Date of Birth: August 1, 1905
Date of Death: August 24, 2004
Place of Birth: Utica, New York
Editor and Theater Coach
For Jewish children in Detroit’s heyday, Lea Damsky Field was known throughout the community as a dedicated teacher and, later, a community leader.
Born in Utica, New York to Lithuanian parents Louis Damsky (a sheet-metal contractor) and Jennie Berger, Lea was the youngest of five in a middle-class, Orthodox family. She described her father as “hard-working, gregarious, and very friendly,” and her mother as “shy, retiring, but very beautiful and delicately grained,” in her autobiography, I Remember. In time Lea would come to show qualities from both parents that would make her stand out in Detroit’s Jewish community.
Lea graduated from Leland Powers School in Boston where she had studied drama, even becoming a regular cast member in Utica’s Theater Stock Company during her junior-year summer vacation. Her talents were shortly thereafter recognized by a former teacher, who recommended her to the Monsignor of the Catholic Parish in Little Falls, New York. Lea worked there as a K-12 public speaking teacher, and especially loved teaching kindergarten and first grade. Eventually, she started her own private children’s theater, which was a hit among the children and parents alike.
Eager and ambitious to expand her teaching as much as possible, she soon received from a colleague an advertisement calling for a drama and programming director at a Jewish center in Detroit. It was all she needed. “Detroit was an overnight journey from Utica by train,” she recalled, but sleep eluded her: she was too excited for her interview. While eating breakfast the next morning, she later recalled, she sensed “a feeling of warmth and ‘belonging’ . . . that this was where my future lay.” This was 1927, and Lea would be right about her early morning vision.
Lea was soon gainfully employed as Program Director by her interviewer: the Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA). Located in a rambling house and funded by the National Council of Jewish Women, the YWHA was a precursor to what would become the Jewish Community Center. At the YWHA, she found her place, establishing a community theater housed in the building.
Lea’s theater programs attracted scores of young people, many who had come from Europe. The YWHA hosted socials and dances, a tradition that continued for years at Webster Hall on Wayne State University’s campus.
From nothing she transformed the theater program into a professional, ground-up operation for both boys and girls and rallied around volunteers to create a true community theater.
But, Lea’s passion for hard work and creativity was not limited to the theater. The National Council of Jewish Women owned a camp in Jeddo, Michigan particularly for Jewish girls, where Lea became head counselor. There she planned programs, organized the hikes, picnics, and masquerades, and ensured everyone had a good time. Many of each year’s campers were repeats, although, since they took care of their own quarters, many objected to viewing camp as “vacation.” Lea took her own vacation each September, after camp ended, spending the high holidays with her parents.
In 1929, after returning from a trip back home to visit her ailing father, Lea met a “tall, good looking man” at the YWHA. He wore a red leather jacket, with ice skates slung over his shoulder. She had seen him periodically, but they had never spoken. Now, he asked all about her father. Soon, she was smitten. His name was Walter Lichtenfeld (changed to Field in 1936). They would marry not long after.
Lea raised two children, Harriet and Irwin. Motherhood encouraged her to shift her community efforts to volunteering. She planned programs for many civic and Jewish organizations, including Hadassah and the Sisterhood of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. She cared for the wellbeing of local theater and remained engaged with her community, through her myriad roles at civic and Jewish organizations, and articles she wrote for the Detroit Jewish News. She cherished most, though, the Friday evenings she spent with her family members, and how close they all came to be.
She closed her autobiography with these words to her children and grandchildren: “Believe in yourself, remember who you are, be proud of your heritage and know you have the potential for greatness. No one’s role in life is ever insignificant, everyone makes a difference to someone – to family, friends, those you come into contact with and the memories you leave behind. Above all, have patience, things can and do happen if given time, and always, always, be the very best you can be!”
Submitted by Harriet Siden. Written by Noah Krasman.
Supplemental Materials, courtesy of Harriet Siden: