The Way We Were: Michele Zavon Steinfeld

The Way We Were: Michele Zavon Steinfeld
David and Michele Steinfeld cut their wedding cake

Michele Zavon Steinfeld’s life is steeped in San Marco history.

She was a member of Wolfson High School’s first graduating class in 1966 and assisted her mother in opening the first Shoe Rack on Hendricks Avenue in 1975. She was also a charter member and ambassador for the JCA (Jewish Community Alliance), an organization that she has encouraged many of her San Marco friends to join.

Michele As a toddler growing up on Lakewood Road
Michele As a toddler growing up on Lakewood Road

A bubbly, outgoing promoter of all things San Marco and JCA, Steinfeld spent her formative years, along with her younger brother, David, growing up on Lakewood Road in Colonial Manor. Born to Molly and Saul Zavon, both Michele and David inherited their parents’, love of sales and building friendships, which, when they grew older, helped greatly with the family’s wholesale leather company, located in downtown Jacksonville at 1076 West Adams Street.

About 50 years ago, Colonial Manor was an idyllic community. It was a simpler time, one where all the kids in the neighborhood were close playmates, attended Hendricks Avenue Elementary School together, and parents did not need to lock doors.

Eight-year-old Michele with her younger brother, David
Eight-year-old Michele with her younger brother, David

“Our neighborhood was wonderful with lots of children, friendly neighbors, and the famous duck pond on San Jose,” said Steinfeld. “Some of the girls would get together and play kick ball in the street until it was dark.”

As a youngster, Steinfeld took dance lessons – tap, ballet, and then ballroom – at Earl Bagley’s Dance Studio in the Flamingo Shopping Center on Hendricks Avenue where nearby neighborhoods would get their groceries and household needs. It just so happened during ballroom lessons that Steinfeld often would be matched-up with Steve Klausner who also lived on Lakewood Road.

Her sixth grade Valentine’s Day was one she’ll never forget. Klausner brought her a box of Valentine’s candy and, of course, she had to share the exciting news with her friend, Betty Pelz. When Steinfeld called Pelz, her mom said that she wasn’t available because Klausner was there and had brought her a box of candy, too.

“I received my first box of Valentine’s candy and my first heartbreak all within an hour,” recalled Steinfeld.

While in elementary school, Steinfeld’s mom, along with her friend, Becky Bromberg, opened a little girls’ clothing store called Clothes Closet that was also located in the Flamingo Shopping Center. Although Steinfeld’s mom passed away in 1992 at the age of 79, Bromberg just celebrated her 101 birthday and lives at the River Garden Senior Services facility where Steinfeld serves as membership vice-president for the River Garden Auxiliary.

Steinfeld at 10 months with her grandmother, Katie Ross, and her mother, Molly Zavon
Steinfeld at 10 months with her grandmother, Katie Ross, and her mother, Molly Zavon

After graduating from sixth grade, Steinfeld’s friends and classmates found themselves separated for the first time because they were assigned to attend either Landon or DuPont High Schools, depending on where they lived. Steinfeld was assigned to Landon, and she recalled many wonderful times with her Landon friends in San Marco. “Before school, many of us would meet at Mim’s Bakery where my favorite breakfast was a heated nut Danish with a glass of milk,” said Steinfeld. “After school, the place to be was Stand ‘n Snack for chili hotdogs and pickles.”

Fortunately, she and her friends were destined to reunite when the new Wolfson High School was built and opened in 1965. Landon and DuPont became middle schools, and Steinfeld’s friends from the neighborhood were back together again, sharing teenage angst and secrets. “It was exciting for us as we got to pick out Wolfson’s colors and mascot,” she said.

In the late 1960s, San Marco Square included White’s Book Store, the movie theater, a bowling alley, Bolin’s (lady’s clothing), the Little Theater (now called Theater Jacksonville), Geisenhof’s Gift store and the historic fountain in the middle of the square. “When I look at those lion statues, I like to think they were inspired by the Landon lions,” said Steinfeld with a grin.

Steinfeld recalled that she and a few girl friends would leave Wolfson for lunch by getting a pass from the study hall teacher and say they’re going to the library, but, of course, heading to the library really meant going off campus to Burger King. She remains close with her Burger King buddies, and today they still meet for birthdays or at least once a year for dinner. “Every time I see them it seems like we just met last week, which is one way to know who your friends are,” she said.

Steinfeld grew up during the time when middle-school-aged girls were required to study home economics and boys attended shop class. She laughingly recalled a sewing disaster where the pattern for the top of a two-piece outfit got mixed-up with that of another seamstress and her top ended-up being a sleeveless crop-top on one side and a cap sleeve tucked-in shirt on the other. “I didn’t have the nerve to ask the teacher for help until it was almost completed, but we did eventually straighten it all out,” she remembered.

Steinfeld also recalled feeling apprehensive watching flatbed trucks drive transport missiles down Hendricks Avenue in October 1962. “It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was scary when one of our neighbors on the east side of Hendricks had a fall-out shelter built,” she said. “In school, we practiced evacuating the building and walking over to the railroad tracks to wait for a train to take us to St Augustine.”

Steinfeld was in Wolfson High School’s first graduation class
Steinfeld was in Wolfson High School’s first graduation class

After graduating from high school, Steinfeld took accounting classes and earned an Associate of Arts degree in the first graduating class of Florida Junior College, Jacksonville. One of her electives was creative dance, and when the teacher suggested they enter the school’s talent show, their dance group ended up winning best creative dance, while also acing their “final exam.” She later took a job in the purchasing department of Blue Cross/Blue Shield (BC/BS) Insurance Company, which is still on Riverside Avenue. During that time, she met her future husband, David Steinfeld, at a singles party, and they still have the shirt he wore when they first met, “even though it doesn’t fit now.”

Recalling their first date, Steinfeld said they went to see a movie at the Florida Theatre on Forsyth Street and then to Leb’s for a snack. David thought it was kind of unusual that she wanted matzo ball soup instead of a dessert, she said. “He should have known right then to get up and leave,” joked Steinfeld. She got her soup, but David wanted her to try a dessert she’d never had before, cheesecake, “and it’s been downhill ever since.” “I can still see the fork coming towards me,” she laughed.

Steinfeld with her parents, Saul and Molly Zavon, on her wedding day
Steinfeld with her parents, Saul and Molly Zavon, on her wedding day

While she was working at BC/BS, she and David got married. It was around this time that her father unexpectedly passed away. After his death, Steinfeld’s mother decided to do the one thing she always wanted to do – open a shoe store. It ended up being the Shoe Rack on Hendricks Avenue near the elementary school.

Steinfeld left insurance to assist her mother as the main salesperson with the first of her three sons, Shane, in tow. Meanwhile, her brother, David, helped with the overall purchasing and running of operations.

Two years later, Steinfeld’s second son, Kyle, was born, and Steinfeld continued to sell shoes, volunteer with non-profits, her synagogue and, eventually, her children’s school. By the time her third son, Jerad, arrived, her brother, David, had opened a second Shoe Rack at the Town and Country Shopping Center and had moved the first store to the little yellow house on St. Augustine Road across from the Yum Yum Tree.

Unfortunately, competition of the “big box” stores and the inability to get the good deals they were used to, along with her mother’s declining health, caused both Shoe Racks to close after 18 years. Steinfeld worked a few years in Maison Blanche’s shoe department at the Avenues Mall before her family moved to Milwaukee, Wis., in 1994, following her husband’s career, for “what seemed like nine consecutive winters.”

Missing the selling biz, Steinfeld worked part time for Marshall Fields. She said she felt like it was her store because she enjoyed learning about all the merchandise and could tell people where in the store to find good deals. However, she missed the warmth of Jacksonville and couldn’t wait to return, although one of her sons ended up staying in Wisconsin and, today, Jerad still lives in Milwaukee and is the father of two little girls.

When the Steinfelds returned to Jacksonville in 2003, the city had grown, especially the Villages of San Jose, a condominium community where Steinfeld and her husband now live. A charter member of the Jewish Community Alliance, Steinfeld started a new chapter of her career as JCA director of the J Institute (adult programming) where for five years she developed weekly programs in five different categories including: learn (beginning bridge, digital photography, jewelry making, book clubs, wine tastings), wellness (nutrition, walking club, west African dance), socialize (belly dancing, and the coffee-tea-and-something-crafty group), explore (Zen kayak tour, evening at the theatre, horseback riding), and programs for all (conversations with authors, educators on interesting topics).

“It was important to me that the people who belong to JCA not only have good programs to experience but also build friendships,” said Steinfeld. “This was facilitated by building a support system and promoting inclusion by introducing new people or sending out cards when someone was sick and just making people feel like they were in the show “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name.”

Over the five years, Steinfeld got quite creative in introducing all the various program presenters. One time she fooled everyone by pretending to be a Barbra Streisand impersonator before the real impersonator they had hired arrived. Wearing a wig, gown and long fake fingernails, and badly singing ‘On a Clear Day’ acapella, she fled the stage as the real entertainer came out, figuring the audience probably thought it wasn’t much of a tribute, she laughingly recalled.

When Steinfeld’s first grandchild was born in California in February 2012, she left the J Institute director position to help with the newborn, but her passion for JCA never waivers. Today she continues at JCA as an ambassador and serves on the cultural arts and fundraising committees. She also serves as a board member of the Auxiliary at River Garden Senior Services and with the Kelsi Young Gift of Care through Community Hospice.

Her many life-long friendships and love for her alma mater, Wolfson High School, have also never faltered. She has joined Rose Kolchin Tincher, a database wiz, in the planning of many class reunions, including Wolfson’s 10th, 20th, 25th, 30th, 40th and 50th. “We had as much fun at the meetings planning the reunions and reminiscing as during the actual event,” said Steinfeld.

In the past few years, both Steinfeld and her husband have battled cancer and won. She’s a breast cancer survivor who was first diagnosed in June 2014. Meanwhile, David Steinfeld is a bladder cancer survivor first diagnosed in June 2018. “With cancer, you’ve got to immediately jump in and fight it,” said Steinfeld.

Today, her days are filled with her volunteer work, meeting friends at the JCA, and recording funny stories of her time working in retail on commission as well as special family experiences, into what will be a book she can hand down to her grandchildren. She and her husband, David, have been married for nearly 49 years. She said they are proud of what their three sons and their “very special wives” have accomplished, as well as their four “incredible” grandchildren. Son, Shane, works as director of Sales Technology Development at McKesson in Jacksonville, while Kyle is a tenured associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkley. Jerad is an agency owner of Cream City Insurance in Milwaukee.

Steinfeld family reunion/vacation in California in the summer of 2018 are: (from left) Cora and Mae with their parents Megan and Jerad, Kyle, with Miru and Sonah (foreground), and Sejung on the far left in sunglasses, and Cristina and Shane. Michele and David Steinfeld had to miss this family vacation due to David's cancer diagnosis.
Steinfeld family reunion/vacation in California in the summer of 2018 are: (from left) Cora and Mae with their parents Megan and Jerad, Kyle, with Miru and Sonah (foreground), and Sejung on the far left in sunglasses, and Cristina and Shane. Michele and David Steinfeld had to miss this family vacation due to David’s cancer diagnosis.

Because the extended Steinfeld family is scattered all over the country, in 2015 they began gathering for a reunion-type vacation each June and have made memories in Illinois, Breckenridge, Colo., at a lake house on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and at a farm house just outside California’s wine country.

Steinfeld has had a lot of success in sales over-the-years and has made many long-time friends simply because she enjoys helping and sharing with others – something she learned by example from her mother.

“It doesn’t cost a dime to be nice to someone, and that kindness is usually returned down-the-road,” said Steinfeld, noting her mother taught her not to worry about things because no one knows what’s going to happen until it happens. “Don’t think about the what-ifs but just cross that bridge when you get there,” she advised.

By Christina Swanson
Resident Community News

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