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This is an interview with Seymour Herr on May 14, 1984 for the Teaneck Oral History Project.
(I) Seymour, you've been in town for about how long?
(N) Thirty five years.
(I) Where did you come from? Where did you live before this?
(N) I lived in what was then East Paterson, now Elmwood Park, but I grew up in Bayonne, NJ.
(I) And what lead you to choose Teaneck?
(N) Well the town was attractive. It was near my place of work which was long Island City, NY. That is it was about as near as I could get to the city still living in New Jersey. My family continued to live in New Jersey all my relatives were here. And then I had relatives in Teaneck. And the town seemed to be developing nicely. The Jewish community was growing. They were contemplating building a new synagogue and we chose Teaneck.
(I) And what kind of activities did you get involved in once you got here?
(N) Well my first major involvement was the effort involved in the raising the money and putting on the largest addition of the Teaneck Jewish community Center.
(I) How big was the congregation at the time?
(N) Oh, at that time we probably had about maybe 300/400 families. And it eventually grew to over, almost 1,200.
(I) Was this the only Jewish Center in town? Was it a temple?
(N) At the time, yes, at the time it was.
(I) And the Jewish Community Center is a conservative
(N) Conservative group.
(I) After your involvement, well what else, how long was this involvement with the Center?
(N) Well up until I was elected to the Board of Education which was in 1959.
(I) You actually did more than just fund raising at the Center though.
(N) Oh yes. I eventually became president of the institution.
(I) Was that after the new building had been built?
(N) After the new building had been built.
(I) All right. So in 1959, you were elected to the School Board.
(I) What induced you to run for the school board?
(N) Well it was my feeling that the Board was a conservative group. I thought I could bring a more liberal point of view. Schools continued to be crowded. My three children were in the public school system and it seemed like a natural interest. Several people had urged me to run and of course having been president of the Teaneck Center, I had a built in constituency.
(I) And once you were elected, what were the primary issues that you faced?
(N) The primary issue I think was really continuing, a continuing overcrowded situation and we were constantly doing studies on the population projections and while they were educational issues, I don't think they were ever really too controversial. That is, as a Board, you know, we are willing to wrestle with these problems in a unified sort of a way. Our primary purpose was the improvement of the system and the educational programs. And then of course we had the developing problem of religious holiday, Christian religious holiday observance in the school that had been a traditional procedure over the years and over a period of years, that sort of observance was either modified or eliminated and it, I don't think it ever became to controversial from a point that there was never any real bitterness about it but it was a transition that had to be made and we did it gradually over a period of years.
(N) The superintendent of the school system, you were on the Board that hired Harvey Scribner, but before Dr. Scribner there was a Mr. Anderson.
(N) Yeah. The superintendent was Theos Anderson. I recall he left after we had defeated a school budget which in those days was an unheard of turn of events in a town like Teaneck.
(I) Have you any recollection as to why the budget was defeated?
(N) No, not really. I guess people just didn't want to spend money.
(I) Was there organized opposition?
(N) Yes, there was organized opposition to the budget although my recollection of it is really not too sharp.
(I) I seem to recall something about a Lower Taxes league.
(N) Yeah, that rings a bell. That very well might have been one of the contributing factors.
(I) So that Dr. Anderson left and how did you go about finding Dr. Scribner?
(N) Well we engaged a professional search group which consisted of several outstanding educators who were associated with several of the universities around the country. I remember we had a man from Harvard, we had a man from Columbia, one other outstanding institution, who formed themselves as a search group and we paid a fee for their efforts. And they, being professionals, they knew the field and they were able to bring forth potential candidates, people of good reputation, that they thought would be able to serve Teaneck well and when they whittled the group down to perhaps three or four, then the Board interviewed that group and did the screening from there on.
(I) You actually went to their home town, where they came from.
(N) In the case of Harvey Scribner, Joe Coffee and I remember made a trip to I believe Dedham, Massachusetts, I am confused - there are two towns, Dedham and Medham, so you will have to check the records to see which one he came from.
(I) That's close enough. Was he well received by the Board?
(N) Very well received.
(I) Although you have just said that the Board had been a rather conservative Board to start with.
(N) Yeah, well the selection of a superintendent or, I mean our consideration of it was not split along conservative or liberal or moderate lines. We were looking for a man who we felt could lead the Teaneck educational system and could best serve the community so while Dr. Scribner's selection was not unanimous, there was no acrimony or bitterness. There were differences of opinion. There were several very capable candidates and it was a question of judgment of the particular Board members.
(I) What were some of the things that Dr. Scribner did?
(N) What did he do? Well he was, I think he made an effort to be innovative, different methods of teaching, team teaching, and then of course we got involved in the whole integration problem. We had a developing problem up in the northeast district. The Bryant School was becoming increasingly black. I mean we went from 30 to 40 and we were approaching 50%. First Scribner instituted a plan where people could change districts on a voluntary basis. That was a plan that had been tried in Newark and incidentally had not worked very successfully but I guess he and the Board felt that we had to try a voluntary plan before a mandatory plan was eventually instituted.
(I) And when the voluntary plan wasn't
(N) When the voluntary plan did not work, a mandatory plan was proposed which established the Bryant School as a central sixth grade and it involved a lot of bus transportation to move students around into that sixth grade and students out of what was the Bryant School into other districts.
(I) Could you describe what the climate was like in town?
(N) Well of course that was a very controversial issue. The town was pretty well split. There was a great deal of bitterness and of course the eventual meeting when a decision was made was a very, very, it was really quite a tense atmosphere and well we made it under a great deal of duress and the town was pretty well split. Of course the controversy had developed prior to that fateful decision when Dr. Warner and Mr. Margolis ran for the Board and were elected. The fact that these people ran on a very conservative platform and a platform which was against any program for integration indicated the fact that they ran and were elected indicated that there was a large segment of the town who opposed such a plan or any thought of a plan which would implement integration.
(I) Now the decision to actually integrate the schools was made in 1964.
(I) So that the election the following year
(N) I don't remember whether it was the election the following year or the year after was controversial because there was an effort by the anti-integration group to establish a majority on the Board. The integration group put forth a slate of Orville Sather who was a former member of the Board, Joe Coffee who had been active in the Teaneck Political Assembly and Jay Greenstone as the slate to support the integration group. I don't recall who the opposition ran. I'd only be speculating. It is a question of record.
(I) It is in the records.
(N) Well in any event, that campaign was the campaign in which the issue was finally decided by the town because Coffee and Sather and Greenstone were elected and so that more or less ratified the action that the Board had previously taken. And of course from then on, the, we just continued to develop a larger black population in town and the Board and Dr. Scribner turned itself to long range plans as to how to lick this problem once and for all. Whether to, oh I remember we talked about central schools in various parts of town and there were various citizen groups that studied the matter but nothing ever came of any of these plans. Actually Dr. Scribner at that point left to take a job as commissioner of education in Vermont. And then we engaged Joe Killory as superintendent.
(I) Was he as flamboyant as Dr. Scribner?
(N) Well I think he was as literal as Dr. Scribner but certainly not as flamboyant. Joe was a very perceptive educator. No he did not have the charisma that Dr. Scribner had had and he remained on the Board for several years. I left the Board in 1968 and I guess he must have stayed on until 1970. 1 am not sure really what the date was. He was a very effective leader but certainly he didn't leave his mark upon the town like Dr. Scribner had.
(1) And you had gone to New England for him too. He was also from Massachusetts.
(N) Joe Killory had been in the department of higher education of the state of Massachusetts. He was in the commissioner's office. I don't recall exactly. He might have been involved in curriculum. And then he had had administrative experience in, I don't think it was Brockton but it was a town right near Brockton. I remember I was part of the group that visited Dr. Killory both there and we visited his previous school district. Very impressive, very insightful educator. He just didn't create the excitement that Scribner had.
(1) And you stayed on the Board until
(1) You had no trouble with elections, re-elections after
(N) No, I think we electioneered and we exerted an effort to be re-elected but I don't recall any great difficulty in being re-elected. I ran with Milton Bell and LeMar Jones and interestingly enough, I think LeMar Jones who was the black candidate garnered the largest number of votes.
(1) Well after your activities on the School Board, you retired in '68, then what did you do?
(N) Well I sort of dropped out of Teaneck affairs. I was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Ramapo College of New Jersey which was a new state college being established in Bergen County and so I had the distinct pleasure and excitement of being involved in that effort. We built the new college from scratch and as a matter of fact, I am still on that Board. My appointment runs out this month.
(1) D) you think you will be re-appointed?
(N) 1 doubt it. As the song goes, enough is enough.
(1) Thank you very much Seymour for all the information for this interview.
(N) I enjoyed doing it.
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