A Behind-the-Scenes Journey Through Half of EP’s 50 Years

I remember the summer day in 2000 when EP Magazine’s staff drove, convoy style, to Massachusetts for dear Max Schleifer’s funeral. It was raining heavily, the skies commiserating with those of us in our cars whose hearts were aching over the sudden passing of our Editor in Chief. Having been with EP Magazine (then called Exceptional Parent) for five years at that time, this for me had to be the saddest day of all. Yet, I also felt blessed for having worked closely with Max for over three years and been in the presence of one who had great respect and regard for all people with special needs.

BY Vanessa B. Ira | June 2021 | Category: 50th Anniversary Issue

A Behind-the-Scenes Journey Through Half of EP’s 50 Years

Through 21 years since that day, there have been countless (mostly positive and “fun”) moments connected with EP that are worth retelling. Certainly, long-time EP readers may recognize some of the leads and supporting players in these stories. As EP ’s current, brilliant Editor in Chief, Dr. Rick Rader, joins the editorial team in putting the finishing touches to this Golden Anniversary issue, memories of all things EP – illuminated by so many heroic people (with special needs, exceptional parents, spouses, caregivers and advocates) – march through my mind like a parade I do not wish to end. Won’t you join me in taking a behind-the-scenes journey of EP ’s history through the past quarter-century? 

Max AND Esther

I remember Massachusetts-based Max coming to our Oradell, NJ, office often for editorial meetings where I would listen intently to his ideas for articles, his wisdom, and deep knowledge of the disability field. Our Harvard-educated editorial leader and EP Magazine co-founder was an intellectual with a great sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye, and a distinct Boston accent. “Vehh-nesssa,” he called me. Max always came to our office with his leather satchel packed with reading material and, of course, his wife Esther was never far behind. A mother figure to us, she had as much love for the special needs community as her husband.

How can I forget witnessing a rather strange scene during one of our brainstorming sessions at a New Jersey diner? One day, after we had just wrapped up discussing urgent editorial matters, erudite Max moved to a chair next to our quintessential smooth-talking New York City salesman Anthony (Ant-neeh, as we called him) and launched into an animated chat with him. Curious, I tilted my head their way to find out what it could be about; Anthony couldn’t possibly have been gathering more information about special needs Schools, Camps and Residences. There were just too many expressive hand gestures and Max’s soft voice was louder than usual. Yup, it was something so unexpected, even charming. Anthony was exchanging detailed notes with Max on… Filene’s Basement discounts!

What about the time Max and Esther flew to Memphis, TN, with the staff for one of EP’s first disability conferences developed by (then-CEO) Joe Valenzano? Climbing into our rented mini bus a little late for departure time, Max and Esther told us that they just returned from a short side-trip to Graceland. As Max sheepishly put it, they had just taken in “a piece of Americana.” What he didn’t know was, earlier that day, some from the EP staff had to turn away a giddy group of sight-seers who spotted our conference’s welcome banner by the entrance and mistakenly believed they had discovered an “Elvis Presley” (“EP”) Convention in Memphis. Levity aside, EP Magazine had a well-received conference that weekend, which opened the door for more EP-developed events such as the World Congress on Disabilities (WCD).

Several years after Max’s passing, we stayed in close touch with his widow, Esther; she was such a valued fountain of ideas for feature stories (aside from being a rabid baseball fan like us, though she rooted for the “wrong” team). One of the best ideas Esther shared was one we used for an article regarding a school (ECLC of New Jersey) that took in a Labrador Retriever named Patrina to be part of its staff and  for many years, gave great joy and comfort to dozens of the school’s students with developmental disabilities. 

In Awe of the Families

I remember, during my early days with EP, staff members were assigned to attend more than a dozen trade shows or special events per year that were held across the United States. This provided us with the unique opportunity to meet, in person, so many extraordinary families touched by specials needs. We cherished listening to them while appreciating their courage and resourcefulness, and we made sure we took note of all the issues that mattered most to them. Those of us manning EP ’s booths at the conferences would get lost in conversations with the families. As they poured their hearts out to us, how we wished the typically buzzing exhibit halls would quiet down, so we wouldn’t miss a word of what the parents (or caregivers) wished to share with EP’s other readers.

Whatever information we couldn’t gather at the conferences, we received through snail mail, for our magazine’s department called “Search and Respond”. Parents would mail their letter to EP, in search of other families who might be familiar with their child’s disability, so they could learn from their experiences. The editors would wait for the right response, also via snail mail, “match” it with the original inquiry – and then publish the “search” question next to the response. There were times the right match would take months to accomplish, but we were always pleased when EP could serve as a conduit for connecting the families. When the “World Wide Web” exploded in the late 1990s, and much-welcome and instantaneous communication between families became a reality, EP built its first website (today, the URL is www.epmagazine.com). 

Shopping Carts and 75,000 EPs

In 1995, with a tiny staff of about 15, EP attended the Special Olympics World Summer Games in New Haven, Connecticut, armed with nothing but shopping carts and good walking shoes, to distribute 75,000 copies of EP Magazine to the event’s spectators. The shopping carts were rented by the baseball team of CEO Joe (who coached at Ramapo), and the young men gave us a much-needed helping hand that day. The President of the United States attended the event, and the venue was packed with athletes and their friends and family, all sharing the joys of achievement and camaraderie. At the end of the long, hot day, I didn’t feel any fatigue at all.

It was during the early part of the new century when EP read a piece of news about the old Yankee Stadium getting some bad press for not being accessible for people with physical disabilities. Joe challenged one of our young sales people to help pitch an idea to Steinbrenner’s team. The proposal was for EP and the Yankees to host a Disability Awareness Night (or “DAN”) honoring hero advocates of the community, pre-game, right on home plate. They liked the idea. We ended up hosting two DANs during the initial year (the Red Sox wanted one as well), a dozen the following year, and then 27 on the best year, covering most of Major League Baseball’s ballparks across the country. 

the good doctors

I remember being assigned to represent EP for a DAN event at the Milwaukee Brewers’ ballpark. Our honoree was Dr. Raymond (Ray) Chun, a giant in the field of pediatric neurology who was a founding member of the Child Neurology Society (CNS), the major professional organization of pediatric neurologists in the country. I met Dr. Chun and his family prior to home plate ceremonies. I recall congratulating our honoree and, to break the ice, started talking about what I believed to be something Wisconsin-related – specifically, the story one of my EP colleagues had recently told me, of a small plane filled with Green Bay Packers fans who were saved from horrific crash-landing head injuries by their Cheesehead gear (after the pilot warned them to “brace for impact”). I asked Dr. Chun if he ever heard of this amazing story, to which he responded with an amused smile, “But my dear, that’s an urban legend.”

The following week, Dr. Chun mailed me a surprise package with a genuine Packers Cheesehead. He included a sincere, handwritten note, thanking me for hosting his family for DAN and (of course) reminding me of the urban legend I fell for. Dr. Chun is one of many wonderful healthcare professionals I’ve come in contact with at EP for to cover magazine stories or collaborate with on educational webinars. In all my years with EP, working on various projects for the special needs community with physicians or nurses, I’ve noted how down-to-earth these people are. No egos. Just a mutual desire to do the very best work for the community. The same thing holds true in 2021 as I work with various physicians and dentists from the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD), especially long-time editorial contributors Dr. Steve Perlman and Dr. Barry Waldman, the most enthusiastic and positive editorial collaborators one will ever meet. 

hope – Always

Another DAN event to remember was the time EP honored Eunice Shriver at Fenway Park in 2002. The plan was for EP to take Mrs. Shriver to Fenway from Washington D.C., where she was based. In the end, one of EP’s friends generously lent us his Gulf Stream jet, so we were able to fly Mrs. Shriver, Tim Shriver, and a few Special Olympics athletes to the Boston DAN venue. I remember sitting quietly behind our iconic honoree, just savoring the whole experience. I was also listening to a light conversation between CEO Joe (Yankees fan) and Tim Shriver (Red Sox fan) about the legendary baseball rivalry. The former kept ribbing the latter about rooting for a team that (back then) had not won a World Series championship in a lifetime. “Ah… but there’s always hope,” Tim responded. For several reasons, I’ve never forgotten that line.

In the late ‘90s, prior to the time EP staff started working from their own homes (years before the COVID-19 pandemic made it a common practice), I remember my colleagues and I would gather for a yearly EP “family picture” under one of North Jersey’s most ancient trees. Some of those published photos included Julie Chistensen from our editorial team and her then-toddler Brielle (who has a mitochondrial metabolic disorder, now in her late twenties); as well as long-time EP friend and Editorial Board Member Lauren Agoratus with her young daughter, now a young adult with medically-complex special needs. I am grateful to them, and to all exceptional parents, for all they teach us daily about being tireless givers of care and support for their loved-ones.

Here’s to our next milestone

Reminiscing about milestone events inevitably invites introspection as well as a good dose of gratitude. Personally, I am thankful to my own mother, who became physically disabled around the time I first joined EP; she, like other people who have special needs, taught me to keep things in perspective. Mom showed grace at all times and continued to accomplish her personal goals despite suffering from constant pain. As they say, you have to live your life.

I am also grateful to the hundreds of disability organizations and professional associations EP has closely collaborated with through the years, including United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), the AADMD, Epilepsy Foundation, SPAN, The Arc, the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), Special Olympics, the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), and so many more. All have helped light EP’s path with their own work for the community.

EP Magazine has remained standing, and standing tall, through very good times and economic turmoil. These days, thanks in great part to a small but dedicated team, including our publisher, Len Harac, Faye Simon with business development, our book designer Leverett Cooper, and of course Dr. Rader (who succeeded Max in 2000), we’ve managed to sprint past the horrific 2020 pandemic. The special needs community inspires me and I am sure, my EP colleagues, to keep moving forward… hopefully, towards the next milestone year.

A Very Happy Golden Anniversary, EP!  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Vanessa B. Ira has been a member of the EP Magazine (Exceptional Parent) family for more than half of the magazine’s 50 years of publication. She oversaw and managed EP’s first website as well as several of its successful health care webinars. She is currently EP’s Managing Editor.

Read the article here.