|Why did we do it?
What was our purpose in taking on such an open ended “History Project”; for which we evolved a script of questions and got answers from over 150 subjects for two decades?
We couldn’t answer the question in 1994 when people would ask “What are you going to do with the interviews?” All we could say was that for educational purposes we had to document our record now or lose the chance to preserve so many poignant accounts, funny stories and touching tales told by exemplary educators. We knew these dedicated public servants might shortly, for reasons yet unknown, be leaving Brentwood for good.
So, we decided to let time sort out the details. We began scheduling appointments. We asked questions and listened saving for generations the essence of what it meant to have been an educator or employed, in this large public school system during the second half of the 20th century. Brentwood remains an exemplar to all others; a diverse microcosm of America reflecting 124 districts on Long Island while simultaneously resembling thousands across the U.S. We’ve accomplished something here to be proud of. Whether we were interviewed or not, ours is a claim of service that few professionals in the State of New York or elsewhere have positioned themselves to share in the way we have.
INITIALLY the practice of sitting with a subject for an hour and giving them a hundred percent focused attention seemed somewhat daunting to a number of friends and colleagues. So much so in fact that many declined our repeated invitations to speak with us as they left careers or retired from full employment. Despite all assurances that we were not about investigative journalism or invading privacy, they deferred. Now, twenty years after we began, some are saying they may be ready. “Better late than never” we say. However, to all among you who were willing to share not only your classroom experiences and personal stories, but precious memories from your lives along with your fondest hopes for the future, we say “Thanks”. Thanks for allowing us to continue the process by paying it forward as we share these interviews with the Brentwood community and countless professionals and researchers near and far. Through an acceptance of ROBS offer of collaboration with Archivist Dr. Geri Solomon and The Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra University our History Project lives on in academia as well as in the collection of the Brentwood Public Library, thanks to Director, Thomas A. Tarantowicz.
Enjoy unlimited visits to www.robsny.org where you can watch and listen to segments from featured Interviews in the ROBS History Project Section on our Announcements Page each month. Return here to listen and learn again and again.
THIS MONTH'S FEATURED HISTORY PROJECT
Bernard LeBron - ESL Teacher
Interviewed March 14, 1997
We are pleased to introduce Bernard LeBron, who retired from the Brentwood School District in 1992. He began teaching at the high school in 1972 and after twenty years there moved to teaching ESL and preparing students for the High School Equivalency Exam as well as the Spanish GED at night school. While there he worked with Eli Acosta, Charlotte deChamp and Tony DeMarco. He taught for five more years in the evening before leaving the district after twenty five years of uninterrupted service.
His was a different story than most. Bernie had worked in private industry prior to coming to Brentwood. He arrived here at the age of 42 having worked for the Gyrodyne Corporation of America and Sperry Corporation before Brentwood. His dream was to become a Social Studies teacher. Other career paths were awaiting him here. He happened to come during a high tide of Puerto Rican arrivals making Brentwood and the Town of Islip one of the largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans in the United States outside of Spanish Harlem in New York City. A few years earlier (1961) an organization called ASPIRA had been founded in New York City to combat the exorbitant dropout rate among Puerto Rican high school youth. It expanded nationally in 1968 as ASPIRA of America and is known today as the ASPIRA Association. Then and now its purpose is to empower the Puerto Rican and Latino community through advocacy and the education and leadership development of its youth. It was no accident then that he was interviewed by Dave Martz and Nikki Brash in the Annex to the library (the old Administration Building) and recruited to become a leading voice in ASPIRA here in the district. Once hired he and Alice Perez (mother of Ray), created plays and dramas to involve students. Together, they built a successful Spanish Club with over 120 members. Stan Yankowski, the BHS Principal, was cooperative and very trusting by allowing dances with close to 500 people from Central Islip and Brentwood to take place in the high school. Eventually, they would try to keep numbers down to about 200. Remarkably, there was never a fight. The kids didn’t want to leave and Stan would have to turn the lights out between 11:30 and 12 midnight to get them to go home.
He got to know Nickie Brash and Rosalie Semente. Many of those leaders are gone now, like Alice Perez and her son Ray who taught at the high school. Ismael Colon was on the Board of Education and Elizabeth Guanil, was a community activist and believed in political aspirations of Latinos. They discussed a changing Brentwood that might soon witness new kinds of empowerment. Les Black appointed Bernie to the Executive Board of BTA where he served actively for several years. Most of his fellow Board members moved up into administrative positions in the district. He always enjoyed the interaction and energy of working with students during the day and the older people in the evening. The numbers of Puerto Ricans in Brentwood has declined over the years.
He has seen many changes in the last twenty years, the portables, the library, the computer room to name a few, He worked as an Admissions Counselor at SUNY Old Westbury for three years and learned a lot that could and did benefit Brentwood kids. We discussed the drop-out rates among students from families of homeowners being less than others. The desire for upward mobility on the part of family makes a big difference in the lives of young people.
There was always a lot of perseverance in the Le Bron family. He attended college at night, graduating from Queens College in 1970. He commuted from Brentwood to Flushing Queens to finish school and then attended CCNY & Pace University. He would leave Gyrodyne at 3pm to attend classes at Queens College and would not return home until 10:30 at night.
Family was always important to this grandpa. Today family consists of his wife and himself, his son Robert, a lieutenant commander and Chaplin (Episcopalian Priest) in the Navy, two daughters (Janet who lives in Farmingville and Lisa, a programmer for Pathmark, who lives in West Islip and is married to a Suffolk County policeman. Each daughter has two children. He has a grand total of 6 grandchildren including (Benjamin and Rachel, Roberts kids attending Maryland schools. When asked to enumerate the family qualities he saw in his grandchildren he offered three - curiosity, computers, games,
Bernard LeBron was born Bernardo Le Bron in 1928 in Manhattan at Lenox Ave and 117th St. His parents came to mainland United States in 1924 from Puerto Rico. His father arrived first having previously tried unsuccessfully to make it in the Dominican Republic. Once he was settled in America he sent for his wife.
They lived in Manhattan in the area known as Spanish Harlem which went from Lenox Ave down to 3rd Ave., from 106th St to 116th St, There was a Public School at 11th St and Park Ave that Bernie attended as a non English speaker because he lived in a Spanish world where he learned to speak English in the street from American blacks. Mrs. Smith was the Kindergarten teacher who held him back. She said, “you’re too young Bernardo” because at 4.5 yrs he didn’t know enough English to be promoted.
In 1938 his father enrolled him in a parochial school and they moved to Washington Heights. It was there that a German nun, Sr. Rose, took a special interest in him. She insisted he be placed in the choir where he got involved and learned a lot. By the 5th grade he was in the top 5% of his class and the following year (1939) was chosen to sing with the choir at the French Pavilion in the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens.
His father never asked for public assistance during the Great Depression. He was making $16 per week and he had three kids. They moved from apt to apt every spring when hundreds of moving vans would appear from one end of the block to the other all to get a free month’s rent. There were lots of vacancies. His father was very involved in the church in positions of leadership in The Holy Name Society. It gave the family a place and a feeling of belonging. In 1936 Bernie remembered going back to Puerto Rico by boat due to illness (the cold apts.) During the crossing they were caught in a hurricane. After he returned in May, he remembers seeing the Hindenberg fly over the playground hours before it was destroyed by fire in New Jersey.
He admired the virtues and qualities of his mother who had but three years of education. He had an older brother, a younger sister and a baby brother who since passed away. His older brother is a counselor in Arizona at the time of the interview on Mar 14, 1997.
Among his earliest memories as a child was going to Coney Island for a nickel from Washington Heights and traveling all over NYC for 5c. Other significant adults in his life included a friend of his father’s from the Holy Name Society who became an electrical engineer and was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from CCNY. This friend also worked on the Manhattan Project and became a “Compadre” (Godfather), to one of Bernard’s siblings. Bernie shook Robert Kennedy’s hand in Smithtown when Bernard served as a Committee Man for the Democratic Party.
Bernie met his paternal grandmother when the family returned to Puerto Rico in 1936. She died 3 or 4 years later at 84. His grandfather died at 82. He attended public school up to the 4th grade in Manhattan and then went to parochial (Catholic) school in the Bronx (St Anthony’s) where he graduated in the 8th Grade, He then attended Cardinal Hayes where Sr. Mary Grace took an interest in him. When he wanted to attend Bronx Vocational, Sister said no to his father and instead was sent to Catholic High School. The tuition was $5.00 per month - no small amount at that time, which his father paid. After a while he paid his own tuition by working in the school. We talked about his favorite subjects,, his part time jobs, where he got teacher training and his contacts with former students.
He insisted that the nuns were responsible for his decision to become a Social Studies teacher. They taught him to trust himself and to find his own way in the beginning by building a rapport with students. He placed great importance upon parent involvement and parents support of their children even as standards continue to change. He stressed the importance of listening to Master Teacher Colleagues. Bernard remains a consummate union person and expressed gratitude to the BTA from the very beginning for what they’ve done for Brentwood’s teachers. He goes to the ”Y” in Commack several days a week where a former colleague Herb Laub, still teaches tennis. As we parted Bernie added a footnote of his own “Thanks for reviewing my life.”
You can also view any of these past interviews by visiting History Project Interview Archives
Baker Bernhardt, Ruth
Baker Bazata, Eleanor
Laub, Dr. Herb
Sustrin, Letty and Sheila
Walker Lloyd, Shirley
View May 8, 2015 History Project Celebration Photo Album
View History Project Slide Show on YouTube