Tom Caldwell has finally gotten the opportunity to apologize to the Jewish boy he cruelly punched in a Toronto schoolyard 65 years ago, and now hopes others can learn from his mistake.
The chairman of Caldwell Securities Ltd. and a member of the Order of Canada, the 72-year-old said the memory of punching Howard Rosen in the playground of Runnymede Public School has stayed with him since the 1950s, and admits it was not an innocent schoolyard scuffle.
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The punch heard around the world
“I just bashed him, just punched him. And it sort of stuck in my mind,” he said. “And I have to admit it’s because he’s Jewish.”
Caldwell took an ad out in the classified section of the Canadian Jewish News weeks ago to offer up an apology to Rosen, although he never thought he’d get a response.
“To Howard Rosen, sorry I punched you at Runnymede Public School in the early 1950s. Tom Caldwell,” was all it said.
Caldwell said he didn’t grow up in an anti-Semitic home, but the decision to punch Rosen came from the idea that the boy was “different.”
“What bothered me was the anti-Semitic thing, I knew that in myself and I knew that was wrong,” he said, adding that at the time he was not aware of the full implication of the punch.
“I didn’t articulate it, I couldn’t even tell you what a Jew was. It didn’t mean anything to me.”
Caldwell added that what really bothered him about the incident was that Rosen didn’t know why he punched him, but his family probably would have suspected it was an anti-Semitic attack.
“So to think of the hurt it caused that family –that really bothered me, causing that hurt,” he said.
“It would come through my brain from time to time over the years that I felt badly about this and somehow I should make an amend.”
Too little, too late?
Rosen, for his part, did remember. Barely.
“I remember a punch, let’s put it that way. But why? No recollection of that,” he said, adding that Caldwell’s fist hit him squarely on the nose.
“Other than that it’s pretty blurry in my mind. I don’t remember my assailant. I just don’t remember.”
The 72-year-old retired schoolteacher said he was shocked by the incident at the time, as there appeared to be “no rhyme or reason” for what Caldwell had done, but added that the incident did speak to a larger issue within the city at the time.
“Basically it was an area where Jewish people had not been. It was the west end of the city and there were very few Jews living in that area at the time,” he said.
“So there might have been an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, prejudice.”
Burying the hatchet
Rosen said after seeing the apology in print and the ensuing publicity, he decided to reach out to Caldwell on Monday.
“I just said, ‘It’s Howard Rosen,’ and he apologized to me after making sure that it was me,” Rosen said. “And I accepted his apology.”
Rosen said he had moved on from the incident and that it’s not something he dwelled upon in a negative way all those years —; like Caldwell had.
“Everything that I have experienced in my lifetime, all those experiences that affected who I am and what I wanted to do in the future and my working with other peoples in other cultures, helping people around the world, doing things like that,” he said.
“I’m okay with it. I would certainly like to talk to Mr. Caldwell further and find out, you know, what his situation is and how he came to harbour the feelings that he had, and maybe what was going on in his life, and comparing where we were at a very early point in our lives.”
The two plan to meet for coffee (not in a schoolyard) in the near future and discuss the infamous punch, but Caldwell hopes people can take a more powerful message away from the incident.
“We’re all trying to work our way through life and most of us aren’t doing a great job of it, there’s all kinds of could’ves and should’ves,” he said.
“We all have things we feel badly about, or could have done better, and I think it’s kind of freeing when you admit it to yourself and you go to the individual or individuals involved and get rid of the wreckage of the past and try to clean it up.”