By Jim Van Orden
MAPLEWOOD, NJ – A cup hanging by a string from his 103rd floor office ceiling swung in a wide arc as the World Trade Center’s south tower swayed in strong winds blowing off the Hudson River.
The cup, as well as a high-powered telescope he assembled so employees could view Manhattan’s treasures – Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and others – symbolized Howard Kestenbaum’s strong interest in science, people and the world around him.
Howard learned the laws of physics – motion, energy and force – when he started wrestling at Columbia High School in 1960. He quickly emerged as one of New Jersey’s finest amateur wrestlers. The discipline and character he developed on the mat served him well later in life when he joined other heroes who fought life-and-death struggles on September 11, 2001.
Those who grew up with Howard in Maplewood, including the author, remember the short, skinny boy with a big smile, quick wit and enormous heart. He was the “can-do-kid,” a fierce competitor and caring friend.
Howard always had a penchant for wrestling. When he was young, his siblings – Stewart and Susan – “tag team” wrestled on the living room rug surrounded by pillows, which made the “fighting” boundary. When someone got tired, they tagged their partner on the other side of the pillows to come in and take their place. Aside from rug burns on knees, elbows and cheeks, the children had fun.
In junior high, according to Susan, at least once a day Howard would come up behind her and put her in a half nelson and then a full nelson, asking which one she liked better.
Few imagined when Howard started wrestling that he would dominate high school lightweights for three years. Weighing less than 100 pounds and having no wrestling background, he proved from the start he was a giant among his peers. In his junior year he won 13 matches with only one loss. By graduation he was a two-time district and regional champion and second in the New Jersey State Wrestling Championships.
Howard and his teammates often had to lose pounds to achieve their wrestling weight. On the day of a meet, many could be seen walking through school hallways chewing bubblegum while periodically spitting pink juice mixed with saliva into mason jars. This helped them “make weight” to wrestle that day.
Before every meet, the team would go to one of the wrestler’s houses for dinner, which was usually a meal filled with protein and little else. Howard’s father, Milt, was so excited when it was the family’s turn that he bought expensive steaks and grilled them on the outdoor barbecue. Somehow, they usually ended up overcooked and burnt, which created fond-and funny-memories.
‘A compact ball of fire….’
“A compact ball of fire…and master of the mats” was how Columbia’s “Mirror” yearbook described Howard in 1963. “Howard was one of the early stars of the Columbia wrestling program after it became a varsity sport in the late 1950s,” said friend and teammate Harold Garwin.
“His wrestling records were unmatched at Columbia for 28 years,” Garwin added. “But it was what Howard accomplished later that mattered. More than a great wrestler, he was smart…really smart…and his enormous intelligence was displayed in everything he did.”
Graduating from Columbia with the highest academic honors in 1963, Howard’s smarts took him to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he also wrestled, and then to Columbia University.
“Following four magical years at Williams, I left for the Big Apple to study physics at Columbia and to seek my fortune,” Howard wrote. “Those were heady years in New York, with sit-ins on the campus, free concerts in Central Park and 20-cent subway rides to anywhere. Physics coursework was tortuous, but my thesis work was invigorating – launching a rocket-borne crystal spectrometer to measure the energy spectrum from the strongest x-ray source in the galaxy.”
Master’s degree completed, he continued at Columbia and earned a doctorate in astrophysics, followed by post-doctoral research designing and building rockets and satellites.
“We studied objects 10 miles in diameter, emitting 1,000 times the radiation of the sun, spinning furiously in space, the remnants of supernova explosions,” Howard wrote. He traveled to New Mexico and Hawaii for the rocket launches.
Marriage…and his first suit
Howard’s astronomy studies soon took a back seat to a Columbia University coed, Granvilette Williams. After an awkward introduction when he accidentally fell on Granvilette at a party, making her laugh, they were married in 1970. Their daughter, Lauren, was born seven years later.
Despite his university success, life as a physicist wasn’t for Howard. He wanted a career change.
“When Lauren was born…it gave me a spur to move on,” Howard wrote. “I found a job through the New York Times. I bought my first suit (in Barney’s boys department), got the subway to Rockefeller Center and began life as a senior consultant in an insurance brokerage firm.”
The unlikely career move – from astrophysics to insurance – wasn’t easy. But Howard quickly mastered the rarefied world of risk analysis.
“I learned loss forecasting and cash-flow analysis to help major corporations efficiently fund for their property and casualty losses,” he wrote. “I met a number of insurance buyers and financial managers, wrote some computer programs, published papers and even got used to wearing suits.”
Alexander & Alexander, parent company of Aon Corporation, put Howard to work as head of its risk management group for the eastern region in 1983.
“I still spend most of my time in the trenches,” he wrote. “In some ways, the analysis is not so different from the work I did long ago on x-rays from the cosmos. It’s a matter of solving problems, exploring approaches, using common sense, talking to people.”
Aon’s ‘rocket scientist’
Howard was now executive vice president of Aon risk management, a demanding job leading an employee team that provided client analytical and financial services.
One employee said: “We called him our ‘rocket scientist’; his scientific knowledge enriched our lives. He had a cup hanging from a string tied to the ceiling. On a windy day, it would swing on this pendulum and we could see how much the Trade Center tower was moving.” Employees also enjoyed the telescope Howard assembled in his office.
Solving problems and communicating were critical survival skills when planes flew into the World Trade Center’s towers starting at 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001. At that moment, Howard and other Aon employees were working on the 103rd floor of the nearby south tower.
Although it was chaotic, Howard didn’t hesitate and immediately shepherded Aon employees to elevators and down to the 78th floor Sky Lobby. His calm demeanor and encouragement helped many board the high-speed elevators to the ground floor and survive.
Only a handful of the perhaps 200 people in the Sky Lobby survived the second plane’s impact. An Aon employee looked for Howard. According to survivors, Howard was hit by debris and was flat on the floor.
Another Aon employee, Vijay Paramsothy, was not hit but wouldn’t leave Howard and perished with him. People said he took Howard’s glasses off, slipped them in his suit pocket and sat down next to him.
Newspaper accounts indicated that Howard and Vijay’s friendship started when Howard looked after the young man when he injured his back in an accident. Now it was Vijay’s turn to look after Howard. “He died trying to save my husband,” Granvilette said.
Howard’s legacy lives on
A memorial service for Howard, attended by more than 700 relatives, friends and associates, was held three weeks later.
Those attending heard how Howard enjoyed comforting and caring for people. When he, Granvilette and Lauren lived in their Montclair home, which they enjoyed for 16 years, Howard often made time to sleep and work in a homeless shelter sponsored by his synagogue, Congregation Beth Ahm, and the First Presbyterian Church (both located in Verona, NJ).
Howard’s brother, Stewart, said he thought of his older brother “as a star.” What friends said about Howard made him realize, he said, “how kind and generous he had become as an adult….What a beautiful man he became.”
Howard’s sister, Susan, said that despite his being brilliant, Howard was humble, didn’t take himself seriously and really had a heart of gold. She always wanted to walk in his shoes, to see as much goodness in the world and other people as he did. His niece, Dara Saffer, said: “He had a way of making you feel like you already were the person you wanted to be, that he was seeing right through you to your best self.”
“He went to visit the sick and old,” said Granvilette. “He thought that was ordinary. He never thought he was in any way extraordinary. His whole spiritual journey was to be a good man, not to be a star.” The couple had been married for 31 years.
Right after 9-11, Columbia High School set up the “Howard Kestenbaum Memorial Scholarship Fund” in Howard’s memory. Each year, the school’s “Wrestling Hall of Fame” awards a scholarship to the most academically-distinguished Columbia wrestler.
An Aon survivor, Judy Wein, remembered her boss as ‘a hero’ in his quiet way.” She related the time a stranger was observed stealing a wallet from someone’s jacket.
“The victim called out ‘Stop him, he just took my wallet!’ I looked up from my computer screen and saw Howard get up, walk out of his office and contain the burglar in a lock he apparently learned during his days on the school wrestling team.
“His action was characteristic of Howard himself: strong in his quiet way, clear thinking to know what to do in a given situation and have no second thoughts about helping others.”
Editor’s note: Jim Van Orden is a 1962 Columbia High School alum and retired writer who lives in Richardson, Texas