Friday, December 30, 2016

Cyril deGrasse Tyson

In July of 1964, while serving as a rabbi of Newark, New Jersey’s last remaining large Jewish congregation, I helped found The United Community Corporation.  It was the first community action agency funded by Lyndon Johnson’s Equal Opportunity Act.  The War on Poverty had come to the city where I had grown up and had watched succumb to debilitating white flight.  In July of 1967 the central ward of the city would be decimated by riot.  The UCC had been an effort to turn things around.  The corrupt Mayor – he would later go to jail – and City Council thought it would be their self-serving tool.  The structure of the federal law and funding obviated their plans.  The UCC was an independent entity, subject to the community and run by a board of which I was a vice president.  Its president was the remarkable C. Willard Heckel, Dean of the Rutgers Law School, later to become national moderator (president) of the Presbyterian Church.  Our first task was to find and hire an executive director.  That brought me together with Cyril deGrasse Tyson who came to us from the early anti-poverty effort HARYOU.   We all called him Ty. 

Cyril deGrasse Tyson
Ty came into Newark as in a whirlwind, a force of nature grounded in pragmatic idealism with an unshakable moral core.  We became instant like-minded warriors and friends.  Our time in Newark came to an end; the friendship endured.  Ty died yesterday in upstate New York.  2016 was what Queen Elizabeth would rightly describe as an Annus Horribilis, a horrible year.  A host of notables, people who accomplished important things, left us, many in its closing days.  Ty was one of them.  After Newark he would serve, among others, in John Lindsay’s administration as Commissioner of Manpower and Career Development.  His resume was impressive, but wherever and however he served professionally, Ty was a visionary.  That’s what set him apart.  He could see what could be and then worked determinedly to make it happen.  He was committed to the idea of “power to the people” not as an abstract but as an attainable reality.

One might say that the devastating riot in Newark was a repudiation of everything that the UCC and Ty had done in the years before.  He documented the story of the agency's formative years in his comprehensive volume, 2 Years Before the Riot.  In fact, the city’s decades long history of municipal corruption combined with the combustible frustration of an African American community that had long been rendered powerless is what lit the match.  Ty’s work and his relentless commitment to empowerment of the people had an immediate and lasting transformative impact.  The UCC was the first time that the Black majority was put in control of publically funded programs.  That could not have happened, certainly not with such intentionality, without Ty.  It was a transfer of power that would be the harbinger for the city’s future.  Ken Gibson, one of my fellow vice presidents, would become the city’s first African American mayor.  In a real sense, former mayor and now Senator Corey Booker owes his opportunity to the groundwork Ty laid in the 1960s.

Cyril deGrasse Tyson was an intense human being with a razor sharp mind, always  churning, always on the move.  Before anyone else, he saw the empowering potential of computer technology for community action agencies, documented in his book, The Unconditional War on Poverty.  He didn’t just encounter life but analyzed it to the core, transmitting his insightful conclusions to all who would listen.  He had a passion and urgency about ideas that never diminished.  The last time we were together in the home he shared with family a few years back, I was struck by how that passion and intensity was undiminished – Ty, almost like a kid who had just made a new discovery, was ever the force of nature.  Those who knew him and, like myself, called him dear friend were warmed by that glow.

I have always felt that the real and underlying quality of public figures, of whom Ty was certainly one, is best seen in what they are about at home not in the office.  Ty’s lifelong love and equal partner, a woman of grace and supreme intelligence, Sunchita (whom we call Toni) is at its core.  They have made the incredible journey together and parented three remarkable accomplished children: Stephen, Neil and Lynn.  When Ty and I first met they were all youngsters.  They are now contributors to society, something most assuredly facilitated by supportive and inspirational parents.  Ty is no longer with us physically, but he will always be a larger than life, yes transformative, part of mine.  We are all better for having crossed and dwelled in his path, for having had him touch our lives.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful, heartfelt and vivid testimonial to my beloved, dearly departed uncle by someone who clearly knew him well. Thank you.
    My name is Gontran deGrasse Fortuné (known as Gerry) and I am Ty's nephew and godson. Your depiction brought back cherished memories of mine with him. I'm so glad that his legacy had such a positive impact on you as well, Mr. Prinz. God bless you! Peace.