Ferne LaDue didn’t know what to expect.
It was Feb. 2, 1972, and her husband was driving her down Independence Avenue toward what was supposed to be opening night of her new concept, the Riverdale Community Center.
Not even The Riverdale Press paid the project much mind those 45 years ago. Instead, its front page focused on protests surrounding plans to build what would become Fort Independence Houses, zoning problems for the new John F. Kennedy High School, and news that a young Fieldston-raised singer named Carly Simon would appear on the David Frost television show.
Yet, LaDue hoped the neighborhood’s younger population would still find their way to what was then known as J.H.S. 141. And they did. As her husband turned onto West 237th Street near what would become Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, a herd of students were walking toward the school.
“I started to cry,” she told a Press reporter in 2004. “I was so happy.”
Riverdale Community Center continues to thrive today with three full-time and 70 part-time employees, and a pending new partnership with Riverdale Neighborhood House.
But now RCC mourns the loss of its founder as Ferne LaDue passed away last week. She was 92.
“She lived life,” said Kathy Gilson, who succeeded LaDue as executive director of Riverdale Community Center more than a dozen years ago. “She had a great life. She brought an awful lot to the community as well as to her family.”
LaDue already was a parent and community activist when she conceived of RCC in the early 1970s. She felt it was silly a school that cost millions of dollars to build was only open several hours a day, a few days a week.
LaDue worked out a deal with both the school’s principal and the parents association to open the doors of the school to young people after-hours.
“It was a very chaotic period,” LaDue said soon after she retired from RCC. “There was a collapse in standards of behaviors, and we decided what the children really needed was a structured and caring haven.”
But that was Ferne LaDue, Gilson said. Always advocating for something — even if she had to make change herself.
“She was a very ethical and moral person throughout her business and throughout her community,” Gilson said. “You have to keep those sets of standards, and I would say that that probably did drive me, making sure that you did stay as ethical and moral, and be as true to your beliefs as you could be.”
While LaDue would spend a lot of time at RCC, she was never a stranger at home.
“We never felt neglected in any way,” said Margaret LaDue-McGonigle, her older daughter.
“She was very involved, a very active mom, but we never felt like, ‘Oh, she’s doing this and doing that, and she isn’t doing anything for us,” said her son, David LaDue. “Even thought she was always out doing something for the neighborhood, for the community, or for her friends, she was always there for us as our mom.”
Margaret and David were kids when their mom started RCC, and they would spend a lot of time in the after-school programs, that originally started in just the RKA gym.
“In the 1970s, people were moving out of Riverdale and into the suburbs, but it wasn’t like my mom decided that she wanted to have a community center,” David said. “She became active in the schools, and wanted to stabilize the neighborhood and help Riverdale.”
“Drugs were becoming rampant, and it was a very turbulent time,” Margaret said. “She was worried about us, our friends, and everybody’s kids.”
Not everyone was behind LaDue’s ideas, which probably explains why even The Press didn’t dedicate a single word to the launch of RCC in 1972. But it’s made a significant impact over the last four decades, not just in Riverdale, but beyond.
“Kids really had nowhere to go in the afternoons and there just wasn’t a lot of supervision back then,” Gilson said. “Having schools opened for children after 3 was such a foreign concept, but it seemed to take on a life of its own. Especially now, 45 years later, where there are so many after-school programs in schools throughout the city.”
The center’s offerings went far beyond supervised after-school recreation for teens. It was the birthplace of Riverdale’s first teen theater program, giving generations of young performers the chance to sing their hearts out in shows like “The Sound of Music,” “Cinderella” and “Annie.”
And its adult education programs provided training in such subjects as auto mechanics, computer skills and the culinary arts.
LaDue retired a couple years after her husband, Russell LaDue, died. Yet, she didn’t slow down for a long time, taking on new projects and checking in with RCC from time to time. She also taught English at Bronx Community College and even wrote a book during her long life. When she could no longer live at home on her own, she moved in with David — who happened to live just across the street from the community center’s RKA site.
There, she could look out the window and see how RCC was doing. And from time to time, she would invite Gilson over for lunch. In fact, the last time the two enjoyed a meal together was at David’s apartment, Gilson remembered, just before LaDue moved to New Jersey to spend her final years with Margaret.
“Her daughter lived at the beach, and Ferne always loved the beach,” Gilson said. “So I’m sure she was ecstatic to hit the beach.”
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said LaDue would be missed, but she left “an amazing legacy.”
“Ferne was a pioneer and visionary whose incredible determination and endless work and commitment created the Riverdale Community Center, and filled a tremendous vacuum in the community,” Dinowitz said, in a statement.
“Her leadership at RCC helped give thousands of kids in Riverdale, Kingsbridge and other communities opportunities and activities that had positive impacts on their lives.”
Born in 1925, Ferne LaDue met husband Russell while a student at the University of Michigan in the 1940s. Both were writers, but it was his publishing contract with Doubleday that brought the LaDues to New York.
Ferne not only was close to David and Margaret, but also to Margaret’s husband Jack McGonigle, who served as Ferne’s caretaker in her final years.
Ferne also is survived by three grandchildren — Alexander McGonigle, as well as Benjamin LaDue and Mitchell LaDue, the sons of David and his wife, Annette.