Scotch Plains show honors champion of education

Scotch Plains show honors champion of education
Staff Writer
Published in the Courier News on August 25, 2003

SCOTCH PLAINS — Manya S. Ungar lived life with passion, charisma and a fierce loyalty to her family, her community and public education.

Along the way, she inspired just about everyone she met by adhering to one of her favorite sayings: The show must go on.

And so it did Sunday afternoon during a fitting tribute at the Manya S. Ungar Auditorium at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, where the concert pianist and champion of education was honored by family, friends, legislators and former students.

The show, produced by Ungar’s husband, Skip, and son, Michael, and sponsored by the district’s school board, was a fun-filled celebration of her life and work, which consisted of an assortment of esteemed posts, most notably National President of the Parent Teacher Association.

Ungar, who died July 10 of acute adult leukemia at age 75, was also an actress, a concert pianist, and founder and director of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Summer Theater Workshop, which she ran with local resident Judy Cole, who co-hosted the event.

Many of Ungar’s students were in attendance, including Marc Shaiman, the Tony Award-winning producer of the current Broadway musical “Hairspray.”

“Those two ladies (Ungar and Cole) changed my life … the power people can choose to have to steer a kid in the right direction is unbelievable and they opened up a whole new world for me,” said Shaiman, before breaking into a comical song he co-wrote with Bette Midler, titled “Fat As I Am.”

Ann Lynch, former president of the National PTA, flew in from Las Vegas to “roast” her longtime friend and colleague. The audience roared with laughter as a sarcastic Lynch spoke of the unlucky fate that always seemed to befall Ungar at annual PTA conventions. Ungar’s solution, Lynch said, was to laugh at herself.

“Remember how she would always cross her fingers because she was worried she’d forget her lines? Well you can all uncross your fingers because no one who ever knew her will ever forget her,” Lynch said.

Ungar also addressed Congress several times during the administrations of presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Former New Jersey acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, a Scotch Plains resident, said he would never forget Ungar’s “leadership, commitment, dedication and compassion.”

“Manya Ungar is someone I always looked up to, someone this community is better because of … we won’t ever forget her. Let the show go on,” he said.

Several of Ungar’s former students performed songs from musicals including “Gypsy,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Merry Old New England,” a musical the Ungars co-wrote in 1959 that pokes fun at the rivalry between Scotch Plains and Fanwood.

“Manya came down with pneumonia and realizing she’d be bedridden for some time, she said to me, `Hey, let’s write a musical comedy,’‚” her husband said.

The show ended with more than 20 theater program alumni up on stage singing “Manya,” a song written by her family and sung to the tune of “Mame.”

One by one, the students, many in their 30s and 40s, walked up to the stage as pictures of their smiling mentor flashed on a large screen.

“We know of all the things that you did, Manya; we know how hard you worked for each kid, Manya … you always had the time for us, yes, you were just sublime for us; we’ll never see another like you.”

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