The Dancing Delegate
1199 Retiree Comments on Dr. King,
The Union, And Staying Young
By Gary G. Toms
When certain people hear the term "elderly," it conjures up images of a group of people that are no longer able to perform certain tasks, or people that are seen as frail or sickly. However, recent reports and statistics show that elderly citizens are more active and involved in a number of activities nowadays (such as cycling, swimming, and martial arts). Like many elderly citizens that are smashing these stereotypes, Bernie Klein is doing his best to prove them wrong.
Born in Hungary, Klein came to the United States at the age of five. He grew up in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section, and later moved to East New York, where he started working as a pharmacist. During World War II, Klein was drafted and ended up serving three years (from 1941 to 1944) in the United States Air Force. While serving, he worked as a pharmacist and cared for wounded airmen.
"I was suppose to fight in The Battle of the Bulge, in Belgium, but I didn't pass the physical. So, I ended up getting an honorable discharge," said Klein.
After his tour of duty, he continued working as a pharmacist for Charles Chemists, which was based in Manhattan. He later relocated to the Rockaways (with his wife, son and daughter) and made Dayton Towers his permanent home. He has resided there for the last 37 years. It was at this point that Klein became actively involved in helping to organize a union, Local 1199, with Leon Davis. Davis, who died a number of years ago, is regarded as one of the most recognized and beloved leaders of 1199 by many of today's members.
"It has always been a great organization that is full of great people. Local 1199 really cares about its workers and people in general. I may be retired from the union, but in my heart I will always be a delegate," said Klein.
In the ten years since his retirement from the union, Klein mentioned that there are many differences between the 1199 of today versus yesterday.
"When we started out, there were only 5,000 members. Today, there are well over 210,000 members. Also, back then, we were working 65 hours a week (6 days a week) in effort to steadily improve working conditions. As a union delegate, I was part of the negotiation team that worked closely with the hospitals. By organizing the hospitals, it made the union much stronger."
Klein took a moment to reflect on his relationship with Davis.
"Leon Davis was a great man because of what he did for the down-trodden. He never stopped fighting for the workingman or what he believed in. That's what I loved about him the most."
Klein's early affiliaton with Local 1199 gave him the opportunity to work alongside another legendary figure, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He noted that King was similar to Davis, in that they both fought for the poor working class.
"I met Dr. King through a series of union meetings and rallies. We worked together on many union issues. He was definitely a union man. He loved the union because we fought for the poor."
The World War II veteran also mentioned something about the civil rights leader that he believes very few people know.
"King was a very quiet man. When he wasn't in the forefront discussing issues, he was very much to himself. He was very quiet."
Klein's eyes started to water when The Wave asked him to reflect on King's death.
"That was 1968, right? I believe I was living in Dayton at the time. When I heard the news, like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened. King was truly a great man, and a great supporter of Local 1199."
When The Wave asked Klein about his secret for staying young and active (he declined to have his age published) he stated that dancing was the key thing that kept him going.
"Many people in the Rockaway community know me for my dancing. I could not dance to save my life early on, but when I married my second wife, Ann, she taught me how to dance. She is an excellent dancer."
The Wave proceeded with the line questioning by asking the "Fred Astaire of Rockaway" what his best dance was, and the answer was quite surprising.
"My best dance is the Tango. My wife and I give exhibitions quite frequently at the American Legion Hall on Beach 92 Street. I also teach dance every Wednesday, 10 a.m., at the Hammels Senior Center on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. The class is starting to pick up, and I have 15 students now. Most of them happen to be African-American, and we do everything from the "Electric Slide" to hip-hop dancing. We like the music."
The ageless wonder also believes that his daily one-mile walks on the boardwalk with his wife help to fend off "Father Time."
"It's good exercise. More people my age should dance and walk on the boardwalk. It would help to keep them young and take care of themselves. Being active is the secret to staying young."