Time was when Pyser Edelsack was a household name in Riverdale. Virtually every teenager and most adults revered him.
As a youth worker for Riverdale Neighborhood House (RNH) in the early 1970s, Mr. Edelsack — who died of lung cancer at 71 on Monday — was given the task of “cleaning up” the Johnson Avenue shopping strip and the Monument at West 239th Street. Both locations had become daily and nightly gathering places for dozens of teens openly smoking marijuana and “dropping” LSD. On weekends the crowds at the Monument could swell to more than a hundred.
Mr. Edelsack didn’t wait for teens to come to RNH, instead his lanky frame, scraggly beard and mop of red hair became fixtures in the places where teens congregated. His philosophy was simple: engage the kids in worthwhile pursuits and they won’t have time for mischief. Though he looked like a hippie, he made abstinence from drugs and alcohol a requirement of participation in his activities.
Soon, their days were filled with trips, art projects and theater workshops, but the teens still had no legitimate place to congregate. They were wary of adult supervision and shunned every effort to get them to use RNH or a nascent center at the David A. Stein Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy, then called Junior High School 141.
With boundless energy and optimism, Mr. Edelsack pushed the idea of a project in which the teens themselves would build a counter-culture symbol — a geodesic dome — as a center where they could determine what went on.
His enthusiasm convinced the kids, their parents, RNH board members, community leaders, architects, structural engineers and city agencies. The Parks Department offered a corner of what was to become Seton Park and the Department of Buildings, though resistant, eventually granted its first-ever permit for a geodesic structure in the city.
The community embraced “the dome people.” Dozens of parents, donors, curiosity-seekers and building professionals became sidewalk superintendents, offering advice or donating materials throughout the summer of 1972 as volunteers ranging in age from 10 to 20 toiled to erect the 39-foot diameter structure.
Even with construction in full swing, Mr. Edelsack continued to direct a number of other projects, including a documentary film of the dome.
Widely publicized, the dome elicited inquiries from community groups and school districts around the country seeking ways to engage troubled teens or relieve racial tensions in their schools.
It also brought Mr. Edelsack to the attention of the local school district. Charter schools were an idea whose time had not yet come, but District 10 was willing to take a chance on developing an alternative school for seventh, eighth and ninth graders who were falling between the cracks of conventional education.
An alternative school
In 1973, District administrator Sandra Lerner tapped Mr. Edelsack to develop a school called The Alternative Learning Space in a converted tenement building on Webster Avenue, near Fordham Road. Though the school met with some success, Mr. Edelsack’s relationship with the Board of Education was a rocky one. Within a year, he found himself out of a job and wondering what to do next.
“My supporters in Riverdale came to my rescue,” he recalled in a recent interview, “Joyce Pilsner gave me a job at Riverdale Mental Health. Her supervision helped me to hone my social work skills and figure out what I would do next.”
His next stop was a joint appointment at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine where, from 1974 to 1978, he was an Assistant Professor at Einstein and Field Education Coordinator at the Department of Social Medicine at Montefiore.
While at Einstein, Mr. Edelsack got involved in yet another innovative educational endeavor, the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at City College where he served as Director of Field Education until now.
“The original curriculum took six or seven years to develop,” he recalled, “The goal is to expand the pool of unrepresented minority medical practitioners and bring them to underserved areas.” It entices talented high school students to enroll by offering them free tuition and a guaranteed place in medical school if and when they satisfactorily complete the program. In return, students promise to practice for at least two years in underserved areas of the city. In nearly 40 years of teaching he trained more than 1,500 students.
At Sophie Davis, he “works with community groups, hospitals, community health centers and social service agencies to create experiences that will prepare medical students to practice community oriented primary health care,” according to the school’s website.
“It’s an academic job,” Mr. Edelsack said, “but it allows me to think about other things, like the outreach program for the elderly at Manhattan Plaza (a housing complex for theater people on 42nd Street) and gave me and my students the opportunity to work on community intervention.”
It also gave him the opportunity to get involved with the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, originally known as the Chinatown Health Clinic. He began serving on the board in 1977 and as its Chairman from 2009 to 2013. He was also chair of the Chinatown Health Clinic Foundation for several years.
Pyser Sherman Edelsack was born in Los Angeles, Ca. in 1943. His father, Henry, died when he was less than a year old and his mother, Beulah, supported him and his sister Marcia with a hot dog and chili shop on Main Street that also specialized in what her neon sign called “electrified root beer.”
He went to public schools and graduated from Fairfax High School and community college before attending UCLA, where he got a degree in economic theory. He started graduate school in economics at UCLA, but got caught up in anti-Vietnam war activities and dropped out to join the Peace Corps. He was awarded a Master of Social Work degree by Hunter College in 1990.
In the Peace Corps, “I became part of the community in a small Indian town,” he recalled, “and after a crash poultry husbandry course in the United States, I introduced my neighbors to Rhode Island Red chickens.”
Asked what technique he used to increase egg production, he answered with a wry smile, “We prayed.”
During a second two-year tour he worked with local farmers to install a generator and pump in the village.
At the end of his stay in India, he said, he was surprised to be nominated as a White House Fellow by the Peace Corps. Arriving in Washington in mid-winter in “hippie clothes” he found himself surrounded by “three-piece suits.” He turned down the fellowship and went to work at RNH. At the time, its executive director, Roy Singh, was an Indian immigrant.
Mr. Edelsack married a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Susan Cole, in 1974. Trained as a social worker, Ms. Cole recently retired as Associate Director of the Settlement Housing Fund. Their son, Mack Cole-Edelsack is an architect who designs exhibits for the Museum of Modern Art.
He is predeceased by his sister, Marsha Richman, and survived by his wife and son, his nephew Joshua Richman and his nieces, Heidi Richman and Beth Cole Hale.
A funeral will be held on Thursday, May 8, at 4:00 p.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel, 180 West 76th Street. The family has asked that contributions be sent to Chinatown Health Clinic Foundation or Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education.
The author was the designer of both the Riverdale Geodesic Dome and the Alternative Learning Space and remained close to Mr. Edelsack for 42 years.