PRINCETON, N. J. - Before Mort Zachter became a successful author, he was a CPA/tax lawyer who grew up in a leaking tenement apartment in Brooklyn. While he studied accounting, he harbored a secret desire to write books.
His first book, Dough, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. By that time he had found out that he had inherited millions from his immigrant family.
His mother, Helen, worked for his uncles Joseph and Harry, Jewish immigrants from Russia, in the brothers' bakery at 350 East Ninth Street. It was known as "the day-old bread store." Joseph and Harry didn't bake any bread, they bought from wholesalers and spent as little as they could. Their penurious lifestyle involved simply saving pennies, which became dollars, which evolved after years of thriftiness into millions. At the end of their lives, they had accumulated a net worth of over $6 million. Mort thought he was the poorest kid in Brooklyn.
It was their immigrant mentality, Mort says, that resulted in their accumulation of wealth. "The Jews were afraid that if they accumulated anything, the Czar would come and take it away. They lived with that fear even when they got settled in America."
Mort, who is working on a book about Gil Hodges, the Brooklyn Dodger first baseman, was born the day the Dodgers moved cross-country to Los Angeles. His family were Dodger aficionados but became Mets fans after their team moved to the West Coast.
The story of his uncles and their work ethic, their reluctance to spend money, and their investment in stocks and bonds, which led to considerable wealth, is one that fascinates.
How many times do you see a story in a newspaper where a little old retired school teacher has accumulated sizeable wealth by living miserly and investing wisely? She reaches the end of her time and quietly leaves behind a big gift for her alma mater or charity. She never got the benefit of any schmoozing or VIP treatment. She never sat in a sky box for a football game and never was "rushed" by the development officers. A custodian or a clerk lives a frugal life but buys the right stocks. After decades, the accumulation through splits and increased value results in a fortune. Then the will is probated, and everybody is shocked with the news that some charity or institution is the beneficiary of a sizeable gift.
"My uncles," Mort says, "came of age during the Great Depression. It was that Depression-era mentality which dictated that you took nothing for granted. My uncles never married, and they were workaholics." The only time Mort can recall that the bakery closed was for his wedding. "For my bar mitzvah, one of my uncles stayed at the bakery."
When Mort began thinking about college, his preference was to major in English, but his parents insisted that he study accounting so that when graduation came he would be able to find a job. All the while, his uncles' investments were multiplying. Little did Mort know, he was a millionaire-in-waiting.
This fairy tale ending has only made him appreciate life more and to think of those who share their wealth. Like Joe Temeczko, a Minneapolis scrap collector who was so overwhelmingly affected by the 9/11 story that he rewrote his will and left $1.4 million dollars to New York City. The purpose of his gift was to have flowers planted throughout the city as a living memorial for the victims of that horrific event. This is one of the interesting vignettes in Mort's memoir.
Every day we see headlines chronicling accounts where money has spoiled something good. There are other stories, however, where greed doesn't dominate and demonstrate that the work ethic and frugality can be productive partners. Nobody knows this story better than Mort Zachter.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.