WFMT radio was broadcasting a tribute Wednesday for the late Studs Terkel’s 100th birthday. Appropriate I thought as I prepared to attend the funeral and burial of one of his friends, the late Doris Finkel Peltz who had often entertained the Terkels in her Ogden Dunes home. Doris’ husband, the late nonagenarian David Peltz had been a life long friend of Stud’s as well as Saul Bellow (whose novel Humbolt’s Gift he was cast in as a character) and also Nelson Algren. But it wasn’t unusual for this grand lady to have important people around her dinning room table.
As I drove into Miller Beach, airline jet-streams crisscrossed the sky as if leaving a kiss mark above Gary that had been Doris’ home, and also her home away from home even when she resided in Ogden Dunes and for the past decade in a suite high above Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. For many years she had kept her safety deposit box in downtown Gary as a keepsake of her roots. Gary would always be home.
Doris’ children didn’t expect to have much of a funeral attendance as their mother, at age 91 ½ had outlived many of her friends. But there was indeed a sizable attendance of elders, remaining friends, fans and family members at the memorial held in the sanctuary of Temple Israel in Miller Beach, a congregation that Doris had twice served as President, as had her father Cyrus Wechsler prior. Doris (Wechsler) Finkel Petlz was born and raised in Gary. Her father reportedly owned much of the business district at Fifth Avenue and Broadway, and she was heiress of his Hudson’s, one of the finest women apparel stores known in Northwest Indiana. In time Doris became a champion in the local civil rights movement for minorities and for women, and also had hired the first black salesperson on Broadway, a controversial move at the time.
When her brother Burton Wechsler, spearheaded Richard Hatcher’s successful election as the first black to win a Mayoral position in a major American City, Doris served with the Central Committee of the campaign. Her work with the NAACP and other important causes eventually earned her placement among Gary’s Steel City Hall of Fame. A progressive on many issues she was a champion of Social Action and served on the national board of the Union of Reform Judaism (Then known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and locally as a Life Past President of the Northwest Indiana Jewish Federation. Rabbi Stanley Halpern led the funeral, and mentioned that Doris had guided him long ago through the very sanctuary in which her final farewell took place, and then explaining to him the architecture and artwork. That evening so many years ago they had also listened to President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union and she sarcastically gasped “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in the very country that he is talking about!” Doris was also a passionate Zionist and had traveled to Israel over a dozen times, and had served as the women’s division chair of the local United Jewish Appeal campaigns.
Long time friends Lenny Dreyfus and Eileen Gardner (Formerly of Gary and Dune Acres who had been Doris friend for 91 years) each spoke about this departed grand lady. Eileen recalled a vignette of Doris coming to a kindergarten class and informingthe others she wouldn’t be sitting on the floor as she was wearing her party dress. Young Doris sat in a chair and Eileen said they’ve been looking up to her ever since. Of Doris’ three children E.G. Andrea, her son, David, spoke and with an eloquence to make any mom proud. David mentioned his “Mother was a Dynamo!” Doris’ only grand-daughter spoke last and shared personal vignettes of her very determined and strong willed grandmother that Lenny had earlier said had a passion for excellence and also expectations for excellence.
Several years ago Doris was one of the forty women that the Indiana Jewish Historical Society profiled in an exhibit “Women of Valor.” This was a portrait of women from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties that had contributed to the quality of life.
I have shared many moments with Doris and had sat around the same table as did all her notable friends such as Stud’s and his wife. One of my fondest memories was our riding back to Indiana together on the South Shore. On that short journey we spoke about her assisting with Richard Hatcher’s bid for Mayor and how there had been vicious rumors, and yet she was proud of what they had accomplished and she wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
Doris reminded me somewhat of the Hollywood legend Agnes Morehead, with a grace and manner of speaking that always made people take notice. A proclamation she wrote about her congregation “Our Temple” an institution for which she also had a passion, is read every Rosh Hashanah as part of the prayer service. The congregation had paid her a sumptuous birthday party in 2002 for her 82th birthday party. I rode back to the city where we each resided at the time and in the company of her heirs, also an impressive lot.
My life journey is blessed to have traveled a bit with this great lady of the Indiana Dunes Country. She had suffered the past decade with the dreadful Alzheimer. Visits were discouraged the past several years but she usually made it home to Gary for one of the High Holiday services in the fall. Alas an era has come to an end and one of the great ladies of the Calumet Region is a cherished memory.