Her Zeal for Planning Led to Teaneck Council Career

By Don Stancavish, Staff Writer

(From: The Record, Tuesday, July 11, 2000)

Some might find planning board meetings less than exciting. Not Eleanor Kieliszek. She actually was intrigued by the arcane world of zoning laws and site plans when she was assigned to attend township planning meetings not long after joining the Teaneck League of Women Voters in the early 1960s.

"I was interested in it," said Kieliszek (pronounced KEE-luh-check). "It was important stuff, of course."

Important enough, to her, that she was surprised to be the only member of the public to show up for the public meetings.

"I was their only audience."

Board members were impressed by her. And in 1965, Mayor Matthew Feldman named Kieliszek as the board's first woman member.

Five years later, Kielizek, then 44, became the first woman to win a seat on the Township Council. The victory began an unparalleled 30-year career as a council member that included two terms as mayor. The uninterrupted run ended last week when Kieliszek attended her last council meeting.

At 74, she is the matriarch of Teaneck civic life, a woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of township politics, capable of drumming up details and anecdotes of long-gone mayors and council members as if she had spoken with them earlier in the day.

She is a student of politics. You can find biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and James K. Polk on the coffee table of her living room. And among the many lessons she has learned in government is that few things come easy.

"Sometimes things seem so simple," she said, "but in government you have to touch a lot of bases."

Her career in Teaneck has spanned six presidential administrations -- from Nixon to Clinton. Consider: She was elected a year after NASA sent a man to the moon, and five years before the end of the Vietnam War, now the subjects of history books."I had to stay on until I got it right," she joked with a visitor to her Johnson Avenue home.Earlier this month, she got some good news: As a tribute to her years of service, the township will name after her a large swath of its greenbelt, a stretch of Route 4 cordoned off from development."Her only motivation has been the betterment of Teaneck," said Mayor Paul Ostrow, who has served on the council with Kieliszek since 1990. "My opinion is that she has fulfilled her Athenian oath: She left the town better than she got it. I believe we are better and more beautiful."Kieliszek moved from Brooklyn to Teaneck in 1950. After living in a small Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment, Teaneck "was like heaven," she said, with its leafy residential streets and spacious parks.She and her husband, Raymond, bought a small Cape Cod on Glenwood Avenue, and began a family that grew to include four children. They later moved to their home on Johnson Avenue.In 1970, friends persuaded Kieliszek to run for Township Council. She entered a 17-way race as the only woman candidate. She campaigned door-to-door, and said she got a boost from the women's liberation movement.On election day, she was one of seven voted to a seat.One of her first issues was development. After the construction of Routes 95 and 80 through the southern portion of the township, Teaneck had to take steps to ensure that the corridor would not develop into commercial sprawl."There was a lot of concern that the area would be ripe for what we call disorderly development," she said. "If we didn't plan, the land would be gobbled up."After a series of contentious public debates that pitted a pro-development council faction against those, including Kieliszek, who favored preserving land, Teaneck sold off a soggy, 350-acre parcel of land to Bergen County. The land became part of Overpeck Park.

Also during the Seventies, the council approved, after more public debate, a plan by Alfred Sanzari Enterprises to build the Glenpointe complex, which included a hotel, commercial space, and a condominium complex. The development is still surrounded on three sides by woods and fields.

"We felt at the time that that was the best use of that land," she said. "I think we made the right choice."

After serving as mayor from 1974 to 1978, Kieliszek was elected mayor again in 1990. In April of that year, a white Teaneck police officer shot a black youth named Phillip Pannell. Overnight, the township -- known for its integrated schools and progressive attitudes -- was turned on its head. There were riots and protests.

The council took a proactive position, holding neighborhood meetings and fostering dialogue with community groups. "We worked very hard to overcome the difficulties of that time," Kieliszek said.

As mayor in the early 1990s, Kieliszek also persuaded council members to embark on a 10-year campaign to modernize Teaneck's aging public buildings. "We took a look at what I call a mature suburb," she said. "Things come due. Your buildings need replacement."

The plan included building a police station, refurbishing and expanding the Rodda Recreation Center, and constructing a new Department of Public Works facility on Teaneck Road. Teaneck also formed an economic development corporation, an agency charged with the mission of revitalizing Teaneck's commercial areas.

Kieliszek's legacy, however, extends beyond brick and mortar. The council she left earlier this month has three women members -- Jacqueline Kates, Deborah Veach, and Marie Warnke -- who outpolled four male candidates in April to win council seats.

"I'm glad I'm leaving with such capable women on the council," Kieliszek said.

And although she has retired from elected life, Kieliszek is not bowing out of public duty. She has retained her seat on Teaneck's Planning Board, the place where she began -- 35 years ago.


 

Name: Eleanor M. Kieliszek (pronounced KEE-Iuh-check)

Age: 74

Education: B.A., political science, Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Family: Married to Raymond for 52 years. Four grown children.

Career: First woman appointed to Teaneck Planning Board, 1965; first woman elected to the Teaneck Township Council, 1970; mayor of Teaneck, 1974-1978, 1990-1992; 30-year member of Teaneck Council.

Hobbies: Travel, reading, gardening (though she confesses her role in the backyard garden consists mostly of pulling weeds). Favorite books: "Emma" by Jane Austen. "Dubliners" by James Joyce. "Barnaby Rudge" by Charles Dickens. Favorite movies: "My Fair Lady," "Gigi," "Shakespeare in Love," films by Alfred Hitchcock.

Quote: "One of the reasons I know I'm going to like retirement is that I will be able to read a book in two or three days. That's truly a luxury."

 

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