Orphan, high school dropout, soldier, union man, artist, great-grandfather turns 95
NoC World News
This August, Thomas Joseph “Tom” Lazare will celebrate his 95th birthday. Born unto the town of Darby, Pennsylvania, a poor suburb of South Philly, Tom was orphaned at the age of eleven after his neer do well father, a French Jew, skipped town when he was two and, nearly a decade later, his mother, Agnes, a sickly Catholic woman who had raised Tom by helping run a boarding house in an undesirable Delaware County neighbourhood, died of tuberculosis.
He was adopted by the O’Donnell family, a sprawling Irish Catholic clan of marginally employed elevator-lift operators who, even at the heights of the Roaring Twenties, were experiencing hard times. After struggling his way through a rigid Catholic school education, Tom dropped out of school after the eighth grade to take a full-time job. What had begun as a way to support his budding interest in tobacco had grown by age fifteen into full-time work, the salary at times supporting, along with his tobacco habit, the entire unemployed O’Donnell family.
Over the next decade, young Tom became proficient at two skills. The first was drinking beer and shooting darts; the second was learning how to become a quick-learning, jack-of-all-trades laborer.
A 25 cent job ordering and labeling school photographs for a local photographer progressed into learning how to mix chemicals in the darkroom. A six-month stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps building fire roads in the Pennsylvania woods taught him to choose, when given the option, the big heavy rock hammers that get to take the first cracks rather than the smaller, lighter ones necessary for clean-up stone mashing. Work as a carpenter’s apprentice to a man holding a fourth-grade education and a good compass gained Tom early admittance to the local bars, gave him a set of skills that would serve him well in later years working as a union-man at Ford, and helped cultivate a lifelong healthy distrust of the arrogant and certified—but clueless—college-educated managerial class.
When asked once which job he liked doing best, Tom replied, “I didn’t like any job. It was a matter of making money and having money to enjoy myself. So there was no interest in a job. But I found out if you work hard, it pays off.”
Tom gets drafted
In October 1941, at the age of 23, Tom was drafted into the army and sent to basic training. He was not at first an Army man, having cast his first vote for president in 1940 against President Roosevelt, because he “thought he was a war monger and wanted a war.” Roosevelt had done a lot for the American poor, Lazare has said later, but “[h]e was talking about this draft thing, and I didn’t want to go in no army.”
He finished basic training as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and was dispatched to protect the Panama Canal as part of an anti-aircraft unit. Now rallied to the cause, he left New Orleans on an Italian troop ship, arriving to the equatorial west coast port on Christmas Day, 1941, eager to defend, “to do something” for his country.
Instead of firing anti-aircraft munitions at Japanese planes, though, in Panama Lazare found himself assigned to a headquarters outfit, tending to the Army’s officer class, digging trenches, and guarding marijuana-smoking base prisoners (mostly paratroopers who refused to jump). The soldier from Darby continued to develop his two youthful skills, his rank fluctuating like the stock market, gaining and losing rank according to which skill was currently in bull territory.
Ultimately, Lazare left Panama after two years only slightly in the red: still holding his entry rank and with 11 days of bad time. He was put on a ship bound for the United States and a quiet desk job in plain view of management.
Back in the U.S., it didn’t take long for him to note the Yank Magazine advertisement for a no-questions-asked immediate re-assignment into Infantry. He left his second basic training, this one in Mississippi, in time to make it across the Atlantic and arrive on French soil on D-Day +3. In the European theater, Lazare became a good soldier, rose to a platoon commander during the Battle of the Bulge, and received two bronze stars and a presidential citation for heroic duty. The men he served with became part of a lifelong community of friends—Tom’s own band of brothers, men who for the next seven decades would visit with wives and children.
Tom and Jo
After returning home and brushing up on his old skills, Tom met Jo, officially Josephine Zaleski, the lone surviving American daughter of a pair of immigrant Polish grocers who at the time was working the first shift at the nearby Scott Tissue Paper plant. The two soon married and bought half a row-house at 219 Roberta Avenue in Collingdale, where Tom hung Jo’s wallpaper and the two held forth at raucous dinner parties. Tom hired on as a union man at the Chester Ford plant, an off-the-line job as a handyman that afforded him a free-roaming work lifestyle. The pair had two daughters, Linda and Patsy, and bought a small cottage on nearby Chesapeake Bay, where Tom would take Linda boating on a sailboat fit for two.
In the1960s, following the closing of the plant in Chester, Tom and Jo sold the place in Chesapeake and the row house and moved the family north, to New Jersey, where a new job lay waiting for him at a newly opened Ford plant.
At the first opportunity, Tom took retirement, sold the house he’d fixed up in New Jersey, and moved with Jo to Florida. The pair moved below the frost line, on the advice of former friend of some ill repute, to a Broward County town named Margate, where they played host Tom’s visiting army buddies and family members visiting from the Yankee states. Jo spent her time bowling, attending Sunday mass, and walking the flea markets in search of good deals; Tom biked Everglade back roads, read the Sunday paper in the church parking lot waiting for Jo, and kept his eye out for usable flotsam. The two enjoyed a vibrant enough retirement that, after a quarter century, they retired from retirement—this time moving north, just above the frost line and downwind of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic coast town of Melbourne.
The artist as an old man
In the early 1960s, Tom began to take up painting as a hobby to replace his other one: drinking beer and throwing darts. He painted still life fruits, violins, and pastoral Pennsylvania landscapes, aspiring for the compositional unity he found in his favorite painter, Andrew Wyath. As he began getting into the local North Jersey art club’s regular markets, the interest grew into a small-paying side-hobby. By the time he retired in 1975 and shipped south for Florida, Tom could count on art money for a supplemental retirement source for him and Jo.
In south Florida, Tom began to paint his audience’s interests. He became known as a painter of Everglades landscapes and switched nearly exclusively to painting those marshy tidal scenes he had seen or imagined while riding his bicycle along the back roads outside Margate. After the move up the coast to Melbourne, where Jo filled the white walls with Tom’s paintings, Tom continued working art shows until a falling out with the local art club. Finally, at age 92, the artist put down his brush, writing “The End” on the backside of the canvas of his last piece. His hands, never steady, could no longer hold a line; his eyes, the recipients of snake venom injections for a quarter century, had become too cloudy. Now without patrons, the paintings, what’s left of them, sit stacked at the back of his closet and await family reclamation.
A year ago, after 65 years together, Jo passed at the age of 95 surrounded by Tom, their daughters, a grandson, a granddaughter-in-law, a great-granddaughter, and a home health aid. A nearly lifelong smoker, Jo wheezed her way to a mostly unconscious death. Her last moment of lucidity, a too-brief stay measured better in moments than seconds, lasted long enough to snare a first and last wide-eyed glimpse into the eyes of her six-month old great-granddaughter and namesake, a little Jo, and to speak her last words–a vigorous, joyful, What a beautiful baby!—before she would pass four days later. It was a composition even Andrew Wyath would be jealous of.
As he approaches 95, Tom mainly spends his days talking to prank callers on the phone and taking the public bus to the VFW for lunch. As he travels the bus or talks with fellow vets at the hall, ol’ Tom Lazare must surely look back at his life with wonder and awe. Here stands this French Catholic Jew, an orphan boy from south Philly who endured the Great Depression and survived World War II, now sitting as the patriarch of a line—the Lazare/Zaleski line—that has left the world untold numbers of painted canvases and a lineage that now stretches four generations, includes film producers, horse tenders, teachers, counselors, social workers—even some grandchildren furthering the family skills in beer and darts—and spans west to Los Angeles, north to Chicago, and as far south and east as Florida and Delaware.