When I met Florence over twenty-one years ago in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, she had already proven to be a successful inventor and business woman. Florence had developed Shoulda-Shams, removable shoulder pads for the tailored look of the 40s. Because of their success, she became a co-founder of R.G. Barry Corporation where she invented the world's first foam-soled, soft washable slipper, known internationally as Dearfoams. As a driving force in the organization, a consultant for product development until 2005, she was granted nineteen patents that included devices for exercise, food preparation and physical therapy.
Her success was truly a rags to riches tale. Florence Spurgeon was born in Philadelphia on November 6, 1911, but always celebrated her birthday on a date she deemed easier for everyone to remember 11/11/11. The daughter of Meir and Rebecca, both of whom had fled the persecution of Jews in Russia in the late 1890s, Florence left high school three months before graduation to help pay her family's rent. She often shared her love for them and for her grandmother who spoke to her only in Yiddish. Her father was a door-to-door salesman and her mother ran a boardinghouse. Florence had two wonderful marriages, to Aaron Zacks z"l for thirty-five years and to Samuel Mendel Melton z"l for twenty-four years. She had two sons, Gordon Zacks (Carol Sue) and Barry Zacks z"l, (Joyce Zacks Schlesinger), six grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren.
At a young vigorous seventy-five—well-groomed with beautiful white hair and regal posture—she was about to launch her next career as a Jewish education entrepreneur and philanthropist. I was one of a small group of skeptical educators assigned to implement a program for adults that she had invented to meet her own needs as an adult Jewish learner. It was her conviction that others shared her desire to be a knowledgeable Jew, and her dream was to create the way to provide that knowledge. I felt inspired, invigorated and confident that building the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School was something I could do. I was a little worried about the phrase "mini" for an experience that had maxi-expectations for adult learners, but Florence convinced me that it was there so as not to intimidate adults who could be frightened away by the two-year, four-course plan. Years later, she admitted it may not be the best name, that adults wanted the recognition of their sizeable accomplishments. At that point, however, it could not be changed. As she informed me, "it is the brand."
Florence's passionate commitment to Jewish education led to the creation of the most wide-spread, pluralistic, curriculum-based adult Jewish school in the world. Over 28,000 individuals have graduated from the two year school since 1986. In 2007, it exists in sixty sites in six countries. A partnership between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and communities and educators in North America, England, Australia, South Africa and Israel, it has become an important way for many adults to integrate their Jewish heritage into their lives. As the Mini-School evolved so did Florence's leadership, always introducing new possibilities for adult learning and new ways to overcome obstacles. For Florence, everything, even what is excellent, could be improved, and we could do it.
When content with the trajectory and the stability of the Mini-School, Florence turned her attention to the education of teens and founded the Florence Melton Communiteen High School. This curriculum-based project has been her cause for the last five years. Addressing the needs of post-bar-bat mitzvah teens, she saw it as a way to set teens on a Jewish journey that could continue throughout their lives. By the sheer force of her will, the school is now located in Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.
Her passion for Jewish learning and its possibilities expressed itself in strong critiques of the organized Jewish community that she thought spent far too much time and money thinking and planning rather than doing. She gave generously to the Jewish community that she criticized and taught her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to do the same. She would give each of her grandchildren and great grandchildren $15 a year for their birthdays. Along with the gift came the message "spend some, save some, and share some."
Although her life story, devotion to her family, and countless achievements—including over forty-five local, national, and international honors—speak to Florence's character and personality, they do not capture the very unique woman she was. As my mentor, Florence never minced her words and presented her observations with strength and dignity. She expressed her deepest thoughts through poetry. Sometimes it was a warm, affectionate poem marking a special occasion in someone's life; sometimes it was a reflection on her life experiences; sometimes it was a meditation on humanity and God. Her "Jewish poems" reflect the knowledge and wisdom she had gained as an adult. In a poem written in 1988, "The Earth is the Lords" she writes,
Even in death we return to the earth
Leaving not what we have gained at all
But what we have gained and given
Away of ourselves and our worldly worth.
It is not by chance that the last days of Florence's life were filled with what had been part of her ninety-five years. With the passion and energy left in her body, she picked up the phone to recruit yet another community for the Communiteen High School. She also designed her own funeral and reminded her son to follow up on a pending patent for a foam neck pillow for those confined to bed.
While in hospice, she was surrounded by members of her family. They read to her hundreds of letters of tribute created by grateful loving students of the Florence Melton School whose stories of the impact of the Mini-School on their lives had been intended to add to the celebration of her ninety-fifth year. She insisted that this celebration which included a tribute to directors of her mini-schools proceed in spite of her absence. Her son, Gordon Zacks, read a letter from her to the people who had gathered together a few miles away. It ended:
If I have touched your life, my friend,
Remember that you've touched mine;
And if together we changed the world a bit,
We've all been touched by the Divine.