Menkes Ends a Quarter Century of Service

By Dan M. Bergin, Staff Writer

(From: The Teaneck Suburbanite, Wednesday, August 6, 1986)

Bradford MenkesTEANECK - It was 1958. The first election returns indicated that freshman candidate Bradford Menkes had suffered a razor-thin, nine-vote loss to an incumbent, former Mayor T. J .E. Brown. But the tally was challenged in two voting districts, resulting in a tie. and a subsequent court-ordered recount of absentee ballots gave Menkes the nod by the narrowest of margins - a single vote.

Not a very auspicious beginning for Teaneck's recently retired deputy mayor - a man who would serve the township council for 24 years until July of 1986, with a four-year hiatus from 1974 to 1978. Menkes is often credited with maintaining a calm voice of reason during some of the toughest and most controversial times endured by the local government.

Sherwood Bradford Menkes - he dropped the Sherwood while attending Columbia University - was born in Bradford, Pa. on March 14, 1921. His family moved to New York City when he was 11 and his father, a former rabbi, took a job with the New York Public Library, using his fluency in 28 languages to translate texts.

He relocated to Teaneck in 1951 and became active in local affairs during the early '50s while raising his four children. It was a time of post-war flight to the suburbs and the township, as a result, faced some pressing problems, including a burgeoning younger population which was overcrowding its schools.

In fact, Menkes recalled, it was his wife, Bette, who actually pushed him toward municipal service. Mrs. Mlenkes was concerned with the township's ability to adequately educate its children and worked with local PTA groups to lobby for the construction of new schools. But despite the board of education's pleas, a strong political group known as the Taxpayers League was opposed to a building program on the grounds that it would force an intolerable increase in taxes.

Fighting the league

"There was a great need for new buildings." Menkes remembered during an interview Friday at his Tudor-style home on Standish Avenue. He blamed the Taxpayers League, which at the time controlled local politics as well as the council, for the defeat of several bond issues to finance the construction effort.

Menkes recalled, ironically, that the governing body and board of education "didn't see eye-to-eye" during that period, and noted that little has changed in the intervening 30 years; antagonism between the two groups endures today.

Menkes blamed early failures to enact the building program in part on the makeup of the township in the 1950s, when many former city residents had moved to the suburbs. "New York people were not used to the idea that they could dominate a vote, " he said.

But the bonds were ultimately passed, thanks to a coalition of parents and other residents. "We organized the potential vote." he recalled, explaining that it was the only way to counter the "well-organized" opposition of the Taxpayers League.

Menkes subsequently decided, in 1956, to set his sights on the governing body. 'I felt I had more to contribute in defeating the Taxpayers League," he said. 'The council is where you needed the strength."

He filed for the council slot one year in of the election "to be the first one on the ballot." And even after ballot positions were determined by lottery, Menkes managed to hold the distinction of occupying the lead spot ever since.

'A lot of pressure'

Thus, in 1958, Menkes became the first person to break the Taxpayers League's 20-year-plus dominance of the council, affording the once powerful group a two-man minority on the then five-member governing body.

When queried about his most trying time on the Council, Menkes sat transfixed for a few moments. "There was a lot of pressure," he began, quickly shifting to a speech by George Washington whose words are inscribed on a plague mounted in Township Manager Werner Schmid's office: "Do not suffer your good nature when application is made to say 'Yes' when you ought to say 'No.' Remember that it is a public not a private cause that is to be injured or benefited by your choice."

The plaque was placed in the municipal building by the township's first manager, Paul A. Volker, the father of Federal Reserve Board chief Paul A. Volker Jr. Throughout his career, Menkes said, he has recalled Washington's words and would offer the same advice to newcomers to the political scene.

A professor of mechanical engineering and chairman of the department at City College of New York, Menkes said one of the toughest issues he faced was the expansion of Fairleigh Dickinson University's riverfront campus in the early 1960s. At the time, neighbors complained that the school was infringing upon the suburban character of the township and sought redress from the council.

But the issue posed a personal problem for Menkes. As it turned out, Peter Sammartino, then president of the university, had been Menkes' French teacher while he was a student at Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, a factor which might lend itself to charges of impropriety should the councilman appear to favor the University.

Menkes recalled that FDU enlightened residents and the township's subsequent anti-blockbusting ordinance which became model legislation nationally.

"Realtors tried to panic people," Menkes said, adding that residents, black and white alike, got together. He recalled that they met to counter the scare tactics used by agents who coerced homeowners into believing that property values would topple once blacks moved into a neighborhood. Homeowners, then anxious to flee, would sell to an agent offering a below-market figure. The same house would then be sold, at an above-market price, to a black family eager to move in.

"We realized that only flight meant lowered values. You can't run from that type of situation (and) the town absorbed a major influx of blacks," Menkes said.

He pointed out that the practice is more difficult to engineer now since the township requires agents to notify residents and municipal authorities before canvassing neighborhoods for prospective sales.

His concern for housing didn't stop with blockbusting, though. Menkes authored in 1973 the township's first rent control ordinance, which has been in force ever since and is reviewed annually by the council.

Non-partisan debate

"I always stressed nonpartisanship" on the council, said Menkes, describing himself as a "sensible Republican - a Clifford Case Republican." Case was a former U. S. senator from New Jersey.

Menkes even debated the issue of non-partisanship before the township in 1960, arguing that the council/manager form of government attracts a higher caliber of office seeker since allegiances to local or county political machines are not as compelling.

But while Menkes could say his tenure was unhampered by partisan alliances, the controversy over high-density development, especially the Glenpointe project at the Overpeck -swamp, did endanger political passions. The issue consumed a good deal of the township's energy in the early 1970s.

"There was a lot of emotion developing in that campaign. There were people who were emotionally, not officials pressured him to remain true to his academic background and pave the way for the expansion. Residents, meanwhile, reminded him that he had left Manhattan for the suburbs to raise his children.

"We came to terms," Menkes said, adding that the campus, with one exception, was confined to the west side of River Road. A special ramp from Route 4 to the FDU parking lot was also built to keep traffic off local roads in a compromise move designed to allay residential fears. (FDU was eventually to expand further on the west side of the Hackensack River in the city of Hackensack with the construction of its dental school.)

Blockbusting

"This was an interesting time (but) nothing was really tough," Menkes recalled, pointing to some of the major issues confronted during his tenure.

He said real estate agents' practice of blockbusting, which occurred in Teaneck during the 1950s and '60s, was effectively thwarted by logically, driven. It looked uncomfortable at the time," Menkes remembered.

The era was so charged with profound sentiment on declined to run for a fifth term in 1974. Today, looking back, he listed the move as something he might have changed if he had it to do over again. "I think that decision was hasty," he said.

He revealed that he favored an original plan for the site proposed by Hartz Mountain Industries, which would have netted the town some $3 million in revenue in exchange for permission to develop the tract. But there was significant opposition to the idea and a slate of candidates opposed to the intense development ran in 1974. Menkes thought his own chances for re-election were lessened by his support of the proposal so he bowed out. He also believed that had he won, the potential success of other candidates opposed to the development would have forced him into a minority position on the governing body, a status he would not have enjoyed.

"I felt younger people should be in," Menkes said, using that theme to explain his retirement at the time. As it turned out, an anti-Hartz Mountain council eventually killed the proposal.

But after four years away from the municipal building, Menkes yearned once more for the public life. He ran again in 1979, once more urged on by his wife of more than 40 years. By the time he returned to the council, Sanzari Enterprises of South Hackensack had received the governing body's permission under the aegis of then-Mayor Eleanor Kieliszek to build Glenpointe as it is today, a much less untense plan than Hartz Mountain had envisioned. 

Second Career

Menkes also began a time-consuming second career in the early 1970s when, in addition to teaching, he made himself available for consulting work dedicated to researching product liability.  He also became an expert courtroom witness on the mechanical soundness of building design, machinery and vehicles.

Menkes has testified in 68 court cases, mainly on behalf of plaintiffs, is the author of 35 publications and lectures on a variety of engineering disciplines. He has also won more than $1 million in research grants on 16 different occasions since 1963 and has edited 52 books on mechanical engineering.

Menkes, whose curriculum vitae is 18 pages long. described himself as a very busy man , a factor which played a role in his decision to retire from office. "I didn't have time to campaign. If I didn't have time to do it properly, I didn't want to do it," he said.

"There's a lot of satisfaction in public service (but) you realize that new people have to come along", he said. "In a way, I'm sorry more of my colleagues didn't do the same," he added, alluding to his former councilmates.

But for all his longevity in office, Menkes was never elected to the mayoral slot. The last of his three tries, in 1982, resulted in his being chosen deputy mayor. He also lost a 1979 bid for the state Assembly in the heavily Democratic 37th district.

 

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