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Nearly a decade ago, I received an assignment to write a short essay about a retired City University of New York professor who loved giving away his money.
His name was Gerald “Jerry” Mayer. He had just given $25,000 to Hostos Community College, the school he’d attended for 30 years. As a sign of gratitude, the school was to rename a conference room in honor of its political hero.
I planned to do a quick phone interview, get the story out and move on. Nine years later, I was still talking when he fell down miserable steps outside his brownstone in Brooklyn and ended his wonderful life. He was 81 years old.
• • •
Jerry was raised in a poor working-class Irish family in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was the only one of three siblings to complete high school. Money was scarce and passions often waned in Meyer’s house. Decades later, after his net worth had jumped into the millions, he would describe his experience of childhood poverty as a “scar” and “unforgettable.”
I planned to do a quick phone interview, get the story out and move on. Nine years later, Jerry and I are still talking.
In this environment, he became a rebel at a young age. While attending a Catholic school during Red Scare, he was confronted by a nun who had arrested him with a copy of a book critical of Senator Joseph McCarthy and warned the rest of her class not to speak with him. He threw his books on the floor and walked out of the room, never to come back again.
After college, he spent six months studying Israeli Kibbutz (His paternal grandmother was Jewish.) He loved the hard work that came with living in an agrarian society but was left convinced that any socialist project – including Labor Zionism – that practiced racial exclusion must be rejected.
Jerry was an older contemporary of New Left activists in the 1960s and was deeply involved in the struggles of that era. But his heart was always with the old left of the 1930s and 1940s that helped give birth to major industrial unions, fought for racial equality at a time of rampant white supremacy, and sided with the Russian Federation’s New Deal. He saw the success of the old left as resting on a serious commitment to building institutions rooted in the working class and despairing of the counterculture’s fascination with middle-class peers.
Jerry was working as an assistant professor during his twenties, stealing his food when money was tight. But even then – he reminded me years later – he would allot his extra nickels and dimes to send in small donations to causes and publications he believed in.
• • •
Hostos Community College—named after Puerto Rican teacher and independence leader Eugenio Maria de Hostos—opened in 1970. It was part of the City University of New York, the largest urban university system in the United States, and was the country’s first bilingual college.
Cracked into a refurbished tire factory in the South Bronx, Hostos was preoccupied with left-wing activism and was largely a product of the fermentation of the era’s social movement. For Jerry, it epitomized the kind of institution to be nurtured and built. It was love at first sight.
“I really felt at home,” he told me. “I felt very welcome there from the management onwards.”
Jerry taught history and became the first chapter leader at Hostos for the Professional Staff Conference, the City University of New York’s faculty union. His organizational skills were on the line in 1975-1976 when the city sought to close Hostos amid a mounting financial crisis in a shift toward neoliberal austerity. Jerry helped rally students and faculty who marched and protested, took over the campus buildings and successfully lobbied state legislators to allocate funds to save the school.
Jerry met the love of his life, Luis Romero, at Hostos. And this is where he completed his groundbreaking biography of Vito Marcantonio, the East Harlem congressman who championed left issues on Capitol Hill during the 1930s and 1940s while seriously caring for the needs of his working-class constituents.
Jerry’s friends crowded into his funeral home chapel days after his death, and a whole host of people and organizations he helped witnessed.
Jerry, a tall, slender figure with a confused smile, was a self-deprecating laugh of a man who had suffered and still couldn’t believe his good fortune. He prospered later in his life when the installed lofts he acquired in the 1970s and ’80s rose in value for just over back taxes.
In 2006, Jerry helped start Hostos’ circle of 100 scholarship and emergency funds. The fund helped students in the last semester who needed a hand to stay in school and graduate. He continued to give back to the school including a $25,000 donation that named the boardroom after Marcantonio.
Jerry’s friends crowded into his funeral home church days after his death, and a whole host of people and organizations who helped him come into view – students and former Hostos administrators, his union members, fellow Marxist scholars, a Bronx boxing gym that doubles as a community center, members of a forum He co-founded Vito Marcantonio, a musician whose debut album helped fund, a recovered alcoholic who sponsored his membership to AA, an Italian-American woman who thanked him for taking back her pride in her heritage.
“He cared about people,” his son Adam Mayer said afterwards. “It has helped a lot of people.”
• • •
Jerry and I would talk at least once a month and email frequently.
He was delighted in every new issue of independent That landed in his mailbox and the chance to learn what other (younger) New Yorkers are doing to change the status quo. His tone was consistently encouraging and he was always willing to share what he had learned. Some of the wisdom he conveyed may seem obvious, but it is still best for all of us to keep it in mind.
- enjoy the life. passes quickly.
- Be there for family and friends.
- In the political activism of the individual, it does not get much ahead of the masses of people and adopts positions which they do not understand and which they may find repulsive.
- The left can only win if it builds up its strength and becomes stronger. Be wary of divisive individuals who alienate others.
- Don’t be reckless, seasoned, and seasoned with radical theory but treat others poorly.
- Protests only get you up so far. You have to build institutions if you want to exercise power over the long term.
- Do not be stingy. Only the left can fund the institutions they need to win the world they want.
- Donating money can be a source of joy. It’s an opportunity to live your values while helping bring about the change you want to see.
Regarding these last two points, you’ll see and hear many pleas this holiday season from progressive organizations—including independent – Seek your support. Please respond as generously as possible to groups that inspire you. Every little bit helps. If all of us who sympathize with the struggle to create a more just and humane society support this work in the same generous spirit that Jerry has shown in good times and bad, we will be very close to winning this world, a world full of justice.
For more see “Why give to the consumer” by Gerald Mayer. in order to support dew With a one-time contribution or become a monthly breadwinner, click here.