What I Learned from Jerry Meyer
Almost a decade ago, I received an assignment to write a short piece about a retired City University of New York professor who liked to give away his money.
His name was Gerald “Jerry” Meyer. He had just given $25,000 to Hostos Community College, the school he had taught at for 30 years. As a show of gratitude, the school was going to rename a conference room in honor of his political hero.
I planned to do a quick phone interview, bang out the story and move on. Nine years later, he and I were still talking when a nasty fall on the steps outside his Brooklyn brownstone brought his remarkable life to a close. He was 81.
• • •
Jerry grew up in an impoverished working-class Irish family in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was the only one of three brothers to complete high school. Money was tight and emotions were often frayed in the Meyer household. Decades later, after his net wealth had climbed into the millions, he would describe his experience of childhood poverty as “scarring” and “unforgettable.”
In this milieu, he became a rebel at a young age. Attending a Catholic school during the Red Scare, he was confronted by a nun who caught him with a copy of a book critical of Senator Joseph McCarthy and warned the rest of her homeroom class not to speak with him. He threw his books on the floor and walked out of the room, never to return again.
After college, he spent six months on an Israeli kibbutz (his paternal grandmother was Jewish). He loved the hard work that came with living on an agricultural commune but left convinced that any socialist project — including Labor Zionism — that practiced racial exclusion should be rejected.
Jerry was a slightly older contemporary of the New Left activists of the 1960s and was deeply engaged in the struggles of that era. But his heart was always with the Old Left of the 1930s and ’40s that helped birth the great industrial unions, fought for racial equality at a time of rampant white supremacy and rallied to the side of FDR’s New Deal. He saw the Old Left’s commitment to building institutions rooted in the working class as key to its success and despaired of his middle class peers’ infatuation with the counterculture.
Scraping by as an adjunct professor during his twenties, Jerry shoplifted his food when money got tight. But even then — he reminded me years later — he would set aside his extra nickels and dimes to send off small donations to causes and publications he believed in.
• • •
Hostos Community College — named after the Puerto Rican educator and independence leader Eugenio Maria de Hostos — opened in 1970. It was a part of the City University of New York, the largest urban university system in the United States, and it was the first bilingual college in the country.
Squeezed into a refurbished tire factory in the South Bronx, Hostos was suffused in leftwing activism and was very much a product of the social movement ferment of that era. For Jerry, it embodied the kind of institution that needed to be nurtured and built up. It was love at first sight.
“I really had the sense I was home,” he told me. “I felt very welcome there from the administration on down.”
Jerry taught history and became the first chapter leader at Hostos for the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union at CUNY. His organizing skills would be put to the test in 1975–1976. The city sought to close Hostos amid a spiraling financial crisis and a turn toward neoliberal austerity. Jerry helped mobilize students and faculty who marched and protested, took over campus buildings and successfully lobbied state legislators to allocate the funds needed to save the school.
Jerry met the love of his life, Luis Romero, at Hostos. And, it’s where he completed his groundbreaking biography on Vito Marcantonio, the East Harlem congressman who championed the causes of the left on Capitol Hill during the 1930s and ’40s while studiously attending to the needs of his working-class constituents.
A tall, wiry figure with a bemused smile, Jerry had the wry, self-deprecating laugh of a man who has suffered and still can’t quite believe his own good fortune. He prospered later in life when fixer-upper buildings he acquired in the 1970s and ’80s for little more than back taxes subsequently soared in value.
In 2006, Jerry helped start the Hostos Circle of 100 Scholarship & Emergency Fund. The fund assisted students in their final 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 got the conference room named for Marcantonio.
Jerry’s friends packed a funeral home chapel days after his passing and the full spectrum of people and institutions he aided came into a view — Former Hostos students and administrators, members of his union, fellow Marxist scholars, a boxing gym in the Bronx that doubles as a community center, members of the Vito Marcantonio Forum that he co-founded, a musician whose first album he helped bankroll, a recovering alcoholic whose AA membership he sponsored, an Italian-American woman who thanked him for restoring her pride in her heritage.
“He cared about people,” his son Adam Meyer said afterwards. “He helped a lot of people.”
• • •
Jerry and I would talk at least once a month and email more frequently.
He delighted in each new issue of The Indypendent that landed in his mailbox and the opportunity to learn about what other (much younger) New Yorkers were doing to change the status quo. His tone was consistently encouraging and he was always ready to share what he had learned. Some of the wisdom he imparted may seem obvious, but we all would still do well to keep it in mind.
- Enjoy life. It goes by quickly.
- Be there for family and friends.
- In one’s political activism, don’t get too far ahead of the masses of people and by adopting positions they don’t understand and may find alienating.
- The left can only win if it’s building its forces and becoming stronger. Be wary of divisive individuals who drive others away.
- Don’t be a pompous blowhard who is well-versed in radical theory but treats other people badly.
- Protests only get you so far. You have to build institutions if you want to wield power over the long haul.
- Don’t be stingy. Only leftists can fund the institutions they need to win the world they want.
- Giving money can be a source of joy. It’s an opportunity to live your values while helping create the change you want to see.
Regarding those last two points, you will see and hear numerous appeals this holiday season from progressive organizations — including The Indypendent — soliciting your support. Please respond as generously as you can to the groups that inspire you. Every little bit helps. If all of us who identify with the struggle to create a fairer, more humane society support this work with the same generous spirit that Jerry demonstrated through good times and bad, we will be much closer to winning that world, one that is filled with justice.
[John Tarleton is Editor-in-Chief of The Indypendent newspaper.]
Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.