“He represents all that is good and enduring within our community.” Rabbi Jaffe
By Zarah Kavarana
For years, Chappaqua resident Richard Laster was urged by his granddaughter to share his most memorable life stories and experiences. Finally at the age of 92, he did – not only with her, but also with the world in a 200-page memoir, “…And It Went So Fast!” Laster celebrated the launch of his book with a house full of friends, family and supporters on Wednesday, June 24, at the Chappaqua Library.
With no prior experience writing a book, Laster relied on the help of his editor Elinor Griffith and wife, Lee. The two helped him narrow down story ideas, pick a telling title, and get everything on paper–all in just three months.
“Richard is the most phenomenal person. I’m certain that I got more out of the experience than he ever did,” said Griffith about working with Richard. “At first I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he is a born storyteller. His life story has so many twists and turns that it was all so fascinating to me.”
The story begins about 75 years ago in the midst of the Holocaust. Laster was 14, living in Vienna with his mother, father, and older brother. When news came that the Nazis had invaded Austria, the Laster family knew that it was only a matter of time until the Nazis would invade their city. Laster’s father was quick to suggest that the family leave, saying that they could always return if no harm had been done. They fled three days before the Nazis entered.
Laster credits his father for teaching him his greatest life lesson by being flexible in a tough situation. “It’s important to have goals,” Laster said. “But it’s also important to be willing to update your plan for getting there. You also have to be flexible with your goal so that if things change, you recognize it and choose a new path.” Although Laster’s father was a very successful businessman living a comfortable life, he was smart enough to make a quick decision that changed the family’s fate when their lives neared turmoil.
Upon leaving Vienna, the Laster’s first took a train to Italy, then France and later the UK, which Laster grew quite an affinity for. They took off for the United States after receiving their visas, through Canada and into Grand Central Station in New York City. They didn’t stop there, however. From New York, they moved to Seattle…another 7,000 miles. Laster stayed in Seattle for two years to finish up high school before returning to New York for college, attending Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
Out of college, Laster received a job at the General Foods Corporation as a junior engineer. His shoveled Maxwell House coffee grounds into a crate, earning only $34 a week. He worked his way up, eventually becoming Executive Vice President of the corporation before he retired 38 years later. His job often forced him to move around from city to city and travel frequently, but he was extremely happy at the company.
Laster said that by far his greatest accomplishment was marrying his wife of 67 years, Lee, whom he dedicated his memoir to. The two met during Laster’s early years at General Food on a subway ride home from work. They began dating and she would call him during the day regularly. One day at the end of their daily call, the telephone operator suddenly chimed in. After listening to the entire conversation, she said, “Richard, why the heck don’t you marry that woman?” Laster took her advice and the two married. They raised two children, and now have four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
At the event, Laster lovingly thanked his wife Lee for being a major part of his story. He said, “I am forever grateful for her, to her.”
In response she said, “As proud as I am of him, my love is not based on his accomplishments. I would love him just as much if he’d missed the goals.”
They moved to Chappaqua over 50 years ago. Laster wanted to give back to the community after leaving General Foods, so he decided to run for the school board and eventually served as a member. He shared a comical story of that experience, having been given the task of shaking hands and distributing diplomas to graduates at his daughter’s high school graduation. He remembers being extremely nervous, and was terrified that he had done something wrong when he heard a giant roar through the crowd. To his surprise, a group of streakers ran through the gymnasium – a moment Laster said he will never forget.
At the end of his term on the Chappaqua school board, Laster was encouraged to run for the town board. It was his first entry into the political arena, but he fully embraced the opportunity, focusing his time on increasing recognition and funding at Purchase College. The board was quick to start up a development team, knocked on doors, and get people to see what an asset the college was to the Westchester community. Laster was also a key figure in getting substantial contributions made to the Chappaqua Orchestra, preserving open space, and working with the Chappaqua historical society.
Former Chappaqua Town Supervisor, Clinton B. Smith spoke of his days working on the board with Laster and the lessons that he taught him from his chemical engineering background. “Chemicals have their own personalities, just like people” he said. “What Richard was always able to do is to find those characteristics of people and put them together, so that like in chemistry, the compound is greater than the elements. He’s put things together and made us all the better for it.”
Now no longer on the board, Laster is still very much a part of the Chappaqua community and says that he is happy to call it home. Many of his children and grandchildren live nearby, including Dan Rubenstein, who came out to support his grandfather on Wednesday.
Laster additionally served as chairman of the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center (HHREC) for over 15 years. The center works toward teaching the lessons of the Holocaust through educational programs in Westchester, Putnam and Fairfield counties, which Laster broadened during his time there. Their ultimate goal is to safeguard human rights today and in the future.
A generous donation permitted everyone at the event to go home with a free copy of Laster’s memoir, encouraging attendees to make a small contribution to the HHREC.
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua spoke highly of Laster at the event, a congregant of the temple who has previously held leadership positions there. Jaffe said, “Dick Laster possesses a unique perspective and ability to speak to the American dream, knowing the true value of hard work. He represents all that is good and enduring within our community.”