Any kid growing up can often feel a bit uncomfortable around doctors when they begin discussing medical issues.
This is especially true with surgeons.
Jacob C. “Jack” Handelsman, however, who died in July of 2013 at the age of 94, was a significant exception to that rule.
As a youngster, I always looked forward to when Jack, and his wife, Shirley, visited the Herman Maril family home in Baltimore.
Jack had an engaging smile, a reassuring sense of humor and no matter how young or old you were, it was apparent he was a genuine, caring person who was fun to be around.
In the 1950s and 1960s my parents and their circle of friends would host small dinner parties several times a month. There were always a number of fascinating visitors to our house from the medical, legal and creative arts fields.
However, I remember as a kid always especially looking forward to when the Handelsmans were on the guest list, coming over.
Athough he was a great surgeon who became an icon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a medical institution of world-wide stature, I viewed him more as a caring and entertaining family friend.
Jack had a certain sparkle. He was a gregarious, outgoing individual who brightened up a room with his presence. In fact, he reminded me, when I was about 10, of a local TV entertainment host named Jack Wells, whose popularity took him from success in Baltimore to syndicated national exposure in Los Angeles.
Jack and my parents, Herman and Esta Maril, were great friends for over four decades.
Jack was drawn to the arts and enjoyed sculpturing and making furniture. Collecting art was also one of Jack’s interests and he bought a number of my father’s paintings over the years.
It is impossible for me to overstate how important Jack was to our family. Whenever there was any difficult medical situation, he insisted on connecting my parents with the top specialists at Hopkins.
But the Maril family was not alone.
Besides his formal medical practice at Hopkins, there was an endless list of friends and acquaintances he personally kept an eye on over the years, advising and helping them with medical choices and decisions.
Before the age of cellphones, he kept a telephone at the family dinner table and would converse with patients and family whenever necessary while eating.
According to his oldest son, Steve, a television news correspondent for NBC, he would often not charge a patient, who was having financial problems, for his services.
In October, it was an honor for the Herman Maril Foundation to donate to the Johns Hopkins Department of Surgery a large (74 X 112 inches) tapestry designed by Herman Maril entitled “Red Sun.”
The tapestry, on permanent display in the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, honors the rich legacy of Jack Handelsman and his friendship with my father.
The serene but colorful seascape tapestry reflects the gentle, warm and positive demeanors that epitomized both Jack and my father.
My father, during World War II, was a part of one of the pioneer programs using art for therapy in treating wounded military veterans. And for years, we have continually heard from patients who visit Johns Hopkins who comment on the reassuring feeling they received when encountering one of my father’s paintings hanging in the Kimmel Center or at Bay View.
After Jack retired from doing surgery, he remained an active physician and committed to volunteering at Hopkins.
While I have clear, very happy recollections of Jack when I was a kid, my most recent memories of him are also very significant.
In the early 1990s when my mother was undergoing throat surgery, Jack came to Hopkins and sat with me in the waiting room for several hours. When the surgery was completed, he went in, behind the scenes, talked to the surgeon, Dr. Haskins Kashima, and came out to assure me everything was OK.
Having moved to Massachusetts, I didn’t see Jack that often in the later years. But the last time our paths did cross, at an art opening of my father’s work, remains fresh in my mind.
After exchanging pleasantries, he asked me if I had seen an elderly mutual friend of both families who was recovering from a stroke and having serious health issues.
He wanted to know what I had observed because he was assessing how he could be the most helpful to the person.
That was Jack, always thinking about what he could do for his friends, and I know, his family.
The only thing I ever held against Jack was that he got my father to sell him “Midnight Snack,” which, hanging in the living-room of our old Chilham Road house, was my favorite painting as a kid.
But on the plus side, I always felt good about the fact it could not have had a better home.