Back in the 1970s an old, rickety, wooden bridge that crossed the railroad tracks on 30th Street and Prospect Avenue struck fear into the hearts of dozens of schoolchildren who crossed it every day on their way to class at Lincoln Community School. Then Patricia McGeehan found out about it.
“When a truck would go over it, it would really shake. The students would shake,” said McGeehan, who was teaching 2nd grade. “One of my kids, Jaimie, was so petrified, and so were the others, so I called up Mayor Collins.” The city and the state were aware of the need to repair the bridge, but the project was not high on the state’s list of priorities.
McGeehan started a letter-writing campaign. Five letters a day were sent to the NJ Department of Transportation from Lincoln Community School students over the course of months. Working with parents and teachers, her students gathered signatures from every house on Prospect Avenue. The kids even recorded themselves singing “Bayonne Bridge is Falling Down,” to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” and sent the cassette to the NJ DOT commissioner.
One day, McGeehan got a got a call from Mayor Dennis P. Collins inviting her to make a presentation at the DOT in Trenton.
“I presented my story about the bridge, and guess what? They fixed the bridge,” said McGeehan, her face lighting up. Students celebrated with a march over the bridge, complete with banners and balloons.
Over her career, McGeehan has risen to leadership because of her ability to bring groups of people together to achieve a common goal. The 30th Street bridge project was one of her earliest successes.
Another was in 2016 when, as superintendant, she started a social media campaign to encourage Bayonne residents to call on their state representatives for fair state funding,
“Sometimes you have to sing your song for people to hear,” McGeehan said. “It’s really important. As you can see, it works.”
From the ground, up
Demonstrations of leadership as a teacher eventually landed her the biggest challenge of her life up to that point. In 1992, McGeehan was hired as principal for the city’s newest state-of-the-art school, Midtown Community, which would, five years later, go on to become the first public school in Hudson County to win a Blue Ribbon Award.
Her job in her first year was to oversee thousands of students scattered across the city in trailers and overloaded classrooms who would move to the new building. The school was combining disparate groups of students from varied economic backgrounds, often making for a contentious atmosphere among parents. Some parents were reluctant for their kids to join with “other” groups.
“It was tough, so tough,” McGeehan said. “I think I almost slept there all week.”
On Super Bowl Sunday that year, McGeehan’s first as a principal, her husband died. He suffered from ALS (known commonly as Lou Gehrig’s disease), which inhibits voluntary muscle movement; he choked on a grain of rice. He was in the hospital until June, when he died.
“It was hard. It was really hard. I just overcame it,” McGeehan said. “I say to myself how did I ever do it? I was so upset, with him being sick and everything. My work was almost a distraction to keep me going. You’re so focused, then you go to the hospital and your mind is on that.”
Losing a partner can be the saddest experience of a person’s life. McGeehan calls herself a “strong woman with very high ideals.” Her passion for her work, she said, got her through her greatest challenges. “Somehow I think God gives you strength when times are hardest,” she said.
“Sometimes you have to sing your song for people to hear.” – Patricia McGeehan
This new elementary school, Midtown Community, would bring Bayonne into the 21st Century. It was constructed with a T1 line, the first cables that enabled a facility to access broadband internet. Even the Liberty Science Center, which was built around the same time, did not include a T1 line in its design, later adding the cables at a very high cost.
“Nobody else at the time had vision and focus on where we needed to go with technology,” said McGeehan, who secured a free partnership with Stevens Institute of Technology that year to provide technology education to students. “People from all over the state came to see our beautiful building,” she said. “It became an icon for visitors.”
While at the helm of Midtown Community, McGeehan earned her Doctorate in Education at Seton Hall University, and in 2000, three years after her school won the Blue Ribbon Award, she was hired as superintendent of the Bayonne School District. Over the next 17 years, she would usher the entire district into the 21st Century with 10,000 Chromebooks, $1 million worth of smartboard technology, and educational partnerships with local universities. BHS’s academies also opened to effectively compete with the county’s private and charter schools. Full-day kindergarten and half-day pre-k were also introduced. While McGeehan at the helm, Blue Ribbon Awards came to Midtown, Washington, and Oresko Community Schools.
“I was looked at as a leader, a catalyst for change, and a risk taker,” said McGeehan, who feels like she was drafted to become superintendent. “People would tell me not to do something. I’d say why not? You’ll never get anywhere without that attitude.”
McGeehan was at the forefront of special needs education in the mid-2000s. She advanced a program already in place at Wilson Community School that hired therapists to work one-on-one with children with disabilities, particularly autism. Before expanding that program, many families had to drive their students with disabilities to other towns. The program grew so popular that families moved to Bayonne specifically for that program.
“People shouldn’t have to leave town for schooling,” McGeehan said. “If you take them out of town, you isolate them. We need to be inclusive here. We’re their neighbors.”
In 2016, the first elected Board of Education in decades voted not to renew McGeehan’s contract. Careers don’t always work out as planned, but McGeehan never saw what she did as work, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” has been her motto. Every Bayonne High School graduating class in the last two decades no doubt heard this inspirational message. But to McGeehan, it was a way of life. Talk to Patricia McGeehan for only a few minutes, and you hear the passion of her song.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.