by Jody R. LaGreca
My Grandfather Samuel Finkelman was noteworthy in his day as a semi-pro boxer and champion swimmer. He was featured in articles in many newspapers including The New York Times. He possessed superhuman strength and succeeded in accomplishing outstanding feats in dangerous waters. On July 15, 1912 Sam Finkelman swam from East Forty-Second Street to Coney Island, Steeplechase Park in six-and-a-half-hours, covering a distance of nineteen-and-a-half miles using the seal stroke. Finkelman invented the seal stroke, a technique where the head is held out of the water and the body is submerged using a scissor kick, similar to a side stroke but more powerful.
On June 19, 1913 Finkelman swam from Jackson Street East, towing four men in a boat through the dangerous Hell Gate to Astoria, Long Island. He also swam from East 23rd Street, towing seven men in a boat weighing 2,500 pounds to College Point, Long Island. Sam Finkelman was a member of the American Lifesaving Society and West Side A. C. and was professionally trained at all times. Finkelman’s attempt to swim the English Channel was delayed because of the war and consequently he never got to fulfill this goal.
Read more in the July 9, 1912 New York Times.
Samuel Finkelman was born in 1891 in Poland to Hyman and Rebecca Finkelman. Hyman was born in 1866. The family immigrated to New York between 1894 to 1898. As a boy Sam had an accident where his ankle got scrunched by a boat on a fishing dock and the injury left a large lump on his ankle. In spite of this Finkelman became a formidable athlete. Sam Finkelman would visit his daughter Gloria at summer camp and do a demonstration pulling ten or more people across the lake. This was a sure crowd pleaser as well as a surprise for his daughter when she would unexpectedly hear the announcement on the loudspeaker. Finkelman’s love for physical fitness went on well into his late 60s.
As a young man Sam was nearly killed when someone tried to shoot him. Although the details are unknown Finkelman averted the danger by not running in a straight line and zigzagging to the left and right.
Samuel Finkelman became a mogul in the used car business in Brooklyn. He had two car lots on Coney Island Avenue and was partners with a man named Abraham Lazarus. Sam Finkelman was known as “Mr. Shea, the working man’s friend” to his customers. He used the name Mr. Shea for business purposes to assimilate to the assorted ethnicities of his customers. There was a picture of Finkelman wearing a straw hat with a cane used as a prop hanging in his office. This image became his trademark.
“Sam Finkelman was better known to his cronies as “Battling” Shea, because real fighters are all “Irishers.” Sam is the guy who put the “swim” in swimming. (“Sam, He's A Towboat,” New York Tribune, July 22, 1912, p. 5.)”
Finkelman was very successful in the car business and prospered all the more because he did self financing of his used cars. He would go to car lots and purchase cars which he would repair using his own mechanics. If a car purchased by a customer failed Finkelman would switch it for another one which kept both him and his client happy. In those days turning back the odometers was legal, an advantage for the seller.
Samuel Finkelman met Mildred Primoff (formerly Matilda, and sister of Ida Primoff), at a bakery where she worked. The ten year older Samuel walked in looking handsome and dapper wearing a white suit. The couple soon wed and had a family of three children, Stanley, Gloria and Wallace who were raised in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, New York’s first gated community. Sam Finkelman was a sentimental man. When he visited my family in Woodmere, New York he would often walk in and say with heartfelt emotion, “Oh Gloria, the children!”
Sam and Mildred were devoted grandparents blessed with many grandchildren, who left a legacy of love with wonderful memories to cherish. They always remembered birthdays by sending cards and gift money. Their grandchildren included me, my sister Wendy, and my brother Keith, children of their daughter Gloria and husband Sidney Barkan. Their son Wallace and wife Sonny produced children Heidi and Jan. Their eldest son Stanley and his first wife Anna brought forth Wayne, and Stanley and his second wife Joyce produced Roland, Darren and Rodi.