Saint Fred

Fred Goldhaber, a gay activist for almost 40 years and the founding teacher at the Harvey Milk High School in 1985, died of liver cancer on November 15 at his home in Jersey City. A native of Brooklyn, he was 63.

Goldhaber’s moving funeral at St. Veronica’s Catholic Church on Christopher Street on November 17 was attended by more than 200 people and brought together the many strands of his life. Those in attendance included his surviving partner Wilfredo Hinds, members of the family in which he grew up, his comrades from the early liberationist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), his brothers in the Gay Men’s Chorus where he sang baritone for 30 years, and his students from Harvey Milk — some now in their 40s —in tears over the man they knew as “Mr. G,” who they say saved their lives.

Activist Goldhaber, first Harvey Milk High School teacher, dies at 63

I worked with Fred myself in the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights (CLGR) in the 1970s and at the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (later Hetrick-Martin), the home of Harvey Milk High, in the 1980s, where I saw what a sane, professional, and loving presence he was to a group of outcast kids who knew so little acceptance or respect outside of the refuge he provided.

Our leading social justice activists are often respected, admired, and even feared. Fred Goldhaber was beloved as he maintained a sunny disposition both against anti-LGBT bigotry and in battling the HIV that hit him in 1982 before it had a name and brought him to the brink of death more than once.

Lulu White, now a nurse and 40, attended the service with her classmate from 1986, Finnegan, now a noted poet and 41. “I can’t think of a kinder, wiser human being,” Lulu, whom Fred called “Miz Mad,” said. “He’s responsible for a lot of what I accomplished and that I didn’t end dead on the streets.”

“Mr. G kept me on, even though I was homeless” said Finnegan, who credited Fred as “an inpiration” in his development of his writing talents and in his study of German, a skill that enabled him to live in Germany when he got older.

“He encouraged me to use what was already there,” he said. “I didn’t get that from anyone else.”

Lulu wrote in an e-mail, “One day I accidentally overheard the school faculty talking about his diagnosis. I must have been 15. I ran to him, crying. He comforted me. He asked for my discretion and, until this writing, I have never told a soul. I loved him dearly and always will. Liver cancer seems so cruel after all he’s endured. Yet I feel sure he never bitched. He took everything life threw with humor and gentleness.”

Steve Ashkinazy, the first social worker at the Institute, recruited Fred to apply for the post as Harvey Milk’s first teacher. He said, “Fred had been my friend since we were both students together in the Theater Department at Brooklyn College in the 1960s, long before we worked together at the Harvey Milk School in the ’80s and ’90s. Fred’s greatest pleasure was to help people, the needier the better. In doing so, he earned their love and respect.

“Back at Brooklyn College, Fred initially had trouble breaking into the inner clique of the most popular kids. They didn’t think he was cool enough, and didn’t want to take the time to get to know him better. Happily, Fred found a way to become very cool. He got a car. From then on he was invited to everything. For the next two years, he became the unofficial chauffeur for the whole group, never resting until he safely drove everybody home from those frequent late night soirees in the far reaches of public transit-deprived Brooklyn.”

Joyce Hunter, the first director of social work at the Institute, hired Fred at Harvey Milk despite some strong political disagreements between the two when working together at CLGR. “He was a passionate activist, a great teacher, and a wonderful role model for the kids,” she said.

Richard Goldhaber, Fred’s brother, said in his eulogy that Fred was “my hero” and “saved lives, saved people.”

Fred taught at tough Wingate High School in Flatbush for 17 years, and Richard recalled his brother taking his entire class to see “The Nutcracker Suite” in Manhattan and paying for it out of his own pocket, saying he “wanted to show them that there’s another life out there” beyond the experience of their neighborhood.

Joe Kennedy, who worked alongside Fred at GAA in 1971, wrote, “As a public school teacher in the 1970s, Fred could have been fired if his identity as a gay activist were revealed.” Fred marched in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Pride March “with a sign identifying himself as a NYC public school teacher — and a paper bag over his head so as not to get fired.”

Kennedy also recalled a GAA zap against Adam Wallinsky, a former aide to Bobby Kennedy who wrote a virulently anti-gay diatribe in the Daily News in 1977. The group chartered a bus for 50 activists to go up to Scarsdale for the action. Fearing that the driver might bail out on the civil disobedience participants, Fred and his then partner R. Paul Martin used their car to strategically block the bus from taking off without them after the demonstration, “a courageous and clever move,” Kennedy wrote.

Wayne Sunday, another GAA vet who was with Fred when he died, said that Fred was part of a small group of activists in the early 1980s who organized a watchdog group called the Gay Media Alliance, which was a precursor of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Howie Vaiselberg, a fellow chorus member, does Cher impersonations, where he dresses as the legend and scares a “fake” Cher off the stage. One night the “fake” Cher didn’t show up, and short, bearded Fred, who really wanted to play Sonny, stepped into the role, boas and all. “Before you knew it, he was Cher! He almost looked better than me!” Vaiselberg wrote. “That five minutes was one of his fondest memories.”

Fred’s nephew, Mark Goldhaber, wrote that after his illnesses forced him to leave teaching, Fred “became a New York Civil Court mediator at the Manhattan and Brooklyn Mediation Center and a peer mediator at Bailey House,” a Village residence for people with AIDS.

Father Tom Orions, another fellow chorus member who led the service, said, “He knew how to set people free. Fred, remember us to God who you know so well.”