From helping the less fortunate to aiding those with medical needs, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, has been an integral part of Norma Geller’s life.
Those who’ve benefited from her compassion, selflessness and generosity are connected to institutions such as B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, John Carroll University, The Gathering Place, Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals of Cleveland, Cleveland Clinic and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Those qualities and efforts to better the community are just some of the many reasons why she’s being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017 at the third annual Cleveland Jewish News Difference Makers on Nov. 19 at Landerhaven in Mayfield Heights.
At the root of Geller’s philanthropic ways is a modest upbringing. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, and following World War II, she and her husband, Albert, received a helping hand to get started in life.
“Al and I both came from humble beginnings,” said Geller, who will turn 85 in December. “When we came back from the army, we had $300 to our name. My father-in-law lent us some money to buy a little house in South Euclid.
“(Today,) I drive a 1991 Buick Riviera with 34,000 miles and I have an old flip phone. These shiny new cars and all kinds of fancy gadgets really don’t make any difference to me. I’d rather help people.”
And help people she has.
Geller, who left The Ohio State University in Columbus after one quarter, returned to college in 1978 as a 45-year-old freshman at John Carroll University in University Heights.
“My first day on campus, I said, ‘Am I crazy? What am I doing?’ A 45-year-old Jewish woman starting my education. (But) I never left the university.”
In fact, her involvement evolved over the years. Today, JCU’s department of sociology and criminology hosts the annual Albert I. and Norma C. Geller Lecture Series, and in 2015, she was awarded JCU’s Alumni Medal, which recognizes an individual’s accomplishments in their profession, contributions to their community and dedicated service to the school post-graduation.
She’s also involved with Jesuit university’s Labre Project, which is named for Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of homeless people.
“I feed the homeless with the students on their Labre Project and I’m the oldest person,” she said. “One of their greatest needs was for boots. I gave them funds so that no homeless person we come in contact with should be cold, and I’ve seen them in new boots – they call them ‘Norma boots.’”
Geller graduated from JCU after nine years, and after one year off, she enrolled at the Case Western Reserve University Mandel School of Applied Social Science. She became an oncology social worker, and in 1991, she became a social worker in the former Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland in radiation therapy.
That same year, her life changed forever. By participating in a study, she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.
“It was a fluke,” she said. “So, it took me on a new journey.”
Geller had surgery at a Pittsburgh hospital where her son, David, works, but she credits Dr. Aric Greenfield, who gave her chemotherapy 26 years ago at the then-Ireland Cancer Center (now UH Seidman Cancer Center) and helped save her life.
“Everyone dies from ovarian cancer,” Geller said. “I feel so blessed that G-d kept me alive. I’ve always felt His plan for me was to stay alive to take care of Al, and that’s what I’m doing.”
That’s why she endows the Norma C. and Albert I. Geller Designated Professor of Ovarian Cancer Research at CWRU School of Medicine, as well as transportation funds at UH, and is working on endowing one at the Clinic.
“No cancer patient should have to worry about getting treatment,” she said. “When I volunteered at UH for 20 years, some people weren’t showing up (for appointments), and with radiation therapy, you have to go every day for five or six weeks. (If) you don’t have anybody who can drive you, and if you have to stand around waiting for a bus in the winter, you’re not going to do it when you don’t feel good.”
The transportation funds are used to provide taxis, Provide-A-Ride and parking.
“They have to pay for parking every day,” she said of cancer patients going to the hospitals for treatment. “People can’t afford parking every day.”
Geller and her husband also left their mark on the Jewish community at CWRU when they made the lead gift for the Albert and Norma Geller Hillel Student Center.
“The commitment that Norma and Albert Geller made to name the Hillel Student Center made that project possible,” CWRU President Barbara R. Snyder said. “Their generosity helped demonstrate the importance of a prominent, modern space for a Hillel on our campus and others throughout Greater Cleveland. Their leadership helped persuade others to give and transform an appealing concept into a thriving reality.
“Norma Geller exemplifies the concept of a ‘Difference Maker.’ Her studies for her master’s degree at our Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences gave her specific knowledge and tools to help others, but she already possessed the most important qualities – empathy, compassion and a desire to contribute.
“Norma Geller’s courage in defeating ovarian cancer is itself inspiring,” Snyder said. “Also impressive is her gift, with her husband, Albert, to create an endowed professorship at Case Western Reserve to support ovarian cancer research to help spare other women from the consequences of this often-lethal disease.”
The Gellers have been married for 64 years and once owned Fish Furniture (their son, Daniel, owns it now). Geller, who has visited Israel seven times, is also a Lion of Judah in Florida, where she and her husband have had a home since the early 1980s, and the couple received the George W. Crile Sr. Award from Cleveland Clinic.
On top of all she continues to contribute to our society, she also manages the declining health of Albert.
“Al and I have always been a team,” Geller said. “I worked once a week at Fish Furniture for many years doing clerical work, and helped plan our travels over many years. We alternated picking trips each time we traveled, so that we each got to visit a place that was of interest to one of us. We have been to all seven continents. Since his retirement I have looked after him, making sure he is safe, content as much as possible, and that he remains proud of his accomplishments. I will always be there for him no matter what his declining health presents.”
With everything that Geller has faced and accomplished, how does she want to be remembered?
“As somebody who cares deeply about my family, my friends, the world and our community – not just our Jewish community but the global community as well,” she said.
– Bob Jacob