Naming In The News

School Name Change Prompts Complaints

By John Hildebrand, Long Island Newsday
November 23, 2004

A half-century after one of their schools was dedicated to the memory of those killed in the combat, Island Trees district residents are locked in a war of words over the building's new name.

The dispute, which sparked shouting matches at a recent school board meeting, revolves around the district's 51-year-old middle school. Originally known as Island Trees Memorial School in commemoration of World War II casualties, the building has been renamed in honor of a longtime superintendent, Richard N. Segerdahl, who retired last summer.

School board trustees, who are clearly surprised by the depth of opposition to the change, now say they're rethinking their position. Meanwhile, dozens of incensed residents from Levittown, Bethpage and Seaford, and other opponents contend that the name change borders on sacrilege in a community that was largely settled by veterans in the 1950s. "You offer an award to men who served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice and then you take it away - why would you take it away after 50 years?" said one former resident and Army veteran, Cooper Camp. Now 86 years old and retired in Florida, Camp recently interrupted a visit with relatives on Long Island to join in the protest at the recent board meeting.

Others, grateful for Segerdahl's 28 years of service to the district, express surprise that the name change has stirred such a fuss. Among them are veterans active in the local American Legion, who recall the former superintendent's help in providing facilities for their events. "Remembering the past is important, but there are plenty of memorials to those people, and I don't think veterans are looking for accolades," said Henry To, past commander of American Legion Post 1711 in Levittown.

In terms of past history, Island Trees is a product of postwar suburban migration. In the 1950s, the area's potato fields were converted to Levitt-syle housing developments, which became home to returning veterans. Many sought a local monument for comrades-in-arms who hadn't made it back.

Opportunity arose with the opening of a new school building on Wantagh Avenue in 1953. The words "Island Memorial School" still appear in concrete letters above the building's entrance, and a granite marker to the war dead stands in the school's front lawn. Segerdahl, 61, himself has witnessed much of the district's recent history firsthand. He became superintendent in 1984, after eight years as an elementary principal. At the time he took the top job, the district still was recovering from a bruising legal battle over local attempts to ban 11 books from school libraries.

Segerdahl supporters credit their former superintendent with restoring the district's stability, boosting academic performance and adding popular services such as full-day kindergarten. Last spring, as Segerdahl prepared to retire, board members decided to surprise him by renaming the middle school. The name "Richard N. Segerdahl Middle School" now appears in metallic letters next to the older concrete letters.

Segerdahl declines to discuss the name-change issue directly, though he has strong feelings about his role in the district and about the school, where his brother, Jon, serves as principal. "I devoted my life to it and I care a great deal about the middle school," the former administrator said in an interview.

Opponents to the name change insist the board acted too hastily, without enough public discussion. Board members themselves acknowledge the depth of feeling over the issue and say that they are reconsidering their action.

"We're going to have to get together after Thanksgiving and decide which way we want to go," said Bob Condela, the board president and a Vietnam veteran himself.