Even into his late 70s, Elbert Wilder, a longtime custodian at the Friedberg Jewish Community Center school in Lynbrook, would stand near its entrance, flail his arms and legs and dance to entertain children as they arrived.
His routine brought smiles to the dozens of children at the school, who affectionately refer to him as “Elmo” because most can’t pronounce his first name. He em-braced the moniker, often wearing an Elmo T-shirt.
“The children run to him like he’s the Pied Piper,” said Karin Ponsiek, an administrative assistant at the JCC, formerly the Temple Am Echad school. “They love to share with him what they’ve just done in class or tell him stories, some making no sense, but he listens like it’s a bestseller. His biggest complaint during this quarantine is that he misses the children.”
Wilder has been at home since the coronavirus pandemic forced the school’s closing. So Allison Fixler, the JCC’s early-childhood director, brainstormed a way to surprise him. On May 1, his 80th birthday, she organized a drive-by parade outside his Hempstead home to show him how much the Lynbrook community has missed him during the pandemic.
“Every year before his birthday, he would always give us a countdown at the school,” Fixler said with a laugh. “He would always say, ‘One week until my birthday,’ ‘One day until my birthday.’ So every year we’d have a big celebration, and all the kids would sing to him.”
Ponsiek also recalled the yearly countdown. When the day finally came and the children sang to him, she said, Wilder didn’t smile. Instead, he looked appreciative while taking in the moment.
Despite the pandemic, the JCC students, staff and administration could not let Wilder’s milestone birthday go by without a celebration, even if it had to happen from a safe social distance. Dozens of cars drove down Fulton and Bennett avenues at noon on May 1 to celebrate, many of them taking two laps around the block. The parade-goers included students and staff from the JCC and temple, firefighters, school alumni and families.
“During a trying, stressful time when everyone was worried about health and finances, it gave all of us something positive to focus on,” Fixler said. “It brought the whole community together. We have students and staff from Oceanside, Long Beach, West Hempstead, Lynbrook, East Rockaway and Wantagh who all gladly came to honor one of the most special people.”
Wilder began working as a custodian at what was then Temple Emanuel in 1983. He remained there when the name was changed to Temple Am Echad, and also worked at its nursery school. The Friedberg JCC took over the school in July 2016, and he has worked there exclusively since then.
While he has not worked at the building for about two months, he said it was exciting people went out of their way to acknowledge his birthday. “I was very surprised,” he said. “It was so nice of them, and I didn’t expect it.”
Wilder took in the festivities with his partner, Gail Fleming, and daughter Crystal, and said he was pleased by the gesture. Wilder also has another daughter, Sharon Brown, four grandchildren, Shamiek, Everett, Eboni and Tiffany Brown, and two great-grandchildren, Vaughn and Andrew Brown.
Fixler described Wilder as a quiet, calm gentleman, and said he works harder than anyone she knows. He arrives at 6 a.m. daily to get the building ready, she said, and has never taken a sick day. He is quick to open doors for people, she added, carries bags for anyone who needs assistance, and amid the pandemic, he phones staff members weekly to make sure they are OK.
As participants paraded by Wilder’s apartment, some gave him presents, others sang happy birthday, and many held signs, which he collected from them and hung on his walls as mementos. There was a cake too.
“You could see the joy and excitement emanating from behind Elbert’s mask,” Ponsiek said. “It was so wonderful to see how happy this made Elbert and his family.”