Beloved husband… loving father… peacefully passed… in lieu of flowers — the solemn phrases in death notices are as time-worn as pebbles.
I don’t read the death notices regularly. But many do, such as the reader who pointed out something very out-of-the-ordinary in a notice that ran Thursday for Sidney Glassberg, 90:
“A private family service was held with his children. Sidney’s hearse was followed closely by a Brinks truck with a sign on it saying, ‘Who says you can’t take it with you.’ ”
“He talked about it his whole life,” said son Bob Glassberg, one of his five children. “It’s something he always wanted to do, to have a sign on a Brinks truck going to his grave site.”
But it was a joke, right? An old Catskills joke. You didn’t really rent an armored car?
“No,” said his son. “He was cremated. There wasn’t a procession.”
Still, even to put that into a death notice — there had to be a reason.
“He was a joker his whole life,” said Bob. “He was a practical joker — on April Fool’s Day, everybody had to watch out.”
There would be sugar in the salt shakers and salt in the sugar bowl. A nickel was epoxied to the floor of the Glassberg kitchen in Lincolnwood and remained there for years.
“He would be wearing a suit, and put a little bitty thread on his lapel,” said Bob. “People would go to pull it off — it’s human nature.”
But it wasn’t a bit of thread — you pulled and pulled and more thread came. “In his pocket was the whole spool,” Bob recalled.
Glassberg was a general contractor and real estate salesman, and his humor helped.
“I asked him how he was so successful,” said his youngest son, Davis Glassberg. “He said the key was to make people laugh. That philosophy carried him through his entire life.”
One of Davis’ favorites became know as “The Joke Pulled on Metnick.”
“Metnick was an ultra conservative neighbor,” said Davis. “My father put a sign on the back of his car that said, ‘Just Married’ with wedding bells in one corner. Metnick drove off in it to work. People were honking all day long. I saw him — I was at the bus stop. It was just hysterical. I was laughing . . . ”
Glassberg was always healthy, and in his later years, when he finally became ill, it only provided a new audience for new jokes.
“He had prostate cancer when he was about 80,” said son Bill Glassberg. “One day he was there, he put these happy face stickers all over his butt. The technicians came in to give him his radiation treatment, and he had these smiley faces on his butt cheeks. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
“Another time, the nurse told him to take his clothes off and get into the bed,” Bill continued. “He looked at the nurse and said, ‘You first.’ That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Didn’t all the joking ever get old?
“It had to have been a gift,” said oldest son Budd Glassberg. “There are times when we could predict what he was going to say well before he said it, but he was so good at the presentation it was still fun.”
“He had these standard lines,” said Bob, “you may have heard them 100 times.”
“A waitress walks up with a pot of coffee and says, ‘Do you want cream or sugar?’ He’d say, ‘I’ll have it without cream, and if you don’t have cream, I’ll have it without half and half.’ ”
And their mother never minded the constant joking?
“Our mother was deaf,” said Budd, explaining the late Dorothy Glassberg lost most of her hearing as a child due to scarlet fever. “To live with a fellow like that for 50 years, you’d almost have to be. And with five kids, four of them boys, it really helped her. She read 10 books a week.”
“He was never down; he was always upbeat about everything,” said Bob.
Not that Glassberg’s life didn’t show him things he could have been grim about. He served in Patton’s Army in World War II, fighting across Northern Africa and through Italy.
Patton’s Army? So he was at Dachau?
“He was part of the group that did liberate Dachau extermination camp,” said Bill. “When he went in there most of the people were still hiding in the barracks. One guy came over and kissed his hand, and gave him a tour of the camp. He really didn’t talk about that. He would rather tell the funny stories.”
“There are lot of wonderful tales about my dad,” said his daughter, Betsy Kurasch. “What I most remember is him saying to me: ‘As you get older life becomes a series of losses — your spouse, parts of your body don’t work anymore. You have a choice: you can either mourn what’s gone or celebrate what’s left. That’s not a funny story, but that’s how he lived life.”
He lived it that way to the end. On his deathbed, a nurse asked: “Are you comfortable?”
Sidney Glassberg shrugged.
“I make a living,” he said.
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