Cocalico Corner: Mr. B and the ‘perfect’ storm

By on March 1, 2017
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell reminsces about his friendship with the late Al Boscov. Photo by Kirk Neidermyer

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell reminisces about his friendship with the late Al Boscov. Photo by Kirk Neidermyer

Albert Boscov, 87, the magnetic and energetic retail magnate who died in mid-February never had a bad day in his life.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell revealed that to a few thousand of us who attended Mr. B’s memorial service Sunday afternoon in the Santander Arena in Reading.

Rendell, a long-time friend, cited a quote from venerable basketball coach John Wooden: “You’ll never have a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

Mr. B, said Rendell, “lived decades and decades of perfect days.”

The former governor and Philadelphia mayor was one of a nearly dozen speakers — family, friends, and current and former elected officials — who paid homage to the department store whiz and urban rehabilitator. So loved was Mr. B that folks — politicos, store vendors, employees, shoppers, CEOs, and janitors alike — lined the length of a city block in a chilling February wind to pay their individual and collective respects.

Indeed, some of the anecdotes I heard while standing in one of those lines were as moving as the tributes paid from the arena stage decorated with plants, cartoon images of a Superman-like Mr. B, and his favorite quote: “Nothing is impossible.” Most of the anecdotes included thanks for something — a kind word, a good deed, a decent job — that Mr. B had made possible and which had made these folks’ lives a bit better.

When I entered the arena filled with hundreds of folks I’ve come to know over my life in Berks, I was intent on finding one I did not know — freelance photographer Kirk Neidermyer whose photo of the memorial you see here.

He had spent the previous day in our Cocalico area taking spectacular photos of the aftermath of a severe storm (No, we don’t have confirmation that it was a tornado!). Winds, some clocked up to 90 mph, significantly damaged nearly 30 structures, snapped hundreds of trees, poles, and signs, and created power outages throughout a stretch along Route 897 from Clay to Reinholds in West Cocalico Township.

Kirk and I texted earlier Sunday about the photos he’d taken, some of which appear in this Review and others which have gotten considerable play in our parent LNP daily paper. He was headed to Reading for the Boscov memorial on a free-lancing assignment.

We met up in the press area. As we waited for the service to start, Kirk talked about what he’d seen in the storm’s aftermath — the wrecked buildings, downed trees and fences, roofs blown away and debris scattered in fields and yards.

But he also talked about the people he saw. A bit shell-shocked for sure, but none the worse for wear, it seemed. No real injuries were reported thankfully and the arduous clean-up was under way.

We shared some Facebook posts we’d seen that morning, many documenting the damage.

One FB friend in the Adamstown area was gathering folks, creating work parties to help those property owners impacted. Other postings by strangers and acquaintances showed people engaged in the clean-up, sharing smiles amid the debris on a sunny but cold Sunday.

Is is a tornado? Sure looks like one in this photo taken Saturday afternoon looking west toward Reinholds from the Chapel Gate development in West Cocalico Township. Photo by John Mertz

Is is a tornado? Sure looks like one in this photo taken Saturday afternoon looking west toward Reinholds from the Chapel Gate development in West Cocalico Township. Photo by John Mertz

A large bent directional sign at the intersection of Route 897 and Sportsman Road illustrates the force of Saturday’s storm winds. Photo by Donna Reed

A large bent directional sign at the intersection of Route 897 and Sportsman Road illustrates the force of Saturday’s storm winds. Photo by Donna Reed

Kirk had captured some of those same kind of images with the professional photographer’s expertise. He commented about the uplifting effect it had on him.

Storm still on my mind, I turned my attention to the service. Some of what I heard brought to mind what the storm images conveyed.

In a video, Mr. B’s beloved wife Eunice recalled a time in their young married life when Albert stopped to offer aid to victims of a car accident.

“He was always there with a blanket for anyone who needed it,” she said.

A rabbi ruefully noted that Mr. B never considered himself “particularly religious,” but he did live out the Jewish values of kindness to his fellow man.

Former Reading Mayor Tom McMahon compared Mr. B. to the spin cycle of a washing machine, working incessantly to create a quality business and to create happiness for himself and others around him.

“Albert not only pursued, but he captured happiness,” said McMahon.

Part of that for Mr. B was a retake on his early Reading roots and his love for his northeast city neighborhood. As he spearheaded the rehabilitation of more than 500 homes in Reading, he not only encouraged homeownership, but neighborliness as well.

“He wanted everyone to know each other, he’d make introductions, he wanted these places to be real neighborhoods,” McMahon recalled.

State Sen. Judy Schwank called Mr. B the area’s best cheerleader.

Noting his many kindnesses, she suggested –actually sang — the iconic slogan “Did You Boscov Today?”

Schwank suggested that folks emulate the acts of kindness exhibited over the years by Mr. B as their own signature “Did You Boscov Today?”

When it comes to old friends, Mr. B’s oldest was on hand. A sprightly 95-year-old Bob Brok, whose parents inhabited the other side of the Boscov family duplex, shared funny stories of the duo’s mischievous youth.

Mr. B’s family members, nephew and Boscov’s CEO Jim, daughters Meg, Ellen, and Ruth, and grandsons Josh and David regaled the crowd with stores about the retail giant, the family’s cuddly patriarch.

“Love” was the dominant word. This businessman was also a teddy bear of the highest order, peppering the word through the course of his days with those to whom he was closest, including his family of co-workers.

“He’d say: ‘If you lead with love and respect, people will return it’,” said his daughter Ellen.

As I reviewed 23 pages of notes to glean this column and as I took in the images of the aftermath of Saturday’s vicious storm, I couldn’t help but feel they came together with a natural synergy.

West Cocalico Township Manager Carolyn Hildebrand told me Monday afternoon of the valiant efforts of the road crew out all night Saturday into Sunday working to clear roadways buried in tree limbs and debris in the especially hard-hit areas of Texter Mountain and Furnace Hill Roads. Individuals with chain saws appeared, volunteering side by side with the crew.

Hundreds of fire police, those often unsung heroes of various disasters, came from near and far to assist with traffic and other matters.

Three local religious organizations provided 3,000 — that’s correct, 3,000 — volunteers to help clean up and repair some of the estimated $7 million in damages sustained by houses, farm buildings, and businesses.

“I’ve driven around all around and it’s like an Amish barn raising up here,” she said. “There were women and children in fields picking up debris, men on rooftops making repairs.

“To me, when you see a community come together, you see the best of the community,” Hildebrand said.

Like Mr. B, the folks who stepped forward in the West Cocalico area to assist may not see their kindnesses returned any time soon, but the real reward stepping up when the need was greatest.

They were there with their blankets (real and spiritual), put into practice their beliefs, they exhibited the best of neighborliness, they participated in a shared experience to ensure happiness for others, and they showed love for those who appreciated it in a time of need. And those volunteers didn’t look for penny in return.

What struck Saturday us was by no means a perfect storm. But maybe it takes storms like that to prove the kind of perfect days Mr. B lived are there for everyone when we make the effort to create them.

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