August 14, 2009
by Peter Applebome
When Steve Mantell was recovering in 1997 from bone marrow surgery that eminent cancer specialists said would surely kill him, he found time every day for one special thing. While in isolation at the hospital, he wrote a daily installment of the unlikely friendship between the misanthropic Mr. Turtle and the motherly, friendly Mrs. Snake and her seven “snakies,” which he sent off to his kids like a daily bedtime story from afar.
In a world in which so many people either complain or brag about being overworked, overbooked, overscheduled or overwhelmed, Steve Mantell, it seemed, was never too busy. Not for his two remarkable kids, Will and Laura, or his beloved wife, Harriet. Not for coaching youth soccer, serving on the board of Temple Beth El and being instrumental in hiring Rabbi Joshua Davidson. Not for being on the board of the Chappaqua School Foundation and producing and directing a film documenting its contributions to the community.
Could he provide advice to New Castle Community Television, do that video for the Grafflin Writing Program or help with the public service announcement contest for the Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps? Sure. Was he available to counsel anyone, friend or complete stranger, with a cancer diagnosis? Absolutely.
In truth, if anyone in Chappaqua really was too busy, it was Steve Mantell, a nationally recognized filmmaker and Chappaqua resident since 1992, who lived every day as if it were his last. And when he died way too young at the age of 51 on August 4, after battling three types of cancer for more than 20 years, he left behind a quietly miraculous life story and a daunting example of the myriad ways that one supremely gifted and decent person can benefit countless others.
Almost everyone who got to know Steve well sooner or later, often through an apologetic aside or a casual explanation about a game or meeting missed, learned one small detail Steve was loath to bring up – his continued existence was a medical miracle.
Steve was first operated on for a childhood tumor when he was seven, shocked cancer experts by surviving the bone marrow transplant in 1997, and beat the odds time after time seemingly through sheer force of will.
So Scott Horwitz remembers the astoundingly positive guy he met through AYSO soccer, the goofy concocted-from-thin-air plays like the mighty V Defense, the way Steve absolutely exuded the notion that this was about fun, not scores, egos or some over-amped dad’s soon-to-be superstar son. But mostly he remembers how Steve made the Bad News Bears experience of fourth-grade soccer absolutely magical – games that in the best way were at once pure play and something much more. “His approach to soccer was his approach to life,’’ Horwitz said, “which is that you enjoy each day, enjoy the people you’re with, make it fun for everyone and if a byproduct was us figuring how to win, fantastic. Steve’s optimism was infectious.”
No doubt it was that optimism, in part, that kept him going well beyond any reasonable expectation. But chances are his commitment to service played its part as well. Steve, who with his wife produced and directed award-winning children’s video programming and documentaries, was a gifted filmmaker and business strategist, qualities he shared with groups throughout town, most notably with the Chappaqua School Foundation. So often when he should have been doing his own work, he was producing first-rate work for local community groups instead.
Steve was a brilliant guy with a degree from Princeton and a keen sense of how to use new technology to tell old stories. But in some ways, he was a throwback to an earlier time – a truly local character, who worked from home or an office in town, got to every concert or game he was healthy enough to attend and really cared about the place he lived and wanted to make it better. He did it all with intelligence, passion and an innate sense of empathy and fairness. So, for example, when Temple Beth El was looking for a new rabbi, temple members wanted to designate someone who could express to the candidates the soul and spirit of the Chappaqua community at its best, the kind of environment a new rabbi should do his best to foster. Steve, it was immediately clear, was the person to articulate that vision, probably because he exemplified it.
Steve, who is also survived by his mother, Marianne, and three younger siblings Michael, David, and Eva, never dwelled on his medical issues. Quite the contrary. He took in the passing parade – including the tics and excesses of the Westchester Way – with an ever-present sense of humor and a gentle Monty Pythonesque eye for the absurd. Friends and associates always got the sense that he thought their problems or their issues were much more pressing than his piddling concerns.
But he did embrace his medical challenges in one entirely characteristic way. He wrote lyrical and life-affirming pieces on dealing with illness that were used in newsletters distributed to cancer patients – and in Rabbi Davidson’s sermons. He’d talk, at great length with anyone with a cancer diagnosis – dozens of people over the years—explaining both in very practical terms and in almost spiritual ones what it takes to survive and to prosper. And the essence of his advice was this – Go on with your life. Live it to the fullest. Be positive. Keep your sense of humor. Put one foot in front of the other and be everything you have always been and perhaps a bit more.
Asked if there was something of Job in Steve’s tribulations—physical suffering that often was way beyond what any of us could ever expect to bear—Rabbi Davidson, said, no, not at all. Job asked God, “Why me?’’ He lost everything he had and was left baffled, miserable, alone. Steve, he said, was the opposite of that.
“Steve could have holed himself up in his illness and failed to cherish the parts of his life that were special, but he never did that,’’ Rabbi Davidson said. “He continued to relish all the delicious parts of his life. He was not Job. He didn’t ask Why me? He didn’t lose what he had. He was a very special man, and his loss is going to be felt in ways that most of us can’t imagine or articulate.”
Peter Applebome, who has lived in Chappaqua since 1998, writes the “Our Towns” column for The New York Times.
Memorial service next Tuesday
Please join the community in a service celebrating Steve Mantell’s life next Tuesday, August 18, at 11:00 a.m. at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester on 220 South Bedford Road, Chappaqua, NY, 10514.
For those wishing to make donations in Steve Mantell’s memory:
- Checks should be made payable to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (or MSKCC)
- Memo line should state “Stephen Mantell”
- Checks should be addressed to:
Development Office (in honor of Dr. James Young)
Attn: Kate Gray
1275 York Avenue
New York, NY 10065
Credit card donations can be made over the phone (646-227-2784).
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