Saturday November 17, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON

When my brother and I were about 5 years old walking barefoot on the streets of Fire Island, a nice lady would walk up to us and ask if she could pat our crew-cut heads.

Many, many years later, Roselle gave a presentation at the Alford Town Hall for the Alford Historical Society. This lovely white-haired lady walked up to me and told me that she’d give me a nickel if she could pat my head. It was the same woman, Eleanor Furman. We just got word that she recently passed at age 99.

This wonderful person was anything but ordinary. She was feisty, courageous and abided no nonsense. She took unpopular positions throughout her life, positions which from time to time got people thrown in jail.

She worked assiduously for an organization called the New York Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. She was known to protest, to write letters and to man the intellectual barricades. She married early in life to a soldier going off to World War II, but when he came back they divorced.

The couple had one daughter, Ellen, who did her mom proud. Eleanor was an incredibly generous woman. When the Chartocks had their children, she would always send us a babysitting voucher to be redeemed when we needed some help.

For many years, I had a weekly radio program with Mario Cuomo. Every once in a while, he would disappear from the program. I suspected it was because I had asked him something on the show that resulted in trouble for him. Once when I was in what I considered the penalty box for a few programs, Eleanor told me she was calling the governor. Perhaps because of that, he miraculously reappeared.

She was married to an artist named Sylvan Furman who we all loved. During her working life, Eleanor labored at the Fashion Institute of Technology. When she retired, she wrote a book on retirement and made it clear that she would always be there for Sylvan, but not for lunch.

One day, Eleanor called to ask me a question. She allowed that it was an interesting story, but I wouldn’t be allowed to use it in my column. Was I, she asked, "familiar with a comedian named Seinfeld?"

"Yes," I answered. "He just got married."

"That’s right," she said. "He married my granddaughter."

I almost dropped the phone.

When Eleanor lived on East Road in Alford she got herself a yellow Moped which she rode all over town. By that time, she was no spring chicken and we were scared to death that she’d fall off the thing. Eventually, to our great relief, she got rid of the Moped but there’s no question, the lady had guts.

Then there was the thing about her friends, the Boudins. Leonard Boudin was a very famous lawyer often associated with left-wing and progressive causes. Eleanor was devoted to Boudin, his wife, and his daughter, Kathy.

Along with some other members of the Weather Underground, Kathy was convicted of some terrible crimes and spent years in the Bedford prison in England. Eleanor and a lot of other people were devoted to helping Kathy, travelled to see her in prison and when she was released, helped her in every way possible. Perhaps because so many people were in her corner, Kathy really turned her life around, earning a doctorate and making marvelous contributions to many incarcerated women and children at risk. I know that Eleanor was very proud of her.

Eleanor was also very proud of her family. Her daughter had three daughters and those daughters have produced 10 grandchildren. I remember some fabulous dinner parties at the Furman house, which were often contentious because the people she invited were of strong opinion.

Eleanor lived a long and productive life. Someone should put it all in a novel. She was some lady. When she was your friend, you really had a friend.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.