In my prior blogs on “Southern Memories,” I noted the great leadership and efforts exerted by Dr. Perry and Shirley Brickman on the exhibit commemorating the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in Georgia. After I left Atlanta, Perry became president of the Atlanta Jewish Federation as well as Emory University Hillel.
I remember using his professional services as an oral surgeon when I had both of my wisdom teeth extracted. I was promised that not all of my wisdom would leave with those teeth. Hopefully, others will verify this is true.
Perry always had a warm and friendly demeanor, typical of Southern gentlemen. But there was a deep secret that he held for those many decades. His undergraduate grades at Emory University were good enough to admit him into the Emory University School of Dentistry. But by the end of the first year, he had seriously failing grades that befuddled him, and he was asked to leave the school. He then transferred to the University of Tennessee School of Dentistry from which he graduated fourth in his class. This was three years after another Jewish dental student, Irving Shulman, also “flunked” out. But unlike Perry, Irving had never been told that he was not doing well.
Perry knew he was no failure. He wondered what happened to the other four Jewish men who entered dental school the same year he did. Alas, two years later, they were all gone. This was because the anti-Semitic dean of the school, Dr. John E. Buhler, had flunked out 65 percent of all Jewish dental students during his tenure, in contrast to 15 percent of Christians. When Buchler left the school, this discrimination ceased.
But the sense of failure and humiliation over the decades still haunted Perry and his colleagues. There was no public acknowledgement of the ills which the university inflicted upon its Jewish dental students. But Perry sought to correct this. He travelled throughout the country interviewing dozens of dental students during this era, and he amassed enough evidence to indicate a conspiracy to harass and fail the Jewish dental students.
We are all aware of the prejudice that was exacted against Jewish students by Ivy League universities earlier in our history, as it is now a major issue for talented Asian Americans. This really is contemptuous. But to wield the weapon of anti-Semitism for admitted Jewish students by a prestigious university is beyond belief.
After Perry’s odyssey was completed, Emory’s president, James Wagner, offered the apology that was 50 years late in coming. He exclaimed: “I am sorry; we are sorry” to a crowd in excess of 400 people who witnessed the premiere of a documentary titled, From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory’s Dental School History. Wagner continued, “As president of Emory University, I hereby express in the deepest, strongest terms, Emory’s regret for the anti-Semitic practices of the dental school during those years. We at Emory also regret that it has taken this long for those events to be properly acknowledged.”
Perry was honored by the university “by your association with Emory, you have made its heritage shine more brightly and have made its name more worthy of renown.”
This apology, coupled with the making of the documentary, spearheaded by Perry and his associates and honoring him, lifted a psychological scar that existed for decades (but not at all manifested during the four years I knew Perry during my sojourn in Atlanta).
So Dr. Perry Brickman, the perfectionist oral surgeon, communal leader, and long-standing Southern gentleman with his beloved Shirley and family, had extracted the hidden truth of these many decades by overcoming the strong temptation to forget bad deeds of the past. May Perry’s courage and fortitude serve as a [secular] New Year’s resolution for us to never accept the status quo, but to undo the wrongs of yesterday as we work hard toward improving tomorrow.
Happy New Year.