Meet David Schogel: At 76, a leader in the fight to preserve NW Philly’s environmentBy Jared Peterman
David Schogel sat in his swiveling office chair, with his thin-framed glasses sitting on his nose, wearing a beige hat with the green letters S. E. C. standing out.
Schogel, 76, a volunteer renaissance man, has been a familiar figure in the Germantown community since the early 1970’s through social work, political campaigning, fighting for equal rights and environmental volunteerism.
“Service to others has always been something that has been drilled into me,” Schogel said.
Senior Environmental Corps
One of the many organizations and volunteer programs Schogel has actively participated in over the years is the Senior Environmental Corps (SEC), a program created by Center in the Park, an award-winning senior activity center in Germantown.
This volunteer group is made up of 20 senior volunteers ranging from their late 60’s to 80’s. The seniors’ main task is water monitoring through chemical testing at multiple sites including Sailor Grove, Old Rittenhouse Town, and two sites at Cobb’s Creek as well as additional sites for bacteria testing.
A documentary, called Knee Deep, followed the work of the SEC for a year.
The other main focus of the SEC is providing educational programs and information to children at Germantown-area elementary schools. During “Snapshot Day,” students converge on different educational stations to do environmental activities. In one program, the SEC partners with Chestnut Hill College and the Philadelphia Water Department to test the water in the Wissahickon Creek.
Passing knowledge and service down to others, especially children, is what drives the SEC.
“All of the seniors want to be able to give back. We all realize that you have to reach children when they’re younger when they’re more apt to accepting and being impressed,” explained Schogel. “Occasionally, I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll hear someone say, ‘Hey, I know you! You came to my class!”
Service stems from father
Schogel traces his dedication to service to his father, Hyman, a Russian immigrant who came through Ellis Island at age 16.
Schogel described his upbringing as the only Jewish family in a Catholic neighborhood in Springfield, Mass. The family faced persistent discrimination; Schogel learned at an early age to be sympathetic to those in the minority.
“Because my dad was a refugee, he was very sensitive to the plight of other refugees,” Schogel said.
Working with his father in his business of delivering fruits and vegetables to families opened his eyes to a hard work ethic and to the idea that a person should never look down on anyone else.
One particular memory stood out to Schogel.
As he told the story, he and his father delivered goods to a Jamaican family whose members feared discrimination if they went into town. Instead, Schogel and his father delivered fruits and vegetables to the family’s doorstep.
Soon, the two families became friends – and the Jamaicans were visiting them. “We were probably the first white family that gave them admittance into their house,” Schogel said.
Schogel graduated as a sociology major from Springfield College and then moved on to Atlanta University for graduate school where he majored in social work. He graduated in 1968.
After graduate school, he joined the Army Reserves, which brought his journey of service to Philadelphia as Atlanta didn’t have any Army Reserve camps.
A major reason behind choosing Philadelphia as his new home was the city’s acceptance of interracial couples. He married his wife, Patricia, the day they graduated.
Though Schogel never went to war, he provided services to the Germantown area through an extended career in social work.
He joined Southwest Germantown Association and became president, growing the organization from 100 families to 1,000 families before it went out of existence.
Professionally, he worked as a community organizer for the Friends Neighborhood Guild, as the Executive Director of Afro-American Federation Day Care Center and briefly for Head Start.
He eventually landed at thge Delaware County Children and Youth Services as a social worker in child welfare and later became a supervisor. Schogel retired in 2002, launching his extensive outreach to the community through service.
Life after retirement
But retirement drove Schogel crazy, motivating him to get even more involved with the community.
Along with the SEC, Schogel has been and is still actively involved with numerous organizations in the community including 350 Philly, Food and Water Watch, Neighborhood Networks, the Germantown Life Enrichment Center and Hansberry Garden & Nature Center in Germantown, which he co-founded.
He takes great pride in the work the Hansberry Garden. It has progressed from five to 48 garden beds. But that’s not the only growth as the garden is in the process of redesigning and will have a greenhouse, a wash station, and solar panels in the future.
The garden sponsors The Kelly Green Project, an educational program at the John B. Kelly School, which Schogel finds incredibly important.
”We do the best we can to create a stimulating educational program for our kids,” he said. “We view them as our kids.”
The organization is also in the process of raising money to rebuild the school’s playground.
Politics and protesting
Politics and protesting social issues are also very important to Schogel. In high school, he was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where he protested racial inequality in high schools and was later arrested for his protest activity with his friend.
He also protested the Vietnam War despite being in the Army Reserves. He organized lunch boycotts while at summer camps for the Reserves and handed out petitions to end the war when he was working for the Friends Neighborhood Guild.
His views on social issues and war shaped him to become a member of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee. That eventually led to conflicts with some employers, but even so, Schogel once considered running for senator in the Pennsylvania state legislature.
Voice of reason
This is when his wife, Patricia, stepped in.
“Many years ago, when I suggested to my wife that I run for state senator, she said, ‘That’s the day I’ll file for divorce,’” Schogel recalled with a chuckle.
Patricia Schogel, he said, has been the voice of reason in his career path when faced with difficult choices. Whether it be working under a new title at a job, debating quitting at a company, or his political aspirations, he said his wife often reminded him of their family and what’s best for them.
Patricia Schogel is also a retired social worker who has volunteered as a hospice care worker and now volunteers at Center in the Park teaching the brain health course.
Schogel’s passion for service is evident. When he talks about the impact on the children of the community, his face lights up. “I like the expression on kids’ faces when they see the macro invertebrates,” he explained. “I like it when they’re amazed when we’re doing water testing and something changes color.”
And though the educational programs seem to be a success, he worries about the long-term sustainability of the SEC.
“I like testing myself,” he said. “I like expanding the people who can test. I’ve gotta do that before I drop out or pass away. I’ve gotta have someone there to pick up the pieces and keep on going. We have to be sustainable.”