Spotlight On: Eleanor Gavegan

Photo: Mike Peters

Eleanor Gavegan '27

Eleanor Gavegan ’27 has the distinction of celebrating her centennial in the same year as that of her alma mater.  Trained at Montclair as a teacher, Gavegan went on to a 40-year career teaching the first grade at schools in New Jersey and has enjoyed nearly as many years of retirement. She has two children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and enjoys reading, writing poetry and getting together with friends and family.

New Jersey roots

Gavegan was born Eleanor Wake in Bayonne, N.J., on the Fourth of July, 1907, just months before the New Jersey State Normal School at Montclair—which she would later attend—opened its doors.  Since that day, “Ellie,” as she is known to family and friends, has lived, studied and worked in New Jersey and, quite frankly, has never felt the need to be anywhere else. She now lives in Long Valley with her daughter, Dale Reyes and Dale’s husband, Will. 

Destined for education

Gavegan grew up in Bayonne in a home above a tavern run by her father.  She remembers it being “like a game room. It had pool tables and bowling alleys,” she recalls. From an early age, she loved reading and writing poetry and did very well in school, graduating from Bayonne High School as valedictorian of the class of 1925. She wanted to be a teacher so she enrolled at Montclair, choosing it over the other Normal Schools, because Montclair was considered the best in the state for training teachers.

“I couldn’t get into the dorm so I lived off campus with family friends,” Gavegan says. “They lived on Valley Road.” She walked the half mile to and from the campus each day and returned to Bayonne on the weekends.  She was a member of a few clubs on campus but recalls that she wasn’t able to spend too much time with them because of living off campus and schoolwork.  She also admits to being a bit strong-willed.  “Sometimes [friends would] say, for instance, ‘Come on and let’s go here or there’ but I am not a person to be told what to do,” she laughs.  “I was stubborn in that way.”

Forty years of first grade

As a teacher, Gavegan was a specialist: she taught first grade exclusively. Her first 20 years of teaching, stretching from the Great Depression through World War II, were spent in Bayonne. She recalls that during the 1930s, there was an influx of people coming to the U.S. from Germany in order to escape Hitler. Gavegan says that many of the German children were assigned to her classroom to learn English. Even older children were assigned to her class until they could speak English and join others of their age. She had students ranging in age “from first grade up,” she recalls. “They were all so anxious to speak English and be Americans,” she adds.

In the 1950s, Gavegan found a teaching position in Orange and began her next 20-year tenure teaching the first grade.  It was while she was there that “Sesame Street” debuted on Public Television and shortly after that, Gavegan managed to convince her administration to allow her to put a television set in her classroom and to let the first graders watch “Sesame Street.” At that time, showing televised programming in a classroom was unusual enough that The Newark Evening News published a story about Gavegan and her class. 

Life after work

Since retiring, Gavegan has kept busy with many activities.  She continues to read, write poetry and create artwork. A number of her poems, including one entitled “The Horror of Hate,” which she wrote after the tragedy of 9/11, have been published in local newspapers.  For many years, she knitted lap robes for war veterans and was recently recognized by the Veterans Society for her years of service to the organization.

On the social side, Gavegan is still a member of the Long Valley Women’s Club and keeps in touch with her former teaching friends through a group they formed called the Retired Educator’s Gab Society, or “the REGS.” “We’re down to eight [members] now,” Gavegan says, “but we still get together twice a year to catch up.” She is now looking forward to her next birthday party, which will be a backyard barbecue like the one she had for her 100th birthday.  And, according to Gavegan, the town is still talking about that one.