Remembering Gil Trachtman, 1926–2013
By Tom Fagan & Leah J. Singh
Gilbert Marvin Trachtman was born on August 19, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York, and died in New York City on August 18, 2013, one day short of his 87th birthday. After a lengthy struggle with kidney disease, he spent his final 10 months as a resident at the Hallmark assisted living facility in Battery Park City.
Education and Employment
Dr. Trachtman attended elementary and secondary schools in New York; in a taped interview, he recalled getting into trouble for insubordination on his first day of kindergarten (Fagan, 1995). Gil was always an outspoken person and often a critic in our field. After graduating from high school, Gil attended Brooklyn College where he majored in premed. Along the way, he served in the Navy for 2 years during World War II. He returned to Brooklyn College and finished his BA degree in 1949 with a GPA just over 2.0 thanks to making the dean's list in his last semester. Gil said he applied to 35 graduate schools, receiving letters of acceptance from just three: Temple University, Brooklyn College, and George Washington University. He chose George Washington and in 1951 received his MA degree in clinical psychology. He interned under the supervision of Victor Elkin in the Long Beach Public Schools and finished a second field experience under the supervision of Leonard Berkowitz at Children's Village.
Jobs being difficult to find, he took an assistant position with New York University (NYU) cleaning the play therapy rooms and animal cages while working on his PhD in school psychology. It was around that time that he met his wife of 55 years, the late Joan Trachtman (née Polan). He also worked as a school psychologist back at Long Beach, where he completed his dissertation on school readiness while working there from 1954 to 1963. He received his PhD from NYU in 1958. He left Long Beach and took a position at NYU in September 1963 to reactivate possibly the first training program in the United States titled “school psychology.” Over the years, he helped to hire additional faculty, and his first PhD student was Don Bersoff, the current president of the American Psychological Association. Gil remained with the NYU program until his retirement in 2002. He stepped down as program director in 1986, but remained active for several years and upon retirement was named Steinhardt professor emeritus. Even after retirement, he served as adjunct, continuing to serve on dissertation committees and assist with student advising, perhaps until 2007. The doctoral program earned APA accreditation in 1979 and NASP approval in 1992. He also helped to pioneer the PsyD degree in New York State and, for many years, the NYU program offered both a PhD and a PsyD in school psychology.
Memberships and Contributions
Trachtman became an associate member of APA in 1953, a regular member in 1958, and a Division 16 Fellow in 1964. He was a long-time contributor to and member of the NASP leadership since joining NASP in 1970. He was a strong advocate for doctoral and nondoctoral practitioners and a staunch and outspoken critic of some APA policies. Gil served as president of the Nassau County Psychological Association. His contributions to the NYU program and the development of school psychology in New York State are well known.
Gil often debated others about the policies of APA and the advocacy for the nondoctoral school psychology practitioner. Among his contributions, many in our leadership will recall his 1980 Springhill Symposium speech and subsequent School Psychology Review (SPR) publication, “On Such a Full Sea,” in which he argued against the field jumping on the many bandwagons of psychology and education, and some policies of the APA (Trachtman, 1981). His speech and article generated considerable controversy at the Spring Hill Symposium. I was told that some attendees unsuccessfully lobbied the SPR editor to not have the speech included in the proceedings. I believe Gil always knew he was on the right track when the APA leadership was getting uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he understood the importance of APA for doctoral school psychology and for accredited training programs, and he was a member of APA for many years. He also attended the 1981 Olympia Conference [for proceedings see SPR, 1982, 11(2)].
He served as New York's delegate to NASP from 1979 to 1980 and 1983 to 1984 and served on its Accreditation, Credentialing and Training Committee (1981-1982). In addition to his perspectives on many matters, Gil was the driving force behind getting the Delegate Assembly (DA) to adopt a policy requiring broader reviews of major policy documents before they were voted on by the DA. In his memo to the NASP leadership, he expressed his discontent with many APA policies but agreed with the comprehensive and often cumbersome process by which APA arrived at such decisions. In contrast, he was less impressed with a NASP process where several standards documents were being sent out before a DA meeting and that delegates were expected to digest in time to vote on them in the coming few weeks. He wrote:
“We need a policy in NASP which requires that broad written policy standards for the organization cannot be adopted at any DA meeting without prior review and discussion at a previous DA meeting followed by a Communiqué report immediately thereafter, soliciting membership feedback and allowing sufficient time intervening for individual members or state associations to review the document and consult with their delegate, preceding final adoption” (Personal communication of Gil Trachtman to the NASP leadership, March 14, 1983).
As I recall, the DA did at least adopt the part about the two DA reviews. It was a much needed and welcomed policy change.
Gil entered the field in its early development and witnessed its rapid growth from the 1960s to the 1980s. At that time, many trainers were less known for their research and more for their program leadership and mentoring. Gil published what I consider philosophical and wisdom articles, some even with stories told in parable form (“The Blind men and the Elephant,” Trachtman et al., 1965; “My Brother is a Hairy Man,” Trachtman, 1966). Gil was a staunch advocate of treating the parent as the client and advocating full parental access to test scores and school records.
In the first decades of NASP, it was common for the president to conduct an evening awards banquet during the annual convention. Among the award recipients at the 1981 convention banquet in Houston, Texas, Tom Fagan recognized Gil Trachtman as being “among the giants in our profession having contributed in so many ways, over so many years.” In 1987, he received NYU's Professor of the Year award. He was later recognized as the Legends in School Psychology speaker at the 1997 NASP Annual Convention (Trachtman, 1997a, 1997b) and at a banquet held at the La Colline Restaurant in Washington, DC on August 5, 2000. At the Washington event, Gil's contributions were praised by many of his colleagues who also unveiled some humorous aspects of his character and career. No doubt he received many recognitions from the New York city and state associations with whom he was active for decades. For example, NYASP named an award in his honor, the Gil Trachtman Leadership Award in School Psychology.
Gil Trachtman's death is a loss to the field of school psychology. Gil's speeches, policy positions, and writings often served as school psychology's conscience, raising issues and being outspoken on matters that many preferred to avoid. He consistently gave us perspectives on ourselves and our field that caused us to take pause and reflect. He brought a sense of wisdom and balance to our field during its period of rapid growth. Just the lack of his physical presence creates a void in our field.
Over the years since his retirement, Fagan tried to make personal contact with Gil when traveling to New York. His wife, Joan, was ill, and he spent almost all his time with her. Her illness drained Gil's motivation, as she remained the focus of his life. Following Joan's death in 2010, Judy Harwood sent Gil a letter of condolence, and sought Gil's assistance in gathering the history of the New York school psychology groups. In his response he described the loss of Joan and his own failing health necessitating that he not participate despite his intense involvement with the field in his earlier years (Personal communication of Gil Trachtman to Judy Harwood, August 28, 2011).
Recollections of Others
Following the announcement of his death, several comments were posted on the Internet, with some extracted for presentation here:
Howie Knoff (personal communication, August 21, 2013). How sad to lose Gil, but what a celebrated, memorable life. Gil was one of my political mentors in New York— I was the NASP New York state delegate immediately after him. Gil was never at a loss for words, and he was more than comfortable with his beliefs, his advocacy, and saying what needed to be said. He was outspoken, but honest; empathic, but certain; politically savvy, but not politically correct. We need more Gil Trachtmans in our profession— unafraid to tell the truth, regardless of the controversy, consequences, or consternation that the truth sometimes creates. Whether you always agreed with Gil or not, you could not help but respect the man. He was a giant.
Bill Strein (personal communication August 21, 2013). Though I never knew Gil well, every one of my encounters with him were memorable, as were his words. As a graduate student, I heard him speak at a conference where he relayed an incident from his early days in which the school superintendent announced to a parent meeting a controversial policy that the superintendent had made, but of which Gil had had no part. The superintendent then turned over the microphone to Gil with the comment that the school psychologist will now explain the rationale for this decision. Gil stepped up to the mic and simply said, “This policy is not supported by research.” His message tied to this story was this: If you're doing a good job as a school psychologist at work, someone better love you at home because the administration won't love you at work. I still use this story in my own graduate teaching.
Judith Kaufman (Personal communication, August 22, 2013). Like everyone who knew him, I have been flooded with “Gil” memories … like driving to a SPECNY meeting in Albany, Gil being so passionate about what he was talking about … missed the exit and almost wound up in Syracuse! Or at another meeting, being so involved with our conversation, he forgot where he parked his car … it took us about 2 hours to find it! Gil was an inspiration to all of us … to become advocates, to not be fearful of taking an unpopular stance when it was justified, and to instill us all with hope that things can change. Gil will be truly missed but well remembered.
Ernie Collabolletta (Personal communication, August 20, 2013). His roles were many: author, mentor, critic, teacher, friend, civil libertarian, and overall troublemaker to the status quo. Both as a practitioner and trainer, he fought for the underdog. He challenged ideas and ideologies. He forced you to think. He loved baseball as much as he loved the theatre. He was pragmatic yet idealistic. Indeed, he was a Renaissance man. The challenge that Gil issued to his students was simple. I remember it well. Day one of graduate school, Gil said to us: “American education sucks, it's your job to make it better.”
Comments at the 2000 CDSPP/TSP Dinner
Abe Givner. Gil reminds me of Don Quixote, Parsifal, or Ezra; a man we New Yorkers always look to for insight, inspiration, and the rallying call for the next battle. So whatever that battle may be, I know Gil can count on the legions of psychologists he has touched to travel the road by his side (Givner, 2000).
Judie Alpert. Students love him. And how could they not? He makes a lot of rules. He spends an enormous amount of time explaining them to students in private meetings. And then he spends an enormous amount of time with faculty insisting that one or another rule be broken for a particular student. He is there at every school psychology PsyD or PhD oral—whether he is on the committee or not. He is there to support the student before orals, and he is there after to take photographs. Later, he sends the students and faculty snapshots of the big day (Alpert, 2000).
No doubt several others will prepare comments in memory of Gil. Perhaps the NYASP newsletter will publish them and find space for the loving and most informative memorial service comments of his son, Jeffrey. Gil's obituary stated that he was the father of Jeffrey and Joshua, father-in-law of Sonya Yerid, grandfather of Anna, Jordan, Benjamin, and Matthew. Fagan recalls from long ago how proud Gil was that he was helping his son with a “cause” they shared at his son's high school. Jeffrey ran into trouble for a high school sex survey that his school magazine, The Stuyvesant Voice, wished to conduct. It was censored by the school administration. Gil helped him fight that in court, although the matter was lost on appeal in the Second Court and the Supreme Court denied review (Personal communication of Jeffrey Trachtman to Tom Fagan, October 18, 2013). Gil's life informs us, as it did his family, that you can make your mark in life, even be famous and certainly beloved, without taking the path that most others take, going along with the crowd, or conforming to the ideas and policies of the so called establishment.
Each year, Fagan has his students make short presentations on well-known current contributors to our field (Who's Who) and former contributors (Who Was Who). It's difficult when he must move an old friend from one list to the other. Services for Dr. Gilbert Trachtman were held in New York City Thursday, August 22, 2013 at “The Riverside,” 76th Street and Amsterdam Ave. In Gil's spirit, guests were invited to dress comfortably. In lieu of flowers, contributions were asked to be made to the Gilbert M. Trachtman Fund of the NYCLU Foundation.
Alpert, J. (2000, August). Comments at the CDSPP/TSP dinner and roast for Gil Trachtman. La Colline Restaurant, Washington, DC.
Fagan, T. (1995, May 13). Interview with Gil Trachtman. Videotape available from the author.
Givner, A. (2000). Comments at the CDSPP/ TSP dinner and roast for Gil Trachtman. La Colline Restaurant, Washington, DC.
Trachtman, G. M. (1997a). The road less traveled: School psychology as an oppressed profession. Communiqué, 26(1), 14, 16.
Trachtman, G. M. (1997b). The road less traveled Part II: Forty years in school psychology. Communiqué, 26(4), 1, 6–9.
Trachtman, G. M. (1981). On such a full sea. School Psychology Review, 10(2), 138–181.
Trachtman, G. M. (1972). Pupils, parents, privacy, and the school psychologist. American Psychologist, 27(1), 37–45.
Trachtman, G. M. (1966). My brother is a hairy man. Psychology in the Schools, 3(2), 110–115.
Trachtman, G. M., Elkin, V. B., Guttentag, M., Liebman, O. B., & Levin, E. S. (1965). The blind men and the elephant: Four perceptions of school psychology. Journal of School Psychology, 3(4), 1–22.
Tom Fagan is a professor of psychology and director of the school psychology program, and Leah J. Singh is a doctoral student and research assistant in the program at the University of Memphis.