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Ways of Seeing: Lessons of a father’s unknown past

Abi Sessions recently wrote a Ways of Seeing column about her father, who would have turned 100 in February. This got me thinking about my dad, who would have also become a centenarian this month. I share a reflection on his life that seems relevant today.
My father was tall, athletic and soft-spoken. When I was young, he often danced us around the house, me on his shoulders and one of my sisters in each arm. He could throw a stone clear across the large pond at Johnson Park and was once, while pitching for a high school baseball game, spotted by a Yankees’ scout who commented on his ability.
My father’s birth name was Samuel Leibowitz, second of four sons born to my Romanian immigrant grandparents who arrived on Manhattan Island at Castle Garden, America’s first official immigration center, around the turn of the century.
Around the time my father and two of his brothers graduated from college with engineering degrees, his parents decided to change the family name. It was the late 1940’s, when it was commonly known that Jewish engineers had less employment opportunities than their Christian counterparts.
My grandfather opened the phone book to the page containing their current family name and slid his finger down to “Leeds.” When their attorney suggested that my father’s first name was also “too Jewish” he was reassigned the name Sherwood Leeds, which went with him for the remaining four decades of his life. Though his name was anglicized, my father never denied or rejected his Jewish identity.
The name change served its purpose, but only for a short while. My father and one of his brothers were soon hired by the United States government as civilian employees. However, within several years they were both suspended from their positions, accused of communist activity along with a number of other Jewish government employees, all victims of the infamous McCarthy Era. One of the pieces of evidence against my father was a comment he made during a private conversation in his office.
“You can’t condemn an entire people,” he had said to a colleague. “Not every Communist is bad.”
Another piece of evidence used against my father and his brother was that they had associated with each other. The rest of the evidence was equally preposterous. After many months of hearings, in which reams of so-called evidence documented the most personal details and habits of the accused personnel, all charges against my father, my uncle, and their coworkers were dropped due to lack of any evidence of misconduct. In the process, it became clear that coworkers had been asked to report on their colleagues behavior. All suspended employees were reinstated, though my father left his government job for a research opportunity in private industry.
Hundreds of other innocent victims of Senator McCarthy were not so fortunate, and McCarthyism eventually became known as the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.
These events took place before I was born. My father never told me about his name change, and he never mentioned the McCarthy Era. I pieced his story together through bits of scattered information I found in our basement — old post cards written to a man named Sam, a dusty file of character references written on my father’s behalf during the hearings — and through the sparse responses I received to my occasional questions.
I wonder sometimes about the impact it had on my father to be stripped of his birth name and have it replaced with one that had the express purpose of hiding his identity and his beliefs, only to receive the deeper and more public humiliation of receiving scrutiny both for being who he was and what he wasn’t. Though he saw firsthand the crony capitalism and abuse in our government, he believed in the power of truth, a principle we are struggling to protect today. I remember my father as a person courageous enough to stand alone, a man whose life was consistent with his personal principles.
Yet he had one habit that seemed out of sync with his character: Whenever we spoke about certain topics in public — some aspect of our lives or that of someone we knew — he would lower his voice and move in closer, as if someone might be lurking behind him, listening to our conversation.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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