A Man for All Seasons
Article by Shelly Frome
At the grand old age of ninety-one, and some months after receiving a humanitarian award, Morris Stein recently took stock of his life and times. He did so as though still firmly at the helm of Waterbury’s Torrington Supply Company: keeping track of inventory, everything in its place – a matrix of associations, linkages and connections that make up his world.
In the first place, he deemed it appropriate that the interview take place late morning at the Silas Bronson Library. He thought it fitting because Mr. Stein was on the Board, his brother Joseph had designed the building, there was a photo of his brother in the designated meeting room next to the director’s office, and he could get the receptionist next door to get him a cup of coffee, thus insuring his sharpness at this optimum time of day. Wearing his iconic Dartmouth cap (agreeing to take it off for the photo but keeping it close at hand), coffee cup in hand and facing his younger brother’s picture, he was ready to begin. Except for the fact that the coffee machine kept gurgling.
“This day and age,” said Mr. Stein. “How do you shut it off? Pull the plug, pull the plug.”
The plug pulled and order restored, what follows, with a little prodding and guidance from this writer, is an account beginning with his early days, and little side trips triggered by the paths and byways of memory.
Born in the North End and looking back at his childhood, he sees no significant change except for the growth outside the city in what became Greater Waterbury. Then again, he realizes the North End, where he lived up until the fourth grade, is only fixed as a recollection.
“There was a big Jewish population there. It was the center of Jewish life. My father, who came over from the old country (Eastern Europe) was an agnostic and the first president of the non-religious Jewish community based on liberal thinking and perpetuation of the Jewish language. Later he became affiliated with the synagogue when my sons had their Bar Mitzvah.”
And here we have the first link established. In Mr. Stein’s vision, he is Jewish, which means he is a liberal free thinker following in the footsteps of his father and associated culturally with Judaism. In this sense, being Jewish firmly establishes his identity. In speaking of others, he tends to categorize them in terms of orthodox, liberal, Irish Catholic, Roman Catholic and Protestant. “You see, everybody needs to be affiliated. They have a spiritual need, which I respect, and want to perpetuate their special way of life.”
As an example of this way of classifying things, Mr. Stein referred to a “liberal, Irish Catholic gentleman tenant on the top floor of a three-family house owned by my father who owned the Waterbury Democrat, a liberal paper of the time.”
At this point, the term liberal was also extended to “very liberal” which leads to service for your country, a liberal education and a legacy of significant works. As a prime example, he cited his younger brother Joseph “who was in charge of an all-black battalion during World War II, was involved with the invasion of France and the North African campaign. His ship was torpedoed and went down but he was rescued. And he went to Dartmouth and Harvard, went on to become a great architect and designed not only the library but the main brick building in downtown Waterbury.”
Again, to Mr. Stein, nothing is random. Everything can be arranged or rearranged if need be. Even unfortunate events like the Great Depression and the disastrous flood that afflicted the Naugatuck Valley in the early 1950s can be dealt with in one way or another. Which prompts Morris Stein’s to thoughts of business and the American dream:
“My father had a wholesale plumbing and heating business on North Main Street and then Bank Street, started in 1917. The big building he built on Bank Street just before the Depression had a big mortgage. I worked in his place since grade school putting parts away, dealing with people. I’m very good on a one to one basis, make friends easily. But since accounts receivable were frozen and people couldn’t pay their bills, he had to liquidate except for the little branch he kept in Torrington (hence the name The Torrington Supply Company). But I never lost faith, my father never lost faith. We had survival ability. We were the only distributor of plumbing and heating in Waterbury. The big supplier of pipe, valves and fittings for Chase, American Brass and Scoville. And later, when the Connecticut River overflowed, the demand was tremendous. If you’re a go-getter and keep abreast of things and learn statistics and good business practice . . .”
A glance at his beloved Dartmouth hat and another link is established connecting Stein from Waterbury to college where he received the training that enabled him to become a successful president of the company, expanding the business, “reaching out, constantly reaching out through the relationships I developed.”
But perhaps more importantly, the link from Waterbury to Dartmouth follows the path of friendship, sustaining values and altruism. A best friend, Ralph Morris Paine, whose father owned the Howland Hughes department store, went to Dartmouth as did Mayor John Monaghan. Following his friend and six other graduates of Crosby High School and being impressed with its ivy league reputation, Morris soon discovered the plight of people out of work who needed food and clothing and, through the firsthand experience of banding together with his other classmates to alleviate this suffering, “especially in Vermont which was such a poor state,” he also discovered that he had a charitable nature. “It’s in my soul.”
Moreover, through his close friend, Budd Schulberg, who later became an acclaimed author and winner of an academy award for his screenplay for the celebrated film On the Waterfront, he learned about issues, being outspoken and standing up for what you believe. In those days, Schulberg spoke out against the limited quota for Jewish students at Massachusetts Deerfield Academy. As “a big opinion maker,” Schulberg railed against many things as the editor of the notable Daily Dartmouth. Later on, in his own way and behind closed doors, Stein too would speak out when he encountered instances of prejudice and reverse prejudice.
Which brings us forward to his eventual service for the Greater Waterbury community and his honor as recipient of the Humanitarian Award. As a direct result of his associations and business dealings, he was invited by friends from the brass industry to join the board of the Community Council “as its first Jewish member,” an organization which later became The United Way. A friend by the name of Morris Rosenblum, who wanted to fund semi-alcoholics able to become rehabilitated, asked Stein to become a partner in what is now known as Waterbury’s ongoing Morris Foundation. Stein is also a facilitator for the Foundation for Aged Citizens, helping to feed those who can’t move, arranging for their meals and clothing. Because of all these community activities over the years, including the Boy Scout Board and work with the Visiting Nurses Association and many more, over 400 people gathered at the Watertown Congregational Church in his honor.
To hear Stein tell it, “I spoke extemporaneously and thanked them. I thanked them for selecting me but they could have selected others as well. I hope that whatever I did and what others do will continue in the community. I was very humble about it. I am just a down to earth guy.”
But somehow after all the words have been spoken, you sense there is much more to all this. You sense it by the rakish way he wears his Dartmouth cap and the glint in his eye when he goes off on a little tangent and talks about the good times in Budd Schulberg’s digs with the jazz records blaring on the phonograph. You sense it from the tone in his voice when he goes on about the gridiron exploits of Sam and Ike Fishman sporting the beloved green and white and says, “Two Jewish guys, football heroes in the 1930s. Can you imagine?”
And most of all you sense it when he rises at the end of the interview, clutches the photo of his brother Joseph to chest and says, “I can’t leave this here. I have to . . . yes, I’m definitely going to take this home.”