Allan Kalish did extraordinary things with his 94 years, things about which he could’ve justifiably bragged.
From the early ’60s to the mid-’80s, Kalish & Rice was to Philadelphia’s advertising scene what Sterling Cooper was to “Mad Men’s” New York. They had the big accounts ranging from the Phillies to Silo, the old Philadelphia-based electronics giant, whose radio ads remain delightfully stamped in daughter Betsy Kalish’s memory: “Silo is having a sale! A what? A sale!” she recalls by heart, just as she does the “beautifully written” radio spots by Kalish’s partner Howard Rice for client Philadelphia magazine.
After beginning his professional career in ad sales for Philadelphia magazine, an early-career stint at WCAU cemented Kalish’s love for broadcasting. “In his heart of hearts,” said Betsy, 63, “he was always a radio man.”
Much of Kalish & Rice’s most successful work affirmed this. “Even when he was at the agency,” she added, “their specialty was radio. The radio spots they did were really groundbreaking.”
By all accounts a gifted marketing mind, Kalish’s accomplishments in business afforded him the opportunity to do what he really did best: serve others. He was president of the Philadelphia Ad Club; he was inducted into Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 1994. He served on charities’ boards (the Police Athletic League, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Sports Congress) and made more time for the homeless, serving on Mayor Rendell’s Commission for the Homeless, than many who were far less busy.
But Kalish was humble about his accomplishments. It wasn’t false modesty, insists granddaughter Sophia Hendler, 29. “He was actually uncomfortable putting himself in that arena … of being the lead part of the story. It was impossible to get him to brag about anything; he always wanted to make sure that someone else was acknowledged.”
Betsy echoed, “It was never about his own achievements. It was about the effect he could have on helping people become their best selves.”
When asking friends, family and former colleagues about Kalish, that’s what comes up most frequently — how willing a mentor he was.
“He loved to encourage people … He was just a terrific boss. He wanted you to grow; he wanted to teach; he wanted you to be the best person you could be,” said Nancy Leichter, a longtime friend and former ad agency colleague, who was one of the six founding members of Kalish & Rice.
“And he was a truly brilliant marketing and salesperson,” she continued. “But one thing about Allan that people may or may not know: He encouraged and helped women, particularly. He might’ve been one of the first people I know who promoted women into executive positions. This was in the late ’60s, early ’70s when that was very, very unusual.”
After growing up poor outside of Pittsburgh, an only child living in an Orthodox household of 16 adults with one bathroom, Kalish enlisted in the military at 17, serving 30 months in World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and invaded Normandy on D-Day, witnessing things so horrific during the latter that he’d rarely speak of them.
He was among a group of American soldiers who liberated Dachau concentration camp. He’d recount the story for family and close friends every so often; it’s one of those stories that, once heard, is not easily forgotten.
Moving from building to building, his group came upon a gaunt, gravely undernourished prisoner, still in his Nazi-issued striped pajamas, huddled in a corner.
“Petrified, in the truest sense of that word,” is how Betsy Kalish remembers her father describing the survivor.
The story goes that all of the other soldiers in Kalish’s group tried to coax the terrified, and likely very confused, survivor out of his corner. None of the Americans spoke the prisoner’s language and it was pretty obvious he didn’t speak English. Frustrated, Kalish’s colleagues left to put themselves to better use elsewhere, but Kalish remained. He approached the survivor cautiously, so as not to alarm, and began to sing the Shema. The man, overcome, began to sob. He rose and followed Kalish out the gates of Dachau.
The experience was formative, and he wanted to give others a sense of Jewish continuity.
Beginning in the mid-’90s, Kalish began leading group trips to Israel every few years. Jews came. Non-Jews came. “All that mattered to him was whether you were the type of person who’d get something out of the trip and, maybe, come to love Israel like he did,” said Leichter, who joined on an early trip.
Kalish had a zeal for Eretz Yisrael. Those who traveled with him say the physical place of Israel became a very big part of his Jewish identity. “He just loved Israel and he wanted everybody to see it, to love it and to understand it,” added Leichter. “I certainly got more of a sense of being Jewish [by visiting Israel with Kalish], and I think that’s probably what he was hoping people would find.”
Kalish lived with Parkinson’s the last handful of years but was especially perceptive until the end — “almost intimidatingly so,” joked Hendler, his granddaughter.
“Even his last days, he was super-aware. I know he heard everything everyone was saying, and I know he would have said something and that it probably would have been pretty funny,” Hendler said. “He had a very quiet sense of humor that was very, very loud. We would just laugh and laugh and laugh.”
Allan Kalish died peacefully on Tuesday morning Oct. 29, 2019, surrounded by his family. He is survived by his daughter Betsy, son David and granddaughter Sophia, as well as by two beloved stepchildren, Jason and Emily Mayer, and his beloved personal assistant, Mary Grace Salamone. He is also survived by two ex-wives: Beth Kalish, whom he married in 1954 and divorced in 1971, and Leslie Mayer, whom he married in 1994 and divorced in 2016.
A memorial is planned for Nov. 24 at 2:30 p.m. at the Germantown Friends Meeting House, 31 W. Coulter St., Philadelphia.
Donations may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center at splcenter.org.