Dear John/Oppenheim’s cash register still works in IdahoPublished 6:19pm Thursday, March 14, 2013
I recently purchased a cash register that came out of I. Oppenheim’s in Dowagiac. I live in north Idaho and a man brought it into a friend of mine’s store and wanted to sell it. I wanted to find out more about the store and its history. The cash register still works!
— Karen Forsythe, owner
Maurice Oppenheim’s astonishing community service spanned six decades.
He served as Elks exalted ruler three times (1937-38, 1938-39 and 1942-43), Rotary Club president in 1978 and headed the Chamber of Commerce in 1945.
He also served six years on City Council from 1973-79. He was Elk of the Year, Dowagiac’s Citizen of the Year in 1981 and in 1982 received the Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary International’s highest community service award.
He was president of Southwestern Michigan College Foundation and instrumental in funding transfer of the Wolverine building to Dowagiac Union Schools for administrative offices.
The 1924 graduate (he, merchant Harvey McKay and Mayor Graham Woodhouse were classmates) stood steadfastly by his beloved hometown. When others said downtown was dying, Oppenheim 30 years ago in 1983 publicly predicted a bright future for the business district.
Maurie also happened to be my next-door neighbor growing up. Shoveling snow off his walks was my first job since I never had a paper route.
Despite all he gave to his community, on June 10, 1989, the 82-year-old got taken. To the cleaners. By 193 of his “friends.” In the name of “love.”
Elks Lodge 889, to which he had belonged for 61 years, graced him with an “appreciation dinner,” roasting him in that odd backhanded form of tribute accorded only an elite few. “Damn lies,” Maurie called it.
Longtime postmaster Dan Brosnan was master of ceremonies.
They mixed praising with hazing, one minute extolling his “quiet, unpublicized contributions” and “unselfishness with his time and money,” then dressing up Councilman Wayne Comstock in a Lone Ranger mask and Oppenheim’s trademark two-tone shoes to mock his “Mr. Ed voice,” which Hal Shue can still nail.
“This is the testimonial of a town that loves you, Maurie,” Exalted Ruler Kurt Wiesemes said. Quoting Tin Man’s “Wizard of Oz” speech to Scarecrow, the former school board member said, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”
Cronies regaled Maurie with a raft of ribald ruminations that could not be reprinted in a family newspaper.
The program set the tone. On the cover he holds a crate of shoes at Ridiculous Days, dressed in knickers that show off his legs, socks and dress shoes.
With dark-framed glasses and a cigar clenched in his teeth, he resembled Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. Inside, “Maurie’s famous quotes”: “That looks great on ya” and “You really ought to get a suit to match those socks.”
Paul Middleton, 1985-86 ER, said “These are the fond memories I have of Maurie: your sales pitch, ‘That goes with everything,’ your suspenders, your style-setting outfits of checks, polka dots, stripes and paisley — all worn at one time — your old cars, especially your black Buick and watching your hat do the driving.’
He had a twin brother who died at birth. He spent his entire life at 402 Main St. in two different houses. His birthplace was moved to 108 Michigan Ave., where I grew up, so his parents, Israel (the I. in I. Oppenheim) and Rae, built what is now Ron Leatz’s house in 1912 for $5,000.
One of his favorite places was Mackinac Island. His geranium-filled front porch recalled the Grand Hotel, where I worked during college.
He played trumpet in the band as a member of one of the last classes (of 70) to graduate from high school on Oak Street.
He attended the University of Michigan for a year and spent a year in the Army.
His uncle, Mark Oppenheim, lived in the Wolverine Building and founded Oppenheim’s in 1871 as a department store. Izzy and another uncle, Ben, bought out the business in 1902, when it became strictly a men’s store. He was 10 when he started waiting on customers.
Seven Oppenheim brothers came from Germany, drawn by relatives in Goshen, Ind., and settled in Hartford, Dowagiac, Three Oaks and Kalamazoo and set up clothing businesses or department stores.
When Mark sold the store on Front Street which until recently Hopman Jewelers occupied, he opened another business where Alice Swann’s tailor shop is on Commercial Street, selling seeds and fur pelts.
Mark’s son and Maurie’s cousin, Milton, also lived in the former Wolverine Mutual Insurance building.
That’s how he came to be one of five businessmen instrumental in the transfer of the building to the school district.
He and Richard M. Judd Sr., Robert Jessup, D. Bruce Laing and Sidney B. Tremble came up with $54,450 to help the school district purchase its headquarters in the mid-’70s.