It’s a common mid-20th-century story — Brooklyn kid works hard and makes good (think any number of celebrities), making his mark in big cities across the country — and Ira Berkowitz is one of those stories.
By Denise Woodin
It’s a common mid-20th-century story — Brooklyn kid works hard and makes good (think any number of celebrities), making his mark in big cities across the country — and Ira Berkowitz is one of those stories. However, a successful career as an advertising executive was only Act I for Ira, who now divides his time between writing crime novels and assisting members at the Rye YMCA.
As part of the Member Services team behind the Rye Y’s front desk, Ira greets members and visitors, answers questions, and helps with program registration and any number of tasks to make the Y’s member experience a positive one. It’s the sunnier side of his retirement life; the other side takes him to the dark themes and places he explores in his crime novels. To date, Ira has published four novels in the Jackson Steeg Mystery series and is working on a fifth book that will be the first in a new series.
“I needed to get away from my computer and be with people,” Ira, 74, remarked about his decision to take a part-time job at the Y. “That was my selfish motivation, but there was a greater good involved too.”
Like many college students, Ira had no idea when he entered New York University in the late 1950s that his career path would take some early twists and turns. He started out as a pre-med student, but couldn’t get into medical school despite honor roll grades. After earning a graduate degree in history, he secured a scholarship for law school, but found that he hated it. “I had no idea what I was going to do,” he recalled.
Then he met Phyllis, who not only became his wife, but also pointed him toward a career by introducing him to her roommate’s brother, a “Mad Men” era partner at a major agency. Ira landed a job as a research assistant at Grey Advertising for $100 a week and before long started moving up the ladder. His first promotion took him and Phyllis — the couple married in 1967 — to Atlanta. Later, they would move to Dallas, and then New Orleans, where their daughter Robin was born. In the early 1970s, the Berkowitz family returned to the New York area and added another child with the birth of Daniel in 1972. They eventually settled in Ardsley, where Ira and Phyllis have lived for the past 37 years.
Operating at hyper-speed in the high-pressure world of advertising, Ira suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery while still in his 40s. “Eight to ten years later,” he said, “I looked around and realized that everyone around me was about 10 years old. It was time to get out. So, I retired.” He had worked for several prestigious firms, including Doyle Dane Bernbach, Interpublic Group, and Ogilvy and Mather on accounts ranging from Volkswagen to American Express to Coca-Cola.
“I worked with some of the most brilliant, creative minds in the country,” he observed. “When I retired, my wife asked ‘What are you going to do now?’” Ira didn’t know how to answer. “I had offices and clients all over the country. I traveled. Everything came to an abrupt halt. I had no hobbies. Phyllis suggested that I write. The only fiction I’ve ever written was a marketing plan.”
“But I’ve always been an avid reader,” Ira continued. “I had no interest in going back to school so I started re-reading authors I liked to see how they did it. I wrote a book, not a very good one. And I got a lot of rejections.” Then, Ira saw a television commercial with a character named “Steeg” that caught his attention and Jackson Steeg was born. With encouragement from Phyllis and author Roberta Stillman, a member of the Berkowitz’s temple, he completed “Family Matters,” which won the Washington Irving Award for literary merit.
The working title of Ira’s latest novel is “Sorrow’s Road” and it tackles some of the same themes explored in the Jackson Steeg Mysteries, themes that make him angry or sad. “I tend to write about the people society should protect: children, the homeless.”
Asked how he ended up at the Rye Y, Ira explained that he had worked with Bill Guyre, another member of the Y’s Member Services team, at an Internet company for a brief time in the 1990s. When Bill landed a job at the Y, he told Ira about it. Sounding like the adman he once was, Ira noted, “I buy what they’re doing there. It’s terribly, terribly important.”
“My greatest career accomplishment was building up businesses, providing employment and a start for young people breaking into the field. That translates to the Y. You give a kid a chance, get him into a swim class or whatever it may be, it makes a difference. In this economy, it’s tough. I look at our scholarship program and it’s absolutely wonderful. We’re helping people who need help.”
In his role at the Y, Ira brings the lessons learned during decades of professional experience. “When I was starting out, I was very shy. But I’ve learned that you make a friend, then you make two friends. And you start building relationships. I enjoy building those relationships at the Y and making the member experience pleasant.”
The author is Director of Community Impact and Social Responsibility, Rye YMCA.