Here’s the bottom line: there is no one like Gilbert Sandler.
Years ago, I’d get calls from Gil every now and then, being his editor. “Feiler,” he’d say, sounding like a character from “The Front Page,” “you’d better start lining someone up to take my place. I’m getting older, you know. I’m no spring chicken. You need to get a younger model ready to take over my column.”
In this exercise of folly, he’d mention a few possible worthy successors for his Jewish Baltimore history column, including myself, but I’d assure him none of us could fill his shoes.
Modestly, he’d inform me I was operating under a misguided notion, but I knew I was right. I learned that all too well when he eventually decided to pursue greener pastures, and we stopped working together (but remained friends).
Again, there is no one like Gilbert Sandler
To me, he’s always been the “Bard of Baltimore” (with all due respect to my friend and colleague Michael Olesker). With his encyclopedic knowledge base, agile mind, sense of community and great empathy for people, Gil has chronicled the life and times of Jewish Baltimore with a commitment and finesse that’s inspired all of us who’ve been honored to know and work with him.
Last Friday, Gil turned 94 years young. And we all owe him a debt of thanks.
Avi Y. Decter, the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s former executive director, once told me he considered Gil to be the great historian and folklorist – the griot, if you will – of Baltimore Jewry.
For nearly 15 years, I had the privilege of working closely with Gil on his Jewish Baltimore History columns. He was always the consummate professional, and his articles were always thoughtful and engaging. Since he lived it, he knew how to tell the stories of our community with authority and care. His was an authentic voice.
Gil always respected the people – the characters — who populated his stories, whether they be the German-Jewish elite of Eutaw Place, the dirt farmers of the old Yaazor Jewish agricultural colony near Woodlawn, or the struggling immigrants and their children of his own humble beginnings on Cottage Avenue near Park Circle.
I always learned something new about Jewish Baltimore and Charm City in general from his columns, and I know his legions of loyal readers and WYPR listeners felt – and still feel — the same way.
What they don’t know was how much of a perfectionist he has always been about his prose. One time, Gil called me because he noticed someone had edited one of his columns while I was away and removed a few key paragraphs at the end. I assured him the editor innocently cut out that portion only because of space constraints, but Gil was having none of it. For years, he chewed my ear about “the Mad Slasher” (whose identity I would never give up).
Gil cared passionately about his columns because his commitment to the written word and to the community (and the chronicling of it) was unwavering. And he wanted to make sure future generations of Baltimore Jews knew where they came from.
A Baltimore native and Baltimore City College graduate (Class of ’41), Gil served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He came home and began freelancing in advertising and public relations, eventually founding Gilbert Sandler & Associates. At the same time, he wrote features and columns for The Sun, The Evening Sun and The Sunday Sun. In the ‘70s, he began writing his popular weekly column “Baltimore Glimpses” for The Evening Sun and later for The Morning Sun.
After selling his company, he worked as director of communications for the Abell Foundation at an age when most people are on the golf links or in their garden. But Gil always likes to keep busy and stay sharp.
Somewhere along the line, Gil ignored F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim about no second acts in American lives and became a prolific author. His oeuvre includes “Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album,” “Small Town Baltimore,” “Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore” and “Wartime Baltimore,” all penned with Gil’s trademark folksy-yet-informed style. Only Gil could truly capture the rich history and delicate textures of Jewish Baltimore with such flair and affection.
No less than the late William Donald Schaefer, the Leonardo da Vinci of the Baltimore Renaissance, put it best when he surmised, “No one knows Baltimore – and Baltimore’s Jewish community – better than Gil Sandler. He’s an extraordinary spokesman for an extraordinary community.”
Willie Don knew what he was talking about.
Gil, I wish you a very happy and healthy birthday, and many more.
I’ll say it one more time. There is no one like Gilbert Sandler.
Alan Feiler is editor-in-chief of Jmore
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