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                          Arnold Ordman Succeeds by Elimination

  (C)  Edward Ordman 2002

       My father had a very successful career.  But it didn't start that way. he sometimes claimed to have succeeded by the process of elimination.
       Arnold Ordman was born in Somersworth, NH, in 1912, shortly after his parents got off the boat from Europe. They moved to Peabody about when he was ready to enter school. Of course his father had taught him a good bit at home before he started public school, but that was in Hebrew, not English. Because his brother Harry was older and they usually shared a book, Arnold initially learned to read Hebrew upside down and even in adulthood read it as well upside down as right side up.  He had a photographic memory; even in his 60's or 70's he could quote a piece of Talmud and cite the source not only by tractate and section but down to ‘page 14b, two thirds of the way down the right column' and he would also do this not only for labor law but for the arguments in the Congressional Record for the debates over the law.
         When Arnold showed up at primary school, he apparently gave as his name what his parents called him, ‘Aarreleh' (Little Aaron). The teacher wrote this down as Arnold and that became his name on school records from then on. He was an extremely bright student, having picked up things from his father and older brother.  His friend Irving Herbster reports that in second or third grade, the teacher introduced some new arithmetic – e.g. simple multiplication. Arnold explained it to Herbster as they walked home. The next day Herbster told the teacher, ‘Arnold knows all about that'. The teacher checked; Arnold did; they moved him up one grade. This was the first of two extra promotions making him by far the youngest and smallest member of his Peabody High School graduating class in 1929.
      At this stage it was still assumed Arnold would be a Rabbi like his father. But then his much beloved little sister Gertrude contracted scarlet fever and was very ill, not expected to live. Arnold, a devout young man, made numerous promises to God if God would save Gertrude. The pact failed; Gertrude died. Arnold could not comprehend how God could allow this, and it started him on a path to doubting the existence of God.  In due course he identified himself as an agnostic. He was, you understand, a very Orthodox Jewish agnostic; he remained very  observant and the God whose existence he doubted was specifically the Old Testament God who had dictated the Torah to Moses at Sinai and whose guidance for man was worked out in detail in the Talmud.  But, from this vantage point, it no longer seemed reasonable to follow his father into the rabbinate. So if we can count the Rabbinate as his first career aspiration, he had failed at that by his freshman year at college.
        Arnold attended Boston University, where he became attracted to philosophy. He studied German so that he could read Kant in the original, and spent much of his time reading philosophy in Widener Library at Harvard.  He began to think that if he could not be a teacher by being a rabbi, he could perhaps address some of the same issues as a philosopher or a philosophy professor.
       During at least one summer, Arnold spend the summer in New York, sitting in classes at Columbia University (probably informally, without paying). In exchange for room and board, he was a ‘minyan man' at Mordechai Kaplan's Reconstructionist Synagogue, which provided housing for a few students to be sure it would have a minyan every morning and evening.  Later his brother Harry finished Pharmacy School and opened a small pharmacy in Peabody Mass. Arnold worked for him one or two summers as a soda jerk and cashier.
        He graduated, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1933. His professors were not encouraging. The world that year did not seem to have many jobs for philosophers.  Even if he were to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, which seemed attractive to him, the only possible jobs seemed to be as college professor. But those jobs were almost all in denominational colleges which naturally preferred members of their own denominations and which were very unlikely, in the world of the 1930's, to hire any Jew, much less an Orthodox Jewish agnostic.  And Arnold's second career aspiration bit the dust.
        So Arnold went home, and went to work that summer in his brother's pharmacy. But one of his friends from college – perhaps Herb Tobin – was admitted to Harvard Law School. "I bet you couldn't get into Harvard Law School." "I bet I could".  So the next time Arnold took the train into Boston, he went by Harvard Law School. "Does it cost anything to apply to Harvard Law School?" "No" "then I'd like to apply."   "For what year?"   "This Fall, I guess". "Applications for this Fall were due months ago."  "Oh, Ok. I guess I'm too late." Arnold turned to leave. The secretary called him back.  "Well, you could put in a late application. If there are vacancies in the class they sometimes look at late applications." Arnold applied.
        A few days later his acceptance came in the mail. Now, from his point of view, that would have ended the matter. He had no interest at all in being a lawyer, he just wanted to prove to his friend that he could get in. But in the Ordman home, whoever got to the mail first read everyone's mail -- especially if that person was his mother Anna, and she was the one who got to the mail first that morning.
        She woke his brother Harry. "Is this a good thing?"  "Yes", said Harry, "He can go to Harvard Law School."  "Does it cost money?", asked Anna. "It doesn't matter," said Harry. "If you can go to Harvard Law School, you find the money somewhere."
         So befoew she woke Arnild to tell him, it was settled: "You don't have a job. You don't know what you want to do. You are admitted to Harvard Law School. So, you are GOING to Harvard Law School."
     Arnold entered Harvard Law with a profound lack of enthusiasm. The main advantage to it, to him, was that it was convenient to Widener Library and he could so on reading philosophy. But he was still a competitive student, he had a friend who he had to show he could do it, and his childhood background in Talmud (taught him by his father at home) was a good preparation. He did very well. I think he once claimed to have graduated second in his class at Harvard Law School – or maybe merely second among those who didn't go crazy in the attempt to be first.
         In 1936 he was turned loose on the world again.  With a law degree, he seemed a promising young man. He opened a law office in Salem.  But Arnold hadn't wanted to be a lawyer, still didn't, and an idealistic philosopher does not make a very good lawyer. He sometimes described himself as not wanting to take the case of a dishonest client, and not wanting to take a fee from an honest client. He wouldn't take collection or eviction cases, the normal bread and butter of a beginner during the depression. Certainly his interest in legal principles and the philosophy behind laws and cases was irrelevant to the typical small-town client of a beginning lawyer. He made ends meet, just barely, and felt able to marry Evelyn. One of Evelyn's efforts to support this business is reported in another story.
          Of course, by now, war clouds were gathering. Arnold and Evelyn were very active in left-wing causes. Already in student days they were active in anti-war causes and Arnold certainly took the Oxford Pledge (never to fight).  They certainly attended some communist-sponsored meetings in the time before the Stalin-Hitler pact. Evelyn one point signed ‘a card' because some mutual friend had told her Arnold would be impressed if she did so. She thinks it may have been a Communist Party card but isn't completely sure.  They were active in anti-Japan demonstrations and the movement to boycott Japanese goods. By the late 1930's or 1940 they had some sense of what was happening to European Jewry, and of  the refusal of the US to provide refuge.  When Pearl Harbor came, Arnold was ready to give up his law practice.  After some discussion with Evelyn, mainly over his concern about breaking the Oxford Pledge, he was off to the Pacific to fight the Germans.
      Well, that is, he wanted to fight the Germans.  But he was shipped to the Pacific. When he went in to enlist, he discovered that with his Law degree he could easily become an officer in the Navy – a "90 day wonder", a short officer's training course he attended on the campus of Harvard University (suddenly largely depopulated of undergraduates). (He did have to prove that he was an American citizen, which is the subject of another story.)  When they discovered he could actually write an English sentence, they put him in communications – and he wound up on the USS New York, a battleship, as the communications officer. This mainly involved supervising the electronic technicians, the men keeping the radio and radar operating, despite the fact that he knew nothing at all about either radio or radar.
      At the end of the war, Arnold returned to Boston.  He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he did know he did NOT want to be a lawyer. On the other hand, working in his brother's pharmacy was not going to support a family.  Then someone told him about the National Labor Relations Board. This could involve him with a cause he sympathized with, and he was told, (a) it was willing to hire Jews (in 1946 this was still a real problem in many places); (b) with a Harvard Law degree and a record as a Navy officer he was probably a shoo-in for the job; and (c) they were willing to hire people with law degrees for field jobs that did NOT involve being in court.  He applied, and was hired by the Boston office of the NLRB.
      After a few weeks training, he was sent out on his first actual job in the field. There was a labor dispute at the Lynn plant of General Electric – a union representation election (did the workers want a union, or not?) His job was to go out, set up a polling place, supervise the election, count the votes.  (He used to recall period song, The Cloak Maker's Union)
       A reporter for the local paper called on him.   Exactly how he explained the election process we do not really know, but the local paper's hostility to unions and the NLRB we do know. The headline the next day was, "Ordman to close GE". "Arnold Ordman of the National Labor Relations Board said that if necessary he will close down GE," division by division and section by section, so that workers will be able to take time off from work to come and vote in his election.
         This was not well received by the Boston Office.  He had failed in one more career, it seemed.  He was offered a choice of resigning, or of being transferred to Washington – because Washington was the only NLRB office big enough to have "inside" jobs where they could guarantee that the job would never involve talking with anyone outside the office.  Reluctantly, Arnold accepted the job in Washington, arriving in 1948.  The Board put him to work in the library, writing summaries of labor-related court decisions for the use of the other lawyers. It was the supreme inside job.
       And it was exactly the right job for Arnold. His training in Talmud and in philosophy, together with his encyclopedic memory, were exactly what was needed.  He could get exactly to the meat of a case, summarize it in the most useful manner, and as he learned the contents of the law library he saw connections between cases that others had not. Soon the ‘real' lawyers – the ones appearing in court or proposing decisions and policy - started coming to him to ask him which cases were most relevant to their problem. He'd suggest phrases and connections. And then Mo Ratner, the head of the section for writing appellate briefs, asked Arnold if he'd like to try writing a brief for a case in a federal Court of Appeals.
       Soon Arnold was regularly writing appellate briefs. And after awhile he was asked if he'd like to try arguing a case in a court of appeals. He did, and could, and was good at it. Mo Ratner left the government for private practice, and became very well off financially. Arnold had no intention of ever having to deal with a client; he stayed with the government and spent most of the 1950's working in the "Appeals" section of the NLRB, arguing cases in the appellate courts.
        By the late 1950's his position became more difficult politically. His legal arguments were not going in the direction liked by the General Counsel (head of the NLRB legal staff) appointed by Eisenhower, and Arnold was rising to a level where political views did count. He moved into a non-political position, as "Trial Examiner" (The job was later renamed "Administrative Law Judge"), the kind of judge who heard labor cases when they first came up for hearing (decisions not binding until upheld by the Labor Board, or in some cases by a Court of Appeals.
          John Kennedy became president in early 1961. Shortly thereafter there was a vacancy on the National Labor Relations Board and Kennedy appointed Frank McCulloch and designated him as Chairman of the NLRB. McCulloch asked Arnold to be his chief legal advisor.  After less than two years, the term of Stuart Rothman (Eisenhower's appointee) as General Counsel expired and Kennedy appointed Arnold as General Counsel of the NLRB. Kennedy was trying hard to make career government service attractive, in part by appointing long-term government employees to senior positions when possible. Arnold had strong support from other lawyers - he was regarded as very fair - and he was the only candidate for the job whose name appeared both on Labor's and Management's lists (the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Manufacturers, I think). One Senator commented at his Senate confirmation hearing, "Harvard Law, officer in the Navy in the Pacific, long-time government employee, how could you miss?" But the family knew the way he had gotten there – he failed at enough things to succeed by the process of elimination.
   Click here for more on Arnold's Career
   Click here for a song Arnold used to recall

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