When Great Neck’s Dr. Phoebe Lazarus, who will be a very active 94 years old in February, read prominent American author Pearl Buck’s The Child Who Never Grew when it was published in 1950, little did Dr. Lazarus know that the inspiration she found from the book would lead her to a correspondence and meeting with the famed Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Peace Prize writer that would develop into a lifelong career in special education.
Buck’s book was a groundbreaker, as the author of The Good Earth became one of the first prominent people to reveal that there was mental disability in her family, and wrote about what it was like to be a parent of a child with disabilities. Dr. Lazarus and her husband, Norman “Bud” Lazarus, who were married for nearly 60 years before he passed in 2001, were themselves the parents of two daughters, Diane and Fern, both of whom had been diagnosed as “mentally retarded,” as the developmentally handicapped were then labeled.
After moving to Great Neck in 1952 because the couple felt that Great Neck’s schools were better suited for Diane and Fern, Dr. Lazarus became involved as a founding member in the Nassau chapter of the AHRC (Association for the Help of Retarded Children) and served as its president.
As part of that organization, Dr. Lazarus wrote to the famous author in December of 1954, asking her to appear at an AHRC function in Kings Point. By January, Buck had agreed to come and speak. More than 200 people attended.
Dr. Lazarus, who has carefully preserved the letters that Buck typed and signed herself, displayed one in which Buck wrote: “I get a lot of letters asking me to appear and the only reason I would come (to Great Neck) is if it’s going to develop into something more than just a little meeting. I am not able to decide whether this group is simply a meeting or whether this group is to work for wide community support. Let me know a little more about your plans.”
“My whole point,” Dr. Lazarus recalled, “was to inspire people to join the AHRC and it did.”
Dr. Lazarus was certainly inspired herself after Buck appeared. “After meeting her, I was not afraid to go ahead,” she said, referring to her subsequent professional work in special education. “She gave me a spark and inspired me to go for grants to get me started in special education.”
Dr. Lazarus earned a doctorate at Columbia University Teachers College and ran the College’s original learning disabilities program between 1965 and 1970. Her professional life also included teaching in Levittown, being the special education supervisor for Nassau BOCES and working in the neuro psychology department at North Shore University Hospital.
Dr. Lazarus well remembers meeting Buck that day in 1955. “She was the most dignified, forward looking person, very elegant in her manner and in the way in which she connected to people,” she said. “She spoke to us as if every one of the 200 people there were parents of children with disabilities. I just related to her instantly. “
Evidently, Buck, who died in 1973 after writing more than 100 books, was also impressed after meeting Dr. Lazarus. “Ever since you and I talked after the meeting,” the author subsequently wrote, “my thoughts have been very much with you. I grieve so much that you have double the burden that most of us have to carry and yet I discern in you a spirit which I feel will make even the burden meaningful for other retarded children and their parents and beyond them, all people.”
Today, Diane and Fern have reached senior citizen status, and live in separate group homes that best meet their individual needs. Buck’s daughter, Carol, spent nearly 60 years in a New Jersey institution before passing away in 1979.
Dr. Lazarus, who attributes her longevity and active life to “good genes and good luck,” has lost count of how many different times she’s retired. She was president of the Great Neck Social Center for six years until she gave it up to assume her latest position, executive vice president at the Center. “I finally said, ‘C’mon, it’s time for someone else to do this work,’” she explained.
She’s a firm believer in “life after retirement.” Says Dr. Lazarus, “Retirement should not be, ‘now I’m finished with all that stuff.’ Retirement should be ‘now I’m going to plan ahead and see what I’m going to do next after I do the things I have to do from 9 to 5 or whatever.’”