|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
Audio recording of the interview with Bernard Confer
(Interviewed by June Kapell on 5/12/1984. Transcription: 31 pages)
Mr. Confer moved to Teaneck in 1950. After spending four and a half years in W.W. II, the narrator signed up with Lutheran World Relief in Manhattan as an administrative assistant. Six years later, he was put in charge of the agency, and he remained with the organization until he retired in 1981. Mr. Confer was married in 1947; and after their second child was born, they decided to move out of their New York apartment and relocate in Teaneck. In 1950, 30,000 people lived in town, and they settled at Palisade Avenue near Johnson and Vandalinda Avenues. Mr. Confer attended St. Paul's Lutheran Church at Church Street; became active on several committees and eventually was made a member of the church's governing council. The narrator was also chairman of a local Boy Scout group at this time (p. 1 - 3).
Mr. Confer states he had only started serving on a Emerson School PTA committee when he was approached by Orville Sather and Frank Burr to run for the Board of Education. They were retiring from the Board and were concerned about their successors. Harold Weinberger and Joe Coffee were his running mates, and all three were elected with Weinberger finishing first; Coffee, second; and Confer, third with just under the fifty percent mark. Bernard Confer would serve six years, or two terms, on the Board of Education. He states the issues facing them his first term were religion in the schools. In that regard, they are able to ease out a Christmas and Hannukah celebrations and eliminate the Baccalaureate services. When pressured to censor certain books in the library, the entire Board was agreed to avoid assuming any censorship role and to trust the good judgment of the teachers. Relative to this, the Board worked for at least a year strengthening the relationship between teachers and the Board. Mr. Confer also discusses the special education program they developed and believes they succeeded in creating a first class program. Before their efforts, Teaneck did not have special education classes; and now, people deliberately move to this town so their children can benefit from the fine Special Education Department. They also developed a work study program at the high school.
Of course, the Board that first term had to deal with the racial imbalance in the schools that resulted from housing discrimination and caused most blacks to settle in the northeast section of town. To alleviate this imbalance, the Board authorized a voluntary open enrollment plan scheduled to begin the following September, 1962. Realizing a modest success with this plan, the next year, Dr. Confer states they authorized a new voluntary optional pupil transfer policy. This policy enabled parents to transfer their children from one school to another each year. It was put through in 1963 and offered more opportunities than the first plan did. Mr. Confer recollects that 13 to 15 children participated. All were black except one white family that chose to send their child to Bryant School. The narrator states the Board realized they were taking gradual steps in dealing with this problem and that more inroads would need to be made to correct the imbalance situation (p. 3- 6).
In November of 1963, the Board issued a formal progress report to the community and listed three examples of possible actions that might be considered. Mr. Confer states the best possibilities were given great coverage in the TEANECK SUN and THE RECORD (p. 7 - 9).
During his reelection campaign, Mr. Confer gave a ten minute speech addressing racial imbalance, which he says author, Raz Damerel, in his book writes was considered his best speech of the campaign. Bernard Confer won reelection but his running mates, Fay Geier and Art Stephenson, did not; the narrator says they were considered by some to be too liberal (p. 11). During his second term on the Board, Dr. Scribner was asked to conduct a study or analysis of the benefits and detriments of two of the plans, one of which was a centralized sixth grade school. Mr. Confer recalls the nine members of the Board at this time to be: Mrs. Henrikson, Harry Warner, Gene O'Hare, Ted Leigh, Paul Margolis, Milton Bell, LaMar Jones, George Larsen and, the narrator, Bernard Confer. He states that Paul Margolis and Harry Warner were opposed to the plans and that they informed their colleagues to voice their opposition at the open meetings. Nevertheless, the Board voted to establish a central sixth grade, and Mr. Confer says that the public meeting of the Board of Education had to be held in the Teaneck high school auditorium to accommodate the 1,400 people expected to be in attendance. Mr. Confer recalls the difficulties in presiding over that highly emotional meeting; however, he says the Board stood by their convictions while giving people the opportunity to speak (p. 11 - 13). Mr. Confer states that author, Damerel, credits Dr. Scribner solely for what happened without acknowledging the Board's role. However, Joe Coffee, at a Teaneck Political Assembly dinner honoring him, made public that the Board was not getting enough credit for really very formally pushing Dr. Scribner to go ahead in certain directions. Mr. Confer, however, reiterates that Dr. Scribner designed and implemented the plan, which, the narrator readily admits, considering the emotional issue, was very important that it be implemented properly. He recalls that first day, there were no demonstrations; many people gathered at Bryant, but there was no heckling and no one was hurt. However, Mr. Confer states that during that period between May, when the Board voted for the central sixth grade, and September, when it was made effective, there were threats of demonstrations as well as threats made against individual Board members and the superintendent. A Coca Cola bottle was thrown at Dr. Scribner which nearly hit him in the head. Eventually, Mr. Confer recalls, it became necessary, because of the threats and malicious phones calls, for the town police to keep watch over their homes. There was also a group of parents from Hawthorne that signed a petition stating they would not send their children to Bryant (p. 13 - 14).
In the wake of the Board's vote, Teaneck was a somewhat torn community. On pages fifteen and sixteen, Mr. Confer discusses some of the post-vote commentary and the groups which took meaningful steps in his opinion toward mending fences. Shortly before leaving the Board, the narrator recalls reviewing a report from an authorized professional consultant that stated Teaneck's total school system was obsolete for the projected student population of 10,000. His last two years on the Board focused on getting elementary school libraries established and having a feeding program in every school not only the high school (p. 17).
After his two terms on the Board of Education, Bemard Confer was asked by the Mayor and Township Council to assume the chairmanship of the Board of Community Relations. According to Mr. Confer that Board had it roots in fair housing in the Northeast but over the years had broadened its scope. Mr. Confer would serve six years on the Board that had, by the time he came on, grown to twenty-five members; the narrator felt the number was a bit unwielding. He explains that members are appointed by the Mayor with the agreement of the Council. Mr. Confer describes the retreats they sponsored every four years with the election of a new township council. The first conference was held in Nyack, and the second conference was held at a Women's Catholic Retreat Center in Long Branch. The usual session would start on Friday evening and end around Noon on Sunday. In attendance were Township officials, Council members, Board of Education members, Chairpersons of each and every committee relative to the Town Council and Town government, such as Recreation Board committee and even the Architectural Design committee. Mr. Confer notes that naturally discussion on race relations was high on the agenda, and thinks both retreats were highly successful in promoting an understanding of what was going on in our town (p. 17 - 20).
Mr. Confer also reflects on the spot cottage meetings the Community Relations Board would hold to address a problem specific to a neighborhood. A mutual party would agree to invite their neighbors into their home, and one or two people from our Board would also attend to facilitate discussions and hopefully to enhance understanding and dispel rumors. The narrator gives an example where this approach was successful (p. 20 - 21).
Between 1959 and 1960, Mr. Confer organized the initial Fair Housing Committee along with Dr. Harold Letts of Woodbine Street, who worked for the National Council of Churches and was a Lutheran clergyman, and Howard Radest, General Director of the Bergen County Ethical Culture Society on Larch Avenue. Although their focus was the impact upon Teaneck of the increasing black population being confined to the Northeast part of town through discrimination, the scope of the first committee was countywide. Mr. Confer recalls that even though we had people from Cresskill and Paramus, it was clear that we in Teaneck seemed more highly motivated. Later Isaac McNatt was elected president, and the Committee continued and eventually became dominated by people in the Northeast, which, Mr. Confer contends, was unfortunate but concludes it proved to be very constructive and served a useful purpose at that stage of our town's development. Mr. Confer addresses the emotional issue of blacks and housing; and specifically, homeowners' fears viewed from experience in New York City that if one black family moved on a block, the entire block soon would be all black. The Committee reached out to other communities to open their doors to prevent the town from becoming predominately black for the good of Teaneck and, as Mr. Confer regards it, in the name of just plain American justice. The narrator insists that although the problem is not solved a lot of progress has been made (p. 21 - 25). On pages twenty-five and twenty-six, Mr. Confer talks briefly about the unsuccessful lawsuit filed by six to eight residents of Teaneck against the Board of Education, the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the Board, claiming their constitutional rights were being violated. Mr. Confer reflects that although the township won the suit, he lost a friendship over the emotional issues of the case.
Mr. Confer explains the Friendship Days endeavor under the leadership of Frank Hall and Jules Edelman and their wives and says the efforts made by all involved proved successful and made a silent contribution to community relations (p. 26 - 27).
As a final topic, Mr. Confer talks about the origins of the Teaneck Political Assembly. After Dr. Harry Warner and Paul Margolis were elected to the Board of Education by such a wide margin, many felt if candidates with such racially inflexible positions are elected to policy making offices in town, Teaneck could suffer. So the Teaneck Political Assembly was formed. Joe Coffee was approached to be the first chairperson; other early participants were Matty Feldman, who was Mayor at the time; Frank Burr, Frank Hall, Harold Glick and his wife, Phil Bloom and others. An excellent credo was developed emphasizing the value of community relationships. Mr. Confer feels that organization was really helpful through the years in promoting able people to run as candidates for the Town Council and for the Board of Education. So effective was the efforts of the TPA, it is the narrator's opinion nobody can ever run a platform of de-integrating the schools in our town and be elected (p. 28 - 31 ).