To Acanfora, it’s the principle
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph Acanfora, a 21-year-old senior scheduled to be graduated June 24 from Penn. State, has been the subject of continuing controversy and discussion since he and others filed a class-action suit against the university on behalf of HOPS. At the time, he was student teaching; it took a court order for him to continue to do so. Now, six college deans are trying to determine if Penn State can attest, to his “moral character”; if they cannot, he cannot be certified to teach. The following is a profile of the man behind the controversy.)
By DENISE R. BOMAN
of The Mirror staff
STATE COLLEGE -- Joseph Acanfora didn’t always want to be a teacher.
While his school-age classmates were making captive pupils out of younger brothers and sisters, Joe Acanfora’s energies were in the clouds.
He was five when his family moved from Jersey City to Brick Town, N.J., one of many communities lying just outside the ocean resort of Point Pleasant. Meteorology -- the study of weather -- started out as a hobby for the young Acanfora, but it soon became a passion.
“Even as a youngster, Joey was always putting a can out to measure the rain or checking the ocean temperature,” his mother recalled Wednesday. “He once tried to eat chicken wings so he could fly up to the clouds and look at them close-up.”
As the boy grew older, his equipment and knowledge about the weather became more sophisticated. He was always on the phone, calling up the weather, checking his own predictions,” Mrs. Acanfora said.
Although Acanfora said he never really considered teaching until he was in college, his parents both said they remembered that he frequently tutored classmates with homework assignments.
“I used to be so afraid thunderstorms,” Mrs Acanfora recalled, “until Joey took us outside and told us what was causing the lightening and thunder. He made it seem really exciting.”
What decided him on meteorology as a possible profession, Acanfora said, was a former Navy meteorologist who taught his seventh grade science class.
From then until he graduated as class valedictorian from Brick Township High School, “his room began to 1ook like a regular weather station,” his father said.
Acanfora chose Penn State because it offered a solid program in meteorology and Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarships.
Halfway through his college career, Acanfora came to a crossroads. “I started thinking. about how all the courses I’d taken in meteo and earth and space science were pointing me toward a job in a little office by myself, with nothing but little instruments around me for the rest of my life,” Acanfora said.
He had continued tutoring his friends -- on an informal basis -- into his college years, so the switch he made into the College of Education at the end of his sophomore year seemed the ideal move.
“I’d always gotten kind of a thrill about explaining a problem to someone and having them understand it,” he said. “In education. I could stay with the subject matter I liked best and could work with people too.”
During his junior year at Penn State, Acanfora registered for a non-graded, no-credit Free University class dealing with homosexuality. “For the first 20 years of my life,” he said, “I had no exposure to homosexuality. It was totally a closed subject.”
After three or four classes, Acanfora said, the size had grown from six students to almost 60. “A group of us got to thinking that, if there was that much interest; that many people who wanted information about homosexuality,” he said, “perhaps a student organization was the answer.” By the spring of 1971, the fledgling organization Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS) was born. The organization was to serve as an education and information pooling agency, in much the same manner as the Organization of Town Independent Men collected information about -- and offered advice on -- town living.
“HOPS didn’t then -- and doesn’t now -- try to recruit or convert anyone,” he said. It’s just there to dispel old wives’ tales. To let the homosexual know he isn’t the only one suffering in the world.”
While the group attempts to help the homosexual accept and respect himself as a human being, he said, HOPS also has been instrumental in helping “confused, tormented people” realist that they are not homosexual.
HOPS’ status as a chartered student activity was short-lived, however. Last fall, the administrative delay in granting HOPS a charter ended. A letter was sent to the group’s president. HOPS was not recognized by the university.
“We’ve been told to work through the system to bring about change,” Acanfora said, “so that’s what HOPS tried to do: work through education and legislation to change the injustices against this minority.”
Joseph Acanfora had just begun his student teaching assignment at Park Forest. Junior High School when he agreed to become a plaintiff in the equity suit HOPS was about to file against the university.
The first day he stood before a class of seventh and eighth grade science students, he said, “I was scared to death.” The first day was the most difficult, he said, because that was the day he had to establish the ground-rules upon which his teaching experience would sink or swim.
After the first week of actual teaching, he said he relaxed “It all came pretty naturally after that. The kids knew what to expect from me and what I expected of them. I knew how loud my voice had to be to be heard and which students to keep an eye on.”
What happened next is a matter of record: HOPS filed the suit. Acanfora was removed from student-teaching -- a prerequisite for teacher certification. HOPS’ lawyer sought a reinstatement injunction in his behalf -- which was granted -- and Joseph Acanfora went back to Park Forest.
“I was apprehensive -- with all the publicity and everything -- about getting back up in front of those kids,” Acanfora said. “I was shocked that I was really welcomed back by my class. Our rapport was even better than before.”
Not every person in the junior high school was glad to have him back, he said. One teacher, with whom he’d had a good working relationship became, he said, “very cool.” One student in a class in which he was substituting, told him her parents wouldn’t let her be in the same class with him.
At his last day at the school, however, his class threw a going-away party in his honor and gave him a tie and a tie-clip as a present. He received a “B” for the term in student-teaching and now looked toward graduation in June.
With slightly more than a month left, Joe Acanfora ran into another snag. He was informed that the dean of education was unable to attest to his “good moral character,” so the case would have to go before a six-man panel of college deans to be decided.
Without that voucher, Acanfora cannot be certified to teach in Pennsylvania.
“At first I was angry -- I guess I still am a 1ittle.” he said. “I was judged to be a homosexual because of HOPS -- guilt by association. Despite my grades, despite evaluations by people who saw me in action.”
Whether or not he is a homosexual is “beside the point,” he said. “It’s the principle of the thing. If I hadn’t spoken out for basic human rights of every individual – homosexual, heterosexual, black, white, green – those men wouldn’t be weighing my ‘morality’ now.”
Acanfora said he is “looking forward to begin teaching in the fall. There is a very good chance I can get into earth and space science as a teacher. I just pray that nothing happens to prevent that. It’s very important tome, you see, to be a teacher … to be a good teacher…”
His fathers voice falters a bit as he spoke into the phone Wednesday night. “I just want to tell you this: For the boy that he was then, and the man he is now, we wouldn’t trade him for the world.”