In 1942, in the aftermath of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, Harry B. Silver, a wiry, 20-year-old Jewish kid from East Orange, New Jersey, enlisted in the Air Force and began preparing for World War II. At the time, he was a law student at nearby Rutgers, intending to follow his father David, his uncle, and his brother into the family business, but like most men of his generation, the universe had different plans.
On Sunday, Jan. 19th, Silver, now a four-term city councilman in Alexandria, Louisiana, celebrated his 98th birthday. He is believed to be the nation’s oldest elected official and is one of only two 98-year-olds to ever hold elected office in Louisiana history. He is two-and-a-half years older than Jimmy Carter, the oldest-ever former living President, and he arrived in Alexandria when he was 22, two years before the current President, Donald Trump, the oldest person to win the presidency, was born.
Silver, a Democrat, was reelected without opposition in 2018.
A.R. “Red” Sims, an eight-term member of the Ouachita Parish School Board was 98 when he decided not to seek reelection; he passed away at the age of 99 in September of last year. In August, America’s oldest living elected official, Charles Long, the 99-year-old mayor of Booneville, Kentucky, died after a brief illness. Long also had the distinction of being the longest-serving mayor in the country, holding the office for 60 consecutive years.
Silver had been a standout football player and a talented swimmer in high school, and a few months after joining the military, he packed up and moved to Abilene, Texas to work as a swim instructor. “I would teach the soldiers how to swim through burning oil and how to survive by resting their chin on their helmet to keep them afloat,” he told CenLa Focus in 2012.
Two years later, he was told to report to Esler Field in Central Louisiana. All told, more than 500,000 men cycled through the hastily-constructed camps in the area, including the military’s top brass and a young German immigrant named Henry Kissinger. Nearly all of them left for good, either for another assignment, a combat deployment, or back home, when the war finally ended. But Harry Silver had fallen in love with a girl from Alexandria he’d met at the local temple, the 16-year-old daughter of a department store manager, Marilyn Levy.
He’d return to New Jersey but only briefly, finishing his law studies by double-enrolling at Rutgers and Columbia. During his final year, Levy’s father, Louis, offered Silver a job at his Alexandria department store, Weiss & Goldring, and at that point, his mind was made up.
Nearly as soon as he received his degree, he enrolled at an executive training course at Bamberger and Co. in Newark and then bolted back to Louisiana, working as an intern at a store in New Orleans for nearly a year before heading back to Alexandria.
Mr. and Mrs. Louis Levy announced the engagement of their daughter Marilyn to Harry B. Silver of East Orange, New Jersey in the pages of the local newspaper on Dec. 27th, 1947. The couple tied the knot the following August in a “brilliant” ceremony, brimming with blush pink, at Alexandria’s Jewish Temple, with a reception in the Venetian Room of the Hotel Bentley, a spectacular Beaux Arts building that Silver would briefly co-own in the 1970s. During their honeymoon in California, the newlyweds were featured in the nationally-televised show “Bride & Groom” on ABC.
While Silver had been a civic and business leader in Alexandria for decades, he joined the City Council at the age of 83. In October 2005, Silver was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of District 4 Councilman Rick Ranson, who had resigned that August. At least two councilmen, Myron K. Lawson and Charles Frederick Smith, Jr., claimed that they had only supported Silver because they believed he would not stand for election the following year. Marc Lampert, a local attorney, was also upset by the selection of Silver. He had been lobbying hard for the appointment, securing the endorsements of two neighborhood groups, and had presented himself as the consensus candidate. But before he was even sworn in, Silver made it clear that he wasn’t ruling out anything. “I think it’s premature (to discuss whether or not he would seek election),” he told the Town Talk after the City Council unanimously approved his appointment.
The following year, Silver trounced Lampert, winning 56% of the vote. At the time, Silver was a registered Republican, but in 2007, he defected back to the Democratic Party, later explaining that he had been a Democrat for most of his life due, in large part, to his admiration of Camille F. Gravel, Jr., the legendary Louisiana lawyer and Alexandria native. Silver claimed he decided to become a Republican in 1980 because of his disaffection for former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who had left office earlier that year after term limits prevented him from running for a third consecutive term. Gravel, Edwards’ executive counsel, resigned from his position in 1979 following the death of his first wife Katherine.
“I’ve been a Republican long enough,” Silver said. (News of his decision was reported in a Jan. 2007 Town Talk story about changes in Alexandria City Hall headlined, “Blogger, PR person to join Mayor Roy’s staff”).
He would win reelection as a Democrat in 2010 by a landslide 76.8% against fellow Democrat Mary Wardsworth, and four years later, he squared off against Wardsworth and Republican Kevin Cavell, winning in the jungle primary with 58% of the vote. He did not field any opposition in 2018.
Thirty years before he won his first election to the Alexandria City Council, Silver was one of 20 people appointed to the Alexandria Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of local business leaders that quickly became a thorn in the side of the city’s notorious mayor, John K. “Tilly” Snyder, who Silver once sued, along with several others, including Town Talk publisher Joe D. Smith, for defamation.
While he can point to a lengthy list of accomplishments on the City Council, for most Alexandrians, Harry Silver will always remain synonymous with Weiss & Goldring, the department store that his father-in-law had managed for decades. Like Silver, Weiss & Goldring is a local institution.
Founded in 1899 in Many, Louisiana by Dave Goldring and his brother-in-law Morris Weiss, Marilyn Levy Silver’s maternal grandfather, the store moved to Alexandria in 1907.
“We had to make a decision about whether we were going to give our children a Jewish education or stay in business in Many,” Weiss later recalled. “It wasn’t a difficult decision. We knew before we started. But it was still difficult to leave our good friends and customers.”
Weiss and Goldring decided to set up shop on the corner of Second and Murray streets, but within only a few years, their success convinced them to expand to an even larger location; they bought the enormous, 30,000 square-foot Hemenway Furniture building on the corner of Desoto and Third streets, transforming it into a showcase store.
In early 1920, less than two years after moving into their new location, Goldring moved to Shreveport and sold his interest in the store to New Orleans businessman Sam Bonart for $155,000, the equivalent of $1.98 million today.
Goldring would later become a wildly successful entrepreneur and the nation’s largest department store owner, operating 31 stores across the country at the time of his death in 1943. Incidentally, Goldring brought along his nephews Bernard and Milton Weiss, two of his brother-in-law Sam’s three boys. (Goldring was married to Rosa Weiss, Morris and Sam Weiss’ sister).
Sam’s third son was perhaps the most famous member of the family: Seymour Weiss, the owner of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans and confidante and loyal foot soldier of Gov. Huey P. Long. Seymour began his career working as a clerk for Weiss & Goldring in Alexandria. (They were not related to Dr. Carl Weiss, the man blamed for assassinating Long after he was shot by one of his own bodyguards in the state Capitol).
Today, Weiss & Goldring is a boutique, upscale men’s store located outside of the Alexandria Mall.
Morris Weiss’ 98-year-old grandson-in-law, Harry Silver, still shows up every day, when he’s not working at City Hall.