When she first started getting involved in the community, Eleanor Tiefenwerth saw herself as someone who gave without needing to get back, someone who volunteered for nearly everything and never wanted to get paid.
But eventually, Tiefenwerth made the transition, if reluctantly, to a full-time job helping others. Now, just after turning 84, she has made plans to retire as executive director of the Bayonne Equal Opportunity Foundation (BEOF) after 30 years.
Combined with her duties as deputy executive director and as a volunteer, Tiefenwerth has more than 45 years of service to the city’s disabled and elderly citizens.
“I was originally planning to retire on Feb. 1.” – Eleanor Tiefenwerth
The Bayonne Equal Opportunity Foundation is a social service agency dedicated to serving the people of the community through various outreach programs, including Head Start and Meals On Wheels. The foundations slogan is “People Helping People.”
“Mrs. Tiefenwerth exemplifies this motto,” said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez during a tribute to her several years ago.
Tiefenwerth volunteered with the BEOF from its inception in 1965, but never intended to become an employee there, let alone the executive director – which she became in 1981.
“I spent my whole life volunteering,” she said, reeling off positions she held on parent-teacher organizations, Boy Scout councils, and other groups, not just in Bayonne but elsewhere in Hudson County.
Tiefenwerth, wife of the late William Tiefenwerth, attended Horace Mann School, Bayonne High School, and Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University). She is a registered certified social worker and a HUD certified housing counselor.
Never intended to become a paid employee
During her work in the community, Tiefenwerth helped fight to get a county vocational school in Bayonne and volunteered for organization after organization.
She probably would have remained a volunteer, except for an odd and tragic twist of fate.
The assistant executive director went into the hospital for simple surgery and did not survive. The executive director asked her to take the job.
“I didn’t want to take the job,” Tiefenwerth said. “I was very happy being a volunteer.”
But eventually, she took it.
That was in 1976. The BEOF operated out of storefront facilities that were scattered around the city. But she really wanted to bring the operations together under one roof. Five years later, the BEOF got the opportunity to use the current building on Kennedy Boulevard. The executive director at the time didn’t want to take the building, but said Tiefenwerth could do so if she also took his place as executive director in 1981.
Credited with expanding the Head Start program in Bayonne
Tiefenwerth said that when she started, the Head Start program for young children had no real home.
“We were gypsies,” she said.
They operated in a variety of locations until Tiefenwerth and Mayor Dennis Collins persuaded the City Council to award the BEOF a 99-year lease on the unused City Hall Annex on Ninth Street, which became the first of three Head Start centers in Bayonne.
Over the years, Tiefenwerth is credited with instituting such programs as crosstown transportation for seniors and people with disabilities, Meals On Wheels, and holiday gatherings for seniors.
“She has been instrumental in increasing the level of services the foundation offers to the community,” Menendez said.
She has also served as a commissioner on the Bayonne Housing Authority, a member of the Community Education Advisory Council, and secretary to the Community Action Program.
Toy drives, food for seniors, holiday dinners – she has done it all.
“We did whatever was necessary for the community,” she said, noting that she often partnered with other groups, such as schools and businesses, to accomplish projects. Toy drives for Christmas got a lot of support from the community from groups like the Marine Corps League and, most recently, the Bayonne Firefighters Union. She distributes through schools, the Police Athletic League, the Bayonne Youth Center, Highways, and others.
“We help thousands of children,” she said.
Holiday baskets get a big boost from Global Terminals, which donates turkeys so the BEOF can give baskets to people associated with the programs. Those left over are given to other groups and churches to provide meals.
She didn’t do it alone, she said, noting that she had a good staff and a very supportive board of directors.
To Russia with love
In 1994, she spent two weeks in Russia with groups from People to People International and the Russian Ministry, exchanging ideas on social issues affecting the world.
Her trip came as an invitation from the Russian Ministry of Education as a result of her work at the BEOF. She was among a delegation of 24 from the United States who had an opportunity to exchange views with their counterparts in Russia. She also met with some prominent Russian leaders of the time, including the Russian Secretary of State.
During her long career, she has received numerous awards for her selfless service to the community, including The Jersey Journal Woman of Achievement Award, the Golden Recognition Award from Hudson County, and the Distinguished and Caring Service Award from the Hudson County Director of Human Services. She has been a volunteer with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and parent-teacher associations at municipal, county, and state levels.
Over the years, she’s had a strong group of supporters around her. One was her husband William, who not only served as a scoutmaster to one of the local troops, but often drove her where she needed to go so she could be involved with things even out of Bayonne.
“I didn’t drive at the time,” she said.
Former Mayor Dennis Collins was a close personal friend. They grew up together near 44th Street and moved down to the 1st Ward at about the same time years later. Jim Mahon was one of her strong supporters, too. The years have been hard in some ways since many of those closest to her have passed away.
Tiefenwerth, however, doesn’t see herself as leaving a legacy.
“I tried to do whatever was necessary to help families be more productive,” she said. “Some I’ve helped, and some have helped me. If God gave me the opportunity to help people, then I’m pleased.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.