Gilbert Sandler — author, history columnist, folklorist, radio personality, advertising exec, journalist, city life advocate, raconteur, bon vivant and the great chronicler of Jewish Baltimore — passed away Dec. 19 after a lengthy illness.
He was 95 and would have turned 96 in early February.
Funeral services for Sandler were held Dec. 21 at 9 a.m. at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, in the filled-to-capacity main chapel. As a tribute, many attendees sported the floppy fishing hat frequently favored by Sandler that was a giveaway five years ago at a Beth Am Synagogue tribute Shabbat service to him on his 90th birthday.
Officiated by Beth Am’s Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg and Cantor Ira Greenstein, the funeral’s speakers included Sandler’s children, Joseph E. Sandler, Marie S. Schott and Judith Sandler; his granddaughter, Nora L. Sandler; and his close friends, Tom Hall, music director emeritus of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, and Robert C. Embry Jr., president of Abell Foundation.
His wife, Joan Strouse Sandler, passed away in 2002. For decades, the Sandlers were residents of Mount Washington.
A proud Baltimore native, Gil Sandler was the father of three, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of three. He lived most recently in Roland Park, and grew up in lower Park Heights.
Sandler, who served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II and is a member of the Baltimore Jewish Hall of Fame, was the author of such books as “Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album,” “Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore,” “Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories,” “The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore’s Little Italy” and “Homefront Baltimore: An Album of Stories from World War II.”
“Gil Sandler was the best of Baltimore, the very embodiment of charm and a consummate storyteller,” said Rabbi Burg of Beth Am, of which Sandler was a longtime congregant and founder. “But within his diminutive stature, beneath the bow tie, crumpled hat and crooked grin was a deeply serious man whose incisive mind and fierce devotion to justice meant his charming stories did so much more than make you laugh. They made you think.”
Sandler became a bar mitzvah at the old Shaarei Zion Synagogue in lower Park Heights, near his family’s Cottage Avenue home (in the house where he was born). The son of Joseph and Minnie Sandler, he attended Louisa May Alcott Public School No. 59, Garrison Junior High, Baltimore City College and the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1949). In 1967, he earned a master’s degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University.
The erudite, urbane Sandler wrote features for the Sunday Sun and a weekly column titled “Baltimore Glimpses” for The Evening Sun. A popular lecturer known for his trademark bow tie, hat and round spectacles, he was the recipient of the A.D. Emmart Award for Feature Writing and elected to City College’s Hall of Fame.
Most recently, Sandler was well known for his popular weekly “Baltimore Stories” segment on WYPR radio. (WYPR announced it will indefinitely air Sandler’s segments every week.)
“Gil had a lifelong love affair with the city of Baltimore generally, and Jewish Baltimore specifically, and every time he opened his mouth or sat down to write, you sensed that great affection come out of him,” said his friend and colleague, Michael Olesker. “He was a lovely man who saw the best in us, and told us about it for nearly a century.”
Sandler was honored Nov. 13 for his contributions to Jewish Baltimore at an event at the Church of the Holy Redeemer for the Baltimore Festival of Jewish Literature. Among those in attendance to greet Sandler there was the evening’s keynote speaker, Dr. Deborah R. Weiner, co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore,” who knew and worked with Sandler for many years.
“Gil had a tremendous love for Baltimore and a special place in his heart for the Jewish community,” she said. “His genius was that he knew how to share this love with the rest of us. He was a true storyteller, right up until the end.”
Marvin D. Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, said Sandler was an essential component to the lifeblood and development of his institution. He compared Sandler to Baltimore-born Zionist leader Henrietta Szold and celebrated magician Harry Houdini in being a singular, unique individual.
“Gil was very dear to us, with my predecessor [Avi Y. Decter] as editor of Generations [the museum’s now-defunct journal] and the book ‘Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore,’ which we published,” Pinkert said. “In recent years, he served as a mentor to me. When I got to Baltimore and needed to understand Baltimore history, I found no one knew it better than Gil.”
At a JMM tribute last year for Sandler, Pinkert said he was touched when seeing the honoree joke around with his children and grandchildren.
“I saw that he was as much of a mentsch with them as he was in his public persona,” he said. “He was very special to this institution, which is why we honored him last year.”
Pinkert said Sandler will always be remembered as a community historian and storyteller of the highest order.
“The people most effective in preserving our past are usually the people who are not only knowledgeable but those who can shape that knowledge into something relatable,” he said. “Gil could take something mundane and make it into something everyone could relate to. That was his gift. There will be another Gil Sandler.”
Pinkert noted that Sandler’s iconic rumpled hat will be featured in the JMM’s original exhibition “Fashion Statement,” which will be presented April 7 to Sept. 15 at the museum at 15 Lloyd Street in East Baltimore.
The following is a Feb. 2017 tribute to Sandler penned by his friend and longtime associate, Jmore Editor-in-Chief Alan Feiler.
A Tip of the Hat to the Bard of Baltimore
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.
Interment for Gilbert Sandler will be at Oheb Shalom Memorial Park, Berrymans Lane in Reisterstown. Contributions in his memory may be sent to: The Gil Sandler Fund (for City College Speech and Debate), 5614 Enderly Rd., Baltimore, Md. 21212.
In mourning at 830 W. 40th Street (Roland Park Place), Baltimore, Md. 21211, immediately following interment, until 4 p.m., Saturday from 5-8 p.m., with a service at 6:30 p.m., and Sunday from 1-4 p.m., with a service at 2 p.m.