Remembering Lewis Katz: 'I will never know why he mentored me'
I GREW up in a time, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was public policy, when many of us with cerebral palsy and other conditions were still institutionalized. But I was not. My parents refused to let me consider myself - or to let others consider me - handicapped.
In June 1973, I chaired an all-night teen vigil at the old Jewish Community Center, on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, protesting the oppression of Soviet Jews and the denial of permission for them to emigrate to Israel. I invited government leaders to join us, to show that this was not only a young people's issue.
That night, I met Camden County Freeholder Lewis Katz.
Over the next several years, Lewis' influence on my life was as obvious as a footprint on freshly fallen snow. He understood my parents' attitude toward me, and he helped me to help myself. I never got around to thanking him.
As I readied for college, Lewis became chairman of the Cherry Hill Democratic Party. During my years in college we kept in touch, as if I lived around the corner. Lewis made sure I was always in the loop on Cherry Hill politics, and he was always there when I had a desire to advance politically.
In 1978, Lewis cleared the way for me to run in the primary to become a delegate to the Democratic national midterm convention in Memphis. In reality, I did not have to mount a campaign, but Lewis advised me: "If you want something, don't ever take it for granted; regardless of how small, you earn it!" Although we knew that I was going to win, I will never forget the hug he gave me on election night, along with a smile that told me a thousand things. Lewis also made sure that his check was the first one at my fundraiser to cover the cost of the convention.
In Memphis, I presented a plank to the party platform concerning education in the public schools and students who are disabled. It was approved. This earned me an invitation to present my proposal to the Democratic Platform Committee public hearing, in Baltimore, in April 1980.
By this time I had to make a critical career decision: whether to finish my B.A. in political science and go on to law school as planned, or to apply for a five-year program for a master's of public administration and public policy. As usual, Lewis helped me decide what to do, and even as I tell this story I see and feel his smile. I was accepted into the five-year program and ended up making government administration my profession.
A few months later, Lewis called me and asked if I would be interested in attending a national campaign-management institute at Kent State University, in August 1979. Lewis paid for my two-week adventure in campaign management.
In the spring of 1980, when I became engaged to my future wife, Debbie, Lewis announced it with a huge grin at the end of a monthly meeting of the Cherry Hill Democratic Party, describing Debbie as a "good Democrat" and emphasizing that she lived in a good Democratic district of Cherry Hill.
I will never know why he mentored me as he did during those years. I do not know if he just appreciated my commitment to our shared values, or if he saw a young man with cerebral palsy and acknowledged that the road ahead might be a bit rough so he would step in and help make my journey easier.
As he moved in ever-wider circles, we lost touch. But, about a year ago, I ran into Lewis at 30th Street Station. As if no time had separated us, he gave me a big hug, asked about my mom and about my family. As he walked away, I had a tear in my eye.
Thank you, Lewis.
Lewis R. "Robbie" Friedner, of Cherry Hill, is the former director of the Camden County Division of Disabled Services. He served for 25 years on the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.