Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 15, 2014

Nathan Weiss: in remembrance

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Scan 83

Nathan Weiss being sworn in as President of Kean College

One of the reasons I have few regrets about Joyce Brabner torpedoing my memoir is that I am still free to dig into my memory bank without her permission. While this blog is mostly about film and Marxist theory, I will occasionally wax nostalgic, as I am about to do.

On May 27, 2013 I learned of the death of Nathan Weiss from Parkinsons at the age of 90 in my hometown newspaper; he was known to villagers as Nate. He was one of a group of remarkable high school teachers at Fallsburg Central who were mentioned in the acknowledgements of “The Cultural Front” by Yale professor Michael Denning, who was the son of a Latin and French teacher at my old high school:

My parents grew up during the depression and World War II, but I was not a red diaper baby. Like many Americans, I inherited the Popular Front’s laboring of American culture without knowing it; Cold War repression had left a cultural amnesia. It was not until I was working on this book that I learned in a historical study, that a neighbor during my childhood had been a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade. For my education in the Popular Front I am indebted to my high school history teachers, Sam Michelson and Jack Leshner, who, I now realize, continued the arguments between New York’s American Labor Party and Liberal Party into the 1960s; to the librarian at Sullivan County Community College, who assembled the collection of Folkways records I devoured; to Michael Harrington and the DSOC member, who told stories of Shachmanites and Cannonites late into the night at socialist youth conferences; to Stanley Aronowitz, whose stories began for me many years ago in St Cloud and whose influence on this book is much greater than the footnotes indicate: to Paul Joseph for many years of conversation about the left old and new and especially to Edwina Hammond Pomerance and the late Bill Pomerance for embodying the art thought and activism of the Popular Front.

I remember Jack Leshner fondly, who is still alive. He and Nate Weiss were called social studies teachers, which meant that they covered a mixture of history and politics. In the late 50s and early 60s this meant teaching us about the evils of Communism even though from the standpoint of post-New Deal liberalism of the Truman/Stevenson brand rather than Reagan-era neoconservatism.

Weiss was the most popular teacher. He gave lectures that held us captivated, punctuating them with strictures to “take that down, students”. This was usually interpreted as a warning that it would appear on a test at some point.

In 1961, I was a junior in high school all set to skip my senior year and go to Bard College. My mother judged correctly that another year of high school would probably land me in a mental hospital. If you go by George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”, a film that depicted high school existence in those years, you would think that it was the best of times. For me, it was the worst of times since I cared more about Jack Kerouac than Jack Kennedy. When I got to Bard, I met young bohemians who had been just as alienated as me, but who now felt liberated.

In a bid to preserve my sanity, my mother would drive me over to Nate Weiss’s home every few weeks where we would have “intellectual” conversations. I honestly can’t remember much of what we talked about, but I always felt elevated afterwards.

After completing his PhD Nate Weiss took a job at Kean College in New Jersey, where he eventually became president. In assembling some material on Nate for a blog post , I discovered that he wrote a short memoir titled “The Streets of Newark to the Halls of Academia” that was available from Amazon.com. It is the quintessential story of a man from my father’s generation, a child of the Great Depression and a WWII veteran who enjoyed success in the postwar years. The memoir will give you an idea of the sort of person who taught at Fallsburg Central and helped me retain my sanity in an insane time.

Nate grew up in Newark during the depths of the Depression, the son of Eastern European Jews. His father was a truck-driver and a member of the Teamsters Union. Early on Nate became a bookworm just like me (unlike me he went on to become a good athlete, excelling in football). In elementary school he became fascinated with American Indians, as would be the case for me but at a much later age.

He not only took books out of the local library on Indians but also sent letters out to the Department of the Interior requesting literature to the point where he exhausted their supply as they eventually informed him by letter. Apparently it became something of an obsession with him, cutting up a rug in his parents’ basement and turning it into a tepee. He caught hell for this.

Like so many other families, the Depression took its toll on the Weisses:

A few years later in the 1930’s, the country was knee deep in the Great Depression, and thriving cities ground to a halt. On a personal level, my family was not spared as my father was laid off from his trucking job. Throughout the city, the pressure for work was so intense and jobs were so scarce that any work—at any salary—was highly coveted. We literally lived on charity from the city along with the few dollars my father earned ($2 a day) at the Newark Farmer’s Market by unloading trucks.

As children, we were aware of our family’s plight and were deeply affected. An example was our dependency on the kindness of a grocer who allowed us “to live on the book.” It was my job to go down to the grocery store to get a bag of sugar or whatever was needed, and I hated doing this. While the grocer was a fine man, when he took out his book to write down my “purchase,” I was embarrassed and despised the circumstances we were in.

My father was out of work for two years. It was during this economic crisis, on one of my treks to downtown Newark that I observed the travails of other hard working men who were relegated to standing in lines for soup and bread. This was disheartening. Then one afternoon I came home from school to find my mother sitting on a crate and crying. We had fallen behind on our installment payments and the furniture was repossessed. This was devastating to our family, but we struggled on with my father picking up work at the Newark fruit and vegetable markets whenever he could. This was truly a tough time for all of us, and while the depression left its scars, it also bound us together as a family.

When he reached his teens, Nate became a football player and then after joining the army, a boxer. He was a barrel-chested 38-year-old when I was his student and not someone to be trifled with. I have a vivid memory of him breaking up a fight in the high school cafeteria between a shy but beefy “nerd” and the 6’4” center on the basketball team. The center sat at the jock’s table in the cafeteria and enjoyed baiting a kid with Downs Syndrome who bussed tables. After the nerd asked the jock to cut it out, words escalated to the point where they began duking it out. Nate separated the two with ease. I only wish that I had gotten his take on the fight since it epitomized for me at the age of 15 what it meant to stick up for the weak and the defenseless. In 1960 bullying was just as bad as it is today and anybody who took a stand against it was to be admired.

My guess is that Nate was just as disgusted as the nerd with the jocks but was not ready to intervene. But years earlier, as a trained boxer he was ready to assume a fighting stance on two occasions, once during basic training on his own behalf and once while stationed in the Philippines.

In Georgia:

During this assignment in Georgia, I experienced another run in with anti-Semitism. This event was triggered as I was leading our unit on a two-mile fitness jog. One of the disgruntled GIs muttered “god dam Jew bastard.” I overheard him and when the session ended, I confronted him and told him that I would meet him behind the gym after roll call. He never showed up; and after that, I never encountered anti-Semitism again in the squadron.

In the Philippines:

While I was recuperating, I heard an altercation taking place in close proximity to my tent. Even though I was weak, I got up to investigate, only to discover an old Filipino man being bullied by a hulking mechanic from our unit. I shouted that unless he let the little guy alone, I would “kick the shit” out of him. He mumbled something in defiance of me and retreated into the shadows. Eventually, my health was restored, and the only effect of this malady was that I would be unable to donate blood in the future.

After getting a BA on the GI Bill, Nate took a job at Fallsburg Central paying $2,500 per year. This will give you an idea of why he became everybody’s favorite teacher:

I was given a teaching schedule that included five classes of American History (8th grade), World History (10th grade), American History (11th grade), and Problems of American Democracy (12th grade). Teaching for me was an immense pleasure. I particularly enjoyed the use of theatrics as illustrations. For example, while teaching ancient history, I would take the window pole and jump on the desk and portray an Athenian hoplite (a heavily armed Greek foot soldier) at the Battle of Marathon. I doubt my students ever forgot the significance of this battle.

I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Nate butted heads with Louis Blumberg, the high school principal who worked closely with my mom on extricating me from high school hell and advising her that I was cut out for Bard College. Long after Blumberg retired, we would stay in touch by phone or by mail. He was a very smart and well-intentioned man but apparently being an administrator can lead to ethical challenges as Nate recounts. It should be understood that Fallsburg Central had a “tracking” system. The A group students went to private schools like Columbia University or Bard, while the B group went to NY state universities. If you were in the C group, you were destined for a job with the highway department or as a prison guard unless you were lucky enough to have a dad who would put you to work on his farm. Nate cared about all the groups. The Frank Kaplan alluded to below was a shop teacher and a really decent human being, who obviously had an interest in seeing shop students, mostly from the C group, succeeding:

At the end of a three-year probationary period, I received tenure. Shortly thereafter, I began to have difficulties with the principal of the Woodridge School, one of the two high schools in the Fallsburgh system. The principal, Louis Blumberg, and I clashed over a number of issues related to curriculum. One of them concerned the plight of the non-college-bound students. It was my contention that the Fallsburgh system focused all of its attention and resources on college bound students and as a consequence neglected the needs of the non-college-bound kids. This conflict led me to challenge the administration at the annual budget meeting, a factor which made me persona non grata to the administration and the board of education. As usual, my sympathy for the underdog and my propensity to fight for their rights guided my behavior. Eventually, at the behest of the principal, I was summoned to meet with the Board of Education, along with Frank Kaplan, a colleague who supported me. We learned through the grapevine that certain members of the board wanted to break our tenure and were ready to charge us with insubordination. Given this advance information, Frank and I contacted a lawyer who specialized in education law. He counseled us to focus on policy differences rather than personalities. The night of our appearance before the Board finally arrived. We were led into a room in which the members of the Board, flanked by the principal and a recorder, were seated. The principal alleged insubordination while we alleged policy differences. Our allegations were obviously heard and found credible, for the Board dismissed the charges of insubordination. The principal, however, never forgave us. Eventually, between the many disagreements and a vocal teaching staff, Mr. Blumberg resigned. I was then made curriculum coordinator and department chair.

There’s almost no information on how Nate Weiss conducted himself at Kean College. I imagine that he had to deal with the same conflicts of interest that any college president had to. The job almost necessarily involves attacks on the student body and faculty in the name of fiscal restraint. Since he became president emeritus long before the big assault on higher education began, he was fortunate enough to sleep soundly. May he rest in peace.

3 Comments »

  1. “to stick up for the weak and the defenseless.”

    I think this is the basis of recruitment to social democracy and vanguards, which looks to install a strong paternal party and state to regulate and dole out benefits to help ‘the weak and defenseless’. It starts with good intentions, but we know what road is paved with those.

    Contrast this outlook with the liberating basis of Marx and genuine communism, which looks to “a class for itself” to rise against the state and self-emancipate.

    Comment by Steve D — July 16, 2014 @ 5:51 am

  2. Great article, well written, nate weiss was a real gentleman, never had the privilege to be his student, but he was my soccer coach, “right rolle”he was good, but needed reaffirmation of the head coach Rollie Allen.He was very well liked by most & by yours truly, Carl r Hodes, class of 62. Thankyou Mr. Weiss

    Comment by Carl Hodes — August 15, 2014 @ 2:17 am

  3. Nate was President when I arrived as a freshman in 1974. Within a few years I transitioned to employee, working for him (not directly) until he retired. I have many fond memories if him as a student, as well as an employee. He was a real ‘hands on’ president, walking around without an entourage and stopping often to speak to students. As a student leader I had the opportunity to speak with him (once I got past the fact that he was ‘the president!’) and as an employee he continued to stop to ask how I was doing. Even in 2003 when he attended an inauguration ceremony he saw me and smiled. At that point he’d been gone a while and wasn’t doing well physically, but when I approached him to say hi, silly me saying “you might not remember me, but…” he smiled, agreed he didn’t remember my name, but remembered the department I was associated with.

    Comment by Maria — October 6, 2015 @ 3:38 am


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