Introducing the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House.
BY DAVE ZEITLIN | Photos by Eddy Marenco
As tri-chairs of the ceremony to honor Bob Schoenberg GrS’89—the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center—Howard Dimond C’71 D’75, Marianne Mondt C’08, and Kai Kornegay C’18 worked tirelessly to meticulously plan everything.
But before the event on October 14 began, Erin Cross Gr’10—who replaced Schoenberg as the LGBT Center’s director in September after he retired from a position he held for 35 years—had to make sure of just one more thing.
“Erin told me there will be tissues on the podium, there will be tissues next to your chair,” Schoenberg said. “She knows I’m a crier. I come from a family of criers.”
The hundreds of alums, students, colleagues, friends, and family members in attendance all knew that, too. And many of them also fought back tears when the LGBT Center’s home since 2002 was renamed in Bob’s honor as the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House.
“We may have set the record for longest time between the original vision and the naming of the building,” remarked David Goodhand C’85, whose lead gift led to the renovations of the old building on 39th and Spruce 15 years ago. (Just before saying this, he noted how glad he was that everyone “came out today—and in general.”)
Another person in attendance who felt a particular sense of pride when rainbow balloons were moved out of the way to reveal the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House engraving on the front of the building was Belmont Freeman GAr’76. The architect of the Carriage House renovations, Freeman worked closely with Schoenberg to make sure it would become a vibrant space for students while also maintaining plenty of historic charm.
He was successful on both counts.
“Bob and the University gave me a tremendous opportunity at an important juncture in my practice to do a project like this,” he told the Gazette after the ceremony. “And it remains my absolute favorite project.”
To mark the renaming celebration, both Penn President Amy Gutmann and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney addressed the crowd of people standing outside the LGBT Center.
Gutmann said that “Penn would not be where it is today” without the efforts of Schoenberg, and guessed that “the furthest thing from Bob’s mind” when he was hired as a part-time employee in 1982 was that “there would be a day when Penn would name a building” after him. She also praised Schoenberg’s work to help Penn become “the most welcoming and supportive university anywhere to its LGBTQ community” and promised that the administration will continue to do as much as it can to always promote a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse campus.
“For many of us, this is already informally known as the house that Bob built,” Gutmann said. “We’re so proud that it will now officially be called the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House.”
Kenney—who was there to issue a proclamation that October 14th was “Bob Schoenberg Day” in the City of Philadelphia—recalled how he used to get pushback for supporting gay and lesbian rights, as far back as when he was growing up in South Philadelphia and after he was first elected to City Council in 1992. When anyone would ask him why he felt so strongly about the issue, “I said, ‘Because it’s the right thing to do.’ It’s not something special. You’re either on the right side or the wrong side.”
Schoenberg knows all about those battles and spent his whole career working to help shift opinion and policy. He even razzed Kenney a bit during his speech by boasting that Penn had added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy and granted domestic partner benefits to its employees before the City of Philadelphia had. (At the second mention of this, the mayor playfully pretended to get up from his chair and leave.)
Schoenberg expressed gratitude to all of the “extraordinary individuals” who made his job such a rewarding one. These included longtime colleagues like Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, Penn’s vice p rovost for University Life; and, of course, his successor, Erin Cross Gr’10 (who joked that someone at the LGBT Center once referred to her as “Mrs. Schoenberg”); as well as his many family members—19 of whom attended the ceremony—and all of the students and alumni who passed through his life for four decades.
Schoenberg did not try to hold back his tears when two of those alumni, Kurt Klinger-Wilensky EAS’01 GEx’11 and Andrés Martinez W’15, along with Giang Nguyen—executive director of Penn’s Student Health Service—commemorated him through some of his favorite musicals. Calling themselves “The Bob Schoenberg Trio,” they each sang their own versions of The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things,” Annie’s “Tomorrow,” and Les Miserables’ “On My Own” to reflect Bob’s legacy, quirks, and yes, his favorite things. (Ira Hillman C’92 W’92 wrote the clever lyrics, including replacing “The sun will come out tomorrow” to “Will someone come out tomorrow?”—which led Gutmann to later say, “I will never think of that Annie song the same way again!”)
Nor did he pretend to hide his emotions when an “incredible portrait” of him was unveiled—although given his particular tastes and his inability to “hide my feelings,” he made sure to visit artist Robert Beck’s studio to see it beforehand.
“Thank you for all you’ve done,” an emotional Schoenberg told the crowd as he wrapped up what he joked was his Oscars acceptance speech, “to make my work and indeed my life so fulfilling.”
At the conclusion of those remarks, two alums from different eras led a toast while explaining how much things have changed for the better during Schoenberg’s tenure. The first to speak was Schoenberg’s first work-study student, Susan Miller C’83 GEd’83 G’95 Gr’01, who deadpanned that “I don’t think I was ever there, because I don’t remember doing anything,” followed by current student employee Teresa Salinas SPP’18, who discussed all of the incredible features inside the LGBT Center and how “it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Then everyone raised their glasses to what Miller said was the “one thing that remained constant—and that is Bob’s incredible, lifelong devotion to all of us.” The Penn Band played “Drink a Highball”—the band’s participation was one of the few things they managed to keep secret from Schoenberg, along with “The Bob Schoenberg Trio” and the rainbow-bowtie stickpins on the program—and escorted everyone to Houston Hall, where the party continued with food, drinks, and dancing.
As she looked around at the festivities, Kai Kornegay expressed relief at how well things had turned out, laughing that planning the ceremony felt like “the only thing I’ve been thinking about for most of the past academic year.” She also marveled at the number of alumni who had returned, many of whom had never had an LGBT Center to call their own when they were in school.
Kornegay, who considers herself a contender for “the longest-running work-study student” at the Center, said she felt lucky to work at a place that is now a model for other universities and also thankful for all the people that overcame obstacles to make that possible. Bob Schoenberg, even in retirement, will always stand tall at the top of that list.
“We would not be here today without the work Bob has done,” she said. “That’s really inspiring to me. I think Bob embodies a lot of the things I try to find in my own life—which is that if you just believe in something, it will happen.”