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Robert Eisenberg, 105; 'Dean of Zippers' Was Oldest Worker in 2000

October 02, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Robert Eisenberg, "the dean of zippers," who retired from the garment industry at 72, went back to work at 82 and received the Prime Time Award as America's oldest paid employee at 102, has died. He was 105.

Eisenberg suffered a fall at his home Monday, and was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He died Tuesday.

Three years ago, Eisenberg was named the oldest employed American by Green Thumb Inc., which has since changed its name to Experience Works. The Virginia-based organization offers job training and helps to find employment for older workers. Each year it conducts a search for the oldest paid employee working 20 hours per week or more.

Eisenberg's first attempt at retirement came in 1970 after the Los Angeles zipper manufacturing company where he worked was sold. For some years after that, he lived in a retirement home on Sunset Boulevard but never settled into a quiet life. When the home was converted to a hotel in 1999, Eisenberg moved into his own apartment in West Hollywood. His daughter, Phyllis Barry, lived next door.

Out of retirement and back to work at 82, Eisenberg put in a 30-hour week at Zabin Industries in downtown Los Angeles, commuting to the office by taxi. When he was 103, he retired a second time. He had fallen down in several minor accidents, and did not want to risk it happening on the job.

Alan Faioli, president of Zabin Industries, became a close friend of Eisenberg and called him Robbie. "It was unique working with someone Robbie's age who didn't live in the past," Faioli said. "He didn't talk about the old days -- the flapper era or the Second World War. He liked politics, sports and guy talk."

No one knew as much about zippers as Eisenberg did. "After 65 years' experience, if a product didn't work, Robbie knew what was the problem," Faioli said.

Eisenberg was born in Central City, Colo., the son of a wealthy garment manufacturer, and moved to New York City with his parents when he was 2 years old. He attended New York University and planned to become a doctor, but, after serving in the Army during World War I, he changed his career plans and joined his father's business.

His first wife, Judith, died in 1929. Their only son, Marc, was killed during World War II.

Eisenberg and his second wife, Augusta, and her three children from a previous marriage moved from New York City to Los Angeles in 1945. Although Eisenberg did not legally adopt the children, he always treated them as his own and they considered him their father, said his daughter, Barry.

Barry, 78, said her father's active lifestyle helped keep him healthy. He was a big game fisherman and avid golfer until he was in his 80s. "He always kept up with world events, the economy, the stock market," Barry told The Times this week. "He went back to work because he wanted to be stimulated, and business did stimulate him."

Over the years, several gerontologists contacted Eisenberg about monitoring his health. "He turned them down," Barry said. "He wasn't interested in their research. I guess he didn't want to spend the time."

Eisenberg attributed his long life -- he was born on March 24, 1898 -- and vigor to his diet. "I eat anything and everything," he told People magazine in 2001. "And I have a gin and tonic each evening." After he was announced the award winner as the nation's oldest worker in 2000, Eisenberg was interviewed by CNN. He was asked what qualities he looked for in a good employee. "I expect loyalty, honesty, integrity," he said.

In addition to Barry, Eisenberg is survived by a son, Howard Deske; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at noon Sunday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.

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