In honor of Black History Month Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly and TEAM HOPE are recognizing African Americans that have made an impact in the community and beyond.
TAPinto Paterson is proud to bring these stories to our readers.
If you’re from Paterson, you’ve likely heard of Dr. Frank Napier Jr. He was, after all, the Superintendent of Schools for 15 years, has a school named after him, and gained national attention when he was portrayed by the late Robert Guillaume in the film Lean On Me. But if you asked around the city, people might be hard pressed to tell you why he was so important and what he meant to Paterson, and many believe that should change.
Those who worked with him, counted him as a friend, or even just crossed paths with him, however briefly, can tell you the kind of person he was. Those people will describe Dr. Napier as a man whose goal in life was to better the city of Paterson. A man dedicated his life to caring for young people. And, though, just like the rest of us, he often fell short of his lofty goals, he is remembered as a man who, as his friend RJ Cornish puts it, “did the very best that he could.”
Born in 1935, Frank Napier Jr. was Paterson to his core. He attended elementary school at Public School #4 before heading to Central High School and playing on the school’s football team. According to former teacher, and lifelong friend, Art Eason, “he was a little guy, but he was a tough little guy.”
After high school, he attended William Paterson University, where he joined Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity he remained active in throughout his life. He obtained both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at William Paterson. Eventually, he returned to school #4 as a teacher and a coach.
Little by little, he worked his way up through the school system. Eventually, in 1976, Napier was given the job of Superintendent of Schools, making him the first black superintendent in Paterson’s history.
RJ Cornish was president of the Board of Education when Napier was made superintendent. “When he took it over, the school system wasn’t in the greatest shape. His dream was to bring it all together.”
Cornish laments that Napier was never able to carry out his complete vision for Paterson schools. “He thought that given a chance, the kids could achieve the same kind of success as other kids, wherever they lived.” Napier wanted to give them that opportunity. “He saw that the kids in Paterson were no different than anyone else.”
Despite that, he achieved significant success in his 15-year tenure. “He was the one who really integrated the school system in the city of Paterson,” Eason maintains. He explained that when Napier took over, School #27 was almost entirely white, even though many African American students lived in close proximity. Napier changed the rules to fix this problem, allowing students to go the schools nearest them.
Napier was also respected by the faculty, acting as a mentor and friend to many teachers and administrators. “There was no one who would not give him credit for trying to make the system better. To make them personally better,” says Cornish.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly was hired for his first job as an assistant football coach at Eastside High School by Napier, whom he cites as the reason he is still involved in the Paterson School System 29 years later. “He was a mentor and a hero to me,” says Wimberly.
As superintendent, Napier sought to better educate himself along with the students. When he was first given the position, he did not have a doctoral degree. To correct that, he enrolled at The University of Massachusetts to obtain his Doctorate of Education Degree.
“He would go from Paterson to Massachusetts two-to-three times a week and still maintain his job. He wanted to prove to young people that you never stop learning and you never stop growing. That’s who he was,” says Cornish.
Napier’s career wasn’t without hiccups. The film, Lean On Me, was centered around controversial Eastside High Principal, Joe Clark, whose own legacy often overshadowed Napier’s. The movie portrays Clark as a radical educator and hero, though many have cast doubts on the film's accuracy.
Those who knew him best believe it is unfortunate that Napier tends to be associated with the film and ensuing coverage, and that his contribution to Paterson was separate and far greater.
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. In 1991, stating that the district was “not well managed,” the State Education Department took full control of the Paterson School System. Napier was soon ousted as superintendent.
Friends, supporters, and even Napier himself contended that it had been a failure of city administration, and that the political reality in Paterson got in the way of his goal of unity.
Regardless, he moved on, continued his charitable work, and began a second career as the pastor of his own church. Tragically, Napier passed away on October 28, 2002 at the age of 67. He was survived by his wife Margaret and their three children.
Paterson didn’t just forget about its son though. Public School #4, where he attended and later worked, was renamed the Dr. Frank Napier, Jr School of Technology. His wife also helped establish the Reverend Doctor Frank Napier Jr. Scholarship to give money to young people graduating from Paterson high schools. Art Eason served as a treasurer for the fund.
RJ Cornish believes that Napier found his ideal job in his role as an educator. “If you talk about a person who lived out his dream, being a part of Paterson’s fabric was what he wanted,” he said of Napier.
Still, he worries that his friend’s legacy is being forgotten. “It’s tragic that he isn’t honored more than he is,” Cornish says. “He was a man of tremendous conviction, and a significant person in Paterson’s history.”
For his part, Wimberly believes that though his name recognition may be dwindling, his former boss’ significance will never truly die. He refers to Napier’s “tree,” of which he counts himself a part of. These are the people who were influenced and inspired by Napier’s dedication and vision.
“You look at former students who are business owners, doctors, lawyers; that’s Dr. Napier,” he said. “He opened so many doors, not only for African Americans in the district, but everyone really.”
Eason summed up his feelings on his friend with glowing praise. “He was the type of person who could walk with kings or paupers and feel equally at ease. He was a tremendous, giving, and loving person, I would hope that this city never forgets his contributions and never forgets his legacy.”