Elmer Gordon: A Rush-Henrietta Trailblazer

  • As Rush-Henrietta celebrates 75 years, Rush-Henrietta reflects on the many contributions of a local legend named Elmer Gordon.

    Elmer combined a career as a prominent medical investigator with incredible civic leadership. Outspoken, blunt, and direct, he developed a national reputation as an expert in poisons and their detection as a forensic toxicologist with the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office.

    Believing that each citizen had a responsibility to the community, Elmer was a true role model. With four children attending Rush-Henrietta schools, he was elected to the Board of Education in 1970. As its president from 1976 to 1978, Elmer brought a no-nonsense approach to board business. A staunch advocate of children and the taxpayer, he believed in providing students with a solid foundation in reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the same time, he called on educators to increase efforts to prepare students for jobs as well as college.

    “Elmer Gordon was a true leader,” says Rick Page, a physical education teacher and coach in the 1970s. “He would advocate for special education, at the same time he was advocating for sports, while he was advocating for transportation. He was just incredible.”

    Elmer took a special interest in school sports, concerts, and plays. On Saturday afternoons, he often could be found behind Rush-Henrietta Senior High School at the stadium that now bears his name. With characteristic humor, Elmer frequently remarked that, judging from the splinters he brought home, the seating could stand to be refurbished. We know he would appreciate the stadium we have today.

    In 1979, Elmer was elected president of the Monroe County Schools Boards Association. He was the first Black person to hold that office. In that role, 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. “He didn’t make a big point of it, but he let you know he was proud,” Jann Packard, then executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, told the Democrat and Chronicle upon Gordon’s death in 1979.

    Born and raised in Virginia, Elmer left college during the Great Depression to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. When he returned to school, he supported himself by working 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-Black pilot group at the Tuskegee Army Airfield. He flew missions over Europe, developing a fighting spirit that was to characterize his life. He was proud of his service with these historic pilots and remained in touch with them throughout his life.

    After the war, Elmer completed college, 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 rebounded from three heart attacks, refusing to let up in his work or community activities. Elmer frequently was seen at sporting events, concerts, community meetings, at church, and in classrooms. He was heard, too. Elmer believed in saying what he thought. Just a day before he died, he was using the phone by his hospital bed to check on Board of Education activities.

    Persistent to the end, Elmer Gordon carved a special niche in the Rush-Henrietta community, setting an unmatched example of public service and civic leadership. He will never be forgotten.

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