Our dads may be gone, but we still celebrate them on Father’s Day — and everyday


From left: Army Sgt. William Shemin. Stacy Wolff Smart and her father, Alan Wolff, at a derby-themed event at United Hebrew Congregation, where he was being honored. Family photo

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

Father’s Day — like Mother’s Day — is one of those holidays that can change the way you celebrate it as you grow older. When we’re young, it’s about honoring dad for, well, being dad, and letting him know how important he is to us, how we appreciate him and how much we love him. (Yes, many father-daughter relationships are far more complex, but for the purpose of moving this story along, I’m simplifying.)

As we age, so do our dads, until sadly they are no longer around. Mine passed away nearly 23 years ago. Elsie Shemin-Roth, who is 94, lost her father 50 years ago. And Stacy Wolff Smart, 43, eulogized her dad under a hot Sunday sun at his funeral three weeks ago.

Recently, I sat down with Elsie and Stacy to talk about their dads, and in doing so, wound up feeling much closer to mine. What became even clearer after my conversations is how we choose to honor our fathers’ legacies, and neither Elsie nor Stacy nor me, for that matter, take that “how” lightly.

Honoring a father’s heroism 

Elsie spent more than a decade determined to right what she felt was a terrible wrong done to her father, Army Sgt. William Shemin, as a result of his service during World War I. While he was awarded a Purple Heart as well as the nation’s second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism,” there was never any explanation as to why he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military decoration of valor. Elsie and many others believe that he was initially overlooked for this award because he was Jewish, and antisemitism was rampant at the time. 

The Jewish Light has written extensively about Elsie’s tireless efforts on her father’s behalf (to learn more, go to stljewishlight.org/shemin). Finally, in 2015, her work paid off when President Barack Obama presented Elsie and her sister a posthumous Medal of Honor for their father. 

When I visited Elsie at her apartment in University City last week, she updated me on some of the tributes that keep pouring in as a result of his Medal of Honor. 

Let’s see, she just learned that a street in a residential area of Fort Carson, a military base in Colorado, has been named Shemin Court in his honor. Also at Fort Carson: Plans to name a new fitness center after Sgt. Shemin, where a “Wall of Valor” inside the center will prominently depict heroes from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division (where Shemin belonged). And in 2019, a community school in Bayonne, N.J. (where Sgt. Shemin grew up), also was renamed for him.

Elsie raised five children, became a public health nurse at age 54 and then immersed herself in disaster assistance, working at an immigration-absorption center in Israel following the 1985 airlift of Ethiopian Jews, tending to the injured at a trauma center in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War and helping Hadassah deliver 108 tons of medical supplies and clothing to Bosnia in 1995 and 1996. In other words, she is no slacker. At 94, she fiercely continues to pour her energy into causes that are important to her.

So where does this intensity and focus after nine decades come from? Her father, in part, she says.

“My father’s strength, which he imparted to his three children, was always doing a little more than asked. That is something we always tried to do, to go that extra step. That mattered to my father,” Elsie explained, adding that he also encouraged her to be independent and embrace her ambitions. 

“He never saw the difference between what men and women could accomplish,” she said, explaining that she, her sister and her brother (now deceased) all worked equally hard at the family’s 5-acre nursery and greenhouse business in the Bronx, N.Y. 

When she wasn’t married by 25 — “a shanda back then,” she jokes — it was her father who told her, “Wait for the right person. In the meantime, go out and do good things in the world.”

Mourning a recent loss

Stacy is still sorting through her emotions after the passing of her dad, Alan Wolff, at age 71, on May 15. He was a St. Louis native, owned an accounting firm and adored his family. When I asked what three words best describe him, she replied, “funny, caring and organized.”

Those pretty much would be the same three words I would use to describe Stacy, who is a colleague at the Light, and has become a friend. Actually, I’d substitute energetic for organized, not because she isn’t organized, but her boundless energy juggling work, family life and a seemingly endless string of volunteer jobs — while something to be admired — wears me out just watching it all.

While Stacy’s loss is still fresh, she says she’s realized much about her dad since his death.

“What I’ve learned in these short three weeks is that my dad impacted people in a positive way that I don’t think he even realized,” she said. “He always did the right thing, and he always helped people, whether it was through his business where he’d go above and beyond or being the president of United Hebrew, or just offering simple acts of kindness. If I’m looking at how I would like to live my life it would be the way he did, which is to positively impact people and to always do the right thing.”

Honoring our fathers’ legacies 

Do the right thing. That’s exactly what Elsie did when she embarked on years of tedious work, which eventually led to the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act, part of legislation signed by Obama in 2011. It established a review process for veterans who may have been denied the Medal of Honor because of religion or race. 

Stacy and I didn’t have war hero fathers — most of us do not — but our dads are still heroes because of how they inspire us. Positively impact people. Always go the extra step. And ringing in my ears from my dad, besides “nothing good ever happens after midnight,” is this pearl: “Do unto others the way you would want others to do unto you.” I bet you didn’t know my dad invented the Golden Rule.

My father had already passed away when I became editor of the Light 14½ years ago, though he definitely had a hand in steering me toward the position. Growing up, I remember him attending minyan most mornings at our Conservative synagogue before he took the Long Island Railroad into New York City, where he worked as a salesman. Being part of a vibrant, local Jewish community gave him so much joy, comfort and connection. I think he hoped that as I got older, I would find that kind of solace, which to a large extent I have through the work that I do.

Even though they are no longer here, Elsie, Stacy and I — like many of you — carry a piece of our dads in our hearts, as their insights, their wisdom and the example they set help to inform our daily lives and keep their memory alive. So when Father’s Day comes on June 18, we will celebrate our dads the way we do every day of the year, by living the values they instilled in us.

And really, isn’t that what legacy is all about?