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‘Talented, motivated’ educator to be inducted into PHS Hall of Fame
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‘Talented, motivated’ educator to be inducted into PHS Hall of Fame

Mal Sumka made impact on generations of students

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Mal Sumka, with his wife Myra in their Montville home, talked about his long career as a teacher of children and adults. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Mal Sumka, with his wife Myra in their Montville home, talked about his long career as a teacher of children and adults. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Malvin Sumka never thought he would become an educator. “I couldn’t spell,” he acknowledged.

Lucky for legions of high school students, for the National Council of Jewish Women members who took his computer classes, and for the employees at companies that hired him to run computer seminars, Sumka — at his wife’s and sister’s urging, he said — did become a teacher.

Now, in recognition of Sumka’s embodiment of the ideal expressed in Pirkei Avot, “Find yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend,” on Tuesday, Feb. 12, the 93-year-old will be inducted into the Parsippany High School Hall of Fame, in tribute to, according to its website, “a highly talented and motivated” educator and administrator who made a positive impact on generations of students.

Sumka, who taught math and computers at Parsippany High School (PHS) from 1960 until 1979 (and at Parsippany Hills High School from 1979 until 1988), was a man ahead of his time. He pioneered the introduction of computers at the school. He was teaching the FORTRAN programming language and building computers with students when, as he said, “people were still asking, ‘What’s a computer?’”

But when it comes to certain things, he is also a man of his generation. Although he is clearly moved by receiving the recognition, he cannot bring himself to speak about his feelings or give details of his accomplishments. He considers such “bragging” unseemly.

As he sat with his wife, Myra, at the kitchen table in their Montville home a few weeks ago, she pushed him to describe how he feels, but he deflected several times. He finally acknowledged that when he got the news, he was “shocked. I couldn’t get my thoughts together.”

Myra wasn’t shocked. She remembers the many times over the years that people would thank her husband for what he did for their children. She recalled one evening, when they were out to dinner, a woman came over and introduced herself as the parent of a long-ago student. Myra said the woman told them that she wanted Sumka to know something about her son: “‘He would have gone to prison if you hadn’t taken the time to talk to him and to influence him. And today he’s a vice president of [a] company.’” Myra added, “She thanked him profusely for saving her son, and she walked away. And she was one of many.”

Sumka’s enthusiasm for working with kids and his focus on them is evident — even in how he discusses the different pedagogical approaches between vocational and academic education. He spent time as a vocational educator (and serving as director of vocational education for the Parsippany school district), and he made it clear he was drawn to that field’s focus on the student. He described the difference this way, starting with a view of academic teaching that still makes little sense to him: “If I come into a classroom and I prepared my lesson plan perfectly and I presented it perfectly, I taught [successfully]. If the kids didn’t learn, it’s their fault.” But in a vocational class, he went on, “if the kids come in, and I’m teaching them how to tune a car, and if they don’t learn how to tune the car, I didn’t teach.”

His focus had shifted to computer education in the early 1960s. In addition to his math and teaching degrees from Rutgers University, he had a degree in industrial engineering from Columbia University, along with eight years of experience in the field. His interest was piqued by an article in a trade publication he still remembers that was titled “Brains that Click.”

“I read the article about these machines that were being made that are going to be like brains,” he said. He was intrigued and took a class at Bell Labs in Whippany, where he was working at the time; he was hooked.

He used his enthusiasm for the nascent computer field to inspire passion in his students. “I took a math club that I was to be adviser to, and I said, ‘Let’s build a computer.’” The students would come to a seminar early in the morning, and they would work on the computer after school until he had to kick them out at 6 p.m. That computer took two years to build and cost $10,000 in supplies. Known as PLADEMAC (Parsippany’s Logical and Digital Electro-Mechanical Computer), it took up half a classroom, according to the PHS Hall of Fame website. Sumka was eventually named director of data processing for the school district.

Mal Sumka with students at Parsippany High School in the 1960s and the “PHS Digital Computer” they built. Photo courtesy Mal Sumka

He developed his own computer education company, Cyberphile Group, in 1979, teaching computer literacy to adults and serving as adjunct professor at the County College of Morris and other institutions through the 1980s. He also taught computer graphics to kids over the summer.

Sumka’s prescience about the role computers would play was evident. In an article about his computer literacy course that appeared in The Citizen newspaper in 1982, he is quoted as saying that computers “are an inevitable aspect of the future and will soon be as common as toilets…. ‘And everyone knows how to flush a toilet.’”

After he officially retired, the teaching did not stop. He conducted corporate seminars teaching professionals Microsoft Office, Quattro Pro, and HTML, and spent 10 years volunteer ing with NCJW training women reentering the workforce to use computer software like Excel and Power Point. It wasn’t until two years ago that he finally and completely retired.

Sumka grew up in Newark and attended Weequahic High School but dropped out in 1943 to serve in World War II. When he returned from service, he completed his degree, studying nights at Barringer High School in Newark. After earning degrees from Columbia University and Rutgers University, he went on to pursue a doctoral degree in education at Rutgers, but he did not finish; as he recalled, no professor felt comfortable as his adviser because his dissertation delved too deeply into the role of computers in education.

The Sumkas — who raised four children — were members of the Lake Hiawatha Jewish Center, where he served on the board and was president of the men’s club. When it closed in the mid-’90s, they joined Pine Brook Jewish Center and have been active members there.

He is also a longtime member of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, whose executive director, Linda Forgosh, said that he has never forgotten “that his roots are in Jewish Newark.” He and Myra are frequent visitors to the society’s offices in Whippany and are regulars at its public forums.

He is also part of the Weequahic High School Alumni Association and its informal Sunday Morning Group, a biannual gathering of men who graduated from 1940 through the 1960s, when the school’s student body was overwhelmingly Jewish.

In addition to the 1974 PHS football team, Sumka is one of four inductees into the Hall of Fame this year.

Myra will not be the only family member celebrating her husband’s honor. Their three daughters and one son, two sons-in-law and one daughter-in-law, five grandchildren and two grandchildren-in-law, and two great-grandsons are sharing in the pride.

It was Sumka’s son, David, who spearheaded the campaign to have his father inducted into the PHS Hall of Fame. He wrote in a Facebook post in 2016, “I estimate my dad has had 10,000 students over the years. He is a humble man and does not realize the impact he has had and how many lives he has positively influenced.”

jginsberg@njjewishnews.com

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