Aaron Fox has led several lives. At 87, he’s a consultant for a Chagrin Falls software company targeting expanded use of the iPad. At 86, he completed his first novel. In the spring of 1945, “Lefty” Fox was a Marine on Iwo Jima.
The Auburn Township resident clearly doesn’t know the meaning of retirement.
Not only is Fox one of the few remaining veterans of Iwo Jima, that climactic and iconic battle pitting the U.S. Armed Forces against the Japanese Empire, he is one of the few Jews to have been there. Strangely enough, one was a friend from Cleveland, Howard Orpett. Both attended Glenville High School in the early 1940s. Orpett was a year behind Fox.
“There weren’t that many Jewish Marines,” Fox recalled. “I didn’t know he (Orpett) was on Iwo, (but) he knew I was on the island. He came looking for me. I was in a foxhole and he pulled the cover off and he had this beard and he’s got slant eyes and he looked for all the world like a Jap. I was just getting ready to shoot him and we both survived. He said ‘Lefty, it’s me, Howie.’ He called me by name. I said ‘Jesus, what are you doing here?’ Anyhow, we still have lunch every Wednesday at Corky’s," he said in an interview in early August.
The son of Russian Jews, Fox and his family moved here from St. Louis when he was 9. He has attended Fairmount Temple for 40 years and in the ’80s, spent several years as communications chairman of the Jewish Federation’s Welfare Drive.
Fox’s Jewish roots go deep.
His Orthodox grandfather was a Shechit, a ritual chicken killer. “We had a farm in Missouri south of St. Louis, and the Jews from St. Louis used to get on a train and bring their chickens down to my grandfather,” he recalled. “They did it with a razor, real fast.”
His mother, Dvora, became a friend of Golda Meir’s when the woman who would become Israel’s first female prime minister was a Milwaukee schoolteacher named Goldie Meyerson. Meyerson’s dream was to establish a state for the Jewish people, so she spent much of her time traveling throughout the Midwest helping create chapters of Pioneer Women, an organization that raised money toward that dream. Meyerson and Fox’s mother worked on organizing Pioneer Women in St. Louis, and later on, Dvora brought her – by then the famous Golda Meir – to Cleveland. Fox himself belonged to Histadrut, a Labor Israel group representing workers and kibbutzniks.
In 1976, Fox was part of a band of contributors to the Jewish Welfare Fund smuggling jeans and Timex watches into the Soviet Union to help “refuseniks,” Jews Soviet authorities wouldn’t allow to emigrate to Israel. Fox sought out Benjamin Levich, an eminent physics professor the Soviets demoted from his prestigious position at Moscow University after Levich’s son, a highly decorated Soviet Air Force fighter pilot, defected to Israel by plane. Soviet authorities made Levich a janitor. When Fox brought a dozen pair of jeans to the Levich home in Moscow, Levich’s wife told him they could live for a year on the money they would make selling the jeans on the black market.
Fox spent his late childhood in Cleveland off East 105th Street between St. Clair Avenue and Superior Avenue. “It was a wonderful place to live for Jews,” he said. “We had a great high school that was considered one of the best in the country… it was just a happy, friendly community.”
The “black ghetto” was downtown, around Woodland Road and Scoville Avenue. Those were the “original immigrant neighborhoods,” settled by Jews and Italians before Fox’s time. In the late ’30s and ’40s, blacks moved into those areas, lured by the defense industry, and whites moved out en masse, Fox said. Jews moved to Glenville or to the Kinsman Road area off East 118th Street.
“The Jews lived in Kinsman intermingled with the Italians, off East 118th, where the Schvitz located. The other Jewish community was off of East 105th. The Jews who lived on East 105th referred to the Kinsman Jews as ‘Kinsman kikes,’” Fox said, cringing at the distant memory. “Why did they look down upon them? Because those Jews intermingled with the Italians.”
Neighborhoods in transition
Such neighborhoods are the foundation of “Gussie and Luther,” Fox’s self-published novel. Available on Amazon, it took him six months to write. Ruthann, his wife of two years and a good friend of more than 50, was its loving and ruthless editor. It’s a yarn about race, commerce, drugs and the law. The writing is quirky, but Fox’s narrative drive is steady and sure, his evocation of the times impressive.
The heart of the book is Gussie and Sol Steinberg’s ghetto grocery store. Gussie and Sol are Jewish. Their clientele is black. They have a son, Max. They soon have another, by no means kin: Luther, a black kid orphaned when his mother dies of alcoholism. Max and Luther do not get along, but both revolve around their parents, particularly Gussie. Fox said the store is a composite, not based on a particular one.
“We knew they existed but they were not anything we would patronize,” he said. “Their customers were the blacks. The reason they opened these little groceries down in the black ghetto was there were no big grocery stores down there. The blacks had no place to buy food, and they could get higher prices down there. The downside was it was dangerous. You could be held up at any time. But they felt it was worth the risk because they made money down there.”
“Gussie and Sol” is fiction that feels grounded in Fox’s own reality. His story is one of upward mobility, sometimes against the odds. In addition to his military service, Fox was an advertising mogul, and after leaving that profession, a college professor. Quite an impressive arc for a man who dropped out of high school short just one course.
Fox’s diverse career
In his senior year at Glenville High School, Fox decided to join the Marines. All his friends were in the service and he wanted to join them. Besides, he wanted to be in the war.
“When I told the principal I was leaving, he had a fit. He said, Aaron, you have only one course to take in 12A, the final half.” The course was trigonometry. “I said I’m sorry, I already signed up with the Marines. And he made a deal with me. He said take your trig book with you to camp and when you’re ready, take the final exam under the supervision of an officer and have him sign it, and send it back to me and I’ll send you your diploma overseas.
“You have to remember,” he said, “Marine boot camp is a very tough, violent eight weeks. In those days, they would beat the crap out of you for anything. And I show up in boot camp carrying a trig book. Here’s this Jew boy with a trig book.”
Long story short – Fox has many – his commanding officer considered him “some kind of a brain” and after six weeks of advanced training, he became a forward officer, traveling with U.S. infantry skirmish lines and firing artillery shells over them to kill the enemy. “It was a nerve-racking career, because if I miscalculated, I would drop shells on my own troops,” he said. But Fox did so well, the Marine Corps made him a corporal, one of its youngest ever.
The Armed Services were still segregated. Fox’s dog tags sported a “J,” for Jew; Protestant ones featured a “P,” and Catholic dog tags a “C.”
After the war, Fox launched Fox and Associates, located in the Standard Building on St. Clair Avenue off Public Square. At one time, his advertising agency billed close to $100 million, and had 100 employees and satellite offices in Minneapolis and New York. Among his firm’s accounts: the television advertising of Sears, Roebuck and Co.; Revco, the drugstore chain; Sherwin-Williams; and Rubbermaid. Tired of the advertising game, Fox retired in his early 60s, selling off chunks of his business to his employees in a form of rainmaking.
In 1988, Fox revisited an old dream: becoming a college professor. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and political science from then Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea and a master’s degree in political science from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Fox taught political science at Baldwin-Wallace for 14 years.
“I really loved that,” he said. “If I could have done that all my life, I would have been a happy man – happier than being in the advertising business. It was fun, but it was not anything important in life.”