Jeffrey Garber began his career in education some 40 years ago as a student teacher at Morrell Park’s John Hancock Elementary School, which was newly opened at the time.
Principal Alex Tobin liked the young educator and recommended him to Bill Wingel, principal at Clara Barton Elementary School in Feltonville. Wingel hired Garber in 1970.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Garber said.
Garber recently completed his 43rd year at Barton, but won’t be back for a 44th. He’s retired.
“I was hemming and hawing,” he said of the difficult decision. “I just thought it’s time. I’ve been in school since I was 5 years old.”
Garber, 64, lives in Bensalem with his wife, Irene, a teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Castor Gardens, but lived in the Northeast most of his life.
He grew up on the 6900 block of Large St. and attended Solis-Cohen Elementary School, the old Wilson Junior High and Northeast High School. He earned a degree in education from Temple University.
Getting the job at Barton was special because his parents, Irv and Audrey, attended the school. They live in Bustleton.
For many years, Barton educated kindergartners to eighth-graders. Garber, known as “Mr. G” or “Garbs,” taught science and history to seventh- and eighth-graders for 23 years.
For two of those years, he handled a challenging group of pupils who referred to themselves as the “Sweathogs,” the nickname of the high school students in the television show Welcome Back Kotter.
“Nobody wanted them. They couldn’t handle them. I said I’ll take them,” he said.
Garber taught those young people skills such as making change and balancing a checkbook. Instead of using textbooks every day, they’d read comic strips.
“Reading is reading. It doesn’t matter what it is,” he said.
Today, Barton has more than 800 pupils in kindergarten and first and second grades. The campus, at 4600 N. Rosehill St., also includes Feltonville Intermediate School for third- through fifth-graders and Feltonville Arts and Science for sixth- through eighth-graders.
For the last 20 years, Garber was dean of students/assistant to the principal at Barton. He spent more than 30 years as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers building representative.
Garber is an animal lover. He and Barton pupils collected money for 25 years to donate to the nearby Pennsylvania SPCA shelter.
He also teamed with the Home and School Association to raise money so every room could be air conditioned.
“He’s an institution walking out the door,” said principal Colleen Bowen.
Over the years, Feltonville has changed a lot. It was generally a flourishing middle-class neighborhood through the 1980s, but today appears to be more blighted. Years ago, students at Barton and the since-closed St. Ambrose used to walk home for lunch.
Garber never wanted to leave the neighborhood or the school.
“People were very good to me in the beginning. They knew me. I knew them. I felt I owed them,” he said.
Barton will have quite a new look next year as Garber joins 13 teachers in retirement.
From his view as dean of students, Garber has a special appreciation for today’s teachers. They deal with all kinds of paperwork, discipline issues, problem parents and a lack of classroom resources.
“They deserve a lot of credit, these teachers,” he said.
As Garber’s career wound down, he was heartened to receive congratulatory emails from former students.
His summer plans include spending time at his vacation home in Brigantine, N.J. One hobby is model trains. He is also looking forward to spending more time with his family, which includes two adult sons, an adult daughter and 12 grandchildren.
Garber can see himself waking up on an early September morning and not knowing what to do with himself, but he expects to adjust.
As he relaxes on the beach in Brigantine, he expects his thoughts will drift to all the good times at Clara Barton Elementary School.
“I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” he said. “I have a lot of great memories.” ••