Remembering Leon Meyer

 Remembering Leon Meyer

By Dan Koeppel

Leon “Duke” Meyer experienced tremendous loss and tragedy during his 89 years. But he also did tremendous good, raising a son who became a doctor and a daughter who spent a distinguished career in the military, as well as influencing thousands of elementary school students over a 250-year career as a guidance counselor. Meyer, who passed away peacefully on May 15, 2024, lived for most of his adult life on Beach 137th Street. He was a frequent contributor of letters-to-the-editor to this newspaper.

Leon Meyer was born Leon Raoul Majer on January 1, 1935, in Vienna, Austria. He arrived in the U.S. in September 1937 on board the SS Berengaria and had vivid memories of crossing the Atlantic in steerage with his parents, George and Ethel. George’s first job in the U.S. was in a Manhattan delicatessen, initially bussing tables, eventually becoming a waiter, a coveted job that paid $40 weekly. Leon, an only child, lived with his family in a tiny apartment on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn.

Meyer attended Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, In 1954, he entered university, but left school to join the U.S. Army. When he completed his military service in 1956, he continued his studies, earning a master’s degree in education. It was during that time that he met Barbara Rieder on a double date. Barbara was accompanying Meyer’s lifelong best friend, Leslie Silver, who commented: “All she can talk about is you, you should date her.” Meyer agreed.

Meyer was wildly eccentric and was in the habit of sending letters to just anyone he cared to communicate with. He was notorious at the Hanes underwear company, to which he’d ship his worn-out boxer shorts, asking the company to make good on its consumer guarantees. He sent a letter to President Bill Clinton nominating his cousin, a doctor, for the position of surgeon general. Meyer received his free underwear; the cousin did not get the job.

During the early years of their marriage, Leon and Barbara lived in Bensonhurst. One summer afternoon, they headed to Riis Park to escape the sweltering heat, and fell in love with the neighborhood. They rented on Beach 139th Street before finally purchasing their home on Beach 137th. They had three children–Ethel in 1962, Debra in 1964, and Robert in 1965. By then, both were working in education, jobs which gave the family the summer off. They made multiple round trips by car across the United States in the early 1970s–all five crowded into a vehicle.

Tragedy struck in 1987, when he was severely injured, and Barbara killed when a drunk driver hit their car as they were returning from Thanksgiving dinner. Four years later, Meyer’s middle child, Debra, died of cancer. Meyer never felt sorry for himself, but also never sought another relationship, keeping Barbara’s possessions untouched. But his life was not one of grief–it was one of adventure. Meyer once paid to be transported in a biplane as it performed circuits around the tower at LaGuardia Airport. He embarked on multiple long-distance bike rides, pedaling from Rockaway to Montauk Point several times.

In 1994, Meyer, now retired, took the LSAT exam and applied to over 20 law schools, and was finally accepted to Touro School of Law. He earned his law degree, though he never practiced –for him it was a learning experience.

In 1986, Meyer became a grandfather for the first time, going on to have five grandchildren, though he insisted that he not be called grandfather, instead taking the nickname “Duke.” In 2011, Meyer volunteered on an Israeli army base and attended his granddaughter’s Bobbi’s Bat Mitzvah at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. In 2012, Meyer–like many in the Rockaways–saw his home devastated by Hurricane Sandy. He viewed the disaster with typical humor, telling friends nature had given him a free indoor pool.

As previously noted, Meyer was spectacularly and charmingly eccentric, but more than that, he was the consummate humanist, and any memorialization to him has to include several examples of that trait. Here are some recounted by his granddaughter, Bobbi, at his memorial on May 17.

Among the lessons he taught his granddaughter:

  • “Neighbors don’t like it when you use permanent spray paint to draw a Skelly court on the street. They also don’t love it when the fire department comes because you took the caps off of the fire hydrants to give us a sprinkler in the summer.”
  • “Duke showed me the value in staying active. In 2017, Duke took me to his gym to show me his exercise routine. He was 83 at the time. He showed me that he could use every piece of equipment in the gym…he was offended when someone tried to hold the door for him on the way out.”
  • ”Duke showed me how to be charitable. He took me to the Bowery Mission in NYC when I was ten (I was the youngest volunteer there). We helped serve food to the homeless people. This became a tradition for…he wrote over 600 checks a year to charity. He never said no.”

Meyer lived independently until Covid hit in 2020. Pandemic isolation led to “deconditioning,” according to his son, Robert, and he had an accident that required a stay in rehabilitation. He finally gave up his beloved home in Belle Harbor and moved to an independent living center. This past spring, Meyer decided that–at age 89–he’d done enough, and did not want to deteriorate further. He died peacefully in hospice on May 15.

Meyer leaves behind his daughter, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel E.J. (Wesley) Dotts (Ret.), of Westborough, Massachusetts, and his son, Dr. Robert (Janet) Meyer of Ardsley, New York; along with five grandchildren: Brianne, Sean, and Jared Dotts; and Barbara (Bobbi) and Matthew (Rocky) Meyer; along with dozens of admirers and bemused correspondents.

In lieu of flowers or trees, the family requests those wishing to donate contribute to the Belle Harbor Torah Institute.

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