Roberta Goldenberg’s father, like all the men in her family, worked in the garment industry. She went to Jamaica High School and then to Queens College but soon discovered that college wasn’t for her. She decided to join the Navy, where she finally earned her college degree and advanced to the rank of commander. Goldenberg loved the Navy and became a recruiter because, as she says with a laugh, “I can sell anything if I believe in it.” For the past 20 years, she has used skills acquired in the Navy in her work on and off the board of the 240-unit Bay Terrace co-op, Section 10, in Bayside, Queens. Now 68 and retired, Goldenberg finally married her partner of 25 years, Diane Calitri, in March of 2015.
Habitat: Are you the commanding officer on your co-op board?
Goldenberg: (Laughs) When I first left the Navy, after 26 years of service, I had to relearn how to deal with people. I started working at a seniors’ center in Flushing, Queens, and I expected everybody to do what I said, because that’s what I was used to. In the Navy, if I said, “Let’s do something,” it was, “Aye aye, ma’am! Let’s do it!” But that’s not how it works in civilian life.
Habitat: Why did you leave the Navy?
Goldenberg: I enlisted when I was 22. At first I was a corpsman – that’s like a medic in the Army. That was toward the end of the Vietnam War. By the time I left the Navy, I had put in 26 years. I loved the Navy, and I believed in the Navy, but I wanted to stay in New York and spend more time with my family. I’d been stationed in Washington, D.C., and I worked in the Pentagon for a while. I was stationed in Norfolk, Va.; in Philadelphia; in Newport, R.I.; and in Japan. I’d seen enough of the world. If I had stayed in the Navy, I would’ve been reassigned somewhere outside of New York. I did not want that.
Habitat: Wasn’t it difficult being a gay woman in the military back then?
Goldenberg: Being gay in the Navy was a huge problem. Early in my career, you really couldn’t be gay, and I had to hide it. Then there was “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It meant that it was okay, just don’t tell anybody. Now it’s perfectly legal, but I did not get to enjoy that kind of freedom.
Habitat: Have you encountered any huge problems while serving as president of your co-op board?
Goldenberg: I moved into my apartment in 1997, and a year later I joined the board as a member, and after a couple of years I was elected president. In 2001, we had a horrific oil spill – a thousand gallons of our heating oil spilled into Little Neck Bay. That required a $1 million remediation, multiple lawsuits, and a $2,000 assessment for every shareholder. It was a very tough time. Finally, we we got everything settled in 2006, 2007. I left the board in 2004. I felt I had done all I could for the building. But it turned out that I was off the board only for five or six years. Then I came back because I wanted to have a say in what we do here in our co-op. And not all challenges are bad.
Habitat: What were the good challenges?
Goldenberg: I would say the most important positive challenge for the board happened several years ago. We finally purchased the land our building sits on, which we had been leasing from Cord Meyer for maybe 50 years. In September of 2017, we finalized the purchase. It was costly, but it was a smart decision because it very much increased the value of our property, and people love knowing that we own the land.
Habitat: What skills do you consider most important for a good board president?
Goldenberg: The reason I was successful as a recruiter was that I was able to impart my love for the Navy on to others. People wanted to join and be part of it. In a co-op it is, in a sense, the same way. Because I love our co-op and where we live, I can impart that to the other members of the board and to the shareholders. We have a terrific board now, finally. For about the last five years our board has been very functional and cooperative. Our differences are never personal; they’re rather what people think is best for the co-op. But we can always work it out, and we get along well.
Habitat: So the Navy did teach you to become a team player and not just a commanding officer?
Goldenberg: In the Navy I was exposed to so many people that I feel I became a pretty good judge of people’s nature and character. It taught me patience, which I didn’t even know I could have. and it taught me compassion, to put myself in somebody else’s shoes, to understand where they’re coming from. That is very helpful if you want to work together. I’m the kind of person who can talk to anybody, and I feel most comfortable when I’m around people. Also, you need to know how to talk with people – don’t talk at them, talk with them. I think I’m able to make people see my side of it without being too pushy. I listen to what they want. I can be persuaded, too, but I do maintain my firmness.