I Remember George
by Dick Miller, THS '60
Six feet five inches of commanding presence in an acid-pocked lab coat of battleship gray: George Breidenbach made quite an impression on a rather naive freshman just twelve years of age when I entered his General Science classroom in February of 1957. As years went by, I was fortunate to expand our relationship to include favorite teacher, professional colleague and mentor, and personal friend. I have learned much from George, and not all of it had to do with Biology or Physics (although there was plenty of that, too).
Apparently, George’s love of what he did rubbed off somewhat: I went on to get a B. S. in Physics from City College, with a minor in Education. After one year teaching seventh grade science at the new Bernstein JHS, I returned to my alma mater as a newly-minted Teacher of Physics and General Science, at least according to my state certificate and city license. George was acting chairman of the Science Department (as he had been for some time), and bravely allowed me to teach one of the Physics sections while he taught the other in parallel. To his credit, he gave me the section with the brightest of the bright students, probably to make it as easy for me as possible.
I recall the beginning of that first year quite vividly. At the first Physics class meeting, I guess I was more than a little nervous. After all, I was only about four years older than most of the students. How could I establish my credibility? The obvious path was to show how much Physics I knew, so that first class was more like a college lecture than a high school class. A day or so later, George called me into his office for a conversation. It seems that several students had come to him, complaining about the high-falutin’ tone of the class. The gentle suggestions in the chat we had were the beginning of my experience with George as my professional mentor, a relationship that continued throughout my career as a teacher.
As many people know, George had a rather robust, if somewhat dry, sense of humor. I can recite many examples of George’s inner child on a rampage, but two in particular come to mind. In one case, I was teaching my class on a rather warm day with both front and rear doors of my room open for some breeze. George appeared in his uniform of the acid-pocked gray lab coat, holding his usual 500-ml. beaker of nasty instant coffee into which he had introduced some dry ice. In a melodramatic voice, he announced, “I’m going to end it all!”, took a quaff from the bubbling and foaming liquid, and staggered out the back door. Needless to say, the riveting physics lesson I had been conducting was a thing of the past as both the students and I broke up at this performance.
At another time, I was teaching my Physics class laboratory section in the first-floor lab that served both Chemistry and Physics classes. In one corner, at a table normally unused except by the largest classes, there was an elaborate setup of flasks, pipes, tubes, burners, distillation columns, and other apparatus: an impressive array indeed! It was happily bubbling away while I taught, and George wandered in from time to time, checked a temperature here, adjusted a burner there, and left without a word. I knew George had been a working chemist before he entered teaching, so I imagined that he had some sort of interesting experiment going on. Later in the day, while I spent my preparation period in the Science office, I finally asked him, “George, what’s that apparatus in the lab all about?” “Oh,” he replied,” I got some maple sap from Vermont, and I’m making syrup.”
Any students who were members of the Science Club for which George was advisor were well acquainted with this playful side of George. I had further evidence of it as a colleague when he asked me to assist him in staging the Science Assembly one year. Paul Hirsch, in his pre-doctorate incarnation, had just joined the faculty, and had taken over responsibility as Audio-Visual coordinator. In that capacity, he had discovered some rather unique film footage as he took inventory and cleaned up the storage area. One clip in particular opened with scenes of lovely Venice canals (probably shortly after WWII, judging by the LSTs in the background), accompanied by a tenor singing in Italian. After perhaps twenty seconds of these images, the camera cut to the tenor, who continued to sing. Unfortunately, the visual image and the sound track were out of synch by about one second: the tenor would gesture, then the note would come out. If you were in the right mood (the kind you need to be in to enjoy a Mel Brooks movie), it was side-splittingly funny. At any rate, we had a running gag throughout the science assembly. Periodically, I (as MC) would announce that we had a really special movie to show, but it was a bit late being delivered, so we would go on with the rest of the assembly and hope it got here in time. Finally, as the assembly was about to end, a student came running in the back door of the auditorium, waving a film canister and shouting, “Here’s the film!” After he took a few steps, he pretended to stumble, dropped the film can, which unwound down the long sloping center aisle, the lights went out, and the Italian tenor clip was shown. Pandemonium reigned! The entire audience, students and faculty alike, were roaring! As the applause died down and students were led out of the auditorium, Mr. Halloran, the principal at that time, approached George and me with a stern look. He made some comments about appropriate learning activities and proper decorum, and left us with the parting shot of, “Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.” George and I tried desperately to contain ourselves behind a façade of professionalism, but I’m not sure how well we succeeded.
George had many passions in his life and, as I got to know him personally, it became obvious to me what they were. Foremost, his family: wife Becky (an RN), eldest son Charlie, daughter Susie, and youngest son Michael. He also loved the old house he had in Pleasant Plains which dated to the end of the nineteenth century. As a result of the house’s age and the fact that one had to cross a creek on a wooden bridge to get to it, George was almost always busy with some sort of homeowner-type repairs. Weekends often found him in his trademark bib overalls, doing repair or maintenance chores around the place. I often helped him, and even got my own bib overalls for the job. The old house was the perfect showplace for the player piano George had restored. He had an extensive collection of piano rolls, including some cut by artists such as Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson. Many a rainy weekend afternoon was spent pumping the pedals and enjoying classic ragtime.
In his later years before retirement, George’s main passion was his log cabin on the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont. He spent one summer building it from a kit, and several more finishing it and adding to it. Mr. Leo Katz, another THS faculty member, had a cabin a few doors down the road, and they saw much of each other during the summer. I was fortunate enough to visit George and his family at the cabin on several occasions, and I could understand why he loved it so. It was far removed from the hustle-bustle of New York City life, nestled in the pines on a cliff directly above the lake, and faced some fabulous sunsets. George spent his sabbatical year of 1974-75 at the cabin (getting in and out to the store via snowmobile), and retired to the place after he left teaching.
I have many fond memories of George as teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend: these are but a few. When his son Charlie called me to tell me that his father had passed, I was proud to relate to him that, along with my father, I believe that George Breidenbach was one of the strongest influences in my life. He showed me by his example that a teacher can be passionate and a consummate professional, and still have fun.
Truly, George Breidenbach was a giant of a man. He will be sorely missed by many people he touched in so many ways probably unknown to him, but so obvious to those of us who had the good fortune to have had him in our lives.
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