Last fall, Caroline Sommers was sorting through old family photos. One picture from decades ago intrigued her: it showed a smiling young woman flanked by her father and another man.
“Who’s the girl?” she asked.
“I don’t remember,” her father, Donald Sommers ’45 replied. “But the guy is Teddy Rosen.”
The girl may have faded from Sommers’ memory, but not Rosen. As teenagers growing up in the Albany area, the pair were part of a group of four Jewish boys
who hung around together at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant. They went to football games and dances, and even dated the same girls.
“Teddy’s always been a great guy,” says Sommers, who, at 95, is two years older than Rosen.
“They really were good old times,” says Rosen. “Donnie and I became fast friends. We were inseparable.”
But that friendship got interrupted by time, distance and war. For nearly 70 years, the two men were out of touch with one another.
They’ll be together again, like old times, when Union hosts St. Lawrence in football Saturday, Oct. 7.
After high school, Sommers came to Union. He joined Phi Sigma Delta and enjoyed going to Broadhorst’s for a malted. Rosen attended St. Lawrence, where he played football. His best friend at the school was Bobby Thomson, who hit the most famous home run in baseball history — the “shot heard round the world” — to give the New York Giants the pennant against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.
Both left school early to join the Army during World War II. Assigned to the infantry, Sommers traveled to England, France and Belgium. He never saw combat.
Rosen was not as lucky. Serving with the fabled 10th Mountain Division in Italy, he was seated in the rear of a Jeep in February 1945 when a German hand grenade tossed into the vehicle exploded, detonating the two hand grenades clipped to Rosen’s belt. The major and the driver of the Jeep were killed. Rosen suffered burns and shrapnel wounds. Miraculously, none of his bones were broken.
Acting on a tip from a nurse who treated him, the syndicated newspaper column Ripley’s Believe It or Not dubbed him “The Indestructible Man” in a cartoon feature.
“He’s a real hero,” says Sommers, who still resides in Albany.
“I’m no damn hero,” counters the feisty Rosen. He grew up in nearby Troy but now lives primarily on an estate in Pawling, N.Y. owned by the former TV talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael. The two have been friends for years.
“I just got wounded. The rest is crap,” Rosen says.
For decades, Rosen was razzed about his Ripley’s honor. He hated the attention. He tried to keep his thoughts about the war private. He did grouse though that he was never paid the $50 he was promised from Ripley’s for its feature.
In 2013, when the president of Ripley’s in Times Square learned of this, the organization presented him with a check for $645 ($50 in today’s dollars). Rosen took the check, added $355 of his own money and sent the thousand dollars to an organization to help the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings. The explosions were a flashback to his experience.
After the war, both men returned to college on the GI bill to complete their degrees. Sommers eventually launched his own law firm, which is now led by his son, Andrew. Rosen had a successful career in finance and was a founding partner of Drexel Burnham Lambert.
Marriages, followed by children and grandchildren, created more legitimate distractions.
“But I did wonder what happened to him,” said Sommers of his childhood friend.
Caroline, a television producer in New York City, decided to track down Rosen. After she located him, the men talked on the phone. A lifetime had passed since they had heard each other’s voice. They were also humbled by a sobering fact.
“We realized we were the last two survivors of our group,” says Sommers.
In March, Caroline arranged for the men to reunite at Rosen’s apartment on the Upper East Side. It was one of those raw, cold rainy days that can suck the spirit from a conversation.
“It was a very sentimental moment,” Sommers recalls. “It makes you reflect on your youth. It goes by too fast, I’ll tell you that.”
“I was shocked,” Rosen says. “Don was this tall, skinny guy I used to lift over my head, he was so thin. Now we’re just old. But it was great to see my friend.”
The reunion raised Sommers’ spirits. His beloved wife of 61 years, Miriam, had died a month earlier. At the gathering, Rosen’s third wife, Jill, joined the men and Caroline. Jill, too, passed a couple of months later, in May. The couple had been married for 35 years.
“We are now struggling together with the same loss,” Sommers says.
Since the reunion, the men have called each other often.
“He’s loquacious, I’m loquacious, so we talk,” Rosen says. “We may not say much, but we talk.”
They have even FaceTimed, two men of the Greatest Generation fumbling with the technology of the millennial generation.
“It’s scary,” Sommers says. “I’m still having trouble with the 20th century, let alone the 21st.”
“He’s ugly, I’m good-looking,” Rosen jokes of the virtual meetings between the nonagenarians.
Both men still golf, drive and in Sommers’ case, go in to the office regularly. Sommers had a heart attack in June, but each say they are relatively healthy.
Sommers recently suggested their next face-to-face meeting should be at the upcoming football game between their two schools. He has attended games regularly since he was a student.
“When they are winning, I go to them all,” Sommers says. “When they are losing, I only make it to one or two a year.”
Rosen recalls playing against Union when he was a running back for St. Lawrence. He can’t remember who won.
“We always had a crappy team,” he says. “I don’t know how we won any games.”
Union will honor the special bond between the two men and their service to the country by inviting them to participate in the coin toss. Sommers and Rosen will also join their respective teams for the playing of the national anthem.
Then the 95-year-old and the 93-year-old friends will retreat into the stands at Frank Bailey Stadium to watch a football game together, just like they used to long ago.
“We’ve sure aged a lot, but we’re still here,” Sommers says.