Itinerant Healer

Chiropractic was unlicensed in New York State, so at age 31, Dad decided to move his practice elsewhere. He first hopped on a bus to Miami, slept on the beach there, and decided Miami wasn’t for him. He tried Denver next, and ran into another chiropractor who needed help with his practice. Dad joined the practice, and his parents soon followed him there. Things looked promising until Dad found out that the other chiropractor was tainting patient samples with food coloring. Now broke, Dad decided to give California a try.

Grandma and Grandpa followed along, landing in Venice Beach where Grandpa, going blind from diabetes, sold flowers on the street. Grandma also worked. Dad had to go back to college to pick up some credits for licensing. He enrolled in a small chiropractic college in Hollywood while he lived in a rooming house and subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches. He met another chiropractor named Hansen there and they started a practice together on Hawthorne Blvd, across from the Hawthorne Grill (of Pulp Fiction fame). At that point Dad was 33. Hansen was handy as a sighted partner, but he wasn’t around much, and he eventually left the practice entirely.

Grandma and Grandpa got an apartment 6 or 8 blocks away in Lawndale. Grandma would dress in white and help out as a receptionist, or in whatever way she could. Dad was pulling in $400 per week, and he felt rich. He was also an active member of the Los Angeles Bahá’í community, one of the largest and most distinguished Bahá’í communities in the world. With the death of the Guardian, it was a dark time for Bahá’ís, but they would soon recover.

The Voice of God

Though Dad’s mother had been excommunicated, he had been raised Catholic in some marginal sense. He was Catholic enough to be classified as such in his school records, and Catholic enough to be told by a priest that he was going to Hell. Once out on his own, he took a sharp turn away from religion to become something of a “freethinker,” but that turned out to be only a transition.

Dad first encountered the Bahá’í Faith during the time he lived in New Rochelle. He was not approached by a Bahá’í as one would expect, but by a curious non-Bahá’í friend, a fellow chiropractor named Gene Marcus. Gene was a faithful friend. Whenever Dad needed help as a blind man starting a new business, he could count on help from Gene, even if he didn’t particularly want help. One time, Gene bought Dad two suits out of the blue.

It happened one day that Gene got curious about a Persian religion called the Bahá’í Faith, so he invited Dad to join him in attending a public Bahá’í function, probably a “fireside.” Now it doesn’t appear that Gene ever became a Bahá’í (though his brother Leslie did), but Dad became interested, and attended several firesides. [1] A particularly effective speaker presented at one of these functions, and Dad asked for reading materials.

They first suggested that he read “Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era,” an entry-level introduction to “the Faith,” which contained at least one passage that would likely appeal to a chiropractor:

He who is filled with love of Bahá, and forgets all things, the Holy Spirit will be heard from his lips and the spirit of life will fill his heart. … Words will issue from his lips in strands of pearls, and all sickness and disease will be healed by the laying on of the hands.

Baha’u’lláh and the New Era, p. 112

There are other references to natural healing throughout the Bahá’í scriptures. The scriptures, for instance, discourage the use of medicine “when health is good”:

Refrain from the use of drugs . . . Abstain from drugs when health is good, but administer them when necessary.

Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, 1980 ed., p. 106

The Bahá’í scriptures predict that in the future healing will be performed through nutrition:

The science of medicine is still in a condition of infancy; it has not reached maturity. But when it has reached this point, cures will be performed by things which are not repulsive to the smell and taste of man — that is to say, by aliments, fruits and vegetables which are agreeable to the taste and have an agreeable smell.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 256

The majority of the diseases which overtake man also overtake the animal, but the animal is not cured by drugs. In the mountains, as in the wilderness, the animal’s physician is the power of taste and smell. The sick animal smells the plants that grow in the wilderness; he eats those that are sweet and fragrant to his smell and taste, and is cured.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 257

This must have piqued Dad’s interest, but he wanted to go straight to the source—the scripture, so he asked that someone read “the Ketáb-e-íqán” to him. He was instantly convinced. “No man could write this,” he declared. He was sure the book was the “Word of God.”

Dad became a Bahá’í during the time the Bahá’í community was under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi, AKA “the Guardian,” the last of the Bahá’í patriarchal bloodline. Shoghi, unlike his predecessors, had a western education—an Oxford education, and it showed. He lacked personal charm, but he possessed a remarkable mastery of the English language, particularly for a non-native speaker. Dad could reel off Shakespeare from memory and had a pronounced affection for eloquent language. I’m inclined to believe that Shoghi’s lofty language and purposeful voice, which embodied both the works he authored and those he translated, was one of the greatest factors in my father’s conversion.

New York City had one of the older, established Bahá’í communities in the western world. Bahá’ís had lived there since 1897. One of the most influential leaders of the Bahá’í Faith, Abbas Effendi, AKA “the Master,” Shoghi’s grandfather and direct predecessor, had famously lectured throughout New York City for a couple months in 1912.

Dad lived and worked in New Rochelle at the time of his introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. New Rochelle, being in the New York City metro area, had a strong Bahá’í history and presence. Dad even had the honor of visiting Juliet Thompson—a rather well-known Báhá’í artist—at her home, which I believe was in New Rochelle (she was buried there). Dad’s experience as a Bahá’í in the New York of the mid-1950s must have been distinct from what he would experience once he left New York, and he would experience quite a variety of Bahá’í communities over his lifetime.

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[1] Fred Tarrant attended one or two firesides as well, surely at Dad’s invitation. Fred would later visit the Chicago temple at Dad’s invitation, but he was unmoved. Fred, like Dad, had been raised by a Catholic mother, but Fred has never been drawn to religion, though he respects Dad’s strong moral drive.

From Masseur to Chiropractor

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JohnJensenMassageClassAfter graduating from the New York Institute, Dad moved to Bedford Hills and then Katonah (both within several miles of home), and studied massage therapy at the Swedish Institute in Manhattan for 9 months.

At age 22, Dad followed his parents to Bernardsville, New Jersey, where his father was a caretaker on another property, apparently the exquisite Blairsden Estate[1]

At age 23 (1947/48), Dad enrolled at the Chiropractic Institute of New York [2]. He helped to pay his way by working as a masseur. Though chiropractic was surely Dad’s choice, that choice may have been influenced by his father’s dream that his son would become a doctor some day. [3]

Nick D'Amato

Nick D’Amato

Dad opened his first chiropractic practice at age 27 in the town of Rye, NY, perhaps in his parents’ apartment. He moved his practice to New Rochelle a year later. His parents and his sister moved in with him. This made it difficult to present the office as an office, but his mother surely helped however she could [4]. One of Dad’s best friends was fellow chiropractic student Nick D’Amato. Nick happened to be a brother of boxing trainer/manager Cus D’Amato, but more important, Nick was a kind of saint. To Dad, Nick was a faithful friend, and occasionally a practical joker. He helped Dad however he could, such as helping him with lecture notes. He was the friendly, helpful type. During the war, Nick had specialized in helping soldiers, many of them amputees, cope with their physical and psychological wounds.

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] Fred Tarrant remembers visiting Dad and his family at Bernardsville

[2] 325 East 38th Street, in the Murray Hill neighborhood, presently the Indonesian consulate to the UN.

[3] According to Fred Tarrant, Grandpa had a singular, unwavering dream that Dad would become a doctor. Fred knew Dad’s parents, having stayed with the family on several occasions. He claims to have had the highest respect for Grandpa, though he admits that he liked to rile Grandpa by talking to him about controversial topics such as evolution.

[4] Fred Tarrant remembers visiting the Dad’s New Rochelle office.

Glaucoma

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At age 19, John Jensen was injured while wrestling, and the injury led to glaucoma, which took away what little of his vision remained, caused him a great deal of discomfort, and robbed him of the balance, agility, and speed that made him a remarkable wrestler.

In the summer before his senior year, J.J. was to get a cornea transplant to save his remaining eye. The night before his appointment, he awoke to find everything dark. He felt a lamp, and it was hot. The next day, the doctor determined there was too much pressure on the eye to perform the transplant. This traumatic episode set John back as a wrestler, though he continued to wrestle competitively. He attended an Olympic trial in San Francisco [1], but the glaucoma degraded his performance, as it would throughout the year to come. He tried to rehabilitate but he couldn’t get it all back. John’s days as “the Bull” were over.

John had been almost entirely blind since he was three, when diphtheria nearly killed him, took one of his eyes, and nearly took the other. As a boy, he could see very fuzzy shapes within a couple feet of his face. It was only good for detecting the presence of light. Now a man, his blindness was complete, though he could still “see” large objects by using passive echolocation (he didn’t ping for echo).

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] Probably in spring 1944. Fred Tarrant confirms that the trials were in San Francisco. There were no Olympic games in 1944, but it appears that trials were held. Fred was too ill to compete. John managed to make the trip, but he was ill and did poorly. Fred says the illness in this case was John’s glaucoma.

Bronx Batman: Gene Manfrini

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Manfrini_1951aAnother blind wrestler who attended New York Institute and competed for McBurney YMCA was 145-pound Gene Manfrini, who won several NY Metropolitan AAU titles, competed at the 1947 National AAU wrestling championships in San Francisco, and was a standout at Columbia University where he is featured here in Life Magazine (April 16, 1951). Manfrini was four years younger than Dad.

These photos are from a spread in the April 16, 1951 issue of LIFE. Note Manfrini’s passive, relaxed starting pose. Also note the remark about his excellent sense of balance.

Manfrini may have been a bit of a late bloomer. Though he competed in the AAU nationals at age 18 and later shined while studying at Columbia, the records that I’ve found from when he was probably a sophomore at the NY Institute show him losing matches in the 125-pound class.Manfrini_1951b

More from Manfrini’s obituary:[1]

“He learned the piano, violin, and organ, and also became an honor student. On the violin, he reached the virtuosity of the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor. His instructor went back to England and he took up the piano. He played everything from Boogie Woogie to Bach for the rest of his life. At age ten, he sang in the institute’s choral group which performed with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall.”

“… In the fall of 1948 he entered Columbia College. He undertook “General Studies” which the college required in order to prove himself. In February of 1949, he was officially admitted because of his straight “A” average, and not because of his handicap.”

Manfrini_1952c“… Columbia wrestling coach Dick Waite said that Gene had one of the finest sense of balance that he had ever seen, and he had complete control of his body at all times. He asked no concessions because of his blindness. His only request was that the referee remained still while he was in the ring.”

“… He eventually built his Piano Tuning and Rebuilding business into the best in this country. His clients consisted of Irving Berlin, Horowitz, Arthur Rubenstein, RCA, Columbia Recording, Frank Loesser, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, Andre Kostelantz, Roseland Dance Land, Julliard School of Music, and many more.

“For years, Gene had his own music group, The Mood Men. They played throughout NYC in many nightclubs. They also played in New Jersey, Lake George, and Ticonderoga. His great love of classical jazz made him well known and loved.

“Until about 15 years ago, Gene traveled all over New York City, The Bronx, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and even Europe without a cane or a dog. His sense of balance and hearing was unequaled.

“Traveling in New York City eventually became hazardous, and after several instances of falling into holes that were left open, he began to use a guide dog. During his life he had two, Lindy and Fanny, and a bond was formed with both dogs that only a blind person could understand.”

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] Manfrini died 23 June, 2008 at age 79.

Bronx Batman: Jacob Twersky

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Jacob Twersky, another remarkable graduate of NY Institute for the Blind, wrestled successfully for the City College of New York, and went on to a PhD and worked as a writer and a history professor. He was also a leading advocate for the blind, often arguing that blind people could achieve remarkable things and should not be discouraged from trying. Twersky preceded my father at the Institute by several years. He lived to age 93, finally passing away on 23 July, 2014.

© 2015 Kaweah

Bronx Batman: Anthony Mattei

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Another very accomplished wrestler from the Institute was Anthony Mattei. Wrestling in Tarrant’s weight class, Mattei blossomed as a wrestler when Jensen’s and Tarrant’s fortunes faded, winning the senior Metropolitan title in 1946, and losing in the national semifinals to the wrestler who would go on to win the final (as Tarrant had done).

… The valedictorian was Anthony Mattei, 17 years old, of Springfield, Queens, who will attend New York University in the fall. In addition to winning the honors, the youth has the distinction of being the first blind wrestler to have won the senior metropolitan 155-pound championship. … [1]

Not merely a fine wrestler, Mattei was an excellent student and went on to teach math for a living. Though he was not allowed to drive, he thoroughly enjoyed riding shotgun in his Cadillac with his wife at the wheel. [2]

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] “Blind Get Diplomas,” New York Times, 22 June 1946

[2] Pelham Progress, 23 June 1967.

Bronx Batman: Fred Tarrant

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Fred Tarrant was particularly close to Dad. They were teammates, sparring partners, weight-training partners, friends, and conspirators. I exchange correspondence with Fred, as well as an occasional phone call. Fred and Dad first met when Fred first enrolled at the Institute, when “J.J.” had just turned 15. Tarrant was a couple years younger than Jensen but bigger by a weight class. He placed 2nd in the junior Metropolitan AAU tournament at age 16 and went on to place third in the National AAU title the following March at Baltimore in 1944 [1]. After that, he returned home to place 2nd in the Metropolitan AAU tournament. Tragically, Fred’s brain had taken too much abuse from his lifestyle on the one hand and dehydration from his attempts to drop pounds before his last tournament. He underwent brain surgery; he was hospitalized for the better part of year, and he lost a year of school. Because of this, Fred didn’t graduate until 1946. He tried to get back into wrestling form, but he could never recapture his former fire. His wrestling days were over.

As good as Fred was, he says that he could never beat Dad. He describes Dad as an “explosive force.” Perhaps he’s being gracious.

Tarrant was from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. His grandfather had started a manufacturing business that Fred’s father worked in. Fred would return to Saratoga Springs after graduation to work in the family business. He started his own manufacturing business in 1969, but he could only manage to break even, so after four years of that he gave landlording a try. That kept Fred, his wife Odilie, and their two kids in the black for twenty years. They then moved to Naples, Florida, where after some time Fred got involved in municipal government. In 2005, Fred and Odilie moved to the mountains of Costa Rica. Like Dad, Fred had a hard time with the heat and humidity of the South, so he is much more comfortable at a kilometer above sea level.

As a city councilman in Naples, Florida, Tarrant once made the news by objecting to the display of artwork that he deemed inappropriate. Tarrant being blind, many people found this ironic, but of course people regularly express opinions based on accounts from trusted sources. When a blind man does so, some people don’t judge him by the same standard.

Fred, sharp as a titanium tack at age 88, has turned to writing in his retirement. He recounts the past with modest confidence, vividness, and color. There is a story of Dad falling off a train platform in New York that I have heard on a number of occasions from the horse’s mouth. It’s a pleasure to hear Fred’s account. He recalls that Dad had a date with a beautiful young lady, and he got dressed up in a white jacket and a pink carnation (yes, Fred could see color; he just couldn’t see well enough to read). The next thing Fred knew, “Johnny” had returned with his nice white outfit covered in blood and grease. Johnny had fallen off the train platform.

© 2015 Kaweah

[1] Fred was thrown my Emil J. Tomick in the semifinal. Tomick went on to win the championship.

The Bronx Batmen

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John Jensen wasn’t the only gifted wrestler to come out of the NY Institute. Three other blind wrestlers from the school won Metropolitan AAU titles in the years from 1942 to 1948, and a couple nearly took national titles in 1944 and 1946, Their names were Jacob Twersky, Anthony Mattei, Gene Manfrini, and Fred Tarrant.

In 1944, the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind featured three wrestlers from ages 15 to 17 who would either win metropolitan titles or nearly win national titles. John Jensen, then 19, was their captain.

I call these athletes “batmen” because they were blind (some more blind than others) and so fought their battles in the darkness.

Bob Russell, a less-accomplished wrestler and academic dynamo who graduated from the Institute three years before, went on to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame [1]. None of these superior wrestlers received such honors. Though their accomplishments may have been easier to achieve during wartime due to reduced competition, many of their greatest wrestling victories came after the war, and it was not as though servicemen had ceased to compete in athletics during the war. On the contrary, much attention and honor was bestowed upon servicemen in such competitions, and rightly so. Though the war may have provided some blind wrestlers with opportunities to rise to the top, it may have eclipsed the accomplishments of others. And these were not men who vanished after their wrestling careers ended. Each of them went on to lead productive lives as fathers, teachers, artists, politicians, and businessmen.

Some Senior Metropolitan AAU Results (blind wrestlers in bold)

Year Weight Class 1st Place 2nd Place Remarks
1942 121 Jacob Twersky
1942 (Dec) 135 Murray Edelman
1942 (Dec) 150 Chris Soukas Morris Nemer
1943 135 Edward Collins Weyman McNabb West Side Y
1943 145 Lawrence Cowell Chris Soukas Sat, Mar 20
1944 145 Lawrence Cowell John Jensen**  
1944 155 Fred Tarrant**  
1945 145 Lawrence Cowell Gene Manfrini**  
1946 155 Anthony Mattei** March 23/30?
1947 135 Murray Edelman* Eddie Collins Metro
1947 145 Gene Manfrini* Kenneth Hunte McBurney Y
1947 155 Chris Soukas Sat, March 22
1948 136 Murray Edelman* NYAC
1948 147 Gene Manfrini* Sat, March 27

** New York Institute for the Education of the Blind

* McBurney YMCA

[1] Robert W. Russell, who went on to wrestle on the Yale varsity squad and become an accomplished professor and writer, was awarded the National “Medal of Courage” in the year 2000 by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

© 2015 Kaweah

The Captain

It wasn’t just in wrestling that John Jensen was something of a leader. In April 1943, he and his buddy Fred led a sit-down strike in assembly to protest restrictions to contact with girls and limits to weekend permits. There was no rioting or shouting, only silent “civil disobedience.” Principal Frampton lost his cool and suspended the 200 boys who followed John and Fred into the strike. They were all sent home. Fred went home with John to Mount Kisco. After 19 days of suspension, they were offered an opportunity to apologize in exchange for reentry. John and Fred did not apologize, so their suspensions were resumed, and they packed up and returned to Mount Kisco. After a couple weeks, the Institute’s board of directors inquired into the suspensions and chose to terminate the suspensions unconditionally. John and Fred returned to the Bronx, no strings attached. Fred reports that Principal Frampton was extra nice after the two returned to school. Fred also reports that John’s father was not happy about John losing school time. Fred assures me that Mr. Jensen did not lose his temper, but he was very serious about his son studying to become a doctor, and he made it clear that he was disappointed in his son.

In June, John got a summer job at Aero Spark Plug punching brass cones. He quickly learned that he was not one for working in factories, however, so he quit after a month. It appears that he may have had another summer job lined up in Schenectady.

In the fall of that year, John put a wrestling meet with the McBurney Y ahead of a concert being performed by the Institute’s choir. After causing a commotion among his superiors, he managed to make it to the concert and participate fully and successfully. It was reported that “he gave the impression of intending to have his own way though secretly no doubt wished to support the cause.”

During the following winter, Dad once more gave wrestling priority over a school function: a blood drive. This time he did it in partnership with a fellow wrestler (and fellow future masseur), Arthur Torgerson. They would not give blood because it would weaken them during the tournament the next day. The two wrestlers were certain that the school could make an exception for them just this once, but then the school had possibly thought the war effort ought to trump a voluntary wrestling meet. On the other hand, compelling blind kids to give blood might seem to be a questionable policy. Still, John might not have been the most graceful negotiator. One Jean Westwick reports:

“I did say that I doubted whether they could withdraw from the trip [to give blood] at this late date and Jensen said in no uncertain terms that he certainly could. … I felt he was rather sarcastic in his way of speaking. It wasn’t really what he said but his general attitude that I considered extremely bad mannered. He is a nice boy but very spoiled and self-assured one I think.”

It’s possible that this incident might have been avoided by better planning on the part of the two wrestlers.

John could be headstrong. One might have characterized him as an “uppity blink,” though he was somewhat soft-spoken in his earnestness. A sophomore at age 18, he did not always respond well to being managed like a handicapped child, but he did have his defenders:

“John is a very retiring boy, but has the moral courage to take a stand, for what he feels is right on any issue that arises. His reticence and calm determination are often misinterpreted by people who do not take the time to understand him. I have heard him called obstinate and stubborn, but I just can’t see it. He is not a good mixer. He would rather fraternize with one or two, than to be a party of a large group. This does not add to his popularity, and some people think he is snobbish. I can’t see this either. He is definitely not a play boy, and life is a serious proposition to him, but he is far from being snobbish.

“He is happy in his quiet way, and his sweet, clear, tuneful, tenor voice is one of the cheering notes of Akerly. I frequently open my door to better hear him singing in the bathroom. …” [1]

[1] Comments from the Housemother of Akerly House, NYIEB, John Jensen student record.