|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 Henry Penney
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (8/1985)|
I am Dick Rodda and I am going to interview Henry Penney as a part of the Oral History Program. Henry, is it all right with you if we put this on tape and then it is recorded later? Answer: Oh, yes.
(I) Henry, I recall you first when I came to town, you were the municipal treasurer and had been that I suppose for some time. When did you first come to Teaneck?
(N) I moved here in 1933.
(I) And prior to that?
(N) Prior to that, I used to come to Teaneck occasionally so I knew the town real well before coming here.
(I) And where were you then? Where did you live then?
(N) I moved from North Bergen, having lived there six years. Prior to that, I lived in the Bronx.
(I) But then how did you happen to become involved with the local government?
(N) The local government was going under a transition period at that particular time. It used to be a commission form of government and they were changing to a council and town management government. At that particular time, most of the transition had already been accomplished and. .
(I) You mean by that particular time, that was what, 1933, I see, OK.
(N) The residents of the town were dissatisfied with the way things were being run and the Taxpayers League came into being and they became very strong from a political standpoint.
(I) That was a political group, was it?
(I) What was the population at that time, do you recall Henry?
(N) Near as I remember, about 16,000. There was a lot of undeveloped land.
(I) Most of it where?
(N) Well in different sections of the town. The Great Depression was in full swing at that particular time and the town had numerous tax sales and the of the land was in tax liens. If I remember correctly, about 1/3 of the land of the whole town was in tax liens.
(I) That is to say that people bought the property and couldn't keep up with the taxes, is that correct? Do you think that that was one of the factors that lead to the form of government change?
(I) And in '33, did you become personally involved in the governmental operations?
(N) Well, the Great Depression hit me from my position that I had with a large company in New York and I was out of a job and I finally took a job with the township as Tax Collector and Treasurer.
(I) Well then you had some real insights into the fiscal problems that the town had at that time then.
(N) Oh yes. They were very, very severe.
(I) In what terms Henry?
(I) In terms of debt?
(N) Oh yes.
(I) Do you recall what the debt was at that point?
(N) No, I don't recall but it was tremendous.
(I) And you were appointed by council at that time, is that the idea, or were you appointed by the manager or . .
(N) I was appointed by Paul Volcker, the manager.
(I) And what were the major changes that took place. Do you recall? In order to try to resolve this or make some headway with the terrible deficit.
(N) Well the town government went from a commission form of government to a council and town manager form of government and the majority of those on the council, which was five in number, were elected by the Taxpayers League of Teaneck.
(I) And they became the watchdogs then, is that right?
(N) That's right. And they passed the ordinances that were deemed necessary to pull the town out of its financial condition that existed.
(I) You were Tax Collector and Treasurer?
(I) What size staff did you have at that time?
(I) But the policies were established by the council and administered by the manager and the staff.
(N) That's right.
(I) And were the policies much different after the, in '33, as they were in let's say '32 or '31?
(N) Well they took a hold of the situation and found that many things had to be changed. The expenditures of things and the deferral of things that were put off to later times when the town would hope to be in better financial condition.
(I) How did you find Mr. Volcker as an administrator?
(N) He was very good on the administration of the town having come from a similar job. I guess it was in Cape May. Things were in pretty bad shape but they improved steadily.
(I) Then he pretty much had to be in sympathy with the policies that were developed in order to implement those policies. Did he have a direct input in the formation of those policies as well or was that strictly the council's prerogative?
(N) Well many of his suggestions were adopted by the council and were of great help in putting the town on a better run basis.
(I) Was Milt Votee active in those years or was Carl Van Wagner. .
(N) Yes. He was one of the councilmen.
(I) Louie Morten?
(N) Yes. Sam Paquin. And Carl Van Wagner. I forget the other councilman's name. There was five in number.
(I) That would have been after Christian, what's his name. Well, in any case, we have four out of the five of them at that point in time there. Who was mayor, do you recall?
(N) At that particular time, the changeover, I think Votee became mayor and served for quite a number of years as mayor. I don't recall just how many.
(I) Prior to coming to Teaneck, Milt lived in Ridgefield Park. Is that correct?
(I) And he came to Teaneck about the same time as you did, is that so?
(N) A couple of years earlier.
(I) What was the makeup of the town like in those years Henry? Were they mostly, was it a bedroom community for New York at that point?
(N) Pretty much the bedroom of people that had jobs in New York City.
(I) And what were the local activities. You tell me that the Taxpayers League was rather dominant in the formation of policy. What other groups were there active in the community, do you recall? Civic associations or PTAs?
(N) Well as I recall at that particular time, there wasn't very much opposition to the Taxpayers League. A few people were sort of doubtful but they weren't organized into any strong group.
(I) The Taxpayers League - was that made up of, who, what was the makeup of that? Were they men who were commuters or women who were active in the local social circles or . .
(N) Well they were people that, many of whom owned their own homes here and had positions of various kinds in New York City. But they didn't have a great deal of strength. They were sort of scattered.
(I) The municipal building at that time was, is it where it is presently?
(I) What section of the community developed first would you say? Or did all sections develop proportionately? .
(N) Well in 1933 there was very little building of new homes going on. That, as you remember, was the depth of the Depression which was very severe and things didn't start up and there was practically no construction at all until around 1936 when different builders of private homes began to build in various sections of the town, starting in very slowly first off and then developing much more rapidly towards the end which lasted more or less for at least five years and became steady from then on.
(I) And the school population was considerably less at that point in time.
(N) Oh yes. How much it was, I just don't recall.
(I) The high school was built about 1932 also.
(N) That's right.
(I) And that was a combination junior and senior high school.
(N) That's right. And many of the people who lived in outlying areas around the town of Teaneck saw that the high school was being built and some of their children were ready for a high school and that's what brought many people in here.
(I) Prior to that, the high school children attended school where, in Englewood? In any case, they had to be sent somewhere. There was not a place to send them here.
(N) Really I don't know but I suppose they went to Englewood.
(I) The population itself, I gather from what you say that it was a fairly well-to-do resident, relatively speaking. Is that accurate?
(N) That's true, yes.
(I) They were people of means who had good positions in any case?
(N) They were working class of people that held very good jobs at that particular time, yes.
(I) Would you say that there was, was it a homogeneous population, was it few extremely wealthy and few extremely poor or most of it in between.
(N) A middle class of working people and some people with high executive positions in New York.
(I) It was, we've had over the years a development in terms of changing population in religious wise and color wise. That did not exist at that time, is that so?
(N) That's right. The colored population was practically nil at that particular time. As I remember, the people said there was only two colored people in the whole town, two colored families, and they lived on the border of Englewood.
(I) How about the religious, was it predominantly Catholic, Protestant, Jewish?
(N) Well as I recall, it was about a mixture of various religions and there was no predominant religion or the number of people in any particular religion that held sway or really outnumbered any other. It was a cosmopolitan makeup.
(I) What would you say the major change that would impress you over the years?
(N) Well I think one of the things probably in the Fire Department, either at that time or shortly before that, the Fire Department was made up of volunteers.
(I) It was not a paid department at that time, is that so?
(N) The change came around about that time to a paid Fire Department. That was at least one of the big, main things that happened at that particular time.
(I) Well there were, I remember the fire station on Teaneck Road opposite the Town House where the Sunrise Tire company is now. That was the fire station.
(N) That's right.
(I) And there was one on Glenwood Avenue. And there was one on Morningside Terrace. And I think they were the only ones that I recall at that point. And then of course central headquarters was next to, right opposite the Presbyterian Church there. But at that point was when the paid department was brought into being, around the 30s, early 30s.
(I) Was the relationship between the volunteer and the paid department, was that pretty good?
(N) So far as I know, they got along well. It went off very, very good.
(I) Well you didn't have to worry too much about surpluses then, as treasurer, I gather in those years.
(I) The budget preparation, was that your responsibility as well?
(N) No. That was the town manager's entirely.
(I) Of course you had to administer it.
(N) And collect it. And help with the formation of it to some extent.
(I) Were you involved at all in the school budget Henry?
(I) That was a separate entity.
(N) That was up to the Board of Education.
(I) The relationship between the Board of Education and council in those years, would you say it was a positive relationship?
(N) Oh yes. It seemed to be. They got along very, very good in those days.
(I) I remember seeing that Jim Brett was a former chairman of the Board of Education before he became involved with the council.
(N) That's right.
(I) And Wally Gerber and a few more. What about the commercial development. Was there much commercial development in the 30s, Cedar Lane, Teaneck Road, DeGraw Avenue? Where were the ratables coming from other than the homeowner?
(N) Mostly from the stores. Retail stores. There was no manufacturing of any kind as I recall. Or light industry. Very little if any.
(I) The stores, were they owned by the merchants or were they leased to them by someone else? I can remember, for instance, the Woolworth there at the corner of Cedar Lane and Garrison Avenue.
(N) Well they were built in the late 30s. Woolworth store I think came in the late 30s.
(I) Frank Lear owned a lot of that property in there.
(N) Yes, that's right. They were really most of the buildings housed retail stores that handled food and various wearing apparel and such.
(I) Well Dave Musicant with that Cedar Lane Florist Shop, I guess he and Frank Vaniteri in that shoe shop were there a good many years. I don't know if they were there in the early 30s or not. They could have been.
(N) Musicant was. And Vahiteri around about the same time.
(I) Carl Malone and Lou Feibel, Joe Gretzel. Gretzel I think started with Feibel and then When Lou gave up the bakery, Butterflake, he bought that bakery and then Lou went into the bowling business over on Palisade Avenue. And then Joe and his brother started the Gretzel Bakery up the other end of the street. Carl Malone I guess has been around a long time also, hasn't he?
(N) Oh yes.
(I) Was he about the same time, would you say?
(N) That's right.
(I) Are there any others that you can recall? Julie Shargo had that Just Kids on the north side of Cedar Lane just up from the theater. He ran that for ten, fifteen years I suppose. There was a flower shop down near the corner of Grange Road and Cedar Lane. I am trying to think of his name. The family ran it for quite a while.
(N) What kind of a shop was it?
(I) A flower shop. Near Grange Road.
(N) I don't recall. I remember the flower shop being in there but I don't recall who ran it.
(I) And Cancro's was, the Cancro family ran that place across the street from the municipal building for a long time. And Briarman ran that bar up on West Englewood Avenue. John Briarman. And there was another place, oh, there were a lot of them up there but there weren't that many bars in town really, I don't believe, were there?
(N) Haven't been in one (END OF SIDE 1 - BEGIN SIDE 2)
(I) Dickinson University becoming a part of the community Henry. . or some of the background on that.
(N) Well the background of the development of Fairleigh Dickinson University, I am none too familiar with, but maybe just some of the high spots. The only one that I ever really knew was Mrs. Edward Young who I think was the, well she was in at the start.
(I) Was that with Fairleigh or with the predecessor or Fairleigh?
(N) I think that was with the Bergen College.
(I) The Bergen College, that was the college that was started by Charlie Little.
(N) That was the start of it and then
(I) Then they sold to Sammartino, that is the property. Bergen College was located on the site where Fairleigh Dickinson now operates, is that correct?
(N) Yes. That's right.
(I) And Mrs. Young was, who was Mrs. Young?
(N) Well, as I said before,
(I) That was Ed Young's wife?
(N) That's right.
(I) And Ed Young was, he was the assessor, is that correct?
(N) The town assessor, yes.
(I) And that was the same time when you were the treasurer?
(N) That's right.
(I) How long did Charlie Little operate Bergen College, do you have any idea?
(N) No, I have no idea.
(I) Because prior to that, he was, wasn't he a principal of the Teaneck High School? I think he was active in the local school system. I am not sure of his title.
(N) I think he was. I think he was the superintendent of schools at that time. I am not sure of that.
(I) That would have been before Lester Newland then.
(I) I see. That's interesting. How many churches were there in town. Have you any idea? St. Anastasia's of course was there. The Presbyterian church was there.
(N) The Episcopal Church, Christ Episcopal; the Dutch Reformed on Elm Avenue; all of the main religions were in town and they had, each had at least one church.
(I) How about the Jewish Community Center? That was not there in 1933 then. That came later.
(I) OK. You remember, I am sure, and worked closely with Barney Bookstaver.
(N) Bookstaver. He was a doctor. Medical doctor. And was first head of the Health Department of the town.
(I) Well Barney also was one of the founders, was he not, of the Jewish Community Center on Sterling Place?
(N) Yes. That was the first Jewish synagogue in the town.
(I) Were the clergy active in the, other than in the strict religious assignment that they had, were they active in any other way. Were they active politically, for instance, in the community?
(N) No, I don't think that any particular religion was dominant in the town. It was really a conglomerate set up.
(I) Are there any other sidelights or highlights that you would like to mention about the growth and the development of the community?
(N) Well one of the large ones was the Recreation Department which was entirely new. You headed that part up. That was the start of it. About what year was that?
(I) 1944. January of '44.
(N) '44. Gee, I thought it was a little earlier than that. No?
(I) No, I came in December or November or '43 and met with Mr. Volcker and Fred Bushner and Mrs. Conashanty and Rudy Eibel and that committee and started in January of 44. Well that was Paul's idea.
(N) He and some of the others that you mentioned were the back of it.
(I) I think the PTA had a lot to do with that also. The PTA was very supportive.
(N) Yeah. They were quite active in furthering recreation.
(I) And then of course there was considerable parklands acquired along about that period too and some of it earlier. A lot of it earlier but there was some. . many were taken by tax title liens, as you know.
(N) That's right. That's how they came into possession of it. The liens weren't paid and the town just took the property. We developed it as they saw fit. And so that the parks sprang up in various sections of the town.
(I) Now you served under Mr. Volcker. Did you serve under Jim Welsh as well?
(I) You left before Jim Welsh came.
(N) That's right.
(I) Then you went into private practice or private business.
(N) Well yes. I went into public accounting in New York and served in that capacity for quite a number of years.
(I) Well that, for somebody pushing 92, you're remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. And you get out and you take your daily constitutional because I see you on the street on a regular basis.
(N) Yes, I go along doing the best I can and that's it..
(I) Are there any other thoughts, Henry, that crossed your mind that you'd like to share? You served under quite a few mayers too, is that correct?
(N) Yes. Jim Brett, Milt Votee,
(I) T.J.E. Browne, Tommy Costa?
(N) That's all.
(I) All right. Henry, I appreciate very much your taking the time to come by so we could get some of this material.
(N) And should I think in the future of something that I would like to be permanently recorded, I'll be calling to meet with you.
(I) That would be great. Thanks very much Henry.
END OF TAPE