[As part of the celebration of Storefront Academy's 50th Anniversary, we are compiling stories for a book, 50 Stories 50 Years. The stories make up the fabric of our school: our history, our community, everything that makes up the beacon of hope that is the Storefront. Here is one of those stories.]
Storefront Founder Ned O'Gorman with students
Everyone called him Ned. Students, teachers, people in the community. He wasn't a man who stood on formality. He was a free spirited artist, a poet. But most importantly, he was a teacher.
Nothing in Ned’s early life suggested that he would dedicate himself to education. A native New Yorker, Edward Charles O’Gorman was born in 1929 to affluent parents. He spent most of his childhood in Connecticut and Vermont, surrounded by family and friends who kept him safe and allowed his creativity to grow.
In his youth, Ned explored many artistic avenues, including acting, and discovered his chief talent was writing. Ned graduated from St. Michael’s University, and received a Master’s Degree from Columbia University. His poetry was well received, earning him two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1956 and 1962. In 1958, his collection of poems, The Night of the Hammer, was awarded the Lamont Poetry Prize. He was the literary editor of the Catholic magazine Jubilee, and was appointed by the U.S. State Department to be the American studies specialist in Chile, Argentina and Brazil in 1965. Despite all his success, Ned wanted to do more.
Ned was drawn to Harlem in 1966 because he knew it was a good place for a poet to be. The neighborhood had so much richness for an artist to draw from: history, music, culture. It also had poverty, violence and despair. The hopeless community was riddled with crime, and many families lived in cramped, crowded apartments. There were children in Harlem that didn’t have the advantages that Ned was given - children who were being forgotten about and neglected.
He discovered a storefront on Madison Avenue off 129th Street where neighborhood kids congregated. The ceiling had leaking pipes. There were greasy iron gates covering the windows. The wooden planks of the floor were littered with dead roaches. Ned started by cleaning a window, letting light into the dingy building. He cleaned, brought in couches, chairs, and oriental rugs. He built book shelves, and asked every publisher he knew to donate books to fill them. He welcomed everyone in the neighborhood to the storefront.
Ned with two Storefront students
The space developed into a community library and a safe space for neighborhood children. He named the library after Addie Mae Collins, to commemorate one of the four children killed in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, AL. Families came to the storefront, and began to trust this newcomer in their neighborhood. Ned spent a lot of time with the children, reading with them, sharing music with them, and showing them a world of possibility outside of Harlem. He was excited and encouraged by the joy he saw in the eyes of a child who was protected from the danger of the neighborhood, and who was free to explore and read and listen. He was excited by the joy of a child who was learning.
The space developed into a pre-school for children as young as four months old and as old as the age of four. He called it The Children’s Storefront. Ned referred to the school as a liberation camp, and he was its passionate headmaster.
Ned’s students adored him. He would welcome them every morning by telling them, “You are great! You are a miraculous child!” For some, Ned was the first person in their lives to believe in them. In his eyes, they saw love.
In 1967, Ned was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with an article about his work at the school, and the remarkable children that he served. In those early years, Ned also published three books and several articles about The Storefront and was able to leverage this publicity to raise money to keep the school open. Ned was charming, and superb at getting friends and acquaintances to donate money and time to the school.
The Children’s Storefront grew and evolved, and Ned remained at the helm. Ned ran the preschool for fifteen years using only a small staff from the neighborhood and volunteers. It went on to become an elementary school. When the Storefront graduated its first class of 8th graders in 1989, there was no one prouder than Ned.
Ned was charming and wholehearted. He could also be stubborn and caustic. He saw no need for political correctness. His passion for social justice would sometimes make him so angry that he’d offend the people who could help him most, or even the people he was trying to help. Ned was a revolutionary with no shortage of opinions. His work at the school was incredibly personal.
In 1998, after 32 years as the headmaster, Ned left the Storefront. He went on to start The Ricardo O’Gorman Garden and Center for Resources in the Humanities, a preschool, down the street from the Storefront.
On February 28, 2014, Ned passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 84. His memorial was held in Harlem and the church was filled with students, staff, faculty, alumni, former students, and families. They spoke, sang and performed, all in Ned’s honor. All came to laugh, tell stories, cry, and pay tribute to this man who had done so much for the community and for so many of them.
His passion for Harlem’s children and his belief in their potential has changed hundreds of lives. His legacy as a revolutionary in education cannot be denied.