Tom Pappas said when he started teaching in 1957 in a rough school in New York the students had already "knocked out four teachers in four weeks."
When he began his involvement to allow teachers to belong to unions, it was jokingly called "collective begging." He was part of the first major strike in the city by teachers in 1960.
What a difference an advocate makes. The UFT member was honored by NYSUT as one of two Retirees of the Year.
"It's always been a lot of fun to beat back the bad guys," he said in a video presentation.
Since Pappas was unable to pick up his award in person, colleague Tom Murphy, chair of the UFT Retired Teachers Chapter, stood in for him. Murphy depicted Pappas as "earthy, graphic and ethnic" and said there is "elegance in his gruffness.
"Pappas' father came from Greece at age 11 and was a shoeshine boy exploited by his own people," Murphy said. It prompted Pappas to always take care of the underdog.
"His core heart is the heart of the union," Murphy said.
Sharing the limelight as NYSUT Retiree of the Year for 2010 is Irwin Yellowitz.
"The dignity of an individual is preserved through a union," said the retired professor, a member and former officer of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY.
Yellowitz said when he first began his career, there was a belief that teachers and professors could not be unionized.
PSC now has a place making an impact on the Legislature, and the union is "often the voice in Albany to get money for CUNY," even when CUNY itself isn't asking.
Yellowitz said PSC officers have shown strong and continuing support for the needs of retirees and have "allowed retirees to play a positive role in PSC."
NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donohue has also done a lot to make retirees a real asset, he said.
"It's important for retirees to get out there," Yellowitz said. "Retirees don't disappear from their connection to the university."
Every local can find meaningful ways to involve retirees, he said, noting that many are willing to continue their involvement with the life of a local union.
"Retirees are also the living expression of the history of the union," said Yellowitz, a labor scholar. "History reinforces activism, and retirees can play a role."