Murray Lender could hardly speak, but the crowd knew how much his hometown meant to him.
Lender was honored by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. and the students and faculty of John C. Daniels School on Monday at the dedication of Murray Lender Playground. The playground — funded by the $1.5 billion Citywide School Construction Program — stands on the exact site where Lender’s family established their bagel business in 1929, eventually turning Lender’s Frozen Bagels into one of the most recognizable American food brands in history.
Murray Lender’s father, Harry Lender, came to New Haven from Poland in 1927 and started a small bagel business in the garage behind the family’s home on Baldwin Street. The family’s business plan was to make bagels, freeze them, and sell them to stores, which in turn made the bagels available to customers. In time, Lender’s Frozen Bagels became an international company under the leadership of Murray Lender.
Murray Lender, who has difficulty speaking as a result of a stroke he suffered years ago, said only a few words at the ceremony. His younger brother, Marvin Lender — who spoke on the family’s behalf — said Murray was deeply moved by the dedication.
“He was really just thinking back to old Baldwin Street,” Lender said. “You can imagine for two guys experiencing this dedication of a playground contiguous to our old grammar school and across the street from the house we grew up in — it’s a very special situation.”
The Lender Bagel Bakery eventually moved from the site in 1967, and the Lender family sold Lender’s Frozen Bagels to Kraft Foods in 1984. Murray Lender then turned his attention to philanthropy, raising funds for the local branches of the American Heart Association, the Leukemia Society of America, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Yale University School of Medicine Cardiovascular Research Fund.
Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, spokeswoman for New Haven Schools, said members of the Lender family have always given generously to community causes, remaining true to their New Haven roots by continuing to give back to the neighborhood where they grew up.
“The fact that the family started their business right there in the Hill and grew it into an international, billion-dollar business is a great story for kids to know about,” she said.
Under DeStefano’s $1.5 billion Citywide School Construction Program, John C. Daniels School has received a $33.2 million renovation and expansion, including the construction of the playground.
Gina Wells, the school’s principal, said the playground will be a great asset to the school, but that the students will benefit more from the example of the Lenders, who have agreed to return to the school in the future and to stay involved with the children.
“The history is what we’re more interested in,” Wells said. “The kids might be too young to understand, but this is just the beginning of a relationship between their family and our school. We’re very honored and excited.”
Sullivan-DeCarlo said Stuart Grodd, a close friend of the Lender family, previously spoke with DeStefano about how best to commemorate the Lender family and their contributions to New Haven. DeStefano suggested dedicating the playground in Lender’s honor, given the fact that the Lender family had lived and worked on the site for many years.
New Haven Schools Superintendent Dr. Reginald Mayo, who served as master of ceremonies for the dedication, said the Lenders and their story demonstrate how much can be achieved with ingenuity and determination.
“This playground is a reminder to you of what can happen when you work hard,” he said to the students. “But what is even more educational for our kids is the way that the Lenders — and especially Murray — gave back to this community, and especially to young people.”
The playground was designed with safety and fitness-oriented recreation in mind and completed in October 2006. The equipment consists of heavy steel components coated in plastic to prevent serious injuries, and stands on a poured granular rubber surface intended to mitigate injuries in the event of falling.