Police blared their sirens, motorcyclists revved their engines and community members cheered while curious neighbors peeked outside their front doors Sunday afternoon to see what the commotion was all about.
It was a joyous birthday celebration for 104-year-old Dr. Joseph Abrahams, the oldest United States Army veteran in the county and a longtime psychiatrist who came to San Luis Obispo County to work at Atascadero State Hospital.
Abrahams sat on a bench outside his home in northeast San Luis Obispo, waving and hollering “hi” to the dozens of friends who paraded by in their cars and dropped off cards for the semi-physically distanced birthday party taking place during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s an increasingly happy birthday,” Abrahams remarked.
Several veterans and community members from Welcome Home Military Heroes, an Arroyo Grande organization that holds events to honor veterans and active duty military personnel, sang Abrahams “Happy Birthday,” saluted him and gave him gifts including a certificate of appreciation for his service.
A life of service
Abrahams joined the Army out of sheer love and appreciation for his country, he told The Tribune on Sunday.
His father immigrated from present-day Lithuania in 1902, and his mother followed shortly after in 1910, he said. The two settled in Dallas, Abrahams said, where his father ended up working at an umbrella factory.
“They came here because of democracy,” Abrahams said. “They loved this country and everything it stood for.”
Abrahams was born in 1916, preceded by his sister, Rose, by three years, and followed by his brother, Simon, three years later and another sister, Rota, in 1926.
Growing up, Abrahams said he was an explorer and he loved to swim. When his family moved to Manhattan in 1920, Abrahams was an avid swimmer, often taking dives in the East River, he said.
Entering college, Abrahams said he wanted to be a historian, but his mother wouldn’t allow it. So, after attending the City College of New York for half a year and later transferring to Emory University in Atlanta, Abrahams graduated with a medical degree in 1939.
That same year, Abrahams enlisted in the Army to serve his country during World War II.
“I loved it,” Abrahams said. “I loved the Army. I loved the work. And I was strongly motivated.”
Abrahams’ path to psychiatry
Abrahams rose to the rank of captain and ended up as the medical officer in the 608th tank destroyer battalion, which was slated to get shipped out to northern Africa in late 1942, he said.
“We were in competition with another battalion,” Abrahams said. “But the other battalion drank less than my battalion, so they won the honor of going over there.”
That tank destroyer battalion ended up fighting in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943, a deafening loss for the Allied forces resulting in 6,500 American and 3,500 British casualties.
Following that battle, Abrahams’ tank destroyer battalion was split into four groups to be shipped out in 1944 to Normandy, he said. However, Abrahams was stationed in Indiana at that time, and he suffered from asthma due to the pollen in the summertime, so he was not deployed overseas.
“They put me on limited duty, and they asked me what I wanted to do and be in the Army for the rest of the war,” Abrahams said. “I said a psychiatrist.”
So, Abrahams was given the designation of 3130 to be a neuropsychiatrist without any proper training in psychiatry, he said.
In mid-1944, Abrahams was put in charge of military prisoners at the Fort Knox Fifth Service Command Rehabilitation Center in Kentucky to help treat those with mental illnesses in a program pushed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he said. In a unique approach, Abrahams used a group therapy method to help the prisoners, which was a budding therapy technique at the time.
As a result, the group therapy program at Fort Knox led by Abrahams became the most effective program across the country in military rehabilitation centers, according to Dr. Ivan Berlien, a prominent WWII psychiatrist who authored a study for the Army on the topic before his death in 1985.
Those who Abrahams treated were able to return to war, he said.
Catching the ‘California psychosis’
After Abrahams had served two and a half years as a psychiatrist in the Army, the war ended and he moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in psychoanalysis, he said. Abrahams lived in Washington for 25 years, during which he worked at Howard Hall, the maximum security wing “for the criminally insane” at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital as a psychiatrist, he said.
Abrahams then caught what he called the “California psychosis” and moved to La Jolla, north of San Diego, in 1970, where he worked in private practice for 20 years. In 1990, Abrahams — who had become known for his treatment of those with severe mental disorders — was called to work at Atascadero State Hospital, which brought him to live in San Luis Obispo.
He worked there for six years before going back to private practice.
Since retiring in the early 2000s, Abrahams has written several books and is currently working on an opera. He lives with his wife, Elisabeth, 88, who is also retired.
Abrahams and Elisabeth, who is his second wife, were “set up by a friend” to meet each other in the 1970s and then married 10 years later in 1988.
Abrahams secret to a long life? It’s simple, he says.
“I go to sleep and I put myself in the hands of God, and I wait to see what happens,” he said. “God decided I would live to 104.”
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