John J. Fallon
16 November 2005
2 hours, 5 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
John J. Fallon (b. Mountbellew, Co. Galway, Ireland, 1919) emigrated to the United States in 1929 and settled with his family in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York. His father, Anthony Fallon, worked for Purdy & Purdy, a group of admiralty lawyers, and his mother, Bridget, found work as a legal stenographer.
Educated in Brooklyn parochial and public schools, Fallon was drafted into the army in 1941 when he was twenty-one. He served in North Africa and Italy with the United States Army as part of the 9th and 88th Infantry Divisions until 1945, primarily as a Warrant Officer. Fallon took advantage of the G.I. Bill upon his return to the United States, enrolling as an undergraduate at St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York. Later, he received a Masters of Education from New York University.
In 1954 John Fallon began teaching English at Bay Ridge High School, one of a handful of single sex public schools in the New York City system, located at 67th Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Fallon became its Principal in 1979 and retired when the school was closed in 1985.
Fallon belonged to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Catholic Teachers Association and the American Irish Teachers Association of which he was President. He is a member of several ethnic organizations including the Galway Men’s Association, the New York Irish History Roundtable, the American Conference for Irish Studies, and the Irish American Heritage and Culture Week Committee of the Department of Education of the City of New York.
Married since 1951 to the former Gina Sberna whom he met while stationed in Italy during the second world war, John Fallon is the father of three children and lives in Queens. He has written human interest articles for New York Newsday and The Brooklyn Eagle, as well as the novel A Better Deed, a fictionalized account of Netterville Lodge in Mountbellew, Co. Galway during the evictions of Mrs. Gerrard, published in 1995.
Excerpt No. 1
Meeting Gina Sberna in Italy while with the 88th Infantry Division during the Second World WarDisc 1, 36:16–38:57
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
JM: When did you first meet your wife?
JF: Well, that’s a great question. That’s a great question. As a matter of fact, my wife is such an interesting person, that I jot down a lot of things that I call “The Italian-Irish Marriage”. I met my wife over in Italy at the end of the war. Incidentally, you had mentioned North Africa. I was in North Africa but by the time I got to North Africa it just provided an additional training stage for us. We were not involved in combat in North Africa. But we were involved in combat in Italy from you might say almost the beginning – it was a place called the Garigliano River, it was way down south – all the way up to Switzerland. That took us about a year and a half to do that, a year and a half to get from here to here, up and down the mountains. But you asked me a question about how I met my wife. Well, when the war ended in Italy which was April 1945 – and incidentally we had been the first, there had been about five divisions saying they were the first ones in Rome, so we’re one of the first five divisions, 88th Infantry Division, that say they were the first into Rome, but that’s just a little bit of history – and, your question, where did I meet my wife? Well, when the war ended in April, we were in a beautiful little town called Marano, I could tell a lot about that but I won’t, I’ll just tell you we were in Marano. And then we were moved down after a few weeks in Marano – the war’s over, what are you going to do with two million troops, they have nothing to do – they move us down to Balzano. Balzano. And then from Balzano, they moved us down to Brescia. Brescia’s a nice city. And Gina worked in the mayor’s office in one of those small towns called Rezzato, outside of Brescia, and I was personnel officer for my battalion of seven-hundred men, so it was my job now that the war was over to find something for them to do. So, of course, we needed classes, we needed an auditorium, we needed a movie house, we needed a sports field, so I went to her office and there, that’s where I met my wife [laughs]. I didn’t speak much Italian, I spoke a little Italian, but I had school French, yes, school French. And I found out when I talked to my wife that she had a little bit of a French accent, so I said, “Parlez vous français?” Oh, she burst out with the French. She had lived from age two to age seventeen in France, so linguistically she was French. So that’s how I met my wife.
Excerpt No. 2
Describes the start of his teaching career, Dr. Stella Sweeting and Dr. Bernard DonovanDisc 2, 4:59–8:28
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
JM: What kind of odd jobs would you do when you were in grad school?
JF: Ah, that’s good, he’s really good, he really gets me going here! I was a bartender. That was good. I was a bartender in the Officer’s Club of the [Brooklyn] Navy Yard. A friend of mine, who was much older than I was but whom I know, said to me, “John” – as a matter of fact he said to two of us, my friend Joe – and said, “Why don’t you come down?” And of course it’s in the evening and the big bartenders [shift] of the evening runs until midnight, one o’clock in the morning, you’re getting paid by the hour and you’re getting tips too. So this was a job! And, of course, I learned what needed to be learned and there I met many people. I even met the future Superintendent of Schools for the City of New York who was instrumental in helping me at one time. So you see…
JF: That was Donovan. Donovan, oh really, you know the name? Bernie Donovan, ah, God Bless him!
MC: All right, we’ll come back to him.
JF: I’ll take a little drink [sips water].
JM: So now, after NYU you said you began teaching, where was your first teaching job?
JF: That’s how Bernie Donovan comes into this. He said to me, knowing I was going for teaching, he said, “John, when you want to be placed in the high school…” My first teaching job though was in the junior high school. I went to Joan of Arc junior high school – named after a saint, it was a public school – it was on 96th Street, I’m pretty sure, it was near Columbus Avenue. And that’s where one of the many nice principals [was], Dr. Stella Sweeting, who recently died at the age of one-hundred-and-one. She was a wealthy lady and she was principal there and she caught on immediately. Even though as [a] brand new [teacher], I had done my student teaching in Joan of Arc junior high school so they asked me to stay on. So I stayed on for a year. That was my first year and this lady was really a wonderful principal. A principal is one who encourages teachers, so that’s important that she knew how to do it. I was there about three days and she wrote me a note, “Dear Mr. Fallon, I’m happy to have you on the faculty and I’m glad to see you are a stand up teacher.” You know, they have these little glass panels, so she walks around and sees what’s going on. And then, after that, I went to see my friend Mr. Donovan, Dr. Donovan, and he was in charge of the high school division. And here I am going for a high school job, so he is looking to see where I lived and what are the two schools that he would like to recommend me to. So he said – and this has a lot to do with the Irish – Mr. Donovan said, “Well, I think you could go to either Bay Ridge High School or Erasmus. Mr. O’Neill is the principal of Erasmus and Miss Fitzpatrick is principal of Bay Ridge High School. So, when he had talked a little bit about the two schools, Erasmus was just a little bit less convenient. So I said, not knowing that Bay Ridge High School was an all-girl school – but it was great – so he said to me, “Where do you want to go?” So he said, “Well, I’m going to send you to be interviewed by the principal. If the principal accepts you, I’ll see you’re assigned there.” That was a beautiful way to start a career, wasn’t it?
Excerpt No. 3
On why his mother changed her name from BridgetDisc 2, Track 3, 02:46–04:30
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
JF: I said to say something about Bridget and her name. She worked for prestigious law offices. As a matter of fact, she worked for Purdy and Purdy at the same time my father was there. And she was a great – I know she was – a great legal stenographer because when she went freelance the agencies were always calling her – so she got that. So she was – in many places she found that being Irish was a hindrance. They would question twice – if there were two people ready for a job and they had, determined both – the Irish person wouldn’t get it. And this, at that late date – of course a late date for me, not a late date for you – the late date would have been when we came over here, let’s see what was the year we came over here, well anytime in the ‘30s, you know in the ‘30s, going right up to close to the ‘40s, and may be right – So she knew she’s going to change her name from Bridget. But would you believe it, she changed her name to Iolanthe. And we said, “Where did you get that name?” And it was from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. She took that name, Iolanthe! So I said – because I used to hear people call her ‘Lanthe’ – and I said, “Why do they call you Lanthe?” Then, I mean, I guess maybe – she certainly didn’t tell me – but I’m sure my Dad knew about the fact that she was now Iolanthe. But of course she was still Bridget to him. But that shows one of the negative aspects that I was not aware of, I was not aware of at all.
Excerpt No. 4
On Catholicism in the public schoolsDisc 2, Track 1 03:22–05:35
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
JF: There were certain schools in the city that had more Catholics in the thing, and Miss [Elizabeth] Fitzpatrick and the one that followed her, Miss [Mary] McGuiness, always tapped St. Joseph’s College for Women to get their recruits for the teaching staff, and wonderful ladies they were, too. So, uh, I was in a Catholic environment, I was definitely [at Bay Ridge High School]. And my friend Mary, Mary Brody – we met a few years later – she was in a Catholic environment too. She was in Chelsea Vocational High School and the principal [there] was Mr. [Joseph] Driscoll. All these Irish principals! Mr. Driscoll. And he used to have these, in this school, Chelsea High School – I went to look it over one day before I went to my friend Dr. Donovan, I went to look it over and they were having a fire drill and it was all boys and I saw them all coming out, and then I went inside the school, and the school looked drab – and I didn’t like the looks of the kids who were coming out of it anyway. I didn’t like the, you know, they didn’t look to me like there was a little bit of studiousness, something in it, so I decided not [to teach there].
But the lady I mentioned at Chelsea, she was at Chelsea as a young woman, and she was one of the most, in my knowledge, profound Catholic and Catholic thinkers. She’s a single woman – Mary Brody – I try to get her involved in some of these Irish things but she has her own route to follow. She too, was in a Catholic environment; as a matter of fact to such an extent that the principal, Mr. Driscoll, on the first Friday, he would have a group of students be excused from the first part of their homeroom so they could attend Mass in the local church as part of the Newman Society or whatever it was. But of course, that was a tough thing to do because he could have been called to task for taking away from school time for church time, but this was fantastic. And he’d have some good speakers there, then afterwards we had breakfast. So the kids had their donuts, they’re as happy as can be, for two reasons: getting out of school for a few minutes and having the donuts.
- James McCarthy [JM]
- Marion R. Casey [MC]
- John J. Fallon, 16 November 2005. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- Principal John J. Fallon, 1979. Photo from Bay Ridge High School yearbook, courtesy of John J. Fallon.
- Letter to Class of 1979 from Principal Fallon. From Bay Ridge High School yearbook, courtesy of John J. Fallon.
- Bay Ridge High School Senior Class Portrait, 1979. From Bay Ridge High School yearbook, courtesy of John J. Fallon.