Growing Up Boomer
Prominent area Baby Boomers reflect on their lives and careers.
It’s hard to size up the impact and legacy of a generation while you’re in the midst of it—it’s sort of like being in the eye of a hurricane, where things seem calm and still, yet are anything but. Still, as the oldest Boomers inch their way toward 70 and as Millennials have taken the reins as today’s youth culture, it’s pretty safe to say that the impact of the Baby Boom generation will be felt for a long time to come.
A Child of Holocaust Survivors on Her Boomer Identity
Grace Bennett, publisher and editor, Inside Press
We spoke to successful local Boomers to find out what being a Baby Boomer means to them.
inside Press Publisher and Editor Grace Bennett, a “second wave” Boomer born in Washington Heights in 1960, is one of a number of American Boomers born to Holocaust survivors. But that grim reality didn’t overshadow her youth or her experiences of growing up in the 1960s. If anything, Bennett contends, it drove her to succeed.
“When you’re a child of someone who has been through such major trauma, you feel a special obligation to succeed and not rock the boat,” says Bennett, whose 93-year-old father is an Auschwitz survivor, while her mother’s family, from Warsaw, survived the war as refugees in Russia.
“There’s no question that the children of immigrants are their parents’ hopes and dreams, and those of survivors, doubly so,” she says.
The Chappaqua resident, who began publishing Inside Chappaqua: The Magazine for New Castle and Beyond in 2003 and recently launched another publication, Inside Armonk, was a typical 1970s teen who remembers fondly her zip-up jean culottes and plaid bell-bottoms as well as one of her favorite pastimes: listening to records.
“My parents were of modest means, so I didn’t have much of a stereo system,” she recalls. “Just a record spinner.” Like other young girls in the early ’70s, she daydreamed about David Cassidy as she played the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” over and over.
When it came to apply for college, Bennett didn’t have the luxury of an SAT tutor and didn’t visit any colleges in advance. Instead, she did all of her research at the New York Public Library using the old index-card system.
In 2012, her confident Boomer attitude helped her secure a spot as a member of the press corps traveling with then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a press trip
to 10 African nations and Turkey. “It was a defining experience for me as both a journalist and a Baby Boomer,” says Bennett, who says that Clinton is perhaps this country’s most influential Baby Boomer.
Like many Boomers, Bennett believes she grew up in an idyllic time. “I cherish the memories of our trips to the Catskills every summer, playing endless imaginary games and swimming in the lake,” she recalls.
Coming of Age as a Boomer in the Bronx
Carlene Gentilesco, COO, United Way of Westchester and Putnam
Born in 1951 to a working-class family, Chappaqua resident Carlene Gentilesco, who serves as chief operating officer of the United Way of Westchester and Putnam, remembers fondly growing up in the northeast Bronx neighborhood of Wakefield, where her childhood consisted of playing street games like ring-a-levio, stickball, or hit-the-stick in the summertime, or walking with her younger brother, Carl, and their friends to the penny-candy store around the corner to get an egg cream or a pretzel rod.
“My block had at least 30 to 40 kids in my age group, so there were always many to play with and certainly no need to make play dates,” says Gentilesco. “On summer evenings, we would all hang out together with a transistor radio in front of the apartment building and listen to music. And when we got to be 12 or so, we could walk the four blocks to what we called the ‘avenue,’ where all the stores were, and go to the pizza shop.” She also recalls the thrill of watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and welcomed the music of the British Invasion with open arms.
It was at Cardinal Spellman High School that Gentilesco’s interest in sociology and in the well-being of the community took root. The feminist movement of the 1960s greatly influenced her, she says, and “in high school, I knew there were opportunities out there and that I wanted to go to college to avail myself of them,” she recalls. Her father encouraged her to pursue that dream, and, in 1968, she entered Lehman College and, by the second semester, she decided to major in sociology.
The United Way has been, says Gentilesco, an extension of the things she experienced growing up as a Boomer. “One of the things I always found attractive about the UW is its efforts to be inclusive, and I suppose that belief is an outgrowth of my experiences gowing up during the Civil Rights Movement.”
An example of that inclusiveness, she says, was the UW's recruitment of Betty Shabazz, the wife of the late Malcolm X, to its board of directors in the mid-1970s and the election of the first woman chair of the board in 1975.
Being a Baby Boomer, Gentilesco says, “makes me feel proud to be part of a generation that saw and took advantage of some tremendous opportunities—not only for ourselves, but for everyone—and then worked together to make a real difference in our communities and in our world.”
Of her successful 42-year career, she says, “It’s a Baby Boomer’s dream of actual community change coming true.”
A First-Wave Boomer Recalls His Jewish Neighborhood
Simeon Schwartz, CEO and founder, WESTMED Medical Group
In 1964, when Simeon Schwartz was 12, “just about the right age to understand the world,” he was thrust into a society of “profound social change.” The Cuban Missile Crisis (right), the assassination of President Kennedy, and watching the trial of the Nazi war criminal Otto Adolf Eichmann on TV are all clearly etched in his mind. Yet, says the 62-year-old CEO and founder of the WESTMED Medical Group, the county’s largest multi-practice healthcare provider, “I can’t remember a single person going to Vietnam.”
In the predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where Schwartz grew up, most young men who were eligible for the draft elected to go to rabbinical school instead, he recalls. “It was as if rabbi school never ended for many of them.”
Schwartz attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a degree in biology, followed by the Yale University School of Medicine. In the early ’70s, he attended the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, where he pursued post-graduate studies in the sciences.
In medical school, Schwartz was intent on becoming a research scientist. “I didn’t ever think I would go into doctor care,” he says, referring to his 30-year career as an oncologist, primarily treating women’s cancers.
Since he was raised in a mercantile family that specialized in the clothing industry, Schwartz says he probably knew a lot more about business than others in his profession. He also credits his education at MIT for allowing him to think outside the box.
“MIT has a longstanding tradition of asking questions and not accepting traditional ideas,” notes Schwartz. His business acumen and desire to streamline a clunky healthcare system that could benefit both patients and doctors helped him establish WESTMED. While Schwartz says Baby Boomers have a tendency to get “hung up on their achievements,” for him, perhaps the greatest achievement of all has been his 36-year marriage and the joy of having children and grandchildren.
“To me, being a Baby Boomer means reaching the sixth decade in my life, having gotten to a point in time where I’m at peace with my accomplishments, understanding the world around me, and knowing that I’ve tried to make a difference.”
A Young Black Boomer in a Privileged White World
Lawrence Otis Graham, attorney, TV commentator, bestselling author
If there’s one thing that bestselling author Lawrence Otis Graham, an attorney with the White Plains law firm Cuddy & Feder, associates with the 1960s and his early life as a Baby Boomer, it’s his experience growing up as a young black boy in an affluent Westchester neighborhood.
Though Graham, a second-wave Boomer, was very young when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he vividly recalls his family’s move from the racially diverse Mount Vernon neighborhood where he spent his first five years to an affluent White Plains neighborhood where he was acutely aware that he and his older brother were “different” than the other kids in the all-white neighborhood bordering Scarsdale.
“We were almost like The Jeffersons, as we moved from a diverse neighborhood into a wealthy, all-white neighborhood in the 1960s,” Graham recalls.
It was a case of “them versus us,” he says. “My parents grew up in the segregated South, in all-black settings and in all-black schools, and they had only superficial relationships with whites in their native Memphis,” says Graham, the father of three children with his wife, Pamela Thomas-Graham, an investment banker. “When they raised me and my brother in Westchester, they believed and taught us to believe that society was not going to tolerate mistakes or mediocrity from a black child.” Being respectful and polite, arriving for appointments on time and never, ever eating outdoors were rules his parents enforced.
“My parents, fairly or unfairly, wanted us to be model children because they felt we were supposed to be representing the whole race,” says Graham, a Chappaqua resident.
Beyond the pressure to be perfect, however, Graham and his brother had plenty of free time to play with their Hot Wheels cars, or their Monopoly and Battleship board games, and, like other kids in the 1960s and 70s, to watch TV. Though blacks were either absent or portrayed primarily as maids and butlers on television, Graham says he still enjoyed shows like Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family. The arrival of the sitcom The Jeffersons in 1975, though, broke new ground. “It showed an upper-middle-class black family who lived like us, had ambitions like us, sent their son to college, employed a housekeeper, and considered themselves equal to their white neighbors,” says the Princeton- and Harvard-educated Graham.
Graham’s bestselling book, Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World, recounts his experience working undercover as a bus boy to expose racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism at a segregated country club in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“I was fortunate to be born at the end of the Baby Boom generation, when equal opportunity was being made available to people of all racial backgrounds,” he says. “But I also remember my parents pointing out that these opportunities may not last forever, and that I had a responsibility to appreciate them and to also help others who will be coming after me.”
A First-Wave Boomer Recalls Vietnam
John Spencer, former Yonkers mayor
Born in 1946, at the start of the Baby Boom, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, who was put into foster care at an early age because his biological parents couldn’t afford to raise him, still remembers fondly his early years in the Yonkers home of Patrick and Nora Ginnane, and his experiences growing up in Sacred Heart Parish and attending its Catholic schools. At age 8, he lost his foster mother, and her husband passed away a few years later. Sister Noreen would raise the former real estate professional-turned-politician and, for all intents and purposes, he says, she became his surrogate mother.
As a child, he’d often play in the backyard with his foster siblings and neighborhood friends, make up games, ride his bike, and, like other kids in the 1950s, play football, baseball, and basketball. When he wasn’t outdoors, he’d watch Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Superman, and lots of World War II movies.
Like other first-wave Boomers, Spencer remembers where he was when President Kennedy was shot. “We were in chemistry class and it was toward the end of the day. I heard the announcement that said he was shot, but I thought he would be okay,” Spencer recalls. Spencer says the famous JFK quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” resonated with him when he enlisted in the service in 1966. He was sitting in the Emerald Tavern on Lake Avenue in Yonkers with his friends Hughie and Bobby when, having just completed two semesters at Westchester Community College, he decided to join the service. Being exempt from military service because he was a student didn’t seem fair to Spencer, especially since his friends who were not in college had been drafted. “So, I quit college and joined, as did Hughie and Bobby,” Spencer says. He left for Vietnam in 1968 and returned in 1969. “Things started to go down an ugly path for us Baby Boomers with the start of the Vietnam War,” he recalls. “When I came back from Vietnam, I was very unhappy and grossly disappointed with the attitude and betrayal of my own country toward all of us who had served and had put our lives on the line,” the 68-year-old remembers. “I went silent and kept pretty much to myself, and just carried on as best I could.”
Though Spencer, who has two children by a first marriage and three children with his current wife, Kathy Spring-Spencer, says he never really wanted to be in politics, per se, “I saw a problem and it lacked leadership.” As the 40th mayor of Yonkers, Spencer settled the school and housing desegregation case that nearly bankrupted the city and also spearheaded the redevelopment of the Yonkers waterfront.