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This is an interview of Brad Menkes.
(I) Why don't we start with when and why you first came to Teaneck.
(N) January 18, 1951. We came because we had visited someone here, it was a colleague of ours, mine, and liked the town and our growing family needed a slightly larger house.
(I) Where were you living?
(N) We were living in the Bronx. My wife was pregnant with our third child. That's what occasioned the move.
(I) And you'd researched the schools a little bit or learned something about the reputation?
(I) What was Teaneck like in 1951. I mean I've seen the "Town of the Year" or something like that.
(N) That happened in 1948.
(I) So it had recently been Town of the Year.
(N) It was a typical small Jersey town not quite as cosmopolitan as it is today. But clearly undergoing a major expansion. This was before much of the northwest was built up. North of Route 4 and west Sussex Road. It was just beginning. There were quite a few houses but they were older houses and there were lots of empty spots. Just about beginning the building boom there. The rest of the town was pretty much established.
(I) Did you have school age children at the time?
(N) Let's see. Holly had started first grade. She would start first grade first year we were here.
(I) And she went to Whittier?
(WOMAN SPEAKING, I ASSUME IT IS THE WIFE)
(N) She started in Whittier. Because there was no room at Lowell. Which is spitting distance from here. And they refused to teach her reading because they said she wasn't ready. Without testing her. So I mentioned it to the principal here because my third child was imminent and it would have been easier for me if she was here and he said, don't worry about it. Get her a private tutor, which we did and he immediately transferred her, when I went into the hospital to have the third child and she went right into reading with no problem at all. I found out later he didn't care for the principal at Whittier. They had a thing which was to my benefit.
(I) So she wound up staying at Lowell.
(N) And all four went through Lowell.
(I) Did it turn out that the school system, as parents of kids, did the school system live up to what you had hoped it would do?
(N) Yes. I think the school system was good for the kids and the kids were good for the school system.
(I) You feel like your kids had an effect on the schools.
(N) We all like to think that.
(I) In any specific way or
(N) No, just that they were active participants. And enjoyed the experience and profited from it. (WIFE) And went into the first honors program (at Smith?) (BRAD) They were involved, Peter was I think the first in the mixed program, wasn't he? (WIFE) Yes, he's our youngest. (BRAD) Well I guess starting from the top, Holly who is our oldest daughter had her foot on the ground-breaking shovel for Ben Franklin and this is the kind of involvement I am talking about. They were well aware that there were changes in the system, whatever. Our third daughter Jill was the star in the high school play, Peter was in this mixed program. Did Laurie run for office somewhere? (WIFE) Laurie ran for office, that was funny, that's number two daughter, in the junior high school and she lost by one vote. Which you will find is apropos of what happened to her later. And why did she lose by one vote? She didn't vote for herself; she didn't think that was right.
(I) Oh my goodness. Let's see if that ties in with what happened later as well.
(WIFE) It ties in, it ties in. Very tightly. But they were all active in different directions.
(I) They probably would have something to contribute to this.
(N) I am sure they would.
(WIFE) And how. And Peter was the one who saw the changes. More than anyone else.
(I) He was, when did he enter? Or when did he graduate?
(WIFE) Oh dear. He is 30 now.
(N) Well it would be easier to start from the beginning. He was born in '54 so he must have entered in 1961 probably. That was the year he turned seven, wasn't it? Well that would be the first grade. He didn't start in the year he turned six, remember?
(WIFE) He did, not when he was five. I held him back because I didn't think the boys were socially ready. He in particular. I had him tested. They did do testing, psychological testing for readiness, kindergarten readiness. If the cutoff date didn't fit in with his birth date and it didn't and I did because of that social pressure. I had him tested. And he tested very highly and they were ready to put him in and I said, no way.
(N) I think the relevant principal connection in meeting between us and the school system happened pretty early because the first civic effort we got involved in was to listen to the then president of the Board of Education talking about a $4,000,000 building program.
(I) When was this?
(N) I would guess it was in the spring of 1951. Because Henry Updegrove was running for the board then.
(I) And why do you mention, what was the significance of . .
(N) Well you come to a town and all of a sudden you find out you are involved in what looms like a major building program and that really was our early, earliest interest in the township.
(I) Now tell me about that building program.
(N) Well he spoke at the high school auditorium, this is George Moebius, he has since died I think, and he spoke about the need to expand the high school and build a new junior high school. The total price tag was around $4,000,000.
(I) He was the president of the board?
(I) And how did you feel about this proposal?
(N) Oh, I thought it was a desirable thing to do. We worked, my wife and I worked, pretty hard in connection with the school building programs which encompassed the years from 51 to the end of 55.
(I) So you got involved almost right away?
(N) In that area, yes, that's what I am saying. And my wife's involvement was more direct than mine in the beginning at any rate because she was involved in the P.T.A. starting with Lowell.
(WIFE) Starting with Lowell and going up to the Council of P.T.A. That's when they were called P.T.A. Now it is P.T.O. And we were nationally affiliated and Whittier was not. It was the only school and St. Anastasia's, they were not.
(I) Why wasn't Whittier?
(WIFE) They felt they could do better. So they didn't join.
(I) And the building program I gather passed and what was built?
(N) That building program did not pass. This is a long and very involved history which is pretty well documented I imagine and which you can get elsewhere but the net result of the whole effort of that five year span was the expansion and the modernization of the high school, the building of two junior high schools (Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) and the construction of School #8 (Eugene Field School). Well this was at a time of, it was all in the same time frame.
(WIFE) I was president of the P.T.A. when they wanted the two new junior highs and that's how I got you involved.
(N) Yes, but I said it was later. The Ben Franklin was in 54 with a referendum passed and Thomas Jefferson was 55.
(WIFE) And the Board of Ed then wanted to come and speak at all the individual P.T.A.s and we knew Ben Franklin was going up first and that equi-distant from us, from our front door to the high school is the same distance and I wanted my children to go there and I called a colleague of Brad's from City College who was on the Board of Ed at that point and I called him and I said, they could not speak if they made a right and wrong side of Route 4 which is what they were planning to do. That's how they were going to divide the children up.
(I) Now when you say right and wrong, what do you mean by that?
(N) Do we have a time frame difference here honey? Because Russell
(WIFE) Your friend was Bill
(N) I remember that but the question of the dividing line as to who would go to which junior high did not happen until the schools were built.
(WIFE) The question came up before that because I wouldn't let them come and speak at the P.T.A. meeting
(N) I remember that.
(WIFE) Unless they promised me that if it went through, this was before budget time and the referendum on the schools, and this may have been the second or third referendum to get those schools. We didn't get them right away.
(N) I don't remember. Was Burr on the board at the time?
(WIFE) No. I said you can't speak at Lowell School without my permission and you don't get my permission unless you reallocate where the children will go.
(N) The crux of this is this - they were going to make the highway the dividing line and we felt that although that was the natural boundary, that that was a major detriment because it would tend to divide the town geographically into those people who lived on the north side of Route 4 and to those people who lived on the south side and we advocated a line which was based principally on distance from the school and which did not go exactly according to Route 4. It was partially below it on the west end and partially above it on the east end.
(I) What were you afraid would be the consequences if Route 4 . .
(WIFE) A right and wrong side of the tracks.
(N) We don't want right and wrong sides of roads and tracks.
(I) I see.
(WIFE) I came from Paterson where there is a railroad track and there was a right and wrong side of the tracks.
(I) So the feeling was that it would have bad effects.
(WIFE) It would divide the town.
(N) That was our feeling.
(WIFE) And I felt that it was not equitable. I also wanted my children to go to the nearest school. But Thomas Jefferson is my furthest. Don't forget, there was no such thing as busing. Not that I object to my kids walking, I don't. So they finally gave in. He went back to the board and told them what I said and they verbally promised they would pace it off and do it by mileage and distance.
(I) Is that what then happened?
(N) Yes. That's how it is today.
(WIFE) And Holly was the first class in it. They were on double session at the high school at that point. They were so overloaded. And then it was after those two schools and the groundbreaking when we wanted school 8 which we badly needed. You had all your post-war babies that I felt (inaudible) couldn't handle it and I came home and I said, you have to get into this. I need your help.
(I) Now up till then, what had your involvement been?
(I) Okay, so you'd been watching and listening and voting but not. .
(WIFE) He had to listen because he had an earful.
(I) This is what year now?
(N) I think you should begin it in 54. My part in the involvement in the school activity.
(I) And how did you get involved? What did you do?
(N) I coordinated the referendum efforts in 54 and 55.
(I) As a . . did you run for the board at that time?
(N) No. Just somebody that was interested and felt like working on it. The first referendum was on the Ben Franklin junior high and the second one was on Thomas Jefferson.
(I) What kinds of problems did you run into doing that?
(N) I'll give you a rapid diagnosis because I really don't know too much about these kinds of things except to react sensibly. It seemed apparent to some of us who talked about it that the key to this was to get the parents to vote because the parents had a strong vested interest in having a good school system and so we just took a census, house to house census, as to which houses had parents in them.
(WIFE) And children.
(N) And children in them and we concentrated on getting them out to vote by most direct and straight-forward methods, call them up and write them letters and all kinds of people were involved in this. This was not just me.
(I) Who were some of the other people?
(N) Oh, I couldn't being to .. maybe if I had the other piece of paper, the place to look is in the publication called THE SUNDAY SUN which had a lot of articles about this. it was a paper that proceeded the Teaneck paper. It was published on Sunday.
(WIFE) But you bought that paper. It wasn't a throw away.
(N) Yeah. That was a newspaper.
(I) It was a real paper.
(N) Yeah. A real honest to God paper. But they have all the news content.
(WIFE) Just one important point here - those were the years when the women were home by and large. Of course there were always some but it was before the NOW movement and getting them interested was less difficult than it would be today. They were available and they were home. You had to have the meetings at night so they could get out. But you didn't get both parents out. One had to stay home with the children. Today you can't get the women interested, the young women, because they are working. I know my kids were working and raising families at the same time so they are not as free but there is a big sociological difference at that point from now.
(N) (Looking through papers) Unfortunately, most of this material starts in 58 so I don't have what I would like to refer to but there were people whose names for example - Frank Burr was extremely active in this effort. In fact, he had in a sense a stronger influence on the situation than I did because he had a very wide acquaintance in town. But there are people at the time
(WIFE) Bernie Thompson.
(N) Bernie came a little later but Stuart Brown, Libby Macoll, Ruth Hendrickson, Florence Wood, half these people are dead by now. Or many of them are. In fact, Burr should remember a great deal. He probably has some material about it.
(I) So the referendums were your first involvement and they were successful. And not particularly bitter I gather.
(N) Oh, there was quite a bit of acrimony.
(I) Who was against it?
(N) Well that was the other part of what you should say but in cautious words. Don't forget that most of the pressure on a school system came from the new people who moved to town.
(WIFE) Like us.
(I) So you were the newcomers.
(N) Yeah, we were the newcomers and there were people here who were very happy with things as they were and would have just been just as happy if they didn't have all the newcomers because of the increases in taxes and major new programs so you might say that the establishment, which was personified by the Teaneck Taxpayers League, was not enthusiastic about building of schools. We had quite a bit of acrimony, quite a bit of opposition which resided, and there is nothing personal about this as far as I know, that is on nobody's part, it is just a question of old vs. new or established vs. newcomers. And the change in Teaneck, they were not enthusiastic about the idea.
(WIFE) And it was money.
(N) I think the principal problem was money because this town had a history of being extremely conservative financially and it still is by the way, but this was just too big a jolt in a very short time because there were people pouring in here after the war. Because of the housing shortage and the baby boom, there were people who came here from New York, from Jersey City, from all around here looking for just such a town as Teaneck was.
(WIFE) We were the very highest in schools in the country, the mid-Atlantic states rated by the mid-Atlantic states at that time. We are nowhere near that now.
(N) You don't have those facts. All you know is what people say.
(WIFE) I remember.
(N) No, but you don't have the facts today.
(I) So where then did things go after the referendums? Then you continued to be involved. What was the next big issue?
(N) I decided to run for the council.
(I) For council, OK. And that was when?
(N) The decision was in 56/57 of the timeframe.
(I) What motivated you to do that?
(N) There is a difference between motivation and triggering. The triggering came as a result of the 1957 budget hearings. The budget hearings not attended by many people but two of the people who were there, the then president of the League of Women Voters, a woman named Audrey Kytle. Is she around? I know she's not here but is she alive?
(WIFE) I have no idea.
(N) But anyhow the then mayor of the town was a man named T.J.E. Brown and he has since died and he told Mrs. Kytle that her business was at home.
(WIFE) At a public meeting.
(N) Women didn't belong in politics and she should mind her own business. I thought that was going too far. That's what made me . . the motivation was an interest in the town, of course. And no particular reason to be involved in the school system activity because there were plenty of people who were able, ready, willing and able to work on the School Board. But the township council was a frozen corporation for a long time.
(WIFE) The Taxpayers League picked them, they were elected and that was it.
(N) Well that was more of a challenge to try and buck that.
(I) Oh, so this was your running for this was not an ordinary election. This was really going to change the. .
(N) The motivation was to change the habits of the town in always electing the five candidates that the Taxpayers League selected. There was another guy who ran that year named Matty Feldman. We both were elected in the same year. And for somewhat similar reasons I would say. He also felt strongly that it was time to bust things up a little bit. He is not getting into anything he doesn't know. And he looked it up and he came down after a little bit and said to people who were active in town, OK, recount. We had a recount and they impounded the voting machines and they discovered in the back of one of the machines in Hackensack the numbers, did you ever see the back of the voting machine, they are very tiny, they are about half of your smallest fingernail, and they read a nine as a O. So then they really saw it and they saw the tail on the nine and we then tied with the former mayor.
(I) This was T.J.E. Brown.
(WIFE) So then they had to go over the absentee ballots to see if they couldn't validate one or two or whatever and this went to Judge Ledden in Hackensack and we sat there in the court and he was a very caustic judge and very quick with his comments and at one point, he finally got around to it and he said - there is one ballot that I can validate and he ripped the poor man apart. He said whose it was which wasn't necessary and he said, I don't understand. This man is a lawyer. He should know better. What he had done was he had attached a typewritten form to his ballot to explain something. And that was his one vote. We came back to Teaneck and everybody in Cedar Lane in the stores was out on the streets greeting us. We went in for coffee and we were mobbed. It was really very funny.
(I) That must have been very exciting.
(WIFE) He heard from people allover the country who had lost or won by one vote.
(1) Oh, I see. So you really acquired a reputation nationally because of that one vote.
(WIFE) Not really nationally but it was. .
(N) There were several people who were interested in it.
(WIFE) And Laurie lost by her one vote long after that. It wasn't at the same time.
(I) An old family tradition.
(WIFE) But I think Brad did vote for himself.
(N) Did you tell her that Joe Brown's wife didn't vote for him?
(WIFE) What came out was his wife did not want him to run again and consequently she went to Florida and did not take an absentee ballot and did not vote for him.
(I) Well I'd hate to have been in their house then.
(WIFE) That's what everyone said at the time. But it was big excitement and a lot of fun. Had he lost the recount, he would have had to pay for it.
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