"A Real Mensch": Farewell to Allan Ghitterman
Four hundred of Allan Ghitterman’s closest friends, fans and family members celebrated his life with laughs and tears this week, honoring his passionate advocacy for workers, generosity to progressive organizations and devotion to family.
Mr. Ghitterman died last month after a battle with cancer. He was 93.
“He was a real mensch,” said publisher and community leader Sara Miller McCune, who delivered one of a series of eulogies on Sunday, in a packed-to-the-rafters, live streamed ceremony at Congregation B’nai B’rith.
The event drew a who’s who of Santa Barbara political leaders -- Rep. Salud Carbajal, retired Rep. Lois Capps, state Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson, Assembly member Monique Limon, Mayor Cathy Murillo, ex-Mayor Helene Schneider and Supervisor Janet Wolf, among others - to commemorate the life of Mr. Ghitterman, who was married to former Supervisor Susan Rose.
An up-from-the-bootstraps success story, both professionally and personally, for decades he led Ghitterman, Ghitterman and Feld, a widely respected law firm specializing in workers’ compensation law. A successful investor in Santa Barbara real estate, he contributed time and money to a roster of non-profit organizations, ranging from the Legal Aid Foundation, New Beginnings Counseling Center, and Foodbank to the Anti-Defamation League and the ACLU.
“Allan was always on the side of the underdog and was willing to go into battle for the cause,” said attorney Stewart Holden, a close friend. “Hence the ‘Man of La Mancha’ theme played Sunday.”
Toto and the Rabbi. Mr. Ghitterman had a huge talent for friendship, witness the presence of scores of pals, poker buddies and luncheon companions – most notably Toto, the rescue Poodle-Bichon from whom he was inseparable, and whose name was invoked repeatedly, as the little white dog made history by attending the Jewish Reform ceremony, seated quietly on a succession of laps in the front row of the sanctuary.
Rabbi Steve Cohen, who officiated, recalled that Mr. Ghitterman was “born in poverty” in Winnipeg, Canada in 1924, recounting an Horatio Alger odyssey from a broken home, through years of blue-collar labor and, ultimately, great success.
For years, Mr. Ghitterman drove a cab in L.A.; he told friends that the pivotal point in his life came when a woman fare offered some unsolicited advice that inspired him to restart his education. He earned a GED, then degrees at UCLA and UCLA School of Law, which led to a career marked by his “conviction in the role of government to take care of people.”
Rabbi Cohen also acknowledged that Mr. Ghitterman was “supremely blunt,” recalling a “30-year debate about religion and atheism.”
“In fact, I’m not sure he would have liked us reading the 23rd Psalm,” Cohen said. "Not his choice. It’s Susan’s choice.”
No free lunch. Close friend Holden described a longstanding Friday lunch at the Santa Barbara Club that Mr. Ghitterman convened with a regular cast of kindred spirits.
Mr. Ghitterman dubbed the affair TANSTAAFL – “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” -- referencing a line used, among others, by Robert Heinlein, a favorite in the pantheon of writers that formed his “passion for pulp science fiction.”
“He never thought of himself as older,” Stewart said. “He had the attitude of a boy…Peter Pan.”
Another member of the Friday lunch bunch, attorney and mystery writer David Gersh, described his friend as possessing “a mild sense of surprise that life was good to him.”
“I’m not afraid of dying,” Gersh remembered Mr. Ghitterman telling him. “ I’m just having too much fun.”
Bill Elhai, Mr. Ghitterman’s brother-in-law, recalled that he launched Allan’s career as a workers comp lawyer in 1956. After he lost the tip of a finger in an industrial accident, the company refused to pay his medical expenses and moved to fire him because he could no longer do his job.
“I was his first client,” he said. “He didn’t know much about worker’s comp (but) Allan got very angry, and said it was a great injustice.”
In that first case, Ghitterman succeeded not only in winning an award - $250 – but also in getting Elhai placed in a new position at the company, which led to his own professional success: “Allan’s caring launched two great careers.”
A family affair. In a touching tribute, six of Mr. Ghitterman’s eight grandchildren each offered a personal memory.
Erin, the oldest, recalled that Allan and Susan financially helped her, siblings and cousins through college, on condition they apply as they would for any other financial aid, and provide regular updates on their progress.
He called it “the Ghitterman Scholarship,” she said.
“You just saw Allan’s immortality,” Rabbi Cohen commented, when the grandchildren finished.
Russell Ghitterman, Allan’s son and longtime law partner, delivered the most moving eulogy. He broke down sobbing several times, but rallied after sips of water.
“He represented injured workers as his personal mission,” Russell said. “He was a knight errant.”
Susan Rose delivered the final commentary, thanking the assembled and offering some deeply personal reminiscences of far-flung travels that usually revolved around family.
“He never thought of himself as popular,” she said. “But he was a man of the people.”
At one point, she referred to Russell’s earlier description of shopping sprees with his father at Costco, when Allan Ghitterman would buy a bunch of stuff he didn’t need because the price was right.
“When he saved all that money at Costco, he spent it at Gelson’s,” she said, earning the biggest laugh of the day.
Images: Allan Ghitterman; Toto (courtesy Susan Rose); Mr. Ghitterman and Stewart Holden, circa 1990 (courtesy Stewart Holden); Russell Ghitterman; Susan and Allan.