Like many folks, I honor the memory of my dad online. Three times per year—the date of his birthday, the anniversary of his death, and on Father’s Day—I will give him a tribute on social media, taking his headshot as my Facebook profile picture, and sharing this post. I want people to know what a remarkable man he was.
Leon Lee Gershbein, Ph.D. (December 22, 1917 – December 7, 1994) was a man of science, a medical researcher par excellence, and one of the most prolific biochemists of his day. He was also a virtuoso classical bassist, a crossword puzzle whiz, a Charlie Chaplin fanatic, and the best writer and speaker I have ever known. And he was my father.
Gifted with a relentlessly inquisitive mind, Dad carried out multiple scientific experiments simultaneously and with stunning precision. I used to glance regularly at his meticulously-detailed notebooks, brimming with diagrams and tabular data, and thought to myself, ‘Where does this guy get the time to do all this work?’
Leon was a liver man. (In medical research circles, you get known by the organ on which your experimental track is focused.) He advanced the popular notion of liver regeneration and its far-reaching implications in the causation, treatment, and prevention of cancer. A tireless investigator, he seamlessly moved from one study to another, publishing over 1,800 articles in the world’s most respected medical and scientific journals.
[The liver is the chemical powerhouse of the body, the organ working behind-the-scenes to keep our body engines stoked. When cancer invades the liver, life gets rough. The liver lends itself well to the cancer research domain because of its capacity for cellular regeneration. Dad’s primary experimental pursuit was the effect of industrial, nutritional, and environmental carcinogens on the liver’s restorative properties. He conducted myriad clinical trials which brought to bear the relative efficiency of the liver in managing tumor spread at the cellular level.]
Hard-Wired for the Laboratory
Growing up, Dad probably didn’t win any popularity contests. He was not the high school quarterback. He was not a party animal. It was his intellect that made him the chick magnet. His meal ticket was his brain, and he leveraged it to the hilt.
He met my mother, then a clinical chemist, while they were both at Northwestern University. I was their first-born and only son and, according to Jewish Law, would not be deemed a man until I graduated from medical school. It later became Dad’s personal mission to make sure I was headed in that path. As long as I was with the program, he was a happy camper.
In 1960, after a sterling run at the University of Chicago, Leon founded the Northwest Institute for Medical Research, an affiliate of the then-named Northwest (eventually Our Lady of the Resurrection) Hospital in Chicago. It was a sprawling, hustle-bustle facility of laboratories, offices, and classrooms located at the northeast corner of Addison and Major on Chicago’s northwest side. When I was a kid, it was the coolest place on earth.
On most Sundays, I would go with him to his lab, watched how he handled the rats, and helped him dispense special diets to groupings of experimental animals earmarked for sacrifice in the name of science. Afterwards, he set me up on a bench, gave me some low-strength acids and bases, a graduated cylinder, and a few flasks and beakers so I could do my own experiments. Thankfully, I did not blow the place to smithereens.
The Leon Gershbein Business
Although I did not buy into the Leon Manifesto, and live up to his lofty expectations of becoming a doctor, I spent a fair share of my professional life in the health care setting, working side-by-side with Dad, and marketing his work. On several occasions, I was the errand runner, picking up new stock of Holtzman® or Sprague Dawley® rats. I would participate in some research, earning inclusion as a secondary or tertiary author on several papers. For that, I was given the opportunity to present my piece alongside him at conferences and symposia. I did not how valuable this experience would be until years later, when I embarked on my career as a LinkedIn speaker.
[Much of what I learned about the craft of professional speaking came from watching Leon. He was a master presenter who always showed up prepared, respected his audience, and anticipated the tough questions. I used to marvel at his pacing, easy-going style, and use of humor. He absolutely commanded the room.]
Eventually, I served as the fulfillment center for the never-ending stream of requests for his reprints that poured in daily from all over the world. This is before the Internet, mind you, so the high demand for his information was handled via snail mail. I spent a lot of time bellied up to a copier machine, pressing the pages of heavy books to the glass for hours, and packaging his materials for shipment. Nowadays, Leon’s work is accessible online; he owns scores of pages of listings on Google posthumously.
Dad passed away before the advent of the Internet. He never sent an email. If he were alive today, he would marvel at this technology and the ease with which his content could be marketed to a target audience. And if the social platforms were available to him during the height of his research, it would have made his life (and mine!) so much easier. Back in the day, all his correspondence and idea capture was accomplished on an IBM Selectric II typewriter.
As a typist, Leon was fast, efficient, and prolific. Despite his superb hand-eye coordination and acute spatial awareness of the keyboard, he was strictly a two index-finger man. (The rhythmic click of those keys and the pounding whip of that steel ball across the paper are some of the most powerful memories I have.)
From Dad, I learned the craft of writing with influence. He regularly applied for research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funding entities. When he would leave the office for meetings or breaks, I used to lean in at the typewriter and study his work in progress. His cover letters and supporting documents were things of beauty, magnificent examples of persuasive communication that invariably received the rubber stamp of approval.
Just Being a Dad
Although we had our battles, and I pushed a few of his buttons from time-to-time, I knew that he loved me and wanted the best for me. I never understood how deep that love was until I became a father myself. If you will indulge me, I would like to share the one story that really sums up the whole father-son dynamic for us:
It was 1977. I was a premed sophomore at the University of Cincinnati struggling to make sense of a cell biology class. The mid-term exam was looming, and I was in trouble. I could not make heads or tails of the material. So, I called Leon and vented. He did what any dad would do: he hopped into his car and drove the five-plus hours from our Wilmette, Illinois home to see me. He booked a room at a hotel near the campus and, for the better part of a day, drilled the pages of that textbook into my cortex.
I am happy to report that I passed the exam with flying colors. Leon took all those molecules, formulas, and principles and somehow made them easy to understand. He saved me from certain doom. How? By eliminating the possibility of failure in my mind, and imbuing me with a soaring sense of self-confidence that carried me through the test. I did not understand the magnitude of this until much later. It was a classic act of fatherhood, pure and simple.
Dad’s death on December 7—a day that lives in infamy—is one of the great ironies considering the World War II buff that he was. Those who remember him will recall the ever-present cigar dangling from his lips as he strode up and down the marble-tiled corridors of the hospital he loved. When stopped, he would address you by name (he was so damn good at names!), ask how you were doing, tell you the latest joke he heard, and doll out a healthy dose of the Daily Leon.
As is often said and written, everything happens for a reason. In 1983, I moved out of the health care realm, started my own company (then Owlish Productions), and charted my own course in business. Although Dad did not see me land as a LinkedIn speaker and consultant, I believe that he is looking down on me thinking that what I am doing is pretty cool. He would especially take satisfaction in knowing that I retain the love of science he instilled in me, and bring the mindset of a healer to my work.
If he were still here, I would tell him that he is (and always has been) my role model. And If I were marketing him back then with the digital instruments at my disposal today, his business would be assured of amazing visibility. That, I guarantee.
I would start by writing him a magnificent LinkedIn profile.