Asleep in her bed early Thursday, North Miami Beach Commissioner Fortuna Smukler’s husband woke her up to tell her about the Surfside condo tower collapse.
A little later, she found out the parents of her childhood friends were missing in the rubble.
Smukler, who grew up with the three daughters of Myriam Caspi Notkin, 81, and her husband and their stepdad Arnold “Arnie” Notkin, 87, attended grade school in Miami Beach with the girls about 50 years ago.
“My mother passed away 40 years ago and every time [Myriam] saw me she just had something nice to say about my mother...I love her,” she said. “[Arnie] was just fun to talk to because he had a story…you could tell that they loved each other.”
Smukler said when she learned the couple lived in apartment No. 302 in the Champlain Towers South Condo, the Surfside condo tower at 8777 Collins Ave. that collapsed early Thursday morning, she started losing hope.
They’re an older couple and Arnie wasn’t walking well, Smukler said. She talked to the daughters, who were devastated.
“At this point it would be a miracle ... we’re hoping for a miracle,” she said.
Smukler said Arnie was beloved in the Miami Beach community, going back to when he was a physical education teacher at Leroy D. Fienberg Elementary School in South Beach in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Miami Herald reporter Howard Cohen, who said Arnie was his P.E. teacher at Fienberg in the late 1960s and early 1970s, remembered him fondly. On Facebook, Cohen posted a photo of a certificate Arnie awarded him as a child for “proficiency in stunts and tumbling.”
“He was a tough coach but in a fair way. Never patronizing. And he didn’t give you an award for nothing, which I don’t support. He served as an example for years later on how to tap into a kid’s talents and hone them when I became a swim coach for a time and taught swimming for more than a decade,” Cohen wrote on Facebook.
Another student of Arnie’s, Diana Hernandez, 57, recalled what it was like to be a “girl jock” in his gym class in the early 1970s. She first met him in kindergarten and had him every year through sixth grade.
She said he was her favorite teacher because he encouraged her to be a “tomboy.”
“[I] wasn’t the best student because I always wanted to be out there playing ... he was just so encouraging to all the kids,” she said. “He just loved us.”
Hernandez said she’s spoken to a few of his students and everyone is devastated.
“Just hoping and praying some miracle happens and they’re able to be found,” she said.
The last time she saw Arnie she was in high school and regrets not going to some of the school reunions.
“I kept putting it off and saying, ‘Oh next year.’ He had actually shown up to a few of them and I was like dying to see him,” she said. “Such a great man that touched so many lives.“
Sandy Arbor, 57, said Arnie loved all his students and steered them in the right direction. Arbor, who lives in Aventura, was born in New York and grew up in Miami Beach.
“I just remember him being a very well-loved, spunky human being .... he had a lot of life in him,” said Arbor, who attended Fienberg Elementary in the early 1970s. “Because he loved what he did so much is why we loved him.”
In the last 10 or 20 years, she’d see him often at Cuban Jewish events — his wife Myriam is Jewish and Cuban.
She said he would still brag about her childhood gymnastics skills and participation in the Junior Olympics whenever he introduced her to people.
“It would be really cute because he would pull me aside ... he would talk to whoever would listen,” she said, laughing. “He’d say, ‘This is Sandy Arbor and she was a superstar athlete when she was in elementary school. I was her coach... and I’m like OK, all right, that’s enough already.”
She’s staying positive but worries for the couple and their children. She said their disappearance is particularly shocking because it happened so close to her childhood home.
“Every time I turn on the TV and I see a picture of him and his wife, it tears me apart,” she said. “I wanna stay hopeful, I really do.”
Brian Gadinsky, 64, who graduated from Fienberg in 1969, said Arnie was more than a P.E. teacher.
“He was the teacher that if you saw in the hallway, you’d be happy, you’d be smiling. You wouldn’t be looking the other way or try to duck in the bathroom,” he said.
He remembered how Arnie would mix up sports and offer folk dancing and square dancing to the kids. He last saw him at the class of 1969’s 50th reunion in December 2014.
“He never left anybody behind ... he wouldn’t tolerate any bullying whatsoever,” he said. “A good soul. I mean there’s no better tribute than that.”