sorts of permissions. They were lucky in that too.

The center has grown and flourished — aphasia is a widespread and under-appreciated problem. “We now have the Adler Aphasia Center attached to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, and we also are in West Orange,” Ms. Adler said.

Out of all the philanthropies she supports, there was one she was particularly eager to discuss — the USA Toy Lending Library. “Families can take a toy out for a week,” she said. “It’s an international organization — mine is at the Children’s Aid and Family Service of New Jersey in Paramus.”

“My dad was a great humanitarian,” his daughter summed up. “He knew he was lucky. He had such a great life! He knew he was fortunate and he believed in giving back. That’s how he raised all of us.”

The Adlers both were very involved with the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for humanism in medicine. Like Mr. Adler’s wife and daughter, Sandra Gold, the foundation’s co-founder, who lives in Englewood, stresses his combination of level-headedness and compassion. Dr. Gold also focused on the strong bonds that held Mike and Elaine together. “Elaine and I talk most nights,” she said. She remembered a recent evening. Mike already was sick. “It was 10:45, and Elaine said, ‘I’m just making lunch, because we’re going for an infusion tomorrow, and he likes having egg salad, so I’m making it for him.

“I’ll bring it. He’ll enjoy having it.’

“That was the relationship. It was so beautiful.

“I know from J-ADD” — the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities, which provides group housing locally — “that Mike and Elaine bought every bed that those men and women sleep in. He did it for the first home, and then without ever being asked they did it for every home.

“The needy were always visible to them. You know how people walk down the street, and if someone asks for money they just walk by, they ignore them or they don’t see them. To the Adlers, people in need never were invisible.

“There were hundreds of people at the shiva, and Elaine was busy making sure that the people who came from the aphasia center and who don’t walk well — who not only don’t speak but also have physical disabilities — were seated and were comfortable.

“Her hospitality is infinite.

“Mike was a strategic thinker,” Dr. Gold concluded. “He had a vision of what he wanted to do. He was fair-minded and levelheaded. He would look at a situation and you’d get a reasoned, thoughtful analysis of it, and you’d get a fair-minded solution.

“That’s the way he was in his business too. In the industry, his name was synonymous with ethical business behavior.”

Karen Tucker, a social gerontologist, is the Adler Aphasia Center’s executive director. “It was my honor and privilege to work with a visionary like Mike,” she said. “Even though he lived with aphasia, he knew what needed to be accomplished. They traveled the world, looking at what was out there. They knew the three main approaches — the senior center model, the clubhouse model, and the life participation approach — and we blend them here.”

Not only does the center include a satellite in West Orange and another in Israel, there also are six aphasia communications groups across New Jersey.

“Mike said that he loved hearing people say ‘You gave me back my life,’” Ms. Tucker said. “The Adlers wanted to create a place where people can live again.”

“We will miss him greatly,” Ramapo College’s Kathy Burke said. Mike and Elaine Adler donated money that built the Adler Center for Nursing Excellent there; the center is infused with the humanism that the Gold Foundation nurtures. “He was a kind, gentle man, who had made the nursing program here so very different. The program has taken on a whole new identity, and the faculty and students are very particular in honoring his memory, and his and Elaine’s humanism.

“He was so real. They are both so real. So caring, so gentle — but with backbones of steel. They saw the goodness in every situation, and they focused on it.

“We were very lucky that they were here. You have to look at it the way they would look at it — positively. He lived an awesome life, and he impacted the lives of so many people.

“Every nurse who graduates from here will know it and will actualize it. We will be sure of that.”

Peter Mercer is the president of Ramapo College. Mike Adler’s death “is a great loss for me, both institutionally and personally,” he said.

Like many people who described Mr. Adler, Dr. Mercer mentioned both his generosity and kindness and his “steely resolve.” Dr. Mercer also described the poignancy of the situation in which his friend found himself, and the way he dealt with it.

“You have to imagine a man who was extremely vital, forceful in the best sense of the word, a businessman who all of a sudden is left with aphasia,” he said. “He has all of his other cognitive abilities, but an enormously frustrating inability to express himself. He really has to relearn how to do it.

“It really is a story of him making an advantage out of his disability by founding the aphasia center, with Elaine, and becoming an extraordinarily positive force for all the other people who have aphasia.”

He returned to the other constantly repeating theme in the story of Myron Adler.

“The story of Mike will always be the story of Mike and Elaine,” he said. “One of the most poignant moments I have ever seen is when he gave a public speech and said that his wife would not let him feel sorry for himself.”

Instead, together, they created something new.

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