A long, full life in the shadow of cancer

Appreciation: Frank Lautenberg was dedicated to health promotion, and he was much praised for his law that restricted smoking in public places.

June 5, 2013 05:34
3 minute read.
Frank Lautenberg

Frank Lautenberg 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Frank Lautenberg, whom I first met and interviewed 39 years ago in Jerusalem, was diagnosed with stomach cancer three years ago but succumbed to a complication -- viral pneumonia -- three months after voting for the last time in his beloved US Senate.

"I’m not worried," he told Prof. Eitan Yefenof, director of the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty in Jerusalem. "I’m in the good hands of Dr. Jim Holland at Mount Sinai Medical Center [in New York]."

But cancer was bound up with his life since he was a young man. His father Sam died of it at a young age. Frank established the Lautenberg Center in the hope that it would bring a cure -- or at least better treatment -- nearer. And after Rabbi Shai Shacknai, his charismatic Israeli-born synagogue leader in Paterson New Jersey died of cancer at the age of 36 and left a wife and two young children, he endowed the center with the Rabbi Shai Shacknai Prize, which it awards regularly to honor leading cancer researchers from abroad. Lautenberg last visited three years ago, Yefenof told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday after learning of his death after enjoying a long and full life.

Then-HU president Abe Harman named the cancer research center in his honor, in thanks for Lautenberg’s contributions, back in 1969 --  long before he became senator. Lautenberg was dedicated to health promotion, and he was much praised for his law that restricted smoking in public places.

"I knew where Frank was every day for the last 48 years," said his longtime personal assistant Eleanor Rigolosi, "and now that he’s gone, I know where he is -- in paradise," she told Yefenof.

Yefenof noted that 38 foreign cancer researchers -- including some who went on to receive a Nobel Prize -- received the Shacknai award. It brought them to Israel not only to receive the prize but also to lecture in three universities about their research work and also to meet local scientists and set up cooperative research.

"Today, there are video-conferences, emails and Skype, but in the early 70s, visits by great cancer scientists and personal contact with them were rare," explained Yefenof, who sent my Post interviews with winners and the center’s annual progress report to Lautenberg.

The senator had learned the ropes of public service while working for Jewish organizations before being elected to five terms in the Senate. With a reputation for honesty, talent and activism, five-time New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has twice in critical points in his career been called to fill in when someone was wrapped in scandal. In 1974, when he was chairman and CEO of a billion-dollar automatic data processing company and attended the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meetings that I covered as a neophyte reporter, it was disclosed during the agency assembly that the agreed-upon candidate for general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal was involved in financial misdeeds. Desperate to find immediately a "clean" replacement, agency heads chose Lautenberg, then 50, after some participants read my article and thought: "Why not Frank?"

At the last minute, he was elected to head the world's most important Jewish and pro-Israel fund-raising organization, a post he held for three years. The experience gave him a taste for public life and politics. Then, in February 1999 -- after being elected to the Senate in 1982, 1988 and 1994 -- he announced that he would retire the following January. In fact, the day after leaving Washington, he realized he already missed it terribly and had made a "terrible mistake" by retiring at 75. His replacement, Robert Toricelli served a single term -- prevented from running for reelection after it was disclosed that he had been involved in a campaign finance scandal. Democratic Party leaders begged Lautenberg to come back; he ran for the fourth time and handily defeated his opponent, despite charges that he was "too old" at 78. He then was elected to a fifth term.

Lautenberg was undoubtedly the only US senator who learned the ropes of public service from political machinations in the Jewish Agency and from American Jewish fundraising. When he invited me to see him at the King David Hotel in 2009, he remembered that I had interviewed him at the Jewish Agency assembly in 1974 and that the headline given to the story was "The agency's 'late bloomers'" - which amused Lautenberg when he wondered why his "underwear" was mentioned. The senator confirmed that the attention he received due to the article was largely responsible for his choice as UJA chairman.

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