ABE’S BIRTHDAY BASH
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — At 100 years old, Abe Schrader is not about to rest on his laurels and his friends and family wouldn’t let him if he tried.
By Monday morning, 20 of the 220 people who had attended Schrader’s 100th birthday party at the Plaza Hotel’s grand ballroom the night before had already dialed up his unlisted phone number to tell him how much they had enjoyed the festivities.
“I’ve received so many calls. They woke me up this morning,” he said. “The speakers were wonderful. They told the truth about my life one-by-one. I cut my speech short because it would have taken a day to tell my life story. You can’t do 100 years of life in eight minutes.”
But they tried.
Surrounded by family and friends, Schrader, who became a centurion on Saturday, redefined “the life of the party.” He joked, dined and fox-trotted the night away. When the occasional speaker’s voice languished, the guest of honor didn’t hesitate to chime in, “Louder.”
At 100, Schrader hasn’t retired and hasn’t lost his interest in issues of the day. While he goes to his office at brokerage house Bishop, Rosen everyday trading his own stocks, Schrader spent most of his career in the garment district. A tireless proponent for unionization and domestic manufacturing, Schrader became friendly with many key public figures over the years, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, ILGWU president David Dubinsky and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Schrader started his career in the apparel industry by working as a shipping clerk for $10 a week at his uncle’s coat company. He later opened his own dress factory, working as a contractor from 1927 to 1952.
Schrader then crossed over from contracting to manufacturing, setting up Abe Schrader Corp., a dress and separates company that both his sons, Mort and Steven, worked for at one time. Schrader’s business went public in 1969 and became a $70 million operation. After selling the operation to Interco of St. Louis for $38.2 million in 1984, Schrader stayed on as chairman. After Schrader and his son, Mort, failed to buy back the company in 1988, both Schraders stepped down the following year.
During the cocktail hour, several guests spoke of Schrader’s knack for vividly describing places and books he hadn’t seen since he was a young man. They also painted a portrait of a savvy businessman who treats politicians, colleagues, employees and friends with the same measure of wit and respect.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D, N.J.) said he meets his share of extraordinary people and heads of state in his line of work, and, “In my view, Abe Schrader is one of those people who commands good will, admiration and respect.”
UNITE president Jay Mazur, who later gave Schrader congratulatory letters from President Clinton and Vice President Gore, said Schrader has always known how to balance his career in the apparel industry with the role of organized labor and politics. During his life, Schrader befriended many organized labor officials, from longtime ILGWU president David Dubinsky to Mazur himself, which was not an easy feat for a manufacturer.
“He’s always been respected, trusted and prepared to share the benefits of his business,” Mazur said. “He has taught the industry that you can be a successful employer and still be fair and decent to your employees. I walked through Abe’s factories with him, where he walked on water.”
Pauline Trigere, who worked with Schrader through an outerwear licensing deal some 20 years ago, discussed his success on Seventh Avenue.
“He had a very extraordinary sense of what was right,” Trigere said of Schrader. “First of all, he made quality products for the price they were being sold at. What he sold was decent, not crazy. He made things people could wear. What he did was right for the moment at a time when many people didn’t care.”
She also praised him for fighting for workers’ rights and trying to keep their jobs in the U.S. He also mixed politics with work even though many of his contemporaries didn’t care and still managed to go dancing almost every night at El Morocco, Trigere said.
Asked if she aspired to be working at the age of 100, the 92-year-old Trigere said, “You can never say what you aspire to be. You have to do the thing that you are best at.”
Judge Burton Roberts, a retired administrative judge of the Bronx Supreme Court, recalled having lunch with Schrader at Versailles, a restaurant that has since closed. After someone that Roberts didn’t know — but Schrader recognized from the garment district — who had recently served as a juror, approached their table to congratulate Roberts, who was then a district attorney, Schrader offered his own verdict once the man left.
“You were too nice to him,” Schrader told Roberts at the time. “He makes a cheap dress.”
Former Mayor Ed Koch said he never goes to dinners on Sunday night, but this event was one he would not miss. Koch said that when he was running for Congress in the late Sixties, he befriended Schrader and has remained a fan.
“He is a person who was always a New York City booster. When things were bad, he would never think of leaving,” Koch said. “I have a lot of loyalty for him and so does he [for me].”
Joyce Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, said Schrader “bridges an era that’s over, but he still manages to be a force in spite of all the ways the industry has changed.”
As for Schrader’s continued work ethic, going to the office everyday on Wall Street, Brown said, “He makes it look like it’s not work.”
For his part, Schrader opened his remarks by acknowledging his own longevity.
“I’ve been looking for a contemporary the whole night,” Schrader said.
Before cutting a cake that resembled stacks of Tiffany turquoise gift boxes, Schrader struck a more serious note, highlighting his life as best as one man can in a brief speech. He described growing up in Poland and serving in the Polish army. The 18th of 19 children, Schrader noted that three of his siblings perished in Nazi concentration camps.
The self-described “poor millionaire” didn’t sidestep some of the tougher times he faced as a young man, remembering falling behind on his rent for six months and eating hot dogs on the subway en route to school in Harlem.
Schrader, who made his way to the U.S. by way of Cuba, recalled how impressed he was by this country’s freedoms during that fated trip.
“Everywhere I looked there were opportunities,” he said. “All you had to do was watch, learn and work hard.”