By Dana Howell
In August of 2019, construction for the Bruce Springsteen: His Hometown exhibit was well underway at MCHA. It had to be ready in six weeks, and the museum was buzzing with energy. For those of you who have never been to visit us, the library is located on the first floor directly across from the large main gallery, where Director of Collections, Bernadette Rogoff, and Associate Curator, Joe Zemla, were busy at work designing the space. As you might imagine, a museum is typically quiet, but there is nothing quiet about a Springsteen exhibit!
Two of our dedicated library volunteers, Joe Reilly and Bill Starsinic, dropped in that afternoon to put the finishing touches on a large collection they had been working on for about 18 months. It documented the impressive 50-year history of the performing arts program they pioneered at Freehold High School, more informally known around here as simply “The Boro.” Joe had been hired as an art teacher in 1959; Bill joined the English department in 1960. I congratulated them on the completion of their collection after so much time and effort. As they were leaving, they mentioned it would be a while before they could return, as Bill would need time to recover from an upcoming surgery. Joe took a quick look into the gallery and offhandedly mentioned the time Bruce came back to visit him at the high school in 2007.
“Wait, what?” I said, surprised. “Bruce came to visit you?”
“Oh, yes,” Joe said. “He was a student. Used to hang out in my room all the time during lunch so nobody would bother him. Really nice kid. Quiet.”
“We still run into him in town here and there, and he always stops to say hello to us,” smiled Bill, and they began to reminisce about Sweet Lew's the day before Christmas, old times at the high school, even a personal invitation to Joe from Bruce to meet up at the famed Café Wha? in Greenwich Village.
I thought for a moment. Their experience was so unique in that they knew him before he became, well...Bruce. I desperately wanted to interview them, but hesitated because all I had to record with was my cell phone; we were still waiting on grant funding to purchase recording equipment for an upcoming oral history project. I decided the phone was better than nothing and asked if they would mind sharing their recollections of Bruce in high school. They looked at each other as though surprised I was interested in what they had to say, and graciously agreed to sit down with me in the library for a few minutes. Even amidst the bustle of background activity and ringing phones, I think you will agree that Bill and Joe are true professionals and wonderful storytellers!
Listen to the interview:
This recording has been excerpted from the original in the interest of time and content pertinent to Springsteen for the purposes of this story. The full original recording and transcript are housed in MCHA’s archives. The transcript for this excerpted recording is available upon request from email@example.com
For more Freehold Borough history and another little window into Bruce’s early world, we will be sharing oral histories from the workers of the A & M Karagheusian Rug Mill, where Bruce’s father began working in 1941. MCHA’s Bernadette Rogoff conducted several of these interviews in 2000 as part of our exhibit dedicated to the iconic Freehold mill, which produced rugs for both Radio City Music Hall and the U.S. Supreme Court building in the early thirties. Stay tuned!