Gottlieb's joke misses the mark

| 21 Jun 2012 | 08:25

By Patricia Keller and Linda Smith Hancharick

WEST MILFORD — West Milford School Board Vice President Wayne Gottlieb gave a memorable speech at Tuesday night’s graduation ceremony.

He challenged the soon-to-be graduates to be mindful of the decisions they make because they will have to live with the outcomes. The decisions you make, he said, will shape your life. There are no do-overs.

But he began his remarks with references to snipers and hidden bombs, attempts at humor that largely fell flat, but would later prompt two of his colleagues on the board to remark that a student making similar comments would face suspension from school.

‘Poor choice of words’ Gottlieb filled in for School Board President Dave Richards, who missed the ceremony because he was away on a business trip.

After he was introduced by Interim Superintendent John Petrelli, Gottlieb looked up to the top of the bleachers above where the announcer for the sporting events sits and asked if there were any snipers.

He assured the crowd - or the would-be sniper - that he was not the school board president Richards.

Gottlieb then checked the podium from where he spoke and asked if it had been checked for bombs.

There could be heard a very low chuckle, but mostly there was no response from the crowd of more than 1,000 graduates and spectators.

One parent who was in the audience but didn’t want to be named said “it sounded weird and could have possibly offended people” since we’ve become hypersensitive about violence and terrorism.

Richards said his wife, Donna Richards, who is also a school board trustee and was present at the graduation, was very upset. She called him right after the ceremony.

“It was a poor choice of words,” Richards said in an interview Thursday. “That’s all I can say. He tried to be funny.”

Gottlieb called and apologized to Richards. Richards said he accepts the apology.

Richards said he told Gottlieb about two weeks ago that he would be filling in for him and encouraged him to write a speech that he could read at the graduation. Gottlieb said he had some ideas and would wing it, according to Richards.

“It is what it is,” said Richards. “He tried to be funny. If he said it on an airplane, he would have been arrested; if a kid says it in school, he’d be suspended.”

Is an apology enough? Gottlieb told The Messenger it was his attempt at humor since his name wasn’t even in the program. As far as he knew, he said, no board member has ever been shot at a graduation ceremony nor a bomb found on the podium at one.

“In my mind things that are that absurd potentially are the stuff of humor,” he said. “It was entirely self-deprecating against me and Dave Richards,” who he referred to as his buddy, adding that it was also nothing personal aimed at Richards.

“He (Richards) knows that if I have any issue with him, I would certainly pursue to take it up with him personally and not use a graduation ceremony to get back at him.”

Gottlieb offered apologies to anyone who may have been offended by his attempt at humor.

“First of all, let me say that if anyone actually called you who was there and was offended by those comments in any way, let me offer my sincere apology to those people who were offended by the comments,” said Gottlieb.

School Board member Jim Foody doesn’t think an apology cuts it.

“If a kid had done this, we would have been all over him,” said Foody. “He would have been suspended and had a psych eval. I’m disgusted by this.”

As board members, Gottlieb and Foody are often on different sides of issues.

Richards said Gottlieb is preparing a statement for the school board, which meets on Tuesday night. He thinks that should put the matter to rest.

“I want to just move forward,” said Richards.

No do-overs Gottlieb said that as he walked out of the ceremony, he only got one comment from someone and that was that his speech was good. He said the only calls he’s received were from reporters. His number is listed, he added, and if anyone was offended, he thinks he might have heard from them.

The message in Gottlieb’s speech proved prophetic to the speaker himself.

“Little things often have dramatic results,” Gottlieb said in his prepared speech, little things that you don’t think are huge but after which you wish you could have the chance to do it over.

In an interview, Gottlieb concluded: “I don’t get a do-over for the speech.”

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