ELLENVILLE – They are our hometown heroes. Our first responders. The men and women who are often first on the scene, unaware of who or what waits for them, of what exactly they'll be walking into.
Eli P. Bernzweig is the founder of our own highly-acclaimed volunteer team, the Ellenville First Aid & Rescue Squad, and since his birthday is November 17, 1927 — 90 years of age seems like a good time to have the story told to the residents who now benefit from an idea born out of both necessity and dedication.
In May of 1954, at the age of 27 and shortly after being admitted to the New York bar, Eli moved with his wife, the former Lorraine Ribner, and their two-year old daughter, Sara Beth, to Ellenville, where Lorraine had grown up, and where her father still lived.
To better understand the motivation behind the Squad's formation, Eli provided some background info. "My growing-up years were spent in the small town of Freehold, New Jersey — population 7,000, which for many years had had a well-trained volunteer first aid and emergency squad, so Freehold area residents took 24-hour emergency medical services for granted," said Eli, from his current home in California.
After moving to Ellenville in 1954, Eli said he simply assumed that a village the size of Ellenville would have some sort of round-the-clock emergency medical services as Freehold did. "But that assumption was thoroughly shattered when I read a story in the Ellenville Press of August 12, 1954, telling about a tragic accident that occurred earlier in the week at the swimming pool situated next to Ellenville High School. The headline read: "Flag Pole Falls At Pool, Kills Fourteen Year Old Girl." The portion of the story that shocked me the most was a reference to the fact that the only ambulance in the village, which the article stated was owned by the Loucks Funeral Home, was unavailable." (It was handling a funeral outside the village at the time.) "In a state of disbelief, I wondered how that could be," he said. "How could a modern village of this size not have any first aid or emergency services? To me this was more than just incomprehensible, it was totally unacceptable, and then and there I determined to explore how to correct the situation."
Over the next several weeks, after talking to the police, local volunteer firemen, and several local merchants, Eli said that he learned that the Village of Ellenville had no funds appropriated for handling medical emergencies, no trained personnel, and no ambulances. Sherman Loucks, who owned his name-sake funeral home, owned one ambulance, and that was used commercially to transport patients to and from the Ellenville Community Hospital and other regional hospitals, "but neither Loucks nor any of his driver-employees were trained in first aid, and hence, none was ever provided," said Eli.
"Knowing that this intolerable state of affairs had to be changed, but not knowing where to begin, I called the Freehold, N.J. First Aid Squad for advice," said Eli. He asked them where to begin, and they directed him to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland First Aid & Rescue Squad, where he obtained an informational film featuring the organization and operations of their squad that covered the whole subject. "The title of the 16mm film was Wisconsin 1000 Rescue Squad," said Eli. They leant him a copy for organizational and recruitment purposes. "Needless to say, I was delighted."
After that, Eli said, he was encouraged, and got the ball rolling. He made and distributed a flyer announcing a meeting at the Scoresby Hose Hook & Ladder Co. headquarters on Maple Avenue to discuss the need for a volunteer first aid squad in Ellenville.
"Unfortunately, only a handful of people showed up for that meeting, several of whom later became charter members of the Squad," said Eli. "Nevertheless, despite the small turnout, all who did attend were enthused by the concept and agreed that the formation of a volunteer organization to provide emergency medical services to residents of Ellenville was long overdue, urging me to continue the effort."
An important contact Eli made that evening was with Harold ("Deac") Ray, a longtime employee of the New York Telephone Company, who "informed me that he was a certified instructor in advanced American Red Cross first aid, and that he regularly trained local telephone company linemen in first aid," said Eli. "To my delight, Harold said he would be happy to provide training in standard and advanced American Red Cross first aid to any individuals who might choose to join the type of volunteer organization I had in mind. With assurance of that kind of help, my spirits were buoyed and I felt that the formation of a volunteer first aid squad might actually become possible."
During the winter months of 1954-1955, several more people signed up to help, and the Ellenville First Aid & Rescue Squad was born. By January of 1955, approximately fifteen individuals had joined. "Clearly, we needed more, but fifteen was enough to make the start of around-the-clock operations at least theoretically feasible," said Eli. The group began meeting at Harold Ray's home, receiving his first aid instruction and discussing logistics.
Eli was elected president in early February, 1955, and the name Ellenville First Aid & Rescue Squad, Inc. was officially chosen as the organization's name. As a lawyer, Eli filed the articles of incorporation himself.
Around April, Harold Ray and Eli met with both the Ellenville Police and the New York State Police, to advise them their intentions. "To say they were pleased would be an understatement," said Eli. They worked out a communication plan: all Ellenville Police and New York State Police calls for emergency first aid services would be made to Matthews Pharmacy and taken by pharmacist Clyde Matthews, who had agreed to become the Squad's telephone contact and dispatcher. (The nationwide 911 emergency call system didn't come into being until 1968).
In the beginning, calls for the Squad's services came primarily from the New York State Police requesting assistance in the handling of victims of automobile accidents. "However, once word spread that the squad was fully operational," said Eli, "calls for emergency services started coming from other sources, including the Ellenville Police, local bungalow colonies, Channel Master, and various area hotels."
Eli also shared a final comment, concerning a personal incident from 2003, while he and his wife were vacationing at the Nevele, and an elderly man collapsed while dancing. "When the Squad arrived, it was immediately obvious to me that things had changed mightily since the days when I went out on those early calls in 1955," he said. The crew was fast and efficient. "I could see that they knew exactly what to do in providing first aid and preparing the victim for his trip to the hospital. Having recognized the need for emergency services of this nature a half century earlier, I was both impressed and proud of what I saw that evening."