Sixty Years Later a Wonderful Gift from an Old Friend

Last July when I heard my old friend George Steinbrenner had died I went to my dresser drawer and brought out the letters he wrote to me over sixty years ago.

As I read the letters I realized that gifts can arrive in unexpected ways. Sometimes they come wrapped in a memory.

I’ve always thought of my mind as a small treasure chest and my happy memories are precious jewels. Over time I placed these precious jewels in a secret corner of my mind never knowing I would, once again, relive those distant yesterdays.

After hearing about George’s death I opened the chest and took out my memories.

While I held the jewels in my hand I noticed a beautiful diamond begin to shimmer. So, I set it on a piece of black velvet in order to see into it better and there deep inside the jewel a memory came alive. It carried me back to a gentler world.

It was July 1949. George and I were sitting beneath the oak tree in my front yard. Warm summer breezes caressed us and sprays of sunshine brushed our faces but the most amazing surprise was our voices were clear as a bell.

George Steinbrenner Running Hurdles at Williams College 1952

We were laughing and joking about all sorts of silly things the way teenagers often do when our conversation began to take on a serious tone.

George was telling me his dream for the future. “I’m going to be the star of the Olympics. I’ll even run faster than Harrison Dillard.”

Then he asked me if I had a special dream. I replied, “I hope to become a famous writer and lots of people will want to read what I have to say.”

George hesitated for a moment then said, “Well Margaret Mitchell, maybe I can help you write a great masterpiece like her novel, Gone With The Wind.” But I was sure that couldn’t be.

The day had ended and the diamond’s glow was fading but as hard as I tried to hold on to the memory sleep overcame me. The next thing I knew morning had come and the phone started to ring.

It was my son, Michael. He called to let me know the NY Times wanted me to write a short story about my friendship with George. Their plan was to publish it the day before his funeral.

I was apprehensive at first because I’ve only shown the stories I have written to a few relatives and friends. Over the years I kept them tucked away in a box under my bed but soon my words would be read by many and I didn’t want to disappoint George or his family.

I used his letters as a backdrop and, as if by magic, the words flowed upon the paper. Suddenly, what I thought would be a difficult task turned into a joyful journey back from those long ago days when we sat beneath the oak tree.

On July 16th my articled appeared in the Times and I was so pleased to see that they hadn’t changed a word. Over the course of that day I received numerous calls saying how much people enjoyed the story and I honestly felt that this was a tribute to what a fine young man George was.

That night while I was relaxing in my favorite chair and I was locked away from the busy world outside it occurred to me that the dream shared with an old friend had finally been realized. And for at least one day, I was a famous writer. What a wonderful gift.

Now when I open the treasure chest and a jewel begins to sparkle I will take the memory out and place it on piece of black velvet for everyone to see because I love writing about those golden days when we were young.

Mary Jane Schriner

Summers with George

After the article that appeared in the New York Times, July 15th, about my friendship with George Steinbrenner I received numerous letters from across the country asking me what exactly was our relationship.

Was it a delightful friendship or were we teetering on the beginnings of love? I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide, because I honestly don’t know.

George and I met on a summer’s evening in 1949. We were teenagers living in Bay Village, Ohio. Summer evenings in Bay Village were soft and wonderful. Lovely tree lined streets, a dog’s bark in the distance, residents on tandems, youngsters coming of age and, for that moment in time, this was our town.

Shortly after our first meeting George called and invited me to go to the movies. He spoke in quick brief sentences but I understood every word. Of course, I said yes.

How exciting to be going out with an attractive young man in his fashionable convertible. What could be better than that?

We double-dated with two of George’s friends, Mike and Gloria.

The movie “Twelve O’Clock High” starring Gregory Peck was thrilling and when it was over we visited the Bay Village ice cream parlor. As soon as we finished our scoops of homemade ice cream and exchanging small talk with other local teenagers we headed for home.

Our first stop was Gloria’s house. Pulling into her driveway I couldn’t help thinking it had been a perfect date. The car’s top was down, night breezes circled me like a silken shawl and the stars were twinkling.

As we waited for Mike to say goodnight to Gloria at her front door George slipped his arm around my shoulder while with his free hand he drew my face close to his. Instinctively I asked him “What are your doing?” He replied, “I’m going to kiss you.“

Without another word I grabbed my purse, flew out of the car and proceeded to walk the block to my house.

In a split second George was in hot pursuit. I could hear him shouting, “Please get back in the car. If my parents find out about this I’ll be in big trouble.”

By now, Mike had returned to the car and was shaking with laughter. Gloria’s curious neighbors were peeking out their windows trying to see who was causing the raucous but, worst of all, everyone in our small town knew who owned the powder-blue convertible.

So, out of pity for George I got back into the car. You can only imagine how quickly I was driven home.

About a week later, when the dust had settled following our tragic date, George stopped at my house just to say hello.

We sat in the living-room sipping ice cold lemonade and chatting about all sorts
of things.

He wondered what my plans were for the summer vacation. I told him my father suggested I paint the inside of the addition being added to the back of our small ranch-type house. George offered to help me when he could.

He said much of his summer would be spent on the Great Lakes. His father’s plan for him was to work on the boats for their family owned American Ship Building. But George got home often and came over to our house to assist me with my project.

My house on Upland Rd in Bay Village

Various people did odd jobs around the house that season, still the five core workers were Jerry, a jolly African American cleaning lady, my mother, George, me and Uncle Joe.

Uncle Joe was my grandmother’s brother. The family thought of him as a frail little man who seemed to be always there, although, no one really saw him, until he met George.

Uncle Joe tended to the backyard gardens. In fact, all his tasks were out of doors because he had the disgusting habit of chewing tobacco.

Yet, each noon he’d come inside to join us for lunch at our wobbly kitchen table. And for the next hour the five of us would eat cucumber sandwiches while we discussed the pressing issues of those times.

One day George remained in the kitchen to ask for my mother’s permission to take her uncle for a ride in his car.

Mother felt it was a fine idea if Uncle Joe agreed. The look of sheer delight on the dear old man’s face was his answer.

Uncle Joe working in his garden

Even at my age I remember the joy I experienced watching our proud Uncle Joe sitting next to George as they backed out of the driveway and drove off into the afternoon sun.

They returned about three o’clock and when they entered the house a beaming Uncle Joe was carrying a mysterious satchel.

Not sure what to expect mother inquired, “What’s in your bag Uncle Joe? “

Then with a majestic gesture, he reached into his mysterious satchel and pulled out a package of the best brand of chewing tobacco known to man.

Oh yes, I loved George that day.

Occasionally we’d take a break from painting and sneak off to play tennis at the exclusive Clifton Club in Rocky River, Ohio.

But first George went home to change his clothes and get his tennis racket. He knew I also needed to change my clothes so, before he left, in a scolding voice he’d worn me not to wear my burlap sack. You bet I did wear it.

Let me take a minute to describe my burlap sack. The petal pushers were a cherry purple plaid with a long-sleeved matching linen jacket. And huge mother-of-pearl buttons completed my stylish ensemble.

Secretly I knew this wasn’t proper tennis attire but it was great fun annoying George.

When he came back to pick me up and found me dressed in my gorgeous burlap sack he’d frown and under his breath he’d mumble my maiden name, “Elster, Elster, Elster. “

My reply to all his mumbling was, “Now George, about your white bucks. What makes you think I want to date a Pat Boone look-a-like?”

Our favorite pastime on those soft summer evenings was to stroll along the winding roads in our hometown.

The rows of small houses nestling behind flowering gardens blended with the scent of roses in the approaching night air and, in a sense, this picturesque scene was mesmerizing.

Original art by Mary Jane Schriner

There was an enchanting house the two of us had chosen to be ours. We’d stand in the twilight’s shadows and peer through its picture window at an elderly couple sharing their last meal of the day.

While we watched the aging couple George would take my hand and whisper, “Someday, Mary Jane, this house will be ours and we will be them.” It was a magical time.

The entire summer we didn’t kiss. I guess neither one of us wanted to risk another uproar.

It wasn’t until the night before George left for college that he held me and kissed me. The kiss was a lingering gentle kiss. It showed me he cared but, as we all know, life can play tricks on young dreamers.

By September of ’49 George had returned to Williams College in Mass, and I was a senior at St. Augustines Academy in nearby Lakewood, Ohio. George often referred to my high school as the “Country Club” and, in hind’ sight, he happened to be right.

We corresponded a lot over the school year but we only caught glimpses of each other during the holidays.

In December George said, “The track is going well.” He received invitations for meets from Madison Square Garden, Boston Gardens, Philadelphia and the K.of C. in Cleveland. He felt his coach was priming him for the Olympics. And that was his dream.

After reflecting on our long-ago conversations, I began to see George’s quest was not for fame. He was becoming a young man driven by a powerful inner quest to always succeed. I hope George knew he did.

The summer of 1950 was greeted by the genuine concerns of my generation.

In 1945 World War II ended and, once again, the winds of war were upon us. By June of 1950 the Korean Conflict was starting and on every street corner confused citizens were questioning the validity of the war.

Train terminals were packed with anxious young men who had left their homes to serve in the military.. Sadly, statistics have shown 36,000 of them died fighting in an East Asian country few of us had heard of.

The Korean Conflict overshadowed everyone’s thinking. It accelerated my generation’s ideas and dreams.

College students tucked away light-hearted thoughts in order to deal with their unknown futures. And so… Enters George and Mary Jane.

We joked and did the usual summer things but nothing seemed real. The talk of war brought out the serious side in all of us.

And considering the seriousness of the times, I think its interesting George and I never discussed religion. He knew I was Catholic and that was the extent of it.

So, when George called me one day in August and said “Get ready Elster, I’m taking you some place special. “ I was pleased because I suspected it would be another of our pleasant adventures.

But after a long ride into the heart of Cleveland I became a bit suspicious. Then when he parked in front of St. Johns Cathedral I nearly fainted.

Not knowing what to do I sat in the car and waited for George to open my door.

Along with opening my door I heard him saying, “Come on M.J. lets go in.”

Then he took my hand and together we climbed the steps, opened the heavy church doors and entered the vestibule.

As soon as the doors clicked shut behind us it appeared we were the last two people on earth.

After genuflecting, with my arm wrapped around George’s arm, we walked down the narrow aisle to the alter and, with bowed heads, the two of us knelt beneath the Tabernacle.

Golden shafts of sunlight surrounded us and delicate shadows from flowers in slender vases slid across the glistening floor. Kneeling next to George I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful our friendship had become.

To this day I’m not sure why George took me there. Perhaps he was going to tell me that he loved me. I will probably never know.

With so much that has happened since, I sometimes wish I could go back to our soft summer evenings.

Mary Jane Schriner

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