Remembering Bill Jesinkey
The Founder of Martin De Porres School
On December 25, 2014, our dear friend Bill Jesinkey died. At the time of his death, we were on holiday break. I felt it would be best to wait until we returned to write about Bill. Over the past week, I have been able to reflect and think about what I wanted to say.
Whenever one writes a memorial or any type of remembrance, it can be difficult to capture the fullness of a person’s life. It can be even more difficult to describe the impact one has had on family, friends and community.
With this being said, I will humbly share some thoughts about Bill.
In my estimation, Bill’s mission in life was to insure that schools did not forget children with emotional and behavioral disorders. He was committed to kids. In the 1970’s, Bill, along with Jane Stern published “Lost Children” which was a descriptive study of children with emotional handicaps. It was considered groundbreaking as it shed light on a fundamental issue previously neglected. Not only was Bill a scholar, but he was a practitioner as well. In the New York City Board of Education, Bill was a Guidance Counselor who rose to become the Superintendent of the “District 75” school system. “D 75” as it is called, serves kids with severe emotional and behavioral problems. Again, these were the kids Bill championed – that is, kids that society in general, seem to consider as insignificant.
One of Bill’s most important contributions is the Martin De Porres School. He is our Founder! In the early seventies, Bill worked with folks like Jane Stern (mentioned above), Ed Morgan, another NYC guidance counselor, a group of de LaSalle Christian Brothers who had recently left Mater Christi High School, and our own Ron John and Gloria Aloise. Under Bill’s direction, MDP came to be. He was the driving force who gave birth to MDP. Through his vision, intelligence, courage and tenacity, Bill brought the dream of a school for “Lost Children” to fruition. For those of you who did not know, Bill was the first Executive Director of MDP as well as our Founder.
What a legacy to consider! Bill founded a program that is still going strong after 43 years. Thousands have been educated in an incredible array of school programs that still work every day to provide a sanctuary in which kids can develop to their fullest. As the song says “that’s something you can be proud of, that’s something you can hang your hat on”.
Bill was a gift to me and was a gift to many of us at MDP. I realize that those of you who have joined MDP recently, do not know Bill. But to those of us who did, he was part of the basic fabric of MDP. And those of you who did not personally know Bill, should appreciate that he set the tone for MDP early on. Though Bill did not remain our Executive Director, he remained a member of our Board of Directors over many years and continually provided advice and support.
Without a doubt, Bill was one of the smartest individuals I have ever met. Truly. I can confidently say that in every conversation between him and me, I learned something new. The second thing that I can say about Bill was that he was a man of courage. When it came to correcting an injustice, he did not fear taking on anyone be that person big or small. I found that when I met with him, I would leave feeling more courageous myself.
The third thing that I can say about Bill was that he was a man who was fair and trustworthy. He did not like liars, he did not like schemers and he did not like anyone who took advantage of others especially those who took advantage of poor children.
Bill told me stories of how in his advocacy for special needs kids, he was harassed and threatened at times. Several times, he was asked to open schools in neighborhoods that were unwelcoming. I believe that more than once he faced downright angry and hostile people only to get up the next day and jump back into the fight. One day he was even arrested for bringing a high school student back to school after the student was thrown out by the building Principal and told to never return.
I could continue with stories attesting to Bill’s character as there are many but I won’t. Trust me that this man’s heroics could fill pages. I will however, leave you with one last story of Bill. We kept good contact over the past three years as I kept him updated on MDP developments. He was very happy with the great progress made by MDP and continually sent his good wishes to staff. He had not seen the High School in Rockaway Park, however, Steve Cohen, Bill’s friend, former MDP Board Member and current consultant, suggested that we ask Bill to visit the high school and talk to staff. In December, Bill was able to meet with staff. The experience energized him. At that point, his body was frail but his mind was as keen as ever. Betty Williams gave him a great introduction and Bill spoke humbly yet with strength about his feelings for MDP and the children we serve. He left me that day with a thought. Bill spoke about the fact that the needs of our kids (these with emotional and behavioral disorders) are as present as ever. He spoke about the reality that less opportunity both educationally and throughout life exists for these kids. He spoke about the sadness of this situation. But he also framed the reality in which our kids live, a reality of poor opportunity, a reality of poverty, a reality of racism and in particular lack of educational opportunity as a “Civil Rights” issue. When Bill said this, it awakened me again to the fact that we work with kids whose rights have been abused. He reminded me that though we are educators, we are among the few who work to protect the “Civil Rights” of our students.
Taken in this light, we can envision our work as a calling: a calling to protect, to serve to and educate those who Bill so long ago identified as Lost Children. With Bill’s passing, he passes on this torch to each of us. In reflecting on Bill’s life and his contributions, it is a good torch to pick up and carry. I am sure that Bill would agree that if each one of you do not raise and carry this torch, no one else will.