Uncle Meyer by
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(207 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

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1943, with my dad, at my grandfather’s funeral in St. Louis

Hannah and Sam Prensky, my great-grandparents, had five children in Kovno, Lithuania. Lizzie, their eldest, was my grandmother. They were prosperous and well-educated. Sam spoke five languages and had a cigarette rolling factory that employed 500 people. Hannah was literate, played piano and passed her quick mind and love of learning on to her children. They emigrated to St. Louis, MO in 1888.

Meyer, or “M.L.” as he was often called, was very bright and had an unusual facility for numbers and finance. He went to Jones Business School, worked in my Sarason grandfather’s general store in Pine Bluff, AK, but returned to St. Louis when his own father died. He then worked as an accountant and auditor at Laclede Gas and Light Company. In 1911, a “Mr. McGee” of the two-year-old General Motors Corporation, who was a board member of Laclede, heard Uncle Meyer give the financial report one quarter, entirely by memory. McGee was so impressed, he offered my uncle a job at GM in Detroit on the spot. Uncle Meyer accepted, moving to Detroit in August, 1911 to become chief accountant and auditor for the young company. It is often cited that he was the only one who understood GM founder’s William Durant’s vision and was able to consolidate the many individual car and parts companies that Durant acquired.

Five years later, M.L. became comptroller and in 1919, he was promoted to treasurer, a position he held until his retirement, 32 years later in 1951. In 1925 he changed the family name to Prentis. Anti-Semiticism was profoundly prevalent in the auto industry. Henry Ford was notorious for it.

The brothers & sisters around their mother Hannah.

The above is an undated photo; I believe it is from around 1920. My grandmother is the woman standing furtherest to the left. Meyer is seated on the right.

Meyer established and developed the company’s entire financial system. Meyer also had a great impact on the Sarason family, bringing many of them to Detroit to work at GM. There was so much I wanted to know about my father’s family, but Dad passed away, unexpectedly, on January 3, 1990, when I was a busy young mother. It never occurred to me to ask about his life before I was born.

Shortly thereafter, I began to contact his surviving cousins, siblings, nieces and nephews to research family history. One of his first cousins (son of the woman closest to Meyer in the above photo) told me that Durant personally lost $92 million in a market downturn in 1921 and was soon ousted from the company he created. Alfred Sloan took over at that point.. Uncle Meyer is mentioned in Sloan’s account of his years at GM. Though Sloan ran a successful company, his personal and professional merits are beyond the scope of this discussion.

In 1994, I also reached out to past GM chairmen Tom Murphy and Roger Smith. Both responded and had high praise for Uncle Meyer. At the time, they indicated the systems he invented and put in place were still in use. He, clearly, was a financial genius, was kind, polite, reserved, well-regarded. When they went to work for GM, it was the largest, most important corporation in the world. Obviously, times and the industry have changed dramatically over the intervening 26 years. For any number of reasons, General Motors lost its way in the new landscape. I say that with some sadness and a tinge of regret, as a child of Detroit.

In his role as treasurer, M.L. was the point man on banking relations between GM and all the banks with whom it conducted business. By several accounts, those numbered over 600, across the U.S. and Canada. He believed in spreading risk. His most famous accomplishment was overseeing GM’s conversion to its wartime efforts during WWII, securing an unheard-of at the time, $1 BILLION V-loan credit line to finance those efforts. Roger Smith mentioned that it was also a huge task to convert production back to cars after the war!

For all his modest, unassuming ways, he loved color in his automobiles and was known for driving an orange Cadillac around town, smiling as he drew complimentary whistles.

With success came obligation. He and his wife Anna gave generously to many worthy causes around Detroit and beyond, including Wayne State University, Temple Beth El, The United Foundation, The Jewish Welfare Federation and more. He was a founder of the Albert Einstein Medical School.

He also helped his sister Lizzie. My grandmother was bipolar, long before there was any medical treatment. The doctors noticed she was better when pregnant. They didn’t understand the hormonal changes that occurred in a woman’s body during pregnancy. She had the last two of her eight children (including my father, her youngest) to “cure” her. She started in and out of mental institutions when my father was 8 and was permanently institutionalized when he was 12. He never spoke about it, but I’m sure it greatly affected him. She was in a private sanatorium in St. Louis. After the death of my father’s oldest brother, who served for years as  Assistant Comptroller of GM (and knew the former Chairmen well), his daughter found documents showing that Uncle Meyer paid for his sister’s care all the years she was in the sanatorium. We Sarasons/Prentises take care of one another.

Uncle Meyer retired before I was born. He died at his home on his 84th birthday of pancreatic cancer in July, 1970. It was the summer before I left for Brandeis. I was in Ohio at the time, visiting maternal relatives. I saw his obituary in the local paper, called my father and asked if he wanted me to cut my trip short and come home for the funeral. He told me to stay; it would be enough to come to shiva to pay my respects. Meyer was a distant figure in my life, but loomed large for the entire family and was mourned by all who knew him. My family remains proud of their ancestor, originally from Kovno, Lithuania, who grew up to have a profound impact on American commerce and industry.

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: Meyer Prentis, GM, Detroit

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Uncle Meyer sounds like an amazing man in many ways. Truly a financial genius, but in a quiet, unassuming way. And much, much more, as reflected in his philanthropy and care for his own family members. I am sorry for you — and I know you also feel, based on your story — that you did not get to know him better.
    I should add that I was particularly amused by your reference to Uncle Meyer’s orange Cadillac. Having been a lawyer for accountants for much of my career, I have often noted that, as low key as most of these guys are, they all seem to love having flashy cars — or, more recently, flashy pick-ups. So Uncle Meyer was hardly alone.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, John, I think he was amazing. But I was only 17 when he passed away at the age of 84. You are correct, I wish now that I’d had more interaction with him, but as a 17 year old, I’m sure I would have been intimidated and probably wouldn’t have had much to say. I’m friendly with several of his grandchildren (my second cousins), who all loved him very much. That is good to know.

      He had four daughters (one passed away only four after he did). The three surviving daughters were all very kind to me and helped me with my research.

      Your comment about flashy cars is funny. Guess it’s the quiet ones to look out for.

  2. Betsy, as always your powers of recall of names, dates and events are enviable.
    I wish I knew more about my family’s background and had asked before it was too late!

    I love the image of your uncle Meyer driving around in his orange Cadillac!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Dana. As I said, my father died, rather suddenly, 30 years ago, which prompted me to start researching family history then. Eventually it took the form (for a few years) of family newsletters with these shared biographies, which I have filed, but are easily accessible, so I just went back to them. No magic. I did the heavy lifting years ago.

  3. However you do it, brava Betsy

  4. Marian says:

    Wonderful recap of your uncle Meyer’s life and career, Betsy, and terrific details that make him come alive. It’s fascinating that he had a role in the auto industry that was so influential. You should be proud of him, your family, and all the research you did in giving meaning to this story.

  5. Suzy says:

    Betsy, you wrote so extensively about your family in The Sarason Clan the last time this prompt came up, that I was surprised that there was more to be written. But you have given us a fascinating picture of Uncle Meyer here, both the personal and the professional, and even have the testimony of two past chairmen of G.M as to how valuable he was in his work life. I also agree with John and Dana that the orange Cadillac is one of the standout aspects of this portrait! Great that you did all that research when you did!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Suzy. I was just fascinated by this son of immigrants who rose to such professional heights, and of course had such a big influence on my family. So I wanted to “get the story” while I could, and am very glad I did!

  6. You had me when he gave the financial report entirely from memory! Clearly a genius, Uncle Meyer had a profound influence on not only your family but GM, the auto industry, and by virtue of his philanthropy who knows how many others, To think that his influence ripples to this day, you have a right to be proud, Bets! What would this country be without its immigrants?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for succinctly summarizing the gist of what I tried to convey, Barb. Though his sphere of influence was well before my time, I felt it reverberate through the years. And glad you picked up on the fact that I began and ended my story in Lithuania. That, of course, was deliberate. He was a babe of 2 when he was brought to this country, but, like so many others in what used to be this great country of ours, we can ALL make a difference, no matter where we come from, or what kind of ship brought us here.

      His daughter who showed me the scrapbook with his degree from Jones Business School and the certificate changing the family name, was thrilled that I was interested in family history and wrote about it more than 25 years ago. She and my dad (first cousins) were quite friendly at some point in their lives and Dad told me they were on a double date when they heard the news that FDR had died. One of those moments in time one never forgets.

      WE SHALL OVERCOME!

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    What a remarkable man, Betsy. I love how you unearthed so many details about your Uncle Meyer. Coming from Detroit, I have to ask if there is a connection. My Aunt Evelyn’s maiden name was Prentis. Your story touched another thread for me. My husband’s grandmother was also hospitalized for most of her adult life in an institution in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, although she had many brothers and sisters, there was not a mensch like your uncle to help her. It happened when my father-in-law was five and he claimed he was an orphan, although she was alive and we could have visited her had we known.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Yes, I was a determined investigator years ago while there were still plenty of living relatives to speak with.

      As I mentioned, Meyer changed the family name from Prensky to Prentis in 1925. Prentis is a fairly common name. I’ve never heard mention of an Evelyn in our branch of the family, though the Detroit Jewish community is fairly tight-knit, so it’s not impossible.

      I am sorry to hear of the situation in your husband’s family. Part of what I’ve done with my research is trace the incidence of bipolar depression across that side of my family (it has shown up at every generation). My featured photo was taken at my grandFATHER’s funeral – not his sister’s (who was Meyer’s blood relative). As I thought about it, I was impressed that he traveled from Detroit, during the war, to attend his brother-in-law’s funeral in St. Louis, though I noticed in one news clipping that I have, he worked in Sam’s store in his youth, so there must have been some closeness to the whole family. I’m not sure if anyone besides my Uncle Art (my dad’s oldest brother, who also had a senior position at GM) knew that Meyer was funding his sister’s care. Family finances were kept private, but when one of the Sarason brothers was diagnosed and was also in and out of hospitals, the family rallied. The oldest sister went to CA (where Harry lived) to care for his children (his wife was also sickly), and Art contributed financially. I wrote about all of this in my previous story about the Sarason Clan, though it very long and tough to wade through.

      People handle mental illness in their own way. My mother suffered from depression her whole life, wouldn’t seek treatment, wouldn’t listen to my father (who didn’t really know what to do). If one of her own sibling had given her advice, she might have listened, but as I’m sure you are aware, there was a stigma attached to mental illness even a generation ago, so it was difficult to get decent treatment and certainly, nothing like Prozac existed.

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