|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.|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||May 12, 1984|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (7/29/1984)|
This is an interview with Bernard Confer on May 12, 1984 for the Oral History Project of Teaneck by June Kapell.
(I) Bernie, you've been in town for how long now?
(N) Since 1950.
(I) So. Why did you choose Teaneck to come to and where did you come from?
(N) Well I was born and reared in Pennsylvania, a town called Millheim, Pennsylvania up in the geographical center of the state near State College where Penn Spate is located, where I went to school to at Penn State and when I came out of the war into which I had been drafted and spent four and a half years there in World War II, I thought it would be interesting to get a job out of town although my old job in Bellfont, the county seat, was still awaiting me. And I cam to Manhattan and signed up with Lutheran World Relief as an administrative assistant. This is the several Lutheran churches' joint agency for overseas relief and development and after about six years, they put me in charge of the agency. And I stayed there for until I retired at the end of 1981. Now when I got married in 47 in New York, married a Pennsylvania girl I had never met before except New York, and we had tow babies and we said, it's time we moved out of the New York apartment. And we looked over several towns and after getting advice, we looked over Nutley and Teaneck and made offer sin both towns and eventually we located here.
(I) Well, since you've been here, you've been very active. Did you start your activities immediately as soon as you got to Teaneck?
(N) No, we soon had three children. At that time, I was still in the U. S. Army Reserves and, which meant a night a week in the city and we felt we had our hands full. would you believe that you first year in Teaneck, we did not even have an automobile. We attend St. Paul's Lutheran Church up at Church Street which is a mile and a half from home and we used to take turns walking up there. The other would stay and keep the kids. But life is different now and in those days, a substantial number of people didn't have cars. Now we feel we have to have cars if we life out here. As a matter of fact, we have two of them.
(I) The area that you live in, it is close enough to shopping and all the amenities. What was the town like when you moved in Teaneck?
(N) Well, it had about 30,000 people at that time. We settled at Palisade Avenue near Johnson and Vandelinda and across the street was a vacant lot with woods and on the other side of Vanderlinda was, well it was really three lots across the street in woods and the other side of Vanderlinda there were two lots and woods. So it have changed since. All the land is now built on and, as you know, we have 38,000 people and there are about 10,000 homes and 3,000 apartments.
(I) Well, if you didn't get started right away, then it must have been soon afterwards because you've been in so many things. Let's start with the School Board first.
(N) All right. Could I go back and say it wasn't that I didn't get started. I first was active in our congregation on several committees and eventually and the town council. I mean the church council, the governing board. There was a Boy Scout group in the area there which I agreed to be chairman of and that got me and my boy out on overnights occasionally and, as you know, there is money raising involved and there is getting the parents lined up for sports and all that. Buy that was about all until I joined the PTA over at Emerson School and would you believe, After hardly had I gotten involved there and serving on the committee when some friends approached me about running for the Board of Education. Until it was done they challenged me and I agreed to run.
(I) Just the very first year you started in PTA?
(N) No, see I didn't start on PTA until 1960 I guess. My wife had been active for some years and our youngest was now at the age where we could have a little confidence, you know, and so we both could go.
(I) How did they get you in. Did you volunteer or did somebody draft you?
(N) Well, essentially Orville Sather and Frank Burr were retiring from the board and they were concerned about their successors. As you know, both of these people were outstanding persons and had given quite a bit of service to our community and they were going around interviewing a number of people to see if they would be interested and to have an exchange of views and so my pastor head about this and he got after me too and we had one person from our congregation Ruth Henrikson on the board so I didn't see why we should have two from there. But he said you gotta have leadership. And that Protestants tended not to get involved. Which there is this tendency of Protestants historically and stand back. It's not wholly true, you know, but moreso than some other groups like Jews and Catholics. And I've always been interested in education. Wanted to be a teacher when I was in school actually was a graduate of the School of Education at Penn State College at that time but I couldn't get a job when I came out. Depression was on, teachers were being fired and I never did get into that. So I got into the social field instead. I had been in the social welfare field.
(I) So from PTA and from being interviewed by or urged by Orville and Frank and
(N) I don't know how many people they interviewed but, I suspect I was their third choice.
(I) Who were your running mates. Do you have any recollection?
(N) Harold Weinberger but he was being running second time and I suspect they had agreed on him ahead of time and then Joe Coffee and Joe proved to be a real dynamic persona and a real asset to the Board. I always regretted he couldn't serve more than one term.
(I) In those days, did they have the extensive cottage parties and townwide mailings and big campaigns?
(N) Well it, they had cottage parties that year. Thirteen people filed for the Board of Education and I have forgotten, my recollection is that Harold Weinberger finished first as a name well known in town and Coffee second and then they each had over half the votes and I was just a little under the 50% mark. But you see, scattering the votes among thirteen people, it was really something. We had a good edge when we came together. What we did was promise to support each other.
(I) Then you actually ran more or less as a group?
(I) What was the paramount issue at the time or issues?
(N) Actually there weren't many issues that had been announced at that time which is interesting but I can tell you what issues we found when we got on the board but the board had been a pretty good board you see and had a number of able persons on the board. Well, Weinberger is quite an intelligent able person too. You see, so that three good men, their terms had run out and here two of them weren't running. As we got around, we went around the budget and what all we were going to emphasize when we got there and so on. And each of us was free to emphasize what we wanted. The, I suppose we might have had eight or ten cottage parties. Nothing at all like the next time I ran when there must have been thirty or forty cottage parties.
(I) Well by the next time you ran, all sorts of things had happened. Do you want to tell us what the intervening three years brought?
(N) Well those three years, when I got on the problems facing us were in the general area of religion in the schools and we finally eased out a Christmas and Hannukah celebration and did away with the Baccalaureate services. I have a strong feeling that religion is important. As a matter of fact, I think our schools should be teaching about religion, now promoting religion, and no only Judaism and Christianity but the main religions of the world so our people or students grow up a little more intelligent in this area than I did and more of our people traveling abroad. They ought to know more. But I don't think it is up to a public agency to hold worship services or to sponsor prayers. I really don't I have never understood that. This is more of a feature of the east here historically than of the Midwest where they never had bible readings and prayers in the schools out there as far as I can learn. Course nowadays that's become a big issue about prayer anyway. And then another one was censorship. We came under some pressure to censor some books in the library.
(I) Do you recall what they might have been?
(N) I can't recall but one thing that impressed me was that our entire board felt that we would be wise to avoid any censorship role and if something got really out of hand, that would be different but we had confidence in the teachers who were selecting what they wanted to teach and we had a few charges of communism which handled in meetings. We didn't do too much. One problem that we worked on for at least a year was teacher and board relationships, to strengthen them. We found they were not of the best when we came on the board. We didn't know that when we were running. We worked on special education and developing that program. When we came, Teaneck had no special education classes. it was sending some few people to other areas and we developed our own and fortunately the state had passed a bill just a year before we got on which made this possible with increased state subsidies and I think we developed the first class special education program in Teaneck and still supplemented it by sending certain children to other areas. And, on, to talk to the parents involved, you have no idea who touch that was.
(I) You must have been doing a good job because subsequently people moved, deliberately moved to town because of the tine special ed department that had been set up in the schools.
(N) And we developed the work study program at the high school which had just been experimented on before. I don't know how that stands today but we
(I) They still do it.
(N) They still do it, good. We enlarged that considerably. Reading came under a great deal of criticism and we worked on advances there in the reading program. And worked for more and improved them training. Those are the ones that I can remember. But of course the outstanding one that we dealt with was racial imbalance in the schools. Teaneck had a growing number of blacks coming into the community and living here and so this is the one that brought our town to the greatest ruckus it ever know. And I am glad that you and I were there for that.
(I) Aren't we all?
(N) Well we worked on that near the end of the first year, my year on the board and by June, we authorized a voluntary open enrollment plan beginning the following September in 62 and this where it was tried proved to be a success, what I would call a modest success. And so by the next year, we had authorized a new voluntary optional pupil transfer policy.
(I) Well perhaps you better clarify what the open enrollment was as opposed to the transfer.
(N) Oh yes. If it bore on racial imbalance, and parent in town could enroll their child in the school of their parents choice. This meant since we had housing discrimination in Teaneck and most of the blacks had settled in the northeast area of our community, that if a black family wanted to enroll a child in Whittier or Emerson or Lowell, they could do so. This of course was all within limits but not enough chose to do it to make it a problem.
(I) Did the school board pay for the transportation or did they have to provide their own transportation?
(N) I forget now. I have the feeling they had to make their own arrangements. I say this because there were some implications when the board does it, you can't just agree to transport one child. Parents from all over town can look to you for transportation depending on how you handle this.
(I) so that was the initial year. That was open enrollment.
(N) Yes, that was open enrollment. Then we had voluntary optional pupil transfer policy where people could transfer their children from one school to another each year if they wanted and I am not sure I remember all the facets of this program but it was put through in 1963 and offered more opportunities than the first one did.
(I) Well there were blacks coming into the white schools
(N) Yes and I think one white family had chosen to sent their child to Bryant school. I have a hazy recollection on this. I think there were only 13 or 15 children all together. All were black except one white family. And I thought this was great and really farsighted on the part of that family. How do you see that what we were doing was taking gradual steps to try to deal with this problem. We had a few objections to these but nothing serious. By November of 1963 when the optional pupil transfer was on, the board issued a formal progress report to the community on its discussions about steps to take to make more inroads into the imbalance situation in our community and actually sighted three examples of possible actions. Actually the number of possibilities exceeded three but we chose three which seemed to have some real possibilities, the best possibilities and all of the above were given great coverage in the news, the Teaneck Sun and The Record. The Record had a headline about Racial Imbalance you know and so on. Further, our board felt that this was serious enough that we ought to sent out a special newsletter to everybody in town. so we mailed it to every resident in town giving president Weinberger's statement to the November meeting and outlining these three possibilities as examples of what might be considered. And of course this, since the election was coming up, see I think you file, I forget, you file around the end of November is the dealing of filing for the board of education and that leaves December to talk about these things and you usually have your cottage meeting in January and the election was early February in those days. And so in that election campaign, there was quite a bit of discussion about these three possibilities. The Board also had many meetings with pertinent groups like the council PTAs, the township council, the neighborhood school association that had been developed and the Teaneck Citizens for Public Schools and so on.
(I) In those days, they, this was before the Sunshine Law so that there were many discussions that were held privately.
(N) Yes. During my entire six years on board, we had private trustees meetings one week so called workshop sessions and then the board of education the next week. Since we were, sometimes we had more than one of the workshop sessions so that we only had public meetings once a month normally. I mentioned the discussion of the racial imbalance question during the election campaign. Now this was very important to me since I was running for reelection and this was also the year that Dr. Harry Warner and Paul Margolis were running and Mrs. Zahray and they teamed together and we discussed the racial imbalance at every cottage meeting. If you didn't bring it up. someone would ask about it. I remember I usually had the three main issues before the board that I would speak on at cottage meetings but people weren't really interested in tow those issues. The wanted to talk about racial imbalance.
(I) What were the other two issues?
(N) I've forgotten. I'd have to check. But I am one of those persons who feels you shouldn't elect a person to public office on the basis of one issue. You ought to think of several issues because who knows what will come before that board during his next term. and it is good it it is a well rounded person with board interest. But at any rate, the last forum was held up at Whittier and I chose that time in view of the interest to give my whole ten minutes to racial imbalance and you may remember that book Raz Dameral wrote saying so many people told him that that was my best speech of the campaign, on that one issue. But what I am trying to say this had gotten a lot of discussion besides the three I mentioned. Fay Geier was running; Art Stephenson both of whom had put in many hours of work for good schools in our town. And Mrs. Zahray had too. She had quite a record serving on the PTAs both individual PTA she was the president of and the council PTA she was president of and the county council PTA show was president of. And I met with her during the campaign and she said, well I still am sold on neighborhood schools and I intend to vote that way. After all, she was teamed with Warner Margolis. But she broke company with him over the budget. See they were opposing the budget which actually was a rather reasonable budget but she says, I've never opposed a school budget in all my life and I don't intend to now. And that cost her the election I think for Warner and Margolis got most of the votes and I finished a very, very close third. Very close to Mrs. Zahray. Something like 29 votes difference or something like that which, when you have about 9,000 people voting, that's not much of a difference. The, in the case of Fay and Art and I, we were running individually but we teamed up for planning purposes. I had some support which thought that they were to liberal, you see. In my own view, they would have made very good directors but it was clear that with this neighborhood school issue up with busing being a code word that kept appearing in the papers and in being brought up in lousy terms during the cottage meetings and forum, that if we were not careful, all three of us would lose. And as I say, I really believe that difference in the budget was what did it.
(END OF SIDE 1 - BEGIN SIDE 2 - TAPE I)
(I) Well, you were reelected to a second three year term and what was that three year term like?
(N) We had many private meetings with the board at that time and the board voted in private to ask Dr. Scribner to give a study of or analysis of the benefits and detriments of two of the plans of which one was the central sixth grade school.
(I) And the other?
(N) I forget what the other was was.
(I) But it addressed the problem of integration?
(N) Oh yes. it really addressed it. And you know I should recall what the other was but I cannot right now.
(I) Well, it is in the record somewhere.
(N) At any rate, we went over this of course with Paul and Harry really expressing great amazement at this and telling their colleagues to come in and oppose this whole thing at the open meetings which they faithfully did and then finally in May we voted. Well we reached this conclusion in a Monday just before the, no wait a minute, Monday before the Tuesday board meeting and asked Dr. Scribner whether he would be able to get enough material out in time for this and he said he would. Well be the time Tuesday rolled around. The word in town, I was in New York, I didn't get this, the word in town was that there was going to be a big attendance that night and they arranged for it to be transferred from the board meeting at the high school into the auditorium and low and behold, there were 1,400 people there. So we had our hands full that night and Raz Damerel pretty well spelled it out about the spirit of the evening. One thing I learned long ago though is that a chairman who had a mike in front of him and the person in the audience who doesn't, has all the advantage in keeping order.
(I) And who was the chairman that night?
(N) I was there and had my hands full. And there were so many people there that actually some people I should have recognized and I never even saw, you know, like Joe Coffee came in five minutes late or something like that and he was put way up in the rear balcony and I never did see him up there and he was trying to get the floor he told me later.
(I) Well who was on the board with you? Mrs. Henrikson and Warner
(N) And Gene O'Hare and Ted Leigh is three and Warner Margolis is five and Milton Bell and LaMar Jones is seven, George Larsen is eight.
(I) And yourself.
(N) And myself is nine. Yes. And we stood by our convictions though and we mainly let the people speak and to the extent I could, I would alternate between the two points of view so that we didn't have to be the ones to answer the previous speaker.
(I) You know the position that every speaker was going to take when they came up.
(N) Oh I know from most of them and yes. Ah yes. Although I let one of the opposition speak twice in a row against my better judgment. He was the one who was showing signs of violence and after the meeting, really jumped on a table and shook his fist and so on. That was really rough. We of course had plainclothesmen in the audience. Dr. Scribner had requested this as well as people around the building, plainclothesmen.
(I) May I go back to the plan itself for a moment. Was this designed by Dr. Scribner or was this designed by the board members themselves?
(N) This was designed by Dr. Scribner and his staff.
(I) And his staff.
(N) Yes. In that regard, may I say that in the public eye, Dr. Scribner got most of the, what shall I say, merits and demerits for what happened here and in Mr. Damerel's book, of course every book should have a hero and Scribner deserved the hero label, but I felt Reg did not do justice to the board and finally what came out when we had a, the Teaneck Political Assembly was honoring Joe Coffee one night, you know, and in his response he brought that out up at the Neptune Inn at a big dinner that night and Joe made public what most of us felt privately which was that the board wasn't getting enough credit for really very formally pushing Dr. Scribner to go ahead in certain directions. But Dr. Scribner did the leadership to designing it and in implementing it which was very important that it be implemented properly and when that first day came, I am glad to report, there were no demonstrations. A lot of people had gathered at Bryant but there was no heckling or anything and that no one was hurt and it went off relatively well. So that I think that this is one of the wonderful things about Teaneck on this whole bit. During the period between May when it was voted and September when it was made effective, there were treats of demonstrations, there were individual threats against board members and the superintendent, there were one group of parents over at Hawthorne signed a petition saying they wouldn't send their children, etc., etc. But it went off without anyone getting hurt and, oh a Coca Cola bottle just missed Dr. Scribner one day but he didn't see it. Thrown, you know, and it came very close to his head. We had the cooperation of the town police in keeping watch over our homes and that sort of thing. And one painter threatened a neighbor of mine when he learned that I was there to burn down my house and during this whole period, it was sort of atrocious that the characters who would phone me and I usually got home late and would be going to dinner and my kiddies would answer the phone and cuss them out you know and all of that stuff. Say what a bastard your father was. But they took it in good spirit. They'd laugh as they told the story.
(I) Did your kid get to go to the central sixth grade?
(N) And I were discussing that today and she thinks that Joyce did but I can't recall. She may have. We know that the older two would have been in high school at that time and one in Thomas Jefferson Junior High and the youngest would have been in Emerson Elementary. Now whether Joyce was in sixth or seventh grade, we cannot just recall.
(I) Well my children all did. Yes it was a very fine experience for them. Well have we missed anything on the schools?
(N) Well I think that we ought to tack on, if I may comment some more and I say this because of the makeup of our community and I think it should be on record. Reg Damerell in his book says that Jews supported the schools largely; this has nothing to do with Paul and Harry of course but and that Protestants maybe most of them by a smaller majority; but the Catholics voted against it. Now this really had to do, I can't recall whether this had to do with this election I just described or the next election. And, but my own experience is that in detailing with Catholics, at least during that time in Teaneck on the six years I was on the board, from many of them their vote would determine whether the budget seemed reasonable or not since many of them didn't have their kids in the public schools. Others, of course, were very supportive and talked it up in their groups and at their church and at socials and so on but Reg was talking about in general see. Reg would say they voted against integration which you would say is true but I suspect they were voting against the budget because that was part of the issue. Well I think there is more to this because after that happened, our community was a bit torn and special steps were needed in order to mend things a little. How the board set some of its own wheels in motion but one thing I remember with real appreciation was that eight organizations sponsored over at Ben Franklin an evening oh I guess about a month after the vote was taken in which the record was reviewed and it was obvious this was under friendly people and I didn't explore it fully but I always assumed from what I know that, what's the name of the Jewish Women's group with all the chapters in town here and so on.