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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

Lessons From a Prince

Aly & Mom steppin out in 1974

The “step” in step-parent comes from the ancient latin word ástíeped meaning bereaved, as in one who marries a widow.

My step-father, Al Kahn, began courting my mother (not a widow) 41 years ago, when I was 9. On Monday at 9:50am, this self-made, complicated and beloved man died comfortably in his sleep. Here is what he helped me understand.

1. Your reputation is all you have. Guard it fiercely.

Al clawed his way up the ladder of life, from a Depression kid selling apples from a cart with his father to one of Florida’s most successful insurance brokers. He hustled like nobody else, the old-fashioned, pavement-pounding way – networking at the Rotary Club, playing in tennis leagues, giving top-shelf personal service and bottles of wine for the holidays. Just as his young career began to get some traction, a desperate competitor began spreading false rumors about him, impugning his hard-won successes. Al learned of this and asked the man to cease immediately. When the man continued, Al drove out to meet him, looked him square in the eye and made it abundantly clear that if the lies did not stop at once, the gentleman would have significant hell to pay. Al was a quintessential entrepreneur, and his business was his baby; no punk was going to undermine his honest toil. The rumors stopped that day.

2. Silly goes a long way. Lighten up.

Everyone got a nickname. He made em up on the spot and they stuck for life: Mitch the Hat, Dr. Whiskey, Sweet Sue, White Angel, Nurse Ratchett, Richard Four Star. Folks wore their names with good-humored pride. In addition, Al’s inside coat pocket always had a trove of knickknacks: “Mont-Kahn” pens, knock-off watches, cheap perfume, toys … basically low-grade crap that made my siblings and me cringe. But EVERYONE else seemed to love and appreciate it for what it was, a simple, harmless and endearing gesture of friendship.

This Piaget watch costs $20,000. Al got his real Piagets for $100 a dozen

This Piaget watch costs $20,000. Al got his “real” Piagets for $100 a dozen

3. Pick up the check.

Al fended for himself from a painfully young age. I believe this taught him that small acts of kindness go a long way. He also had an uncanny investment sense that understood the long-term value of well-placed capital. On countless occasions, I watched him quietly inform a waiter to add to his tab a table in the corner, where sat some friends or colleagues or mere acquaintances. He did this everywhere we went. And these “investments” earned him the reputation of a generous and affable soul. Yet, giving as he was, Al had an almost pathological aversion to receiving gifts. Superficially, this made for a lifetime of brutal birthday choices for us (he got a lot of Sinatra CDs from me over the years). But it was much deeper than that. He once became visibly offended after a friend of mine secretly picked up Al’s check, when Al had every intention of picking up my friend’s check. I suspect this reflected scars from a childhood where generosity toward him was in short supply.

Goodbye Old Friend, 20"X23"   Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel, 2005, Stuart Sheldon

Goodbye Old Friend, 20″X23″ Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel, 2005, Stuart Sheldon

My step-father was a difficult man to fully understand. But, foremost to me, Al always was and remains the rescuer of my mother. He took a single, hard-working schoolteacher raising two rambunctious boys and gave her a life of plenty. Moved us literally across the tracks. And ever since, my mom enjoyed a partnership rich with laughter, dancing, boisterous meals … and the memories a child hopes for a deserving parent. In other words, he made her happy.

Thank you, Prince Aly Kahn!

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