Eight years ago, Angela Thompson purchased a box of magazines at an online auction to use in her artwork making collages out of old pictures from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
She put the box of magazines aside and only investigated what was inside when she was doing spring cleaning in her basement earlier this year.
Underneath the pile of Life magazines and past issues of Rolling Stone and Canadian Living was a cookie tin filled with letters from Dr. Morris Starkman to his wife Betty. There were also letters to his sister Ann.
Thompson said she scanned a few letters, then stopped reading. She said she felt the letters were private and should only be read by members of the Starkman family.
Then the detective work began.
Knowing the letters were sent to a Detroit address and Morris was a doctor, she Googled the names of the couple and came across a 1993 obituary for Dr. Starkman.
“I said this has to be them. So I looked at the obituary and saw the son’s name was Robert, so OK, let’s start there,” she said.
Unfortunately, there were too many Robert Starkmans in the United States to track down so Thompson narrowed the search to the grandchildren named in the obit and started sending out Facebook messages.
Meredith Starkman, Morris and Betty’s granddaughter, responded not knowing why a woman from Kingsville, Ontario, was trying to contact her.“I sent her a picture of all the letters and she just started freaking out,” Thompson said. “She was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening.’”
Contacted in Florida where he is semi-retired, Rob Starkman, Meredith’s father, said the family is “more than thankful” that Thompson realized the significance of the letters and contacted his family. He said in the hands of someone else, the letters could have easily been tossed in the garbage.
“I was very close to my folks. They were very private people and it means a lot to have these letters back in the family,” Starkman said.
Morris Starkman was born in Toronto in 1927. He graduated from Harbord Collegiate Institute at age 16, the University of Toronto four years later and the U of T medical school at age 24. He moved to Detroit when he couldn’t obtain a medical residency at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.
“In the late 40s, there were quotas in Canada as far as the number of Jewish students who could get residencies … so he got a residency at the Children’s Hospital in Detroit,” Starkman said.
Starkman, a Michigan labour lawyer, said his father met Betty Provizer on a blind date in 1952 and after a short courtship the couple married later that year on Christmas Day at a Detroit synagogue.
Starkman said his father was so annoyed at not obtaining a residency at Sick Kids in Toronto that he took out American citizenship. But with American citizenship came draft eligibility and he was eventually drafted into the U.S. Army Medical Corps around the time the U.S. entered the Korean War.
After their wedding the couple honeymooned in San Francisco. Ten days later Betty headed home to Detroit; Dr. Starkman was shipped off to Korea where he served on the frontline treating wounded and dying American soldiers.
Dr. Starkman returned from the Korean War a changed man.
“In the middle of the night, I’d hear screaming from my parents’ bedroom. ‘Get down, get down, get down.’ And my dad was on top of my mom in a cold sweat.”
Starkman said that’s one of the reasons he won’t be reading the letters. He remembers as a child breaking open the closet where the army foot locker containing the letters was stored. As he was rummaging around the foot locker, he was discovered by his father. Normally mild-mannered, Dr. Starkman was furious.
“He passed away when I was 36 years old and in those 36 years I never saw him that angry about anything. The letters were that special.
“He told me never to go back into that locker and never look at the letters, they’re private.”
Starkman obeyed his dad’s wishes then and he will obey those wishes now. He said he has told his son and daughter he wants to be buried with the letters to ensure they remain private.
This is something you see in a movie, you read about. It’s like finding a treasure chest, finding someone’s time capsule and you have no idea who they are or anything about these people.
Starkman said he’s not sure how the letters fell out of the family’s possession, but suspects it happened when the family home was sold in 2013 and his mother moved to an assisted-living home in the Detroit area. He said it was a painful process and he left the disposing of household items to family members who may not have been aware of the importance of the foot locker and its contents. Betty Starkman died in 2016.
Starkman has nothing but praise for Thompson and her detective work tracking down his family — and for not reading the letters once she knew the contents.
“I’m glad she did that,” Starkman said. “My parents were very private people.”
Thompson said she’s pleased the letters have been returned to the Starkman family — and relieved.
“This is something you see in a movie, you read about. It’s like finding a treasure chest, finding someone’s time capsule and you have no idea who they are or anything about these people. And then you find them. I feel relieved these letters are going to where they need to be,” she said.
There’s an ironic twist to Thompson finding the letters.As a result of the pandemic, Thompson has lost many of her main sources of employment. Prior to the lockdown she worked as a waitress at the Main Street Grill, operated a cleaning service for the Beach House Grill and she and her boyfriend also manned a booth selling novelty stickers at a swap meet in Grand Bend. All those jobs are gone. With time on her hands she decided to tidy her basement.
“I never had time to go through the junk, as I call it. But it turned out it wasn’t junk.”
The letters were sent to Meredith Starkman last week and were expected to arrive May 19.
Doctor fought back against bigotry
After Dr. Morris Starkman, a captain with the U.S. Army Medical Corp, returned home from the Korean War, he was assigned to Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Soon after his arrival at the army base he walked into the officers’ mess and was greeted with a sign saying “No (Blacks) and no Jews allowed.”
“Here he is fighting for his country and he wasn’t allowed into the officers club,” said his son Rob Starkman.
However, Dr. Starkman turned the slur into a lasting benefit and become good friends with many Black enlisted men.
His son said the slight had a lasting effect on his father.
“My father spent a lifetime making sure African-American physicians got privileges at Detroit hospitals,” Starkman said. “I can tell you he became an activist because it was pretty deflating.”
Dr. Starkman had a dim view of bigotry dating back to his days in Toronto.
A graduate of the University of Toronto medical school, he left Canada for Detroit after being denied a medical residency at Sick Kids Hospital. Rob Starkman said his father was denied a residency because of a quota system that limited the number of residencies given to Jewish doctors. He left Toronto and obtained a residency In Detroit.
Dr. Starkman and his wife Betty, a former social worker, were also members of the Michigan Regional Advisory Board of the Anti-Defamation League.
“He and my mom, they walked the walk and talked the talk,” Rob Starkman said.