Jerry Specht on His Family, especially His Brother, Bob
Written, March, 2019
Updated, Feb, 2021
This is an extraction from my (as yet unpublished) memoirs.
I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, on December 14, 1949. My fraternal twin brother Bob was born five minutes after me. The doctor who delivered us was my grandfather's cousin, Edgar Deissler. I was named Gerald Richard ("Gerald" after ? ; "Richard" was my father's middle name). My brother was named Robert Edward ("Robert" after my mother's older brother and "Edward" after her younger brother --and perhaps my father's grandfather?).
(The "Sarah Boone" on my father's side is the sister of the American frontiersman, Daniel Boone.)
For documents and photos on my family history, see “Jerry Specht Family History” at http://jspecht.org/specht/ .
A Family Tree DNA test shows that I am 40% English, 10% Irish, 15% “Nordic”, 15% East European, and 20% Spanish/Italian. But the Irish had a disproportionate influence. Despite the fact that only one of my great-grandparents (Grandma Fisher, née Sweeney) was a Roman Catholic, our family was Roman Catholic.
My mother, Dorothy Elizabeth Deissler, was born in Greenville, Pennsylvania, in 1926. We were quite close to my mother's family.
My mother's father, Victor Deissler, was an inventor and businessman. He made and sold electric refrigerators. I have a business card of his. He “disappeared” in 1941. I thought that he had probably committed suicide, but after investigation in 2008/9, it seems almost certain that he was murdered. (See The Disappearance and Almost Certain Murder of Victor Deissler, Feb. 2, 1941, 10 pm - 11:30 pm ).
The other great tragedy of my mother's family was the death of my mother's brother Eddie (Victor Edward) on August 10, 1937, when he was six years old. He stepped on a rusty nail and died from tetanus.
My Great-Grandmother Fisher died (at the age of 90) when I was nine. She had graduated from Slippery Rock Normal College and had taught school in Springboro, Pennsylvania, for ten terms. She impressed upon her family the importance of education and (the Roman Catholic) religion. She had a lovely smile.
My Great-Grandfather Fisher lived to the age of 94 (when I was 18). I remember him sitting in his rocking chair and smoking his pipe. He had worked for the Bessemer Railroad -- as had his father John and his daughter Elizabeth. I don't remember him conversing much or really doing much of anything.... No doubt the result of his considerable age....
The big influence upon my youth was my Grandmother Deissler. She was a very intelligent woman with a great interest in her children and grandchildren and the world at large -- travel, current events, etc. She was constantly inquiring about our schoolwork. She loved buying us books as Christmas and birthday presents. We visited her almost every weekend. On Thanksgiving (and other holidays) our family and the Cleveland Deisslers (her son Bob's family) gathered at the family homestead in Greenville.
My feelings about her and her place in my life are expressed in my poem, "Grandma's Funeral" .
My dad, Theodore Richard Specht, was born in Felton, Minnesota, in 1918. [Felton is in the western part of the state, just across the border from Fargo, North Dakota.] His mother died when he was in his teens. His father died when I was seven. My dad had one sister, my Aunt Elsie, in Minneapolis, and two brothers: Uncle Walter who lived in California and Uncle Jim, in Orrville, Ohio. We visited Orrville about once a year.
My dad graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Electrical Engineering. After working briefly in Ohio, he moved (in 1941) to Sharon to work with the Westinghouse Transformer Division. In 1951 he received a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. He worked for Westinghouse Sharon Transformer Division for the remainder of his career, 41 years. As noted in his obituary, he was the author of 27 patents and authored or co-authored numerous technical publications.
After high school, my mother attended Youngstown College for a year and worked for several years at the Sharon Westinghouse plant, where she and my father met.
They were married in June, 1947. They lived in an apartment in Sharon until Bob and I were born (December 14, 1949), at which time they moved to Greenville, so that my Grandmother Deissler could help care for us. Bob was a “colicky” baby. (Colic is discussed here .) This might seem trivial, but I think it was actually quite important. Even with my Grandma helping, I think my mom and dad felt overwhelmed. There was this one child (me) who seemed pretty contented and this other (Bob) who was always screaming.
My sister, Rosemary, was born in Sept., 1954.
We lived in Greenville (on Plum St.) until Bob and I were six (1956), when moved to 499 Boyd Drive in Sharon, PA.
Bob had a “temper” throughout his life. He would fly off the handle for what seemed like no reason at all. Our dad would spank both of us (see my poem “Spankings”), but Bob definitely got spanked more than I did. (My mom was afraid that we'd grow up to be “juvenile delinquents” if they didn't keep under strict control.)
I especially remember a time when we were about to leave for Chicago (possibly for my cousin Jim Specht's wedding?). I think Bobby was about to be spanked for some reason and climbed far up into a tree in the neighbors' yard. There was no way my parents could get him down. They “negotiated” with him, telling him that, if he came down, he would not be spanked. But when he came down, he was spanked (with a belt). That seemed wrong to me.
I think such things can leave lasting scars (psychologically)....
Bob was an outstanding athlete in grade school. Not just, as noted in my poem “Bobby”, in Little League, but also as quarterback on his “Midget Football” team, and on the grade-school basketball team.
I was an outstanding student -- or, more precisely, since I couldn't be an outstanding athlete I compensated by becoming an outstanding student. Athletic achievement and academic achievement were roughly on a par in terms of parental and grandparental approval, but athletic achievement resulted in a greater popularity, a greater sense of belonging, in society as a whole -- at least Sharon, PA, society -- and was therefore preferable.
Bob was still a very good athlete in junior high but by the time we got to high school he was no longer a star. I'm not sure whether it was something physical (other kids grew more?), psychological, or what, but while I was establishing my identity as an intellectual, he was losing his as an athlete -- and had a hard time finding something to replace it.
My younger twin brothers, Jim and Larry, were born in May, 1959.
In 1967, after graduating from Sharon High School, I headed to Oberlin College, and Bob headed to Kent State University, both in Ohio.
Bob was at Kent State for two years. I remember my mom coming over to Oberlin and then driving down to Kent to pick up Bob. He had become "radicalized". He had joined the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and had participated in several demonstrations -- most notably the disruption of an ROTC performance drill (along with ten other SDSers) -- nearly ending up in jail. He had accepted Marxist ideology in its entirety and spoke of "The Revolution" not only as if it were inevitable, but as if it would happen tomorrow. In the SDS he had found comradeship and a means of setting himself apart from the bulk of beer-drinking, party-going Kent State-rs. He always was an extremist. I remember him saying 100 "Hail Mary"s the night before pitching an important Little League game. Several years later he completely gave up religion. He emphatically declared that women were stupid and silly; two years later he was married.
My relationship with Bob was very important to me. We were different people and had gone our separate ways, but the first 20 years of our lives were so closely intertwined that we always had much in common. He was the only person in the world with whom I was able to speak with complete openness and honesty.
Going home meant relaxing in those days -- long talks with Bob and Mom and Grandma, playing with my younger brothers, reading, walks in the Park, catching up on my sleep.
Bob transferred to Drew University, in New Jersey, for his junior and senior years.
In July, 1970, after taking some summer school classes at Boston University, I decided to stop and visit Bob in New Jersey since it was right on the way and since I had a few extra days before having to be at work at Potomac Vegetable Farms in Virginia.
He had met a girl whom he liked very much (Mary Kristjen) and they were sort of living together. She was a very intelligent, energetic person, though somewhat unstable. I found their affection for each other very pleasant and Bob seemed happier than he'd been in a long time. He was living in Highlands. Mary was from and was living in nearby Rumson.
Bob had quieted down somewhat -- no longer the wild-eyed radical he had once been. But, like myself, was in a predicament with respect to the Draft. Sometime during the summer it was announced that there would be no more new teaching deferments. I had decided to apply for CO status (Conscientious Objector). Bob was planning and fully intending to go to Canada -- permanent exile. Mom and the rest of the family were very upset. We all knew how intransigent he could be.
How we could have spent such a pleasant week there that summer by the ocean in the shadow of The War, I don't know. Perhaps we felt instinctively that things would work out. But how close they came to *not* working out . . . .
Sometime late in June, 1971, after being given a “1-Y” status by the Draft Board (see my poem, “The Draft”), I went to New Jersey for a weekend visit with Bob and Mary. (Bob had just graduated and they had just been married --a justice-of-the-peace, two-witnesses marriage.) They were living in an apartment in Madison and were planning to stay there for two more years while Mary finished her studies. They seemed contented. Bob thought that he might have some trouble finding a job, but really wasn't sure what he wanted to do anyway. (He had majored in Mathematics.)
He had avoided the Draft by finding a doctor who felt that he had a back problem severe enough to disqualify him. I believe that this doctor's anti-war sentiments affected his judgment of the ailment's severity. I was grateful that Bob had not been forced into exile in Canada.
My Grandmother Deissler died in May, 1972, at the age of 72. (See my poem, "Grandma's Funeral" .)
Bob came to Oberlin for a couple days in April, 1973, after visiting with the folks in Sharon. He and Mary had been divorced. He had been living in Boston, had had enough of his job as a security guard at Harvard, and was planning to go to graduate school (in Mathematics) in the fall (– which he did, earning a Master's Degree from Wesleyan University, in Connecticut). We went to see Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) in Cleveland and enjoyed it very much. He was very peaceful and warm and had some real insights into human nature, though sometimes I felt that his real interest was logic -- a very subtle form, but logic nonetheless.
My uncle committed suicide around that time (the summer of 1973). Uncle Jim. My Dad's brother. He was the director of the power company in Orrville (Ohio). There was a big storm and the electricity was out for several days because the equipment became flooded. People were extremely unhappy. They blamed my uncle. He went out and hung himself. Did he share his feelings with his wife or friends? Maybe he did. But maybe he was like my dad; maybe he kept it all inside. Lacking any real religious belief or conviction about the value of life, perhaps he was forced out of the moderate sine wave of his everyday existence; off the graph entirely.
We went to Orrville for the funeral and stayed in the house with Myrtle and Ronnie and Jimmy and Aunt Elsie (Uncle Jim's and Dad's sister). At night Elsie cried. It was a weird, whimpering sound. I think maybe she was crying in her sleep. No sobbing. Not like regular crying.
In summer, 1975, I hitch-hiked up to Boston to visit Bob. He was working at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, doing mathematics/computer work, and living in a house in Newton with four other people. I visited the Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts and bought some fine Botticelli prints at the Harvard Coop. Bob wanted to "escape" so we went up to Vermont for a couple days, hiking and "car camping" at Hapgood Pond, a very nice state park in the Green Mountains.
That was also the summer that I wrote the first installment of this autobiography. I originally intended to show it to Gail [Breslow, my then-current love-interest], but never did. For a long time the only person who saw it was Bob.
My sister Rosemary and her husband, Gary Koch, had their first child, Katherine, in April, 1976.
Though I'd been involved with various women through the years, my March–June, 1977, relationship with Oberlin College senior, Connie Rosen, was definitely the most serious and passionate until my meeting and falling in love with Roxann. The relationship was doomed from early on: Connie felt an overwhelming need to go somewhere on her own and to “prove herself”. Nevertheless, knowing that she liked visiting interesting cities, I offered to escort her to and around Boston, staying with Bob. She liked the idea.
I believe that we were in Boston for about five days (– in June, after Oberlin classes were done). Bob had gotten into sailing and we rented a boat from a harbor north of Boston on the Atlantic. We saw different historical sites and I'm sure that we visited the Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardner Museum. We all had a good time, but, in the end, Connie took a train from Boston to Washington, and I hitch-hiked back to Oberlin.
In a letter to Bob shortly after this, I said "I was really glad to hear that the time you spent with us in Boston was one of the best vacations you'd had." (I don't know whether I was responding to a letter he had sent me or a phone call.) Connie wrote me soon after: "I loved living with you in Boston and I think that we could live together on a more permanent basis than that fairly successfully." Being together constantly without the "distractions" of school and work was interesting. I think Connie did like it more than she thought she would. But not enough to change things. She came to Oberlin a few times and I went down to D.C. once, but that was basically the end.... Connie is "Sarah" in my poem, "The Poet Talks To His Former Loves".
In December 1977, I moved to Chicago, to establish residency in preparation for my attending library school at U. of Illinois, Champaign. Bob visited me in Chicago that spring (1978). We went to a blues club (Kingston Mines?) and I think we might have gone to a baseball game. His relationship with Marybeth, a married woman he had been involved with for several years, continued. It was an on-again, off-again, very turbulent relationship. I met her at some point -- perhaps in 1977 when I visited Bob with Connie. She seemed nice. Of course, Bob wanted her to leave her husband. He dated other women occasionally but I believe that this was his most important relationship right up until the time that he died. He recognized it as a "bad" relationship, not what he really wanted, but didn't seem capable of ending it.
Moving to Champaign without a relationship and without any hope for a relationship and without the distraction of other people living with me, I was very depressed -- at times, I would say, verging on suicide. I feel that I had been able to offer Bob some comfort and support at times and certainly he felt free to complain to me. The opposite was not true. I had never been able to unload my depression on Bob (or anyone else). I didn't feel he was strong enough.
In January, 1980, Bob was in an auto accident. He put on his brakes suddenly on the expressway, thinking he was missing his exit, and the car behind him ran into him. He hurt his eye and got a mark on his face which persisted for many months.
In May of 1981, I received a call from Roxann when I was at work. She told me either that something had happened to someone in my family or just that something had happened, and that I should come home immediately. I felt that if it had just been that someone had died she would have told me. Somehow as I rode home on the El I thought that someone had committed suicide -- probably my father or my brother Bob -- most probably my father whose inner life was always a mystery to me, so anything seemed possible.
But it turned out it was Bob. When I heard her say that Bob was dead, I just went crazy in anger and grief. Why didn't he say anything? How could he be so foolish as to think that whatever pain he was suffering was permanent? How could he do this to our mother? She must be going through hell. My instinct was to go to Sharon as soon as possible. I thought of driving that night, but ended up waiting till the next day and flying there.
Bob had been despondent at different times during his life and had even indirectly mentioned suicide several times, but that had been some time ago. He frequently made outrageous statements and one was never quite sure how to take what he said. He shot himself in the head with a gun he had purchased at least a week earlier, perhaps longer. He left a letter in which he said that his reason for committing suicide was his feeling that he would never find love (with a woman). My mother destroyed the original. I had made a copy, but at some point seem to have lost that too....
It speaks very poorly of us that we should lose track of this important document. I do believe that it’s still possible that my copy is somewhere among my things. . . . And I do believe that this from my poem “Bobby” captures the essence: “You'd left a note: ‘No hope of finding love. Refuse to live without.’”
As a result of his eye injury from the auto accident he had been taking Prednisone (a corticosteroid). He had stopped taking it early in 1981. I believe he said he stopped on his own because it was making his face break out. My research showed that such drugs could have psychological side effects: that, since they shut down production by the adrenal gland, sudden cessation of treatment could be especially dangerous -- you should do it gradually. What role this played, if any, we'll never know. It does seem like there had been a change in Bob's personality in these last months: from someone who was quite able and willing to talk about his problems to someone who wasn't.
I insisted on seeing his body. The casket at the funeral service was to be closed because of the disfigurement of his face. My mother thought my insistence on seeing the body morbid, but I got my way. Gary Koch (Rosemary's husband) went with me.
My thoughts on Bob's death were expressed in a letter I sent to Jim and Larry shortly afterwards. What role my marriage might have played in this I don't know. Probably none. But perhaps he felt more distant, less able to talk to me (though I had never been his main outlet anyway -- that had always been Mom). Or perhaps he felt that now that I was secure he didn't have to worry about the effect his leaving might have. But I doubt either of these was much of a factor at all.
Bob was not always a pleasant person to be with. He was frequently negative. I felt that I gave more to him than he gave to me. I was the one who listened to his problems. The strong one. The positive one. Nevertheless, I have missed him. I have missed his intimate understanding of where I have come from, the shared experience stretching back to our earliest days. I have missed his ruthless honesty, his refusal to blandly accept the norms and conventions of society, his spirit.
Check out my poem “Bobby”, if you have not already….
A lot of child-bearing in the late '80's / early '90's....
• My sister Rosemary and her husband Gary had their second child, Sean, in January, 1984.
• My brother Jim and his first wife, Jamie Woods, had their first (and only) child, Amanda, in October, 1985.
• Roxann gave birth to Andy on June 9, 1987.
• My brother Larry and his then-wife Karen had three children: David, March, 1989; Jenna, November, 1991; and Crystal, November, 1993.
• Mark was born in January, 1992. And Lizzie, in August, 1993.
Since use of email didn't start until the 1990's and since my parents didn't really ever use it much, I have a number of hand-written letters from my mom (about 10). These are three representative ones, from: 1992, 1999, and 2007.
My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July, 2007. It’s one of the most deadly forms of cancer. He was taken to a Pittsburgh hospital. They prescribed chemotherapy, which nearly killed him. Once the chemo was halted his Sharon doctor had no additional suggestions. We siblings, not wanting to just sit back and see our father die, did what research we could. The Kochs found the promising though unproven Rexin-G, and Cyber-Knife. Since the latter could be done in Pittsburgh, we went with that. He had a Cyber-Knife procedure in October. My brother Jim and I drove him from Sharon to Pittsburgh.
The travel was a bit taxing but he seemed to tolerate it OK. (The procedure itself involved no surgery; just the targeted radiation. He slept through most of it.) He lived for 6 months after the diagnosis. It’s unclear if the Cyber-Knife treatment (deemed successful) actually prolonged his life. Probably not.
The Cyber-Knife treatment was covered by Medicare. This indicated to me that our pursing it wasn’t too off-the-wall – despite the noncommittal position of the Sharon doctors.
(See my Comcast email “Pancreatic” folder for complete communication.)
I returned to Evanston, but on Dec. 27 my dad went into the hospital with severe back pain. They found that he had an infected gall bladder, which would normally be removed via surgery, but that he was not sufficiently robust to survive such a surgery. He died on Dec. 29.
Though it was not quite routine, I asked the pastor at the Notre Dame church to be allowed to speak some words about my father, as did my brother Jim and brother-in-law Gary.
This is his Sharon Herald obituary .
Certainly, my father’s death was a huge shock to my mom. I do not think that she “lost her will to live”, but, rather, that this shock took a toll on her when she was not so physically robust herself. I think their austere diet worked well as a heart-disease preventative, but left both of them in a weakened condition overall….
[From my Jan. 23 email:]
On Sunday, Jan. 20, my mom was feeling dizzy and light-headed. She fell, but did not injure herself. She thought maybe there was something with her heart. It was decided that she should go to the hospital (Sharon General Hospital) for tests. She was kept overnight and at some point was given "oxygen treatment". It was shortly after this that she was diagnosed with a pseudomonas (bacterial) infection of her lungs. Pseudomonas is almost always acquired in hospitals by patients with relatively weak immune systems. It is a difficult bacterium to kill. We believe the pseudomonas came from an oxygen mask which had not been sterilized in a way to kill the bacteria.
On Monday, Jan. 28, I called her doctor. I got a sense of it being very serious and drove out to PA that same day -- mostly to relieve my sister and her husband who had been visiting her every day.
On Tuesday, Jan. 29, she seemed stable, but while in physical therapy in the afternoon felt faint and was observed to be pale. Her blood oxygen was measured at 84 (low). They put little oxygen tubes in her nose. The blood oxygen was then OK. I had been there in the morning and visited her again in the evening. Her breathing sounded a bit worse. I was somewhat leery of leaving her but they wanted everyone to leave at 8 pm. About an hour later, when the nurse was with her, she stopped breathing and even with the oxygen in her nose and later an oxygen mask, her blood oxygen was low. The doctor decided she should be put on a ventilator in Intensive Care.
She was on the ventilator for about three days. After the second day, though unable to talk (because of the ventilator tube down her throat), she was able to communicate by writing.
She was taken off the ventilator and spent Feb. 1-9 in various non-intensive units. She had the oxygen tubes in her nostrils. She had ups and downs. It was hard for her to breathe, but generally seemed to be improving. She said that she never wanted to be put on the ventilator again.
On Tuesday, Feb. 5, she was moved to "Transitional Care". She complained on Wed. morning that the previous night had been terrible. She was unable to sleep and the nurses were very slow responding. She seemed agitated. The doctor was afraid it would interfere with her breathing and put her on "anti-anxiety"/sedative medicine. I stayed with her all night on Wednesday. She she slept well and seemed to be breathing reasonably well. I did not sleep so well. She still seemed to be OK on Thursday -- though excessively sleepy. At her own insistence, she went to [a very minimal] physical therapy session -- I decided to leave her about 11 pm to try to get some sleep myself.
The doctor called at 4:30 am Friday to say that she was "non-responsive". Though she was breathing OK and her blood oxygen was OK and her eyes were partially open, she was not responding to auditory or visual cues. An arterial blood test showed that her blood carbon-dioxide was way too high. Her lungs were not properly removing it. [In retrospect, it seems that either being on the respirator or the anti-anxiety medicine depressed her lung function and made her lungs unable to remove the carbon dioxide as they should.] She stayed in this comatose state for the rest of the day. Gary/Rosemary and I stayed with her, alternately, this whole time. Since she had emphatically stated that she did not want to go on the respirator again and since it seemed unlikely to lead to recovery, the doctor did not put her back on the respirator. She died at 4 am on Saturday. She was 81.
Rosemary and I spoke at Mom's funeral.
Despite the somewhat excessive corporal punishment we received, I have very
positive feelings about my upbringing. The main thing was that both of my
parents (and my Grandma Deissler) were really there for us. They had a
genuine desire for us to succeed in life -- both in our physical well-being and
in our happiness....