- MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Albert Rosen sobbed so loudly when his parakeet died a
neighbor rushed over. A deep feeler, his family called him, a door-to-door
salesman who carried the details of his customers' lives. So no one was
surprised when he came home late one evening in December 1969 with another
tale of woe. ``I feel terrible,'' his son, Jeffrey, recalls him saying.
``I just ran into a man who told me he wasn't going to be home Christmas
Eve because he had to work.'' And he added, ``Maybe I can do something
about that.'' That night, Rosen called a local radio station and asked
the disc jockey to announce that a Jewish man wanted to work for a Christian
on Christmas. For the next 28 years, Rosen did just that. He filled in
as a police dispatcher, bellman, switchboard operator, TV reporter, chef,
convenience store clerk, radio disc jockey and gas station attendant so
Christians could spend the holiday with their families. He trained for
each job as the holiday approached. This year, Rosen had volunteered to
work at the Badger Home for the Blind. But on Dec. 2, he died at age 80,
leaving his extended family of bellmen and bartenders to reminisce about
the man who stamped his mail: Albert Rosen _ Brotherhood. ``Al wanted to
start a brotherhood movement,'' says his friend Rosemarian Staudacher,
80. ``He couldn't understand why people couldn't get along.'' The first
Christmas was among the toughest for a man who never drank anything stronger
than soda pop. He spent a week apprenticing at Sardino's South mixing martinis
so bartender John Volpe, Jr. could have Christmas off for a change. ``He
wasn't much of a mixologist,'' recalls Volpe, now a retired nightclub owner
in Naples, Fla. ``But he was very good with people, a genuine guy.'' The
bar was mobbed that night and a couple of people complained about the drinks.
But Rosen basked in the attention from TV and newspaper reporters in what
would become his annual respite from obscurity. His stint at the Pfister
Hotel went more smoothly. ``He looked like he'd been a bellman all his
life,'' says Richard Ross, the bell captain who trained him. ``He had a
nice personality, bubbly, upbeat. I would have hired him.'' Still, not
everyone applauded Rosen's Christmas cheer. Some saw it as an attention-seeking
stunt. Occasionally Jews asked him why he would want to ingratiate himself
with Christians. ``I do this because I'm a Jew,'' he told them. ``Judaism
is about being a light unto the world.'' It was a belief instilled in him
by his mother when he was growing up on Milwaukee's Northwest side. Rosen
had dreams of studying law. But financial pressures pushed him to take
a job that would become his career: peddling pots, pans, plastic dishes
and Bibles door-to-door. ``He was an inborn salesman,'' says his old friend
Harry Schoenfeld, 79. ``He had chutzpah.'' The family still tells the story
of the time Rosen knocked on the door of a house, and when there was no
answer walked upstairs to the attic where a woman was hanging her wash.
He made a sale. And then there was the time at the movie theater when he
spent too long in the men's room, leaving his sons Jeffrey and Jerold outside.
``We waited and waited,'' Jeffrey Rosen recalls. ``Finally, my Dad walked
out and said he'd made a sale to the guy standing next to him in the urinal.''
He married his favorite customer, Sylvia Levine, who he said inspired him
to do good work. Brotherhood was a household theme. ``There was never any
negative talk ... about anyone's race or religion,'' says Jeffrey Rosen,
52, an assistant principal in the Milwaukee schools. ``The story from my
mother and father always was people are the children of God, and everyone
is to be treated equally.'' In the 1950s Rosen joined the NAACP. And he
wrote to Lyndon Johnson to praise his civil rights legislation. Truman
was his favorite president, a common man's man, and Rosen was determined
to meet him. ``My Dad was visiting some friends in Kansas City after President
Truman left office. They're sitting at breakfast and he says, `I think
I'll go and visit President Truman.' They just laughed.'' But Rosen called
Truman's office and made a half-hour appointment for the following day.
They talked family, Rosen said afterwards. Throughout the 1970s and '80s,
Rosen visited some 50 prisons and detention centers to spread his brotherhood
message. ``He felt sorry for the guys cooped up for years,'' said Staudacher,
who accompanied Rosen on several trips. Rosen, she says, encouraged the
inmates to love themselves and their fellow men, and to work to improve
their lives and those of others while in prison. Even the ``tough babes''
at the women's prisons accepted him, she says. A quartet of inmates serenaded
him with ``Amazing Graze.'' He handed out his address and phone number
to prisoners, many of whom corresponded with him, and he helped several
find jobs upon release. One inmate wrote asking Rosen to take HIS place
on Christmas. A soldier had made the same request during the Vietnam War.
Eager to reach young people, Rosen ran four times for the local school
board. He ran on an integration platform during a period of racial tension,
which Jeffrey Rosen said proved his undoing. He lost every time. But he
succeeded each December as Milwaukee's Jewish elf. Rosen's favorite job
was as a local TV reporter interviewing people who had to work Christmas.
His least favorite: gas station attendant in 20 degrees below zero weather.
The most lucrative post was as doorman at the Pfister Hotel. He made $35
in tips, which he gave to charity. In 1977, he served as a consultant for
a Hallmark Hall of Fame television program, ``Have I Got a Christmas for
You,'' starring Milton Berle as a Rosen-inspired character. His traveling
salesman days came to an end as he began losing his eyesight. Rather than
retire, he took a job as a greeter at K Mart where he distinguished himself
even among the professionally cheerful. Customer Wesley Davis, now 55,
was taken aback when the elderly white greeter he had met moments earlier
asked him, a middle-aged black man, for a ride home after his shift. Davis
couldn't say no to the lift or to the suggestion that they stop for a sandwich.
Soon the two were having dinner regularly and meeting one another's families.
They became fast friends, and Rosen was at the bedside of Davis' wife before
she died. ``I never knew a man like him before,'' says Davis. ``I grew
up in Mississippi where if you're a different race people look over you.
He was a person who saw you. And he didn't see you as nothing else but
a good person. ``I told him he was like Christ because of the things he
did for others. He said he was just doing it because he was a Jew.'' This
Christmas, Rosen was planning to work answering phones at the Badger Home
for the Blind. Davis had promised to give him a ride to the job. Now, he
says, he'll volunteer to take his friend's place. ``Al,'' he says, ``would
have wanted that.''