Saugerties Pro Musica

The Doctor Is In

Living History with Dr. Herman Ash (1909-2005)

By Katie Cahill 

        Though his 96th birthday is in a matter of hours, with his quick wit, charming conversation skills, and nearly effortless recollection of past events, Dr. Herman Ash could fool anyone into thinking he is at least two decades younger.

        But even with the gentle creases in his face, Ash is able to tell you the models and prices of the cars that drive by his Main Street house, driven daily by high school students.

        “How do they afford such things?” he asks — a good question.

        Ash is equally familiar with the latest computer gadgetry. “Your laptop is so quiet,” he says. “Does your publisher pay for that?” Another good question.

        Ash is curious about the state of his community, and wonders if the town board and the village board are doing a good job. Ash, in fact, still wonders about a lot of things. He has lived through a century of astonishing change, and yet Ash only wants more.

        He was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1909. There, Ash studied to be a doctor; he completed his studies in Switzerland. “That was at a time when Hitler’s power grew, at the end of ’35, and then I moved with my wife to what was then Palestine.

        “We stayed there until 1937, November. At that time we moved over to this country, we got an affidavit through a friend of my parents and so we had no trouble. My parents had a friend who they helped to come to this country, he lived somewhere here in the states and became very wealthy. He met us at the dock in New York and said ‘I’m so-and-so come with me.’”

        The adjustment to American life was abrupt. Though Ash and his wife could read English from reading the British newspaper The Guardian, speaking wasn’t as easy. Ash said he learned how to speak broken English — “because we learned it in school.”

        For their first year in the United States, Ash and his wife remained in New York City, taking the required medical exams. Then the couple decided to look around for a more permanent place to settle. And little by little, they headed north.

        “So we ended up in Saugerties, which was a backwards town,” Ash said. “People were not used to people who came from outside of Saugerties. If you were not born here you sort of counted already minus ten percent. And then there was still the end of the Depression, 1938 we came here and it was not an easy living. Many people were just suspicious. They thought what are these Germans doing here?”

        The government, too, was suspicious, and regarded Ash as an “enemy alien.” So Ash decided to turn the tables, and tried enlisting in the Army. He would have to wait five years, though, before gaining American citizenship. Until then, he and his wife set up his practice in the same Main Street home he lives in today.

        Five years later, Ash was sent to boot camp, in Arkansas, “with a lot of dentists,” he remembered. Then it was on to a military hospital in California for a month, then it was overseas, Ash was as one of several military doctors in an artillery unit fighting its way through France and Germany.

        In 1945, Ash was expecting to be sent to Japan. “Then there came an order that said, ‘Atomic bombs have exploded in Japan and Japan has surrendered,’” Ash said. The troops were gradually discharged and several months later Ash came home.

        “It was just a big surprise because we had lived on little rations during the war and our food was not very good, I got heartburn all the time,” Ash recalled. “But here you came back and everything was hunky dory. You could go to the store to buy anything you wanted to and it looked all clean and I thought these people have lived a better life here. It took awhile though to get adjusted. It was so different.”

        Ash’s wife, also a doctor, kept up his practice while he was gone. A good thing too: by the time he’d returned, seven other doctors had hung shingles; one in particular, whom Ash remembered only as “Dr. Kamp,” took a liking to the German doctor and would often take him on rounds.

        “He had a little jeep and he made house calls,” Ash said. “Many times he would come over and say ‘Hop in,’ and we would go visit one of his patients.”

        Ash said the late 40s and early 50s were host to a very different array of ailments.

        “People didn’t get very old then and they didn’t have that awful collection of disease that we have today,” Ash said. “Mostly it was children’s disease, middle-ear infections.”

        Treatment was also significantly dissimilar.

        “We didn’t have any antibiotics here and what we knew about antibiotics was what we used in the war,” Ash said. “Penicillin was just invented and all the supplies were reserved by the government for the soldiers. So when a kid had a middle ear infection, you had to incise the eardrum and drain out the pus; so you gave a little anesthetic and when the kid temporarily fell asleep, we had a fine knife, made a cut, the pus came out and the child was relieved.”

        That practice continued for about 15 years, Ash said, until “some smart scientists developed the sulfur drugs, and they were like a miracle. If you had a child sick with pneumonia you give them these pills, and within 24 hours the temperature went down.”

        Whereas many doctors today have a specialty, in Ash’s time a doctor did everything, including delivering babies.

        “Deliveries of babies was half the time done in the patient’s house,” Ash said. “They call the doctor when they were thinking the baby would come, so you had to have a satchel with the most necessary equipment for delivering a baby. Sometimes the expectant mother would call late and we’d come to the office here and lo and behold in five minutes the baby was here.”

        One future Saugertiesian arrived so quickly that Ash hardly had time to prepare at all.

        “I remember we had a basket we used to use for the wash,” he said, “and we took that basket and put padding under it and a blanket on top and the baby survived.”

        Ash also experienced his fair share of roadside deliveries.

        “I remember one came to me and I said to her, ‘In about five minutes you’ll have a baby, so get in your car and rush to the hospital and I’ll take my car and rush after you.’”

        When Ash went to jump into his own vehicle, he saw the expectant mother walking down the sidewalk — her son, her ride, had driven off. Ash quickly put the woman in his own car, only to pull over seconds later on Route 9W.

        “She went into labor and I delivered the baby in the back of my car,” Ash said. “Quite a few children were born in my car.”

        Then there came a new medical concern: tobacco.

        “Smoking did a lot of harm,” he said. “At first we had nothing to help them, [smokers] just got lung tumors and that was the end of it.”

        While many know Ash as a doctor, just as many know the name in connection to an area gem, Saugerties Pro Musica, which according to Ash is only half true.

        “You want to talk about Pro Musica?” Ash said with a laugh. “Pro Musica, I didn’t start. It was a guy from Canada, and he had moved here to the states and one day we got together and he said, ‘You should have some music here, where I come from in my village we have music.’ His community was half the size of Saugerties.”

        Ash, who had been playing both the violin and viola since youth, was intrigued. The first session of Pro Musica was held at Café Tamayo on Partition Street in 1995. Funds to hire well-known professional acts were limited, so Ash enlisted local musicians, both amateur and established. During that first year, Ash’s co-conspirator moved to New York City.

        “With my limited experience and talent we kept it going and gradually we accumulated a little cash and so once in a while we asked a professional to come over here and give a little concert,” Ash said. “We sort of survived by a shoestring.”

        Not for long. As Pro Musica became increasingly established, it began to raise funds by running advertisements for area businesses in its program. Pro Musica also attracted the attention of “some very good people who would devote their time and money to help us.” Now Pro Musica hosts a regular cycle of performances from September until April, often featuring well-known musicians from around the world.

        But this decade of music-making is merely a pleasant blip on the memory register of Ash, whose 96th birthday has passed now. Though he has accomplished a feat few can claim, he doesn’t feel there is any great secret to longevity — rather it is a combination of genetics and good fortune.

        An explanation, doctor?

        “Well it’s difficult to answer because I don’t know,” Ash said. “My parents died in the Holocaust. So we don’t know how long they would have lived. Part of it is just plain luck and health. Some people say that music will keep you alive longer, conductors say some musicians live a long time, but who knows what really does it. People live longer from each decade to the next. When we came here people lived maybe to 55 or 65. As we progress, we can maneuver infectious disease. We can repair hearts.”

        Then turning to deliberately face his questioner with a knowing smile, Ash said, “We can do a lot of things that no one thought would be possible.”

REPRINTED with the kind permission of the author from the 8/04/05 issue of the Saugerties Times 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this was written, an earlier article about Saugerties Pro Musica surfaced which prominently features Robert V. Peters (formerly of Saugerties) as the founder of Saugerties Pro Musica. The Board wishes to thank Mr. Peters for his energies and perseverence early-on, and to thank Dr. Ash for continuing to insure Saugerties had a regularly scheduled music series. We begin our 28th Season (2023-24) proud to continue in their footsteps.


Saugerties Pro Musica is a section 501 (c) (3) organization

Saugerties Pro Musica
PO Box 276
Saugerties NY 12477

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