There have been events in history in the world of politics and culture that marked the end of era and even had people wondering, “what do we do now.” The passing of professor, scholar, loving husband, father, grandfather, and uncle (literal and metaphorical), Dr. Gerald Meyer, can elicit such a sentiment. This is a testament to the impact he had on people’s lives.
Like other major historical phenomenon whose demise leaves one wondering, Jerry too was unique, larger than life in his own way, and will have made major impacts even when he is gone.
Such a claim may not be as obvious, and thus, much more subtle, and not just because Jerry’s passing happened very recently.
For one thing, many of us felt that Jerry’s scholarship, his presentations, his unusual metaphors, and his sense of humor made him a big fish that belonged - and still belongs - in ever bigger ponds. But Jerry felt he had his own pace, his own path, and his own process. In fact, he told one at least one of his nieces that he was content with being a big fish in a small pond. Jerry’s views about parliamentary procedure and complex protocols and his occasional intellectual departures from the agenda of a meeting – along with this concern for structured syntactic and semantic propriety - rivaling Felix Unger in The Odd Couple trying to keep Oscar organized – can test the patience of people who wanted to carry out goals aligned with Jerry’s values as well as their own.
Here's what else is subtle about the magnitude of Gerald Meyer’s life and work. The implied value of his contributions have not been fully presented, formalized, and compiled into one location – whether that location is a book or an extensive presentation. It is the universal lessons from the implied value that makes Dr. Gerald Meyer that much more tremendous.
Because we learned Jerry’s perspectives through standalone activities, and at a particular pace, we have only gotten so far in explaining the implied value and universal lessons of Jerry's scholarship, presentations, and broader wisdom. So now we need to move that legacy forward posthumously.
It is hard to believe that Jerry was born in the same year as John Lennon. Even though they were contemporaries, and Jerry loved the song “Imagine,” their approach to Left-of-Center political advocacy couldn't seem more different. Jerry's desire to look back in the past to find the truth in history in solving problems, and finding that truth in the history of the Old Left is something difficult to associate with John Lennon and the people who rallied behind him.
While many in the New Left may have looked at history; they didn’t seem to be looking at the same things as Dr. Gerald Meyer. Dr. Gerald Meyer, like Dr. Martin Luther King, seemed like an Old Left “old soul” operating in a New Left world.
Let’s take inventory of some of Jerry’s explicit accomplishments before discussing further their implied value. Imagine if Dr. Gerald Meyer stuck with this first choice of studying Soviet agriculture. Jerry would joke about realizing there’s no future in learning that. However, what if “there was a future in that” and Jerry stuck to it? Not only would intellectual, academic, and scholarly domains have been deprived of the work he ultimately chose to do, but so would many of us who had (or would develop) a sense of mission and purpose inspired, motivated, or reinforced when engaging Jerry directly, or his lectures and writings.
Dr. Meyer has written over one hundred articles and book reviews and presented a countless number of lectures on topics ranging from the American Labor Party, Fiorello LaGuardia, Dr. Leonard Covello, Italian American Contributions in the Labor Movement, and Italian American Contributions to the Old Left Movement.
Members of the Italian American community called him an honorary Italian American and he felt pride in that designation. He would be called upon as an expert in the documentary, Pane Amaro, along with the PBS documentary on Italian Americans. He has appeared several times on CUNY’s Italics program. He would also co-edit and contribute an essay to book compilation of essays entitled, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism. Jerry would say that studying the topic connecting the Italian Americans and the Old Left was not his original, planned intention. It grew out of his initial work.
What was that initial work that replaced Soviet agriculture that would feed the souls of our own aspirations? It was his definitive study – a PhD turned book in its fourth edition – entitled Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902 to 1954). There were a confluence of forces that go beyond Jerry’s discovery of the topic of Vito Marcantonio. There’s the story Jerry tells of going to the main branch of the New York Public Library where he randomly plucks a constituent letter from one of the boxes of archived material on the East Harlem Congressman. The constituent in that letters says to Marcantonio something to the effect: “We know you will get a small turkey for my family. For you are the ‘bread of the poor people.’” This letter convinced Jerry he needed to explore the topic of Vito Marcantonio. The letter would take Jerry down a path that would eventually inform, inspire, and impact not just Jerry, but those of us to whom he would impart his knowledge. Many of us would, in turn, be nourished by the bread that is Jerry’s intellect and his humanity.
The other crucial crossroad came when Jerry discussed the topic with his PhD advisor, the preeminent scholar, Herbert Gutman. Gutman explained to Jerry that Marcantonio’s Leftist politics is not what made him unique. Instead, it was his electoral success. He was the most successfully re-elected radical politician of the 20th Century? What explained the Marcantonio “phenomenon?”
The implied value of Jerry’s work on Vito Marcantonio and the aforementioned topics go beyond labor history, Italian American history, and ethnic history. They go beyond the history the Old Left, or New York City history. The chapter in Dr. Meyer’s book about Marcantonio’s political organization is a valuable public policy case study of leadership: about the need to be of the community and provide personalized, individualized, attention to your constituents before you ask their support on the more lofty, distant, controversial goals. Dr. Meyer detailed Marcantonio’s task-mastering and turnaround-timing a political organization of volunteers as effective as Amazon customer service without the profit motive and the technology other than typewriters and telephones. In fact, each chapter in Jerry’s book is its own public policy case study; Jerry even makes footnotes a fascinating read.
This Meyer-Marcantonio leadership criteria help explain why the East Harlem Congressman was an international phenomenon with longevity. This could also explain why Dr. Meyer respected the Young Lords and their success – a topic that would have been taken up at the time of Jerry’s passing - and why Jerry could feel so frustrated about the Occupy Wall Street movement, Leftists with big ideas and poor social skills, latte liberal self-absorption, and Democrats who would spend too much time hob-nobbing with Hollywood celebrities rather than with their constituents.
Dr. Meyer himself, of course, adhered to the “Meyer-Marcantonio” criteria in his own life: for example, his immersion in the Hostos Community College community beyond his role of professor, and his brilliant skills in strategy, logistics, fundraising, organizational, and articulation skills that helped save the school from the fiscal-crisis chopping block in the 1970s. Jerry would use those skills and even offer personal resources to help organizations which, at that point in time, were aligned with his values. Among these were the Brecht Forum, the East Harlem Historical Organization, and the Vito Marcantonio Forum.
One of Jerry’s most important moments in organization building came after an event on November 12, 1998 (almost to the day of Jerry’s passing) that he helped organize entitled, Vito Marcantonio: A Recognition and Celebration. This ambitious multimedia event at Marcantonio's Alma Mater, New York University, reportedly attracted an estimated attendance ranging from 400 to 700 people - clearly the largest event ever organized about Vito Marcantonio before or since.
Jerry’s insightful observation AFTER the event partly explains why it's possible for many of us to have worked with Dr. Meyer individually or collectively with one another and built on the prior successes of Dr. Meyer and his previous collaborators. The key was not to treat the 1998 event as a one-off stand alone. Dr. Meyer believed there was a need to keep going with activities beyond those leading up to the multimedia event. Jerry foresaw starting the Vito Marcantonio Forum, which would host additional walking tours, book presentations, book clubs, walking tours, a street renaming, artistic representations, and republication of I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio. Many of these goals have been achieved, especially over the 10-year existence of the Vito Marcantonio Forum.
Perhaps the most important reason Jerry’s “big fish” status belongs among the biggest ponds entails the notion of “everything comes in threes.” Dr. Gerald Meyer may have found the missing third piece of an important puzzle. Marcantonio is part of larger American history because he led parallel lives as John Quincy Adams and Thaddeus Stevens - and not just because they were peaceful radicals who worked within the system, and used the U.S. Constitution as their guide, while managing to get reelected to the House of Representatives over many terms. They advocated for equality of opportunity for Americans, including the underdog, and opposed any forms of oppression.
A permanent installment on the Washington D.C. mall of Congressmen Adams, Stevens, and Marcantonio would underscore how the “Marcantonio phenomenon” became the “Gerald Meyer phenomenon.“
Three popular observations Gerald Meyer used in conversations were: 1) All comparisons are invidious; 2) That’s preposterous; and 3) You have to read the tea leaves. One can imagine these as observations Jerry might use to critique the notion that his contributions, successes, and potential mark on society should have his prestige swimming in more prominent waters.
Ultimately, Dr. Gerald Meyer touched the lives of many with his wisdom and generosity. Jerry dedicated time and resources to the causes he believed in. He made gestures to people and organizations whom he believed could use some financial support or additional knowledge – whether through conversation or in the form of a book, magazine subscription, article, aphorism, or a card with a significant work of art and personalized words of wisdom. While he may have given to some causes on the basis of economic need, he was making overtures towards people and institutions whose endeavors and values aligned with his own – feeding potential, developing skills, and rewarding integrity. As a sharp contrast to the elitist, limousine Leftist, Dr. Meyer subscribed to a notion articulated to a detached assistant by Congressman Vito Marcantonio when carrying out his own day-to-day generosity: “Some people don’t have the luxury of waiting for the Revolution.”
The Vito Marcantonio Forum held its first meeting at the home of co-founder and co-chairman, Gerald Meyer, back on October 3rd, 2011. Thank you for support through the years and please check back soon. Our next Zoom presentation will be on Nov. 11th!
Frank Marcantonio, Gale Brewer, Melissa Mark-Viverito, LuLu LoLo Pascale, Rita Barakos, Roberto Ragone. (back row): Christopher Bell and Gerald Meyer at Street Naming ceremony in 2017. More info at: https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/overdue-recognition-for-a-champion-of-the-people-vito-marcantonio/