Sam Chester, who is 99 years old, was inspired last week. That isn’t uncommon. He has done a lot in his life. But this inspiration had special meaning Sunday for those gathered at Temple Am David.
“It just hit me that I would like to play something for Esther,” he said. However, it wasn’t just “something.” Sam composed a love song for his wife and then spent a good part of the rest of the week practicing it on his violin.
The song of Esther made its debut at the opening of the Esther Chester Art Center at the temple and the naming of the temple’s school in memory of Sam’s parents, Louis and Goldie Chester. Accompanying Sam on the violin was temple spiritual leader Richard Perlman, who read the lyrics that are still in the process of being refined.
“Life is a beautiful painting,” Perlman read, “God put His brush to the canvas of life. He drew on this painting a beautiful lady – a lady He shared with me through the golden days of life.”
Esther listened and smiled, especially with the chorus and its, “I love you Esther, my beautiful Esther.”
Sam was smiling, too. He said after the official ceremony, prayers and the music, and while enjoying a piece of cake, that his joy came from the faces of so many gathered.
“It’s hard for people to put into words all the things they want to say,” he said.
Many came up to him to say “thank you.” There was more. He said he could read the genuineness of their gratitude from their faces and that gave him pleasure.
The appreciation is for the significant six-figure gift Sam made to the temple in memory of his parents and for Esther’s lithographs that now form the core of the art center.
Extraordinarily, neither Sam nor Esther was a member of the temple and the gifts came as a surprise.
Sam met Perlman at the Jewish food pantry on Niantic Avenue in Providence, which is also named in memory of his parents. Created in 2009, the kosher pantry serves the statewide Jewish population, making 196 visits and serving 115 households in the last month.
Sam heard of what is being done at Temple Am David and Perlman’s efforts to ensure young members receive religious instruction, although because of these difficult economic times may not be able to pay the tuition. Perlman got a phone call the day after Thanksgiving about Sam and Esther’s gifts. Everything was put into high gear from the framing of lithographs to making arrangements for Sunday’s celebration.
“My time is running out; I have to do something for the community,” Sam said. He chose to honor his parents – his mother came to this country at 4 months old from Romania and his father from Russia – because they were so generous. He said they were always ready to help others in need.
Sam said his focus for gifting has been the “small units where people can really help.”
“These people really need it more than Miriam Hospital. They’re up against it because of the economy,” he said.
It’s hardly the first time that either Sam or Esther has invested their time, talent and money in the community.
Sam was the leader of the Friends of the Music Mansion that preserved the Mary K. Hail mansion on the corner of Condon and Meeting Streets in Providence in 1996. The bank trust that held the property, which had fallen into disrepair, planned to put it up for sale. The group raised the funds to buy and repair the property. Making it possible were many donations and a sizable Champlin Foundation grant that enabled the creation of an endowment that is now managed by the Rhode Island Foundation.
Tony DelVecchio, one of those who worked with Sam to establish the Friends of the Music Mansion, attended Sunday’s open house. DelVecchio is not surprised that Sam should be involved in another project, although he didn’t know his friend had composed a song for Esther and the occasion.
“He’s the closest thing there this is to perpetual motion,” said DelVecchio.
Esther, 93, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, still paints. Her works have been featured in numerous galleries and Bill Clinton is the owner of one of her paintings of a saxophone. Many of her works are of musical instruments, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, as she played classical piano and started giving lessons at the age of 14. Sam’s interest in the violin dates back 91 years. He played in the first violin section of the Rhode Island Philharmonic.
But science and medicine become his profession. He attended City College in New York and, returning to Rhode Island, went to Providence College. After graduating, he started a business, but he had another calling. At 47 years old, he became a researcher at Rhode Island Hospital where he discovered a cell treatment for leukemia. He developed a test for colon cancer and discovered the “PSA,” or prostate-specific antigen test.
The Chesters live in Cranston.
Asked what he thinks of today’s instant information and high tech society, Sam marvels at the likes of the iPad, but says it robs us of our ability to remember. “Sometimes it’s too easy to get information. If it’s too quick [no time invested in the research], it’s easy to forget about it.”
There was no forgetting Esther’s role in Sunday’s event.
“She’s like a new person,” Sam said.
Wearing a black and white shawl with glittering sequins, Esther smiled from her wheelchair and greeted friends and relatives who knelt beside her. One of them was her niece Linda Horenstein. Linda had made the shawl and given her much of the jewelry she wore.
“The more sparkle the better,” she said.
No doubt there was a lot of sparkle at Temple Am David Sunday.