Joel Caesar, retired executive director of the Northeast Spa & Pool Association, lost his long battle with cancer June 22 at the age of 70.
Caesar was NESPA’s first full-time executive director and held that post for 21 years. Widely known as one of the most accomplished leaders in pool and spa history, he helped bring a shared vision, along with phenomenal growth, to the region’s pool industry.
“He was one of the best things that ever happened in the region and to me personally,” said Mel Hoffer, who served as the association’s president at the time Caesar was hired.
“Being part of the board that hired Joel, I consider it one of the most successful things I did in this industry. It was that important for the region and for the industry.”
Joel William Caesar was born Aug. 18, 1937, in the Bronx (New York). His parents owned a small grocery, and Caesar’s first job was working in their store. He received a degree in journalism from New York University, and went on to serve five years as an Air Force navigator, attaining the rank of captain.
From there, Caesar took a job at Major Pool Equipment Corp. and its subsidiary, Spartan Pools — pioneers in package-pool manufacturing. He also worked for Central Jersey Pools, a retailer in Freehold, N.J.
The match with NESPA in 1983 seemed destined. The organization needed more help to grow its fledgling trade show as well as manage govern-ment relations. While many thought the association could not afford the position, Caesar’s industry experience helped tip the scale, and key board members eventually agreed.
“Joel was a pool guy, so we all understood each other,” said NESPA member and close friend George Kazdin, president of Kazdin Pools & Spas Inc. in Southampton, NY.
Caesar quickly became well-known throughout the industry as a smart, friendly, highly competent leader. But his true fame lay in his role as the face of the Atlantic City (N.J.) Pool & Spa Show, which grew fourfold under his watch. Running the signature event became a year-round job for Caesar and the eight staff members he even-tually hired.
Former show chairman John Lochren, president of Solar Pool Enclosures in Holbrook, N.Y., recalled an incident that illustrated Caesar’s dedication. Lochren was complaining that no one ever listened to the show’s opening speech. He was with Caesar at an event where Miss New Jersey was singing, and Lochren commented that it would be great if she were on stage before the speech to capture everyone’s attention.
“The next thing I knew, Joel came back and said, ‘ I hired her,’” Lochren said. “He was Mr. Atlantic City, and he could just about pull off anything.”
He was also known to run the show with an even hand. “Many times people would try to buy a big entrance banner so they could say it was their show,” recalled Tom Doran, retired owner of Adirondack Pools and a member of the board that hired Caesar. “He would never allow that because it would not sit well with the small guy, who had every bit as much right as far as he was concerned.”
But Caesar was not only dedicated to the show. Early on, he mended fences between the various chapters of the relatively new region.
“We had formed five chapters, and each one was suspicious of the other,” said Al Rizzo, president of Newington, Conn., builder Rizzo Pool Co. and a board member who helped hire Caesar. “Joel came on as a healer and helped the association to grow that way.”
He was also instrumental in government relations issues, and maintaining a positive face for the industry.
“Joel believed in working with code officials instead of trying to fight them,” said Paulette Pitrak, NESPA’s deputy executive director. “He only picked his fights when he knew it was really the right thing and that they could be won. He wanted the industry to show itself to be a good guy, and he worked hard at that.”
In his personal time, Caesar had many hobbies and interests, including trains, planes, stamp collecting and an abiding love for the New York Mets.
After retiring in 2004, he continued to work part-time, helping organize the Atlantic City Pool & Spa Show. He also did as much traveling as he could with his wife, Lila Jacobson, and spent time investigating his family genealogy.
Besides his spouse, Caesar is survived by daughters Jill Schefkind and Beth Friedberg; son-in-law John Friedberg; five grandchildren, ranging in age from 11 and 21; a brother, Andrew Caesar; a sister, Edith Caesar; and his mother, Gussie Caesar.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Caesar’s name to the Prostate Cancer Foundation (www.prostatecancerfoundation.org) or Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (www.hillel.org).
Editor’s note: A previous story about Caesar stated that he relocated NESPA’s trade show from New York to Atlantic City. The move was actually shepherded by Les Kowalsky, show director before Caesar was hired. Pool & Spa News regrets the error.