“This is the story of the founding of the Saddle River Day School. It wasn’t easy. It was lengthy and fraught with late night, standing-room-only Council meetings at the Borough Hall and court cases that went through the New Jersey legal system from the Superior through the State Supreme Court level. It made enemies of friends and tore the little 1,800-person town of Saddle River asunder. It was not planned this way. John and I thought that a small, private, co-ed college preparatory school would be an asset to the community. We were shocked to find that a few wealthy residents had other thoughts. This is the saga of what happened.”
Diane Alford, July 2016
With the September 12th opening of school looming on the horizon, Douglas Ogilvie incorporated the Saddle River Country Day School with the help of Borough Attorney James Mullen on July 9, 1957 and a brochure was produced and mailed soliciting students to attend. Teachers had been contracted and equipment had been ordered. The closing of the Denison property took place on July 12th, ahead of the originally scheduled August 15th date.
Also scheduled on the evening of July 12th was a town council meeting at 8:00 pm. It was a sweltering, muggy summer evening and the Saddle River Municipal Building was packed to the rafters with nearly 400 overwhelmingly opposed Saddle River residents (there were only 1,800 total residents in the town). The folding chairs that typically filled the room were removed and it was standing room only that spilled out to the perimeter of the building. Warren Dixon, a lawyer and Saddle River resident had been called upon to represent the town and he presented the opposition’s petition with 385 names signed on it. He began by stating that the sale of the Denison property and the establishment of the school had been done in ‘secrecy’ and went on to list 13 reasons why the school should be stopped. Listed among the reasons were:
- The school would create a split between public and private school children
- Encroachment on zoning laws
- Depreciated property values
- Increased tax burdens
Dixon asked the council to amend the present zoning ordinance to include the same control for private schools that was exerted over public schools by the planning board. His speech was met with overwhelming cheers and rounds of applause as he spoke for over two hours.
John Alford then addressed the crowd with only a few friends in attendance to support him. He stated that the zoning laws of the town specifically permitted schools and churches in residential areas and that no variances from existing zoning ordinances were needed or requested. He stated that the school would only be used as a day school with no boarding. He went on to say, “The School is interested in the quality of its product, not its quantity. We do not expect ever to grow as large as Wandell School is now… simply stated, we will keep the property as beautiful as it is today.” And he addressed the commercial use accusation by saying, “I have never heard of anybody going into the ‘school business’ in order to make money! We greatly need all of our schools, public and private. If we are anything as a people and as a nation, it is because of our schools and our churches. If we are a great people, it is because of the knowledge we are taught by our schools and the faith we get from our churches and these are the greatest gifts we as parents can give to our children. The money we leave in our wills to our children will not be a fraction of the value of the education we give them. To stifle and restrict schools of any kind – public, private or parochial – is to rob future generations of their birthright. This proposed restriction of schools is to me a moral wrong. Aside from the aspect of banning schools, what about the Constitutional rights involved? Is one more of our Constitutional privileges to be taken away by a pressure group? Are schools to be restricted only to industrial areas or business districts? To ban schools from residential areas would be like banning the right to congregate, the right to free speech. We have at stake tonight one of our Constitutional rights of freedom.”
Alford’s message was met with groans, boos and jeers. Dixon addressed the crowd again, going so far as to state that a group of residents had offered to relieve the Alfords of their financial burden by buying back the Denison property. The council agreed to meet again on July 19th to consider the proposed zoning amendment.
Plans called for classes in grades 6-10 to be held in the mansion. On Monday, August 6th, the building permit for renovations to the Main Hall mansion was applied for and issued on the spot. However, it was later discovered that the application was deficient in that only one set of plans had been submitted instead of the required two. In addition, there seemed to be numerous non-compliance issues regarding ventilation, lighting, provisions for off-street parking and a number of other items. Those opposed claimed there was “undue haste” that resulted in these oversights. At another town council meeting on August 9th, Dixon claimed he would block the school from opening by court injunction, should he need to, and he advised the council to rescind the building permit immediately based upon the fact that it was issued without adequate study of the building code. That evening, the town council passed the amendment to the zoning ordinance upon its third reading and it became law, to much fanfare and applause. Proponents for the school stated that the school was already in existence before the amendment was passed, therefore the law could not be enacted retroactively.
On August 13th Douglas Ogilvie refused to return the building permit with the opening of school only 30 days away.
Stay tuned for the next part of this multi-part series on the Founding of Saddle River Day School, as told in the words of Mrs. Diane Alford.