Saturday, February 14, 2009

Growing up with the Ponzi King

by Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Jay Portnoy was enjoying his retirement in the city where he has made his home for the past 40 years, when he picked up a newspaper and saw a name staring back that shook loose a torrent of memories.

The name was Bernie Madoff, and the story was about how Madoff has been accused of perpetrating the largest Ponzi scheme in Wall Street history, bilking investors out of an estimated $50 billion.

"I first met Bernie in 1948 when we were both in the fifth grade at P.S. 156 in Laurelton, Queens. He was two months older than I was," Portnoy says, dusting off the memories.

The boys lived eight blocks from one another in the suburbs of Laurelton, and their three-story elementary school sat between them.

It was a place and time when men got up in the morning and hopped on the Long Island Railroad to go to work.

Jay remembers attending common gym and music-appreciation classes with Bernie. After classes, the boys played softball. Bernie hit .250. Jay an even .100.

"Bernie was a good but not outstanding athlete. Much the same as a student," Jay says. "For the most part, he appeared quite average."

In 1952, they joined the 2,500 other students at Far Rockaway High School. All these years later, Jay has managed to hold onto the yearbook that shows pictures of the boys' youthful faces and provides a reminder of what Jay calls Bernie's likeable personality and the ability to charm his way through challenging classes.

Too small in stature to play football, Jay signed on as the scorekeeper and referee for the Long Island Spartans. Bernie was the quarterback, and his father was the team's coach.

"In one game, Bernie's father started screaming at me for costing the team several first downs. I assessed an unsportsmanlike behavior (penalty) against the Spartans for his outbursts," Jay recalled.

"My actions were instrumental in the Spartans' losing that game. This was particularly foolish on my part, since I was depending upon Mr. Madoff to drive me home after the game. Fortunately, he cooled off and was not too nasty to me on the ride home. He somewhat politely asked me if I had my eyes recently examined."
Jay recalled that Bernie began work installing underground water sprinkler systems. He would later become a partial owner of the company.

"Maintenance and repairs could be costly, since the pipes would have to be extracted," Jay says. "Once a client committed to the installation, he was a potential cash cow. Bernie used these teenage sources of income to later enter the world of equity finance."

Shortly before their high school graduation in June, 1956, Bernie met Ruth Alpern, a pretty, petite blond girl with green-almond eyes. The couple would later marry.

Jay went off to Queens College, Bernie to Hofstra University, and the old gang from Laurelton gradually grew apart, although Jay said he kept up with their whereabouts through his mother.

"My mother remained in contact with both of their mothers. I would hear from her: 'Mrs. Madoff says Bernie is doing very well. Mrs. Alpern says that Bernie is doing very, very well on Wall Street. Mrs. Madoff says that Bernie is a millionaire. Mrs. Alpern says that Bernie is a multimillionaire.'

"When I relocated to downtown Saratoga Springs a few years ago, I found my 1955-'56 Spartan scorebook. It was mostly blank except for listing the players on the Spartans for the first game," Jay says.

"I meant to mail this to Bernie since it would have more sentimental value to him but was not sure of an address," Jay said. "Since the recent news about his Ponzi escapades, it was quite easy to find an address.

"Knowing that he would have ample time on his hands and that he could use some pleasant thoughts about 50 years ago, I mailed the Spartan scorebook to him in December."

Video: here

published in The Post-Star Feb. 13, 2009.
Saratoga Bureau writer Thomas Dimopoulos can be reached at:

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