By Stephen J. Kotz
Friends and colleagues of Robert Schneider, the former Pierson High School principal, this week remembered a kind and thoughtful man with a deep commitment to public education and faith in the ability of all students to become productive members of society.
Mr. Schneider died on Thursday, December 15, at Southampton Hospital of Mantle cell lymphoma, an extremely aggressive form of the cancer, at the age of 69.
After a lifelong career in education, Mr. Schneider became principal of Pierson in 1994, where he worked to improve the curriculum and provide students with the resources they would need to face the future. He helped shepherd through a major renovation of the school that provided it with a larger library, better science labs, and other educational necessities.
“It’s hard for people who are new to the community to remember what the school was like,” said Peter Solow, a Pierson art teacher, former school board member, and close friend of Mr. Schneider. “Everybody wanted things to get better but nothing to change.”
“He always used to say, ‘We are preparing kids for a life that we can’t even imagine,’” said Mr. Schneider’s wife, Marian Cassata. “‘We have to teach them how to think, not just do work sheets.”
At Monday’s Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting, Mr. Solow read a remembrance of his friend. “At the foundation of his efforts was his passionate belief in our kids, that they have limitless potential, that they could achieve extraordinary things. He believed that they had the ability, indeed, the responsibility to make our community and the world a better and more beautiful place. And he was right,” Mr. Solow read before reeling off a list of recent student accomplishments.
The current Pierson principal, Jeff Nichols, who served first as intern and assistant principal under Mr. Schneider before replacing him in 2000, described him as an excellent mentor.
“He was even keeled, he always focused on what was best for the kids,” he said. “He was great to work for because of his demeanor. When he spoke, he usually had something important to say.”
“Rather than focus on people’s poor qualities, he would try to forgive those and look for the good, which was a real nice trait,” he added.
Mr. Schneider graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1968 and took a job as a social studies teacher at Intermediate School 320, which was built on the site of the Ebbets Field parking lot in Crown Heights, his wife said.
After several years in Brooklyn, Mr. Schneider joined the South Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services, where he was in charge of educational communications. He later moved to Suffolk County BOCES, where he worked in curriculum development. Before coming to Sag Harbor, Mr. Schneider served as assistant principal at Riverhead High School for several years.
During his professional career, he continued his education, earning master’s degrees in education from Hofstra University and New York University, and completing his course work, but not his dissertation, for a doctorate in educational communications at NYU.
Although he retired at the age of 53, taking advantage of an incentive offered by the state —“he loved his job, but he wanted to live his life,” his wife said — Mr. Schneider remained active in the community.
He was a founding member of the Sag Harbor Educational Foundation, a trustee of the Reutershan Educational Trust, and a founding member of the Sag Harbor Coalition, which seeks to reduce substance abuse among young people, on whose board he served as co-director.
“Bob loved life,” said his friend and fellow Coalition board member, Dr. John Oppenheimer. “He brought fun, smarts, humor, kindness and grace to everything he did. He was an anchor for his large family and wide circle of friends.”
Mr. Schneider was born on April 17, 1947, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, to Al Schneider and the former Esther Miriam Wladimer. Although he was an only child, his many cousins were like his brothers and sisters, his wife said.
As a child, his family belonged to Brighton Beach Baths, a huge beach club, where Mr. Schneider later became a lifeguard, eventually becoming the club’s head lifeguard, a position he held for more than a dozen years.
“He loved the outdoors, he loved the water,” his wife said. “He was still swimming a mile a day” when he was diagnosed with cancer last summer.
Besides swimming, Mr. Schneider was an avid runner and bicyclist, competing in triathlons, and enjoyed ice-skating, rollerblading, tennis, kayaking, photography, and travel, his wife said.
Mr. Schneider was also a big fan of rock music. Among his favorites were Bob Dylan, U-2, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Bruce Springsteen. “In the middle of his chemotherapy we saw Bruce in August at the Meadowlands,” Ms. Cassata said.
Mr. Schneider’s first marriage, to Diane Abramsky, ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Cassata, whom he married in 1984, he is survived by a son, Glen Schneider of Falls Church, Virginia, a daughter, Joyce Schneider of Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, and three grandchildren, Maya and Sam Schneider of Falls Church and Jonah Harrington of Ashley Falls.
A funeral service was at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor on Sunday with burial in the synagogue’s Chevra Kodetia Cemetery.
The family said it would announce where memorial donations can be made in the near future.