A Tribute to Larry & Don
Board of Education Trustees Honored for Record-Breaking Service to the Community
By Jessica K. Vega, with Jason Martin
The rousing musical notes of "Celebration" set the tone for the special, surprise tribute to Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education Trustees Lawrence R. Gross and Donald L. Ashkenase. The evening event--"A˙Tribute to Larry & Don"--was in recognition of their 30 and 29 years, respectively, as members of the Board and their outstanding service to the school community. Mr. Gross is the longest-serving member, and Mr.˙Ashkenase the second-longest in Board history.
The Board of Education meeting on June 6 began normally until, at a pre-appointed time a few minutes into the meeting, the families of Mr.˙Gross and Mr. Ashkenase and several former superintendents and assistant superintendents "paraded" into the meeting as the North/South Jazz Combo played "Celebration." The reactions of Mr. Gross and Mr. Ashkenase went from initial shock and total surprise to delight, exuberance, and exhilaration.
After many smiles, handshakes, and hugs, Board President Barbara Berkowitz explained that there would be a departure from the regular Board agenda for the recognition program. Former Superintendents Dr. William A. Shine and Dr. Ronald L. Friedman, Superintendent Dr. Thomas P. Dolan, Board Vice President Fran Langsner, Board Trustee Susan Miner-Healy, and Ms. Berkowitz offered reflections and anecdotal stories about Mr. Gross and Mr. Ashkenase and their special working relationships with them. (Former Board President Judi Bosworth was scheduled to make remarks as well, but was unable to attend due to illness.) Following are excerpts from the six speakers.
Dr. Shine said that the Board of Education sets the moral tone and that how Board members act and behave reaches every child and every teacher. He characterized Larry and Don as part of the glue that holds the school district together. Larry has said that, "Education is not a business," and he has lived that adage. Don's fiscal judgment, integrity, and superb knowledge of finance took the community through very difficult times. Both Larry and Don are great listeners and supporters. "It has been an honor to work with both of you," he concluded.
Dr. Friedman reminisced that Larry was the first person he met when he came to Great Neck. "He was the antithesis of untouchable; he was a human being you could talk to," so much so that they were soon talking not about education, but about their new digital cameras. He was thankful that Don and Larry had chosen to be Board members as they bring morals, ethics, and integrity to their decisions, as leaders in the community.
Dr. Dolan reflected on the five-hour executive meeting of the Board held just two days before, on a Saturday, and how the meeting was especially productive because of the years of experience that Don and Larry bring to the table. "Larry is a speaker of words and a doer of deeds, and the community is the beneficiary," he said. He characterized Don's handshake, as he places his left hand on top of his right hand and that of the other person's, as a confirmation of his commitment and a way to make the other person feel special. And, "We"ve all come to know Larry's unique nod," as a sign of his approval and affirmation, Dr. Dolan said, and the two words Larry says at the close of every Board meeting--"So moved."
"Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy," began Ms. Langsner. "I believed that even before I had children, and even more so now. Larry and Don are the ultimate champions of that philosophy." They shepherded our district in pursuit of excellence. Neither Larry nor Don were content to rest on the success of the past. Larry approaches problems with a positive perspective and makes me feel that my opinion matters. Don asks those provocative questions.
Ms. Miner-Healy said that the community has benefited and continues to benefit from the unwavering service of Don and Larry. They have set the tone of children first, including their safety and physical well-being. They bring a sense of history to the Board; they are truly team players. Both offer financial expertise. She thanked them for their mentorships to her as the newest Board member, never dismissing any of her thoughts. She called them "consummate gentlemen."
"Teamwork, symmetry, consensus building, working for the benefit of all the children and the community at large, taking nothing for granted, reflecting on the past, dealing with the present, and planning for the future," were but a few of the accolades that Ms. Berkowitz used to describe Mr.˙Gross and Mr. Ashkenase. Larry "listens graciously, never raises his voice, treats everyone with respect," she said. Don has an outstanding "grasp and passion for numbers. He examines all issues from every side with an open mind. He flushes out everyone's opinion. He is the truest friend anyone can have, with the softest, biggest heart."
Ms. Berkowitz, on behalf of the Board, presented Mr. Gross and Mr. Ashkenase with rectangular crystal blocks engraved with personal messages. Mr. Gross' read: "Larry Gross, Wise leader, patient mentor, good friend!" Mr. Ashkenase's inscription said, "Don Ashkenase, Our friend--being provocative challenges us to be better!"
Following the gift presentations, Mr. Gross and Mr. Ashkenase offered their great thanks and appreciation. "I've never been so surprised," began Mr. Gross. "I couldn"t understand what was going on when everyone walked in. I am so very touched. Don and I have come up on the Board together and it is so fitting that we are being recognized together." He continued, "New York State gives Boards of Education so much power and authority. The most important job of the Board is to choose good educational leaders"good people to administer the district. We"ve pushed for small class size and for teachers to have as much time as possible to give to students, and to meet their individual needs." He concluded, "We work well together as a Board."
Mr. Ashkenase started by saying that no words could adequately express the meaning of the evening for him. He complemented Mr. Gross for transforming the relationship between the Board and the superintendent, making it a "six-member" Board, in full partnership with administration in the operation of the school district. Mr. Ashkenase proudly stated that the 81˙percent voter approval of the recent school budget is attributed largely to the building administrators--the "face" to the public. He said that there are no egos on the Board, that their focus is always on what's best for all the children in Great Neck. He thanked everyone "from the bottom of my heart," especially his wife, Karen, and Ms. Berkowitz, "for keeping the event a secret."
Beginning and ending the program, and interspersed throughout, the North/South Jazz Combo played hit songs from 1981 and 1982, especially chosen to honor Mr. Gross, who became a Board member in 1981, and Mr. Ashkenase, who joined the Board in 1982. Selections included: "Celebration," "Up Where We Belong," "9 to 5," and "Just the Two of Us." The Combo, formed especially for the recognition event, performed under the direction of Joseph Rutkowski, North High instrumental music teacher, and Michael Schwartz, South High performing arts head and instrumental music teacher. North High musicians played the alto sax, drums, piano), and bass. South High musicians performed on drums, tenor sax, and keyboard.