Good-bye to Joe Del Grosso–and, maybe, a lot more

Pallbearers carry Joseph Del Grosso's casket out of St. Lucy's Church
Pallbearers carry Joseph Del Grosso’s casket out of St. Lucy’s Church

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.

School superintendent Christopher Cerf, right, walks to St. Lucy's Church with his driver, Billy Garrett.
School superintendent Christopher Cerf, right, walks to St. Lucy’s Church with his driver, Billy Garrett.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 comments

  1. Ollie Marshall-Rico

    My condolences to Joe Del-Grosso family. Unfortunately the school system that once held the care of the students has disappeared within the state of New Jersey, especially in Newark based upon the current administration as our superintendent and her staff who was placed there by someone who is running for USA President.

  2. Teach & Prach

    Can’t Cerf drive? Does he really need a driver? The district is in dire straight after his acolyte cami squandered Millions and layoff is looming.. Good grief! Shared sacrifice ehhhhhhh? Meanwhile his boss spent a million dollars of our tax money.

    Some time there is not enough rocks to throw!

  3. Rev. Tony Johnson

    A lot of smart people keep trying to tell us that place doesn’t matter, that cyber networks are the communities of the future. But place does matter. I know. I’ve lived in a bunch of different places in five states in my 66 years. But because place matters, I’ve stayed put in the same place for the past fifteen years, longer than any other place I’ve lived, and travel — sometimes great distances — to do my work. That’s OK with me. It is gratifying to return to the city in Connecticut where I lived from ages five to nineteen and where my siblings and I were educated in outstanding, racially and economically diverse public schools. I see people I knew as a child: most recently, a retired teacher who has lived in the same house all her life and my older cousin who lives in retirement in a smaller town nearby. I have great affection for my home city, even as it has doubled in population and changed for better and worse since I left for college in 1967. It is gratifying to return to the city where I now live, where there are people I have known for even longer than I have lived there. One of my newest neighbors is an artist in her twenties who was a high school intern in an after school arts program I ran a dozen years ago. After she and her mother moved in next door earlier this summer, she said, “I’m so happy to be living near people I know.” Even within the city where she grew up, place matters.
    People from these places matter, people like Joseph Del Grosso, a great educator and leader from and in the City of Newark, a place that has retained its heart even as it has been beaten down.

  4. Len Pugliese

    Joe and I attended Essex Catholic High School together and we were in the same graduating class. That’s when Essex Catholic was on Broad Street in Newark. We often found it humorous that we both became union presidents. After all, Essex was never considered a hot bed of liberal political thought. Indeed quite the contrary. The faculty there spent much of its time instructing us not to question authority. That instruction never really worked on Joe. When fighting for the rights of the teachers he represented and the children of Newark that he loved so dearly, he always respected authority, but he also questioned authority. Joe always knew that that only through questioning could the truth be revealed.

    I will miss Joe terribly…until we meet again my brother…

  5. Anthony Rosania

    Joseph was not only a great leader for the teachers of Newark, he was a great leader within his family. I was lucky, he was my first cousin. He was the first grandchild I was one of the youngest. He was such a big part of our lives and we were all so proud of him. My family and I would go to his summer barbeques every summer. When I was very little he took me to a baseball game. These are things we will remember about ‘Cousin Joseph’ as he was known to us family members. He was a big brother to all of us. His words will be heard forever. He taught many children as well as family members. We loved him and he love us.

  6. RoniceMB

    Thank you Bob for this article. I never met Mr. Del-Grosso but benefitted well from his labor. I was proudly educated in NPS; 1975-1988. Back then I didn’t know anything about teacher’s unions, I just knew that I had amazing teachers.
    I pray that Mr. Del Grosso knew in life that he was appreciated and thought of all the children that attended/graduated/ succeeded because of NPS as his “flowers”. Because while it’s nice to have flowers at funerals, it’s amazing to have flowers when we can smell them. ☺️

    Prayers for peace to his family.

  7. Isabel

    It’s a great loss. Joe was a great teacher, a wonderful human being and a great leader. It was very sad to see that very few teachers went to his funeral mass at St. Lucy
    Thank you Mr. Braun for the article about Joe

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