U.S. Navy veteran Emil Kesselman still recalls the first time he met with President Harry Truman while stationed at the U.S. Destroyer Naval Air Station in Key West, Fla., on March 8, 1951.
“He introduced himself, and I just couldn’t believe it,” Kesselman said. “My knees are knocking. It’s surreal. Pins and needles all over my body. He starts talking to me, and I’m thinking, ‘Nobody is going to believe me. I can’t believe it.’”
Kesselman, 92, served as the grand marshal of Oceanside’s Memorial Day Parade on Monday. He had his initial encounter with Truman after being assigned to take dictation for the president’s secretary for three weeks while Truman vacationed in Florida. Kesselman was photographed writing down a speech as Truman dictated it to him.
“I became quite a celebrity overnight when the photo appeared in newspapers and on television,” Kesselman said. “He was a very nice man. He told it like it is. Everybody liked him.”
The picture isn’t the only keepsake that Kesselman has: Truman wrote him a note at the end of their time together, thanking him for his hard work.
Kesselman grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and graduated from Jamaica High School in 1941 at age 16. He then worked as an airplane mechanic at LaGuardia Airport until he joined the Navy, following in the footsteps of his brother, George, who was five years older and died in 2012 at age 92, and his sister, Geraldine, 95, who now lives in West Babylon. He said his parents, Meyer and Jane, were pleased that all three of their children chose a life of service.
“I was very patriotic,” Kesselman said. “My mother had blue stars in the window for all of us. My parents were very proud of us.”
Kesselman enlisted in the Navy in November 1944. After boot camp ended in January 1945, he was sent to Yeoman School in San Diego, where he studied shorthand and typing, and other Navy-related courses. He finished school in May 1945 and went to the South Pacific, serving aboard the USS Pickaway in Guam.
That August, while in Guam, he transcribed the words of Truman’s radio announcement that World War II had ended, so he could share it with his fellow servicemen. At the time, Kesselman had no idea he would eventually work briefly for the president. The peace treaty to end the war was signed a month later.
Kesselman was discharged in August 1946 and got a job with Brillo, the steel-wool pad maker. While there, he met his future wife, Sydelle Rosenberg, in 1949. They lived in Brooklyn, and in 1950 they welcomed their first child, Ira. At the start of the Korean War, Truman froze all discharges, and Kesselman was recalled to active duty in the Navy in June 1950, assigned to Key West, where he met the president.
In August 1951, Kesselman was discharged for the second time. While in the Navy he earned several Naval service awards, including a Victory Medal. He returned to his job at Brillo and eventually attended Baruch College in his spare time, earning a bachelor’s degree over 12 years and graduating magna cum laude in 1976.
The Kesselmans welcomed two other children, Paul and Leslie, after Emil left the Navy. He spent 21 years with Brillo, working his way up from payroll clerk to personnel manager. After Brillo was sold, he became the director of human resources for several other companies before semi-retiring in 1992, when he was 65, after Sydelle died.
During that period, he began teaching Hebrew school, and taught until he retired for good in 2017, at age 90. He still attends events at the Barry & Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center, in Oceanside and is an active member of the Jewish War Veterans Chwatsky-Farber Post No. 717, which he represented at the Memorial Day parade.
“We figured he would be a nice guy to get this recognition,” said Post 717 Commander John Robbins. “He served in World War II and was photographed with President Truman. He’s had an interesting life.”
Kesselman said that being chosen as grand marshal of the parade meant a lot. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “It is quite an honor.”
Now living in Rockville Centre, he said he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Barbara Atpel; his three grandchildren, Alana Davis and Staci and Joshua Benaroya; and his two great-grandchildren, Blake and Ezra Davis.
Kesselman said he still vividly remembers his time with Truman. He woke up early every day, met with the president’s secretary and handled all of his correspondences, ending his day at around 6 p.m. He recalled the day when a commanding officer informed him that he was going to get his picture taken with the president.
“I thought he was joking,” he recounted. “I walk in and sit down at the desk and start dictating, and they’re taking pictures all over the place. It was unbelievable.”