Who Was Elmer Gordon?

  • Elmer Gordon: Outspoken. Persistent. Civic-minded. Rush-Henrietta's own.

    Elmer L. Gordon combined a career as a prominent medical investigator with outstanding civic leadership. Outspoken, blunt, direct, Elmer believed citizens had a responsibility to become involved in their community.

    As a forensic toxicologist with the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office, Elmer built a national reputation as an expert in poisons and their detection. He was one of only 100 toxicologists licensed by the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists. From 1969 until his death, he shared his expertise with medical students at the University of Rochester, where he was an associate in pharmacology.

    With four children attending Rush-Henrietta schools, Elmer was elected to the Board of Education in 1970. As president from 1976 to 1978, Elmer brought a no-nonsense approach to board business. An advocate of young people and the taxpayer, he believed in giving students a firm foundation in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also called on educators to step up efforts to prepare students for jobs as well as college. He took a special interest in school sports, concerts, and plays. On Saturday afternoons, you could find him at the stadium behind Sperry High School, which now bears his name. With characteristic humor, Elmer frequently remarked that, judging from the splinters he brought home, the stadium seats could stand refurbishing.

    In 1979, Elmer was elected president of the Monroe County Schools Boards Association. He was the first African-American to hold that office. He called on association members to become more active in legislative issues, reminding them of the growing influence of the state and federal governments on local education.

    Born and raised in Portsmouth, Va., Elmer left college during the Great Depression to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. He eventually returned to school, supporting himself as a pipefitter in the Navy Yards of Norfolk, Va.

    When World War II began, Elmer joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron, part of the famed all-African American pilot group stationed at Tuskegee Army Airfield. As a Tuskegee Airman, Elmer flew missions over Europe, developing a fighting spirit that was to characterize his life. He was proud of his service with this historic group of pilots and remained in touch with them throughout his life.

    After the war, Elmer completed college, some 12 years after he began, earning a degree in chemistry from Virginia Union University. He served as an assistant toxicologist for the state of Virginia for 15 years before moving to Henrietta in 1964.

    Elmer was a risk-taker, publicly and privately. He battled back from three heart attacks, refusing to let up in his work or community activities. We saw him at sporting events, concerts, community meetings, at church, and in school classrooms. We heard him, too. Elmer believed in saying what he thought. A day before his death on Sept. 1, 1979, he was using a phone by his hospital bed to check up on school board activities.

    Persistent to the end, Elmer Gordon carved a special niche in the Rush-Henrietta community, setting an example of public service and civic leadership.

Elmer Gordon, bottom center, poses with his fellow Tuskegee Airmen and famed actress, Lena Horne.
Elmer Gordon as he appeared on the September 1976 cover of About Time magazine.
Elmer Gordon, second from left, chairs a Rush-Henrietta Board of Education meeting.