Might a person be more inclined to read the obituaries as he ages? If memory serves, comedian George Burns, not so long before he died at 100, said that when he got up every morning, he would check the newspaper’s obit page—and if his name wasn’t there, he’d have a cup of coffee and go about his day.
I’m not quite at that stage. But, more and more, I find the perusal of obituaries to be somehow uplifting—not because they report a death but because they celebrate a life.
That said, the exception to finding pleasure in reading such biographical material on the recently departed is when the obit is about someone I have known—especially if that someone was an admirable contemporary.
Allan Steinfeld died last week. Only 70, he was the victim of multiple systems atrophy, a neurological disease. His was not a bold-face name, which surely is why my former editors at Newsday took a pass on marking his death at all. But, in more than 30 years as the technical whiz behind staging the annual New York City Marathon, Steinfeld was heroic in directly serving more than a million of the event’s participants.
And good for the New York Times for recognizing Steinfeld with a 700-word eulogy in Wednesday’s paper.
Originally the right-hand man to flamboyant road-racing carnival barker Fred Lebow, who made marathoning irresistible street theater and sold running as a legitimate lifestyle, Steinfeld inherited Lebow’s title of race director when the latter died of brain cancer in 1994.
According to George Hirsch, chairman of the New York City Road Runners Club, which operates the marathon, the official transition to Steinfeld’s leadership was blessed by a dramatic scene shortly before Lebow’s death in which Lebow symbolically cast himself as marathoning’s FDR. “I was in Fred’s apartment,” Hirsch said. “By then, his voice was just a whisper. He was talking about Allan, and there were a lot of questions as to whether Allan was the right guy. I remember Fred pulled me close to him and said….. ‘Truman.’”
I last saw the event’s Truman in October of 2014, eight years after he retired and handed the race director’s job to Mary Wittenberg. Steinfeld was being inducted into the marathon’s hall of fame, without much fuss but with heartfelt praise from those who worked with him. “Allan was just the classic unsung hero,” Wittenberg told me. “He’s a behind-the-scenes person who likes it that way.”
He had been a high school math and physics teacher and already had been finding all the right pieces in the massive marathon jigsaw puzzle before Lebow gave him a fulltime assistant’s job in 1978 for $12,500. That was half of Steinfeld’s teaching salary, but he decided that operating road races was more fun, with the added bonus of not being required to wear a tie to work every day.
His mastery of timing, scoring, course management, finish-line design and tying together loose ends with computers brought countless, wild Lebow ideas to fruition. And calmly. “I tell the staff,” Steinfeld said, “that the marathon is enough to scare the hell out of you, so handle each detail as it comes, and don’t think about the big picture.”
He called the New York Marathon, which went from 2,000 entrants in 1976 to just under 40,000 by the time he left his post in 2006, the equivalent “a herd of elephants moving along. They’re not stampeding. But you can’t stop or turn them. You can only nudge them.”
He insisted that he was “the farthest thing from a jock. I was fast but I couldn’t catch. In baseball, as a kid, I was the last one chosen, if chosen at all. ‘Who wants Steinfeld?’ I couldn’t play stickball because I couldn’t catch.”
In fact, he was a varsity sprinter for New York’s City College and finished one of the two marathons he attempted in the 1970s. Born and raised in the Bronx, he claimed to have been “kicked out of two colleges”—Hunter College and Bronx Community College—“because I failed French, then failed Spanish.”
But he wound up with an electrical engineering degree from City and a master’s in radio astronomy from Cornell of the prestigious Ivy League. He was working on a doctorate at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where he went to study the Northern Lights, when he was blinded in his left eye.
He had been wrapping an antenna wire on an Alaskan rooftop when struck by the antenna and suffered a detached retina. A series of operations failed to save the vision in that eye and, shortly after he succeeded Lebow as NYC Marathon director, Steinfeld was encouraged by a major race sponsor to wear an eye patch—“like the Hathaway Man”—as a way to give himself an identity apart from the colorful Lebow.
That didn’t last long. It wasn’t his style, either in terms of fashion or drawing attention to himself. But he deserved his due, even if his obituary came much too soon.