There was an aura of dignity about Jerry Hantman. When he walked down the corridor of Howard County General with his white coat flowing behind him, I thought of him as “St. Jerome of the Patuxent.”
When as a neophyte rabbi I sat on the Ethics Committee of the hospital, I would occasionally pick the brain of the Chief of Cardiology about an issue that had come up. Many years later when the issue on the table was my second and quite complex open-heart surgery, I called him from the Cleveland Clinic to map out the proposed course of action the doctors there proposed for me. Only after Jerry told me, “The plan seems prudent,” did I feel confident going ahead with the procedure I underwent.
Jerry and I bonded over our mutual love for tennis. We played often, and, when we would compete, my strategy was to avoid at all costs the hammer-like left-handed forehand around which he built his game.
When Jerry decided to build his beloved court at his home, he shared with me all the details about the construction process. When it was finished, we played there so often that Danny Singer and I dubbed it “The Hantman Training Center.” There, we practiced more than we would compete, and in those sessions, I wanted him to blister that forehand over and over to my backhand which became a lot stronger as a result.
After we played, we often spent almost an equal amount of time talking about the game, about how much we each learned from it about life, about Bud Collins, his tennis coach at Brandeis before he became a famous commentator, and countless other topics.
There was one phone call from Jerry I can never forget. In 1985 at age 39 I somehow managed to reach the semifinals of the Annual Columbia Labor Day Tournament. I was going to give it my all, but logically the odds were very long that I would defeat my younger, stronger and faster opponent. So, I was more than surprised when Jerry called to tell me, “You’re going to be in the finals.”
“Do you really think I can beat that guy,” I asked?
“You won’t have to,” Jerry answered. “I examined him today, and there is no way I can allow him to play a competitive tennis match.”
Jerry was also a regular at services. He sat in the congregation, seemingly without blinking, listening to and processing every word I would say. I can still see his beatific half-smile in the congregation before me. Afterwards, often at the side of his court, he would ask probing questions that led to productive and, for me, enlightening conversations, often about God.
I confess I am angry at God for allowing Jerry to endure the horrible illness that marked his final years. When I think about it, I remind myself that God is ultimately a mystery. We answer to God, and God has no obligation to answer to us.
But if I was angry at God for Jerry’s affliction, I was and will always be grateful to God for sending Jerry Irene, who knowingly, willingly, lovingly and with inspiring dedication, shared the journey with him through the very difficult last chapter of Jerry’s life.
In one of our last meetings, when he could still drive, Jerry took me out to the long-shuttered and by then forlorn looking tennis court where we had spent so many happy hours. There we sat and talked once again about the experiences we shared. Toward the end of our conversation, Jerry said wistfully, “Gosh I miss those days!”
So do I, Jerry! So do I!
Jerry Hantman: physician, confidante, coach and friend
זכר צדיק לברכה
Your righteous memory will always endure!