Vickroy: Chance ‘encounter’ leads to lifetime of preaching tolerance
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy April 8, 2013 11:36PM
Dr. Dennis Gaeta shows a newspaper clipping photograph of Anne Frank that he has had for many years Friday, April 12, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 15, 2013 6:10AM
Dennis Gaeta was just 12 when his life’s mission came into focus. The son of an Italian Catholic father and a Jewish mother, the Tinley Park optometrist was often told he could follow whichever religion he wanted.
His ambivalence dissolved the day he “met” Anne Frank.
He was at the John F. Kennedy High School Library in North Miami Beach, where he lived at the time.
“They said the bus was going to be an hour or two late,” he said. “So I pulled out a compilation of Look magazines from the 1950s, hoping to see some cool 1953 Pontiacs.”
Instead, the book fell open to a story about a Jewish girl who’d chronicled life in occupied Amsterdam during World War II.
Frank and her family spent two years hiding from the Nazis before they were captured and arrested. Anne died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, but her diary has lived on, serving as both an eyewitness to history and an inspiration to not let it repeat itself.
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” published in 1947, has sold 30 million copies and been translated into 67 languages.
That library encounter was the first Gaeta had heard of Frank, whom he calls “Anna” because that was her name in German.
“I’ve been known to correct people,” he said, chuckling.
“Staring at her picture, I couldn’t believe she was (about) the same age as me at the time. I kept thinking, ‘If I had been born in Holland at that time, my story would be similar,’ simply because of my mother’s religion,” he said. “It broke my heart that she died weeks before she would have been released.”
In the hour or two that he read and reread the story, Gaeta said, ”She became my girlfriend.”
He remembers closing the book and deciding he was a Jew.
Over the next 30-something years, he would learn all he could about the Nazis’ reign of terror and about Judaism, but mostly, he would work to spread the message of tolerance whenever and wherever he could, mostly with patients and family.
“Ethnic cleansing can and does happen anywhere. Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia,” he said. “Children are the future. They’re the ones who can prevent his kind of tragedy from happening. We need to teach them how to be tolerant.”
Gaeta and his wife, Brenda, who is Catholic, marry their religions, both learning from each other’s, he said. She attends Jewish seders; he listens to Catholic sermons.
The couple met when they were just 16, while Brenda was visiting Florida.
Brenda, who grew up in Chicago Ridge, spent school vacations with her family in the Sunshine State.
“In between visits, we’d write to each other and send each other packages but we couldn’t call because long-distance rates were too high,” he said.
When she turned 19, she moved to Miami. Both sets of parents insisted on a wedding.
So, on Dec. 1, 1985, they exchanged vows in Chicago, hosting a reception at the Radisson Hotel in Alsip.
Today, they live in Tinley Park with their two children, Jonathan, a graduate of Andrew High School, and Gienna, a senior at Providence Catholic High School.
Five years ago, Gaeta said, he realized a lifelong dream when he was able to take his family to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
“It was incredible, very emotional,” he said. “I laid down and counted the planks on the ceiling, much like Anne probably did while she was living there.”
A friend, a photo
Gaeta studied his craft in Boston and in the early ’90s began working for LensCrafters.
He remembers telling his Anne Frank story to a colleague at the optometry shop. A week later, John Propati brought him a photograph of Frank, which Gaeta still has.
Nine years ago, Gaeta opened his own office on Oak Park Avenue in Tinley Park.
This past year, as he was preparing to semi-retire, he went looking for a partner. He called Propati.
“When he came to the office, I showed him an envelope. Inside was the picture of Anne Frank,” Gaeta said. “I’ve kept it on my desk all these years.”
Frank, he said, has been a constant inspiration in his life.
“The fact that I still had that picture told Dr. Propati that when I commit, I commit,” Gaeta said.
Despite his plans to spend more time with his wife and children, Gaeta said he will maintain one longstanding tradition.
Each Saturday and Sunday, he offers deeply discounted eye exams, eyeglass repairs and contact lens replacements from booths 308 and 309 at the Swap-O-Rama flea market in Alsip.
“It started as a family joke,” he said. “But it has turned out to be the best entrepreneurial thing I’ve ever done.”
In the 11 years since he set up shop there, more than 17,000 customers have stopped by for some kind of service.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to help people who might not be able to afford to go to an office right now,” he said. “When they can, they’ll remember me.”
Gaeta said he has been to Israel seven times in the past 10 years. What amazes him most is the amount of support the country gets from Germany.
“So many still feel the need to ask forgiveness, even generations after the Holocaust,” he said.
There is great power in forgiveness, he said. Much like there is power in hope.
Even in the worst of times, he said, hope gets people through.
That’s something he learned from Anne Frank.
In her diary, she writes, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Gaeta said, “That she believed to the very end that deep down, all people are good, well, that moves me to tears.”