With shells beginning to explode in downtown Jerusalem in the opening hour of the Six Day War, I ducked into the one nearby doorway that was open. A plaque in the lobby revealed that this was City Hall. I told the doorman that I was an American journalist and asked if I could see the mayor. He called upstairs and told me to take the elevator to the top floor. "What's his name?" I asked. "Teddy Kollek."
The 'Post' pays tribute to Teddy Kollek
Kollek, in office just a year and a half, stood in his doorway and beckoned me inside. He spoke with candor about what was happening. Two aides came in and we stood at a window watching dirty plumes of shell smoke hang in the air before disintegrating. It seemed that the city was being blown apart.
It would be my privilege in the coming years to watch Kollek put the city back together again - larger, more beautiful, far more complex - during the decade that I covered the Jerusalem municipal beat for The Jerusalem Post.
It was Kollek's ebullient personality and grand vision that made this the most fascinating journalistic beat I could imagine. He had the capacity to envision the dim backwater that was pre-1967 Jerusalem as a radiant city on the hill - the city on the hill - and he had the drive, the managerial capacity and the charm to make it happen.
The fact that an outspoken liberal like Kollek was elected six times by one of the most right-wing electorates in Israel showed that the city's Sephardi majority understood that this Ashkenazi prince was real, that he cared, that he was neither self-serving nor cynical. He was a Viennese cosmopolitan who loved a good brandy, a good cigar and good company, but he had never lost the sense of duty that brought him to Palestine as a pioneer.
Every morning at 6:30 he would tour neighborhoods with his driver, Nahum, and make notes on potholes, missing street signs, bald spots crying out for greenery. His notes would be on a secretary' desk an hour later to be forwarded to respective department heads. Woe unto him who did not remedy the problem within days.
About once a year, he would smack a citizen whom he felt to be abusive, usually someone far younger than he. None of them ever complained.
Teddy was blessed with a self-confidence that put the mighty and the humble at ease. He also had a temper that not infrequently left secretaries in tears, but he would make amends with a note or a box of candy. He had a marvelous sense of fun - posing in a fireman's helmet or other colorful headgear, gamely hanging on to the back seat of a policeman's scooter, joining a soccer game wearing shorts that threatened to slide off. But he also had an incomparable ability to find the right thing to say at the most solemn or embarrassing of public moments.
Teddy was Jerusalem's father figure. We were fortunate that he was with us as long as he was.
The writer is a former Jerusalem affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.