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Father, Son Retain a 60-Year Phone Ritual : Norman, 76, and Sam Corwin, 110, Continue to Reach Out

March 01, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

WINTHROP, Mass. — Once a week, the tenderness travels across the telephone lines:

"How're you doing, Pa?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine. I have a lot to be thankful for."

There is the briefest of pauses. Sam Corwin always wants to make sure his son Norman is working up to his capacity:

"Are you doing something to keep your mind and time occupied? Are you staying busy?"

It is a routine they know well, normal enough stuff for fathers and sons. But in that Sam Corwin turned 110 last Christmas Eve, and Norman is 76, the Corwins have had somewhat longer than most to refine the ritual.

"I call him at least once a week," Norman Corwin reported from the apartment where he does most of his writing in West Los Angeles, "and I have done so for the last 60 years."

"Even now, Norman calls me every week," his father concurred from his home in this waterfront town just north of Boston. "He's called me from all over the world. No matter where he is, he always takes the time to call."

Loving Relationship

Pere et fils , the Corwins concede there is something special in their relationship. Indeed, Norman Corwin confesses he speaks to his father far more regularly than he does to his 32-year-old son, Anthony, who lives almost shouting distance away, in nearby Hawthorne.

"I don't believe any father could enjoy a relationship as I do with my sons or daughter," Sam Corwin said one frosty morning not long ago. He smiled. "There must be a reason." Another smile from the tiny man clutching his cane and poised by the phone. "Love, that would be a good word."

In Los Angeles, screenwriter, producer and longtime journalist Norman Corwin hastens to stress that "I don't want to exaggerate the closeness of my relationship to my father." The elder Corwin has slipped a bit these last five years, after all, showing short-term memory problems that hinder complex discussions of current activities. The phone calls have shrunk, his son said, compressed from 15 minutes to around five.

"He knows he has short-term memory problems, and he doesn't want to repeat himself," Norman said. "It used to be that our conversations were a kind of gazette of the week's events. But now he's astute enough to realize that he may repeat a question, or an answer."

Or a theme. Education, for example, is a topic on which Sam Corwin loves to discourse.

"I was crazy about education, and I never had one," Corwin said, his pale blue eyes brightening behind thick eyeglasses. "I know that education means a great deal to anybody. Tom, Dick, Harry--it doesn't matter who you are, an education can make you somebody. When people ask me what matters, how I feel about things, I always give them one answer: Education.

"I left school after the seventh grade, grammar school," he said, his voice even, but a trifle softer. "I feel bad that I didn't follow up. I always thought that if I'd had an education, I'd have been somebody."

But listen to Norman Corwin as he talks about his father, listen as the filial fondness fills the deep, gentle voice so familiar to radio audiences of the '40s and '50s, and there is no question that he has always been somebody, a major somebody at that.

Hand-Operated Press

"My father was a printer," he said. "Not the kind we think of when we speak of printers today. He operated what is known as a plate printing press. Each impression was individual, a method that had come down unchanged from the Renaissance." Sam Corwin specialized in greeting cards at the McKenzie Engraving Co. in Boston. "It was hand-operated, with a wheel six feet in diameter," his son said.

Sam Corwin was born in London, "to a poor family with a lot of mouths to feed, right out of Dickens," Norman Corwin said. "I figured out that my father was born 50 years after Thomas Jefferson died." To put that fact in its proper historical perspective, "That's how old my father is, and how young the country is."

Arriving in Boston at age 7, young Sam went to work immediately, landing a job as a newsboy on the horse-drawn streetcars of Boston. But early on, the youngest of his three sons suspects, he was probably holed up, feasting his eyes and mind on anything he could find that happened to be adorned with the printed word.

"In all that time that he was working, in all these years, I can't recall a moment that he loafed," Norman said. "He was always reading."

Often, what he read were the offerings of his three sons, for "at one time," Norman recalled, "both brothers and I were newspapermen simultaneously." So was sister Beulah Corwin Belkowitz, at 72 the baby of the brood and a veteran of the classified ad department at the Boston Globe.

At 22, Norman Corwin took his first newspaper job, working for three years as a reporter for the Daily Republican in Springfield, Mass. "That was my university," said the man who went on to write, among other well-known works, "Lust for Life," the film depiction of the life of Vincent Van Gogh.

A Rare Typewriter

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