Among Mr. G.’s first students back in 1985 were runaways who had been sleeping in a shed down by the docks in Lower Manhattan where the city stored mountains of road salt.
One boy had hitchhiked from Ohio after eight teenagers dragged him into a bathroom at school, bashed his head against a toilet and burned his arm with a cigarette lighter.
Another boy, from New York City, had been abused by his parents after a teacher told them he was “acting like a faggot.” He was kept at home for a year — chained to a radiator, beaten and taken by his father to 42nd Street and forced to have sex with men for money. His father went to prison.
There is no way to know how many of the gay and lesbian youngsters who came under the wing of Mr. G., as he was known, went on to graduate from high school or just found the strength to make their way in the world. But for dozens, at least, he was a hero.
Mr. G. — Fred Goldhaber, the first and, for four years, the only teacher at the Harvey Milk School in Manhattan, the first school in the country with a mission to provide a haven for gay and lesbian students, died of liver cancer on Monday at his home in Jersey City. He was 63.
He had lived with AIDS for nearly 30 years, said his brother, Richard.
The Harvey Milk School, named for the gay-rights advocate and San Francisco city supervisor who was killed in 1978, was established in 1985 by what was then called the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (now the Hetrick-Martin Institute), with financial support from the city’s Board of Education.
Mr. Goldhaber, who had taught English and remedial reading at Wingate High School in Brooklyn for 17 years, volunteered to teach the incoming class of 22 students, who first gathered in April 1985 at a church in Greenwich Village. The school later moved to a building at 2 Astor Place.
Back then it was like an old-time country school, with Mr. G. juggling academic demands: answering questions about physics, correcting spelling tests, going over verb conjugation, keeping an eye out for the girl slumping into sleep.
A longtime member of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, he laced lessons with song snippets: “Teach me tonight” while assigning homework; “Call me irresponsible” to a girl who had not done her math.
“At his right hand,” Time magazine wrote in 1989, “Goldhaber pores over pictures with one student, saying, ‘Yes, this is an ion, but is it just an ion or a hydroxide ion? Think about it.’ He asks the student on his left, ‘Do you really believe 20 times 15 is 30,000?’ ”
Until 2003, the school was actually what the Department of Education classifies as a transfer program, meaning students could earn graduate equivalency diplomas or enough credits to graduate from the school they had left.
Now they can graduate directly from the MilkSchool. Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the city’s Education Department, said about 100 students are enrolled at the Milk School each year, about one-third of whom graduate within four years — a reflection of the difficulties they face.
Stephen Phillips, a professor of education at Brooklyn College who was the city’s superintendent of alternative high schools and programs when the MilkSchool opened, observed Mr. Goldhaber in action.
“The kids idolized him,” Mr. Phillips said. “Many of them never would have gotten diplomas had it not been for the way he treated them.”
When his brother walked the city’s streets, Richard Goldhaber said, “time after time” students “would stop him, hug him and thank him for rescuing them.”
Fred Martin Goldhaber was born in Brooklyn on April 23, 1947. His father, Max, was a lawyer; his mother, the former Betty Chatow, was a concert pianist.
He received a bachelor’s degree from BrooklynCollege in 1968 and a master’s degree there a year later, both in education. Besides his brother, Mr. Goldhaber is survived by his companion, Wilfredo Hinds.
When the school celebrated its sixth anniversary in 1991, a student asked, “Will the school survive?”
To which Mr. G. replied, “If you kids do.”
Another student said: “I hope there will be a day when there is no gay school. Because, you know, there shouldn’t have to be one.”