Dorothy Brickman Celebrates 90

Fresh strawberries decorate Dorothy Brickman's birthday cake at the Martha's Vineyard Community Services celebration. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By CK Wolfson - June 8, 2006

This past week, just as she has done in any pick-a-year past, Dorothy Brickman held court with all the regal bearing her 4-foot, 10-inch frame could summon.

Ms. Brickman was being feted by family, friends, and staff members of Martha's Vineyard Community Services and Visiting Nurse Services (VNS), who hosted her 90th birthday party - instigated by VNS program director Sharon Clauss-Zanger and VNS clinical supervisor Audrey Harding.

Approximately 20 people crowded into a small meeting room at Community Services, where a flower-adorned buffet table was set with deli trays, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a sugar-free Cakes-by-Liz birthday cake. Community Services's new executive director, Julia Burgess noted, "This is something special. We thought it was a great idea. It's also a way to become closer with clients with whom we've established long personal service."

Seated at the far end of the festive room, a smiling Ms. Brickman was surrounded by well wishers, among them her physician, Dr. Gail O'Brien, long time Community Services treasurer Norman Freed, and VNS registered nurse Carolyn Downs. She greeted people by name, and with clear-minded rapport followed with a how or why question particular to each.

Ms. Brickman enjoys the attentions of her doctor, Gail O'Brien.

Mrs. Clauss-Zanger explained, "She has touched a lot of people here with her zest for life, her scientific mind, and her always wanting to learn."

And Ms. Brickman, an extemporaneous speaker so evenly paced and articulate as to sound rehearsed, responded, "I am humbled and touched that they would do this for me in their busy lives."

Most of the guests shared stories that confirmed the consistency of Ms. Brickman's dedication to service. Her niece Barsha Tolin commented, "She's always been a special person . . . very involved with family, and always there for guidance. I've always been proud of her accomplishments." Cousin Helen Issokson added, "She was always career-minded. She was one of the first people I ever knew who traveled."

Dorothy Brickman's parents, Judal and Eudice Brickman, came to the Vineyard in 1913. The youngest of three children, she was born in 1916 in an apartment on Vineyard Haven's Main Street, above the family's shoe store (now Mosher's Photo). Ms. Brickman, proud of being "the first Jewess born on Martha's Vineyard," attended high school (then on Center Street in Vineyard Haven) in a class of six boys and six girls. She went on to graduate from Simmons College in 1938, returning to the Island to work at the family store that had expanded its inventory and moved to the end of Main Street.

Kelly Wheeler (left) and Laurie Resendez greet Dorothy Brickman, who just turned 90 years old.

Her life of service began in earnest when she became active in the Island chapter of the USO and worked for Red Cross. She became a career USO staff member during World War II, and during the conflicts that followed, traveled to such places as Korea, Panama, Latin America, and the Far East. Ms. Brickman was invited by Dr. Charles Wilinsky to be the first full time director of volunteer services at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. With two master's degrees from Columbia University, in 1956 and 1963, she became a university specialist distinguished in women's education, and the much-honored director of International Students and Scholars, working on foreign exchange programs at Ohio State University.

Ms. Brickman returned to the Vineyard permanently in 1992, and assumed the role of caretaker for her sister Ida Levine, who died in 1999.

"I'm a product of the Island," she declared. "I am an Islander through and through."

Speaking to those gathered, Ms. Brickman recalled, "I said to the Rabbi, my whole life has been dedicated to giving, to being patriotic, loyal to the family, and to honor the family name. I knew how proud my parents would be that I was carrying on their philosophy."

When she recounted how her adviser at Simmons discouraged her initial hopes of becoming a doctor by telling her it would be hard enough if she were a man, the room filled with laughter. After a brief pause, she announced that she never imagined being the patient of a woman doctor, and the laughter increased.

But for most of the afternoon's festivities Ms. Brickman remain true to her own style, dispensing with small talk in favor of serious reflection: "I made a promise to myself that every minute was precious," she said, "and if the ending could be kind, I will know the satisfaction of what I have given in service to people and what I have gotten in return."

She told those gathered: "When you are a hospital patient and are ready to go home, the first thing you should do is make arrangements with Community Services. Community Services is giving the care to me that allows me freedom and independence."

And when it was time to speak of celebration and making her birthday wish, Ms. Brickman was ready. Speaking with clarity and authority from where she sat, she announced, "I would wish that people would be the best citizens they could be, and give of themselves."

Happy Birthday, Dorothy.