In Memory of Stanley Dorf (1931-2020)

By Laura Dorf Queller & Michael C. Dorf

Stanley Allen Dorf was born in 1931 on the Lower East Side to our grandparents Irving and Sally Dorf. It was the Great Depression, but fortunately for dad and his brother Bill, born four years later, Grandpa had a secure job with the Post Office. They were hardly well-to-do, but they always had enough to eat, and good too, as Grandma Sally was a wonderful cook.
No doubt to Grandma’s dismay, dad weighed a whopping twelve pounds at birth and thus needed some assistance entering the world. The obstetrician yanked newborn Stanley’s right arm, permanently damaging it. For the rest of his life, he could not use his dominant hand for tasks requiring twisting motions, such as throwing a ball, playing a musical instrument, or even opening a door. Later, he had what he described as a “mild” case of polio, which left other scars and kept him in quarantine for months—preparation for what we have all been experiencing lately. Dad accepted these limitations without complaint and even noted philosophically that his partial manual paralysis might have saved his life by keeping him out of the Korean War.
Dad was a prodigy. In kindergarten, he read articles from The New York Times aloud to his classmates. He was fortunate to attend a publicly-funded special elementary school for gifted students near where his family had moved to in Brooklyn. This week we discovered files of his many writings, including a report he produced as a sixth grader entitled “Industry.” It is more comprehensive and better organized than many doctoral dissertations. Despite the report’s generally objective tone, dad’s moral compass found a way into the paper. In a chapter on the Industrial Revolution, he wrote that “the owners of factories became richer because of the speeding up of production. The workers became poorer because the owners paid them next to nothing.”

After his remarkable early childhood, dad attended Tilden High School, where he was two years ahead
of a young lady named Annette Kaplan, our mom—although they did not know each other at the time. He continued to be a star student, impressing his teachers and classmates with his mastery of every subject. Dad was the head of Arista, the National Honor Society. Judging by what they wrote in his autograph book, his classmates also thought him extremely sweet. He had a mischievous side, though. We found a little book of poems titled “After the Brawl” that he co-authored with his friend Arnie Miller. It pokes fun at the foibles and eccentricities of their teachers. 

Dad’s stellar performance at Tilden earned him a full scholarship to Columbia University, but while the scholarship paid for tuition, it did not cover room and board, which the family could not afford. Dad lived at home in Brooklyn, making the long round-trip journey daily. Although he made good use of the many hours on the subway to read for class, he later lamented missing out on some of the social experiences of college life. He continued to excel in his studies, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.

Dad next enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell. Our Uncle Bill was by then an undergraduate at Cornell. Separately and together, the Dorf boys explored the social and cultural scene
Bill (left) & Stan (right) Dorf back in Ithaca in 2017
of Ithaca and central New York. Meanwhile, in classes and seminars, dad impressed his instructors. He was hired as a teaching assistant by Max Black, then a star of the department. Although dad wrote a number of sophisticated and interesting papers, he never completed a dissertation. He next tried his hand at history, enrolling in a PhD program at Columbia. Dad made substantial progress on a dissertation about government programs to improve the lives of older Americans before he abandoned this quest as well.

To an outsider it might appear that dad had failed as a scholar, but we came to realize that he succeeded in what he valued most: learning as much as possible about subjects that interested him. For dad, knowledge and understanding were ends in themselves. He was a true Renaissance man who found everything fascinating  and might well have been frustrated by the narrow specialization an academic career typically entails. As importantly, dad wanted to have an impact by doing, not just by knowing, and certainly not by showing off how much he knew.

Mom supported dad’s scholarly endeavors as long as she could, but when she was pregnant with Laura, she told him it was time to get a job. A whiz at math, he became an actuary, quickly passing all the notoriously difficult exams. Dad worked briefly at the Royal Insurance Company and then moved to the New York State Insurance Department, where he would serve for many years as chief of the Casualty Actuarial Bureau and later of the Policy and Planning Bureau. Working comfortably in both Democratic and Republican administrations, he was an extremely effective civil servant. Books on insurance regulation note his key role in the creation of New York State’s no-fault insurance law. Under his leadership, New York adopted laws and rules protecting consumers against excess profits by insurance companies and other abusive practices. He was instrumental in enacting reforms of medical malpractice insurance. Dad’s co-workers also noted that he was extraordinary in his ability to explain complex actuarial concepts to non-specialists.

We also know that dad was a good friend and mentor to his colleagues. We are touched by the outpouring of affection we have seen from his former co-workers in the last few days, and we are struck by the consistent picture they paint of our father. There was no “work Stan” and “private Stan.” He was the same combination of brilliance and decency in all aspects of his life.

Dad was extremely ethical, with a strong sense of justice.  He wouldn’t even use the photocopier at work lest he somehow steal 25 cents from the State of New York. He was a moral, though never a moralistic person. He had a strong sense of right and wrong that clearly came from within, because he wasn't religious. 

Although not ritually observant, dad was culturally Jewish. The house is full of Judaica, and he had a strong commitment to Israel, identifying closely with what remains of the Israeli Left. When our kids were little, he would give them an Israeli bond for every birthday, in addition to a toy of course! He also enjoyed all home-based Jewish holidays that brought friends and relatives together.

Dad was hyper-organized. He compiled and continually revised detailed lists: the records he wanted to buy; the books he wanted to read; concerts and plays to attend; important dates and phone numbers; etc. But there was madness to his methods, so his lists were everywhere, in a disorganized, organized mess. He even categorized his groceries, which came in handy when he switched to ordering them online, but bordered on anal. Laura shopped for him recently and he was dismayed that she added apples to his grocery list but didn’t put them under the fruit section! 

Dad didn’t just list his life’s necessities and pleasures. He also enjoyed them. He accumulated over 10,000 LP records and later a roughly equal number of CDs (which he meticulously categorized and cross-referenced in large binders). He would happily sit in the living room reading, while listening for the subtle variations in the different recordings of the same piece. He loved baroque, classical, and romantic music, but his tastes were also eclectic. He listened to jazz, folk, rock, Israeli, and even electronic music if one of his stereo magazines recommended it for its unique sound quality. Not too many kids could boast that their dad brought home albums by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and even the Grateful Dead!

Dad spent a more-than-fair portion of his and our mom’s civil servant salaries on records, speakers, and the rest of his stereo system. To take advantage of his expensive hi-fi equipment, dad liked to crank it up. The soundtrack of our childhood is filled with music, punctuated occasionally by our mom yelling “Stan, turn down the volume!” so that she could carry on a conversation.

Dad took his interest in music and culture outside the house too. He and mom attended countless concerts, operas, ballets, plays, lectures, and shows. Some months after mom died in 2013, dad resumed his outings, now accompanied by good friends, especially Barbara Zucrow, whose love and support in recent years were a great source of happiness for him.

Of course, dad’s first and most important love was our mother, to whom he was incredibly devoted
throughout their 57 years of marriage. Beginning around the time of her retirement, mom suffered a number of baffling health setbacks. Dad coped with them with grace and compassion, assuming virtually all of the household duties. When mom was hospitalized for more than a month in 1999, Dad visited her all day every day, leaving his home on Long Island early each morning and returning from upper Manhattan only after the hospital had closed to visitors for the night.

Growing up, we knew we had a pretty terrific father, but we eventually got scientific proof. When Michael was born, some psychologists were recruiting parents for a longitudinal study. Our parents happily enrolled. Every year beginning in 1968, a researcher would conduct interviews and tests. Eventually the data were published in a book. Chapter 10 is about dad, whom the authors disguised as a lawyer rather than an actuary, giving him the pseudonym Mr. Emden. Here’s how they described dad:
Mr. Emden was a good-looking, mild-mannered, soft-spoken man who was delighted to describe his affectionate feelings for [his children]. He smiled and laughed often as he talked about [their] behavior, and he went beyond the obvious in providing details. His observations were astute and sensitive. He did not gloss over problems.  . . . He said it was important for a child to be with others of his own age, to learn how to behave with them without having adults as monitors. And the child needed to feel loved and secure in his own home and family, and to feel that regardless of what the world was like, his parents were not capricious or arbitrary. Parents should give children some sense of the interesting things in the world to know and to do. A young child should have fun and not worry about world events such as the war in Vietnam.  . . . He had no specific aspirations for his children, but hoped they would use whatever abilities they happened to have, and be happy doing so. His strengths were his patient ability to turn his children away from anger, to distract them and get them out of bad moods.  . . . He valued consistency and naturalness.  . . . Mr Emden showed humor and admiration and love for both his children. Mr. Emden was friendly, responsive, and good humored. He expressed himself well and fluently, and spoke with confidence and warmth about all members of his family.
Dad expressed that warmth through the numerous fun activities he designed for us. For example, when we were young, he would interview us on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. There are classic recordings of Laura saying, “You hear dat microphone?” and Michael getting frustrated trying to pronounce the large words dad gave him to say, like “hippopotamus.” Dad also thought that fun should be educational when possible. He took great care in planning our family vacations. We are now grateful for the visits to museums and cultural sites, even though we sometimes would have preferred to just splash around in a motel pool.

Dad was a patient teacher. He helped us with our homework without showing frustration. After we moved out, he enjoyed mentoring others. Dad conducted mock college and job interviews for his friends’ children and was thrilled to give detailed advice to young adults who were considering becoming actuaries. When he retired, he taught members of his generation how to use a computer. Defying generational stereotypes, he even recommended new apps to his grandchildren. 

Dad was what technologists call an “early adopter,” and not just with respect to stereo equipment. He always liked to know about the latest technology. He proudly owned one of the very first calculators. It was the size and weight of a toaster, and it could only perform basic arithmetic functions, but dad continued to use it years after the calculator app on his iPhone rendered it obsolete.

Dad didn’t simply enjoy others’ inventions. He loved to invent games and puzzles for us. Each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, our parents would give us a gift, but we had to earn it. Dad would construct a treasure hunt. Solving each puzzle would lead to the location of the next one, culminating finally in the secret location of the gifts. Michael continued this tradition with his own children well into their teens, learning the hard way just how much work dad put into the many adventures he created for us.

Dad was constantly surprising us with the things he knew. A discussion about art, literature, politics, science, music, or nearly any other subject would lead to an interesting fact or story. But dad always wanted to learn more--and he took his knowledge from whatever source was available, including his grandchildren: Sarah, Phil, Julia, Meena, and Amelia. When Meena was learning to talk, she would sometimes come up to family members engaged in unfamiliar activities. “What a dooning?”, she would ask. Dad thought this was cute and incorporated it into his own speech pattern, at first playfully but later as an expletive. If another driver cut him off in traffic he would shake his fist and yell “what a dooning?!”

Dad loved to tell his friends and relatives cute stories about his grandchildren.  When Amelia was young, she had a keen sense of fairness. On occasion it would overshoot. Once, when Amelia did not get some goody she sought, she complained that the distribution was unfair. Her parents patiently explained that she had the goody last time, so now it was another child’s turn. That’s fair, right? No, Amelia insisted. “It’s not fair to me.” Dad found the concept of “unfair to me” delightful and speculated that much of the time when people complain that something is unfair they really mean “unfair to me.”

When Sarah was very young, she performed in a ballet recital. Dad saw her dressed in her tutu and said, “You look like a real ballerina.” She got insulted and replied , “I AM a real ballerina!” Dad told that story for years! 

His grandchildren were not simply the source of “mouths of babes” amusement for dad. As they grew older, he also loved to really speak to them in detail about their schoolwork, jobs, and hobbies, and cared about their perspectives on everything from politics to pop culture. He also remained actively involved in their lives. Right before the pandemic hit, he was preparing to see Julia perform in a community theater show, even though it would be a difficult trip into the city. He loved Julia’s cheery, bubbly disposition and couldn’t fathom that it was possible when Laura told him that Julia had friends who were similarly exuberant. And he was hoping to overcome his recent fear of flying to attend Sarah’s wedding next summer in Indianapolis. Only a few days before dad died, Phil sent him a long email containing a mathematical problem that Phil had thought of during his business school class. Phil and his grandpa shared an interest in math from early on. Dad would often give Phil a string of numbers to see if Phil could figure out the mathematical pattern. 

The day before he was admitted to the hospital and ultimately passed away, dad mailed a birthday card and a very generous check to Julia. Written in his signature beautiful handwriting, it said, “I hope you have a superlatively happy birthday -- with the added hope that these unfortunate times will soon pass. With much love, Grandpa Stan.” While it was heart-breaking to open the card on Julia’s birthday the day after he passed away, it made us realize that dad lived his life to the fullest and on his own terms until the very end. Sending a birthday card and gift to a grandchild, always with an appropriate personal message inside, was one of the little things that gave him great joy. 

Brilliant, wise, witty, patient, gentle, compassionate. These traits rarely find expression in a single person. They did in our dad. He seemed too good to be true. But he was—and we are so grateful to have loved and to have been loved by him.