Meyer "Mike" Katzman's home is sprinkled with art from the American Southwest, with beautiful renderings of native peoples.
"In a past life, I think I was either a cowboy or an Indian," Katzman said with a laugh. "I prefer to think I was an Indian, because as a people they have been so maligned."
That identification with minority peoples, people who've been marginalized, is the bedrock on which Katzman built his life. Early on, his response to injustice often was sourced in anger, and he dealt with that anger physically. Later he channeled the anger into powerful advocacy for veterans, especially those whose wartime experiences left them with lifelong challenges.
At 91, the Overland Park resident is starting to withdraw from some of his activism and get a little more rest, but he's still a force—and a prize story-teller.
You spent your formative years in St. Louis. What was that like?
My dad came to the United States with his family from Odessa, Russia. The family split up, some settling in New York City and some, including my dad, in St. Louis. This was in about 1915. I had one brother and one sister. I was the youngest child, born in 1920.
Pop came to this country as a journeyman cabinet maker. He also was a layout man, a machine hand, and a designer of custom store fixtures, and he opened his own company in St. Louis. I grew up in that business.
I still admire a guy who knows and respects his tools. Pop also taught me that a shake of the hand to close a deal was better than anything on paper, and meant more. But I later learned that this was not good business practice!
I worked in Pop's business during high school and then returned to work for him after I got out of the military.
Hard work was a hallmark of your youth.
When I was in high school, my dad would drop me off at school early, before the custodian even got there. When the custodian arrived, he would let me in and I'd do my homework for the day. I didn't take homework home one single time in high school.
I had quite a routine: After school I worked with the school's gymnastics team (I had learned gymnastics at the YMCA). I also would lead young kids in calisthenics classes at the Y, which was where I learned to box. But that's not where I got my strength!
Pop's factory was three stories high. It had a rope elevator in which we hauled the lumber from floor to floor (raw lumber processing and machining on the first floor, assembly on the second floor, finishing on the third—and then down and out for delivery). It was my job to pull that elevator rope, by hand! That's where I got my muscles and my punching ability.
Our school was some distance from home (we had to take two streetcars to get there), so once we got there, we stayed. After school my brother Sol and I would walk to the grocery store. We'd buy a loaf of bread and a hunk of bologna, fix sandwiches, and then go to the Y. There I'd work with the Gymnastics Leader Corps. I was a judge at all the public school gymnastics meets.
After I graduated from high school in 1938, I went to Hadley Vocational School, where I studied architecture for one year, and that helped later in my design and layout work.
And during high school you got interested in boxing?
Yes, Golden Gloves, which is for non-professional pugilists who are 16 and older. I fought in my first Golden Gloves tournament in 1936 as a 112-pound novice. I was runner-up in that division. The next year, weighing 131 pounds, I won the silver medal as a runner-up in the junior national Amateur Athletic Union. Boxing was a big part of my life, even in my military years.
Tell us about those service years.
I had married Henny, my wife, before I went into the service. In 1941, the draft started and I was classified 1-A. At that time I had a nighttime job at Emerson Electric so I could work with my dad during the day. Emerson was building gun turrets for the B-24s.
One day I read an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, reporting that the U.S. Air Corps was looking for knowledgeable people to work on gun turrets for B-24s. Those people would immediately go to the flight line, no basic training, and would have the rank of sergeant. I was all for that!
I enlisted at the Jefferson Barracks Military Post in Missouri in October 1942 with my good friend Kenny. Six days later we wound up at Harlingen Army Air Base in Texas, and I was there for two and a half years. But what I had wanted was to be a Marine and go kill Nazis.
While I was at Harlingen, I went to two tech schools, to the Bendix Corp. to learn more about gun turrets, and to Lowry Field in Denver for armament school. Gunnery school students included co-pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners who operated the gun turrets and the side windows. The course took three weeks. It started with skeet shooting, then operating BB gun turrets, firing range turrets, and firing actual turrets while flying in B-24s, with WACS flying B-26s and pulling tow targets.
I was in the military service from October 1942 to November 1945. I was a mean man back then; you wouldn't have wanted to know me. I didn't want to take orders from any dumbsh_t, so I just didn't see how I could work in the military! And nobody messed with me.
You think your boxing is partly what kept you at Harlingen?
There was nothing to do at night and on weekends, but the base had a boxing ring and I was a winning fighter. New soldiers in training revolved in and out every three weeks, so they would recruit somebody new to try to beat me. I became the resident boxer; I even had two boxing managers.
They basically kept me at Harlingen for their entertainment. I fought nearly every Friday night, about 100 fights in all. I was the Golden Gloves champion of Southern Texas. I was the middleweight and light heavyweight champion at the same time in 1944, weighing 165 pounds.
You experienced some anti-Semitism while you were in the military.
Yes, for a time, until people realized I wouldn't stand for it.
One night my buddy and I were walking down a street on the post, and about five of my own fellow soldiers came toward me, yelling "Here comes the Jesus killer."
Well, when I get charged up, I am tingling from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I took some of them on, and challenged the others to meet me the next afternoon to fight. They didn't show up. There was another episode where somebody labeled me "the Jew," in a way that defamed my character. I took those guys on, too, and after that they left me alone.
I also believe I wasn't promoted as I should have been because I'm Jewish. When I graduated from that Bendix turret school, I should automatically have gotten a stripe, but there was no stripe. And when I returned from that armor school in Denver, having done well, still I got no rating. Then it was back to the flight line. By the end of my 37 months of service, I should have had six stripes; I only received two.
Tell us the story of your beautiful wife.
Henrietta, who was always known as "Henny," was married to me for 56 years and 10 months, until her death in 1997 at age 74.
How we met is a great story. I had a friend, Henry, who wanted me to go on a blind-date picnic with his girl and her friend. We were all supposed to meet up at Henry's girlfriend's University City apartment. Now, all my life I've arrived early for events, so I was the first one there. When I knocked, the door was opened by a girl in hot-pink shorts, with green eyes and such a body!
"Are you my date?" I asked hopefully. No, she was Henry's date, but we really hit it off. And once we arrived at the park, I ran off with her. We were together all afternoon and evening, and before we parted, I said, "I'm going to marry you!"
At that time I was working with my dad, and we had just made some jewelry store display cases, which I delivered to the store owner. I gave the owner his statement and was waiting for payment when the owner asked me whether I had a girl. I answered with a tentative and hope-filled "yes," and he reached into a case and pulled out a diamond ring set, which he gave to me! Wouldn't that make you think it was meant to be?!
Henny was in comptometer school, learning to run those early key-driven mechanical calculators. She was also a singer and dancer, and I remember that her favorite song was "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." She found me, and we were married one year later, in 1941. I was just 21 and Henny was 18.
Henny had suffered yellow jaundice when she was young, and she had many other health challenges, including breast cancer, but she was a longtime survivor. Henny was full of life.
So your post-military career centered on manufacturing.
After the war, I returned to work with my dad. But Pop had a heart attack and closed his business. I then went to work for a competitor, where I learned the stainless steel fabrication business, selling heavy-duty kitchen equipment—a new business for me. I worked on the sales floor for three years.
Then a manufacturer's rep approached me to work for him in the food facility industry. I worked with him for 12 years, traveling widely and learning another phase of the industry.
We moved to Kansas City in 1963, and in 1965 I opened my own business here, Katzman-Grossman and Associates, and I managed that firm for 25 years. Our company is still in business today, as Katzman Grossman Baker, Inc. We were, and are, independent representatives for manufacturers of stainless steel fabrication, commercial refrigeration, contract seating, space planning, and contract furniture. We covered six states. I retired in 1990.
Even though your wartime experience wasn't great, after the war you were a loyal and active veteran.
Yes, for the past 12 years I've devoted practically my whole life to veterans. I'm very gung-ho with the vets.
I worked with the Association of the U.S. Army, though I've recently pulled out of it. I was vice president of Veterans Affairs with the Greater Kansas City Chapter.
For seven years I was very active with the Heart of America VA Stand Down, which I also recently bowed out of. We hold the Stand Downs each summer and winter.
I was state commander of the Jewish War Veterans and I'm still active locally. It's a lot of work—paperwork, depositing checks, holiday activities for veterans. The Jewish War Veterans meet yearly, with conventions all over the United States. Once we even had an international convention in Israel. Most people don't know that the Jewish War Veterans was founded in 1898 and is the oldest chartered American veterans' organization. With the organization I have a lifetime title of National Recruiter for Post 605-05. It's sad: We lose 40 to 45 men from our Jewish War Veterans post every year.
In 2003, through the Jewish War Veterans I started a Holiday Gifts for Vets program. Last year we provided packages for 210 guys and gals at Fort Leavenworth, 25 veterans at regular hospitals, 25 at psychiatric hospitals, and 150 at VA hospitals in Missouri.
I also worked on a project with the local VFW, sending care packages to 350 soldiers in Iraq.
I'm a member of the Permanent Memorial Day Committee and was grand marshal of its parade for three years; we did that in conjunction with the World War I Museum. I helped coordinate the parade, parking, seating, color guard, and flag donations. I've placed two pavers at the Liberty Memorial—one in my name and one in honor of the Jewish War Veterans.
I'm also a charter member of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
One thing I'm sticking with is being a VA Volunteer Services liaison. I get called if a Jewish soldier has returned from deployment and needs to talk to someone about personal matters or his VA care or other social services. I might get called at any hour, and I'll drive up to Fort Leavenworth.
Talk to us about your non-military activities.
I have 50-year pins with both the Shriners and the Scottish Rite.
I was on the board of Fidelity State Bank in Kansas City, Kan., for five years in the 1970s.
I bowl with fellow members of the B'nai B'rith. I love to golf, but I didn't get to golf last year at all. Too much paperwork with all my organizations, which is why I'm pulling back!
Henny and I raised two children. Daughter Salli Katz lives in Kansas City, Mo., and has two adult children; son Mark Katzman is in Vermillion, S.D. They're a big part of my life.
I stay active, and one thing that helps is going to the gym at the Jewish Community Center campus at 5:30 a.m. daily, where I meet Salli and we exercise together.
Mike, your life has been so full. What do you like best about intentionally slowing down?
It's nice to "do nothing" sometimes, you know. I read a lot of books; that keeps my sanity.
Do you see yourself as a more "peaceable" guy now?
I'm more calm, but I'm always on my guard, always. I have 360-degree vision. That's just how I am.
Mike Katzman's beloved organizations
Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America www.jwv.org
This is an organization of citizens of the United States of America, of the Jewish faith, who served in the wars of the United States of America, in order that they may be of greater service to the country and to one another. The organization's mission statement includes these goals:
- Maintain true allegiance to the United States of America.
- Foster and perpetuate true Americanism.
- Combat whatever tends to impair the efficiency and permanency of our free institutions.
- Uphold the fair name of the Jew and fight his or her battles wherever unjustly assailed.
- Encourage the doctrine of universal liberty, equal rights, and full justice to all men and women.
- Combat the powers of bigotry and darkness wherever originating and whatever their target.
- Preserve the spirit of comradeship by mutual helpfulness to comrades and their families.
- Instill love of country and flag, and promote sound minds and bodies in our members and our youths.
- Preserve the memories and records of patriotic service performed by the men and women of the Jewish faith, honor their memory, and shield from neglect the graves of our heroic dead.
Association of the United States Army
Since 1950, the Association of the United States Army has worked to support all aspects of national security while advancing the interests of America's Army and the men and women who serve. It is a private, non-profit educational organization that supports America's Army: active-duty soldiers, National Guard, reserves, civilians, retirees, government civilians, wounded warriors, veterans, and family members.
The association has 125 chapters worldwide, made up entirely of volunteers who provide recreational and educational opportunities. Chapters have contributed over $2 million to awards, scholarships, and support of soldier and family programs.
The association welcomes anyone who subscribes to the philosophy of a strong national defense with special concern for the Army.
VA Stand Downs
Stand Downs are one dramatic element in the Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to provide services to homeless veterans. Stand Downs are typically one- to three-day events providing services to homeless veterans—food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to other necessary services such as housing, employment, and substance abuse treatment. Stand Downs are collaborative events, coordinated between local VAs, other government agencies, and community agencies who serve the homeless.
The first Stand Down was organized in 1988 by a group of Vietnam veterans in San Diego, Calif. Since then, Stand Downs have been used as an effective tool in reaching out to homeless veterans. Kansas City has two events each year.