A man of history

When Stephen Banks first approached, I thought he'd stepped out of the early pages of Cheltenham's 300-year-old history.

Two summers ago I was touring Kerlin Farm, one of the oldest properties in the township -- an overgrown, ill-treated vestige of federal-era glory that was threatened by the latest in bulldozers. A group of history lovers was fighting to preserve what was left of this crumbling manse, and I was meeting with one of them.

Then Banks emerged from the woods, with his sweeping white hair and beard, carrying a walking stick and a quiet way. We talked about the history of the place and the surroundings, and he knew a book's worth. Today I learned the rest of his story, from a posting in the community site Citizens Call, which reported his passing at age 72.

Here's what he packed into some of the years, courtesy of Citizens Call:

Stephen was an administrator with the New York City Department of Health, where he managed clinics and other public health services in the Bedford/Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and in East Harlem. He also worked for the Westchester County Department of Health in Yonkers.

A graduate in urban studies from the State University of New York at Old Westbury, he did graduate work in sociology at Rutgers University, where he completed requirements for a doctoral degree short of the dissertation and taught there on the Newark campus. He also was an adjunct professor at the City University of New York on Staten Island.

Born in Indiana, the oldest of six children, he spent much of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in southern Indiana. He joined the Marines after high school in 1958 and trained as a radio operator.

After the Marines, he became a VISTA volunteer in New York City. Working in East Harlem, he organized a block association, worked with tenants in support of a rent strike and organized a food co-op. While still an undergraduate, Stephen worked for the National Welfare Rights Organization in New York City. He also organized a New York City contingent for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and lived in Resurrection City in Washington D.C. with thousands of others during that period.

We were better for knowing him. In Cheltenham, where he lived for the past 25 years, he chaired the Historical Commission and served on the Wyncote Board of Historical Review. The Cheltenham Democrats in 2009 named him Volunteer of the Year. 

The Call quotes a fellow township activist, Heidi Morein, as saying, "I adored him, and so did my family. I spent a 15-hour day with him at the polls two weeks ago, and it wasn’t enough. He was brilliant, funny, idealistic, curmudgeonly, a stalwart leader and true firebrand, and much tougher than his frailness implied."

The photo that goes with this post I snapped that day in August of 2010, as he sat for a moment in the overgrown backyard of the sprawling property whose falling-down flanks spanned three centuries of architectural fancy. He was taking it in while he could.

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., a developer makes a case before the township, seeking variances to demolish the remaining piece of Kerlin, a 1690s farmhouse, and begin to put up three buildings of seniors housing -- 79 units total. The zoning code allows for a dozen or so single-family homes.

Banks would have been at that meeting, keeping watch.