Norman Leonard Kreisman is my father. He is an ordinary man who has led an extraordinary life. To say I'm proud of him would be a vast understatement.
He was born eighty-six years ago in the Bronx, a premature baby who wasn't supposed to make it through the first night of his life. He survived only to contract polio when he was ten. Bedridden for a year, he overcame the disease to serve his country in World War Two and then graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York (A school he continues to love and serve to this day) alongside fellow members of the "Black Fleet", a group of lifelong friends who all served in the war and went to school on the GI Bill.
Attending a wedding with the other members of the Fleet, he spotted a shy, beautiful brunette and boldly announced to his friends to keep away from her, she was going to be his. He married my Mom two years later and their love affair continues sixty-three years later.
The first half of Dad's life was quite normal, and spent working in Manhattan and commuting on the 5:15 train home to Long Island every evening. However, his and the rest of the family's life changed one winter day in 1975 when my younger sister Diane called from college saying that she couldn't get out of bed. We didn't know it at the time but she was suffering from depression and schizophrenia.
For years, my parents fought through the antiquated and uncharted waters of the mental health system in New York. At the time, most doctors didn't even know what schizophrenia was, some believing that her condition was a result of possibly being dosed with drugs at school.
Hearing that sunlight and warmth are better for people in Diane's condition, my family moved from New York to Florida in the mid-eighties. Upon settling in Sarasota, they realized that Florida was even more in need of mental health facilities than New York. That's when my Dad found his true calling and went to work.
He made numerous trips to Tallahassee to lobby lawmakers for funding of mental health facilities for the Sarasota-Bradenton area. As a result, Coastal Behavioral Healthcare got its first mental health services contract from the state. My Dad then went to work getting the funding for a building and staff to help anyone or any family in need. He got the funding and the Suncoast had its first CSU. Imagine the shock when he discovered that the powers-that-be decided to name the building the Kreisman Center Crisis Stabilization Unit.
At a time when chairmen were allowed to only serve one term, Dad served as Chairman of Coastal Board three successive terms and was named Chairman Emeritus upon his retirement.
(On a personal note my sister, through a delicate balance of medication and a large dose of support, now leads a normal life, thanks in large part to Mom and Dad's tireless work.)
Last summer, The Kreisman CSU was expanded and renamed the Kreisman Campus for Integrated Health Care in honor of my Mom and Dad's tireless work for mental health. The Mayor declared it Norman and Dorothy Kreisman Day, they received a proclamation and their deeds were read on the floor of Congress into the Congressional Record. Although my Dad is somewhat shy about all his accomplishments, I am not. Last summer when he was hospitalized, I mentioned to a group of doctors about the honor he was about to receive. They were somewhat blasé about it until I mentioned that the honor wasn't for philanthropy but hard work. Their attitudes quickly changed to glowing admiration at the realization that my Dad had earned the honor, not bought it.
He is remembered fondly by all. I am truly amazed how many of my high school friends I've been reacquainted with on Facebook constantly ask to send my regards to my parents. They all have great stories to tell me about hanging out at my house with the coolest folks in the neighborhood. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was truly blessed to have parents like them.
There are so many wonderful memories of my Dad that I had growing up: encouraging my writing, coaching my Little League team (and treating them to pizza at the house after the games), sneaking me into Yankee Stadium under his coat so I could sit on his lap and sharing Sunday's with him at New York Giant football games. I got my sense of humor from him (although my Mom disagrees), and Dad taught me the joys of listening to Bob and Ray and even Howard Stern. He's one of those rare people that everyone gravitates to, collecting friends and admirers wherever he goes.
Although now in his second "retirement," people who have family members with mental issues still seek him out. A month ago we went to a neighbor's St. Patrick's Day party. Feeling weak, he sat most of the night on a couch watching the festivities. However, toward the end of the party a couple that he'd never met approached him. They were having trouble coping with their son's condition and didn't know what to do next. Although weakened, Dad sat with them for about a half hour calmly explaining who to call, what to do and comforting them. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as the couple sat in rapt attention. As always, Dad told them to call him if they had any more problems or just needed someone to talk to. That's just who he is. He's happiest when he's helping others.
Unfortunately, my Dad isn't doing too well right now. We started hospice care last week. However, I am amazed at the number of people coming to the house whose lives he has affected. He's truly a giant among men. I'm blessed to have him as my father. He was and always will be my best friend. Humble as ever, when he's feeling down I remind him that he is that rare person whose life truly made a difference for the good. He shrugs it off, but deep down he knows.
I'm so lucky that Norman Leonard Kreisman is my father. I treasure our remaining conversations about politics, the Lakers, why there's nothing on TV for him to watch except the Military Channel and of course, mental health care. He's one of kind.
I love you, Dad.