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Sam Wallach (1909 - 2001)

Sam’s daughter, Joan Wallach Scott is an author and Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Social Science.  She contributed this edited version of her talk given at Sam’s memorial service in June 2001.


Sam Wallach was born in Dolina, Poland on July 1, 1909. He came to the United States with his mother and father, Bertha and Abraham Wallach, when he was about 10 months old. He grew up in Brooklyn, the oldest of four children. And he quickly became the mentor, if not the parent, of his younger siblings, Sylvia, Eli and Shirley, offering his advice, criticism and generous care throughout their lives. The family lived behind a candy store on Union Street in Brooklyn until they moved to a house on Bedford Avenue–across the street from the legendary Ebinger’s bakery headquarters

Sam went to Brooklyn Technical H.S., planning to become an engineer. He was enormously proud of the skills he learned there and which he was always willing to apply and to share, teaching his daughters, for example, the "principles" of toilets and electrical wiring.

Sam’s plans to become an engineer were discouraged by his teachers at City College because of the difficulty they knew Jews had in entering that field.  Instead, in what became a tremendous gift to generations of New York public school students, Sam decided to become a teacher of economics and history. The choice of these fields was not accidental.  At City College, along with others of his depression-era generation (Sam graduated in 1929, on the eve of the stock market crash), he was inspired by the idealism of his professors. To say that he became a communist reduces the story to its barest outlines and, in our more disillusioned times, misses the extraordinary combination of intellectual excitement and political awareness generated by the social movements of the 1930's. Economics meant analyses of capitalism that could explain how one of the richest countries in the world could have "one third of the nation, ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed." History was a way not only of understanding how economics shaped societies, but also a way of promoting change. It nourished the optimism of Sam’s generation, sustaining their belief that revolution was just around the corner, that their dream of a new world, free from hunger and fear, could be realized in their lifetimes.

Early Years in the Teachers Union

Teachers Union President Sam Wallach at podium
Teachers Union President Sam Wallach

The 1930's were a heady time for young college graduates. Sam was a playground director in Brooklyn, then a high school teacher. He joined the Teachers Union and, inspired by Charles Henley and Eugene Jackson, became – along with Abe Lederman and Rose Russell--one of its leaders.

In 1939 Sam married Lottie Tanenbaum, at a ceremony presided over by a rabbi–to please her Orthodox parents. Politics, however, was not far from the celebration. The wedding certificate has on its back a list of guests who, in honor of the new couple, contributed to aid the republican cause in Spain. Sam and Lottie lived busy lives; teaching, working in the union; attending meetings and rallies. (Theirs was an enviable companionship; although there were surely conventional elements to the household division of labor–she cooked, he took care of foreign policy–theirs was a partnership characterized by love and mutual respect that lasted for 56 years, until Lottie’s death.)

Sam Wallach (TU President dismissed) & Arthur Miller (playwright)
Teachers Union President Sam Wallach after presenting playwright of  The Crucible, Arthur Miller, with award Dec. 18, 1948

Life got busier in 1941, when I was born; even busier in 1943, when Ruth arrived. Photographs from those years show many aspects of our lives: Sam in front of a blackboard, handsome and charismatic, Sam at TU meetings, with Rose and Abe lobbying in Albany, all of us together during idyllic summers at Eagle Mountain Camp in Vermont, fishing, berry picking, swimming; at home, at 1776 Union Street and then East 16th Street in Brooklyn; at TU conferences and at demonstrations in the early 1950's to protest the firing of New York City school teachers, among them Sam.  For me, family life and politics were entirely intertwined in this period; the community we lived in was not the neighborhood or the family, but a brotherhood of people deeply committed to social justice and social change. The lullabies of my childhood were "Joe Hill" and "Union Maid." In this period "our lives were made richer by the cause that we fought for," but also more difficult–we paid for our beliefs and our parents’ attempts to put them into action. The atmosphere was charged: veiled anxiety, deliberate cheerfulness. My favorite of these scenes was Sam, standing in front of the door to our apartment, lecturing two young FBI agents, who had come to see whether he’d changed his mind about cooperating with them (they continued to do this until 1967, according to the files we got under the Freedom of Information Act). "Have you boys read the Bill of Rights?" Sam would ask provocatively. Then, ever the pedagogue, he read them the relevant sections as they shifted their feet uneasily and finally tipped their hats and turned away in frustration. The FBI files report his behavior as "adamant" –a characterization that captures perfectly the outlook of the man who would not compromise his principles to save his job. Sam was adamant alright and that gave a certain ferocity to his opinions and actions, an undeniable sense of the rightness of his being, a severity of judgment against those who betrayed or disappointed him, and an unwavering loyalty to his friends and colleagues.

Wallach Statement to the House Subcommittee

TU member with telegram to Mayor O'Dwyer
Rose Russell Teachers Union Legislative Representative and President Sam Wallach flank telegram to Mayor O'Dwyer

I want to read the statement Sam made in 1948 when he refused to cooperate with a House subcommittee investigating communism in the Teachers Union, CIO. It was after this hearing that a reporter asked him if he knew his job was in jeopardy. "These guys," he said referring to the subcommittee, "placed the Constitution in jeopardy. That worries me a lot more." Here’s the statement he read from the witness stand:


I have been a teacher for fifteen years–a proud American teacher. I have tried all those years to inspire my youngsters with a deep devotion for the American way of life, our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Hundreds of my youngsters fought in WWII and I know their understanding of the need to fight for their country was inspired by my teaching and the Bill of Rights....From that teaching our youngsters got the feeling that we are living in a country where nobody has a right to ask what are your beliefs, how you worship God, what you read. As a teacher and a believer in those fundamental principles, it seems to me that it would be a betrayal of everything I have been teaching to cooperate with the committee in an investigation of a man’s opinions, political beliefs and private views.
 (NYT Oct 2, 1948.)


Abby Lederman, Abe Lederman's daughter; Joan Wallach  Scott and Ruth Wallach Frankel

Sam was among the first eight teachers to be suspended in 1951 as the red scares invaded New York City’s schools. According to students who testified on his behalf he was an exemplary teacher; those of us who lived with him also knew how much he loved to teach. His repertoire of jokes about students and teachers, his affectionate stories about his students’ understandings and misunderstandings of economics, his ability to clarify and simplify, even the sometimes annoying trait of explaining the obvious–all these are the marks of the master teacher. Although he never complained about losing access to his chosen profession and although he performed the jobs he had with characteristic good humor and effectiveness, I imagine that being deprived of a classroom, and of generations of students, was extremely painful for him. He always talked about being fired in terms of the loss of his academic freedom, but the loss of his connection to New York City’s public schools was, for Sam, greater still.

Politics and Children

But he didn’t lose his connection to politics or to children. When he finally landed a job as an administrator at Maimonides Hospital, he put all his extraordinary political skills into advocacy for developmentally dis-abled children. This was the post-Willowbrook period and Sam helped formulate strategy for "main-streaming" students and for establishing residential group homes for the retarded. He once told me that he’d found in this world of advocacy, where priests and rabbis, Republicans and Democrats, bureaucrats and idealists worked selflessly on behalf of children, something approximating the socialism he once strove so hard to achieve.

Legacy of Political Insight

Sam has left many legacies, but one of the most formative for Ruth and for me was his political insight. He was a brilliant strategist, reading institutional power relations, finding the right point of entry for a critical action. Ruth and I either inherited this gene,or, more likely, imbibed it at the dinner table, where it was absorbing to hear our parents analyze events (Albany’s legislative actions, some H.S. principal’s assault on teachers’ rights, the choice of a speaker for the TU conference, how to expose the NY Times’ refusal to report on these conferences, the meaning of some seemingly benign politician’s comments) and prepare strategies and tactics to address them. (There was something fitting–or, if not fitting, a certain poetic justice–in the fact that there was no obituary for Sam in the NY Times last February. All through the fifties, the post-TU Conference refrain in our family was outrage at the Times lack of coverage of this significant event or, if it were covered, the appearance of an article on the obituary page. The obituary page was associated with a certain lack of official respect, an attempt to minimize something really important, and a series of questionable political motives. Sam would not have been surprised at the Times’ neglect of his death; on the contrary, it would have been precisely a confirmation of his enduring status as a radical, a leftist trade unionist, whose historical importance could never have been properly appreciated by the likes of the editors of the NY Times.)

Retirement and Vindication

Eli Wallach, brother of Samuel Wallach, addressing Dreamers & Fighters ConferenceEli Wallach, brother of TU President Sam Wallach, addressing the Dreamers & Fighters Conference

In December, 1976, as Sam was about to retire from his job  at Maimonides, he and nine of his cohort–all fired teachers from the 50's–were reinstated and awarded pension benefits by the New York City Board of Education. A NY Times editorial echoed statements that Sam and others had been making for years about the sacredness of civil liberties and academic freedom. In Sam’s files there is also a letter from the principal of Franklin K. Lane HS (where he was teaching when he was fired in 1953). "The years in exile cannot be returned to you," this man wrote, "and even this recent act of the Board is too little to compensate for everything you have been through. However, at the moment of your vindication, I want you to know that we at Lane share your joy with you and have you in our thoughts." The pension settlement he received made it possible for Sam and Lottie to buy a house in the Berkshires. They moved from Brooklyn to Alford, Massachusetts, and Sam, at least, never looked back. He loved the beauty of the countryside, the chance to make new friends, and the joy of inviting old friends to visit. Though he tried to tend a garden, he wasn’t much good at gardening. Instead, characteristically, he found what he considered serious advocacy work that needed to be done, especially at the Children’s Health Program.

Those years of retirement were rich ones. Alford was near enough to NY for trips to conferences and meetings and especially to the theater. Sam and Lottie spent winters in Florida or California, warmed by sunshine and the sociability of dear friends. And, of course, there was increasing "naches von kinder," as the grandchildren grew up. Ruth had married Herman in 1963; Joan married Don in 1965, each couple had two children. As many of you know, Sam was not shy about lauding the accomplishments of his children and, even more, his grandchildren. And though he often seemed to be critical and even judgmental about their choices when he talked to them, when he talked about them to others it was with evident, unabashed pride.

There were inevitable sadnesses too. Good friends died, Lottie was lost to Alzheimer’s, the world he expected would be better by the end of his life seemed as troubled and harsh as ever. Students came to interview him about the old days of the TU and Sam managed to rally the energy and fiercely principled arguments, the humor and seriousness of purpose that constituted his charisma. For his 90th birthday, friends and family endowed a prize in his name at his alma mater, City College, for a student in the Center for Worker Education who shared his commitments to labor organizing and social justice and who planned a teaching career in the New York City public schools. Sam was thrilled at the existence of the prize, not only because it guaranteed him a certain immortality, but also because it perpetuated a set of commitments to which he had dedicated his life. A new generation would carry on; he could rest assured that there would be teachers who cared about children and who acted–loudly and clearly–on their concerns. As for him, he was growing more and more tired.

Wallach's Legacy Realized

He was pleased though by the arrival of yet another generation in the family. Two great grandchildren, whose arrival he welcomed with a mixture of astonishment (imagine that, he had lived to see these beautiful great grandchildren) and pride (they were, of course, the greatest because they were his). On the weekend before Sam died, his great grandson Ezra and I went to Alford for a visit. For me, it was a sad visit because Sam seemed so weak, so sleepy, so demoralized by the plague of disorders his body had started to produce. For four-and-a-half year old Ezra, it was an ecstatic time: his first trip without his parents and little sister Carmen; his chance to shop the special toy stores in Great Barrington and pick out presents from GG Sam. Ezra charmed Sam, demonstrating his strength by working the lever of the recliner chair every time GG wanted to get up or sit down, spelling his own name and Sam’s, and passing various other of Sam’s tests, among them the "mensch" test. This boy, he announced was the smartest four-year old he’d ever met, but also among the sweetest. He knew his words and numbers, but he also offered charming observations about himself and the world. "Delicious" Sam pronounced as he gave Ezra his last hug and kiss, "what a boy." Thinking about it now, it seems to me that that visit provided solace and reassurance for Sam. He knew somehow that his own life was over; he’d already passed the torch to his children and his grandchildren, confident of the fact that the principles of decency and the search for social justice were a legacy that would continue to be lived long after he was gone. Now he’d met yet another generation and he knew that it, too, had what it would take to keep his spirit alive. I like to think that Sam died with his belief in history intact. The social revolution he spent his life working for may not have happened as he’d expected it would, but watching Ezra, listening to that sweet, intelligent voice as it observed and commented on the world, Sam knew he’d seen the future--and it worked.

 

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