Victoria (“Vicki”) Free Presser, who retired as public information officer for the Scarsdale schools on Aug. 28, took the position in April 2002, a time when the nation was still reeling in the wake of 9/11. Responding to a deeply felt need from the community for both solace and strength, Presser themed her first district newsletter on the lingering impact of the attacks, titling it, “A year of learning lessons from life.”
Nearly 18 and a half years later, Presser concluded her time at Scarsdale amid an equally unprecedented crisis. Her final newsletter, she said, “reflects how the schools continued the educational enterprise during the first months of the pandemic.” The district’s website details the reopening plans and challenges and lets the reader know that “The community is equal to the task!”
Scarsdale schools closed Monday, March 9, a week before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s official March 16 lockdown, out of “an abundance of caution” when a middle school faculty member tested positive for COVID-19. The board of education held its first online Zoom meeting that night.
As everything went virtual overnight, Presser said she quickly discovered that Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Drive “became my best friends.”
She was, in fact, grateful for the strides made through the web since the last major crisis, Superstorm Sandy of 2012, which wreaked extensive damage and outages necessitating nightly phone calls with the administration.
Still, the need to pivot during COVID-19 required multiple adjustments.
“You couldn’t pop into an office” to ask a quick question, nor was there a minute of discretionary time for phone calls. Though working remotely eliminated the drive from her home in the Battle Hill section of White Plains, the time demands only increased.
“There were no more boundaries to the workday,” said Presser, who found her days flowing into evenings and weekdays edging over to weekends. A vast amount of information needed to be disseminated rapidly including the all-important budget newsletter with the rescheduled June 9 vote. Every update had to be posted through the website and in a link on the district’s Facebook page, “the town square where everybody gathers.”
One logistic challenge was the need to identify by name and street each community member who spoke extemporaneously at the virtual board meetings, a duty she had always accomplished simply by quietly approaching the person in the audience without interrupting the proceedings.
Accurate reportage to the community was Presser’s charge from the start.
According to the school district website, “The public information office acts as liaison between the district and the news media, providing in-depth and breaking news about the Scarsdale Schools.”
Presser said, “The role of the district’s public information officer is to inform the community, and also to give them reason to be proud of the Scarsdale schools.” The reasons for pride are abundant: the schools are famed countywide, regionally, even nationally and internationally as Scarsdale is part of a global consortium of high-performing districts. The print newsletter, “Insight,” which Presser produced quarterly, remains a prime vehicle of communication since not everyone is digitally inclined or will take the time to visit the website.
Another major responsibility is to be a reliable media resource who’s always, said Presser, “truthful, prompt and respectful.”
The commitment to truth is one she takes very seriously. Pointing out her “intense dislike’” of the term “spin,” Presser defined public information as “real information that can be made public” and explained, “It is our obligation to report what we know and to put that information in context.”
She is often reminded of her mother’s words, translated from the Yiddish, “a lie has short feet.” Or, to rephrase, a lie will come back to you. And “it’s a lot easier to remember what you said if it’s true,” she said.
The legacy of her parents has shaped Presser’s life. She grew up on the West Side of Manhattan in a show business family that valued inclusivity and appreciated creativity. The last name “Free” was created by her father, a jazz musician born Friedland who played instrumentation for such popular ’60s groups as The Four Seasons and The Association. Her mother was an actress. Presser retained the last name as her middle name to honor her dad, plus “who wouldn’t want to be Free,” she quipped.
She attended Walden School, a small private school affording individual attention that derives its name from Thoreau’s “Walden,”Presser’s favorite book growing up. It offered a perspective on life “outside the usual routine.”
Determined to be a writer from grade school on, she wrote poetry and garnered a literary prize in college. She earned a B.A. in English and American literature from Brandeis and an M.S. at the Columbia School of Journalism, “the J school,” where you reported to your professor with a daily assignment filed by a 5 p.m. deadline, she recalled.
Her plan was to write the great American column until she realized that “Jimmy Breslin was already writing it.” With few journalism jobs available in the New York Metro area and a reluctance to relocate, Presser began her career in public information as assistant press secretary for former Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams. That position was followed by public relations work for the American Jewish Congress where she had the opportunity to learn from the “amazingly talented” Richard Cohen how to “write succinctly and connect with reporters.”
Presser freelanced while raising two sons — Sam, who now works in stage production in Las Vegas, and Abe, a political science professor at Loyola University in Chicago. She soon returned to work full time at the Hudson Valley Health Office for the Aging followed by Pace University. She has been married (her second marriage) to Barry Presser, a musician and instructor on drums, for 25 years.
Looking back on her years at Scarsdale, Presser finds much reason for joy as well as moments of humor.
She remembers hobbling through the halls of the middle school with a twisted ankle on one Human Rights Day — a “wonderful, electric” annual activity — until then SMS Principal Michael McDermott stopped her to say, “Young lady, I’m sending you to the nurse’s office.” After a soothing icing and raised foot, Presser got the story and the photos.
One highlight she recalls as “thrilling” was hearing former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speak at Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Presser also enjoyed the music and drama performances of the district’s talented students.
She admits that she will miss seeing the first day of kindergarten, which is “sweet beyond measure” as the children try to “get it all right” with the help of “loving and patient teachers and aides.”
She will miss observing the interaction between teachers and students: “The kids get excited about a concept, a project, and the teachers then navigate them through new avenues of understanding,” and the faculty’s talent for class management: “Keeping a class calm, organized and focused,” is an undervalued skill, said Presser.
She will hardly be idle in retirement. Presser holds an elected position on the White Plains Common Council that began on Jan. 1 and serves on several committees at Bet Am Shalom Synagogue, a reconstructionist congregation in White Plains where she was once president and regularly sounds the shofar, a skill she learned from her father.