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'Vacation of a Lifetime' Ends in Tragedy : Klinghoffer: Life of Hard Work, Giving

October 13, 1985|Associated Press

NEW YORK — Leon Klinghoffer never went far from his beginnings. He moved a dozen blocks in 69 years, and when his hard work paid off he gave money to help the Lower East Side settlement houses where he'd grown up.

The world now knows him as the wheelchair-bound victim, slain by the Palestinian hijackers of the Achille Lauro. But he was many other things: an affluent man who rose out of the tenements, workaholic who often spent 18 hours a day on the job, a doting father, a stroke victim who by grit and determination learned to speak again.

His parents were immigrants who operated a hardware store on the Lower East Side in the days when the area was a way station for Jews coming from Eastern Europe to find the American dream.

The family lived a few blocks away, according to Maurice Blond, an insurance broker who grew up with Klinghoffer and remained a lifelong friend.

Leon and his brother Albert always worked in their parents' store, Blond said, and ultimately they took it over and moved to a bigger store nearby.

Invented the Rotobroiler

Another friend, Dr. Martin Kaye, said it was in the back of that hardware store that the brothers made their fortune when, shortly after World War II, they invented the rotobroiler.

The appliance--a box that contained a rotisserie and a heating element--took off. Thousands were sold nationwide.

Somehow, Leon Klinghoffer found time for a family. He met and married a haberdasher's daughter from New Jersey, Marilyn Windwehr.

They raised two children, Lisa, now 34, and an artist, and Ilsa, now 28, who works as a hospital administrator.

Blond said Leon was always willing to give to charitable causes. After the brothers moved on from rotobroil to own an appliance company in Newark and a fan manufacturing company in Brooklyn, he would donate trunkloads of appliances to be sold at charity bazaars.

Contributed to Charities

He bought Israel Bonds. He gave money to the United Jewish Appeal. And though most of the Jews who once lived on the Lower East Side had long since been replaced by blacks, Puerto Ricans and Chinese, he continued to give money to the settlement houses.

"To his everlasting credit, he thought that a child had to be helped, no matter what," Blond said.

He suffered his first stroke about 10 years ago, and then another a few years later, according to friends. His right side was paralyzed, and a long, difficult rehabilitation ensued. Friends credit his wife with his recovery.

"She saw that he got the right therapy, went to the right hospital and saw the right specialists," said Eileen Jager, Marilyn Klinghoffer's boss in the personnel department of Gralla Publications, publisher of trade magazines.

"She saw to it that he had a social life, so he wouldn't vegetate," Jager added.

Gradually, he recovered the ability to speak. He was "a tough man," said every friend who was interviewed.

Leon Klinghoffer did not like vacations, but the Mediterranean cruise with four other couples was an exception. It was to celebrate the Klinghoffers' 36th anniversary--the "vacation of a lifetime," Jager said, and Marilyn Klinghoffer was "absolutely thrilled."

But a side excursion to Cairo and the pyramids was ruled out. "She (Marilyn Klinghoffer) said it would be too hard for Leon. It would be too hard for him to get on and off the bus in a wheelchair," Jager said.

So last Monday when the terrorists took control of the ship, the Klinghoffers were aboard.

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