|Ernest W Schlieben 1915-2011|
Ernest W Schlieben, 96, died peacefully at his home in Ewing, New Jersey on Oct 2nd, 2011. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Schlieben received his Bachelor of Science degree at the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, New York University, in 1935, with postgraduate training at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.
After a tour of duty in 1935-36 as an aviation cadet at the Naval Air Training Center, Pensacola, Florida, Mr. Schlieben became active in aircraft design at the Glenn L. Martin Company in Middle River, Maryland. Later, he became Vice President of York Research, an aeronautical design and development firm in New York City; and Director of Engineering for the Special Devices Center of the US Navy at Sands Point, Long Island, NY, designing and building training aids for the Navy, Air Force, and NATO.
In later years, he held management positions at Sylvania in Waltham, Massachusetts; Perkin-Elmer in Norwalk, Connecticut; and RCA in Hightstown, New Jersey, where he managed projects involving a continental ballistic missile device, scientific satellites, and related projects.
Mr. Schlieben held a number of patents for inventions including one of the earliest prototypes of a supermarket checkout counter, a self-positioning buoy for intelligence gathering, known as SKAMP, and low altitude atmospheric sensing satellites.
After retiring in 1978, Mr. Schlieben engaged in real estate development and building restoration. Later as a self-taught sculptor, Mr. Schlieben worked in stone, concrete, and fiberglass, and for a time maintained a sculpture garden at his home in Trenton, New Jersey. Several of his sculptures are exhibited in private collections and, most notably, at the Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ.
He was an Associate Fellow of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences (now the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics) for over 70 years, a member of the Old Guard of Princeton, a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and, more recently, became a member of the Religious Society of Friends in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Mr. Schlieben was predeceased by Beverleigh (Mills) Schlieben, his wife of fifty-one years, and his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Coats. Survivors include four sons: Dan Schlieben of New York City; Paul Schlieben of Peterborough, NH; George Schlieben of Yardley, PA; and Brooks Schlieben of Levittown, PA; five grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
He was loved and will be missed by his family and his many friends.
I came down from New Hampshire to visit Dad every few months. Besides going to museums, talks at the Old Guard in Princeton or the Garden for Sculpture, we would argue politics, energy policy, global warming, healthcare, the wars – you name it – ALL with the object of keeping him on his toes and test the limits of neural-plasticity.
And, on that score at least, I'm pleased to report that by the time I’d leave to go back to New Hampshire, I always felt smarter.
The truth is, these last 10 years or so, the old father-son relationship morphed into something else. Dad and I became friends. It doesn’t always work that way.
His fearless curiosity was infectious. That is the legacy he left me – to be curious and be willing to change your mind, when the evidence warrents.
In the end, he seemed to be curious even about the process of death. Once he had realized that his end was near, he embraced death fearlessly, with none of the dread I would imagine most of us feel. This may be a natural consequence of being 96, I don’t know. But, he even seemed to marvel at the changes in his own body, these last three and a half weeks.
So, in this, he taught us something profound about death -- to face it as just another inescapable stage of life.
But wait, there’s more: Whether intentional or not – I like to think it was intentional – the process of death that he undertook ensured that his sons – George, Brooks, Dan and me – would spend time together, as adults. That doesn’t often happen either. Too often we’re locked into a relationship that was formed in adolescence.
This reintroduction of four adult children may turn out to be one of his most enduring gifts. For this I am grateful.
I could say a lot more, but I’ll end with this: a poem that I wrote that he said he liked very much. (I chose to take him at his word.)
The title is “The Incredible Shrinking.”
With fragile bones,
bird brittle, too old to fly
we step over shattered glass
that was our hips our knees our vertebrae
reaching for dusty banisters, railings,
shopping carts …
with a last grasp of desperation.
We drift into weaker orbits
as friends depart
and new friends seem
but faint echo of the past.
We spin off our moorings
caught in the whirlpool
of weakening memories
and lengthening shadows
as light recedes into eternal night,
and incredibly we shrinks,
into a fetal form
as we wait for the final ‘ping’
that sounds the moment
we’re gently drawn
through the eye of god’s needle
to take our place among the angels
on the head of a pin.
(A memorial service was held on November, a month after the funeral service.)
Thanks everyone for coming. I encourage you to relate a memory of my Father. I’ll try not to take up the entire hour.
Let me start by attempting a metaphor … memorializing a life that spans 96 years is like staring at white light. You have to pass it through a prism to discern the full spectrum of color, or, in the case of a life, the full spectrum of experience, to fully understand the person being memorialized … to do justice to his memory.
A life is made up of the occasional accomplishment and associations that we pepper our obituaries with, but also with frustrations, failures, mistakes, pain and, yes, days of everyday existence. To gloss over these is to miss the more colorful aspects of a life and, I contend, do a disservice to the deceased’s memory… and a disservice to those of us who remain behind.
I’m not going to dredge up things that are too painful to contemplate, but I do want to talk for a few minutes about Ernie’s formative years.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1915. This much you knew. His parents were Lucy Bensch and Jacob Ernest Schlieben, who was always called Ernie. His parents were first-generation German immigrants. His grandparents on his father’s side immigrated to this country in 1888, possibly as political refugees. And his grandparents, who spoke only German at home, shared their apartment until he was three and a half. As a result, some German language was imprinted on his brain early on; something we discovered when Dad and I traveled to Germany 6 years ago.
Ernie’s father had an 8th grade education. I’m not sure how far his mother went in school. Both were intelligent, clever and resourceful, and lived a modest blue-collar existence. Early on, Dad’s father drove a taxi in NYC. At one point, he equipped the family Model-T as a camper and drove to Florida on a family adventure vacation. (This was the early 20s, when sand was the dominant feature of coastal roadways.)
At some point, probably in the early 20s, his father was hired to be the chauffeur for the Dana family in Glen Cove, the heart of the gold coast of Long Island. (Charles Dana was the founder of the NY Sun newspaper.) This was their ticket out of the city.
As a child, Ernie played with Charles Dana’s grandson on the Dana Estate and, no doubt, quickly realized that what separated them most, socially, was money. I can only speculate, but I assume this early exposure to an elite world had a profound effect on my father. I might add that he was an only child, and I’m sure his ambition was ‘encouraged’ by his parents.
Ernie was a bright student who worked hard in school. Although it was not uncommon at the time, it is still notable that he skipped two grades and entered NYU at 16 where he studied aeronautical engineering – the equivalent of studying computer science in the 1970s, when people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came of age. He graduated at 20 and went off be a Navy cadet at Pensacola in 1935.
But, let’s step back a minute and speculate about the influence this early exposure had on him. He was suddenly exposed to the wealthiest, most elite class of people imaginable at the time, with estates of park-like splendor, beautiful artwork and, very likely, statues in their gardens. As noted earlier, he played with the Dana children and, in all likelihood, like all children, took their measure and realized they were not very different from himself … maybe even less clever. And, he came of age in a time when exciting new technologies like aviation and electronics were fast emerging. For those who did well in school, these provided fantastic opportunities, even in the midst of a devastating depression.
The result of all this? He could see a path forward for himself. The seeds of ambition were sown by all the exciting things going on at the time; the egalitarian mold was set by first-hand exposure to an elite class; his tastes for aesthetic beauty formed by exposure to artwork that only the wealthy could afford. And, most important, his indefatigable curiosity took shape – a trait that served him well for all of his 96 years.
He was an artist at heart. He was driven to leave his imprint on everything he touched, whether it was invention or a piece of art.
But, there was much that happened for which he was unprepared. (About whom can we not make that claim?) One was being married early – too early I think – to a woman who had emotional needs that he was unable to comprehend or satisfy.
He was hell-bent to grow up quickly. He married my mother, Betty Coats, when he was 23. While today I recognize this as a misstate, I hasten to add that my brother Dan and I were the products of this marriage, so its hard to condemn it roundly! While there were some good years, the marriage was on a trajectory to fail and they were separated in 1952. For my brother Dan and I, this was the most significant event of our lives, one that colored our relationship with our father for the remainder of his live. If black were one of the colors that was revealed by passing white light through a prism, that’s the color that best describes our experience at the time.
While I hesitate to speak for Dan, I think I can say this without contradiction: to varying degrees, we were both estranged from Ernie for decades. The divorce was ugly and the trail of bitterness long. For me, forgiveness took 45 years. Finally, in the mid-90s, we exchanged letters, honest and frank, and finally, after decades, something akin to a friendship emerged. Over the succeeding years, this became the bedrock that our relationship was built upon.
My mother died 31 years ago. While she remarried eventually, she never fully recovered the humiliation of becoming a devorcée in 1952. I don’t blame my father for the failure of their marriage – she was emotionally unstable, he was unprepared to deal with mental illness – this was 1952 after all – and I don’t blame Beverleigh, to whom he was married for 51 years – if it hadn’t been her, he would have fallen in love with someone else. But, for two sons, at least, the seeds of confusion were sown and their roots took years to trace and unravel.
I say these things not to denigrate Dad’s memory, but to help you appreciate the man you knew, the man he aspired to be, the man he became. Sometime in the 20s, when he lived in Hicksville Long Island, he was exposed to the Westbury Friends Meeting. It must have left an impression, because here we are, 80 years or so later, at the Yardley Friends meeting where he sought solace these final years of his life. He was attracted to the simplicity of a religion stripped of pretentions and ornamentation. He was a complicated man, but in his final years, he tried hard to simplify his life and speak ill of no-one. He was curious to the end, even about death. I like to think that the impulse that drove him to the Yardley Meeting is significant: that his essential nature was good.
When my mother died, we only had a graveside ceremony; we didn’t have a memorial service. The nature of the grief I feel now is different from what I felt then. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the difference in their ages when they died, maybe it‘s the difference in my age; maybe it’s the nature of their deaths – I don’t know. But, if you indulge me, I’d like to close with a poem I wrote in her memory many years ago.
I suspended feeling when my mother died.
I was afraid to think, afraid to feel the loss.
I stopped loving when my mother died.
I dealt the surface signs but remained apart.
I followed procedures and lived by protocol,
Stepping through the mechanics of death,
Executed without feeling… the logic escaped me.
Color drained from my existence.
The gray pallor of death absorbed life
and broadcast a shadow.
So we bury what remains of her,
true to our age, with great attention to packaging,
and what remains of her
merges the shadows of sorrow
with the seeds of our dreams.
Then, we await the dawn
and start the painstaking task
of adding color to our lives,
like a northern winter.
Dad died in October. Why is it that I don’t feel the loss I did when my mother died thirty-one years ago? Why is it that even now, my mother’s death evokes a sense of tragedy, while my father’s death doesn’t evoke powerful emotion at all? I don’t think it is only the difference in age when they died, she 67, he 96. That may be part of it, but there’s much more going on. Is it that I watched him die over the course of a month? Did that experience demystify dying and condition me to accept the inevitable? Is it that I had been anticipating his death for several years, expecting a call at any time? Is it that, many times, he had expressed his intention to die at home and, in the end, being cast in the roll of advocate, I insisted on his right to die and to control this final stage of life? More than once he told me that if he was unable to take care of himself at home and was faced with going to a nursing home, he would rather take his own life, simply, painlessly, with a plastic bag and nitrogen. As a dues-paying subscriber to an national right-to-die organization called ‘Compassion & Choices’ (formerly “The Hemlock Society’), he had studied his options. (He had insisted on dying at home ever since he purchased the house at 15 Wilburtha Road three years earlier.) Was the sadness of death diminished by his desire to die? After all, once he made his decision, there was no dissuading him. He might have opted for physician assisted suicide if New Jersey law sanctioned it but chose fasting instead.
Here’s the calculation I think he made. The last week of August, struck with excruciating stomach pains, he was transported to the emergency room and operated on to repair a perforated ulcer in the small intestines, right below his stomach. The operation was successful but as often happens with old men, he got pneumonia. He knew hospitals were dangerous places for old men and wanted to escape as soon as possible. At his insistence and still hoping to recover, he was moved to a rehabilitation/nursing home, but once there, continued to decline. He was extremely weak and able to breath only with the aid of an oxygen machine. After a week in the nursing home and convinced that he may not survive another day, he insisted on going home. So we arranged for home hospice and transport. Hospice provides an array of helpful services including a nursing assistant two hours a day, but not 24-hour care. My brothers and I committed to his care. Even before he arrived home, he refused food and water, choosing this relatively benign method of hastening death. Once he started down that road, he refused to consider any alternatives. Amazingly, after about ten days of fasting, his pneumonia cleared up. At this point, there may have been a window of opportunity to recover, but he was extremely weak. (Note that he was lucid and in charge the entire time.) I can only imagine what he was thinking, but I’ll try. First, by now, although his chest seemed clear, he was weak, very weak, sleeping twenty or more hours a day. He was committed and, by now, felt an obligation to die, even apologizing to us for it taking so long. (We assured him that was OK, but still, it is revealing of his state of mind.) He thought, “There might be a remote chance that I could recover, but I’m 96 and I’ve lived a long life. What is the likelihood I’ll recover, and for how long? Changing course now would entail returning to the nursing home and possibly contracting pneumonia again and dying there or, worse, being hospitalized in an ICU or having to repeat the steps that I’ve just gone through.” Knowing Dad, I think it is likely he was thinking in terms of probabilities. “What is the probability of my getting better in a rehab facility – a well-intentioned, but in the end, inhospitable, noisy, germ-infested, nursing home? What is the probability of losing control of my own mental faculties and being transferred to an ICU? And, even if I did recover in rehab, what is the likelihood that I could go home and live on my own again without several months of home care, care I can ill afford? I can’t ask my sons to care for me months on end. And, if I was able to go home, how long before I fell or was incapacitated and had to go back to a nursing home or hospital, something I am determined not to do”? So, when I use the word “calculation” earlier, I meant just that. He made a decision while he still had enough strength to dictate the terms. Based on this analysis or something very much like it, he invoked the “Compassion & Choices” option at a point in time when he could be referred for hospice care and enlist the help of his sons. So that’s what he did.
There’s this too. Death did not scare him nearly as much as, to varying degrees, it did those around him. He was not afraid to die; with characteristic curiosity, he welcomed it as if it were the most natural next step. This final month of his life was like gently closing the cover of a book rather than, as was the case with my mother, slamming it shut prematurely. To me, it seemed the most natural and peaceful way for him to die.
And there were other considerations that might have measured into his calculation. As long as the decision was his, as long as he was in control of his own faculties, no one could override his decision. He had a living will that specified clearly, ‘Do Not Hospitalize’ and ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ and the terms under which these orders apply. The effect was to remove the potential for conflict with which the four brothers might otherwise have had to struggle -- “What to do with Dad?” For, even though there was a living will and I had Power of Attorney, he wanted to spare my brothers and me of having to struggle with these decisions.
Another effect, of which he may or may not have been aware, was the beneficial effect on four brothers of spending time together as adults. As I said in my eulogy at his funeral, I like to think that this was his intention, a gift to his sons and the family. For, freed of the stresses of decision-making about his care, we were left only with carrying out his wishes, caring for him, and of preparing him and ourselves for his eventual death. A by-product was to redefine our relationship with each other. If that was his intention, it was a success.
But now what I’m left with is the absence of mourning, of having lost a loved one. I know at some level I feel a loss; it just hasn’t bubbled to the surface yet. With my mother, it boiled over and surfaced in many ways -- as anger, rage, grief, and in my poetry and writings – and as I discovered during Dad’s memorial service when I spoke of my mother’s death, it hasn’t abated much in the intervening years.
There may be another explanation too. I’m almost 67 years old. I was just 35 when my mother died. The shock of her death, the suddenness of it, the guilt I felt for not having responded to her distress when she told me tearfully on the phone of her sudden weight loss and all that that portends; the complicated, messy family history; the recently acquired responsibility I felt for a two year old son; of our need to establish a stable family life on our own; all of these affected me in ways that seem fresh even today.
Maybe I’ll wake suddenly some morning with a hollowing sense of loss, tearfully grieving and somehow resolved in knowing that I loved him. But honestly, I feel more as though I’ve lost a good friend, and life goes on; and that’s what I find most disturbing. But then I remember; there was a long and complicated history not of my own making. As things go, I think we did well to repair our relationship as much as we did during the last fifteen years or so. That we were able to come to some accommodation and become good friends was itself an accomplishment. As I said in one of my last emails in which we spoke of the past, in response to an email in which he expressed remorse for the pain he caused my brother Dan and me, “Certainly, one can conclude that however you spell it, divorce is hard on everybody. The law of unintended consequences is the only thing you can be sure of. But the key word there is ‘unintended’, and therein lies forgiveness.”
So, Dad, rest in peace.
 Note that Medicare requires that you spend three days in a healthcare facility before qualifying for hospice.