Remembering Michael Weiner

Remembering Michael Weiner

Michael Weiner who died at 51 after a 15-month fight against brain cancer.

“Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.”

The question and answer, a quote from the Ethics of the Fathers, came from Rabbi Ellen Lewis as she presided over the funeral of Michael Weiner.

Mr. Weiner, who died on November 21 at 51, was the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He also was a local boy – he was born in Paterson and grew up in Pompton Lakes. His father, Isaac Weiner, had been a principal in the Pike Construction Company, which built both the Frisch School’s original home and then its new building. Both were in Paramus.

Michael Weiner was a man who loved easily and deeply – he loved his wife, Diane; his three daughters, Margie, Grace and Sally; his relatives; his synagogue; his law colleagues, and almost everyone he came to know.

Mr. Weiner taught fourth and fifth grade at the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, New Jersey.

Did we mention that he was as comfortable with Maimonides as he was with A-Rod, Big Papi, or Derek Jeter?

He had to be. He lived in both those worlds – and many others as well.

Rabbi Lewis compared Weiner to King Solomon, who knew “you had to study other people if you wanted to be wise and if you wanted to make peace. That was the kind of wisdom Mike had.”

Mr. Weiner’s death, at his home in Mansfield Township, marked the end of a 15-month fight with brain cancer.

Continuing to quote the Ethics of the Father, Rabbi Lewis asked, “Who is rich?”

“It wasn’t the shock of his diagnosis that made him wake up, look around and suddenly appreciate what he had,” she said. “That was part of the fabric of who he was long before. Being sick just crystallized it in a new way. Mike’s response to his diagnosis was, simply, that every day he looked for beauty, meaning and joy. Mike liked quoting his father, who said, ‘You can’t be happy unless you want to go to work in the morning and you want to come home at night.’ Mike was genuinely happy to be at work and at home.”

Next, Rabbi Lewis asked, “Who is strong? It is the one who in Jewish tradition exercises self-control.

“If you saw Mike decked out in his favorite blue jeans and infamous Chuck Taylor sneakers, topped off with his always rumpled hair, you wouldn’t have chosen to describe him as strong,” she said. “His strength was quiet. He would sit in difficult meetings and restrain himself from speaking until he felt like he had something significant to say. Then he would say the right thing.”

Mr. Weiner’s last public speaking appearance was at last July’s Major League Baseball All Star Game. Sitting in a wheelchair, with his right side immobile, he answered questions of his illness with courage.

“I don’t know if I look at things differently,” he said. “Maybe they became more important to me and more conscious to me going forward. As corny as this sounds, I get up in the morning and I feel I’m going to live each day as it comes. I don’t take any day for granted. I don’t take the next morning for granted. What I look for each day is beauty, meaning and joy, and if I can find beauty, meaning and joy, that’s a good day.”

Jon Pessah, New York Newsday’s former sports editor and a founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, is completing a book covering Major League Baseball’s last 20 years. During the course of the research Mr. Pessah met Mr. Weiner, who succeeded Don Fehr as MLBPA’s executive director in 2009.

“The first thing you need to know about Michael is that he never took himself too seriously even though he held a high profile and influential job,” Mr. Pessah said. “He was one of the few people I’ve met doing the kind of work he did and occupying the position of power he occupied who treated people with basic respect. This was a guy who graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School. He was a smart, successful person, but his standard was sneakers, jeans, and rumpled shirts, never fancy. He took a bus to Port Authority and then walked the rest of the way. It was a two-hour commute. People of his station get limos or car services to take them up and back to work. The union would have paid for it.”

Mr. Pessah said that many people attending the funeral wore Chuck Taylors.

He added that Mr. Weiner never allowed his illness to stop him from working, sometimes spending hours at a boardroom table in his Manhattan 26th floor office.

“He was soft spoken, funny, and a huge sports fan,” Mr. Pessah said. “He loved the Jets and the Yankees. And he was a huge Springsteen fan.

“You hate to say you like some people better than others, but Michael was someone you were glad you met. He made you want to be a better person, because he was a good person.”

His mentor during his early years at the MLBPA was attorney Lauren Rich, who now works in Atlanta for the National Labor Relations Board.

Ms. Rich said that her friend would be embarrassed by all the attention he is receiving. Like Mr. Pessah, she said that Mr. Weiner always was respectful of everyone, “even when you’re in a fish bowl where it’s an industry drowning in egos. He stood out by being the steady, calm, respectful person even when he was very young.”

She added that there was a great deal of “drama” in her office. “We had a group of dramatic people. But even in that drama, he maintained that demeanor. It was maddening because you wanted him to yell.”

She said that Judaism formed an important bond in their friendship.

“We both observed the High Holidays and Passover, and Judaism mattered to us. I spoke to him this year at around the High Holidays. It was poignant, because he and his daughter were practicing the Torah portion together. I remember how much he was looking forward to that.”

Before he went to the MLBPA, Mr. Weiner clerked for U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin in Newark. He was a junior lawyer during the baseball players strike in 1994 and was on hand for the deal that led to a labor agreement in March 1997.

As important as his law career and baseball were to Mr. Weiner, so was his work as a Hebrew school teacher. According to Rabbi Lewis, a young bar mitzvah student asked if he could change the date of his celebration so that Mr. Weiner could be there. The bar mitzvah boy chose to donate his bar mitzvah money to “Voices Against Brain Cancer.” Just days before to his death, the synagogue’s Voices chapter participated in a 5k run-walk in Mr. Weiner’s memory.

Mr. Weiner taught at the synagogue for 15 years. Just weeks before he died, the school was named the JCNWJ Mike Weiner School of Jewish Learning.

Mr. Weiner and his wife, Diane Margolin, met when they were in second grade. She said that her husband felt that part of the Jewish community was very important to him.

“We live in a rural area,” she said. “Judaism is a minority here. Belonging to a synagogue was important for our children to be able to meet other kids who were the same.”

Her husband shadowed their oldest daughter when she started religious school in the third grade.

“He had some concerns she wouldn’t be able to keep up,” Ms. Margolin said. “He started tutoring other students, and the school recognized he had teaching abilities. He knew Hebrew and had a strong knowledge of Judaism and an ability to work with kids.”

When he began to teach, she added, all the kids wanted to be in his classes.

After his illness was diagnosed, was he at all angry at God?

“Mike was angry at no one,” Ms. Margolin said. “He was able to accept his diagnosis and accept each loss of ability with a grace that I really was constantly amazed at. He didn’t miss a beat. He gave it his all in everything he did. When he turned and talked to you about your favorite cartoon, he was with you. It wasn’t a bigness. He was understated. Everyone was just drawn to him because he was funny, wise, and kind.”

The final words from the Ethics of the Fathers in Rabbi Lewis’s eulogy were about honor.

“Mike treated people with respect,” she said. “His belief in you helped you believe in yourself. He treated us all as if we were all created in God’s image – except that he wasn’t so sure about the God part. In fact, the only time I ever had a major disagreement with him was the day I found out he was teaching fourth- and fifth- graders that God was a hypothetical proposition. Mike, I said, you can do that in college but you can’t do that in Hebrew school. To his credit, he looked a bit chagrined.

You couldn’t measure his religiosity by his theology, but you could measure it by how he lived his life. He was accepting. He was nonjudgmental. He was rational and logical, at times infuriatingly so. He treated everyone fairly. That was how he honored people. And in the end, all those whom he honored returned that honor to him in their visits, calls, letters, emails – whatever way they chose to show him their love, he received your messages with love.”

Ms. Rich, his mentor, saw him just a few weeks before he died.

“He had accomplished so much in a very short time,” she said. “How he approached his last year and a half of life is a lesson to everyone. He and Diane were determined he’d ring out of every last second all the joy he could.

“I still can’t believe it,” she said.

In her eulogy for her husband, Ms. Margolin said, “Our Mike lived an intentional, mindful and honest life, and this led to much happiness for him and those around him.”

She repeated those words, as if to underscore the central truth of her husband’s life.

Later she said simply, “I can’t imagine a world without him.”

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