Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union for 20 years, was buried Monday after a funeral Mass at St. Lucy’s Church in what once was the city’s First Ward, its Little Italy. It made sense to have the funeral there, and not simply because he grew up in the neighborhood before it was systematically destroyed in what had to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made by any government anywhere.
It made sense because Del Grosso himself, like the church, represented a time, and values, that are gone. Sure, memories remain but, just like there can never be another parish community like St. Lucy’s, there can never be another guy quite like Joe Del Grosso.
This is why it’s true: At the age of 24, just weeks after he started teaching, Del Grosso spent three months in jail for participating in a brutal, grinding strike by Newark teachers that lasted 12 weeks. Strikes by public employees, then as now, are illegal. He knew he would go to jail because he heard the union’s lawyers tell them the consequences of striking after the courts issued an injunction demanding the teachers go back to work. He was among the hundreds of men and women arrested on the streets of Newark for demanding that their contractual rights be honored.
Now, people like Gov. Chris Christie and Christopher Cerf, the new state-appointed schools superintendent, don’t like teacher unions. Christie says he wants to punch teacher unions in the face, whatever that means. During the 1971 strike, picketing teachers were literally punched in the face and their cars torched. The point was men like Del Grosso and women like Carole Graves, the NTU president who would spend six months in jail, took the punches, literal and legal.
They stood up and that was no small thing. It made sense that the man in the choir sang a song called “Be Not Afraid” when they rolled in Joe’s casket from the church’s marble steps on Seventh Avenue.
Joseph Del Grosso was a living symbol of that time. That courage. That willingness to stand up–and the 1971 strike was not about money–for the rights of workers. And, Monday, his funeral was held in a church that now stands as a reminder of a place and sense of family and community that once was the First Ward. A place torn apart in the 1950s to build towering public housing projects that were torn down only a few decades later.
Just like the city’s Central Ward was torn apart and made into a prairie so the state could build a medical school.
Just like neighborhood schools that could be community centers are closed.
See, sometimes government officials make really stupid decisions and so men and women affected by those decisions have to decide what, if anything, they have to do about it. Back in the 1970s, Joseph Del Grosso decided.
Funerals like Del Grosso’s mix the personal with the public. For his widow Loretta and his daughter Jeanine, it was a personal goodbye. “He was such a softie–to me anyway,” said Loretta. Friends from Essex Catholic were there, too, like Michael Palante, his college roommate.
But public officials were there at the funeral, too. Ronald Rice, the state senator. Joseph DiVincenzo, the county executive. Anibal Ramos, the city councilman. Rufus Johnson, the county freeholder. Leaders of the statewide AFT union were there, too.
Even Christopher Cerf showed up.
Maybe there should have been more. More public officials. And more of the 4,000 or more members of the Newark Teachers Union. More national union leaders. And members of other unions, too. Because the beliefs and values Del Grosso developed and embraced–as a kid on the streets of north Newark and a student at Essex Catholic (now also gone) and at St. Leo’s College and as a union leader–are under attack.
Solidarity in response to the death of a man who went to jail for his beliefs and the rights of others should have been expected.
Joseph Del Grosso is gone. The old neighborhood that shaped much of the city’s history–his old neighborhood–is gone. But government continues to make woefully stupid decisions that will hurt the people of the city.
Got to wonder who will stand up and take the punches.