An Unpaved Street Let to Mayor's Office
By Tony Scherman, Staff Writer
(From: The Record, Monday, August 9, 1982)
"I'm, well, I'm ... loose," says Bernard Brooks. And as the new mayor of Teaneck sits in his den, dangling one stockinged foot over the side of an armchair, there seems to be no reason not to take him at his word.
But watching Brooks in another of his natural habitats -- the council chambers -- other words come to mind. Cautious. Deliberate. Coolly enigmatic behind a three-piece suit and graciously magisterial manner. The only hint of vulnerability in the large man is a slight stammer. Otherwise, it's all self-possession. As Bernard Brooks puts it, talking about his childhood:
"Savvy? I was always savvy."
He had to be. It's a long way from an unpaved street in Camden, S.C., to a partnership in Arthur Young & Company, the international accounting and consulting firm. Not too many things have been handed gift-wrapped to the first black mayor of Bergen County's most populous community. He was chosen July 1 on the second of a possible five ballots by a newly elected council.
As mayor, Brooks's chief aim is a spillover from his work as a business consultant: achieving managerial productivity. "I'd like to see there be measurable goals and objectives in Teaneck. I'm really talking about the management of the town: department heads, the township manager, those key people. We've got to give them some tools they can become better managers with. If they're better managers, I believe we can give a higher level of service without raising taxes."
Brooks says he is a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, "if there is such a possibility," he adds, bursting into laughter. "I mean it's hard to be a social liberal without spending money. But it's possible."
There wasn't much money to spend in the mid-Thirties in the black section of Camden, S.C. James Brooks, a hospital orderly, had 15 children from two marriages; Bernard Brooks was the lastborn. Seven days after the baby came, James Brooks died of pneumonia. His wife, Bertha, went to work as a domestic to support the six children still at home.
If a boyhood that included shoes without soles ever haunts the 47-year-old Brooks, he's quiet about it. "If I had to rewrite the book, I'd write it a little different. I don't prescribe doing without. But the community became the family, and there was a lot of sharing. Everyone had a garden; most everyone had chickens. There was a German prisoner-of-war camp near us, and one of the neighbors who worked there would smuggle out meat for the neighborhood."
Brooks says his most vivid childhood memories are of his mother, who died in 1978. "She was probably one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. She was a nut on the fact that we had to read. The family kind of got an image as studious kids, and a couple of instructors took an interest in us."
Brooks graduated from high school at 15 and won a one-year scholarship to South Carolina State College. When the money ran out, the ex-freshman joined the Air Force and was trained in telecommunications.
Moving to Brooklyn in 1956, Brooks got a job as a teletype operator and went to school at night. While still collecting college and graduate credits, he began to work this way through a quick succession of corporations: ITT, Honeywell, TWA, AT&T. From programmer to marketing manager, he continued his climb up the corporate ladder, until in 1978 came the partnership in Arthur Young, rated among the top 10 American consulting firms.
At Arthur Young, Brooks is a high-level systems troubleshooter, creating computerized solutions to corporate clients' problems. The solutions aren't always automated, and Brooks thinks of himself as a businessman first, a computer expert second.
"I am a business analyst. My whole objective is to be able to influence the decisions of major American corporations. I'm doing that," he asserts. Yet he balks at being called "successful," preferring the phrase "on my way to success."
"If you look at a kid who's born very, very poor, there's nowhere to go but up. If you're going to go any place at all, if you have any energy, you're just going to keep driving and driving and driving. Look in the New York metropolitan area - there are lots of Bernie Brookses."
Brooks came to Teaneck in 1963. As he and his wife, Alice, were raising five children, ranging today from age 22 to 7, Brooks entered local politics. He joined the planning board in 1971, ran for council in 1974, losing by nine votes, and won a council seat in 1978. Last year he tried unsuccessfuly for a Democratic freeholder nomination.
In Teaneck, where "ethnic diversity" is a stock phrase, politicians are quick to say that Brooks's being black is less significant than his business and political reputation.
"I don't think a man's color is an issue in most sophisticated parts of the country," says Deputy Mayor Bradford Menkes, "This is 1982. What we're talking about is yesterday's news. Bernie Brooks is a competent man, which is far more important than that he's black."
But to Isaac McNatt, who became Teaneck's first black councilman in 1966, Brooks's presence in the mayor's chair does have special meaning - if only as proof of Menkes's last point.
"It's very important to me that Teaneck has a black mayor," says McNatt. Brooks himself says that he likes to separate out the fact that blackness has anything to do with achievements. I mean, there may have been an incident where I got some kind of award because I was black, but virtually everything I remember getting was the shaft. Whatever talents I have, those are natural talents." Yet no matter how much Brooks wants to be viewed strictly on the basis of his achievements, racism has a way of cropping up.
For instance, he was on Long Island recently for a business meeting. He took two associates with him, both white. The group went out to lunch, and after eating, Brooks got into his luxury car and asked an attendant for directions. As Brooks's associates came out of the restaurant, the attendant said to Brooks, "Is that your boss?"
"Why do you ask?" said Brooks. "I just want to know how much money chauffeurs are getting these days."
"I'm doing this for free," came Brooks's reply.
"You've got to understand," Brooks says slowly, "I see myself as black first. I mean, I breathe black. I am proud to be black. That will probably upset some people, because people want blacks to be white. The whole notion in this country is you've got to be white. Every ethnic group that comes to this country goes through this tremendous assimilation process until they find themselves and say, 'Wait a minute! You can be a viable part of this place and still be whatever you are.'
"So, I am black and I am proud of it. Everything else is separate. I am black. I am the mayor. I'm a partner. Each one is an individual entity. There may be some remote linkages in between, but I'm not a partner because I'm black. I don't think I'm the mayor because I'm black."
Some wonder whether the former freeholder candidate might want to add still more political components to his complicated identity. "There are a lot of people who want to know that," says Brooks. "But I honestly believe that since I'm a newly elected mayor, I need to focus on being the best mayor I can be. And not at the moment get sidetracked."