Newsletter readers: Looking for the Robbie Burns Link? Here it is.
Herb Foster celebrated his 90th birthday at the Hebrew Center last Saturday. He invited well over 100 friends, and judging by the full parking lot and the number of people that flowed in and out of the community room, everyone came. There were people of all ages, colors, and religions — a testament to his decades-long work to bridge cultural differences.
Herb and his late wife Anita moved to the Island full-time in the late 1990s. “We first came in 1974; we sailed here,” Herb said. “My wife has a cousin who had a 42-foot boat so we sailed to Nantucket and came here. I took pictures of mechanical sharks in crates; it was the year they made ‘Jaws,’ and I had no idea what they were for. Somewhere I have Kodak slides.”
He said over the next couple of years they would visit his brother in Falmouth and Anita’s cousin on the Vineyard. Their two daughters, Donna and Andrea (Yonini), weighed in on a unanimous family vote, and they decided to buy a house on the Island rather than a place at Raquette Lake in upstate New York. That was around his 60th birthday, Herb said. Donna now lives in North Carolina, and Andrea moved back to Buffalo recently from Germantown, Md. Herb said one thing he’d like to do more of this year is to spend time with his daughters in “America.” Anita died in 2006.
Born in Brooklyn to what he calls “beautiful parents,” Herb was the middle son out of three boys. He remembers being “into sports” from a young age (he only recently stopped riding his bike regularly).
After graduating from high school during World War II, Herb went to NYU for a week, then signed up for the Army. He put his college plans on hold, and went on to become a Morse code radio operator in occupied Japan. Herb played football in the military with guys from all over the United States. “I was as good as they were,” he said. “I imagine most of them are gone.”
At basic training in Joplin, Mo., Herb said he wore a Star of David with his dog tags, and the other soldiers would watch him closely. “Every payday they’d come around, and I asked what they were looking for. They had never seen a live Jew; they were looking for horns and a tail. I remember Brits patting butts, looking for the tail on my black friends. It was the late 1940s … this is what they were like. What really bothers me is that I don’t know what they wrote. What did they write home about me? The Protestant guys talked about the Catholics and then the Catholics talked about the Protestants. They’d say, ‘He’s the Italian guy, he’s the Polish guy.’ It’s just the descriptive way we talked.”
Herb came home and used the G.I. Bill to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and took a teaching job at Haaren High School in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan when he was just 23. He taught mechanical drawing and blueprint making in a classroom for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students. He describes his first day on the job in his book, “Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens: The Persistent Dilemma in Our Schools,” which in 2012 went into its second edition; it was initially published in 1974.
He wrote, “My first day of teaching almost devastated me.” Herb ended up hiding under his desk while students ran across tabletops, throwing T-squares and drawing boards. The next day he came in and used a more streetwise, real-life approach, not one he’d recommend these days, and it worked. In the book Herb says he’d wanted to be a teacher for as long as he could remember, and figured if he failed that day, what would become of the rest of his life? For Herb it wasn’t so much that the youth should be punished for their behaviors but that teachers could go a long way in learning how to communicate with them.
He was a teacher and administrator in the New York City public school system for 17 years, and then taught for nearly 30 years at State University of New York at Buffalo. He’s an emeritus professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the Graduate School of Education at the university.
Breaking racial barriers
During school desegregation in the 1960s and ’70s, he and a friend, George Singfield, who is black, traveled across the country giving lectures and presentations on breaking communication barriers between urban black youth and the white adults in the school systems.
George, 89 and now an education consultant with Adults and Children with Learning and Developmental Disabilities Inc., came to the Island for Herb’s birthday celebration, as he does traditionally every year. In George’s version of events, which he deems the accurate version, the two met at a Council on Exceptional Children chapter conference on Long Island, where Herb was a speaker and George an attendee. George, then a teacher in a classroom for emotionally disturbed students at the Berman School, wanted to start up a Boy Scout group for his students, and Herb helped him develop the program.
During his visit to the Island last weekend, George talked about their past, and some about the here and now.
“I’ve known Herb since … let me see … about 1962 or ’63,” George said. “We’ve been together ever since.”
Not long after meeting, they began working together addressing desegregation and school integration in their travels. “We talked about training for teachers and students around understanding each other and each other’s culture and behavior, particularly some of the folklore and misunderstanding of the white teachers and school districts, misunderstanding the behavior of kids. We helped them understand the deeper meaning so they could provide a more positive consequence.”
They would often roleplay, and George described an intense scenario when he and Herb were at a conference in New Paltz, N.Y.
“We were talking about his book, and so I began disputing what he was talking about and we began wolfing on each other. All the white guys looked at us; they thought we were going to fight because we were disagreeing so vehemently. Then we explained this was part of street-corner talk.
“It’s been a long, long journey, and we’ve had some interesting experiences,” George said. “We were in South Boston when they were under a desegregation order. We went to do a training, and we were getting ready for the boat to pick us up to go over to Thompson Island, and I got out of the car. Some guy got up and yelled at me to get back in, he pushed me into the car and explained some other people were patrolling the community and if they saw anyone black or Hispanic, they would attack them.”
Herb has worked tirelessly to promote understanding between blacks and whites, shining a light on cultural differences that can lead to conflict. He’s a member of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard, a past president of the Hebrew Center, a trustee up for re-election at the Edgartown library, and a member of the board of directors of the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation. He was part of the SUNY Buffalo task force on institutionalized racism, and participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.
George says that Herb is “a doer,” and that these days all people do is “talk, talk, talk.” He said that some issues around race are better today, but some are not.
“Things have continued to fester under the surface, and people don’t want to take ownership or confront the issue,” George said.
He said he’s encouraged by young people today who are stepping up to run for office. If the two men went back on the road to talk to young people, George said, they could use their lives as an example. They both got an education through the G.I. Bill, and managed to affect people’s lives.
“They can do the same thing,” George said. “I hope I can influence somebody to get out there. I’m encouraged that they’re voting, running for office. We gotta get a lot of those old fogies out of their way. They’ve become comfortable and sold their souls to the highest bidder.”
While George has known Herb for more than 50 years, Herb’s friends on the Island are also well acquainted with his generosity and his joie de vivre.
Some of his friends sat around a table at the Hebrew Center last Saturday describing Herb as generous, funny, special, wonderful, and more. They didn’t spare any jokes on his behalf either.
“He’s a talented guy — a writer, author, teacher, professor. He earned a doctorate in college, I think in basketball,” Gary Cogley said. “He’s an all-around good guy. He’s getting up there; it’s his 90th, but I like to tell him he looks 95.”
Bill and Peggy McGrath were at the party; they met Herb through a seniors biking group on the Island. A retired MVRHS teacher, Bill helps Herb with computer problems, and the couple always enjoys Herb’s birthday parties — the only gifts expected are food donations to the Island Food Pantry. He usually holds the parties at his Edgartown home, but this year was special and required a more accommodating space. “Herb’s birthday party is the closest I’ve ever been to being a sardine in a can,” Peggy said.
Another friend, Tom Pallas, met Herb in Buffalo and then rekindled the relationship on the Vineyard. Just before Herb moved to the Island full-time in the late 1990s, he went to Tom’s bike shop in Buffalo to get a tuneup on his bike.
“He wheeled it into my bike shop and said, ‘I need a tuneup, but don’t put a lot of oil on the chain. I’m moving to a place with a lot of sand.’ I said ‘Where are you moving to?’ and he said ‘Martha’s Vineyard,’ and I said, ‘Bullshit! I’m moving to Martha’s Vineyard!’ His bike’s still working.”
Bonnie George, first vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center and a friend of Herb’s, may have summed it up best: “Ask six people where they know Herb from and you’ll get six different answers.”
Herb has been teaching Yiddish to his young friend Devin Reston, a ski and snowboarding coach currently working in Park City, Utah, who flew in for the birthday party. They struck up a friendship, and work together on the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation. Devin said they talk a lot about skiing, camping, and the outdoors. Herb is still a Boy Scout, the oldest living scout in the U.S., he reckons.
At the end of Saturday’s party, Herb thanked everyone for coming, and told them he’s finally finished his book, “Ghetto to Ghetto: Yiddish and Jive in Everyday Life.” His next project, he explained, is documenting all the historical plaques on the Island.
He eats a fairly healthy diet, cutting back on the beans and franks he loves most, something always served at his birthday parties, and gets plenty of exercise at the Island’s senior centers.
“I’m an early riser,” Herb said. “Philosophically in my head, I always liked to go to bed early so I could get up and start a new day. Other people don’t want to go to bed because they don’t want to start another day. I like to get up early and do things.”
Herb said longevity is in his genes; both of his parents lived into their 80s: “My paternal grandfather lived to 103 … the doctor said he wasn’t sick, he just got tired.”