Discover more from love, journalism
From the eulogy I gave my grandfather
Lew "Poppa Lew" Asher passed away last March at 102.
I’m Darren Samuelsohn, and thanks for reading love, journalism. Today, I’m sharing a personal story about my grandfather, who died last March in Chicago at 102.
First time here? Please sign up to read love, journalism, my free newsletter full of insights, interviews, ideas and inspiration. New episodes of The love, journalism Show air on Saturdays. Bonus posts too.
In March 2022, Chicago native Lew Asher passed away at 102 years old. He was a husband to two amazing women, a dad to two daughters, a World War II veteran, a printer who got his start as an apprentice after the Great Depression, and my grandfather. This is adapted from a eulogy I delivered at his funeral about a year ago. He would have wanted a share of any royalties.
I wouldn’t be the person I am without Poppa Lew. He touched my life in countless ways and helped foster my love and respect for books, technology, culture, family and journalism.
While we weren’t blood related, he was the grandfather figure throughout my life: the first half of a century for me; the second half for him.
Lew met my grandfather, Alvin Samuelsohn, when they were little kids in Chicago during the Great Depression. They were best friends who played basketball, went to Cubs games and joined the Boy Scouts together. They attended each other’s weddings and remained close as adults while raising their families.
When I heard their story while growing up I always thought the next part sounded like a Hollywood script. Alvin died when I was 2 in the mid-1970s. A few years later, Lew, also recently a widow, began dating my grandmother, Jeanette. They were married before my fifth birthday.
As a kid, I would see my grandma and Poppa Lew in South Florida during their long snowbird stays in the winter and then we’d visit in Evanston around the Jewish High Holidays and again in the summer or fall. They took me to my first regular season baseball game at Wrigley Field and my first college football game at Northwestern.
We spoke every Sunday night by phone when long distance calls cost 5 or 10 cents a minute. “Lewwwwwwis…” I can still hear my grandma shout if she took the call first. “Jeaaaahhhh-nette!” he’d yell when it was time to hand off the conversation again.
We’d talk about school, my week ahead, politics, sports, my future.
Back in the mid-1980s, Lew had a computer before anyone else I knew.
He let me play on it even if it meant interrupting work researching and writing his personal encyclopedia about religion. I spent hours navigating the airspace above Chicago on a flight simulator and building a digital version of the golf course where I’d just started caddying. Long before Siri, Lew owned a computer program named Racter that responded to questions and comments with witty and randomly odd things.
Lew loved books, and his personal library was always open to anyone. He bequeathed me his hardback editions of All the President’s Men and The Powers That Be, seminal works about journalism that remain on a shelf hanging over my computer monitor.
Lew finagled education into entertainment and fun. We’d make a bet whenever the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears played each other during the NFL season. If the Dolphins won, he’d have to buy me lunch and read a book. I’d have to do the same for a Bears victory.
In 1985, Miami beat Chicago in one of the greatest Monday Night Football games ever, handing the Bears their only loss during an otherwise perfect Super Bowl championship season. Lew had no problem covering the book part of our bet, but a 10-year old me gave him trouble about the lunch. At the Ark, a pretty fancy establishment across the street from their condominium complex, I said I’d have preferred McDonalds.
A few years later, the Bears beat the Dolphins. I read a Choose Your Own Adventure and used my allowance to buy Lew a burger for less than a buck in a dingy restaurant in Chicago’s Union Station.
Lew looked out for me.
He reminded me of the importance of professionalism and that appearances do matter.
About 15 years ago, I had a chance to ask Bill Clinton a couple questions with other reporters after an event in Washington. I snapped a picture of me with the former president and shared it far and wide. Talking with Poppa Lew a few days later, I recounted the experience with excitement. He was proud, he said. But he was also old school. Rather than remark about Clinton, Lew pointed out something he’d been talking to me about for a few years: the top button of my shirt was unbuttoned behind my tie.
Lew and my grandmother pushed me to be smart, respectful, to think big thoughts and to ask big questions. They exposed me to classical music during overnight sleepovers. They led family trips to Chicago’s Art Institute, the Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry.
I miss the conversations we had, and sometimes I think about the things we’d discuss if he was still here now. Lew was born one year after the start of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Some of our shared ancestors are from Ukraine. Back during the earliest days of the 2016 White House campaign, he insisted Joe Biden would be elected president.
I can also say with some degree of certainty what those talks would have entailed. He’d have suggested a book with some historical connection to current events. He’d opine about how the best people for the job almost never end up being the ones who run for president. He’d reference examples of how history repeats itself. He’d ask big sweeping rhetorical questions to ponder and debate, including whether humans are better off on Earth now or a hundred years ago.
I’m lucky to have had as many of those discussions as I did with Lew. He was ahead of his time and a pretty awesome grandfather. He also loved to joke about how he hated the paparazzi, which is why I saved this tribute until now.
love, journalism is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.