Kenneth Goldsmith: A Life Of Service
By Aimee La Fountain
“I had always expected to be of the helping profession,” says Kenneth Goldsmith, 70, director of volunteers at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. He has fulfilled that expectation through his work, training volunteers for various organizations in New York City.
Goldsmith grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, “a small city with a lot of history”, as he refers to it. The son of a neighborhood pharmacist, Goldsmith and his family were prominent members of the community. Goldsmith recalls that the worst even of his youth was the “untimely and unexpected” death of his mother while he was studying at New York University. Her passing motivated him to transfer to Boston University in order to help care for his younger brother, Eddie.
Family unity is a resounding theme in Goldsmith’s life. When Eddie moved to New York City, Goldsmith decided to return to the city to be with him. Through his years residing in New York Goldsmith has watched the city evolve. The most dramatic change Goldsmith observes is how the city has become safer over the years.
He says, “It seems safer now, even with the threat of terrorism. There was a lot of street crime until about five years ago. One felt personally threatened.” Goldsmith says that being close to his brother is one of his favorite aspects of living in New York, though he readily provides other attributes to the city.
One of which is the city rich cultural life. When Goldsmith first came to New York he was offered work with renowned French mime Marcel Marceau as a publicist. Goldsmith considers the city to be his gateway to many of the experiences he has enjoyed in his life. He says, “I really get to see and do a lot that only happens in New York.”
The rise of the AIDS epidemic in New York during the 1980s led Goldsmith to his career as director of volunteers at the Spellman Center at St. Claire’s Hospital. The Center for Disease Control reports that 100,777 people died from AIDS from 1981-1990. According to the American Council on Science and Health, of the 116,316 New Yorkers diagnosed with AIDS from 1981-2001, 72,207 have died.
Goldsmith says, “I wanted to work for ‘my people’- gays and [members of] the theatre community. I didn’t realize that my people were also the intravenous drug users.” At the Spellman Center Goldsmith counseled those working directly with AIDS patients and he also ran the National AIDS Hotline.
Goldsmith remembers that those living with AIDS were estranged from society early in the epidemic. “It was an exciting and challenging time. People living with AIDS were very much marginalized and not a lot of people were willing to work with them,” he said. For this reason, those who were willing to work with AIDS patients often found themselves overworked. Said Goldsmith, “The physical work and the emotional strain were very hard. It was truly being in the frontline.”
Goldsmith recalls this time in his life as a challenging experience. “The work was so overwhelming that any small escape, dinner out, theatre, music, was powerfully restorative,” he said. Despite these challenges, Goldsmith remained loyal to his cause. Goldsmith observed, “It seemed we were always tired, but never enough to think about stopping the work. It was a time best described as vocation, being called to true service.”
Another challenge Goldsmith faced was working with people he didn’t always agree with morally or professionally. He commented that this struggle turned into a lesson in patience for him. “[My] work life has taught me to try to love everyone, even the people I don't like very much,” he said. Goldsmith adds that his life philosophy is to “try to be accepting of all people and avoid being judgmental.”
Reviewing the occupations Goldsmith has held over the years, his professions reflect his desire to live a life of goodwill. He says, “I really don't feel I have chosen a career. Each job I've had has put me where I am today.” Where Goldsmith is today is a place of modest contentment. “I don't take pride in any individual accomplishments, but I am happy to have led a life which seems to have meaning,” he said.
It has been 25 years since Goldsmith first moved to the city. His fondness for New York and his work has inspired him to alter how he envisions his future. Goldsmith said, “I [had] imagined that I would [eventually] retire and be living at the beach. The truth is that I don't think I will ever leave the city and I don't think I will ever fully retire.”