By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Dr. Irving Waltman has accomplished much in his life.
A star athlete who played three sports at Weaver High School, he went on to play baseball at Amherst College, where he was a top student. One of the first Jewish students accepted at Yale Medical School, he used his medical skills during World War II as a doctor in the U.S. Army. Upon returning home and finishing his residency, he was the very first Jewish surgeon at Hartford Hospital.
Now, the good doctor has another accomplishment under his belt – in March, he celebrated his 100th birthday.
And he did so in style. On March 22, he marked his personal milestone with a party attended by 75 family and friends at the Simsbury Inn. Besides congratulatory speeches, the event included a video of Waltman’s own father’s 100th birthday party. “He lived to be 101 and three months,” Waltman exclaimed.
Irving Waltman was born in Hartford on March 23, 1915. His father, David, came to the U.S. from Germany with his family when he was 16 years old. His mother came over from Poland with her family when she was an infant.
David Waltman ended up in the wholesale fruit business, and the family settled on Plainfield Street in the Blue Hills section of Hartford. Waltman’s grandparents were founders of The Emanuel Synagogue – his grandfather contributed the shul’s first ark – and he has been a member his entire life.
Waltman attended Northwest Grammar School and Weaver before heading to Amherst College and then Yale Medical School from 1937-1941.
“There were very few Jews in the class. They had quotas then. I was very fortunate to be accepted,” he recalls. “It was somewhat hazardous to apply to medical school and expect to get in. A lot of Jewish students went to Ireland, England, South America [to attend medical school]. Or, they didn’t go to medical school even though they wanted to and had the qualifications.”
In the Medical Corps for three years during World War II, he spent time in Coral Gables, Fla., treating soldiers transported from the front lines in Europe, later serving the medical corps in France and Germany to serve after the war.
After leaving the service, he began his residency at Hartford Hospital, then spent a year as a resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. He chose to become a surgeon.
“It just seemed that it contained the possibility of being dramatically helpful to people,” he says. “I enjoyed surgery and felt I had some potential for it.”
He started his surgical practice in 1949 and was the first Jewish doctor on staff at Hartford Hospital.
“When you have the pressure of being the first of anything, it provides a little more tension. I didn’t want to do anything to upset the balance. Everyone was pretty nice,” he says, adding that “There were a few antisemitic remarks by doctors who forgot I was Jewish.”
Waltman met his future wife, Fran, at a social at the Beth Israel Synagogue. They were married March 25, 1942. The Waltmans raised four children and now have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. On March 25 of this year – just two days after his birthday – he and Fran celebrated 73 years of marriage.
“My father continues to be a man of phenomenal energy, inquisitiveness and integrity,” says daughter Marjorie Waltman Feldman. “His ability to engage with people from all walks of life with genuine interest is his greatest legacy. He is a lifetime model for myself, my siblings, children and grandchildren.”
When asked how his happy marriage has lasted for 73 years, he laughs and gives this tongue-in-cheek advice: “There’s a saying, ‘When you are right, keep quiet; When you are wrong, admit it.’”
Over the years, the Waltmans have earned a well-deserved reputation as philanthropists. Among other philanthropic endeavors, in 1963, they established the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, a literary award presented to an emerging American Jewish writer whose published work of fiction is deemed to have significance for the American Jew. It honors the memory of the late Edward Lewis Wallant, author of The Pawnbroker. The Wallant Award has moved from The Emanuel Temple, where Fran Waltman’s book group first met, to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford (now called the Mandell JCC), and finally to the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. The Waltmans still attend the annual Wallant Award presentation.
Dr. Waltman said that he considers the Wallant Award his greatest accomplishment. “It has become a very prestigious award,” he said. “I think the Wallant Award has gained national prominence and is considered one of the most prestigious Jewish book awards in the country.”
Described by his son Laurence Waltman as “an all-around extraordinary individual,” Waltman grows thoughtful when asked what it feels like to turn 100.
“It makes you wonder about life and why you were selected [to live to be 100],” he says. “It makes you feel grateful and fortunate.”
CAP: Dr. Irving Waltman blows out the candles on his cake at his 100th birthday party, with a little help from his great-grandson Sebastian Dooley. Looking on are Sharon Teicher (left) and Phyllis Waltman. Standing in back of Waltman is his son-in-law Howard Feldman. Photo credit: Piper Brown Photography