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Si Spiegel, War Hero Who Modernized Christmas Trees, Dies at 99

Si Spiegel, War Hero Who Modernized Christmas Trees, Dies at 99


Before he turned referred to as the daddy of synthetic Christmas bushes, Si Spiegel was a valiant Army aviator. In the closing days of World War II, he was piloting his B-17 Flying Fortress in an armada of 1,500 Allied bombers that pummeled Berlin. Struck by antiaircraft flak, two of the airplane’s 4 engines misplaced energy as Mr. Spiegel reversed course to return to England.

Rather than bail out over Germany and threat being captured as a prisoner of conflict — particularly provided that he was Jewish — Mr. Spiegel managed to crash-land in Soviet-occupied Poland. After being caught there for weeks, he improvised a daring escape — utilizing components of his personal airplane to jury-rig one other B-17 that had crashed close by, then flying to an American base in Italy.

Mr. Spiegel, who died at 99 on Jan. 21 at his house in Manhattan, was among the many final surviving American B-17 pilots of World War II, his granddaughter Maya Ono stated. But Mr. Spiegel, a machinist by coaching, has one other legacy: He was thought-about a pioneer of the mass-produced synthetic Christmas tree.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he was raised in a non secular neighborhood in Brooklyn and by no means had a Christmas tree, pure or synthetic, in boyhood.

“I don’t essentially suppose my grandpa related himself with the bushes and Christmas as a lot as he did with the equipment that he constructed to make the bushes,” Ms. Ono stated, “after which later in life, the methods he created to construct a profitable enterprise and the relationships he cultivated.”

For Mr. Spiegel, changing into the king of synthetic Christmas bushes was a fluke, however his faith did play an element. After the conflict, he utilized to be a industrial pilot, however he was instructed that he was barking up the flawed tree.

“They have been blatant about it,” he stated in an interview with the New York State Military Museum in 2010. “It wasn’t that they gave you some excuse. They instructed you, ‘We don’t rent Jews.’”

He briefly enrolled on the City College of New York to turn into an engineer, however after his time at conflict he discovered the tutorial routine unsettling and stultifying. After a brief stint as a radio announcer in New Mexico, he returned to New York.

Capitalizing on his early Army coaching, he was employed as a machinist however couldn’t maintain an everyday job due to his position as an organizer for the United Electrical Workers Union, which had been branded by its mother or father Congress of Industrial Organizations as being riddled with communists. (Mr. Spiegel was later president of Local 1709 of the Machinists Union, which belonged to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.)

In 1954, he lastly landed a everlasting place with the American Brush Machinery Company, which was based mostly in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He operated machines that manufactured brushes from wire and different supplies for numerous industrial features, together with cleansing and scrubbing wooden and metallic ending.

Artificial Christmas bushes had been manufactured for many years — initially from the identical animal hair bristles used for lavatory brushes, then from aluminum and at last from totally different types of plastic.

After American Brush unsuccessfully branched out into the Christmas tree enterprise, Mr. Spiegel, by then a senior machinist, was tasked with closing the artificial-tree manufacturing facility. Instead, he started learning pure conifers, tweaked the brush-making machines to emulate the true bushes and patented new manufacturing methods.

He left the renamed American Tree and Wreath Company in 1979 and two years later based the Hudson Valley Tree Company, which started mass-producing 80,000 bushes a 12 months on an meeting line that turned one out each 4 minutes.

By the late Eighties, his firm was producing annual gross sales of $54 million and employed 800 employees in Newburgh, N.Y., and Evansville, Ind. He offered the Hudson Valley Tree Company in 1993, retired as a multimillionaire and turned his consideration to cultural, instructional and social justice philanthropy.

Si Spiegel was born on May 28, 1924, in Manhattan. His mom, Massia (Perlman) Spiegel, a seamstress and suffragist who was born in Bessarabia, named him after Issai (or Isaiah), the biblical prophet who expressed the utopian dream that “neither shall they be taught conflict anymore.” His Ukrainian-born father, David, owned a hand laundry in Greenwich Village.

After graduating from Straubenmuller Textile High School in Manhattan in May 1942, he labored working grinding equipment for a producer of business tools for 4 months, then enlisted within the Army.

He graduated from plane mechanics faculty at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, however he was annoyed: He wished to fly planes, not repair them.

“How would I struggle Hitler with a wrench?” he stated in an interview with The New York Times in 2021.

He was referred to Mitchel Field, two miles away, the place he turned an aviation cadet. During his coaching, he married Frankie Marie Smith in New Mexico; after the conflict, they divorced.

He was deployed to Eye, England, close to the North Sea, the place his various crew consisted of 1 different Jew, 5 Catholics, a Mormon and a prison who had been given a selection of going to jail or becoming a member of the Army.

Returning from his thirty third mission, the mammoth Feb. 3, 1945, air raid on Berlin, Mr. Spiegel managed to belly-land on a frozen potato discipline in Reczyn, Poland. While the crews’ households have been knowledgeable that their kin have been lacking in motion, they have been held by Russian troops.

Uncertain what to do with putative allies, the Russians awaited orders from their superiors. But as an alternative of staying put, Mr. Spiegel and his fellow officers surreptitiously eliminated an engine and a tire from their very own airplane to restore one other hobbled B-17 that had crashed close by. They bartered for gas and, on March 17, the mixed crews escaped to Foggia, Italy, the place they have been in a position to notify their households again house that they’d survived.

Mr. Spiegel led two extra missions, then returned house to New York on Aug. 31, 1945, however he would return to England and Poland for reunions of his crew from the 849th Bomb Squadron of the 490th Bomb Group.

Mr. Spiegel joined Pete Seeger’s Good Neighbor Chorus and in 1949 attended Camp Unity, a communist-affiliated summer time camp in Wingdale, N.Y., the place he met Motoko Ikeda, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who had settled in California. During the conflict, she and her household had been incarcerated in an internment camp in Wyoming; after, her dad and mom returned to California, and she or he went to New York. She and Mr. Spiegel married in 1950. Ms. Spiegel, who turned an artist, died in 2000.

Since then, Mr. Spiegel had lived alone on the Upper West Side, not removed from the place he was born.

He is survived by his daughter, Sura Kazuko Ono; two sons, Ray Spiegel and Tamio Spiegel; his brother, Lee; and 5 granddaughters.

Mr. Spiegel celebrated Jewish holidays along with his youngsters, however after they have been younger, a Christmas tree was a winter vacation staple — first an actual one, then the most effective of his pretend ones.

“They have been pagan symbols,” he instructed The Times. “My children appreciated them.”

His spouse, too, upheld a cultural hallmark that wasn’t a part of her upbringing: “Motoko was higher at Jewish meals than my mom,” he stated. “She may cook dinner in any language.”

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