Monmouth County Human Relations Commission honors fallen chairman for his mission of social justice

February 7, 2011

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The Monmouth County Human Relations Commission has created a humanitarian award to honor its late chairman, Earl T. Teasley, a quiet force for social justice in New Jersey.

Teasley, of Toms River, was a popular guidance counselor and assistant professor at Brookdale Community College who provided a "safe place" for gay and lesbian students on campus and other young adults struggling to find their way. He died of pneumonia in April at age 43.

Carolyn Schwebel, chairwoman of the commission, said the award was created to "keep his voice going" and, in particular, remind young people of his mission to end discrimination.

The award is a hurricane candle holder that symbolizes "your candle is not diminished by lighting another one," she said.

The commission will present its first award today to J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, the former director of the state Division on Civil Rights, who worked with Teasley on various issues in Monmouth County over the years. They also co-founded Proud2WorkNJ, a resource group for New Jersey public employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, in 2009.

Vespa-Papaleo, an attorney from West Orange, said he was humbled to receive an award in honor of someone he admired. He described Teasley as a strapping man who used to wear dreadlocks, a man with a big personality whose presence could have overshadowed any issue they were discussing. Instead, Teasley would often sit back and listen quietly to ensure that issues remained the focus.

Teasley's priority, he said, was that adults protect young people from bigotry,ignorance and hate not just gay and lesbian kids, or kids who were bullied, but all kids who needed guidance or a few kind words to get them over a rough patch.

"He was very open about who he was," Vespa-Papaleo recalled. "He created a safe place for kids who were struggling with their sexuality and others struggling to find their place.

"He had such a warm personality that anyone would feel comfortable talking to him," he added. "People gravitated to him because they saw he had genuine respect for them."

Vespa-Papaleo served as the state's civil rights director from 2002 to 2009. In that role he worked with the commission to help educate employers in Monmouth County about antidiscrimination laws. He also worked with the commission to foster community dialogue in Freehold in 2004, when mounting tension over the muster zone issue made the borough ripe for aggression against Latino day laborers.

Vespa-Papaleo transitioned to senior counsel for the New Jersey Public Advocate's Office until the department was abolished in May. During his tenure, he helped draft the state's new anti-bullying law that, among other provisions, requires colleges to create policies that ensure students are not subjected to a hostile educational environment.

Vespa-Papaleo now is concentrating on a private law practice and a consulting firm that provides training on school bullying and workplace antidiscrimination laws. He also teaches a course he developed on understanding, identifying and eliminating school bullying at Montclair University's Center for Child Advocacy.

The awards ceremony will be held at 4:30 p.m. today at the Monmouth County Agriculture Building, 4000 Kozloski Road, Freehold Township. The public is welcome to attend.

Nina Rizzo: 201-838-8318;