August 8, 2012

Shawnee encounter


---- — PLATTSBURGH — The chasm between the Torah and John Wesley’s theology was almost great enough to prevent the very existence of Jane Whitmore and Andrea Feinberg. 

The daughters of the late Dr. Edward and Gretchen Siegel, the sisters grew up at 44 Broad St. in Plattsburgh and graduated in 1964 and 1968, respectively, from Plattsburgh High School.

Both have fond memories of the stucco residence their parents moved to after four years of living first at 215 South Catherine St.

The Siegels relocated from New York City when the doctor learned of an opening for an eye, ear and nose specialist at Champlain Valley Hospital. A Dr. Schlesinger, whom Jane thinks served in Panama with her Army officer parents, told them about the post.

“My dad worked at the Eye and Ear Hospital in New York City,” said Jane, who lives in Pittsburgh. “They hated it. Mom hated it. When the Plattsburgh thing opened up, I was 2 when we moved there in 1948.”

Six years earlier, on the evening of Jan. 8, 1942, Gretchen and Edward met on the USAT Shawnee, a troop ship, en route to Panama.

Both were avid diarists and letter writers and left a rich cache from which their daughters reveal their parents’ tumultuous and faith-crossed love story in “Memoirs of a Wartime Romance: The Story of Mr. Bops and Miss Boo,” forthcoming by Trafford Publishing.

In Gretchen’s diary, dated Jan. 9, she writes: “My introduction to Lt. Edward Siegel, of the evening before, culminated into a breakfast date at 8 a.m. From then on, we spent many happy hours together.”

“They called each other variations of Mr. Bops and Bopsie,” Jane said. “He signs his letters Mr. Bops. She signs her letters from Miss Boo. It came from her maiden name.”

Mr. Bops may reference be-bop, as Edward was a pianist. 

He was the son of Jacob “Jack” and Ida Siegel, Orthodox Jews, of Poughkeepsie. Jacob was a shopkeeper at the People’s Store, a clothing store. 

Edward received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University, his master’s at the University of Pennsylvania and his medical degree from the University of Maryland.

“He had been in ROTC and had been stationed in Plattsburgh when they went to summer camp on the old base,” Jane said of her father. “That was his original connection to Plattsburgh. My father had one brother, named Martin, (who) was a dentist and lived in Poughkeepsie.”

In May of 1941, Edward was put on active duty and stationed at the hospital at Plattsburgh Barracks.

The middle child of Reuben and Ida Boody, Gretchen grew up on a farm in Hudson, Wis., and was raised Methodist.

“Her father milked cows by hand,” Jane said. “They were poor. She was born in 1913. In the Depression, my grandfather almost lost his farm. She went to nursing school in Madison. She trained at Cook County and worked in Chicago.”

Gretchen wrote in her 20s: “I had dated everybody worth dating in Madison, and I was bored.”

The petite and very slender blonde signed up with the army and navy and vowed to go with whichever branch came first. The Army bested the Navy, so Gretchen trained in the Army Nurse Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“The war broke out,” Jane said. “She was in the service, and, therefore, had to stay.”

That fateful occurrence led to the couple meeting aboard the Shawnee, where Gretchen was Edward’s second date of the evening.

“Both were stationed there (Panama) at the hospital,” Jane said. “My mother worked in his clinic at the hospital. They were totally exclusive for two and a half years. They didn’t date anyone else. 

“My father never told his parents about this relationship. He said to my mother, ‘This relationship can never be. I can’t marry someone who isn’t Jewish.’”

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This three-part series chronicles the tumultuous, faith-crossed love affair between U.S. Army Lt. Edward Siegel, an Orthodox Jew, and 2nd Lt. Gretchen Boody, a Methodist, during World War II. The couple spent many years in Plattsburgh.

Their story unfurls in “Memoirs of a War Time Romance: The Story of Mr. Bops and Miss Boo,” edited by their daughters, Jane Whitmore and Andrea Feinberg, and forthcoming by Trafford Publishing.

Look for the second installment, “Panama Connection,” in the newspaper next Wednesday.