If you ever drive along the two-lane Route 46 in Warren County, as opposed to Interstate 80, the superhighway that runs parallel to it through the Delaware Water Gap, you will see signs for the small town of Belvidere. I pass that sign dozens of times every year going back and forth to northeastern Pennsylvania, thereby being reminded of one of the more unusual story assignments in my freelance writing endeavors.
The story — assigned in 1979 by New Jersey Monthly — was that in the small town of Belvidere (today about 2,600 people), there was an equally small high school. If I could find my original reporting I could tell you now the exact numbers, but as I recall the senior class of that high school consisted of roughly 100 students. And of the 50 or so girls in the class, something like 20 had already had an unplanned pregnancy.
While I can’t put my hands on my original reporting, I did manage to Google a reference to the problem — or at least the way school officials were addressing it — in an AP dispatch dated November 1, 1979:
“Belvidere, NJ. School officials in this community are trying to curb unwanted teenage pregnancies by teaching students to teach their classmates about birth control.
“The Belvidere School District invited Planned Parenthood to train high school students to teach sex education . . A spokesman for the Philipsburg chapter of Planned Parenthood said that because teenagers discuss sex mostly among friends, it is likely they would be receptive to learning pregnancy prevention methods from their peers.”
In fact, Belvidere had become a poster child in a highly publicized and politicized battle over whether to require sex education in the public schools. The person responsible for bringing the story to my attention was Susan N. Wilson of Princeton.
Though we both lived in Princeton I didn’t know much more about Wilson than that she was married to Don Wilson, a former Life reporter who later became a supporter of John F. Kennedy and then deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency. She was also a member of the state Board of Education.
In that capacity, as she recounted in a Huffington Post article, she raised her hand to ask a question when the “state Commissioner of Health was discussing the need for requiring sex education to counter the rising rates of teen pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases among school-age young people whom her department monitored.”
Wilson’s question: “At what age do you think students first need to know about reproduction, how their bodies work, and how to avoid too early pregnancy and disease?” She didn’t miss a beat: ‘By the end of fourth grade,’ the commissioner answered authoritatively.”
That put the train in motion. Wilson, the only one of 13 in the room who asked a question, was assigned to chair a subcommittee to consider a statewide requirement for family life and sex education in all the public schools. So when the state magazine assigned me to write a story on the controversy, I had to travel no more than across town to interview the point person on the subject.
Over the years I followed her career as she became director of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers (now called Answer), and the publisher of a quarterly sex education journal written by and for teens called Sex, Etc. More recently she joined the board of the Fistula Foundation, a nonprofit that funds operations to repair a childbirth injury suffered by many of the poorest women in Africa and Asia.
So I thought I knew Wilson’s story — you know, the sex education and reproductive health lady. Then I heard about her new memoir, “Still Running” (available through Amazon), and I realized how much I didn’t know — and that it’s not too late to learn a little more.
Wilson’s just published 399-page memoir does not even begin to talk about her public area of expertise until page 249. With good reason, Susie Wilson’s is a life well lived, including — as she writes in her author’s note — an emergence “from a cocoon of self-absorption to learn about other people’s struggles and how I could make changes to benefit society.”
As is so often the case, the path of the child was set in part by the parents. In Susan N. Wilson’s case, the N stands for Neuberger. Harry Neuberger, Princeton Class of 1917, was a World War I combat hero and served in a non-combat role in World War II. He made his fortune in banking and the stock market. Susan and her younger sister were sent to private schools in Manhattan, spent their summers at the family’s 127-acre farm in Lincroft, and attended “tea dances” at the Plaza Hotel as they got older. Susie attended Vassar, Class of 1951.
Harry Neuberger also taught them about the other side of the economic divide. He supported the local YMCA, which named a building after him. When Susie, at age eight or nine, made up a story about the family having a Rolls Royce, her father admonished her. “You behaved like a spoiled little rich girl. We don’t own a Rolls Royce and never will.”
Her mother was Katherine (Kay) Neuberger, a name that I instantly recognized but had never before connected to Susie Wilson. Kay Neuberger was a powerhouse in the New Jersey Republican Party in the 1960s and ’70s. She was a National Republican Committeewoman, as well, and nominated Henry Cabot Lodge for vice president at the 1960 Republican National Convention. She became chairman of the New Jersey State Board of Higher Education, and helped her daughter win a spot on the state Board of Education — the position from which Susie was drawn into the sex education fray.
And in addition to these civic-minded parents, Susie had the company of her husband, Don, and their new found friends in the Camelot days of Washington, especially Bobby and Ethel Kennedy. Don was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June, 1968, just 50 feet away from RFK when he was shot. The Wilsons rode the long train from the funeral in New York to the burial in Washington. When Don died in 2011, two of Bobby and Ethel’s kids spoke at his memorial service.
After a round-the-world trip with Bobby and Ethel in 1962, Susie Wilson remembers coming back with a profoundly different view of the world. The Kennedys “had changed my life, showing me how to be bolder and do more for the world’s poor.”
But I wonder if there was another part of her background that inspired her sensitivity to those who are different from the norm. In fact, as Wilson titled her second chapter, there were “Family Secrets” among the Neubergers. Susie found out in her teenage years that her parents, both Jewish, had embraced Christianity and had both children baptized at the Episcopalian Church.
In those upper class, Protestant social strata some people thought the sisters were “trying to hide our Jewish roots,” Wilson writes. “It was clear we were not wanted.”
Exposed to those religious divides, Wilson must have been sensitive to the racial divisions as well. When I stopped by her house in Constitution Hill in Princeton to pick up a copy of her memoir, I told her the story of the trip to Belvidere. She did not immediately recall the town, but when I told her more about it she realized why it would have been such a good poster candidate for the issue: It was all white, with mostly middle class, nuclear families. In teenage pregnancy, as with so many other social problems, we want to believe it’s someone else’s problem, not ours.
Susie Wilson, now 85, will keep fighting to overcome these divides. “I have not forgotten Bobby Kennedy,” she writes. “Until I die I will work to keep alive his vision for our world, and never be afraid to share the belief echoed in the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem, ‘Ulysses,’ which was engraved on his Mass card: ‘Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a better world’.”