If you glanced at psychologist Martin Gelman’s notes, you’d probably think they were gibberish.
“He used to keep his patient notes in Yiddish,” said his daughter, Andrea Foulkes, “to maintain strict confidentiality because he knew nobody would be able to read them.”
As the son of Ukrainian immigrants, Yiddish was Gelman’s first language, but the “unique” individual later became an esteemed Center City psychologist and cherished professor at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC).
“He was a quiet force of nature. He affected so many lives in an unassuming, quiet way, not looking for any sort of accolades or even recognition,” Foulkes said of her father, who died of natural causes Sept. 23 in Jenkintown at the age of 96.
“He was able to advise people how to turn around their lives,” she said, “and he did it totally without judgment.”
The Philadelphia native followed world politics and events from a young age. With the rise of Hitler and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gelman enlisted in the Air Force.
He was stationed in Italy and served as lead navigator in the 15th Air Force, 450th Bombardment Group, which flew Consolidated B-24 Liberators.
But he didn’t talk about his military service until 30 years later, as it was traumatic for him.
“It was an experience where he felt he was going to die every die,” Foulkes said. “He wanted to make sure that everyone he served with understood that he was strong, capable and willing to serve completely because he was Jewish.”
Gelman took his last mission with a different crew so he could get home sooner, as opposed to a three-day reprieve off the coast of the Adriatic Sea, but his plane was shot down. Some survived; others became prisoners of war.
After 50 missions, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“That had a profound effect on his attitude about war and life and the chaos of it all, which was very helpful when he became a clinical psychiatrist,” she said.
He married Gertrude Golden three days after returning stateside in 1944, then finished his service in Louisiana and Texas before coming back to Philadelphia.
He was also greatly impacted by the creation of the State of Israel, even being offered a position with the Israeli Air Force, though he turned it down.
Joining a burgeoning field, Gelman ventured into psychology, first earning his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania while working full time at the family printing business, Gelman Sign and Printing, and raising his own family.
“He never complained. He was always home for dinner and then off to classes,” Foulkes recalled. He earned a second Ph.D. in psychology from Temple University and opened his own practice in Center City.
Over 35 years, he garnered a reputation as an adored therapist.
But his other passion was teaching anthropology and psychology at MCCC in Blue Bell, where he was a founding professor and established the Social Sciences department.
The respect from faculty and students — as well as being “the most popular professor on campus” — persuaded him to continue teaching until he was 89.
He received the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award in 1999 and, in 2016, MCCC established an Excellence in Psychology Award in his name.
Gelman and his wife were married for 73 years, a complete love match, his daughter said. They’d chat on the phone up to 10 times a day in between his classes or patients.
“No matter what he was doing, every Sunday he’d round the kids up and he would assign us to cleaning tasks,” she recalled, “because he always knew that whatever he was doing, her job was harder.”
Gelman is survived by his wife, Gertrude; three children, Andrea Foulkes, Karen Strouse and Paul Gelman; and grandchildren Doug, Drew, Jillian and Dori.
Donations can be made to MCCC in honor of Martin Gelman.
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