February 15, 2011

Q & A with Howard Whidden, class of 1962; teachers inspired him to pursue a career in education, learned Vietnamese in the military

Q. Where did you live in Levittown, when did you move there and where had you lived before?

A. Born in Elmhurst and spent my early years in Jackson Heights, we moved to the first section of Levittown, three blocks from Loring Road and the Wantagh State Parkway, in 1951. My first school was Northside where my second grade teacher was Miss Kissam. Levittown was growing by leaps and bounds at the time, and it seemed that redistricting was an on-going process. Third and fourth grades were in Summit Lane, fifth was at Wisdom Lane, and then back to Summit for sixth grade. Hal Murphy was my last elementary teacher...a World War II vet, he died shortly thereafter of a massive coronary.

Q. What were some of your earliest memories of Levittown?

A. The pool! How I couldn't wait until I turned 10 to be able to go by myself. In those early years of Levittown, no one had yet put up a fence to delineate their property so as kids we would 'cut through' to get to the North Village Green and the pool. And every yard had a clothesline, and every house a TV antenna. As a kid I recall walking with my mother to the Sunrise food store in the Green or out to Bohack on Hempstead Turnpike. There was a tavern/bar on the corner, the Boots and Saddle, and it seemed at the time like a real den of iniquity.

I was a paperboy for the Long Island Press and part of my route took me past the drugstore at the Green. There was a red haired guy, Milt Schulman, who ran the front counter where I paid for my nickel candy bars and dime comic books, and his gruff brother-in-law, Al Averbach (a pharmacist). Artie Hertz was the soda jerk at the lunch counter. Boy, could he make a chocolate egg cream soda. Averbach and Schulman were co-owners.

There were several teachers who made a huge impression on me: Larry Lasker for his love of history and his stories about his neighbor, Hortense; Carlotta Miranda for her quiet, understanding demeanor and tons of patience; Bob Simes, who was just an all-around great guy and class advisor; Frank Waters and Mr. Nolan in the English dept.; Bob Graham who later became VP; Sadie Alegra, who got me to finally pass a math course; Jimmy Amen, who left me with the indelible impression of the truly compassionate phys. ed. teacher; Jerry Jewell - NOT.

But my all-time favorite was Gladys Eisenhower. I still remember the day she was talking about the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, who never used his sword, letting it rust in its scabbard. She became so animated, she climbed up on her desk to demonstrate how in battle he would literally swing his sword, scabbard and all, over his head, calling out, "Come on boys, get those British!" She knew I loved history and excelled each quarter except when studying government. To my enduring shame I had the temerity to tell her it was 'boring!' How I wish I could tell her it became a favorite subject as an AP history teacher and department chair.

Q. What did you do immediately after high school (job, military, college)?

A. After attending Nassau Community I enlisted in the USMC. As a result of Carlotta Miranda's fine teaching I scored very highly on the army's language aptitude test and was trained to become an interrogator/translator. I attended a 32-week course learning Vietnamese (8 hours per day, five days per week) so by the time we were finished I could speak fairly well, and then on to a six-week interrogation course. Well trained, I then sat on my butt in California for the next 10 months, and with only 10 months left in my enlistment I was finally sent to Vietnam.

Great experiences...I loved the people, their culture, history, got to see a lot of the country (picking up prisoners, delivering documents to Saigon), but as rear echelon personnel I didn't see combat...worst experience was getting jungle rot in my feet and ankles.

Finished my undergrad degree at William Paterson U. in New Jersey using the GI Bill, which also paid for a master's in social studies and a second master's in educational administration.

I finished my student teaching at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, NJ, a truly inner city school...and I absolutely loved the experience. Graduating in January there was a job opening at the same time and I got it. One third black, one third Spanish, and one third white, most of whom were either Italian or recent Arab immigrants. Coming from lily-white Levittown it was a truly eye opening experience where I learned kids are kids, people are people, no matter what their color or ethnic background. I stayed there a wonderful five years until child #2 was on the way and we needed a home, not an apartment.

The sticks of New Jersey were growing and a new high school was opening in Vernon (home of the Playboy Hotel, Action Park, Great Gorge Skiing, and now called Mountain Creek). Hired as a history teacher I rose to department chair and later to vice principal. I traveled out of state to become a principal of two different high schools but quickly returned to New Jersey's much better retirement system. Retired in 2002, I have just finished my 21 year service on Vernon's board of education, the last seven as board president.

Q. Where do you live now, and how long have you been there?

A. Since 1975 we have lived in Vernon, New Jersey where we raised three great children.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Howie, I really loved most of the same teachers as you, except for phys.ed. of cousse.
Joan Bartels Signorelli '62

Anonymous said...

From Kathy Stahlman Zinn, class of 1963

Great interview with Howard, whom I never knew. What an interesting life, and tribute to teaching, and also to his openness to the world and its people. I, also, moved to L'twon from Elmhurst, in 1952 at age 7.

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