A sixth grade school assignment has reopened the story of families descending from two bricklayers who left a message in a bottle inside College Hall more than a century ago.
In the latest twist, Robert Gleeson, a 12-year-old in the Bronx, New York, was writing a paper on a favorite New York City landmark when his mother, Susan Tursi-Gleeson, connected an often-told family story with the Montclair State bottle mystery.
A brick in the Empire State Building has the name of Robert’s great-great-grandfather, William Hanley, on it in recognition of his role in building what was the tallest building in the world when it opened in 1931, the family says.
“It’s been drilled in our heads since I was a child,” says Tursi-Gleeson. “Whenever we were in the city, my mother would say, ‘Oh, there it is, the building my grandfather built.’ It’s always been famous in our family knowing that he had a hand in building that building.”
But other than that fun fact, the family knows very little about William P. Hanley, who also had a hand in building the foundation for what was then known as the New Jersey State Normal School at Montclair. He had placed his daughters, (the youngest, Marion, was Susan’s grandmother) in an orphanage soon after his young wife died in 1907. Over the years, William seemingly moved where construction jobs took him and had little contact with his children as they grew up.
It wasn’t until Tursi-Gleeson was helping Robert with his report and searched William Hanley’s name to see if there was a photo that the pieces came together.
And there was the article in Montclair, about a message in the bottle left by William Hanley and James Lennon, craftsmen from Newark, New Jersey. Dated July 3, 1907, they hid a note inside a massive supporting wall for what’s now known as College Hall, the origins of Montclair State University.
Montclair’s story, “The Descendants,” followed their family trees with the help of historians who gathered primary sources, including birth and death certificates and a conversation with James Lennon’s granddaughter. “It gives me a sense of conclusion,” Nancy Foster, James Lennon’s granddaughter, recently wrote in an email. “I have a story about my grandfather to pass down to future generations. How grand is that?”
Until Robert started writing his report, the search for living descendants of William Hanley seemed to hit a dead end.
“I said to myself,” Tursi-Gleeson recalls, “‘Wow, somebody up there really wanted me to see this.’”
Sharing the discovery, her aunt, Joan Keating (William Hanley’s granddaughter) says, “It’s so interesting. You tell people, and their eyes get big.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Montclair, the magazine of Montclair State University.
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren
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