Love story: Record gift entwines Morristown High School sweethearts in perpetuity

In life, these high school sweethearts never had children.

But generations of Morristown High School students will claim Carl George and Shirley L. Eklund, class of ’39, as family, thanks to a $650,000 donation by the Eklund estate.

HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS: The late Shirley and George Eklund, MHS class of '39, bequeathed $650,000 for a scholarship fund--largest in school history. Photos courtesy of Morristown High School.

HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS: The late Shirley and George Eklund, MHS class of ’39, bequeathed $650,000 for a scholarship fund–largest in school history. Photos courtesy of Morristown High School.

The largest gift in the school’s 145-year history will endow a scholarship to be awarded every four years to a  junior with financial need who plans to pursue a teaching career.  The student may receive up to $30,000 a year for each of his or her four years in college.

Granting the scholarship to high school juniors will give them time to plan, and to apply to universities that they otherwise might have ruled out because of price, said Molly Servais, chairperson of the Morris Educational Foundation.

“We are in awe of the generosity of the Eklunds. We are so happy to be stewards of this gift,” Molly said on Tuesday, as a crowd of MHS juniors lined the bannisters for a press conference on the high school’s Heritage Stairs.

The location almost certainly would have brought smiles to George, who died in 2012 at age 95, and Shirley, who passed away a year earlier at 89.

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A Glee Club tenor known as “Bing” to classmates, George Eklund dropped out of high school in Brooklyn during the Great Depression to work as a “Printer’s Devil” to support his mother and two sisters. In 1934 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped build the Morristown National Historical Park.

While in Morristown, George decided to finish his high school career.  At Morristown High–perhaps on those very Heritage Stairs–he met Shirley A. Lanterman.

Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, left, and Ecklund family friend Glenn Redbord hoist $650K check for new Ecklund Scholarship Fund. Photos by Kevin Coughlin

Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, left, and Eklund family friend Glenn Redbord hoist $650K check for new Eklund Scholarship Fund. Photos by Kevin Coughlin

Shirley sang in the A Cappella Choir, as did George, and she played piano and organ, too. She also worked on the school newspaper and was secretary on the student council.

And she served as business manager for the yearbook, which noted her “commercial” studies–her family owned a prominent funeral home in town–and praised her “ability to be a very competent and diligent secretary.”  Which is what she would become, an executive secretary, for 32 years at Warner-Lambert (now Pfizer).

George was self-reliant: He who won swimming medals in the Civilian Conservation Corps after studying a book by Johnny Weismuller, an Olympian who starred in Tarzan movies in the ’30s.

That, and George’s mellow tenor and “not too loud, not too quiet manner” (yearbook) apparently agreed with Shirley. They married in 1942.

By then, George was a 1st lieutenant in the Army, destined for the Pacific Theater as a supply officer.

After World War II, the couple moved to Roxbury and George spent four decades with New Jersey Bell Telephone, mostly as a central office technician. He was involved in the rollout of the nation’s first electronic switching system, centered in Succasunna in 1965. As a member of the Morristown chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America, he helped install an intercom system for diabetic children at Camp Nejeda in Sussex County, according to his obituary.

Molly Servais and Debbie Sontupe of the Morris Educational Foundation and Glenn Redbord, friend of the late George and Shirley Ecklund. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Molly Servais and Debbie Sontupe of the Morris Educational Foundation and Glenn Redbord, friend of the late George and Shirley Eklund. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

George also loved archery and gardening and sailing his catamaran on Lake Hopatcong. Faith and music remained constants for George and Shirley throughout their lives.

“They were deeply religious, and loved music. They were generous, very kind people,” said Glenn Redbord, their longtime friend and attorney, who presented a ceremonial check to school officials on Monday.

George studied voice under Walter Blazer of the Manhattan School of Music, and he sang oratorios as tenor soloist at Madison Methodist Church for nearly two decades. He also sang with choirs at the Morristown United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown and the Morris Choral Society, among other groups.

“George and Shirley were two of those wonderful people we called Presby-Methodists,” said the Rev. Neill Tolboom, pastor at the United Methodist Church.  “They had a foot in both churches, both spiritually and financially.  Shirley was a kind soul who enjoyed literature and particularly quotations. They will be missed.”

Theirs is the largest gift ever given to the school, which dates to 1869, said Ed Myers, (Class of 1985), president of the MHS Alumni Association.   The Eklunds “are great role models for alumni” who supported the association over the years, he said.

“They walked the halls here. Now every year, their memories will come alive,” said MHS graduate Debbie Sontupe, who volunteers with the Morris Educational Foundation.

Morristown High juniors Kassina Dwyer and Greg Farrell both are hoping they are lucky enough to win the first Eklund Scholarship this spring, so they can focus on academics without financial strings.

“It’s nice to know people out there are encouraging us to pursue our dreams,” said Greg, junior class president.

Such talk was music to Glenn Redbord’s ears.

“This would have made them so happy,” he said of his late friends, Morristown High School sweethearts George and Shirley Eklund. “This is exactly what they wanted to do with what they accumulated.”

Students line the Heritage Stairs for announcement of the largest scholarship gift in Morristown High history. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Students line the Heritage Stairs for announcement of the largest scholarship gift in Morristown High history. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

 

 

 



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