Social consciousness is in 93-year-old volunteer's blood

Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2004

YORKTOWN, N.Y. Throughout his long, left-leaning life, Leon Sverdlove has been guided by one idealistic principle ''the idea that by helping our fellow man, we can have a better world.''

The age of 93 is no time to give it up.

''I'm never going to abandon the idea,'' Sverdlove said in an interview before serving lunch to the homeless at the Yorktown Country Residence, a shelter about 35 miles north of Manhattan. After spending a couple of hours there, he drove to the Hudson Valley Hospital Center in Cortlandt, where he checks on former patients by phone.

It's his regular Monday-to-Friday routine, nearly 20 hours a week. According to Volunteers of America, Sverdlove is probably the oldest volunteer in the state doing that much work.

''You know how it is these days,'' he jokes. ''You need two jobs to get by.''

At the lunch, Sverdlove dons a white apron and clear plastic gloves and dishes out hot dogs, sauerkraut, tangerines, fruit juice and the occasional wisecrack to the clients, some of them addicts or mentally troubled.

''Leon is wonderful. He's so respectful of the clients,'' said Andrea Jarrett, the shelter's program director. ''When he tells us he's going on vacation, we say, 'What are we going to do without you?'''

Sverdlove has his own rooms in a home in Yorktown Heights he shares with his daughter's family of four.

Born in Philadelphia in 1910 to Russian immigrants and raised in Montreal, Los Angeles and Manhattan's Lower East Side, Sverdlove and his two younger siblings were orphaned as teens and relied on other relatives as hard times descended. He left school after ninth grade.

''The Depression made me a socialist,'' he said. ''I became socially conscious.''

He admits to a youthful flirtation with radicals the dance at which he met Sema, his wife-to-be, ''was organized by some left-wing group, maybe the Communists.'' But although he lost faith in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, he holds fast to many of the tenets of socialism.

''I marched in every demonstration,'' he said. ''I was always interested in making things better for the poor. The right to organize, civil rights. I think being interested in people, in how people are doing, helped me live this long. I want to see how things turn out.''

Sverdlove calls 800 former patients a month for ''satisfaction surveys'' and gets fan letters from patients he's contacted.

''We're like his second family, and to us he's like our grandfather,'' said Suzanne Scott, director of volunteers at the Cortlandt hospital.

Sverdlove, whose 92-year-old brother and 88-year-old sister are still alive, looks and acts about 70 years old. Besides driving, he does his own shopping and cooking. His favorite dish is filet mignon and ''I'm overeating it, never mind the price.''

It's a long way from the hard days of the Depression when he and his siblings ''didn't have anyplace to go, when we didn't have enough to eat.'' When he talks to schoolchildren about his experiences, ''They always ask me, 'Why didn't you go on welfare?' and I have to tell them there was no welfare then. We had to go to the police station for some bread or rice.''

Six years ago, Sverdlove pounced on an ad for the Volunteers of America and has been happily engaged ever since in what he finds to be a logical extension of his career. He expects to attend the SEIU convention in San Francisco next month.

''All those years in the union, I fought for things like Social Security, pensions, all the things people needed,'' he said. ''Now I'm helping to feed the hungry and help the sick.''

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