Above: Speaker Sid Stein holds his brothers’ Purple Heart medals. Photo by Mark Woolsey
By Mark Woolsey
A forward thinker with a ready grin. A diligent researcher and self-described “news junkie.” A deft marketer and self-promoter. And a practiced and impassioned speaker.
Is this a fresh-faced millennial with a newly-minted MBA taking the podium at a Toastmasters meeting that we’re discussing? Far from it.
Eighty-two-year old Sid Stein embodies all those qualities — and he’s used that toolbox to build a retirement avocation as a speaker and arranger of speaking programs. It’s a busy and rewarding road, and had it not been for a pair of Purple Hearts languishing in a dark corner for decades, he might never have taken the first step.
An estimated 60 speeches in the last seven years and he doesn’t charge a dime. It’s the emotional payoff and the sure sense of bringing knowledge to seniors that’s priceless, he says.
“I’m a showboat anyway,” Stein said at a North Fulton coffee shop as he shared his story and memorabilia from his appearances. “I like to introduce the speakers, “he said. “Sometimes I tell jokes. And the satisfaction I get is when someone comes up to me afterwards and says, ‘I really enjoyed that speech.’ “
His Brothers’ Legacy
Stein’s road to the podium began on Sept. 27, 1936. He was born to parents who owned a department store in Mount Pleasant, Tenn. He describes his immediate and extended families as go-getters “who followed the Stein tradition of working hard and making a little money.”
It’s a prescription his older brothers apparently followed to a T. Stein really doesn’t remember much about them, except for their funerals. Hyman and Morris Stein were quick to volunteer after Pearl Harbor and found themselves in the Army infantry.
Both wound up overseas and neither was to return. Hyman, the younger, was the first to perish. He had been fighting in Sicily before being sent to England. Morris rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant and was shot dead by a sniper in the spring of 1945 while leading his troops through a dense jungle in the Philippines.
Their bodies were returned from overseas in 1948 and buried in Nashville’s Jewish Cemetery under a simple headstone declaring “brothers.”
“My parents were devastated, so broken up they gave away all my brothers’ possessions,” said Stein — including those Purple Hearts. They passed from one set of relatives to another. After 2010, a relative’s wife found them stashed away in a closet. Stein says she gave them to his younger brother, who turned them over to him.
“I was overcome with emotion and would tell my story to friends, family, anybody who would listen,” he said. Stein began asking questions about the brothers he never knew, bringing them into sharp focus. He thinks Hyman would eventually have taken the reins of his father’s store after working diligently in the shoe department. As for Morris, his buddies described him as a “natural born leader-with killer good looks to boot.”
Stein chuckles. “My dad said that was why he sent him to an all-male military academy, so that he wouldn’t get in trouble with the women.”
After a 40-year career as a manufacturers rep in the textile industry in Tennessee and Georgia, Stein retired to Duluth at age 70. He occupied his time indulging hobbies, traveling and spending time with his kids and grandkids.
A November 2010 AJC article about his brothers inspired Stein to begin telling their story. He applied his hustle and people skills, sending out feelers hither and yon, taking gigs mostly around Memorial Day, Veterans Days and the Fourth of July.
Stein would pepper his appearances with a strong visual element, incorporating a variety of photos and memorabilia from World War II. He appeared before veterans’ groups, church groups, civic clubs, the Marcus Community Jewish Center of Atlanta, even the local chapter of an association of retired FBI agents. (They gave him a standing ovation.)
He estimates in the past seven years he’s done about 60 speeches, first focusing on his brothers, then later incorporating other war heroes in his family and beyond, ending with a patriotic flourish.
As Stein puts it, “My message is that they made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. I end quoting the Lee Greenwood Song, “God Bless the U-S-A: ‘I’m proud to be an American, cause at least I know I’m free.’”
Finding His Place with KnowlEdgewise
His periodic appearances at the Jewish center did not go unnoticed. Stein was tapped to be co-chair of the center’s KnowlEdgewise speaker series for adults over the age of 60, eventually taking over the whole shebang. A good fit as it turns out, because he sets great store by lifelong learning.
“It keeps you stimulated,” he said. “Since I started speaking, my memory has improved. No matter how old you are, you shouldn’t stop learning.”
Working contacts made through his own speeches, networking and scouring the media has won him a roster of solid and occasionally dazzling speakers. They range from comedian Jerry Farber and a health dean at Emory University who did groundbreaking word on AIDS at the CDC to retired KGB operative Jack Barsky, who spied on Americans for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Earl Finley, head of programs for mature adults at the Marcus Center, shakes his head in amazement, calling Stein “very passionate” about KnowlEdgewise and their general speaker series as well. “He goes way above and beyond. He’ll go out and get and get speakers I’ve never heard of and they’re amazing.”
Arranging some 20 speeches a year is a heavy lift, but Stein’s not content with that. He signed on with the non-profit Senior University, where he coordinates a class called Potpourri, which features a roster of college-level lecturers and others.
The push to keep learning shines through as Stein talks about his unintended speaking career. Tell him something he doesn’t know and his eyes light up. If it tickles him, his face creases into a grin. He engages quickly and asks the right questions.
And he shows no sign of slowing down. “I enjoy what I’m doing,” he said simply. “And I’m going to keep on doing the same thing.”