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PS 230 would erase volunteer to honor unsung Civil War ‘hero’

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A family is fighting to keep their mother’s name on the elementary school where she volunteered and, in doing so, block an effort to rechristen it for a pre-teen runaway killed during the Civil War.

More than 30 years after becoming the Doris L. Cohen Elementary School — named for a woman who volunteered at the school and served on the local school board for 25 years — the four-story building on Albermarle Road could soon be honoring Clarence McKenzie, a 12-year-old killed in a musket accident at an army camp in Annapolis in 1861, where he was helping the Union cause as a drummer boy.

Cohen’s adult children don’t want their mother to take a backseat to a juvenile Civil War casualty.

“I don’t understand the point of dishonoring my mother,” said Ellen Paskin, Cohen’s daughter. “You don’t name a school lightly.”

Her brother said renaming the Kensington school would send a message to kids that they “should be like this boy,” added JC Cohen.

The president of the parent teacher association had no problem with that.

“This boy was an unsung hero,” said Nicholas Pisano, who is also a vice-president at Green-Wood Cemetery, where McKenzie is buried under a large monument.

“I’m not saying a 12-year-old should go off to war, but in this day where most kids are plugged into their iPods, [McKenzie’s story] brings them back to a different reality.

“It’s the message of citizenship and doing stuff for other people,” he added.

In fact, McKenzie was the first Brooklynite to give his life in the War Between the States. He joined New York’s fightin’ 13th Regiment after fifth grade, the highest level of public education at the time, according to Pisano.

The prepubescent Yankee’s name is recognizable to the students at PS 230, who learn about him in the classroom while studying the Civil War and on trips to Green-Wood Cemetery.

But McKenzie’s statue in Green-Wood is enough of an honor, Cohen’s family says. Especially when renaming the school would require a dishonor to their mother.

She might not have gone off to war, but she fought her battles in the 1960s and ’70s, when city teachers went on strike. Cohen marched on Albany for school funding increases and also helped get playgrounds, gifted programs and pre-K classes set up at PS 230 and other schools.

Awareness of Cohen’s contributions has faded over the years. Even her portrait had been taken down years ago (though it was recently re-discovered by a custodian and re-hung near the PS 230 entrance).

No school name is safe from revision, even if the honoree’s achievements are well known. Last year, PS 94, in Sunset Park, jettisoned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in order to become the School of Diverse Languages and Cultures. Such re-namings are a cautionary tale for anyone who believes history is set in concrete, but they’re completely legal under current Department of Education regulations, which stipulate that a school need only retain its name for 10 year.

After that, it’s up for grabs.

In the case of McKenzie vs. Cohen, the limelight might be big enough for both icons. Impassioned pleas by Cohen’s relatives and a former colleague at a meeting last Thursday swayed the PTA to delay a final decision as both sides work towards a compromise.

Tale of the tape

Parents at PS 230 in Kensington are considering stripping Doris L. Cohen’s name from their school in favor of that of Clarence McKenzie, who died in the Civil War. Clearly the school ain’t big enough for both these giants of history — but how do they compare in a head-to-head smackdown?

Doris Cohen

BORN IN: Borough Park, 1909
AGE AT DEATH: 67
LIFE’S WORK: Getting more money for public schools.
KILLED BY: Cancer.
MAJOR HONOR: Then–Borough President Howard Golden praised her at school-naming ceremony.
MAJOR DISHONOR: Portrait languished in school storage for more than decade; no one knew it was painting of her.
FUN FACT: Cohen created her own house divided — she was an active Democrat, but was married to a dedicated Republican!

Clarence McKenzie

BORN IN: DUMBO, 1849
AGE AT DEATH: 12
LIFE’S WORK: Playing the drum for marching Northern troops during the Civil War.
KILLED BY: Friendly fire.
MAJOR HONOR: The drum and bugle corps of the 13th Regiment erected his monument at Green-Wood Cemetery.
MAJOR DISHONOR: He was buried in unmarked grave until his remains were identified.
FUN FACT: He had disobeyed his parents to enlist in the Army — and never got to tell them they were right!

Updated 5:05 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

red from b-lo says:
my grandfather's name was clarence...and my cat was named mckenzie...

so, this one's easy for me...

and he did do stuff for other people...

oh, and the "Little Drummer Boy" is the best Christmas song...so good they even named a town in Nevada after it
March 20, 2008, 10:21 am
John Grant from Rockport, Ma./Bayridge, Bklyn. says:
I'm writing a book about Clarence McKenzie. However, I believe that I will let Clarence speak for himself:

My Dear Father and Mother,

I arrived in this place on Friday. I was sick a little, but have got over it, and am very well now. I hope you and all the folks are the same. I had a very good time, and have now.
Dear Mother, do not cry for me, for I am well off, and I hope to return to you in three months or sooner. There has not been much fighting here. I do not think we will have to go to Washington, but we will be in the Navy Yard until further notice. The men and boys are good to me. So you see I am well provided for. It is very hot out here. I go around in my shirt sleeves almost all the time. It is a very nice place here, and I like it first rate, but it is not like being at home with you. But it will not be long before I shall come. I hope to find that you have not worried for me. If you write to me a letter tell me how you all are, and direct to me. From your son, Clarence D. McKenzie

It was his last letter home. As you see, he did so love and miss his family. An example to all the youngsters of love and sensitivity; intellect and understanding; courage and spirit. Young McKenzie is to be admired, and to have his name associated with this school would be the honorable thing to do.
May 3, 2008, 11:44 pm
Nawreen from Kengsington says:
hi, i'm a student form P.S.230 and i think Doris l Cohen won't be taken off our school.
Dec. 31, 2008, 5:36 pm
MAGolding. from Perkasie, Pennsylvania says:
The article is a bit inaccurate about Clarence Mackenzie. He didn't runaway from home to join the army. He and his older brother joined the 13th New York State militia regiment in 1860. The militia was the ancestor of the modern National Guard. When the Civil War started most members of the 13th NY militia enlisted in the 13th New York Volunteers. Clarence and his brother enlisted with the permission of their parents.
Clarence was described as 18 in his enlistment papers, despite the officers knowing he was 12. That is a 6 year and 50 percent exaggeration of his age but not the biggest exaggeration for a civil War drummer boy. Clarence's brother later reenlisted in another unit. A George Coleman allegedly later enlisted in the 13th New York aged 9, but his mother took him home; he later enlisted in the 21st New York Cavalry.
Dec. 1, 2017, 3:30 pm

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