• 7/17/2006
  • Fort Worth, TX
  • Bob Ray Sanders
  • StarTelegram.com

A 75-year-old Fort Worth man is the Billy Graham of the anti-smoking crusade.

When Jerry Berkowitz finishes talking to schoolchildren, they start coming down the aisles to testify — to ask questions and, in some cases, to give him something he gave up 25 years ago.

At his home the other day, he recalled his first speech. It was to more than 300 students at Aledo Middle School. The youngsters were seated on the gymnasium floor, and as Berkowitz prepared to address them, he remembered administrators’ warnings that the kids likely would be a little restless, partly because it was the last period of the day.

But as soon as he began to speak, sounding somewhat like a robot from a science fiction movie, the kids were mesmerized, he said.

At the end of his 25-minute presentation, “a little kid about this tall [just over waist high] handed me a pack of Marlboros and said, ‘Hey, mister, take this away from me. I’ll never smoke again, I promise.’ ”

Soon afterward at a similar event, a young girl approached him. He had noticed her on the front row, staring straight at him during the entire speech.

The girl was deaf, Berkowitz learned, and she had been reading his lips.

“She handed me a brand of cigarettes I had never seen before and said, ‘I’ve been trying to quit for years.’ And I burst out crying,” Berkowitz said as tears welled in his eyes at the memory.

Berkowitz, a native of the South Bronx in New York City, is a walking anti-smoking message. The hole in his throat where his larynx used to be is a constant remember of how damaging tobacco can be.

A successful entrepreneur who has done business in 22 countries, Berkowitz said, he started smoking unfiltered Camels when he was 13 and didn’t quit until he was 50 after a doctor friend told him that he would “die very shortly” if he didn’t do something about his lungs.

Although he had trouble breathing, he said, he started swimming daily.

When Berkowitz was 70, a dermatologist noticed a melanoma on his leg, and he went to M.D. Anderson hospital in Houston to have it removed. It was malignant, but the surgery took care of it, he said.

It was about that time that Berkowitz noticed he was hoarse and having trouble breathing.

“We need to operate immediately,” a doctor at M.D. Anderson told him upon discovering he had throat cancer.

“Give me a month,” Berkowitz told the doctor, explaining that he still had several businesses to run.

A month might be too late, the doctor said, and he told Berkowitz to report in a week for surgery. He would have to have a laryngectomy.

Afterward, he couldn’t speak, of course, and for a few days, he was very depressed, refusing to get out of bed, he said. He didn’t like the idea of having to write to communicate.

A woman who had gone through a similar experience came to his hospital room one day and asked, “Why are you in bed?”

She offered him an electronic device that he calls an artificial larynx. It looks like a small flashlight that he holds up to his throat; it creates a vibration that allows him to articulate speech.

These days, Berkowitz goes to Fort Worth-area hospitals whenever there’s a laryngectomy case. The first thing he says to the patient is what the woman said to him: “Why are you in bed?”

But he wants to spend more time with school-age children, telling his story about how he lost his voice box, and also his sense of smell and taste as well as a nerve that severely affected his golf swing.

Although he doesn’t play golf anymore, he still goes to the course for several hours a day to practice his swing — for exercise.

Among the first questions the school kids ask him is, “If you can’t taste or smell, do you like to eat?” He explains that he can still remember what certain foods tasted like.

And the students always want to see the hole in his neck. So, as they file out of the room after one of his speeches, he stands at the exit to give them a close-up view — one that should be an indelible reminder of why they should never smoke.

In the past year, Berkowitz has spoken to more than 4,000 students in secondary schools and colleges, and he hasn’t had enough. He recently sent packets of information about himself to several school districts, offering to speak.

“I think God has given me the opportunity to do this, and I’m definitely going to help these kids,” Berkowitz said. “I’ve never done anything more rewarding in my life than what I’m doing with these kids.”

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