Bayside’s Wettingfeld honored with women’s history award

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Baysider Joan Brown Wettingfeld has spent the last four decades chronicling and preserving the heritage of her hometown, but her own life and contributions could fill a history book.

Wettingfeld, a founding member of the Bayside Historical Society, was set to receive the New York City Council’s Pacesetter Award Thursday from Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) at his Bayside office in honor of Women’s History Month.

The Pacesetter Award is given to a woman who has contributed outstanding community service in each Council district.

The Bayside Historical Society is also honoring her at its annual spring tea next month.

Wettingfeld has written and edited historical booklets from the society and served as a trustee and board member. Her father Joseph Brown founded the historical society in 1964, and Wettingfeld said the importance of history had been instilled in her as a child.

“We’d talk about things over the dinner table,” she said, describing how her father, who had majored in history at Columbia University, would recite historical oratory about American Revolution traitor Benedict Arnold to the family’s delight. “He would entertain us.”

Wettingfeld was born in Manhattan and briefly lived in New Jersey and Astoria before her family settled in Bayside when she was 9.

She attended PS 130 and Flushing High School before transferring to the newly built Bayside High School, from which she graduated as valedictorian.

Wettingfeld majored in American history at Barnard College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in 1942.

She completed her master’s degree in political science at Columbia University a year later, and was later hired to write all the American History biographical entries in the second edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

“We were always told we could do anything a man could do,” Wettingfeld said of her Barnard experience.

During World War II, Wettingfeld co-chaired Barnard’s Bundles for Britain effort, sending donations of clothing to the war-torn nation. Her husband-to-be, Henry, was a chemist and fellow Baysider who unbeknownst to her was secretly working on the Manhattan Project.

“I didn’t know it all the while I was going out with him,” said Wettingfeld, whose husband’s work on the atomic bomb kept them separated for much of their first year of marriage. “It was such a well-kept secret, we couldn’t even imagine it.”

When her husband’s work took him to Buffalo, N.Y., the two lived on the upper floor of a house. They closed the heating vents so people couldn’t listen in on meetings that Henry Wettingfeld was holding there about the project.

“We didn’t question a lot,” said Joan Wettingfeld, recalling that censorship of mail from soldiers stationed overseas was common. “The minute the bomb was dropped, he called me because he could tell me what he was doing.”

After the war, the couple lived in the Broadway section of Flushing and then moved to Bayside. When her daughter was a child, Wettingfeld — who was serving on the PS 41 Parents’ Organization with Borough President-to-be Claire Shulman — was selected to screen candidates for the first School Board 26.

“After the war the town changed,” Wettingfeld recalled of Bayside. “The farms were all sold and the properties were put up.”

She recalled how during the rationing days of World War II, the area was lined with “victory gardens” in which homeowners grew their own vegetables. Gardening also developed as a hobby for women whose husbands had gone to war, she said.

But the Bayside of old, which was full of open space, was beginning to fill in with buildings. When the house that once belonged to the Bell family, one of the earliest Quaker families in Bayside and for whom Bell Boulevard is named, went up for sale, Wettingfeld’s father tried unsuccessfully to get contributions from residents so that the historical society could purchase the house.

Wettingfeld expressed concern about the latest development trend in Bayside: knocking down older one-family homes and replacing them with much larger modern houses.

“These houses are getting to be so out of key with the neighborho­ods,” Wettingfeld said. “There’s no land around them for kids to play on.”

Wettingfeld taught at PS 178 and PS 26, and in 1970 she earned another master’s degree in library science at St. John’s University.

Henry Wettingfeld died in 1994, the year she began writing a history column for the TimesLedger Newspapers. Wettingfeld has a son, Jonathan, and daughter, Karen.

A grateful community has bestowed numerous awards and honors on Wettingfeld over the years, and she has not taken any of them for granted.

“All of them have been a surprise to me and I’m very grateful.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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