I’m Art Gottlieb.
A military and naval historian who happens to be a mechanic.
A mechanic who happens to be a social worker.
And a social worker whose love for and deep knowledge of history and culture helps me connect with the people I serve—and more importantly, reconnects them with who they are.
I was born in New York City but raised just past the Bronx border, in New Rochelle, “The Queen City of Long Island Sound,” in an apartment development across from a salt-water inlet called New Rochelle Creek.
And although the tall buildings and strip malls blocked most views of the water, if you knew just where to look, you could see the tops of tall masts from sailboats moored in the creek.
Even with the din of local traffic, you could hear the ring of halyards slapping against aluminum masts in the distance. With any wind, this ringing was ever present, the sound multiplied by a choir of other masts, each with its own tone and cadence. The sound was random, yet harmonious, like a set of wind chimes.
The main coastal route between our apartment and the water side of the street was named Pelham Road, which the locals referred to as Shore Road. And if you were to travel from it’s start at Echo Bay, down past City Island and over the little Eastchester Bay Bridge, you would wind up down in Pelham Bay in the Bronx.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the water. And, even to this day I have never lost my fascination and love for all things aquatic.
My childhood was not a happy one. I was born to parents who were not equipped with, interested in, or emotionally capable of raising and loving a child. Their toxic narcissism and substance abuse left me with crushing and persistent limitations—and led me to ultimately earn my degree in social work. No matter what else I did, I wanted to make sure that I could prevent even one child from having to endure what I had.
Is it surprising that I was drawn to the sea? That I spent time on the docks, wanting nothing more than to get on any of those boats and sail away? In fact, as a kid I’d talk my way onto them regularly, and some boaters were kind enough to take me, to give me a brief respite from my life at home.
In fact, to scratch this itch, I put aside my career aspirations of becoming a psychotherapist in order to work in the marine industry, where I would be able to spend every day on, or at least near, the water. Looking over a large body of water was a Zen-like experience, putting in perspective my own issues to something larger and infinite in nature.
I’d even dreamed of living on a boat. However, the boating culture, riddled with drugs and alcoholism, was one I wanted to avoid—and escape.
I also developed a deep and abiding passion for, and fascination with, history. I was hungry to understand it deeply—not just the major milestones that shaped our culture and our world, but its details, its nuances. In many ways, it occurs to me now, my yearning to connect with history was a hunger to belong to something bigger, beyond my unhappy family of origin. I wanted to be part of something larger that mattered. Having been denied that sense of connection and meaning at home, I sought it in the pages of history. And that’s exactly where I found it.
Years later, I got the exciting opportunity to work at the Intrepid Sea, Air, Space Museum, years later as a military and naval historian. A dream job—and one that allowed me to serve my country (since I regrettably never got to serve in other ways), and put my skills to good use right there on the water.
It helped that I had well-honed mechanical skills from the many teenage hours I’d spent restoring classic automobiles. I started off as an aircraft restorer for the Intrepid. Later, I was promoted to Assistant Director of Exhibits and finally Technical Director of Exhibits. I was in charge of design, construction, maintenance and restoration of all artifacts, including aircraft ships and armor, and exhibitry.
How I found my people
I enjoyed the opportunities to develop my own leadership and management skills at the Intrepid, while paying tribute regularly to US history. But what also happened was that I got to serve as the liaison to all veterans groups associated with the museum. This gave me lots of opportunities to speak with the men and women who had more than a passing interest in military history—many of them had served. In short, I had found my people.
After a series of corporate mergers and political storms in 1997, I submitted my resignation from the Intrepid—and found myself on the docks again, this time, painting yachts at Brewers Yacht Haven. The work was good, but again the boating culture was not for me, and sadly, hadn’t changed much.
When the fumes from the marine coatings started to take a toll on my lungs, I took on a new role: staging million dollar yachts for sale and performing marine carpentry. Again, I found myself and my skills in high demand, but ultimately my back was not up to the job, and by 2004, it gave out.
I returned to two things: my love of history and my love of people.
A return to history
I started giving lectures designed originally for male veterans of WWII and Korea—“Pearl Harbor”, “D-Day”, “Battle of the Bulge” at a number of senior centers and independent living facilities. After all, who could appreciate our military history like the people who lived through it, who helped make it?
But through my social worker lens I saw something else: that our seniors—while free of the work, obligations, and responsibility they’d shouldered for years—were now somewhat at sea themselves, left to their own devices, or worse, given activities to occupy their attention, which failed to engage them as people.
These were the people showing up to my lectures. First they came to hear me speak just to see what I got wrong about their lives, their history. And when they realized I was a dedicated student of their history, they came back. They still do. They don’t ilke me because I’m a lecturer; they love me because I’m a listener.
“They don’t like me because I’m a lecturer;
they love me because I’m a listener.”
I saw them for who they are, but also who they were, not simply an elderly population biding their time, but as a generation of brave soldiers, bold citizens, people who changed the course of history. I knew the world they came from, the one they built and lived in before we did. I know what they lived through, what they fought for—and fought with.
These little lectures became much more—they became an opportunity to reconnect with the world they knew and that knew them. They came back to hear me, sure, but what they were really doing was reconnecting with who they were.
“People used to come to see what I got wrong about who they were.
Now they come back to reconnect with who they are.”
I became a programming fixture at many senior centers. I loved it—not only did the work suit me, but it was so incredibly rewarding: I saw the residents come alive during my lectures and conversations with them. They tugged on my sleeve and gestured for me to lean in close: “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” they said. “When are you coming back?”
As a student of both history and psychology and a professional who draws on both, I know that no number of activities meant to distract or occupy a person can be quite as powerful or transformative as getting them re-engaged with the person they were and still are.
There’s been nothing more fulfilling for me than to share our nation’s rich history with the men and women who helped make it. It’s a pleasure for them, and an honor for me. Which is why when the COVID lockdown kept me from making my much anticipated trips several times each month, I knew I needed to find a way to keep doing what I do.
I’ve shifted to a completely virtual model for now, one which allows me to stay connected with the seniors while continuing to provide engaging and premium programming to the people who have the best interests of their residents at heart.