On Sept. 6, 1948, a little over two weeks after Harry Bernard Silver, a 26-year-old lawyer from East Orange, N.J., exchanged vows with 20-year-old Marilyn Weiss Levy of Alexandria, La., the ravishing eldest daughter of Louis and Miriam Levy, owners of the city’s iconic department store, Weiss & Goldring, the newlyweds made their national radio debut on the ABC hit show “Bride and Groom.”
A precursor to “reality TV,” the show, which aired daily and would later be adapted for television, randomly selected a prospective bride and groom from its studio audience–no divorcees or Catholics allowed (on account of the requirement that couples marry only inside of a church)—and threw them a 15-minute-long shotgun wedding, officiated by one of 30 clergymen on standby and conducted during the broadcast but not on air. The married couple was then whisked back to the studio and showered with an assortment of gifts, courtesy, of course, of the show’s sponsors.
The Silvers, however, were not there to reenact their wedding, reportedly one of the most elegant and impressive ceremonies ever held in Alexandria, a spectacle that even Hollywood would have struggled to reproduce. They were in California on their honeymoon. “For traveling, the bride chose a cocoa-colored silk shantung, with which she wore a small felt hat of brown with matching accessories and a purple orchid corsage,” The Town Talk gushed to its readers. No word on the groom’s traveling attire, but one can safely assume that he was also sufficiently well-appointed. 15 days into a union that would span nearly 74 years, Harry and Marilyn Silver were in a studio in Los Angeles, already dispensing marital advice.
When Harry Silver announced his resignation from the Alexandria City Council on Feb. 10, 2021, three weeks after his 99th birthday, he was, indisputably, the oldest elected official in the United States (and there’s a good chance he was also the oldest in the world). Yet he was not even the senior-most official on the Alexandria City Council; that title still belongs to his 77-year-old former colleague Chuck Fowler. That’s because Silver didn’t get his start in politics until the age of 83, when he was appointed to replace District Four Councilman Rick Ranson. There’s a good chance he would have continued to serve, had the COVID pandemic not continued to linger and placed him at a unique risk. Indeed, he had been trying his best to negotiate around the constraints of COVID, which, in his case, were exacerbated by a mean-spirited and petty council president whose refusal to provide reasonable accommodations resulted in a lawsuit Silver easily won.
“Having just celebrated my 99th birthday, I had time to reflect on my life, our City, and the place I should hold in it,” Silver wrote in a letter announcing his resignation. “While there is hope that the pandemic will soon recede and a more normal life can resume, such will not occur overnight. With the recent elections having been conducted and concluded, the will of the electorate has been heard and I feel now is a good time to hand the mantle of leadership for District 4 over to another from a younger generation.”
The 99-year-old claimed he would spend his waning years focusing “more on service to my family,” a departure from what he used to say whenever asked about his future plans. “I’ll be 100 when my term on the council ends. Maybe I’ll run for mayor.”
From his very first days on the City Council, Silver created controversy; his appointment, it was said, came with the unwritten agreement—or maybe just the implied stipulation—that he would not seek a full term; he was expected to be nothing more than a temporary seat-warmer. Regardless, nothing legally prevented him from campaigning on his own in 2006, and that’s exactly what he did, running as a Republican (a switch he made to express his disappointment with former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards but would not last long) and beating his Democratic opponent 56%-44%. Four years later, as a Democrat, Silver won a second term, 77%-23%. In 2014, against two challengers, Silver once again coasted to re-election, winning more than 58% of the vote, and in his last election in 2018, he ran without opposition.
What, exactly, qualified Silver as “CenLa’s most celebrated civic champion”? Among other things, he was named Cenla Focus’s “Cenla-ian of the Year,” twice. First in 2012, at the age of 90, and again, five years later, at 95. (My late paternal grandmother Joanne Lyles White won in 2006, and my late paternal grandfather Paul D. White won ten years later, in 2016). Silver’s community service did not begin with the City Council. He served as President of. the local Jewish Temple, Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim, from 1957-1960, a term that included the temple’s centennial in 1959 and its relocation, following the loss of the “Second Temple” to fire in 1956, to its current building, a stunning Mid-Century Modern structure designed by Max Heinberg of Barron, Heinberg, and Brocato. He led a number of downtown development agencies and authorities, once held a minority ownership interest in the Hotel Bentley, and served a term as Chairman of Rapides Regional Medical Center, among many other accomplishments.
In news reports and official correspondence and records, he was always Mr. Silver, but to almost everyone who worked with him or spent time at his store, Weiss & Goldring, myself included, he was always “Harry.” His politics was, more than anything else, one of eternal, unwavering, even stubborn hope. In his century on this earth, he’d experienced failures and losses; even at the end of his life, he still confronted anti-Semitic bigotry and hatred. And yet, he had an abiding faith in the future that was infectious and inspiring and ecumenically minded.
Like so many people who were born and raised in Alexandria, I knew Harry Silver for my entire life, but I got to know him professionally when I was in my mid-20s and working as an assistant to former Mayor Jacques Roy. One of my responsibilities was to introduce Alexandria to prospective consultants—architects, engineers, developers, analysts, visiting dignitaries, among others. For many of our guests, the highlight was a visit to Weiss & Goldring, where Harry would hold court around a conference table in a room adjacent and open to the shop. The experience always left an impression on people. Practically all of them, at some point, even if they never ended up working in Alexandria, would call and ask me, “How is Harry?”
Of all of those I introduced, one stands out in particular, Fred Schwartz, an internationally-acclaimed New York architect who responded to one of our proposals for a streetscape project, initially by mistake, believing the work, given its scale and ambition, was in Alexandria, Virginia. As much as I liked to think that Schwartz, who died of cancer in 2014, stuck around because of my powers of persuasion, the truth is that he loved Harry Silver. Their connection was instant, and it was profound; Fred told me that Harry reminded him of his father. Harry continuously tried to sell Fred a proper suit or a beautiful new tie or a luscious pair of socks, with very little success, and he constantly teased him for dressing like “a slob,” which Fred always took in good humor. He may have not sold Fred on a new wardrobe, but he did something even more impressive: He sold him on his dream for Alexandria.
“I came to Central Louisiana over Three-Fourths of a Century ago in service to our nation and met the love of my life,” Silver wrote in February 2021. “Together we raised a family, continued and modernized the family business, and did all we could to be of service to the people of the area. Whether you or your parents, grandparents or great grandparents agreed with me or not over the years, I hope everyone agrees that I acted only as I felt was best for our mutual home.”
Harry Silver died on Friday, April 8, 2022. He was 100 years old.