It began with an ad in Newsday.
And, while Irving Gerber didn’t know it then, five years later it would lead to the resurrection of his alma mater, a school now regarded as one of the best in America.
That Townsend Harris High School, ranked 19th best public high school in the nation in 2022 by U.S. News & World Report, opened in Queens in 1984 in large part because Gerber, a career educator who died Feb. 6 at age 95, was bored one summer and looking for something to do.
Mournful that the original school, Townsend Harris Hall Prep in Manhattan, was closed by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia not long after his 1943 graduation, Gerber was determined to start an alumni association. In 1979, he did. Then again, Gerber was always finding causes, big and small.
One summer he launched a campaign to rail against school-tax increases on Long Island. Another, he protested outside the Soviet consulate in New York City over the imprisonment of human rights advocate Anatoly Shcharansky. He started a tennis group after the death of his first wife in 1981. In 2015, at age 87, he filed an age discrimination suit against LIU Post, after he and two colleagues were let go. The suit ultimately failed. He once tried to run for Congress.
Gerber created magic shows, and entertained hospitalized children. He published children’s books, created nutrition lists for friends and family, gave handouts to homeless people.
“He even took stray dogs home,” his daughter, Jill Gerber, of Chicago, said.
“It was such an enviable trait and it extended to so many facets of his life, that he was very involved with social actions, was always on the lookout to try and help people.”
Born Sept. 13, 1927, in the Bronx, Gerber was a longtime resident of Oceanside and later East Meadow. His twin sister, Frances, died last year. Another sister, Beatrice, 99, lives in Israel. His father, Harry, was an immigrant from Russia; his mother, Leah, an immigrant from Drohobych, Galicia, now in Ukraine.
“His family was poor and the Depression hit them very hard,” daughter Jill said.
“They lived in a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up, his father washing laundry for people in the neighborhood, later running a newsstand.”
His family stressing education, Gerber landed at Townsend Harris Hall Prep, a school for gifted students, which counted among its alumni Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., lyricist Ira Gershwin and Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine. Graduating at age 15, Gerber attended City College, graduating in 1946 — then, joined the Army Air Forces.
He was stationed at Geiger Field in Spokane, Washington, now Spokane International Airport, where he analyzed soil for runway construction.
Gerber left the military in 1947 and went to work as a science teacher in New York City, beginning a series of quests to improve curriculum — often at odds with the Board of Education.
In a 1963 op-ed piece on the importance of reading skills, he wrote: “As the situation stands today, there are thousands of children in our elementary schools, especially the special service schools, who are reading far below grade level. As they progress through the grades they fall further and further behind, and school becomes more meaningless.”
As principal of the Ocean Hill experimental school in Brownsville, Gerber mandated students spend half of each school day working on reading comprehension. He was forced to resign in 1968 after a battle with the Board of Education over the controversial program, his daughter said.
It was the rebirth of Townsend Harris of which Gerber was most proud.
Following ads in Newsday, The New York Times and the City College alumni magazine, Gerber amassed a list of more than 200 alumni. As Gerber recalled in a 2018 video interview for the Townsend Harris alumni association, understanding strength in numbers, he refused to remove anyone from the membership list — even if their dues lapsed.
The group eventually got Queens College in Flushing to offer a building, then, with the support of Queens Borough President Donald Manes and Councilwoman Claire Shulman, who succeeded Manes, got the new Townsend Harris opened in 1984.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a whole summer and I’m going to organize an alumni association,’” Gerber later explained of his quest.
Predeceased by his first wife, Carol Elaine, Gerber is survived by his second wife, Judith of East Meadow; sons, Glenn and Steven; daughter Jill; and eight grandchildren.