Army veteran ran military surplus store with devotion, humor
By Cindy Clayton | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 10, 2014
NORFOLK, Va. --- Wherever he went, Gil Friedman was known by his trademark jumpsuit.
There was lighter material for the summer, corduroy for winter. "He even had a formal one," says Trudy Friedman, his wife of 62 years. "He would wear a bow tie."
Those jumpsuits were as much a fixture at M & G Sales Co., the Army-Navy store at 2609 Granby St., as the canteens and combat boots. Friedman, who died on Feb. 27 at 88, was owner, president and chief humorist at the business started by his father and uncle in the mid-1940s.
The World War II veteran chose the jumpsuits as his daily "uniform" for their comfort. He was round around the middle, had slim hips "and couldn't keep his pants up," his wife says.
The bespectacled man who could do figures in his head was shy and unassuming. He didn't talk about his experiences in the war much. As a member of the Army 36th Infantry Division, he helped liberate a concentration camp where Jews were being killed as American soldiers marched toward the gates. His family says he received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
"He had some harrowing stories and would never tell any of them, except the funny ones," Trudy says.
Most people knew the man who loved to prowl the thrift stores, hunting for uniforms he could sell or gifts for family members, says his brother-in-law, Barry Einhorn. They knew him for the Tootsie Pops he handed out everywhere he went.
But that doesn't mean Friedman couldn't surprise regulars. He delighted in watching a customer's eyes widen when he rang up their $4.50 purchase for $450. A patron who wrote a check and handed over a driver's license might be asked for a marriage license instead.
Friedman once told a woman she couldn't buy a pilot's hat from him unless she had a pilot's license. "And she fooled him: She had one," Trudy says. "He loved to tell that story."
At some point, Friedman started telling people that he had a nudist colony in North Carolina. His daughter, Laura Friedman Buzard, had business cards and pens printed up for his birthday to help him carry on the joke. "I just think he just thought it was absurd for this old fat man to have a nudist colony," she says.
By all accounts, Friedman was a devoted family man and hard worker who put in six days a week at the store that carries everything from military surplus items to camping gear. Uniforms and bomber jackets hang from the ceiling. There are blue military caps, work boots, a display case of knives and one for pins. Camouflage can be seen in every corner.
Above the path to the register hangs a pair of furry boots that have been there since 1982 when Friedman told a reporter, "Who else would work in a place like this but a family of nuts?"
Friedman would talk to his children in a mix of Yiddish, German and English in the store to keep the customers -- especially anyone suspected of shoplifting -- from understanding him. Sometimes they caught on anyway, his daughter says, because "he'd be pointing at them."
"As kids, he taught us to count change back," his son, Larry, says. "He was such a good person to be around. I always felt very fortunate to be here with my father on a daily basis."
There was nothing their father couldn't fix, Laura says, "whether it was a toilet, a door, something electrical, a broken heart. There was just nothing that he couldn't make better, always."
Friedman retired about six years ago, leaving Larry to run the business. Laura works there part time.
"He was still sharp, still exercised, still worked in the yard," Larry says.
About six months ago, their father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During the last week of February, he fell in a parking lot and hit his head -- a blow from which he couldn't recover.
Einhorn, who delivered the eulogy at Friedman's service, says his brother-in-law asked him earlier if the eulogy was ready.
"He said, 'Make sure you put a copy in my coffin, and when I have the time, I'll read it,' " Einhorn says. And I did."