Posts Tagged ‘Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum’

Magic Moments in North Plainfield, Part 2

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Magic Moments in North Plainfield, Part 2

Written by Tony Mussari, Sr.
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Photographs by Kitch and Tony Mussari, Sr,
Copyright 2014
Mussari-Loftus Associates
The Face of America Project

Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it. L.M. Montgomery

Creativity and Encouragement

We arrived at the North Plainfield High School earlier than we had planned. Kitch and I wanted to revisit the HolocaustBF_8073 Exhibit, and we wanted to reconnect with a sentimental moment we experienced with Bob Ferraro after the morning screening.

Bob teaches shop. He is a very creative person who used his time and talent to design a beautiful display for our Gettysburg Project. Whenever we meet Bob, he makes us feel like valued members of his team. On this day he took the time to show us his display, and he volunteered to share the contents with us so we could have something more than a memory.

Bob is a giving person who reflects the light of William Arthur Ward’s words:

When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.

Patriotism and Pride

The evening screening began when Chief Master Cadet Kyle Pacla walked to the podium to offer words of welcome.


Members of the JR ROTC presented the colors in an impressive ceremony and then Brigiette Garcia offered an inspirational rendition of our National Anthem.

Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum, Superintendent of Schools, greeted everyone with thoughtful comments that were carefully selected to set the stage for the documentary.

The lights in the auditorium dimmed, and for just about an hour the sights and sounds of the 2013 Medal of Honor Convention in Gettysburg helped people better understand the meaning of Robert Ingersoll’s words:

He loves his country best who strives to make it best.

Quiet Heroes and Gratitude Moments

The recipients featured in the documentary are quiet heroes. They do not seek the spotlight. They find the cult of celebrity repulsive. They personify courage and good will. They act with honor and valor. They are grateful for the opportunities they have been given. TheyMB_Gift_8179 define the meaning of selfless service. They reflect the light of America at its best, because they are men of character and integrity.

This theme resonated with the audience. The enthusiastic response after the film gave testimony to the powerful example of quiet heroes.

To build upon that moment and close the circle, Kitch and I did what comes natural to us. We took the time to affirm and say thank you to Dr. Birnbaum. Without her belief in our work, none of this would have been possible. In a very real way, this was her moment. The gratitude gift we designed for her was both a statement about the quality of her leadership and an expression of our thanks for her kindness to us.

The gifts we designed for Tom Mazur and his colleague Lt. Col. Eric Hansen documented special moments from our location shoot in Gettysburg.


A lot of research and time went into the selection of the gratitude gift for the students who participated in the project. We wanted this gift to summarize the educational experience. More important, we wanted it to inspire and encourage these young men and women when they encounter the bumps on the road of life.

When we found the words of Bernard M. Baruch, our search came to an end.

Whatever task you undertake, do it with all your heart and soul. Always be courteous, never be discouraged. Beware of him who promises something for nothing. Do not blame anybody for your mistakes and failures. Do not look for approval except the consciousness of doing your best.


Before we left the auditorium a number of people offered their reactions to the documentary and its message. The first person to speak was a Korean War Veteran, Dewitt LaMaire. He enjoyed the story,SBM_8259 and he was impressed by the message of the film.

A member of the Board of Education, Kathleen Mullen, used a personal story to underscore the way the documentary touched her A M_8265heart.

Two members of the U.S. Marine Corps were unequivocal about their experience. They liked the documentary, and they thought it could benefit students in schools across the country.

Cheryl Jones echoed those sentiments, as did Adriana Miranda’s mother Lydia.

Ruel Lindsay’s mother was not at all reluctant to stand and tell everyone she cried tears of joy throughout most of the documentary.


The conversation about the documentary continued at the Afterreception_8281 Glow. People were in a celebratory mood, and they wanted to express their feelings.

Thanks to the hard work of Maryann Thorpey and her husband Steve, there were plenty of treats to share with our guests and a several Kodak moments.

It was a privilege to meet the parents of four of the students who ES_ Parentsparticipated in the production, and have an opportunity to tell them how impressive their children are.

The expressions on the faces of Elijah Sheridan’s parents as recorded in the picture of them with their other two children were priceless.

The picture taken of Dr. Birnbaum with Eric and Elizabeth Ellis was designed to help this youngster follow her dream. Elizabeth andGroup_8322 her dad sat in the first row. During our conversation before the screening, she told me she wanted to be a teacher because she likes people and she likes to learn new things.

Her father had been on the go since 4:30 a.m., but he was more than willing to take her to the screening. He knew she would learn some things that would help her later in life.

R Mom TK_8330

The evening screening was a genuine community moment. The people who came wanted to be there. The four members of the Board of Education were pleased with what the students learned in Gettysburg.

Less than 24 hours after our return home, the sentiments expressed in a note from School Board President Linda Bond-Nelson put everything in perspective:

Just a small note to say thank you again for your gracious hosting of TWO showings of your remarkable film to our North Plainfield audiences.  I was not surprised at all but very grateful to hear that our students proffered a spontaneous standing ovation at the end of their morning show…. (At the evening screening you made) us all feel as if we actually were an intimate group sharing observations and thoughts. 

Best wishes to you both.

Thanks, again.

A long time ago, John Winthrope defined community with these words:

Final Image

We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

Four Days of Honor and Valor in Gettysburg is a documentary about a community of Quiet Heroes. The recipients featured in the film represent the Face of America at its very best. The six student cadets who participated in the project, their parents and the residents of North Plainfield who attended the screening reflect the light of the Face of America’s tomorrow today.

Our experiences on this special evening in North Plainfield, New Jersey, provided memories that will encourage and inspire us for a long time.

Thank you, Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum;

Thank You, Linda Bond Nelson, Thomas Kasper, David Branan, Kathleen Mullen;

Thank You, Tom Mazur, Lt. Col. Eric Hansen, Sr. Chief Michael de Jean, Bob Ferraro;

Thank you Maryann & Steve Thorpey and Debbie Mayo.

To paraphrase the words of L. M. Montgomery, this evening in North Plainfield will never be lost. Because of your kindness, we will remember it forever.

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Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum: A Leader With Dignity & Class

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum: A Great Leader, A Quiet Hero and An Inspiration with Dignity and Class

Written by Tony Mussari, Sr.
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari 
Photographs Kitch Loftus-Mussari,
Tony Mussari, Sr. & Eugene Flood
Copyright 2014
The Face of America Project
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be. Rosalynn Carter

I had the good fortune to meet Superentedent of Schools Dr.a_20yardline7 Marilyn Birnbaum on Thanksgiving Day at a high school football game in 2009. We were blessed with an instant connection.

I was taken by her welcoming way and her enthusiastic support for personal growth through hard work in the classroom.

She appreciated our non-commercial approach to documentary filmmaking. She understood our effort to provide challenging and interesting educational experiences for students. She liked our idea to help students make memories that would enable them to find the best edition of themselves.

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From that day to this, Dr. Birnbaum has done everything she could to facilitate our search for the Face of America on its best day in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

In a very real way, her leadership style and educational philosophy encompass the key attributes of “Servant Leadership.” That is one of the concepts we wanted to share with her students while we were producing documentaries in two Pennsylvania towns that personify honor and valor, Gettysburg and Shanksville.

Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum is the consummate professional.

She knows her strengths and her weaknesses.
She believes that good teachers are awakeners.

She likes to be with people, and she knows that little things like answering messages in a timely fashion mean a lot. In this respect, she honors the advice of Arthur Conan Doyle and the caution of L.M. Montgomery:

It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

It’s dreadful what little things lead people to misunderstand each other.

IMG_3768smShe is a good team member. She is available, dependable and reliable.

She can put things in perspective, because she can see beyond the obvious.

She has the courage and the will to do the right thing, not the easy or pragmatic thing. She follows the example of Maya Angelou:

All of us knows, not what is expedient, not what is going to make us popular, not what the policy is, or the company policy – but in truth each of us knows what is the right thing to do. And that’s how I am guided.

She is enthusiastic about learning.

She does not let her critics define her.

She knows that without risk, there can be no progress.

She is a hopeful and welcoming person who is always willing to open the door to new ideas. She agrees with Anne Lamott:

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

She is an excellent communicator.

She takes responsibility for her choices, and she does not blame others for her failures.


She is quick to apologize when she makes a mistake. She honors Ben Franklin’s dictum:

Never ruin an apology with an excuse.

She is goal-oriented, and sensitive to the needs of the people she is leading.

She has a good sense of humor, and she is not afraid to laugh at herself.

For her, flexibility is a key to success.

She actively listens with her heart as well as her head.

She knows that everyone needs encouragement, and she graciouslyIMG_7396 provides it. When Celeste Holm spoke these words, she reaffirmed one of Dr. Birnbaum’s deeply held beliefs:

We live by encouragement and die without it — slowly, sadly, and angrily.

She is a gratitude person who appreciates the power of affirmation.

She knows the value of private consultation, mediation and reconciliation.

She is a service-oriented person who has not succumbed to the narcissism of our time.

She knows that success in not a matter of luck. It is the result of attitude, inconvenience, industry, discipline and sacrifice.

She understands the importance of Janette Rankin’s words:

You can take people as far as they want to go, not as far as you want them to go.


For Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum, “we” is more important than “I,” and actions speak louder than words.The words of Marva Collins resonate with her:

If children fail, it’s about me, not them. I tell my students, if you think excellence is difficult, you don’t want to try failure.

When I think about the priceless moments Kitch and I shared with Dr. Birnbaum, an adaptation of the words of William Penn come to mind:

She understood our desire to be teachers with a camera, and she used her influence and power to help us do what we love to do. She was a courageous defender of our documentary philosophy, and she remains a friend to this day.

The news of her retirement in July of this year created a veryIMG_3985_MBS sentimental moment for Kitch and me.

George Eliot gave us a perfect description of Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum, her greatest gift and her legacy:


The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.

Thank you, Dr. Birnbaum for changing the light for everyone in the North Plainfield School District.

Thank you, for your kindness and your belief in our work.

Thank you, for being a quiet hero who went to work every day with a burning desire to help others.

Thank you, for exemplifying America at its best with dignity and class.

May your retirement be blessed with good health, great memories and many joyful moments.

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A Standing O Event, Part 1

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Screening Walking Into the Light at Gettysburg in North Plainfield, New Jersey

Written by Kitch Loftus
Digital Photographs Tony Mussari
Copyright 2013
The Face of America Project
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

When four seventh grade girls appeared at the doors to theWITL_sign auditorium at 6 p.m. and said, “We’re here for the movie,” I knew it was going to be a perfect night. They were smiling and shy.  They proceeded to pick out their seats and settle in. It didn’t matter that they were 30 minutes early.  There were on a mission, and they would not be deterred or distracted.

For the next 30 minutes, people of all ages streamed in the doors, all in upbeat moods, eager to see a documentary about Gettysburg that featured ten students they called their own.

There was electricity in the air when Master of Ceremonies Tom Mazur, Supervisor of Arts at North Plainfield got the evening started with a brief welcome. Then, he introduced Nabil Twyman, a seventh grade student who quietly and confidently took his position at the  perfectly tuned Steinway Grand Piano to play two songs, “Red” and “Blue.” His mother’s face beamed with pride as she used her I-pad to record his masterful performance from her seat in then first row.

When Nabil’s nimble hands played the final notes, the young pianist received a rousing and well-IMG_3978_Nabildeserved round of applause. Everyone in the room was taken by Nabil’s gift. It was obvious that his future will be bright because his talent is enormous and his personality is humble and giving.

While Nabil walked to his seat in the front row next to his mother, Tom Mazur asked Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum,IMG_3985_MBSad Superintendent of Schools, to come to the stage to share her thoughts about the evening.  As always, Dr. Birnbaum was courteous, thoughtful and very welcoming. She is the perfect person for the position she holds in North Plainfield. She made everyone feel welcome and at home. The words she used to introduce Tony and the documentary were generous and very kind.

As Tony walked to the stage to talk about the production of Walking Into The Light At Gettysburg, I could feel my heart beating faster. I had some idea of what he was going to say, I had no idea about how it would be received.

IMG_3987_ speaking

Like his hero, Abraham Lincoln, my husband is an aural thinker. Before a big event, he will talk to me about what he intends to say. While he talks, he listens to the words and the concepts and he refines his message. Rarely does he use a printed document. He speaks best when he speaks from his heart. On this occasion he wanted the words to come straight from his heart. When the amplification system failed, he walked to the center of the stage, and he began to tell his story.

He told the audience why he wanted to produce this documentary.  It was a legacy piece for his brother who took him to Gettysburg when he was 15-years-old.  It was a centerpiece of his Face of America project, the three year ongoing search for the characteristics and the people who represent America at its best.  It was a gratitude piece for the students, teachers, administrators and support personnel in North Plainfield, a place he calls his second home. It was a living prayer for his son.

Tony believes that the people who make up the North Plainfield school system reflect the culture, the essence and the spirit of the Face of America on its best day. The richness of the diverse make up of the student body, the faculty and staff, and the sense of common purpose you feel when you are in North Plainfield energizes him and gives him hope that we can solve our problems in a peaceful way. 

He admires the philosophy that is recorded in motivational sayingsIMG_3971_sign_pride that are displayed on the walls of schools he visits. He enjoys working with the students in the way any effective teacher enjoys interacting with students. He wanted this documentary and the Gettysburg project he suggested to teachers and administrators to empower students to be their best. He does not believe anyone is entitled to anything without hard work and overcoming obstacles. That has been his life experience, and it remains so even today.

When Tony talked about his son it was all heart. “No one ever asked me why I came to North Plainfield,” Tony said. “Tonight, I would like to answer that question, because this may be my last opportunity to speak to you in this way.”

IMG_4038_ tony

Then he told the poignant story about his son. “In high school he was Mr. Everything. Today he is homeless, living on the streets, haunted by the demons that began to take over his life when he was in high school. He started out just like the ten wonderful students who traveled to the battlefield with him one year ago. “My son was gifted, intelligent, engaging, motivated and successful in all the ways that matter in high school. He was all state in soccer, a  leading field goal kicker in the state of Ohio, selected as a model, but underneath it all he was hurting and he turned to alcohol and gambling for relief.

“Today, those demons control his life and they impact my life in significant ways. I came here to engage you and to introduce you toLee_Wisdom Prudence values that will help you benefit from my experience. Everything in this film is designed to help you deal with the bumps in the road, to believe in  yourself and your dreams, to be able to see beyond the temptations and the temporary gratifications that entice people to take the easy way.”

Tony encouraged everyone in the audience to read the quotations displayed in the film, to listen with their eyes as well as their hearts to what General Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln say about failure, and to pay close attention to what the students learned about themselves during their visit to Gettysburg.

Just before he finished his remarks, he said something he has told me privately many times, “I love what I see in North Plainfield, because this is one of the best portraits of the Face of America on its best day.”

(To be continued in Part 2)

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