The reunion and the honor

Lillian Tillma-DeWitt, Albany City School District Hall of Fame, Class of 2016.  Photo by Chuck Miller.
Lillian Tillma-DeWitt, Albany City School District Hall of Fame, Class of 2016. Photo by Chuck Miller.

What a wonderful night.  An absolutely wonderful night.

Last evening, I was honored and blessed to watch my high school principal, Lillian Tillman-DeWitt, join six other honorees as the Albany City School District’s 2016 Hall of Fame class.

The honorees were joined by over 200 attendees last night, including family, friends and supporters.

First off, any time I can get together with my high school classmates is a great moment.  In fact, at the event were two of my Street Academy Answers Please championship teammates, Alfreda Tillman and Donyasia Williams, and we had a great time reminiscing about life at Street Academy – the people we knew, the teachers that supported us, the moments that defined us and helped us to be where we are today.

And when Mrs. T went on stage to give her speech – the inductees were enshrined alphabetically, so she went last – she took all of us to church.  She remarked that during her time as an administrator, beginning in the mid-1950’s, her first year as a teacher netted her an annual salary of $3,100.  The next year, working a full schedule, she earned a raise of $300/year.  And she kept going from that point on, staying in education until her retirement in 1992.

And as she wrapped up her speech, she remarked about a very special moment.  One day, while walking through the hallway, she happened to hear our music teacher, George Mastrangelo, playing a song on the piano.  She asked about the name of the song and George told her it was a new song on the radio.  Upon hearing the song’s lyrics, Mrs. T decided that the song’s meaning and message were so powerful, she would have it performed as the school’s theme at every graduation.

Here’s that song.

As her final moment in the speech, Mrs. T recited the lyrics of this powerful song.

Standing ovation.

Mrs. T’s family from far and wide came to the event last night.  It was moving and breathtaking, it was a celebration of her life and her achievements and her goals.

If you ever had a teacher, a professor, an educator in your life that helped you achieve your goals, helped you stay focused and guided you toward success …

Take a moment and thank them.  We don’t always get a chance to do this, especially in our busy lives.  Thank them.

Let them know that their hard work and their sacrifice paid off.

Thanks, Mrs. T.

Thanks for everything.

An Honor for Tonight

Lillian G. Tillman (DeWitt), from 1981 Street Academy of Albany yearbook.
Lillian G. Tillman (DeWitt), from 1981 Street Academy of Albany yearbook.

This evening will be a very special personal moment in time.

One of the guides in my life – a person who helped build a pathway out of despair and into achievement for hundreds of young men and women – will be honored tonight, as Lillian Tillman-DeWitt joins six other honorees as members of the Albany City School District Hall of Fame, Class of 2016.

The enshrinement ceremony and fundraiser will take place at the Italian-American Community Center on Washington Avenue Extension this evening.

Our lifelong journey is filled with twists and turns, a pathway that is sometimes paved with gold and other times pitted with potholes.  It’s easy to wander off that pathway and it’s hard to get back to the road.

The teachers and administrators at my high school, Street Academy of Albany, helped kids get back on the road.  They knew and accepted this challenge.  They saved us.  They showed us that we were not just Albany High School’s leftovers and castoffs.  They made sure that we weren’t just counting time until the school district no longer had to legally educate us at 18.  They made sure we were able to thrive, to grow, to build.  They didn’t give up on us, even when everybody else did.  Even when we almost gave up on ourselves, they were still there for us.  Every time.

Those efforts are now appearing in the Albany City School District’s Hall of Fame, as Street Academy’s teachers and administrators are now receiving long-overdue enshrinement in that august body.  Along with Mrs. T, the Hall of Fame members with Street Academy connections include Milton Horne (teacher-coach, 2010), Harriet Gibbons (teacher-principal, 2012), Edward Trant (principal, 2012), Don Prozik (assistant principal, 2012), Mike Sgambelluri (assistant principal, 2014) and Eileen Kawola (teacher, 2015).

Oh yeah, and this guy in 2011.

As you can see, the Albany City School District Hall of Fame has made great strides in recognizing students and teachers outside of the Albany High School / Philip Schuyler High School sector.  The achievements and guidance of those from Street Academy (as well as from School 21 and from the Abrookin Vo-Tec) deserve consideration and recognition.  They are as much a part of Albany as are the Capitol, the Armory and Nipper.

I know that several of my high school friends will be at the event as well, so this almost acts like a 35th reunion of sorts.

And what better way to get a reunion together…

Than to do it while honoring someone who helped us, 35 years ago, to reach this moment today.

Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Northway Mall

The passing of Gene Wilder yesterday caught us in our heart and in our soul.  One of the best actors of our generation, a man who could play comedy and tragedy and off-kilter characters, and switch from one genre to another with minimal effort, Gene Wilder was a true theater genius.

And while most of the tributes focused on his most iconic roles – the mysterious chocolatier in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the mad scientist in Young Frankenstein, his scene-stealing appearances in Blazing Saddles and The Producers and even The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

I remember him best for his four comedy films with Richard Pryor.  You know them – Silver Streak, See No Evil Hear No Evil, Another You, and my favorite of the four – Stir Crazy.

In fact, one of the reasons why I enjoyed playing in the World Tavern Trivia championships last May with the Stir Crazy trivia team was, in fact, the team’s name.  It reminded me of an amazing and fun moment from high school.

It’s a few weeks before graduation, and the senior class for the Street Academy of Albany – my old high school, God bless it – were going to take a Friday field trip after school.

With music teacher George Mastrangelo acting as our school field trip liaison, we packed ourselves into the school’s VW microbus, and traveled from the school campus – 165 Clinton Avenue in Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood – out to Northway Mall.

Now for all of you who aren’t as old as me, Northway Mall was one of the more popular malls back in the day.  You either did your shopping at Northway Mall, Colonie Center or Mohawk Mall.  Maybe you went to Latham Circle Shopping Center, but that was on you.  The microbus pulled up to Northway Mall’s movie theater – Cine 1-2-3-4-5-6 – and we all bought tickets to see Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.

I should mention that the film was rated R, under 17 not admitted without parent.  Thankfully, either the ticket booth operator was open-minded or looked the other way, because she let a bunch of 17-year-old and 16-year-old kids buy tickets for an R-rated film.

And there we were, chomping on popcorn and soda and candy, and laughing our collective heads off for this film.  Seriously.  It was that funny.  Especially when you’re 17 years old and are hyped up on salted popcorn, sugary candy and even more sugary sodas.

And then there was that scene.  If you’ve seen this film, you know exactly what “that scene” was.

But if you haven’t, let me fill you in.  It’s a joke that’s based on a very popular documentary of the time, Scared Straight!, in which prison convicts teach high school troublemakers what life is really like when you’re behind cold steel bars and concrete, echoing jail cells.

Well, in Stir Crazy, Richard Pryor’s character starts walking down the jail corridor in an exaggerated cool-breeze strut, almost as if he channeled the spirits of John Shaft and Truck Turner.  Meanwhile, Gene Wilder tries to mimic Pryor’s bad-ass strut, almost as if he channeled the spirits of Mine Shaft and Tina Turner.  Yeah.  Dolemite and Vegemite.

And that scene resonated with us.  Heck, the next school day, almost everybody who saw the film on that field trip started strutting around the school, doing their best “We bad, that’s right, we bad, we ready to bang” impersonations.  It was funny and unifying at the same time.

And that’s my best memory of Gene Wilder.  Not to take anything away from his performances in other films, but yeah Stir Crazy was stellar.

So while many of my friends’ Facebook posts remarked about how he and wife Gilda Radner were reunited in the next world…

I hope he takes time in the next world to make a new movie with Richard Pryor.

Because, honestly, Another You just wasn’t one of their best.  They need a do-over.

That, or just two hours of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder walking through prisons and shouting, “That’s right, we bad, we bad…”

The Albany City School District 2016 Hall of Fame Class

A few months ago, I was pleased to share with all of you that my beloved high school principal, Lillian Tillman-DeWitt, was named to the Albany City School District Class of 2016.  The induction ceremony will take place on the weekend of September 16-17, as part of Albany High School’s Homecoming weekend.

Lillian G. Tillman (DeWitt), from 1981 Street Academy of Albany yearbook.
Lillian G. Tillman (DeWitt), from 1981 Street Academy of Albany yearbook.

Mrs. T, however, is not the only person who will be honored that weekend.  On Friday, the Albany City School District announced the full class of 2016, and they include graduates of both Albany High School and Philip Schuyler High School.  From the press release, the list includes:

  • Robert Brown (Albany High School ’66) – Brown earned a football scholarship to Rutgers University and went on to earn both a bachelor’s and a law degree there. An accomplished lawyer and politician, he served as counsel to the government committee that recommended the impeachment of Richard Nixon. He was the first African-American mayor of Orange, N.J., and also served in the New Jersey State Legislature until the time of his death in 2009.
  • Fred Daniels (Albany High School ’77) – Daniels played varsity basketball all four years at Albany High, leading the team in assists, steals and triple-doubles. He made local and state all-star teams as a sophomore, junior and senior before going on to play at Siena College. After graduating from Siena, he became a successful business executive at several Fortune 500 companies. Daniels currently is vice president of supply chain operations for the Ralph Lauren Corp.
  • Jason Gough (Albany High School ’88) – As an on-camera meteorologist for WNYT/Channel 13, Gough’s face is familiar to anyone who watches television or cares about the weather. Gough also donates his time to several charities and causes including the Spina Bifida Association of Northeastern New York and the American Cancer Society. Gough also has volunteered his time as the host of the district’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies since the hall was created in 2009.
  • Norman McConney Jr. (Albany High School ’65) – McConney was the longtime chief of staff for Assemblyman Arthur Eve of Buffalo, who was deputy speaker of the New York State Assembly. McConney was the driving force behind creation of SUNY’s Educational Opportunities Program, or EOP, and the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. Throughout his career he was a staunch advocate of programs to benefit disadvantaged students. He died this year on New Year’s Day at age 69.
  • Bernie Mulligan, longtime Albany booster – Mulligan was a founding member of both Citizens of Albany for Responsible Education (CARE) and People Advocating for Small Schools (PASS). As a leader in PASS, Mulligan played a critical role in helping pass three bond votes in Albany that led to the rebuilding or renovation of elementary and middle schools in the City School District of Albany. He also was a longtime member of the board of the Albany Fund for Education and continues to be a passionate supporter of Albany High athletics.
  • Frank Owens (Philip Schuyler ’67) – Owens lettered in three sports at Schuyler and was an All-Albany first-team quarterback in 1967. He went on to play semi-pro football with the Albany Wolverines and the Metro Mallers. He also was a physical education teacher at Giffen Memorial Elementary School and Albany High School and coached basketball and football. Eventually he was appointed director of health and physical education for the school district.
  • Lillian Tillman-DeWitt, retired principal of the former Street Academy, which eventually became Harriet Gibbons High School – Tillman-DeWitt began teaching fourth grade at the former School 6 in 1966 and became a resource-room teacher at Arbor Hill Elementary School in 1973. She was appointed principal of the former Street Academy in 1979 and was its principal until her 1991 retirement.

Members of the Class of 2016 will be honored at an induction ceremony and dinner at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16 at the Italian-American Community Center. The new inductees will be recognized on Sept. 17 at the Wall of Fame unveiling and during halftime of Albany High’s Homecoming football game later that afternoon.

The Hall of Fame was established in 2009 to recognize accomplished graduates, exceptional district staff people and community leaders that have supported our schools. Each year, new Hall of Famers are inducted after being nominated by the public and selected by a committee of district staff and community members.

On a personal note, congratulations to each of this year’s Hall of Fame Class of 2016.  I look forward to hearing all of your memories, anecdotes, remembrances and observations at the upcoming induction ceremony and dinner.

A star for Lillian Tillman-DeWitt

This is a commitment.  And I undertake it every year.

The commitment is to find a way to nominate – and hopefully achieve induction of – various students and faculty from my high school, Street Academy of Albany (later Harriet Gibbons High School).

So far, besides myself (Hall of Fame Class of 2011), I’m pleased that the school has been represented in the Hall by Physical Education / Coach Milton Horne (Class of 2010), Teacher / Principal / School namesake Harriet Gibbons (Class of 2012), Teacher / Principal Edward Trant (Class of 2013), Principal / Teacher Don Prozik (Class of 2013) and Teacher Eileen Kawola (Class of 2015).

I’m glad that several of the school’s principals have been enshrined.

One more principal should join this roster.

Mrs. T needs to be in the Hall.

Lillian G. Tillman (DeWitt), from 1981 Street Academy of Albany yearbook.
Lillian G. Tillman (DeWitt), from 1981 Street Academy of Albany yearbook.

“Mrs. T,” for those of you who were not Street Academy students, was Lillian Tillman (later Lillian Tillman-DeWitt).  She expected you to do your best every single day, both in school and outside.  She was a teacher, a parent, an authority figure, a supporter, everything you could have ever wanted for a high school principal.

Nominations for the Class of 2016 are ready.  I downloaded the application.  Yep, still says that the choice options are “Albany High,” “Philip Schuyler High School” and “Other.”  No, I didn’t get a diploma from “Other.”  Man, I wish they’d change that form.

So on January 18, I submitted a letter of nomination, along with some newspaper articles and a photograph of Mrs. Tillman.  The photo came from our 1981 high school yearbook.

Here’s what I wrote.

Members of the Nominating Committee:

Please accept this letter as a personal request to nominate Lillian Tillman-DeWitt for enshrinement in the Albany City School District Hall of Fame.

Ms. Tillman-DeWitt has worked as a teacher and administrator in the Albany City School District for several decades, working with the Arbor Hill Elementary School, and later with the Street Academy of Albany as its principal.

From the start, Mrs. Tillman-DeWitt was a different type of principal.  She wasn’t the stereotypical image of a disciplinarian administrator.  She cared deeply about every student in school, and in many cases she was as much a parent to those of us who needed a parent, and an emotional support system for those of us who needed emotional support.  She cheered for us when we achieved our goals, and she encouraged us to stay strong when temptation lurked around every corner.

She was, for all intents and purposes, the perfect choice for principal at Street Academy.  She took no nonsense from any student (hats were not worn in school, for example), and at the same time, she stood along with students who were in need.  She didn’t offer handouts – she offered a way out.  She also encouraged and championed the teachers and educators at Street Academy to do whatever it took to make sure that students kept their “eyes on the prize” – a diploma and a chance at a better life.

Today, many of the students who attended Street Academy can point to the efforts of Lillian Tillman-DeWitt as the major reason why they are successful productive members of society.  It is said that whoever saves one life, that person saves the world entire.  Lillian Tillman-DeWitt saved many lives during her years as an administrator, teacher and student advocate.  I personally consider her to be a close member of my family.

It is with sincere hope that you please consider Lillian Tillman-DeWitt’s candidacy for the Albany City School District Hall of Fame.  Supporting newspaper clippings and documentation are attached.

I also asked several of my high school classmates if they would send a nomination as well.  Facebook connections are such a wonderful thing.

Okay.  Now we wait.

February.  March.  April.  No news yet.

So I figured I’d drop a quick e-mail.

And a few days later… I received the news.

The Albany City School District Hall of Fame will have, among its inductees for the Class of 2016… Street Academy principal Lillian Tillman-DeWitt.

That’s right, friends and neighbors.

Mrs. T has joined the Albany City School District Hall of Fame!

Cue the Clark Sisters, it’s time to celebrate!!

Listen, everybody.  This is an amazing, important moment.  The teachers and educators and staff at Street Academy (later Harriet Gibbons High School) saved thousands of men and women.   They brought the sunshine into our grey existence.  They made things possible that we had never even dared probable.

And Mrs. T was there through all the moments.  All the good moments.  All the tough moments.

And in the fall… she will be honored, along with various other Albany City School District students and educators, into the Hall of Fame.

And you know that the largest cheering section that night will be those who made the journey with her – those whom she helped along the way, those whom she assisted in time, those whom her motivations and energy still ring true in our hearts and in our souls.

This is a good thing.  This is worth celebrating.

You know what?  I want to celebrate some more.  Anybody got the Wings Over Jordan Choir handy?

Congratulations, Mrs. T.

We’ll see you in the fall.

For on that day, you’ll be glorified…

And your name will be emblazoned in the Hall.

I won’t vote for Dan Egan because…

One thing you will always know about me.  Do the right thing by me, treat me with respect, and I will be as loyal as a puppy.  But if you ever do me wrong – if you hurt me, if you swindle me, if I still have knife marks in my back – then you are as dead to me as Roundup in a garden.

Dan Egan is currently running for Albany County Executive.  His previous experience involves several terms with the Albany City School District Board of Education.

And that is where our paths crossed.

See, Dan Egan was on the Board in 2010 when this happened.

The TL;DR version?

In 2010, Harriet Gibbons High School – previously known as the Street Academy of Albany – was shuttered.  The school, which after 2006 was converted to a ninth grade academy (essentially, grade 8 1/2) as preparation for students entering Albany High School, was blamed for the failure of those students to graduate from Albany High.

I was at that June 2010 meeting when the school board would listen to public statements about the school, and that the board would vote on what actions to take regarding the school.

The public citizens attending that meeting, and offering their opinions – nearly two dozen people speaking overwhelmingly in support of Harriet Gibbons High School – were in vain.  Heck, prior to the vote, Dan Egan was filmed with WNYT’s Jessica Layton, talking about “when the school closes” and “after the school closes” – prior to the vote itself.

And the vote took place – 6-0 to shut down a school that had saved the lives and educated troubled youth for the past forty years.  And Dan Egan was the President of the School Board that day.  Promises from the Board that the students who were scheduled to enter HGHS that year would be carefully monitored and that administrators and teachers would “have their feet held to the fire” for accountability were just empty platitudes.

When I expressed this concern to Dan Egan that night, he gave me the same political mumbo-jumbo about how the students weren’t getting a proper education at HGHS and that they would do better at Albany High School.  And then he said, “Thanks for coming,” and shook my hand.

I felt like I had just dunked my hand in french fry grease.

In politics, there are so many reasons to vote for a person or to vote against a person.  You can vote based on your personal beliefs, or how you feel a candidate will do based on his or her previous track record in public service.

As far as I’m concerned, Dan Egan lost my vote five years ago, on the moment when he had already shut down my high school and shook my hand about it, hoping that I would be happy with his actions.

I’ll probably vote for Dan McCoy in the upcoming primary, based on keeping my vote away from Dan Egan because of that moment five years ago.

Because honestly, if Dan Egan were the only candidate running for Albany County Executive…

I would submit Jim Coyne’s name as a write-in candidate in protest.

Celebrating Eileen Kawola

Today is Eileen Kawola’s birthday.  But that’s not the main reason why I’m writing today’s blog.

Later next month, Eileen Kawola is going to receive a very special award.  And once again, it’s another triumph for my old high school, Street Academy / Harriet Gibbons High School.

Background.

When I arrived at Street Academy in 1979, Eileen was my student advisor, as well as one of my teachers.  She, along with all the other educators in that three-story building on Clinton Avenue, helped guide troubled students like me from a life of ennui to a life of discovery.  For nearly three decades, she taught a variety of subjects, including history, social studies, and ethics.

She would later take on more challenges, including conducting a literacy program for jail inmates, and working on the board of the local chapter of the history of the Underground Railroad.

And on September 18, she will join several other Albany City School District students and teachers as members of the 2015 Albany City School District Hall of Fame.

This is amazing.  She deserves this honor; it probably should have come years earlier, but it’s here now.  And with her induction, the Hall now includes former Street Academy teachers Milton Horne (2010), Harriet Gibbons (2012), Edward Trant (2012), Don Prosik (2012), as well as its first student inductee – me (2011).

The induction ceremony will take place on September 18 at the Italian-American Community Center on Washington Avenue Extension.  Click here for more information and to download a form to reserve a dinner table.

This is great.  And it’s just another testament to the meaning of what this school meant for generations of students.  I’m definitely proud that Eileen Kawola has received this honor.  And she won’t be the only one, because I know there were plenty of other teachers and students from Street Academy / Harriet Gibbons High School that deserve recognition and consideration for their educational successes.

So in the future, when Lillian Tillman DeWitt, George Mastrangelo, Peter Balint, Bill Newmann, Dorinda Davis, Dewey Hill, Ahmed Naqi, Tony Clement, Sister MaryEllen Harmon RSCJ, Bonnie Diefendorf et al. receive that nomination; and when students like LaRodd Graves, Samson Contompasis, Nikki Holt, and so many more also receive consideration…

It will truly be an honor beyond compare.  And long overdue, too…