ST. PETERSBURG — The old sepia-stained photo shows a young pilot smiling in an Army Air Corps uniform, a pilot's wings above his left breast pocket. His left eyebrow arches up slightly, like the flourish at the end of a signature.
Only his family has an inkling of the hazing Melvin Estroff — then a gawky 16-year-old with a limp — endured at the Citadel during its Lords of Discipline era.
The military might not have been his permanent calling, but he still served as a bombardier and flight instructor during World War II. It's how he got that smile and the lilted eyebrow in the photo that says, "Yeah, man, I did this."
Mr. Estroff, who owned several clothing stores, led two synagogues and traveled extensively in semiretirement, died Monday of congestive heart failure. He was 88.
His father Samuel sold women's clothes at his Empire store in Lakeland. Samuel's brother Nathan owned Nathan's Men's Store. The Estroffs were one of several families to form Lakeland's first synagogue in 1932; young Melvin took the synagogue's first bar mitzvah a year later.
From the day he was born, fate dealt him a mixed hand. He had a congenitally abnormal foot and a keen mind. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 14. He finished high school early; his father sent him to the Citadel.
"Imagine the extra abuse he was singled out for — a tall skinny Jewish kid with a prominent profile, with a physical handicap," son David Estroff said Thursday at his father's memorial service.
After two years he transferred to the Wharton School, graduating in 1941. He met Elsie Haft that same year, a crackerjack Syracuse student with model looks. They married in 1946.
Mr. Estroff and his brother Selig took over their father's Empire store, which expanded to locations in Panama City, the West Shore area of Tampa and in St. Petersburg's Tyrone Mall. He sold coats, bathing suits, jewelry and furs. He traveled to New York four times a year for fashion shows, but rarely bought clothes for himself.
"I took to buying him expensive shirts," said his daughter, Jill. "He was so modest, he would not have worn them."
Mel and Elsie hosted famous theme parties, where middle-aged nerds dressed up like hippies, or wore paper clothes decorated with sequins. They welcomed their children, who learned to converse with adults.
"My education happened at the dinner table, where we were always debating philosophy and politics," said Jill Estroff, 54.
Mr. Estroff enjoyed a good argument but also word games, crossword puzzles and puns of the groaner variety (a granddaughter called it "pun-ishment").
He remained active in Temple Emanuel, which in 1959 got into a zoning battle with Lakeland over a new synagogue. Opponents presented a petition with signatures of the city's most prominent residents, most of whom were also members of the Lakeland Yacht and Country Club, a stone's throw from the proposed site.
Mr. Estroff chaired the fundraising committee for the synagogue, which was finally built in 1965. "This temple was built, ironically around the corner from the yacht club where Jews were not allowed," his daughter said.
Mr. Estroff continued his activism by joining NAACP leaders to form the Lakeland Human Relations Council.
After moving to St. Petersburg in 1978, he became congregation president of Temple Beth-El. Mr. Estroff retired after bypass surgery in the late 1980s; he and Elsie formed a business buying fabrics in Greece and selling to retail stores.
"He was such a strong proponent of learning and life in general," Jill Estroff said. "He wanted experiences more than acquisitions."
As his heartbeat faded that last week, his wife sat beside his bed. On his nightstand were books by John Hope Franklin, James Baldwin, Ray Arsenault, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a dozen more.
"Squeeze my hand twice if you love me," she said.
He squeezed back 10 times.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.