Jon Breen – his Life and the Fund
Richard J. Garfunkel
August 25, 2006
I've spent a lot of time in Mount Vernon over the past number of years. In 1993 at the time of our 30th HS reunion, of which I was the chairperson, an old friend named Jon Breen showed up. Jon Breen and his young brother Scotty were the sons of a well-known physician, Steven Breen who had his practice and home on Sidney, between Columbus and Darling. His mother died of a stroke at age 42 I believe. She was a strange gal of sorts who had a huge head of platinum blond hair. Dr. Breen later died at the age of 59 or so. Jon and I had met in the 4th grade in the new Holmes School. He was friendly with three others, Bob Liscio, who eventually went to Fordham Prep and disappeared from view, Bill Bendlin, who went to Concordia Prep, and Charles Columbus, whose older brothers Jay and Richie grew up in MV, went to school there and graduated college from Michigan State and Ohio State respectively. I became friendly with Charles and a fellow named Warren Adis. My parents got to know the Columbuses and Richie, of the Class of 1955, had more then a passing interest in my sister Kaaren, the Class of 1959. Eventually the Breens moved across town and Jon went to Nichols, but we stayed connected through the “Y” and other social avenues. My parents went to Europe for 18 weeks in 1957-8 and I stayed with the Columbus family for that period of time. Richie Columbus, who had a Casanova type reputation, to say the least, was engaged to a go-getter gal at OSU. But he invited my sister out to Columbus, Ohio when she was about 16 to see the school. Of course he had other things on his mind, but that is another story. My sister, who was and is very sophisticated told me all about him in later years. After that incident he and I never really got along. But all that is water way over the dam.
In the interim Jon Breen and I re-kindled our friendship in high school and stayed friendly during his years at Dartmouth. He was a volatile sort and I wasn't a particular wilting wall flower. He was easy to rile up and I had a great time teasing him over the conservative reputation of Dartmouth College. When I got married in 1969 and traveled to Boston on a short trip back to BU's homecoming, we met up with Jon and his girlfriend who became his future wife Ronne. After that evening I never saw Jon Breen again until the evening of our 30th reunion in 1993. We had a great time, but to make a long story short, he was dead of a massive heart attack within 5-6 months. As the reunion head, I donated the money to MVHS in his name and started the Jon Breen Fund (see latter below).
Therefore over the years I re-familiarized myself with Mount Vernon and all the dynamics that made it tick. I eventually wrote a lecture, that I gave at the high school, about the affect of the Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. decision on my life growing up in MV. I posted it on the Class of 1956 website. Unlike the other medium-sized cities in Westchester; White Plains and New Rochelle, the City of Mount Vernon made colossal errors regarding commerce, education and race. Ironically Mount Vernon, which had the image of toleration and theoretical assimilation wound up being a victim of its own hubris. The world we grew up in was quite unique, especially for Jews and Italians who were the last European immigrant groups that sought acceptance in Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominated America. Both groups brought a great deal of “baggage” with them to America. The Italians suffered from an inferiority complex of not knowing the language, being an artisan group that did not value education or professionalism and were our enemies during WWII. The image of Mussolini, who most Italians adored in the 1930's, became that of the strutting, pompous clown, portrayed and parodied by Jack Oakie in Chaplin's masterpiece, the Great Dictator, and in all too real life, the junior Fascist partner of the Axis.
The Jews who immigrated to Mount Vernon from NYC, the Bronx and Germany in late 1930's suffered from the age old ravages of anti-Semitism. Most groups and other ethnic minorities lived in self-contained ghettoes in the cities, and the youngsters from those groups congregated in their own hangouts and even their own sections of both the ocean beaches and the mountain bungalow colonies. Only in Mount Vernon, where Jews could buy property, and were not bound by restricted covenants in property deeds, could they really breathe the free open air of the suburbs and live in integrated neighborhoods determined by a meritocracy and not a red line. I believe that this existence was quite unique to Mount Vernon.
As turbulent social dynamic demands came in the late 1960's that unique world started to change and change quickly. In a short period of time, the lines of opposition which had been drawn over the effort to build a new unified high school, fractured the alliances amongst the races and the religious groups. The Liberal Jews sided with the blacks against the Italians and the conservative Jews. When times got tough the Jews who had supported integration and busing saw the Blacks turn on them. The Jews, as in many periods of their history, voted with their feet, and the white flight began with the momentum of an avalanche. The Italians never forgave the Jews for first fighting for the new high school, then supporting busing and then abandoning the city. The rest is history. In a short period of time the city changed forever with no hope of a revival to its glorious past. There is a sense of great nostalgia for Mount Vernon amongst almost all of the citizens that lived there from the 1930's through the middle 1960's. It is a longing for the unique and open life of neighborhood and community that existed almost nowhere else. It has now disappeared and has been re-born in the new world of suburban divisions between upper middle class and lower middle class.
March 31, 2001
The Honorable Ernest Davis
Mayor of Mount Vernon,
Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Dear Mayor Davis,
I hope that this letter finds you and yours quite well. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak to me this morning at the Memorial Field Tennis Facility. Knowing the dynamics and pressures of public life, I appreciate your thoughtfulness regarding my subject matter.
We had originally met through the good offices of my long time friend Randy Forrest, whom I have known for 40 years. I have worked with Randy on many projects starting with scholastic wrestling in the early 1960’s, up to his work with the Frederick Douglass Institute in New Rochelle. In fact, Randy and I flew to San Francisco together, just a year ago this week, for the memorial service of the former great Mount Vernon High School coach Henry M. Littlefield.
Over the last eight years, I have directed the effort to raise funds for the Jon Breen Memorial Fund, which uses these funds to sponsor a public policy essay contest every year. The late Jon Breen, a 1963 Mount Vernon High School graduate (president of his class), a Dartmouth College alum, a Harvard Law School graduate and a Fulbright Scholar, had a great fondness for Mount Vernon, was an award-winning essayist, and was a public-policy thinker. Through these eight years I have raised over $20,000, have read and judged over 200 essays yearly, and have awarded thousands of dollars to the winners. With the help of the last three Social Studies coordinators at Mount Vernon High School, L.E. Smith, John Alberga and Paul Court, I have been able to accomplish this important effort.
Last year, with the untimely death of Henry Littlefield, I was able to start an annual history award to be given in his name. With Mr. Court’s able assistance, I was able to select Robert McNair (Cornell, ’04) as the year 2000’s honoree. This year, as in the past, we have chosen a subject that has recent historical and political relevance, the Electoral College. Please find, along with this letter, copies of last year’s Jon Breen Fund letters, and one of the contest flyers from 1999.
Over this period of time, I have had the pleasure of being invited to speak in Advanced Placement and Honors classes on 20th Century historical topics. One of these topics has been the life and times of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As part of my lecture, I bring along artifacts and collectibles reflective of his life, public career and the events that made him famous.
Your idea of convening a panel discussion, in front of an assembly, on this very important topic and having this event and the awardees also honored on local cable television is greatly appreciated. I believe it will bring added recognition and needed exposure to the project. I look forward to helping you accomplish this goal with any and all efforts I can contribute.
Richard J. Garfunkel