Hostos to Honor a Patron’s Patron

December 2, 2011 | CUNY Matters, The University

In his four decades at Hostos Community College, Gerald Meyer has been a history professor whose personal history has been defined by his activism in behalf of political, social and educational causes — perhaps none so close to his heart as the college itself.

Hostos president Felix Matos-Rodriguez, right, says of activist/fund-raiser Gerald Meyer, left: "He loves this college like few other people."

As a member of Hostos’s full-time faculty for 30 years and an adjunct the past seven, Meyers founded the campus chapter of the Professional Staff Congress and served on the executive board of the Hostos Senate. If you ask him to list his activities in support of students and faculty through the years, he says, “I was on almost any committee you could name.”

Indeed, Meyer had begun teaching at Hostos in 1972, four years after it was created in response to demands by Hispanic leaders in the South Bronx. When a proposal emerged during the 1970s fiscal crisis to fold Hostos into Bronx Community College as a cost-cutting measure, Meyer helped lead a campaign to oppose the move and secure new facilities.

In his youth, he marched for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and picketed everything from White Castle (for failing to employ African-Americans) to the Newark Board of Education, supporting striking teachers and getting arrested in the process. Among the many student organizations he’s mentored at Hostos is the campus’s gay and lesbian club.

In the past few years, Meyer, now 71, has turned his activism to money — for his beloved Hostos. A generous donor himself, he co-founded, in 2007, the Circle of 100 Scholarship and Emergency Fund to stimulate giving by his colleagues. Circle of 100 members — an ever-growing group that now numbers 140 — contribute $1,000 or more to provide emergency grants of up to $500 to students in need and $1,000 scholarships to those transferring to four-year colleges.

“In recent years there’s been a great collapse of support for public higher education,” Meyer says, “and I think we need to restore that support.”

Carlos Velasquez, for one, a former student of Meyer’s, has given about $40,000.

Last spring, the Hostos president, Felix Matos-Rodriguez, came up with the idea of encouraging more large gifts from retired faculty with a small-scale version of the tradition of institutions naming wings and whole buildings for major donors. For a $25,000 gift to the Hostos Community College Foundation, donors could have a room at the college named in their honor.

“In many cases retired faculty and staff members of colleges can be a very powerful force of philanthropic support to the institution,” says Matos-Rodriguez. “I thought if somebody broke the ice, it could send a good message to others.”

Naturally, he thought of Meyer first. “I approached him with the idea. He loves this college like few other people.”

Meyer said yes — but he didn’t want his own name on a plaque. He asked that a room be named in honor of his favorite overlooked figure of New York political history: Vito Marcantonio, a World War II-era congressman from East Harlem who was renowned for his fearless advocacy of civil rights, unions and other liberal causes. So in February, Room B-115 of the college’s Building B will be renamed the Vito Marcantonio Conference Room. Or — as Meyer hopes students and faculty will call it — the Marc Room.

Meyer hopes his three-year $25,000 gift will be the first of many by retired faculty, alumni and other members of the Hostos community. And he’s taken Matos-Rodriguez’s idea a step further. He’s included another $25,000 to Hostos in his will and asks long-time colleagues to consider a similar bequest in theirs.

Circle of 100 donations have funded grants to 150 Hostos students in the four years since it was started. For many, Meyer says, it may have made the difference between staying in school and dropping out. “We have students burnt out of their homes who lost everything, incredibly tragic situations, and we’ve been able to enter into such situations and found a way to turn them around.” Another 30 students have earned scholarships after completing 40 credits and performing civic volunteer work.

“We target those who are close to graduation, are involved with the community and are good students,” Meyer said.

Rocio Rayo, 29, studied history and political science at Hostos and received a Circle of 100 scholarship that helped her graduate last spring. “It was nice to know I had such a strong support system that said, ‘We believe in you,’ ” she said. “When I graduated he [Meyer] gave me a book about student unions and organizing.” She said she admired his legacy, “of which one day I want to be a part.” Rayo is continuing her studies at City College and hopes to eventually pursue a doctorate — and then teach at a community college like Hostos.

Meyer is part of Vito Marcantonio’s legacy. A protégé of Fiorello LaGuardia, Marcantonio was elected to Congress in 1934 and served until 1950. He was such a passionate champion of immigrants, minorities and the disenfranchised that he became known as “a national spokesman for the American left,” said Meyer.

As Marcantonio’s champion, Meyer has written a biography — Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, published in 1989 and now in its fourth printing — and still lectures about him, on and off campus. Soon, a biographical plaque will hang in the Vito Marcantonio Conference Room — the “Marc Room” — and his hero’s importance “will be acknowledged in perpetuity,” Meyer said. He hopes students will “become aware of this man and his work on behalf of the people, and, in their own way, find ways to be of service to the people the college serves and that he served.”

A reception honoring Vito Marcantonio — and Gerry Meyer — is planned for Feb. 29 in the room formerly known as B-115.

Yahaziel Acevedo, a Hostos graduate now studying at John Jay College, is one of 150 students who have been helped via grants funded by Circle of 100 donations.