A Jewish dwarf who plays the French horn? Unlikely, you say, but Robert and I were classmates at the High School of Music and Art in New York City many decades ago.
We played French horn together in the freshman orchestra, although I changed to percussion the following year, and Robert stayed with it during high school and became quite proficient. Having been in touch with many other classmates, and nobody having made contact with Robert for more than 60 years, I decided to try to locate him.
I had strong memories of Robert. Despite his stature (he was slightly more than four feet tall), he was strong and muscular. He had an unusually deep voice with a mild stutter, a swarthy complexion with a beard much heavier than most boys his age, and scurried up and down the school hallways to keep up with the other kids. We lived in the same neighborhood and often took the subway home together. He carried his French horn in its bulky and cumbersome case on the subway so he could practice at home. Because of his size, that was a formidable undertaking.
Hunting on the Internet, I found that more than 600 people had the same first and last name. But after a doctor friend told me that Robert’s type of dwarfism was known medically as achondroplasia, I inserted that word with his name and up he popped.
Achondroplasia causes short limbs and an enlarged head with a prominent forehead. People with achondroplasia have normal intelligence and otherwise live normal lives. If they have children with someone with achondroplasia, 50% of their children will have achondroplasia, 25% will not have the disease, and 25% will miscarry. The disease is caused by a genetic abnormality that produces a skeletal disorder due to difficulty in converting cartilage to bone, particularly in the long bones of arms and legs.
Robert’s name came up in a 50-year-old magazine article about dwarfism. In it there was a photo of Robert, exactly as I remembered him, with a young lady who was also a dwarf. They had been elected king and queen of a “Little People’s” convention.
There was also an Internet reference to a 2005 book about the medical and social aspects of having a very small stature, and Robert was cited in the chapter about the lives of some of these individuals. The book’s publisher put me in touch with the author, and she told me she had lost track of Robert and did not know what happened to him, but gave me his wife’s name, Joyce. I was encouraged by the fairly recent date of the book that he could still be alive. I became determined to find him.
Knowing both Joyce and Robert’s names, I was able to trace them to a suburb of Minneapolis. Remembering that achondroplasiacs have normal intelligence, I recalled that Robert was in Arista, a high school Honor Society in New York, and now learned that subsequently he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry. He taught at a small Lutheran college in Minneapolis, where his wife worked for the athletic department as a scorekeeper. The athletic department gave me an email address for her, the only contact information they had, but she did not respond.
Pursuing it further on the Internet, I found a scholarship for chemistry and music at the Lutheran college set up in both Robert and Joyce’s names.
Finally and sadly, I found a brief obituary for Robert. I felt devastated that I just missed him, because he died at the age of 81 in July, 2014. He was buried in a local Lutheran cemetery. I never found out if he had converted because of his marriage and work situation, or whether his wife, being Lutheran, had decided to bury him there.
Many well-known people were a part of my high school graduating class, including Martin Charnin, the lyricist for “Annie,” Peter Nero, the popular concert pianist, and Janet Wynn Malcolm, my best friend in high school who became an outstanding and controversial author. None touches me more than Robert, another shining example of rising beyond one’s circumstances and others’ expectations to considerable accomplishment. May he rest in peace.