Jack Bertolino, a man so central to the power and history of NJEA that he was known as “Mr. NJEA” and had a major NJEA conference named for him, died on Oct. 21 at the age of 89.
Initially hired as a field representative by NJEA in November 1957, the 27-year-old Bertolino placed a premium on making direct connections with members. The January 1958 edition of the NJEA Review noted that he put 2,000 miles on his car in his first two months on the job as he visited local associations preparing them to go to their school boards for “salary presentations.” It’s accompanied by a photo of a young Bertolino behind the wheel wearing a bowtie.
Bertolino’s began his career in education as a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in Pompton Lakes. In his four years and two months as a classroom teacher he served as salary chairperson, vice president and president of the Pompton Lakes Education Association. He also served as secretary of the Passaic County Education Association.
Even then, he was already advocating to improve the lot of educators statewide. As a local leader, he had built such a good relationship with the Pompton Lakes Board of Education and the PTA that he got both groups to pass resolutions supporting a statewide minimum salary bill.
In July 1967, Bertolino was promoted to director of field service—the division now known as UniServ.
Bertolino ranked Sept. 13, 1968, as one of the most memorable days of his career. On that date, the New Jersey Legislature overrode Gov. Richard Hughes veto of the collective
“Things have never been the same since—with the grievance procedure and the rights of boards and associations to negotiate a contract,” Bertolino said in 1997 as he accepted the NJEA Ruthann Sheer Distinguished Service to Education Award. “Under the law we have not only a right, but a responsibility to represent our members.”
Bertolino was nominated for the Ruthann Sheer Award by the union that represents NJEA employees, the United Staff Association, an indication of the level of respect and admiration his colleagues had for him. After his retirement in December 1993, Bertolino remained close to NJEA members and staff. He could be counted on to share the history of pivotal moments in NJEA’s history at conferences, meetings, and special programs, maintaining friendships with former colleagues and treating any new NJEA members he met as old friends.
Bertolino was instrumental in creating the NJEA Summer Leadership Conference, which was first held in 1963. In 2009, it was renamed the NJEA Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference. He attended every subsequent Summer Leadership Conference up to and including the one held this past August.
Bertolino never wavered in his commitment to public education, to students, or to those work in the New Jersey’s public schools.
“In the ’50s, ‘60s and beyond, NJEA members fought hard to win bargaining rights to improve education,” Bertolino said in 1997. “They were fed up. They were tired of confronting school boards with hat in hand. With determination, sacrifice and grit—our leaders, our rank-and-file members, and our staff helped change all that. I’m proud to have been associated with those courageous individuals and that revolutionary movement. Sometimes at their personal jeopardy, our members scratched, clawed, and struggled for every benefit, for every educational improvement in this state. I believe that NJEA stands today as the premier employee advocate organization in the country. Its spirit, its commitment, its compassion, its sense of mission rank second to none. But more than that, NJEA cares what happens in the classroom. No organization has promoted public education more than NJEA, not only by your words, but by your deeds.”