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It's Hall of Fame time...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, June 24, 2018 -- The game is afoot.
The search is on for Schuyler County Hall of Fame nominees.
That word comes from the Chamber of Commerce, the moving force behind the Hall of Fame. The Hall, instituted in 1995, is a gathering of late and living Schuylerites who have passed a strict screening to become members.
The list of the Hall of Fame members is not long -- just 44 entrants -- and the selection process less than consistent. It was held annually at its beginning, in the mid-1990s, and then took a break of three years, and then a break of another seven years. Then boom, boom, boom -- three straight years with inductions -- and then four off, and three off, and most recently a break of two years.
The membership list encompasses agricultural standouts, political standouts, legal standouts, a woman devoted to the county history, a couple of doctors, educational standouts, and business standouts.
Who this next time? I’m sure there are lots of possibilities; we are a small county, but we are not anywhere near devoid of inspiring leaders past or present.
So ... I was thinking: who would I nominate if were so inclined?
Well, I would start with Jim Guild, a man of business foresight and a force in the downtown business community. His operations take up nearly a block of Franklin Street. And he’s been instrumental in starting a church. Business visionary, religiously oriented, a landlord of several properties, Rotarian. The man is always thinking, and always doing. Some consider him a maverick, which might put him on the outside looking in, but I think the selectors should strongly consider opening that door to him.
I would continue with J.C. Argetsinger: experience in federal government, our District Attorney, and County Judge for more than a decade. J.C. in retirement has filled in here and there as judge, and continues his community service through Rotary. This is a man of compassion who has helped many people over the years, including yours truly. And he was president of the International Motor Racing Research Center through its formative years. Good God, what else do you need to do for induction?
And I would heartily endorse the recently departed Frank Steber -- longtime (and popular) Watkins Glen teacher, and later a columnist (Seneca Spectator) for the local weekly and the author of three historical novels based right here in our historic backyard: Seneca Dawn, Seneca Sunrise, and Seneca Hope. He also served as president of the Watkins Glen Library board and the Schuyler County Historical Society, and had a wide circle of friends drawn to the gentleman he was. The last time I saw him, not long before his passing, he was selling and signing his books at the Historical Society Museum, and said he was planning another novel. Alas, that will not happen. But the Hall of Fame can.
Okay. That’s three I like. Each should be given serious consideration, as I’m sure others will be.
Beyond that, we need more diversity. I would suggest for instance that women be given a much closer look. Right now, there are only five female members of the Hall of Fame: Max Neal, Jean Argetsinger, Patricia Suits Ellison, Barbara Bell and Louise Stillman.
Just five? Really?
We can do better than that.
Maybe Angeline Franzese and Barb Halpin, both of whom impacted the County Legislature.
And while she predated Schuyler County, she was right here once, and historically significant: Queen Catharine.
Or how about former Watkins Glen Mayor Judy Phillips, who has a long and distinguished history of public service?
Or chronicler extraordinaire Glenda Gephart? She’s got the credentials, and an enormous dedication to Schuyler County.
Do you have a favorite or favorites? You can put in your two cents worth with the Chamber of Commerce until July 27. Click here to access a nomination form.
Now that the year is ending ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, June 13, 2018 -- High school sports are done for the year.
And celebrations have ensued.
We held our Top Drawer 24 party with only minor hiccups. (Each party offers a new challenge or two, even after 13 years.)
Sports awards have been distributed. From this website, we had Kennedey Heichel and Curtis Harris from Odessa-Montour -- and Hannah Morse and the Planty brothers, Gabe and Aaron, from Watkins Glen -- winning Athlete of the Year Awards. Heichel teamed with fellow O-M track standout Zach Elliott to win The Odessa File Spring MVP Awards.
ESPN Ithaca held its award-laden Night of Champions. Then came the Schuyler Scholars dinner.
Meanwhile, signs of summer have arrived. Warmer temperatures. Sunshine. Tourists.
The annual Firemen’s Parade of Bands has come and gone in Montour Falls for the 62nd time. And a carnival with it. Very summery. And all great fun.
We’re heading toward graduations, and festivals, and -- I suppose -- yard work and other household chores before I head to northern Michigan next month for a few weeks on Bois Blanc Island, where I annually recharge my batteries.
Then I’ll be back, and sports will start again, and I will before long be marking yet another decade on Earth. And a couple of months after that, I’ll pass the 16-year mark on this website, and be turning my attention once again to the Top Drawer 24.
And round and round we go ...
It occurs to me, now that I’ve had time to come down from the stratospheric pressure of school year-end activities and to look around, that we’re all -- at least those of us on a schedule -- on a treadmill. And sometimes ... sometimes I’d like to jump off.
But I can’t, any more than most people can. Not yet, anyway.
But one day, the lottery or a sugar mama or some other stroke of luck willing, I will take the leap. I’ll have to be careful, though, that it's not like that fellow in the Twilight Zone episode who got off his train when it stopped in a charming community of the past called Willoughby. He couldn’t resist.
Turns out that he actually leaped from a moving train, and was removed from the scene by the current-day Willoughby Funeral Home.
I trust I have a stronger sense of self-preservation than that. I just have to pace myself. My doctor and my meds tell me so.
It’s all frustrating, though, this chapter of my life. I used to be athletic -- on the high school varsity baseball team. I developed some power (left-handed). I could run rather fast, and throw bullets.
Now, if I try to run, my left foot (damaged last winter) and my right knee (the winter before) scream out at me in protest. Even without those maladies, speed is not in my arsenal any longer. Nor, I suspect, is my ability to send a ball over an outfield fence. I know for damn sure I couldn’t catch up to a Grace Vondracek fastball. And my arm was never the same after a rotator cuff injury.
It's enough, on occasion, to make me seethe. I used to play; now I spectate. I guess that’s the lot, eventually, of all of us. Life, as it’s been said, is a real ... well, fill in the word.
As a fan, though, I find I can act on my admiration of others -- specifically of our high school athletes. That’s where The Odessa File sports coverage comes in, and its Athletes of the Week, and its All-Star teams, and its Athletes of the Year ... and the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding scholar-athlete-citizens.
And a fan I am. I especially admired the Top Drawer kids this year. Their achievements are, collectively, mind-boggling. And I admire the winners of the Susan Award, a sportsmanship-in-life honor named after my late wife. One went to a Twin Tiers Christian Academy student named Simeon Stearns, and the other to Odessa-Montour senior Hailey Perraut (this year’s valedictorian, among other things.)
The world of the high school athlete is, for me, a kind of escape from what’s going on out there in Washington and North Korea and the Middle East.
Escapism can be good -- as long as we keep one foot firmly placed in the reality of our existence: its temporary nature, its tendency to disappoint, the fears it imposes and the grief it ascribes to all of us.
If this seems a little dark, I guess it’s because I’m a little tired. The end of a 10-month school year is, for me, the end of a marathon -- with another looming not far ahead.
But first comes the Island. Northern Michigan. Deep woods. Passing freighters. Dirt roads, and people I’ve known forever.
It's as essential to me as the air.
There’s a story going around about a fellow who summers up there. He took his new girlfriend to Bois Blanc, only to find that she didn’t like it. You know: no mall, no movie theater, no society other than a cocktail circuit and a weekly Fun Night out at the Coast Guard Chapel on the Island's east end. And bugs. Sometimes there are bugs.
The young lady did not like it, and thus did not remain the fellow's girlfriend for long.
It was a direct correlation.
She failed, he said. Failed the test.
For the Island comes first.
Maybe that’s why, 13 years into widowerhood, I don’t take anyone with me to the Island (other than the fact that I wouldn't wish me on anyone). It takes a certain type of person, perhaps an unusual kind of person, to like the Island -- to accept its comparative primitiveness, and its distance from the dizzying nature of today’s civilization. (Point of reference: The Island has electricity and running water and modern restrooms -- all lacking up there when I was a boy.)
It takes a while to get to Bois Blanc -- a fact pointed out recently by my youngest son, Dave, when he called from Israel (where he and his wife Ali and my granddaughter Marley will be living for a year starting in October while he works for a company there in Information Technology R&D). He said that getting to the Island from his home in North Carolina is not easy -- which is one reason, I suppose, that he and Ali haven’t been up there in years. “It takes as long to get there as it does to get to Tel Aviv,” he noted.
Well ... that might be a slight exaggeration, but if Dave were flying north to Bois Blanc from Asheville, he’d have to fly into Detroit (perhaps circuitously, through another airport first), catch a plane to Pellston in northern Michigan, and catch a small charter from there to the Island.
He did that once from New York -- from Odessa -- back when he was a boy and his Mom was alive. The two of them flew up to the Island days after Dave’s brother Jon and I had driven there early to attend a memorial service. We met them coming in late at night at the Island airfield, just as the wind was picking up from a nasty storm moving in. The craft was getting knocked around pretty good as it landed.
As I remember it, when Dave got out of that plane, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. It wasn’t the usual way he greeted the Island.
But then ... he had never flown in there before -- let alone in a small plane, through a building storm.
Air travel can do that to you: add a certain, sometimes fearful, zest to things.
Which is one reason I drive.
As a bard once might have said, in a verse titled Gravity:
All the world is a stage
For plays in seven acts.
From mewling turned to teenaged angst,
We move to love and marriage pacts.
To parenthood, to preening pride,
Then to a certain slide.
And in the end, when we revert
To loss, we must abide.
But on the way it's safe to say,
with no reservation
That flight is not in any way
Unique, & quite memorable
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, May 30, 2018 -- Last week was a busy one, traveling as I did (with Top Drawer 24 Chairman Craig Cheplick driving) to schools throughout Chemung and Schuyler Counties, and visiting other districts, too -- such as South Seneca and Trumansburg.
In all, visits were paid to 10 schools for the presentation of invitations to 24 remarkable student-athlete-citizens selected for inclusion on the 13th annual Top Drawer 24 team. Cheplick (widely known as Chep) and I devised this team back in late 2005, while brainstorming in his downstairs rec room.
We came up with a lot of ideas back then, for Chep was Athletic Director at Watkins Glen High School and, as such, a man of vision. He was the guy who insisted I cover WGHS sports, something I resisted. I had not had an exactly embracing experience covering Odessa-Montour sports at the outset, and a trip I had made to the Watkins high school office early in my online venture basically resulted in a rebuff by the principal.
But Chep saw the potential -- the need, really -- for The Odessa File in Watkins Glen, and so I relented, and went down to cover a couple of sporting events ... and was warmly received by the kids and coaches. The Watkins district, I discovered, was as far from O-M as philosophy and caution could take it, O-M being at the time both isolationist and guarded, and Watkins ... not (despite that inital rebuff).
Anyway, we came up with the idea to have me pick Athletes of the Week, based on all that I observe -- which is quite a bit each week; I cover a lot of games involving the two schools. And then, not long after, we decided All-Schuyler All-Star teams might have value if selected by me seasonally. And that worked -- and then along came the idea for the Top Drawer 24 -- an annual team taking into account scholarship, athleticism, personality and citizenship -- "the whole package," I believe I first called it.
Twelve years in now, we -- that is, Chep and I and a committee, and with input from area administrators and from the occasional parent (always welcome) -- have distributed medallions and certificates (and cupcakes, I guess you might include, since they are a staple of our annual award celebration) to 288 honorees. That’s 24 honorees times 12 years. Many of those were repeat honorees, especially in the early years; one girl made the team four times, and several three.
Now, since we’ve expanded from the original base of O-M and WGHS students to include Chemung County and other schools, repeats are rare. We haven’t had a sophomore on the team in quite a while, and likely will never see another freshman there. Juniors, in fact, are generally outnumbered 2-1 by seniors. Last year we had eight juniors, and only one of them is on the team again in this, her senior year. It’s not that any of those who failed to repeat have done anything wrong; they are all great guys and girls.
But as I’ve said before, this is not a club. Each year starts fresh, especially now with spots on the team at such a premium. It is so much harder with 10 schools vying for the same number of positions as before: 24.
When we expanded, we took some heat on it. “You’re abandoning your base,” we were told more than once. It was a bold stroke -- one devised by Chep -- and it paid off. The other eight schools value the award in a way that we have never seen it embraced in Schuyler County. Chemung schools love it, as do Trumansburg, Spencer-Van Etten and South Seneca.
(Each school welcomes Chep and me in its own way. My favorite is Spencer-Van Etten, where administrators have the honorees' parents and even grandparents on hand for the presentation of the invitation. This year, with just one honoree, S-VE made the biggest deal of the invitation phase -- with parents, grandparents and sister waiting for the honoree, Mackenzie Grube, whose smile signified surprise and pleasure at what she found awaiting her when she was called to the main office.)
What is important to me and Chep has always been the kids -- honoring those who have earned it and challenging them to give back in the future; to become our community leaders or leaders of whatever community or state in which they ultimately reside.
It has always been important to create a special feel to capture those special moments when the honorees are called forward one by one at the ceremony to receive the applause -- the encouragement -- of the assembled crowd. And the place that captures that mood is the Watkins Glen State Park Pavilion, up near the pool -- a place that evokes a timeless quality, so much better than an interior (although it offers shelter itself, quite necessary in years past that brought us sleet and rain and, once, downright cold that prompted the park to light the fireplaces at either end of the structure).
I think, in studying this year’s assembled 24, that we might possibly have the best group yet in terms of achievement and promise. Of course, that’s subjective, and perhaps a byproduct of excitement as the ceremony nears.
But it’s a really good group. I have had the privilege, as I noted, of meeting with all of them. In the case of the Schuyler schools, I know each of the honorees, some better than others. And they are clearly an exceptional group. If you haven't seen the story about the team -- with each member listed and pictured and individually described -- you can click here to catch up.
Listen: Here's an idea; a friendly suggestion.
A nudge, if you will.
If you can pull yourselves away from your usual routine on Monday evening, June 4th, come on up to the State Park pavilion for this year's Top Drawer 24 party -- located near the park entrance across from Seneca Lodge. You’ll experience a ceremony, a celebration, that is unique and quite memorable.
Things get started at 5 p.m.
Inspiration, thy name is ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, May 20, 2018 -- It is that time of year when I get both encouraged and exhausted.
I am encouraged because it never fails that I am inspired by young people who rise to the challenges that school and its attendant activities -- primarily sports -- pose to them. At my age, I am on the sidelines; so I take pleasure from there in their achievements, which appeal to the fan in me.
It is also a time when I can, in some small way, help to congratulate them in a perhaps meaningful way -- through inclusion on this website's spring sports All-Star team or, beyond that, with inclusion on the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens. And beyond that, there is the presentation each year -- on the same night as our Top Drawer celebration at the State Park pavilion -- of Athlete of the Year and Susan Award trophies to deserving (and yes, inspiring) students.
All of that is both time-consuming ... and rather exhausting. Why? Because thought and study and discussion and worry can take a toll -- and that's what goes into such selections.
The Top Drawer program, conceived more than a decade ago, has grown to encompass schools beyond the border of Schuyler County. We partner with 10 schools -- up from the original two -- to honor students who are among the best and brightest that our area has to offer. In addition to the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour schools, we have Elmira, Edison, Notre Dame, Horseheads, Twin Tiers Christian Academy, Spencer-Van Etten, Trumansburg and South Seneca.
The Athlete of the Year Awards are the culmination of sports coverage on The Odessa File through three seasons at Watkins Glen and O-M, complete with an ongoing poll that tracks performances. In the end, poll points generally tell who the recipients should be. Naturally, those points can't be generated without a consistent effort on my part to observe. I see a lot of games or matches in the course of a school year, and learn the nuances of the players, and their athletic qualities -- among them precision, attitude, leadership and desire.
That all plays, ultimately, into the selection of the Top Drawer 24 by a committee. And it plays into selection of the Susan Award winner each year -- or on a couple of occasions, winners. There are two this year -- two wholly deserving individuals.
The Susan Award is a Sportsmanship Award named after my late wife, Susan Bauman Haeffner. It was presented originally -- starting in 2005 -- to someone in Schuyler County, but has since become available to students from other Top Drawer 24 schools.
You see, all of this is interrelated.
Anyway, the Susan honoree is not always a sportsman in a traditional sense. The honoree might be someone who has met adversity in life with grace and dignity and a drive that never admits defeat -- or it can be someone who is like Susan was. That requires a sense of fair play, a core of kindness, and a single-mindedness in pursuit of goals, but with a sense not of self, but of the usefulness of those goals to others -- such as teammates.
In other words, I look for someone who -- from my own personal standpoint -- is a mix of attributes that almost defy definition. For Susan could not be pigeonholed. She was ... surprising. But as the saying goes, I know it when I see it.
Having said that, I find myself quite pleased with the selections on all fronts this year. On Top Drawer, there are four students each from O-M, Watkins Glen and Horseheads, three from Elmira, two each from Edison, Twin Tiers Christian and South Seneca, and one each from S-VE, Trumansburg and Notre Dame. (The makeup varies from year to year, depending on circumstance and the pool of nominees.) The honorees will be notified of their selection this week, and the team unveiled soon after.
There have also been yet-to-be-announced 2017-18 Male and Female Athletes of the Year selected by this website at both Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, and there are, as mentioned, two Susan Award winners -- one in Schuyler County and one out, also not yet unveiled.
All amazing people. All inspiring.
And all to be honored on Monday, June 4 at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. Things get started about 5 p.m. Athlete of the Year Awards are presented at 5:20. A Top Drawer 24 team photo is at 5:40 -- with parents and grandparents welcome to take pictures. Speeches -- short, message-orient speeches -- begin at 5:50. Medallions, trophies and celebration follow. And you're all invited.
Take a drive up there. There is no admission charge, either to the park at that point, or to the party.
Maybe you would feel inspired, too.
Have at it, historians ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, May 9, 2018 -- I have in hand three copies of a 4-by-12 inch, two-sided flyer from Friday and Saturday March 8 and 9, 1963. Each is textured cardboard, I suppose you’d call it, and advertises a local production which I gather was of some note back in its day.
The flyers were advertisement for the Schuyler Players, who were presenting “The Philadelphia Story” under the direction of Jean Argetsinger in the Watkins Glen Elementary School Auditorium.
Knowing how small that auditorium is, and how tight the stage space, I can only marvel at the challenges it presented. Schuyler plays nowadays are held for the most part in large high school auditoriums with sizable stages.
Anyway, as the flyers attest: “The action of the play takes place in the course of twenty-four hours at the Seth Lords' house in the country near Philadelphia.” It then describes the scenes, with which many folks are familiar through the film of the same name with Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, or through its remake, “High Society,” starring Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Being a newcomer (I arrived here in 1980), most of the names in the cast are ones with which I am not attuned, although some jumped out: Frank Steber and William Elkins chief among them -- teacher and lawyer, both beloved across many years. Mr. Steber died recently at the age of 96.
I in fact procured these flyers from the home of Mr. Elkins, who is a resident at Seneca View Skilled Nursing Facility. He is 94 now, and there with his wife Irene, 96. Their daughters have been conducting a sale of material from the Elkins house on Route 414 near Burdett. There I found the flyers this past weekend, while perusing Mr. Elkins’ rather extensive library -- full, as expected, of politically-related and law-related books.
Mr. Elkins -- a member of the Schuyler County Hall of Fame -- has been known widely for years for his legal and humanitarian efforts. His home reflects an eclectic taste -- political buttons, some old toy trains, postcards, shelves of non-fiction books and novels, magazines -- and a host of personal knickknacks.
But it was the flyers that caught my eye -- still in mint condition, as fresh as the day they were issued. They were in a stack of various papers, along with three other flyers -- identical to one another and also mint -- touting the Republican candidacy of William N. Ellison for Schuyler County District Attorney on Nov. 3, 1964. They carried a biography of Ellison, who would later become County Judge and State Supreme Court Justice. Following his death, the County Courthouse was named in his honor.
There was also, in that grouping, a 1955 American Legion membership card with Mr. Elkins' name printed upon it, and a Centennial Celebration pamphlet from 1926, from a program held that year at the Burdett Presbyterian Church.
I found a book, too, by another well-known local lawyer, the late Liston F. Coon, Lt. Colonel (Ret.) U.S. Air Force. It’s a paperback titled “Every Day Was a Picnic,” about his military experiences in and after World War Two. It was published in 2001, when Mr. Coon was 81. He, like Judge Ellison, became a Schuyler County District Attorney and County Judge, and was appointed to the New York Court of Claims, retiring in 1977.
Yet another book unearthed at the Elkins place was “Delta Harvest” by Howard A. Hanlon, a lumberman who was a board trustee in the Odessa School District. An elementary school in Odessa is named in his honor.
History has long fascinated me; I was a history major in college, and like to mix my fiction reading with biographies and such.
Those five gentlemen I’ve mentioned would make for interesting biographical subjects: William Elkins, Frank Steber, William Ellison, Liston Coon and Howard Hanlon. Not to mention the late Jean Argetsinger, a community leader for years.
Steber and Hanlon wrote novels, but little, as far as I know, about themselves. Coon’s book would make for a great starting point on him. Elkins and Ellison are subjects who should yield a wealth of information -- just by talking to Elkins or to those who know him and knew Ellison. And there are plenty of Argetsingers around to discuss the family matriarch.
Maybe there’s somebody out there who might like to tackle such a project or projects. I don’t know that I’m up to it, but I’d gladly edit whatever manuscripts might pass my way.
Have at it, historians.
For those interested, here are the cast names on that "Philadelphia Story" flyer:
Susan Hazlitt as Tracy Lord.
Getchie Argetsinger as Dinah Lord.
Janice Kranz as Margaret Lord.
Charles "Chuck" Fitch as Alexander (Sandy) Lord.
George Shannon as Thomas.
William Elkins as William (Uncle Willie) Tracy.
Ann Ryer as Elizabeth (Liz) Embrie.
Joseph F. Compese as Macaulay (Mike) Connor.
Hugh Snow as George Kittredge.
William R. Kelly as C.K. Dexter Haven.
Frank Steber as Seth Lord.
Genevieve Peck as Elsie.
Ronald Nilsen as Mac.
Fay Nilsen as May.
Darwin Connelly as Edward.
Among other names, backstage: Ruth Snow was the Promptor; Evelyn Freudenheim was the Treasurer; John Callanan, Sr. was in charge of Business; Charlotte Currie was in charge of Sets; Yvonne Connelly, Roland Slater and Stella Fraboni were handling Props; Betty Townsend was House Manager; Barbara McCarthy was the Costumes Manager, with help from Jacqueline Gardner and Fay Nilsen; and Carol Symes was in charge of Make-Up, with help from Betty Hazlitt, Frances Beattie and Beth Verrill.
The Hatsell's Music Makers provided music before the play and during intermissions: Keith Hatsell on piano; Frank Brown on clarinet; Kenneth May on drums; and Duncan McCarthy on guitar.
And that's history. Most are just names to the newcomer, but they had key responsibilities. All leading, I imagine, to a couple of wonderful evenings 55 years ago.
Kudos to the local robotics team that competed late last month in a world competition in Detroit. The event, under the auspices of the FIRST organization (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) featured four classes; the local team -- which goes by the name Mechanical Meltdown, and operates a robot it built and named Renaldo -- competed with other 7th through 12th graders. A total of 128 teams -- out of 5,935 worldwide -- qualified in their division for the Detroit competition. There was a similar competition held the previous week in Houston -- representing countries from the Southern Hemisphere. The Detroit event was for Northern Hemisphere countries.
The Mechanical Meltdown has seven members. Of them, five went on the trip. Two had unavoidable conflicts. Most of the kids' parents were there, along with a grandfather and aunt. All told, 40,000 people were in attendance, among them thousands of competing students -- making it the largest robotics competition in the world.
The Mechanical Meltdown, part of the FLARE organization (Finger Lakes Area Robotics Education), placed 22nd in its division (one of two divisions) and 32nd overall out of the 128 teams competing in its class in Detroit. Said Kathy Gascon, who serves as a coach: "It was a great experience for the kids to meet so many other people of all ages with their same interests. We were so pleased just to have earned our way there. Our team performed even better than I expected, and I am extremely proud of them to have placed 32nd among these truly world-class teams."
The team consists of:
--Sean Thweatt, a 9th grader at the New Roots Charter School in Ithaca.
--Jill Stewart, a 12th grader at the New Roots Charter School.
--Trevor Dunn, a 12th grader at Odessa-Montour High School.
--Sam Stewart, a Watkins Glen 12th grader home-schooled.
--Dylan Markley, an 11th grader at Watkins Glen High School.
--Kishan Patel, an 11th grader at WGHS.
--Kaden Loucks-Scuteri, a 9th grader at WGHS.
The passion of younger days
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, April 23, 2018 -- I just finished watching The Post -- a movie about the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the rise of that paper and its publisher, Katherine Graham, as forces that authoritarians could fear and hate.
It was engrossing, and satisfying, and called to mind my own minor experience in Washington, working for a few months for USA Today -- long after the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent Watergate mess.
(I was in D.C. on a visit in the early ‘70s, too, when Watergate was still unfolding, and remember dining at a restaurant where one of the Watergate principals, Bob Haldeman -- President Nixon’s Chief of Staff -- was also eating. But that was minor, a mere sighting across the dining hall. Call it a brush with history.)
Later, in 1988, came my USA Today stint, on loan from the Elmira Star-Gazette. And I did very well in my editing post, winning more than a dozen weekly awards. But try as I might to catch on there full time, I was rebuffed, and ended up leaving journalism for a few years.
One of the reasons given me for the rejection came, off the record, from a full-time editor I had befriended. It was this: I was too old.
Too old. Also too white and too male, those being important hiring characteristics at the time.
But really ... too old seemed the chief problem.
I was too old 30 years ago.
I was 39.
Anything near 40 was excessive in the eyes of the suits, I guess.
Three decades have passed since then, and I find myself wondering: If I was too old then, what am I now?
I was too old way back when.
And yet I’m still up to my eyeballs in journalism.
Now, it might be argued -- now, at this much later date -- I really am too old.
It is, after all, 30 years later.
I think it might be true. I might be too old because I’ve mellowed, which isn’t always a good thing when it comes to deciding matters of journalistic importance.
An example of passion applied in my yesteryear:
When I was a young man -- which is to say under 30 -- I was working as a reporter-editor at the Watertown Daily Times in Northern New York.
There was a murder there of a woman I knew peripherally -- the wife of a local attorney. Her name was Holly Gilbert, and she was 34 years old. She was killed by bullets to the neck and head from a .38 -- in her own home about noon on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1976.
Police theorized that she had arrived home from running errands and had stumbled into an ongoing robbery. This occurred on Harris Drive, an upper-crust section of the city.
The whole thing was a shock. Most of us at the paper knew Holly’s husband Hugh, who was chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Committee (and would later become a State Supreme Court justice). And some of us had met Holly. That first day -- the day of the murder -- we didn’t have the story in the paper because we went to press in the early afternoon, before Holly's body was discovered by her two sons when they returned home from school. When we did hear about it, there was no suspect; police had no idea who was responsible.
But that night the story took a nasty turn. A neighbor of the Gilberts was a former county District Attormey and former county judge, the Honorable William J. McClusky. He had a 14-year-old son, Leo, and Leo was now a suspect. Early the next day the boy was apprehended many miles away, hitchhiking along the New York Thruway near Buffalo.
I remember that day, Oct. 7, when word came in that the son of a prominent citizen was the accused killer. I remember because I got rather passionate during an argument in the newsroom about whether we could use his name, since he was only 14. Normal practice involving teen crimes was that the names were withheld from publication.
But this was different; this was murder, and so I felt the rules be damned. Some others in the newsroom held the more traditional viewpoint: don’t use the name.
At that age -- I was days away from turning 28 -- I tended to emotional extremes when I felt that rules were absurd and obstructionist; and so I did that day. I argued passionately and found, ultimately, that the powers that be at the paper leaned in the same direction. I don’t know if my attitude contributed, but we did decide to go with the name of the boy: Leo A. McClusky.
I remember all of this in some detail because of the prominent people involved in the crime; because the victim was more than a statistic to me; and because I felt it was just flat-out right to inform the public about what was transpiring on a story so important -- so affecting, really, that it still resonates with me all these years, nearly 42 of them, later.
There is, in fact, a reproduction of the Watertown Times back page that day, Oct. 7, 1976, available on the Internet -- the back page being the site of all local stories of import at that paper. And in a curve-cornered box at the bottom of one of several stories we carried that day was this: "Members of The Times' staff who assisted in coverage of the murder story included Michael J. Green, David C. Shampine, A. Charles Haeffner, Kathie Barnes and Marsha J. Davis." I remember all of those other reporters vividly, too, for we were all friends.
But that page aside, I remember the case too because of how it ended. Officials threw the book at the kid -- but it was a very thin, very light book. After he admitted the murder and told authorities where to find the weapon (a gun stolen from a doctor’s residence, and with ammunition in it from another burglary), Leo McClusky was given 18 months at a juvenile facility, with the possibility of extra time tacked on until he was 18 years old. Then he would have to be turned loose unless he, for some reason, desired supervised treatment beyond that. (I have no indication available that he did.)
He was, under the law, simply designated a juvenile delinquent.
A woman was dead -- brutally murdered -- and the kid was getting his hand slapped.
That was the law back then, since changed. It was a punishment that a special prosecutor called “the most severe treatment that could take place ... We have fulfilled our mandate to this county.”
And that was that.
All that remains of it are the memories -- of Watertown, which I left three years later, and of Holly Gilbert.
A nice lady. The victim of a brutal crime.
In subsequent years, I would get fairly combative on other stories. One such instance came while I worked at The Leader in Corning in the late 1990s. The paper was celebrating its 150th birthday, and I was told by the publisher to write an account -- warts and all -- about a day in the life of the newspaper. Which I did.
The publisher failed to read it until 15,000 copies of the special section that held my story were printed and stacked for delivery, set to go out on a specific upcoming day. Within my story was mention of some friction that existed between the paper and Corning Inc., which is the town’s chief employer. Corning is essentially a company town.
The publisher discovered the specifics of my story a day after the print run, but before delivery, and had a conniption; he hated to rile the ruling class. Even mention of friction with Corning Inc. -- an acknowledgement in print of its existence -- would do that. He held a staff meeting at which one reporter, who had read the story before publication and adjudged it excellent, now backtracked and said he didn’t think it should have been quite so ... transparent.
I snapped and told off the reporter right there, in front of everyone -- passion welling to the surface and spewing out across the conference-room table -- until the publisher stepped in and basically sent us to our respective corners. Then he said he would get back to us; would have a decision on what, if anything, he planned to do.
The reporter and I avoided each other the rest of the day, lest violence erupt.
The publisher's decision, I learned the next day, was to trash all 15,000 special sections and reprint them with my story reworked according to his specifications. Since the cost of the move was significant, I thought for sure I would be fired ... but I wasn’t.
Which in itself was fairly amazing.
Anyway, I grabbed and still have several copies of the offending section, plucked from their pile before the destroy order was carried out.
And even in this job, operating The Odessa File, I was known early on to get my dander up over this or that incident -- but managed for the most part not to directly engage my readers. What they thought was what they thought; they were entitled to their opinions, as I am to mine.
Sometimes a reader who didn't see things my way engaged me with direct broadsides -- which is to say unpleasant criticisms.
There was one reader in particular -- a woman with a child in the local school district -- who I seemingly set off with regularity. On several occasions I had snarky emails waiting for me from the woman as soon as I awakened in the morning. To sum up her attacks, she basically said I was a blight on the county, and that she couldn’t wait to stop reading what I wrote; which she planned to do as soon as her offspring, a youth I covered with some regularity in sports, had graduated and would no longer be mentioned in any stories.
I thought that if I really bothered her so much, she could stop reading right away -- but I don't think I ever suggested it to her. I tried to keep the peace despite a part of me just itching for a fight.
But while I managed to avoid a direct confrontation with her, I seemed to naturally engage school superintendents -- a couple of them up here in Odessa over the years, and one in particular down the hill in Watkins Glen. People sometimes ask why I haven't always gotten along with superintendents, and I say it's because of the authoritarian nature of their job -- which is fine until the officeholder starts seeing himself or herself with rose-colored glasses; sees royalty when looking in the mirror.
Yes, I've had my run-ins with them -- even got banned once from the sidelines of sporting events at the school in Odessa. The ban came in the form of a superintendent's directive that said I couldn't be insured, and should therefore steer clear of proximity to athletic action that might inadvertently injure me -- a directive which I ignored, asserting my right to be where other reporters could go. And I never heard another peep on the matter.
Later, I was effectively banned from school buildings during classroom hours in Watkins Glen. I had upset the super with my news coverage, and he decided in response that I needed his specific approval to gain admittance. Since I had had a pretty free rein on my school movements up to that point, and saw no reason to kiss his ring, I never sought his permission. I stayed away instead, and the kids lost a degree of coverage.
But those superintendents are gone, and as I said: I’m mellower now, these 30 years after I was deemed too old.
I might still muster up a fight or two down the road, but it will take more to spur me on than it used to. I'm even getting along with the current superintendents.
With age comes a certain calm. At least it seems to be that way with me.
To return to my starting point -- movies -- let me add something in the distinctive syntax used by Star Wars' Yoda, something that sums up where I am.
It's this simple, really:
Long in the tooth I am. Fight I might; or might not. But try I will.
Bruno and the Silverdome
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, April 7, 2018 -- I don’t know if it’s the fact of a big birthday creeping up in October, or a feeling of relief at the pending departure of winter, or just a natural reaction as the realization dawns in earnest that there is far less remaining in life for me than all that has gone before.
In other words, time is fleeting.
Regardless, I have been looking back, probing in my mind, looking for those people from my past who have left an impression or, in some cases, provided me with a kindness and encouragement as I bumbled along life’s highway.
Surprisingly, quite a few folks keep popping into my head, undercutting my usual cynical stance that very few people can be trusted. It’s a fact: No one walks truly alone. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we should offer thanks, or a bow, in the direction of those who have provided aid in the great march forward.
I have mentioned here before the man who challenged me -- mentored me -- as I began a journalism career. Robert Gildart was his name, a professor at Albion College, my alma mater. He was an author (of Albion history), a journalist, an instructor and an emotional supporter.
And I have mentioned the Johnson family, father and son, who ran the Watertown Daily Times in Northern New York. Those two men -- John Sr. and John Jr. -- provided me with my first real job, throughout the 1970s, when I sorely needed structure in my life.
And I have, I think, mentioned Mike Gossie and John Kelleher, news officials at The Leader in Corning. They welcomed me there with open arms -- got me back in the journalism game after several years in the wilderness. That experience led, more or less directly -- gave the impetus -- to this website. Without my three years there in the late ‘90s, odds are I wouldn’t have tried The Odessa File about four years later.
But one man keeps popping up in my mind with a sort of insistence -- a man I’ve mentioned on these pages only once in passing, a man who in fact I forgot for a number of years. But he has grown in prominence in my memory in the past couple of calendar cycles, ever since I stumbled upon his obituary long after his 2009 death at the age of 84.
I don’t know why I had relegated him to the dark recesses. But he came charging back into my consciousness that day, and has stayed there.
His name was Bruno Kearns, and he was the Sports Editor at the first daily newspaper for which I worked -- The Pontiac (Michigan) Press, back between my junior and senior years of college. I was an intern -- the lowliest of the low, and treated that way by the City Editor, a disagreeable sort named Thorn.
Kearns, on the other hand, had his own little world -- in a room separated from the primary newsroom overseen by Thorn. Bruno treated me with kindness and respect, and merely shook his head at Thorn's autocracy, telling me to "never mind" such excesses.
Bruno -- an accomplished reporter, editor and columnist -- was instrumental in getting Pontiac voters to approve construction of the famed Silverdome, a football-themed stadium on 127 Pontiac acres, rising from farmland like some sort of fevered dream. It was, upon completion in 1975, home to the National Football League's Detroit Lions. Its roof was fiberglass, held aloft by air pressure. I once sat so high in the nosebleed section at a Lions game that I got a closeup view of that roof; the playing field, by contrast, was so far away in that 82,000-seat building that the players looked like insects scurrying around.
Yes, Bruno lobbied for that building -- even was provided with a plaque of thanks in a table in its press box that identified that particular space as his -- amid many big-stage events he covered in a long journalistic career. He covered all sorts of national and international events, but he was most at home ... well, when he was home. A father of four -- two boys and two girls -- he was most comfortable, I think, reporting the local scene, and taught me something of the art of that particular deal.
He took the time to show me the basics of writing a sports story -- at the same time teaching me the importance of local sports to the local readers. He was endlessly patient with me, for I was prone to mistakes brought on by ignorance, from a lack of experience.
The man was a teacher.
“Names,” he once said to me. He had just read a story I had written on a local softball game.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“You need more names,” he replied. “You have all the facts of the game from the team level, and the winning pitcher. But you need to humanize it. You need more names. Who got the hits? Who drove in the runs? Who made a difference? Who provided the turning point? Quotes can’t hurt, either. You need more names.”
It was basic, and well-earned, and lasting.
In contrast, I can't remember a thing that Thorn said to me out in the city room -- the main newsroom. All I remember of Thorn was his volume and the denigration he directed toward me.
Yes, Bruno was a teacher. That's a pretty good legacy for anyone to have.
So ... thanks, Bruno. Sorry I forgot about you there for awhile.
You deserved better from me. Much better.
You deserved my gratitude for your kindness, for your direction, and for the wisdom you imparted.
And it’s my gratitude that you have.
And, while I was writing this, I decided that the fate of the Silverdome needed checking. What I found echoed my melancholy mood.
Oh, the Silverdome ruled for a number of years -- hosted the Lions; was home to the NBA's Detroit Pistons for a decade, from 1988-98; hosted professional soccer and the United States Football League's Michigan Panthers; hosted some big-time concerts; and was chosen as the site of the 1979 NBA All-Star Game, Super Bowl XVI, regional March Madness NCAA basketball games, and other events.
But then, says Wikipedia:
"After the opening of Ford Field (new home of the Lions) in 2002, the stadium was left without a permanent tenant. It first closed in 2006, but after multiple attempts to solicit redevelopment plans, the city sold the stadium at auction in 2009 for only $550,000 (less than 1% of the cost to build the dome). It reopened in 2010 and hosted several events, but closed again, this time permanently, in 2013. The roof was destroyed by a winter storm in 2013. Owners auctioned the stadium's contents in 2014 ... In 2017, the Silverdome was condemned and prepared for demolition; the upper deck of the stadium was imploded on December 4, 2017, after a failed attempt the previous day."
Bruno Kearns, had he still been writing, would have fought that fate, I'm sure. And had he been alive to see that implosion, he might well have wept.
We’re getting down to crunch time on choosing this year’s Top Drawer 24 honorees.
For those of you late to the party, this website, in conjunction with WENY-TV, and led by retired Watkins Glen teacher Craig Cheplick, will be honoring two dozen of the area’s best and brightest high school scholar-athlete-citizens on June 4 in a ceremony at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. We’ve been doing this annually for a dozen years.
We’ll be announcing our speakers pretty soon, and then in late May we’ll unveil the team on The Odessa File, complete with thumbnail biographies of each selectee.
If the ceremony holds true to the past, we’ll have not only medallions for the honorees, but certificates of achievement from our Congressman, State Senator and Assemblyman.
This award is unique, and more difficult to attain than when we started -- although it was difficult back then, too. Whereas we started with just two schools -- Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour -- we have 10 now: those two plus Elmira, Elmira Heights, Elmira Notre Dame, Horseheads, Trumansburg, Spencer-Van Etten, Twin Tiers Christian Academy and South Seneca. And there are still only 24 slots on the team.
If any of you folks out there have a specific nominee in mind, let me know, and send along some supporting information. The honor is open to any high school student in those 10 schools, 9th through 12th grades, although the tendency of late has been to lean toward seniors and juniors.
Baseball conjures the past
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, March 19, 2018 -- I love baseball; always have.
I collected baseball cards when I was a kid; memorized the statistics on those of the Detroit Tigers, the team I followed. (I lived north of that city.)
Later, after growing up and entering the workforce, I was a huge fan of Yankees pitcher Catfish Hunter, who was an inspiration after I moved to New York in the early 1970s.
I liked the Mets, too. I was there at Shea Stadium for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Red Sox -- watching the two-out comeback that propelled the Mets to a 7th game and a world championship.
I grieved when a former major leaguer named Bubba Phillips -- who played a decade in the majors from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s -- died of a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 63. I had known Bubba when he played for the Tigers for a couple of years; he even attended one of my Little League games. (See an account I wrote about that here.)
I sat in a living room of a condo in Florida in 1994 and talked with Brooklyn Dodgers great Pee Wee Reese, a friend of the condo dwellers -- who were residing in the same housing community as my parents. I was, of course, in awe.
I closely followed the Yankee dynasty of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s -- was fascinated by Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
I still follow the game, but without memorizing annual stats -- although I can still tell without looking that Norm Cash, the Tigers first baseman in 1961, batted .361 that year with 41 homers and 132 RBIs, or that the Tigers’ Al Kaline hit a career best .340 in his second full season, 1955 -- amassing exactly 200 hits, the only time he reached that mark.
I can tell you how I was friends with a gentleman connected to the Little League Museum in Williamsport who got us credentials for three years running to the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Cooperstown -- and even to a private gathering with Hall of Famers -- including Kaline, who I recall looking at me as though wondering what in heaven's name I was doing there. I was probably misreading the look, but I wondered the same thing myself.
Even today, I’ve kept my hand in by collecting sports (and particularly baseball) memorabilia (in addition to another love, movie memorabilia). I have cards from all the sports, along with magazines, posters, autographed photos and so on.
I love baseball. Which is why I’ve been happy to see the success, moderate but growing, in the merger of the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high school baseball teams into the Seneca Indians.
And it’s why I was temporarily alarmed to hear -- a rumor, as it turned out -- that Watkins Glen might jettison the sport. I know from speaking with the new superintendent at Watkins Glen that he feels there are too many sports in his district for such a small enrollment. But he is thinking more along the lines of trimming wrestling and boys swimming, each of which had somewhere around four participants this past season.
“We're not cutting baseball,” he assured me. “We have so many kids trying out that we’re looking at the possibility of a second modified team.”
Well, good, because I’m psyched for the upcoming season. The Seneca Indians were pretty good last year, and with another year of experience, I’m expecting a winning record. They have some key returners in Josh Updyke at shortstop, Johnny Niedermaier at first base, Derrick Lewis at catcher, Isaac McIlroy at second base, and third baseman Michael Doane, who is also one of the squad’s pitchers.
I saw Niedermaier the other day and he seemed fairly confident, for the team has some good offense -- Sean Kelly and Caleb Thomas are consistent hitters, in addition to first-team All-Star Updyke and those others I mentioned -- and a solid defense.
Good luck, boys.
Oddly enough, the day I was unnerved by the baseball rumor, my eyes happened upon a photo sitting high on a triangular shelving unit in the corner of my living room. It pictures a bunch of boys in baseball uniforms -- Bloomfield Hills (Michigan) Little Leaguers -- standing and seated in a team photo, along with their coaches.
In the front row, second from the right, with a bright smile on his face and his eyes partially shielded from the sun by the bill of his “T” laden cap (we were the Tigers), sits yours truly.
Yes, I played Little League baseball, and Babe Ruth ball, and even made the varsity at my high school. I had an exceptional arm and hit pretty well, a point of pride in a childhood where I didn’t take pride in all that much. I was more a procrastinator than a doer.
Looking at the photo, I am frustrated that I can’t remember most of the kids’ names. Unfortunately, there were no names printed on the back, as they were on a couple of other photos of my childhood. I remember the head coach was Mr. Mersky; he's standing on the right. The name of his assistant (standing on the left) I don’t recall.
While the players' faces are as familiar to me as my own -- even after more than a half-century -- the names just aren’t there, with limited exception. I recall Bob Calhoun, standing third from right, who was probably the best athlete on the team; and next to Mr. Mersky stands Dick Strong, who was a close friend (but, oddly, I forgot was even on the team until I studied the photo).
Dick and I hung out together quite often -- playing board games (he killed me time and again in Risk) and listening to music (in particular the Beatles, who rose to prominence in our teen years).
One of the coach’s sons, Johnny Mersky, is seated left of me (third from right), and a kid named Pat O’Brien two down from him. Missing, I notice, was the coach’s other son, Robin -- who to my mind was the fulcrum of our story that season.
We won the league title, but we started out dysfunctionally with Robin wearing what seemed like a perpetual chip on his shoulder that unnerved most of us. But along the way, he shed the chip, delivered some key base hits and helped us to the championship.
I was pitching and playing outfield. (By high school, I was a second baseman). And I hit something over .400 with an odd stance (right handed) where my left arm was up high (basically protecting my face from errant pitches). I batted lefty, too, with a more open stance and a pronounced leg kick (like those of the great Mel Ott and, later, the Detroit Tigers’ Dick McAuliffe).
It was a storybook year, although I developed a nervous tic before games, blinking furiously as game-time neared. It drove my mother nuts, to the point where she scolded me (gently, but firmly) for it -- which only made it worse.
Nobody ever said growing up was easy.
In fact, that calls to mind all sorts of parental admonitions -- my favorite of which was “Stand up straight.” After my eldest brother started attending West Point (from which he graduated, and at which he later served as an instructor), Mom (gone now but always with me) heard about the West Point "brace" -- whereby plebes (first-year cadets) were expected to sit bolt upright, squarely so, at meals and, I suppose, carry themselves accordingly (exaggeratedly stiff) in their general comportment. It was, from my reading of the matter, a form of hazing abolished not long after my brother endured it.
My Mom thought the West Point brace was an actual physical device to be worn, and that if I donned it, it might help overcome my slouch.
She wanted one sent to us, though no such device existed.
Which amuses me to this day.
Anyway, I love you, Mom, and miss you.
And you Tigers, whatever your names are, I miss you, too.
Photos in text: The Tigers, and me. I still have that glove, though the laces are shot.
Whither goest our young?
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, March 1, 2018 -- Out of the mouths of babes.
Well ... in this highly charged and long overdue era of calling out abusers, I hesitate to use the word “babes” where students, especially young women, are concerned.
But honest to God, the things they were saying Tuesday had any number of adults using that time-worn and biblically-based term.
It was a rather remarkable day involving Watkins Glen High School students, starting with an assembly overseen by seniors Jared Prien and Amber Benjamin (pictured at right with Superintendent Greg Kelahan), and concluding with the annual meeting of the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED) attended by -- and whose theme was basically hijacked by -- a dozen WGHS juniors and seniors with assured and impressive spokeswomen in juniors Isabella Fazzary and Kai Sutterby.
I don’t know where these kids get the wherewithal to get up in front of a crowd and voice their beliefs with such utter clarity and confidence. Down in Florida, of course, all sorts of students are expressing themselves. And they’re getting bashed for their trouble by a concerted right-wing conspiracy-theory assault. That kind of thing isn’t happening up here; but then again, none of our schools has been targeted by a gunman, if you discount the occasional texts or tweets by students threatening such action. A 16-year-old boy at Watkins was arrested for just such an ill-conceived communication back in October. Other area schools have reported incidents, most recently down in Northeast Bradford and before that in Sayre, not to mention some concern over in Spencer the other day, an incident that made the airwaves but was deemed “not credible.”
Locally, our outspoken students include the aforementioned Amber Benjamin, who said she had never given a speech before. But there she was Tuesday before hundreds of fellow students in the WGHS Auditorium at a function prompted by an article on school violence and safety that she and Prien had published as part of the journalism curriculum under teacher Travis Durfee.
I thought so highly of the effort that I published the speech here.
I have nothing but admiration for what she and Prien did and for the many comments made, and questions raised, by their fellow students at the assembly, for this whole matter of school violence needs to be aired, and aired some more. The greater the communication, the greater the awareness -- and that can prove key.
I couldn’t help but discern that a lot of these students are pretty rattled by the Florida school shooting, and who can blame them? Being in school can seem safe, but the image of terrified students being gunned down in the hallways by a maniac is all too real -- too easy to imagine happening here.
One school official in the area said the response time by state and county police to a school shooting would literally be only minutes, but that those minutes can prove so very costly. Locked doors and other defenses -- short of an armed guard -- can only hold off a gunman briefly. Protocols in place can serve as little more than delaying tactics, measures to keep the carnage to a minimum before a shooter can be stopped by law enforcement.
I asked one principal if he would -- as President Trump professed he would do -- charge into a live-shooting situation, even if he wasn’t armed.
“I like to think I would,” he said. “I think I would.”
WGHS does have a School Resource Officer, a measure of security that a few years ago was shared with Odessa-Montour. His name is David Waite, and he carries a Glock with him. Not a taser, though.
“I’m old school,” he said, but not so old-school that he might, as in the old days, secure the perimeter where an active shooter might be. In those days, he said, such situations created hostage scenarios, with the perpetrators surrounded and talked down from further mayhem.
It is a different era today. When asked if he would charge in after a shooter, Waite simply nodded yes. I have no doubt.
So ... keep talking, kids, and figuring things out. Maybe there can be training, as one student suggested, in talking down or bringing down a student who suddenly pulls a gun in class; or more security; or ... well, the more discussion, the better.
One or more of those ideas might provide an edge if the horror ever visits local school hallways.
And then there was the SCOPED meeting, held at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. It was, as expected, a celebration of everything going on around here of a developmental nature, with an emphasis on tourism: the work at the State Park; the Downtown Revitalization Initiative with an eye, largely, toward enhancing Watkins Glen to better attract tourists; the Franklin Street repaving and beautification planned by the State Department of Transportation, with a break in the summer so as not to upset tourism; the planned construction of a beverage production and distribution facility at the Schuyler County Business Park -- beverages (primarily wine) being a key tourist attraction. And so on.
And then came the children -- or more correctly the young adults, embodied in juniors Sutterby and Fazzary -- with a look at the area from a completely different vantage point ... as possible future leaders of our area, if only it had enough to offer them to resettle here after they venture off to college and beyond.
Those 12 WGHS students, along with a couple of dozen others who had met at the school in the days beforehand, conceded the beauty of the area, but decried an absence of jobs, especially in the winter -- and in fact the boredom of winter in a low-keyed community like Watkins Glen. More importantly, they said, there is too much of an emphasis on tourism; that what we need is large industry -- and greater opportunities for growth in careers beyond food service and antique shops. Ice cream and pizza shops are nice, they said, but not exactly career stepping stones.
Those thoughts don’t seem on the face of it to be all that outrageous; in fact, they’re perfectly logical and not unlike thoughts espoused by some adults I know -- in particular those lamenting the recent rise in Watkins Glen of vacation housing (most recently Airbnb's) and the concomitant shrinkage of family housing units and, with it, a long slide in school enrollment.
But coming at the end of a session focused on tourism and strides that have been made to enhance that part of our economic spectrum ... the students' analysis felt stunning.
A local official expressed surprise at their presentation -- laid out effectively and with some gusto, humor and assuredness by Fazzary and Sutterby. The former wants to be a lawyer (her father is the District Attorney) and the latter wants to be a surgeon (possibly orthopedic). In other words, they have hopes and plans, and will need to get away from here to start them rolling.
Will they return? That might depend upon the direction in which this county is heading. Will it embrace more of the same (tourism, grantedly essential), or tourism plus growth beyond it? Say ... permanence?
It really is quite a large question.
Fazzary, Sutterby and the other students are representative of the plight Schuyler has long faced and continues to face: a loss of much of its greatest asset, namely the youths it has raised and cheered to graduation.
And after that ceremonial milestone? What is next for them? Will they circle back home, or keep on going?
That is the question.
Whither goest our young when it is time to fly?
Photos in text:
Top: WGHS seniors Amber Benjamin and Jared Prien with Superintendent Greg Kelahan.
Bottom: WGHS juniors Kai Sutterby, left, and Isabella Fazzary at the SCOPED meeting.
Where I came from ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Feb. 18, 2018 -- I’ve been asked to speak to the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club. I’m supposed to explain a little about who I am and what I do for a living -- and why I do it.
That means The Odessa File. That’s what I do.
And that request has got me thinking:
Who am I? And how did I get here?
Rotarian Stewart McDivitt, in suggesting I address the club, asked that of me: How did I end up here?
My response was something like this: “Damned if I know.”
But beyond a flippant answer, there are innumerable ones, for life is full of hundreds of variables, of intersecting facts and emotions and attendant decisions.
But to try and keep it simple, my answer might start like this:
I am, I suppose, a product of my parents, a peaceful, loving couple named Gus and Eleanor Haeffner, now both deceased.
And I ended up here because of my wife, Susan, a loving woman, also now deceased. She was born and raised here; and she was family-oriented, with a need to be near her parents and siblings. That need led us here from Watertown, New York, where we had met and first lived.
About my parents: They provided upscale shelter and some fine cooking and an abundance of love. They loved their boys, for sure -- me and my older brothers, Bob and Jim.
We three have all had reasonably successful lives -- those two more than me. Bob was career military, a West Point graduate and instructor who reached the rank of lieutenant colonel; Jim was career banking, rising to impressive heights at Comerica.
They are both retired now, and have been for years. I continue to work.
I was born an hour from here, in Auburn, home of the first electric chair, but more importantly home of the Haeffner clan and the Bennett (my mother’s) clan. After a short stint on Long Island (which I was too young to later recall), we moved to the Detroit, Michigan area, and there I was raised.
I opted eventually for the black-sheep role of the family, and the perfect career for a rebel: journalism. My Dad asked me several years after I entered that field when I was going to get a real job. He was money oriented; a traveling shoe salesman, and a darn good one. I was working for peanuts, which didn’t make a lot of sense to him.
So why a journalist? Well, I’ve always loved the written word, even before I could read. I visited the Birmingham, Michigan public library with my Mom before I had learned enough to read any of its inventory, but the smell of the place mesmerized me; that and its possibilities.
It didn’t take me long to learn, and I soon was writing short stories (mostly derivative, influenced by whatever was showing on our black-and-white TV), but I didn’t apply that skill (beyond haphazard schoolwork) to any significant degree until I attended Albion College (in Michigan).
There I entered journalism through a class taught by a former newsman named Robert Gildart. He and I didn’t get along at first; but he challenged me, and I responded, and before long I was working on the school newspaper and interning at a daily in Pontiac, Michigan, and then working after college at a daily in Watertown, which was the hometown of my first wife, a woman I had met in college.
It was while I was there that my father questioned my choice of career; its validity.
But see, here’s the thing: I don’t believe there are many callings any finer than this one. It serves a community purpose, a need for residents to know what’s going on; and it helps keep public servants -- elected and appointed -- tilting toward honesty, should they be inclined to tilt otherwise.
I must say, though, that I have found -- in the relatively small communities in which I have worked -- that just about every official with whom I’ve dealt has, to my thinking, possessed integrity, or at least a tendency toward honest-to-God public service.
Maybe that’s why I like small-town living. The farther you get from Washington, D.C., the more that integrity seems to blossom.
Oh, I’ve worked in D.C., too. First Watertown, then Elmira, and near the end of that run, four months at USA Today while on loan from the Star Gazette. Then I was out of journalism for awhile, then back in at the Corning Leader, then out, and then in again with The Odessa File. Total time in the trenches: 35 years.
And even in those “out” times, I was writing: novels, mostly, plus a novella, plus a non-fiction work. Writing remains fascinating to me.
It enables me, day in and day out -- now that the File has become de rigueur -- to provide the residents of Schuyler County with some news.
And that’s me, I guess, in a nutshell: writer, storyteller, and photographer (or the somewhat more generic shooter), for with the stories I often provide photos.
And what I do benefits what to me is the most important segment of our society: the young; the future of our country.
That was a cornerstone of this venture: covering the young, specifically at that point when growth and abilities converge into achievements, whether on the playing field or in the classroom.
High school sports was a major part of my coverage when I started The Odessa File; and it is still among my top priorities.
The reward for providing this reportorial service?
There is advertising revenue, which keeps me from sinking financially. But more important to me is something aesthetic: the coverage itself -- the storytelling; the words and pictures of athletic and other accomplishments. If I can provide a clear accounting and a creative photo -- whether it be in the athletic or governmental arena -- then I feel as though I’ve made a positive difference.
I think, all in all, that I've left a mark, as ethereal as it might be, considering the almost gossamer nature of the Internet. I've long thought that a website is like a spider's web, fine and wispy and easily dispatched by a strong wind, or by a power outage. It does not have the surety of a print publication.
But while The Odessa File might not be very important in the universal scheme of things -- there are far more important publications that deal with weighty matters like gun control and Russian meddling -- I feel it is at least something ... and I like to think it is of both immediate and lasting value.
I hope so, anyway.
Converging threads ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Jan. 25, 2018 -- I hold in my hand a copy of the novel "Treasure Island," by Robert Louis Stevenson. I unearthed it as I started cleaning up the house as part of my spring cleaning.
Yes, I know; it's January. Call me optimistic.
Anyway, the publication date of the book -- a classic about 18th century pirates and buried treasure -- was 1909. That was the year before my father, now long deceased, was even born.
My father. A fine man, and one I've missed these 23 years since his passing.
Then, on another track, I caught the airing the other night of a classic film called "All the King's Men," about a demagogue rising in politics. It was from an award-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, which was likely based on the career of Huey Long of Louisiana, who served that state as governor and U.S. Senator before his assassination in 1935.
The demagogue in the story is Willie Stark, who meets a similar fate.
Watching the film, I was struck by how well it seems to stand up today, among our impassioned politics. There is a line from the movie that seems especially to fit modern-day politics. It posits, essentially, that if you say something loud enough and often enough it will be believed by any number of people, no matter the truth of it.
Anyway, I was struck by the film's date of release: 1949. That was the year after I was born.
Another classic, pointing backward -- back to a simpler time, and yet ... we have not come so very far.
And on a third track, there was an obituary.
There are always obits, in my line of work.
This one was of an acquaintance, a man I truly liked. We never ran in the same social circle, but our occasional meetings were always enjoyable ones, and thus I considered him, at least tangentially, to be a friend.
His name: Bill Hyer.
A nice guy, always ready with a smile and a laugh.
He died at the age of 63. I didn’t know he was ill, even though he resided only a couple of hundred yards from me -- across the river, here in Odessa.
Sixty-three. Younger than me by a few years.
And that -- along with the aged and classic Treasure Island and the aging and ageless All the King's Men -- got me thinking. The book had me looking back to an age when my father, the august Augustus Haeffner, was about to enter this world. The movie had me looking back to a time when I had just made my own entrance.
And in Bill Hyer's passing, I recalled all too vividly the day my father died; and wondered about my own demise.
Each thread -- book, movie and obituary -- made me wistful.
Put me in a bit of a funk, really. I've avoided the flu this winter, but not -- as it turns out -- the blues.
It all goes part and parcel with this:
After a scare last year with high blood pressure, and now with meds a part of my life, I tend to rise each day amazed that I’m still here.
And when somebody younger than me, like Bill Hyer, passes on, I feel a twinge of guilt. Why do I get the extra years?
Not that I’ve reached the average age of male longevity yet. And with any luck, I’ll live as long as my father, who reached 84, or my mother, who slipped away at 92.
It's not that I fear the end; not like I used to. When I was younger, I thought failing to reach 52 -- which converged with the advent of the new century -- would be a sad thing, indeed. But that age has been in my rearview for a long time now.
Fifty-two. I still consider it sad. That was my wife's age when she died. Her brother's too.
Half of that, 26, was how far Mary Lou Norton of Royal Oak, Michigan, made. We called her Loopie in college. Albion College. She was a year behind me; a redhead, with a toothy grin and a joie de vivre. If things had been different -- if I wasn’t an unfeeling jerk back then -- I might have married her. I think we were well suited, and she clearly liked me.
But I didn’t marry her; I married someone else, and divorced, and remarried, and along the way heard that Loopie had died. In childbirth. Two strokes cut her down. It’s something that haunts me to this day.
That is one reason, I suspect, that I feel such empathy for the young adults I cover in high school. I see in them the potential for long and fruitful lives; but I fear that some might meet Loopie’s fate.
That’s a part of life, the unexpected; the seemingly fated. But what plagues me is the regret that those fates create in me -- regret for opportunities missed, opportunities robbed by death from people I know ... from people I love.
To Absent Friends is the title of a book once penned by a great sports writer named Red Smith. It's a wonderful memorial to those who have passed before.
We all -- those of us who have lived multiple decades -- have such memories of such people, if we are lucky. Such thoughts are gratifying, and yet bittersweet.
I’ve been doing this, The Odessa File, for 15 years, and I have published many obituaries; wrote one myself when my wife died. I try to harden myself to the process, but every so often someone I know makes the list, and his or her passing reverberates -- and I feel that tug of regret.
A newly absent friend.
Like Bill Hyer.
A mostly upbeat column ....
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Jan. 8, 2018 -- Well, here we are entering the second week of the New Year.
Has it been cold enough for you?
I’m going to try, as we wade through this year, to ignore as best I can all the noise coming out of Washington, D.C. I’m pretty much disgusted with everyone in any position of power there.
Let’s instead start this on a positive note: a bow to a woman honored recently by the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club for “service above self.” Nancy Cole was presented the award that personifies that credo -- the Paul Harris Fellow award -- during the annual Rotary Christmas Party at Seneca Lodge. There to honor her were her husband Charlie, a Rotarian, and various family members. A nice award for a nice lady.
Nancy was for two decades a pharmacy tech at Cole & Son Pharmacy in Watkins Glen -- husband Charlie being the “Son” part of the title. After that she ran antique sales operations in Watkins Glen, Corning and Farmington. She has been involved with the Lake Country Players for 25 years in various capacities, donated time to the Office for the Aging, and now donates time to the Elizabeth B. Pert Memorial Library in Hector. And -- oh, yes -- she and Charlie managed to raise five children -- and she returned to college after having the fifth one to secure a bachelor’s degree.
Congratulations on the honor, Nancy.
Then there were the holiday tournament victories posted by both the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen boys basketball teams. Considering most of the victory celebrations of late have been for the girls teams at both schools, this was a refreshing turnabout. With a showdown between the two boys teams looming Tuesday (Jan. 9) at the Field House (the girls play each other on Wednesday at O-M), the game should be a natural spectator draw.
Now, on the down side, there has been a lot of chatter lately about the holiday tournaments at the Field House -- how they’re not what they used to be. The girls’ tourney -- the Melissa B. Wilson Memorial before Christmas -- was sparsely attended, to put it politely. It is, basically, held at the wrong time -- a far cry (though but a few days) from when impresario Craig Cheplick, as AD, strung the girls and boys tourneys back to back on four days between Christmas and New Years, when folks were looking for something to do instead of busily Christmas shopping.
Worse is the starting time for these events. They should start at noon, not 3:30 p.m. They used to start at noon, with each game (four a day, two JV and two varsity) spaced 1:45 apart. Now, they start at 3:30 and are spaced 1:30 apart. That rarely works. In fact, on the last night of the recent Boys Holiday Tournament, the last game, scheduled to start at 8 p.m. (too late for an elderly population that likes its shuteye) didn’t begin until 8:45. That assured a return home at about 10:30 p.m.
Really, this isn’t a difficult fix.
And speaking of the school district, the superintendent at Watkins for the past six months, Greg Kelahan, was the guest speaker at the Jan. 4 meeting of the Rotary Club at the Elks Lodge.
Greg, in cheerleader fashion (he’s an exuberant speaker with waving arms, reminiscent of my mother, who couldn’t speak without the arms moving), laid out his vision -- and that of the School Board and various stakeholders he’s consulted in the fashioning of vision and mission statements.
The Vision Statement is this: Watkins Glen: From Ingenuity Comes Triumph.
The Mission Statement is this: Our Mission is to inspire learning in a supportive educational environment in order to prepare our students for achievement as engaged citizens in this ever-changing world.
He also offered this: “The school succeeds when the community succeeds, and the community succeeds when the school succeeds. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship.”
And, noting the Project Seneca and state-grant projects unfolding in our area, he added this: “This is an exciting time in the entire region. There couldn’t have been a better time to rethink who we are.”
And this: “Are we positioning Watkins Glen kids for the most job opportunities?”
And this: “We need to be producing a product that supercedes other districts’ products ... What is our name brand that we’re selling? Public schools rarely think about their name brand.”
He wants, in other words, to make Watkins Glen not just “a tourist destination,” but “a destination because of the school.”
Which would, of course, reverse a longstanding trend that has seen enrollment slide down and down as the community has morphed from permanent family homes to a substantial number of rentals.
Can a tourist destination and a school destination co-exist, each successfully?
Time will tell.
And when it’s January, it means that nominations for the Top Drawer 24 are being prepared -- due from various committee members and school officials by Feb. 1. In fact, I received the first ones this morning, from the Horseheads School District. The program -- sponsored by this website and by WENY-TV -- annually honors 24 student-athlete-citizens from nearly a dozen high schools in the area.
In fact, the matter of the Top Drawer 24 came to mind before the Horseheads nominations arrived -- when I visited the Tompkins Trust Company bank here in Odessa Friday, and was waited on by a young lady who was not a regular at the branch. She was outgoing, and somehow familiar, and -- it turns out -- "a floater" who is sent from bank to bank by Tompkins Trust, as needed. She was also not a full-timer, but on break from college. I didn’t have to wait long to find out who she is.
“I was one of your Top Drawer kids,” she said, and re-introduced herself: Olivia Colón, a graduate of the Trumansburg high school and now a student at Swarthmore College studying math and biology with an eye toward becoming a veterinarian.
I had met her in her high school days, and observed her exploits on the track, where she was an exceptional sprinter -- and had seen her honored at our annual Top Drawer celebration in 2015. She is, in fact, mixing some track with her studies at Swarthmore. In any event, as soon as she said her name, I recalled her vividly, for she was one of those young people who stand out, even in a group of standouts. Some people just have it -- personality and the drive to succeed -- and Olivia Colón is one of them.
“I’m glad you’re still running the Top Drawer program,” she told me. “It was a great experience.”
And that certainly is one of the goals that we -- Chairman Craig Cheplick and I, along with committee members -- hope to achieve each year. We hope to provide a memorable experience that these kids have earned and can relish.
We’re into our 13th year now, and looking forward to the early-June celebration of this year’s team at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. But first we need those nominations.
If you have anyone in mind who you think should be considered, let me know. Just e-mail through a link at the bottom of any page on this site, or snail-mail me at P.O. Box 365, Odessa NY 14869. Include, if you can, some justification for the nomination: grades, athletic exploits, citizenship, personality and so on.
And a note on two other Top Drawer alums.
Amanda Pike, on our team last year and now a freshman at East Stroudsburg University, got 13 minutes of playing time off the bench in her team's last game, on Jan. 6, and scored 8 points on 3-for-4 shooting, including 2-for-2 from 3-point range. "Manders," the Class C Player of the Year in New York State as she led her Watkins Glen High School team to the state championship last year, has seen limited action -- 6.8 minutes per game -- at East Stroudsburg as her team has built a 9-3 record. But she has made the most of her floor time, averaging 2.6 points per game, going 8-for-16, including 5-for-9 from 3-point range.
And Katherine Meehan, a 2016 Watkins Glen graduate (and on the Top Drawer team that year) and now a sophomore at Cazenovia College, was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division III-North Women's Swimmer of the Week in early December -- the first time in program history that a Wildcats swimmer has won the honor. She was also the North Eastern Athletic Conference Student-Athlete of the Week for the same period. The honors came after she placed first in three individual events and one relay event in a double dual meet against Gallaudet University and SUNY Cobleskill.
Photos in text:
From top: Nancy Cole, Greg Kelahan, Kelahan gesturing, and Olivia Colón (from a Swarthmore College photo).
Here comes the anniversary
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Dec. 26 , 2017 -- Now that Christmas has passed, I am turning my attention to three days hence, Dec. 29, which will be the 15th anniversary of when I launched this website.
Fifteen years. That’s way longer than I’ve kept any one job before. And I’ve enjoyed this one a good deal more than the others, too.
Fifteen years. That’s well over 5,400 days. If I have averaged three stories or columns a day, that would be more than 16,000. The number of photos? I don’t think I can count that high.
December 29, 2002 is when I launched, a day when I had three visitors to the site, and I was two of them. It took a while to attract an audience. Press releases. Flyers. A coat with “odessafile.com” stitched on the back. That was my wife Susan’s idea. She was more into marketing that I have ever been.
She thought it an odd choice when I started The File. “Why do you want to do that?” she asked me. Skeptical would be putting it kindly.
But she was a good photographer, and a good writer, and when she warmed to what I was doing, she started contributing photos and a couple of stories. And she started getting feedback -- positive feedback -- for her efforts from the growing number of readers.
“Hey, this is pretty cool!” she ultimately said.
Before she died, two years into this venture, she urged me to keep going, even though the advertising was slow to grow. “It’ll happen,” she said. “Like dominoes.”
Seven weeks after her passing, as I was thinking of pulling the plug on The File, the dominoes started falling -- the advertisers came on board -- and I found that I could make a living doing this.
Not that there weren't bumps. An occasional reader would criticize, for instance, my audacity at picking Athletes of the Week and All-Stars. Or suggest strongly that my choices in those regards were misguided. And some coaches were resistant, not wanting to phone in or email results of games and matches. I was new. Not to be trusted.
The gods even seemed against me when, early on, I was interviewed by a TV reporter about what it was I was trying to do here in Schuyler County.
Two things stand out from that interview.
First, the reporter was aggressive, asking “What gives you the right to do this?” It came out like a growl.
“It’s called the Constitution,” I answered, “and the Bill of Rights. The same things that give you the right to stick that microphone in my face and ask questions.”
Also: That day, toward evening, Schuyler County suffered a power outage that lasted until the night’s newscasts were done. So nobody among my core target audience even saw the piece.
As I said: the gods.
Anyway, I’m still here. Retirement seems unlikely, unless someone comes along with an attractive offer for The Odessa File.
One of my brothers, who lives in Colorado ski country, said if I sold for $3 million, I could afford to live in that region.
Right. Again ... retirement seems unlikely.
But anyway, this is a good time. So ... happy anniversary to me.
Thanks to a painful twisted ankle, I missed an interesting story the other day.
I had hurt myself getting out of bed, of all things. The coverlet had slipped to the floor, and when I got up, it grabbed my legs as I tried to pass, putting me on the floor. Quite a way to wake up. And I knew right off that the ankle was injured, because it let me know. Screamed at me.
I gimped around all day, and had to restrict the number of things I was doing. My ankle needed rest. That was when I got a heads-up from Santa Claus (that’s right) that a young Corning boy who had raised thousands of dollars for childhood cancer research last year had asked him for a cash register to handle the incoming funds from a similar effort this year. Santa got a register-- donated by Famous Brands in Watkins Glen -- along with promises of support from other Watkins businesses.
Santa was delivering the cash register that afternoon over at the boy’s home near Corning, and was inviting the media to attend. But it was one thing too many for my ankle. And so I decided against it.
A TV station showed up and captured the event, though, so I didn’t feel too guilty. Anyway, the boy’s name is Alex Nichols, and he’s 9 years old. He is planning a fund-raiser in March -- a St. Baldrick’s event where heads are shaved to raise pledge funds. His efforts, Alex said, are a response to “my friend Loretta, she has cancer.” He is also planning to raise money through a pasta dinner in East Corning on Jan. 13.
Said Santa, as quoted by the TV folks: “This is probably one of the highlights of my life, to be able to help somebody out. He has such a big heart and is trying to do something for all the right reasons. It’s truly what Christmas is all about.”
Amen to that. Good luck, Alex. And well done, Santa.
And on another Christmas theme:
I don’t know why the Watkins Glen School District decided in the not-too-distant past to hold the Melissa B. Wilson basketball tournament before Christmas. It used to be -- as devised by former Athletic Director Craig Cheplick, who knew how to utilize the Field House, drawing crowds and, with them, funds -- that the Wilson memorial tournament would run two days and the Watkins boys holiday tournament for two days, both between Christmas and New Year’s.
That meant four straight days of tournaments during a period when a lot of folks were looking for something to entertain them. But no longer. The girls’ tournament has since been rescheduled to a two-day slot just before Christmas, when a lot of folks are shopping and otherwise preparing for Christmas.
The result, as clearly evidenced last week: the tournament turnout is fairly anemic.
Now, maybe the girls’ coach likes the pre-Christmas timing, because her team, the current defending state champion in Class C, played last year -- and is playing this year -- in a Syracuse-related tournament in the days after Christmas. And the competition there might be stiff, which can toughen a team. Which I understand. Battle-tested yields battle-hardened.
But if the Watkins girls want tougher competition, they could get it closer to home, too -- which is to say at home -- if the teams selected by the district for the Wilson tournament were chosen more with an eye to bringing in a challenge. This year’s field was pretty weak. One good team (Watkins Glen) against three overmatched squads. Better matchups would help fill the stands.
And when I say “fill,” I kid you not: in the days of Chep, there were some exciting games and some excited and, on occasion, large crowds. The turnout was often many times what it is today.
And the money flowed.
Alas ... not so much anymore.
Merry Christmas to all ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Dec. 11 , 2017 -- It's that time of year again, when I dust off a poem I created one night not that many years ago -- apparently while suffering from a seasonally induced fever.
But fever or not, I kind of like it, and offer it here as reassurance that there is, indeed, a gentleman named Santa Claus.
By Charlie Haeffner
On the night before Christmas
I started to grouse
The furnace was dead;
it was cold in the house.
Space heaters employed
Took the chill down a notch.
And I added some clothing,
Warmed stomach with scotch.
As the night chill descended
I heard such a clatter
up on my slate roof.
I went out, found my ladder.
I climbed in the cold
and the wind and some snow.
And reached the roof’s edge
Took a look and said “No!”
For there on the peak
sat a sleigh, engine running.
No reindeer, but Santa,
Eyes twinkling, all cunning.
He looked at me, smiled,
Nudged nose with a finger
In an instant gone by,
Disappeared, didn’t linger.
His sleigh remained standing
Exhaust swirling ’bout it.
I waited, befuddled
My eyesight I doubted.
Ere long, he was back,
Looked my way, he was smiling.
He climbed in his sleigh,
Gave a soft laugh, beguiling.
“Now, Charles,” he said,
When his mirth had receded,
“I’ve brought you some presents
I think you have needed.
“I’ve brought to you heat
that will keep your blood warm.
I have brought for you peace
To withstand any storm.
“I have brought to you love
For your fellows on Earth,
So you might co-exist
Not in fear, but with worth.
“And with great equanimity,
Investing your soul
In a project much wanted:
To write is your role.”
And he nodded again,
Said “To you a good night,”
Revved his engine, took off
And was soon out of sight.
I descended the ladder,
re-entered my house,
And noticed the warmth ...
And soon spotted a mouse.
“Yes, I am,” he responded.
“As long as you’re up,”
I replied, feeling bonded,
“You want some nice milk?”
I inquired. He smiled,
His teeth pearly white
And his temperament mild.
“I’d like that,” he
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble,” I answered.
“I’ll give you a double.”
I poured him some milk
Gave myself an eggnog,
And sat down to discuss
The evening’s rare log.
We talked for an hour
Before fatigue beckoned.
He bid me goodnight, said
“It’s sleep time, I reckon.”
I stayed up a bit longer,
With planning to do,
For Santa’s gifts echoed.
Some words would ensue.
My role was to write them
I knew in what style.
My goal: to produce
The Odessa File.
That Christmas stays with me
These many years gone,
The mouse still my friend,
We oft talk until dawn.
I begrudge not a bit
Not with any conviction.
I love what I do
Writing facts and not fiction.
And sometimes I turn
To the north, where lives Santa
And repeat these few words
That I treat as my mantra.
Though the sleigh is self-powered,
Though no reindeer take flight,
Santa lives. Merry Christmas.
And to all, a good night.
Now, having offered that, I offer something I like even better, written just last month by someone with a little more experience in life than I have. I speak of Rachel Vickio, age 104, mother of Tony Vickio. Tony submitted it to The Odessa File on her behalf.
Some Thanksgiving kudos ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Nov. 24, 2017 -- As I write this, Thanksgiving Day has come and gone, and with it -- in the minds of many -- the Holiday Season has begun. Of course, merchandisers have already been sneaking in holiday deals for almost a month, using Halloween as a launchpad.
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving always meant a big family meal, with turkey and all the fixings prepared by my mother. Cranberry sauce (the canned, jellied kind), dressing, and squash laced with brown sugar were always my favorites; and still are.
The same held true -- a big meal, if not at home than at the in-laws -- across the ensuing years and two marriages. Now, in their wake, my celebration has been reduced. There has been no family gathering in some time; but I have found the wonderful meal prepared each year at the Burdett Presbyterian Church (pictured above). A lot of folks -- many of whom I know -- populate that gathering each year, and this Thanksgiving was no different.
There are always things to be grateful for. Health tops my list, considering some issues I encountered last year; as does family, for I have three sons (and a cat), a daughter-in-law, a grandchild, two brothers, two sisters-in-law, three nieces, a nephew, an aunt, assorted cousins, and various relatives from my late wife's side of the family. I also give thanks for the very existence of this website. It has proved a blessing with its longevity and the sense it gives me of doing something useful.
I am thankful too for the close friends with whom I am blessed. They are amazing and simply irreplaceable.
God bless them, and you.
I will take a few paragraphs too to provide kudos to several people whose exploits or career mileposts have recently crossed my desk or my personal experience.
First, a thank you to the departing Donna Beardsley (pictured at right), who has been Watkins Glen Village Clerk for a decade and a half. She is retiring on Jan. 31, and I wish her nothing but good things as she heads into her “golden” years.
Donna has been a valuable resource -- providing information when she could, and kindly sidestepping my questions when she couldn’t -- ever since I took on this job back in late 2002. She tells me that applications are being accepted by the village from any potential successors to her job.
Next: Kudos to the three most recent Paul Harris Fellows honored by the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club: Esther Heichel (center in photo at right), along with the brother-sister duo of Jeff and Alicia Learn (flanking her). All three are amazing folks, ones I’ve known for years. Their Harris honor -- which represents “service above self” -- was a surprise spearheaded by Rotarian Mike Learn, father of Jeff and Alicia and significant other of Esther.
I’ve known Mike from long before The Odessa File, and I -- and you if you utilize this website -- owe him as one of the early advertisers on this website. Advertisers are what fuels its engine. And he stayed with me until he sold his auto business -- just as other locally grown car dealers and other businesses have stayed with me through the years. Thanks, Mike. And congratulations to Esther, Jeff and Alicia.
And from my old friends Angie and Chris Franzese, I received a magazine article about their daughter Christine (pictured at right), a 1991 graduate of Watkins Glen High School, a graduate of Cornell University and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, and a professor at the University of Missouri. “We are proud of our daughter’s achievements and would like to share (the news) with our community,” they wrote.
In that article, headlined “Dr. Franzese Selected as President of the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy,” subtext proclaims that the doctor “has a special focus on treating allergic disorders, including inhalant allergy, penicillin allergy, allergies to stinging insects, food allergy and hives.”
The AAOA, the article says, “represents more than 2,400 board-certified otolaryngologists and health care providers. Otolaryngology, frequently referred to as Ear, Nose and Throat, uniquely combines medical and surgical expertise to care for patients with a variety of conditions affecting the ears, nose and throat, as well as commonly related conditions."
Congratulations, Dr. Franzese. And congratulations, Chris and Angie.
And this from Alice Learn:
“I don’t know if it is within your publication policy to share news about Schuyler County natives who are no longer living in the area, but have gone on to do great things ...
“Our daughter-in-law, Alicia Beardsley (Learn) (pictured at right), was recently identified as one of the 2017 Women In Business by the Mid-Hudson Valley magazine:
“Alicia is married to our son Andrew (he is a Sr. Civil Engineer for Morris Associates in Hyde Park, NY); both are graduates of Odessa-Montour CSD. Alicia earned her Bachelors degree from Gannon University.
“Andy and Alicia have three daughters, Ava, Grace and Tess. Alicia is the daughter of Bob Beardsley and Lorie Winner.”
Well done, Alicia.
And having said all of that about some outstanding people, I will be turning in the next couple of weeks to the school-year-long process of helping to select this year’s Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens.
The annual dinner meeting of committee members is set for Dec. 6 in Elmira Heights, and from that we will have a direction to follow in terms of planning for the celebration -- our 13th annual -- at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion in early June.
We have some terrific candidates this year from nearly a dozen schools ... and only 24 spots. I imagine, at the end, that we will once again have an outstanding team.
And toward that end, don’t be shy out there about nominating anyone. If you do (just email this website through a click-on link at the bottom of any page), please include your reasoning -- whether athletic achievement, academic standing, participation in civic endeavors, or anything else of a positive nature.
Photos in text: From top: Members of the serving crew at the Burdett Presbyterian Church Thanksgiving dinner; Donna Beardsley; (from left) Jeff Learn, Esther Heichel and Alicia Learn; Christine Franzese; Alicia Beardsley; and the Top Drawer 24 logo.
For those late to the disaster...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Nov. 8, 2017 -- The fallout from the Caroline Rogers disqualification at the Section IV, Class C swim meet on Nov. 4th in Owego continues to reverberate. I hear it discussed; I hear it debated and debased; and I hear my own brain toying with it, bouncing it back and forth like a tennis ball.
For those late to the disaster, Rogers swims for Elmira Notre Dame High School, and was on its victorious 200 Medley Relay team before winning the 200 Individual Medley convincingly. She climbed to the highest step of the awards podium in both cases, collecting medals and beaming.
And then all hell broke loose. It was announced that there had been an error. The competitors from both races were told to gather at the end of the pool near the podium, where a meet director explained something dispiriting.
Rogers should not have been swimming in the 200 Medley Relay under rules that lump the Section IV tourney on Saturday with its Prelims on the previous Wednesday, held at another pool an hour away, in Watkins Glen. She had swum in the 200 Free Relay and 400 Free Relay on Wednesday, and those were supposed to be her events Saturday, along with the 200 IM and the 500 Yard Freestyle. But her coaches switched her from one of the Free Relays to the Medley Relay as a strategic move.
However, by swimming in the 200 Medley Relay, she was in essence in a fifth event (again, the Prelims and Finals being considered a single unit), something verboten and, under the swim rules followed assiduously by officials, an act mandating Rogers’ disqualification from the entire meet.
That was the rule, and according to the meet referee, Kate LaMoreaux, herself once a coach of great note, there was no choice in the matter. As she explained:
“The meet committee, made up of coaches, referee and meet management were informed of the situation. All were in agreement that Rule 3 (regarding the number of races allowed per individual, and how they are determined) had been violated. Unfortunately, that resulted in the disqualification of the winning Medley Relay. Although (Rogers) had previously won Event 3 (the 200 Individual Medley), she was disqualified from that event as well.
"I called the team’s coach into the pool office so that I could tell her of the disqualification in private, rather than on the deck. She said that she had not understood the rule. I get it! I nearly made that mistake myself many years ago. Once you know how fast the other relays went in prelims, you can adjust your relays, as long as you adjust them with a swimmer who has not yet swum two relays in prelims. It was a heartbreaking decision. The girl is a wonderful girl from a wonderful team. Sadly, we officials don’t get to choose which rules we want to enforce. There’s simply no ambiguity in this one.”
Cut and dried. Or is it?
For instance: how, exactly, did this matter come to light? Word is that another team’s coach blew the whistle. If so, then it was no doubt done for a few points that might help his or her squad in pursuit of the team title. It was not the winning Watkins Glen coach, though, who says she was not even aware of the rule.
One particular school and coach were mentioned early, but I won’t name them because matters like this are emotional and often fraught with unsubstantiated rumor. But if what I heard at poolside was right, the whistle-blower was someone considered not beyond utilizing a deep rules knowledge to her team’s advantage.
It’s a moot point, I suppose -- LaMoreaux said the mistake would have been uncovered, anyway, by a program that was part of the meet’s computerization. It would not have gone unnoticed long-term. But it’s a moot point that festers.
Something in me wonders about that coach -- if it’s who I’m told it was. I wonder what kind of person would be so enamored of the rules when it might benefit his or her own team that he or she would disregard the human cost and push ahead, driven by the brass ring.
I was talking to a gentleman with long experience in the law -- in pursuing and locking up criminals -- and I outlined the swim-meet situation to him, and he shook his head.
Rules are rules, he said, but sometimes you just have to adhere to a “no harm, no foul” position, rules be damned.
This situation, I believe, would have been the perfect spot for just such an approach. No harm, no foul. The infraction -- a coaching mistake -- ended up hurting Caroline Rogers, along, to a lesser degree, her teammates on the Medley Relay team. She did nothing wrong, and yet she was the one who paid most severely.
But, as Kate LaMoreaux noted, the rules don’t permit such relaxation. She explained in more detail:
“I believe that at least one coach did bring it to the attention of the official who reported it to me, and frankly most coaches would check results once they were posted to figure out why ND went so much faster in the finals. Anytime a relay has such a significant drop from prelims to finals (from 2:04.17 to 1:57.59), I, as a coach, would want to know why. The obvious answer is a different swimmer. With only six swimmers (at Notre Dame, a fairly new program that doesn’t even have its own pool), they really don’t have the personnel to replace a swimmer. It is often done … I could just hold someone like Cathy Brown (an outstanding Watkins Glen swimmer who LaMoreaux coached years ago) to three events in prelims, then put her in any relay in finals. After you see what everyone else has chosen to “go for” (usually you can only focus on two relays), you can adjust your relay in the finals if you think it improves your chances. The key is that she can’t swim four (races) during prelims and then add a fifth event.
“It’s the coaches’ mistake, but no one seems to want to be too hard on the ND coaches, and I get it. However, the blame shouldn’t fall to anyone except them. They made a significant error, although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.
“My heart goes out to them, and to the broken-hearted swimmer and her teammates.”
I was watching as the infraction was explained to the swimmers and their coaches there near the podium on Saturday, and I realized something really bad had occurred when Rogers walked away from the group, holding her hands to her head in dismay. It was a striking scene -- a girl of admirable talent and, from all reports, a girl known for her kindness, subjected to something awful in a setting designed to celebrate our best and brightest in the world of swim competition.
Yes, she was holding her hands to her head -- as though trying to ease the pain -- and I imagine there were tears. And after she talked to her coach, she disappeared, presumably to the locker room. That’s where I would have gone, had life suddenly turned my victory into something nightmarish.
A friend of hers, the runner-up in the Individual Medley, was also upset. That was Amanda Wilbur of Watkins Glen, who ended up with the medal that Rogers had won in the race. Wilbur was still upset when she swam the 100 Yard Butterfly, and was saying afterward that she wanted to give the IM medal to Caroline.
I was struck by the sportsmanship of the sentiment. I don’t know if Wilbur got the opportunity to give the medal up, and I’m not sure if Rogers would want it. She had earned it, yes, but it would likely spark some unsettling memories whenever she looked at it.
The bottom line is this: Yes, rules are there for a reason. But maybe, in this case, the rule is unconscionably harsh, and needs to be changed. Call it the Rogers effect.
One observer tried likening the situation to a football team having too many men on the field. But there is no comparison. A football team is penalized a few yards; nobody gets ejected, which is what effectively happened to Rogers.
For my money, there were few people to be blamed here. The Notre Dame coaches didn’t understand the rule, but at least one other coach and perhaps more were unaware of it, too, which begs the question: Why? Is it so obscure that it is on the pointless, or arcane, side of the ledger?
But under the rules as they now exist, the officials did as they were supposed to. That is reassuring. At the same time, though, enforcing a rule that hurts a blameless performer does not seem right, either, which again begs the question: Why can’t this rule be changed? Why can’t its sharp edges be softened?
Why couldn’t the Medley Relay medal be relinquished, and nothing else? It wasn’t as though Rogers was going to swim five events that day. It’s in the linking (to the nth degree) of Prelims and Finals that the problem exists. Why not separate the two meets a little bit; give the latter a chance to breathe?
Caroline Rogers is not to blame, for she was doing as instructed, and doing it well. My advice to her is “Keep swimming, girl. You’re amazing, and a champion in my book.”
To her friend, Watkins Glen’s Amanda Wilbur, I say: “Good for you, Amanda. Sportsmanship such as yours is both admirable and something the rules, in their cold-bloodedness, should try emulating.”
To the officials, I say, “You did right. But can you maybe lobby for an alteration in that particular rule? These are kids, after all; and experiences like this, while rule-adhering and under the present circumstances necessary, leave outsized scars.”
And to the coach who reportedly blew the whistle, I take issue. I say: “Really? The process itself would likely have caught the error, without your questionable help.” Sportsmanlike it was not.
And I add this, something life has long since taught me: “What goes around, comes around.”
Or put another way -- mindful that other coaches are likely now to improve their grasp of the rules and keep one eye out for the coach in question should that person slip up in future meets:
Cosmic payback can be a real ... well, a real sweet thing.
Photos in text: Caroline Rogers (with glasses) and Amanda Wilbur on the 200 Individual Medley awards podium after finishing first and second; Rogers upon learning of the ruling against her; and Rogers on her way from the pool area.
Farewell to a friend ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Oct. 24, 2017 -- I have outlived another friend, another co-worker.
David C. Shampine, I just learned by chance, died in May at the age of 69. He was a bit older than me -- a year, maybe -- and by chance a step behind me in rising through the ranks at the Watertown Daily Times newspaper in northern New York in the 1970s.
I first met Dave when he knocked at the doorway to my closet-sized office in an old residence in Carthage, New York, where I was serving in my first year out of college as a full-time correspondent for the Watertown paper. Headquarters -- the newspaper itself -- was a half-hour away, but it seemed like the distance to the moon. I longed to work in a real newsroom, not a closet.
I was learning the craft on the ground, transmitting my stories on an old teletype machine there in my office. I was living in a new apartment complex east of Carthage, which was nice, but I was, after several months, anxious to be moved to the main office and start my career in earnest. Feeding the paper information from a small community surrounded by farmland was not my ambition.
Enter Dave Shampine.
I looked up from my desk toward the office door, and there was this large fellow with a wispy mustache standing there.
I laughed at the formality.
“Mr. Haeffner is my father,” I said. “I'm Charlie.”
He told me his name, David Shampine, and explained that he was from Carthage and looking for a job -- that he had been interviewed at the Daily Times, and that while they hadn't hired him, had indicated that the Carthage position might soon be open.
Which was good news to me, so I invited him in, and we talked for a while.
And thus began a friendship that lasted decades -- long after I had left Watertown. I somehow talked the powers that be at the Daily Times into hiring Dave, despite some initial misgivings on their part. I thus moved to Watertown and became the police reporter, a post I held for a year. At the end of that year, a staff opening occurred in Watertown that enabled my bosses to bring Dave into the city; they replaced him in Carthage with yet another young man.
Not really liking the police beat, I managed to hand it off to Dave, and I moved on to other beats, mostly related to county government, and to a months-long sabbatical to ostensibly write the Great American Novel. Mostly I produced scribblings.
Anyway, as police reporter, Dave found his niche, working the beat for about 40 years before retiring a handful of years ago. We kept in touch across the years -- I visited Watertown on occasion while Dave still worked there -- and when my wife Susan died in 2004, Dave and his wife Lucy visited me. It was a condolence call, and heartfelt -- which was a quality at the heart of Dave’s appeal and success.
He was a straightforward guy who didn’t hesitate to either praise or criticize, depending on circumstance. I experienced both from him.
As it turned out, Lucy died in her sleep in 2012, which I imagine affected Dave’s health, for they were very devoted to one another -- and the emotional toll of a loved one's passing can overcome physical well-being. He retired the next year, and then contracted cancer, and after a two-year battle died in May.
Or so I just learned. Distance sometimes being longer than miles, word did not filter to me in reasonable time. I had not spoken to Dave since communicating with him following his retirement. I assumed all was well.
I might not have found out about Dave's passing if not for Arthur Shawcross, which in itself seems ironic, or at least somehow fitting.
Shawcross was a serial killer who died in prison in 2008. Back in the early ‘70s, he was charged with the murder of a young boy and young girl in Watertown -- the first murder case that Dave had a hand in covering.
Dave had recently moved to Watertown from Carthage, and found the transition unnerving -- and found himself before long face-to-face with something even more daunting: the face of a devil, of Arthur Shawcross. It was something he long remembered, writing about the experience years later.
Shawcross was arraigned in that city court that Dave was now covering -- appeared there before the case was moved to county court, where Shawcross struck a plea deal that got him a 25-year sentence that was ultimately shortened, allowing him out in time to kill about a dozen people -- mostly prostitutes -- in the Rochester area in the late 1980s. That spree finally put him away for good.
The matter of Shawcross came up in a conversation I had Monday with a friend of mine who had been living in Rochester in the late '80s and had, in fact, once ridden on an elevator with the killer. Shawcross gave off an unsettling aura, she remembered -- the aura of pure evil.
Anyway, that talk got me googling to refresh my memory about Shawcross and how he had crossed my professional path (only peripherally) and that of Dave Shampine those many years ago. And in the process of googling, I happened upon something I hadn't anticipated, something disorienting: Dave’s death notice from early May. There was also a glowing editorial in the Watertown Daily Times that called Dave an old-school reporter devoted to the truth -- to a recitation of facts without opinion.
Yeah, that was Dave. He started out as a guy hoping for a job at a daily newspaper -- and became one of its longest-running and most productive (thousands of stories) employees.
He had earned respect from his bosses and his peers, and he had earned his retirement.
But his life was overtaken far too soon by death. Which leaves me shaking my head. It all seems so unfair. So unfair.
There is not much else I can say at a time like this, other than, perhaps, the following words:
God bless you, Dave.
You proved to be an outstanding journalist.
You were a good guy with a big heart.
And my own heart is heavy with your passing.
Photo in text: David C. Shampine (Photo provided)
Catching up on a few points
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Oct. 17, 2017 -- Let’s touch on a couple of events that either escaped my notice or I was unable to attend at the time they occurred.
One was the annual United Way kick-off pasta dinner at the Montour Moose Lodge on Monday, Oct. 9. According to United Way of Schuyler County Executive Director Peggy Scott, “The Hoffman Family (this year's United Way campaign leader) was on hand to do the 50/50 drawings and we served a little over 400 folks. Good time, great turnout, and raising funds for the 22 agencies that serve Schuyler County residents.”
That event is a big one for the United Way, and I usually get there to take a photo or two. Since I didn't make it this time, Peggy has provided a photo (at right). It shows some of the volunteers who dished up the dinners for the hundreds of attendees.
And then there was a ribbon-cutting recently at the La Bourgade on Seneca, called "the first-ever tiny house community," located off of Route 414 north of Burdett. According to a press release from its operators, the community -- designed and built by Bruno Schickel -- “will be home to 40 rental homes of approximately 1,000 square feet (each). Currently nine are built.”
Added Schickel: “I’m very pleased with the public’s response to date. Six homes are already rented, and the new residents are very excited to live here. La Bourgade has small homes but big views” -- specifically of Seneca Lake.
And then there was ... well, the occasional absence recently of a high school sports story here and there on this website -- the product of one of two things: either a reticence on the part of a coach here and there to send the results, or a failure to send the results in a timely fashion.
Note to coaches: I try to publish the night of the day on which an event is held. The public kind of expects to see it next morning. I actually get an occasional complaint if the news isn’t on The Odessa File by, say, 5 a.m. I even heard recently from one athlete’s grandmother who noticed I didn’t have sports updated one night by midnight -- which is really pushing it.
Anyway, this issue goes beyond just the news. I utilize the information provided -- and the contests that I witness -- to choose an athlete or athletes of the week. And that washes over to the selections of All-Stars at season’s end, which in turn can affect the selection of an Athlete of the Year or, theoretically, the selection of our Top Drawer 24 honorees each spring. Withholding information can adversely affect a student-athlete's chances to be recognized commensurate with his or her achievements.
Please, coaches (and most of you realize this and act accordingly), part of your job is promotion of your sport.
And something that has gone a bit under-publicized is the Film Festival being held in Watkins Glen this coming weekend. It is being run by Eric Hollenbeck, who with partner Mary Beth Wolf has taken over operation of The W -- the theater in the public-access portion of the old Watkins Glen Middle School -- and has held some successful events there already.
The Seneca Film Festival will run five days, from Friday, Oct. 20 through Tuesday, Oct. 24, and will include movies at the Glen Theater, panel discussions, a concert and parties. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite.
To find out details of the weekend, check out senecafilmfest.org/new-events/
Hollenbeck outlined the weekend at a recent meeting of the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club, when he also described his recent work in Rochester on an independent film starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. Both actors are warm and caring individuals, he noted, adding that Lithgow came to Watkins during filming to visit the Stonecat Cafe and tour the Watkins Glen gorge.
I cited for Hollenbeck my favorite Lithgow line, from the award-winning film Terms of Endearment, whereby a female grocery clerk was giving Debra Winger's character grief at the checkout. Lithgow, stationed in the customer line, told the clerk that she was being rude, and when she said she didn't think she was, he leveled her with this: "Then you must be from New York."
Even being a native New Yorker, I find that endlessly humorous.
I would be remiss if I didn't revisit the recent Watkins Glen School Board session. It was interesting to hear Superintendent Greg Kelahan and various board members weigh in on the ongoing development of a mission statement, with certain phrases embraced -- such as the "ever-changing world" awaiting graduates and a "safe environment" in which they can learn and prepare for that day.
But what really got my attention was the matter of substitute teachers, an issue raised by board member Tracey VanSkiver. She asked if there is any way to combat the relative dearth of subs.
The superintendent said he was looking at it from a different perspective. His goal, he said, was "to diminish the need for substitutes." He said that research has shown that "if the primary teacher isn't there, the kids suffer," and that one way to handle the sub shortage is to "incentivize" better attendance by teachers.
Some teachers in the Watkins district, he said, are out fairly often, and that he is "not sure of the root cause." But he wants to see teachers "committed to their work."
Board member Mark Franzese put it more starkly. He said it comes down to a matter of "dependability," and had this message for teachers: " If you're getting paid to do your job, do your job."
Well ... I'm not going to get in the middle of that one, but I will say that from the perspective of a substitute -- at least from my perspective from the one time I tried my hand at the job -- the superintendent is right. The students suffer.
I spent $99 to get fingerprinted so I could sub at Odessa-Montour one day early in this century, and was horrified to find that the only preparation provided me was a handbook handed to me on my way in the door -- with an additional instruction to teach Chaucer to a high school class that day. Yeah, right. Thirty years after being taught about Chaucer in my own high school days, I was expected to serve as a teacher on the subject.
That, and a complete cluelessness when it came to such things as senior passes, the senior lounge and other in-house niceties, left me looking for the exit about midmorning. I stuck it out, though -- but only that day. When my shift was ended, the school day done, I was asked by the superintendent, Carol Boyce, if I would be available to substitute on subsequent days. I responded like this:
"I would rather eat glass."
And I meant it. And I never went back to O-M -- or for that matter to any school -- in that role. I made all of $62 for my day's work, which means I lost $37 in my brief career as a substitute.
Sounds about right. I was that ill-suited.
The young and the old of it
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Oct. 6, 2017 -- I am now the grandfather of a one-year-old.
Little Marlena Susan Haeffner -- my first and thus-far-only grandchild -- turns one today, and the very idea gives me chills.
The one-year mark means this to a toddler: “Okay, I made it. Now look out.”
Marley has been crawling up a storm, standing with a wobble and walking while holding on to the nearest table or shelf, and I suspect will be running soon. Although, as her father points out, “she moves pretty fast now.”
Marley visited here recently with her dad Dave and mom Ali, and charmed everyone. She is a happy child, inquisitive, and when she wants to be, she is insistently loud.
My, how I remember the days with my own one-year-olds.
The only problem is distance. Marley and her parents live in Asheville, North Carolina, a 12-hour drive from here amid a lot of heavy truck traffic. Pretty exhausting.
“You should move down here,” my son has told me. He clearly won’t be moving up here, because not only have they built a house, but now that Marley has arrived and grown, they are building a second, much larger home.
“Right,” I said, rather dubiously. “And what would I do in Asheville?”
“You could run The Odessa File from here,” he said. Which is true to a point. I do manage to operate The File from a distance -- an island in Northern Michigan -- for up to six weeks a summer. But that is when school is out of session, and much of what I do here in Schuyler County is cover high school sports, and attend various governmental meetings. If I’m not here, the coverage -- both photographic and otherwise -- suffers.
Well, Dave once suggested, you could run a website similar to The File in Asheville. Which is true. But there is an online presence there now. It doesn’t cover high school sports, but experience tells me that such coverage is no guarantee of success. I tried covering Trumansburg sports for a year, and was roundly ignored.
Getting established anyplace takes time. It was a slow grow when I started The Odessa File nearly 15 years ago. Advertising came slowly. Readership grew steadily, but slowly. Getting people to understand what I was doing, and where to find it with some regularity, was challenging. More than that, it was a crapshoot.
I consider it a small miracle that The File took root in Schuyler County. It generated little in the way of income for two years, at which point my wife Susan died, and with her an income that had helped keep this website afloat through its infancy.
“Keep with it,” she had told me just before passing, for she had grown in those two years from skeptic to believer. “The advertisers will come. Like dominoes.”
And come they did, mere weeks later, while I was not only in the midst of despair, but on the cusp of defeat.
And I stayed with it, and battled the naysayers, and tried to keep true to what I had learned in my years in journalism -- in college, at the Pontiac Press in Michigan, at the Watertown Daily Times in Northern New York, at the Star-Gazette in Elmira, at USA Today in Washington, D.C., and at the Corning Leader.
I learned how to handle a fairly expensive camera and fairly expensive set of lenses in covering sports, and applied what I had learned at newspapers in presenting my stories newspaper-style. I also threw in a touch of creative writing from time to time, gleaned from my years of writing increasingly complex novels.
And here we are, a small miracle on the first birthday of Marley, another small miracle, and but four days away from my own birthday -- one with a number so high I’m having trouble wrapping my understanding around it.
Sixty-nine. 69. It reads the same right side up and upside down.
Fitting, since some days this job keeps me so busy that by day’s end -- or rather night’s, since I often go past midnight -- I’m not sure which end is up.
But it beats sitting, vegetating.
By a long shot.
So ... anyway, Happy Birthday, little Marley. You are truly loved and prized.
And Happy Birthday to me, I guess, for it's true that growing older beats the alternative.
An elderly acquaintance, on his death bed and in pain, cautioned me thusly:
“Don’t grow old, Charlie.”
I hope I continue to ignore that advice.
Bracing breeze, sterling saves
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Sept. 21, 2017 -- So I’ve been back in Schuyler County for a while -- a couple of weeks -- trying to get my sea legs as I tackle, once again, the high school sports scene.
And I’m finding, as expected, that I have to watch that I don’t overdo. I could get away with a heavy schedule and light sleep when I was a bit younger, but now ... age and meds combine to slow down the body, no matter how willingly the mind might engage.
But it’s overall fun, as usual, although I would hope that the success ratio of our local teams picks up a bit.
The Seneca Indians football team -- a combined squad of Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high school athletes -- started with two wins before falling to Oneonta.
And the WGHS boys varsity cross country team appears to be a state power again, the year after bringing home a state title. The O-M boys varsity soccer team looks strong with a 5-2 start, and the WGHS volleyball team has been coming on strong of late.
Beyond that, success has been difficult to achieve.
Nonetheless, this has been an interesting season if only for the rise of new faces in the various sports. Football has given us Zach Elliott and Joe Chedzoy, known more for their track (Zach) and lacrosse (Joe) achievements. And we have Alexis Saunders for the O-M girls soccer team (four goals in one game, three in another), and Curtis Harris (a bunch of goals for the O-M boys soccer team). And -- on the Watkins Glen girls soccer team where, as expected, Hannah Morse is the go-to goal scorer -- we have goalkeeper Cierra Barber, who as of this writing has amassed 202 saves through eight games, with seven games remaining.
That’s a lot of saves, and possibly on track to challenge Julie Miller’s WGHS and state single-season record of 399. Julie, who had a national record of 1,250 saves in a four-year career through 2001, set her single-season mark in 2000, a year in which -- like this one, I’m told (the Senecas are 1-7) -- the team was struggling.
I have to say that I find the attitudes of the kids -- and indeed the overall atmosphere in the hallways of the two schools -- to be on the positive side. This is especially refreshing at Watkins Glen, where I recently visited to speak to a journalism class -- an enjoyable experience, engaging as I did with students who were both smart and inquisitive.
One plus: I wasn’t looking over my shoulder, expecting the heave-ho -- a mental staple of my visits there after the former superintendent said I had to clear any entrance into the school through him. (I didn't always do so, but I did cut way back, effectively curtailing my visits and the coverage of a number of positive stories, such as Color Wars and art shows.) But it was more than that; I sensed a breeze in the hallways this time -- or at least what seemed like one. It was a breeze, I sensed, of something upbeat. But what? Relief? Joy? Optimism?
But enough said, other than: "Welcome, Mr. Kelahan." New super, new era.
I attended a wedding Saturday -- of the only person who has appeared on The Odessa File for every day of its 5,000-plus days of existence: Jenny Thomason (now Moss), who was on the Odessa-Montour basketball team that won the state Class D championship in 2001 and held, at one time, the school’s single-season goal-scoring mark in soccer.
She appears in the montage of photos behind “The Odessa File” in the mast on the Home Page. And she worked for me one summer. She lives now in Pennsylvania, where she met her husband, Rob -- a very cool guy who seems the perfect match for her.
Congratulations, Jen and Rob.
Now almost two weeks removed from the Island -- Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, where I visit annually and this summer spent six weeks -- I am, remarkably, glad to be home. Schuyler County is pretty good place to return to. If I had to live in the inner-city, I suspect I would find a way, obstacles be damned, to stay on the Island.
Before I let the subject of Bois Blanc go, I want to touch on a conversation I once had with the great Ray Plaunt, ferryboat skipper extraordinaire, who died last year at the age of 95.
Ray lived on the Island most of his life. He was an outdoorsman -- loved hunting -- and wasn’t a bit afraid of the weather or of Lake Huron. Each winter, he would venture, when possible, across the lake between Bois Blanc and the mainland. This was before the age of snowmobiles; he and a few others actually crossed with cars or other vehicles.
One such vehicle was a motorized sled he had built -- one upon which he and another man were traveling across the ice one winter when it suddenly crashed through the frozen layer and into the water, sinking to the bottom.
“So you went down with it?” I asked Ray. “You went in the water?
“Yessss, I sure did.”
“Well, how was it you escaped?”
“I’m quick,” he said. “Like a cat.”
“Did you get hurt?”
“Not a mark on me. But the fellow with me was injured.”
“Oh?” I said. “How so?”
“Hurt his back,” said Ray. “Scratch marks all over it.”
“Yessss,” he said, and smiled. “From where I clawed him climbing over him. Hah! Ha, ha!”
And he walked away, satisfied.
Of dreams and harsh reality
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Sept. 4, 2017 -- We have reached our final few days on the island, and have shifted our attention to the return home.
My brother Bob and his wife Gussie will be heading Wednesday for Florida, while I drive home to Schuyler County.
And as with each leave-taking, there is a bittersweet quality.
I love this place, this rock in the middle of the Straits of Mackinac, a place where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet -- one big body of water, really, as a speaker at a gathering last month proclaimed. That came at the Wagner Room of the Bois Blanc Island Fire Station, a community gathering place that hosts, among other things, a charming weekly square dance during the summer.
I’m not sure why the island has such a hold on me. It’s not that the people are necessarily better than anyplace else; they are flawed like the rest of us. I imagine it has to do with a few childhood months I spent here, and the memories they bring back of family now gone, of friends known only fleetingly, of a time when hope and dreams were very much a part of me, of my essence.
But not everything here is always good, or even appealing.
In fact, there is a churlishness from time to time, on this summer hideaway, that seems to counter the habit almost every driver has of waving when passing an oncoming vehicle on the island’s 25 mph dirt roads. That constitutes a silent shout-out, but is, at the same time, on the side of impersonal.
First and foremost in my mind in that regard, I suppose, is the Stitt family, Mike and Christine and their children, who settled here on 37 acres with lake frontage in the mid ‘90s, claiming to have been sent by God.
They were religious fundamentalists -- worshipping as Old Wesleyan-Free Methodists, who follow the King James Bible to the letter. Their faith, said Christine, “is much stronger than the Amish,” who “follow tradition and what the bishop says. But we live by holiness and the Bible.” They produced their own food on their land near the Firetower Road, which cuts through the middle of the island, south shore to north. They had a team of oxen, along with emus, goats, pigs, donkeys, horses and dozens of fowl, among them peacocks, ducks and chickens.
The Stitts started out well here, supplying their own food and selling eggs and bread. But matters had soured by the time my wife Susan and I met them in 1998 -- three years after their arrival. Their very lifestyle was a matter of dispute, and to make matters worse, Mike -- in order to meet the bills -- had to spend many weekdays off the island, building and restoring mainland barns.
We, in fact, befriended them, and were cautioned by others about that, since the Stitts -- parents of five children then with another on the way -- were said to be in violation of island zoning regulations and disregarding building permits. Trouble, its seemed, was about to come crashing down on them. If we weren’t careful ... well, guilt by association was a possibility.
I was talking recently to a lifelong island resident who was raised here and summers here each year, and she said, quite simply, “We didn’t treat the Stitts very well.”
That is fairly accurate, though a bit of an understatement. They were essentially chased off the island.
As Christine told me back in ’98, “It’s because we’re different.”
The situation turned ugly, in fact, the following year when the island trustees forced on the family a court order to vacate and a threat of jail time if they didn’t destroy their farm. Everything seemed one-sided, so at the Stitts’ entreaty, the Michigan Militia (a paramilitary organization organized in the 1990s in answer to perceived encroachments by the federal government on citizens' rights) entered the conflict, sending 16 men up here from downstate, ostensibly to draw attention in the media to the Stitts’ plight. The Militia likened the situation to what they saw as other government overreach against religious fundamentalists elsewhere in country, such as in Waco, Texas, where mayhem had led to bloodshed in 1993.
In fairness, Bois Blanc officials proffered other complaints beyond zoning and permits. They said the Stitts had let an oxen run free, had cut timber on property that wasn’t theirs, and had complained when anyone was driving even a couple of miles an hour over the speed limit past their home. Word was that officials also didn’t like the construction of the Stitts’ house, and wanted it improved. And there were other claims and counterclaims.
But in matters of conflict, fact and fiction often blur.
In any event, talk arose of possible armed conflict -- of a showdown by the militia with other authorities -- before the Stitts, alarmed at the prospect of violence, decided on peace. Soon after, the family left for Arkansas, abandoning their island home. I hear that Mike and Chris are now somewhere in Alaska, their kids -- mostly tiny tots when I knew them -- grown by now.
The dispute aside, my memory of their family is a positive one. These were, to my thinking, sweet people who invited Susan and me to dinner and fed us food grown on their property, on their land. When I told them we were going to visit nearby Mackinac Island, they volunteered to take us over in their motorboat, drop us off at the pier, and return to get us at the end of the day -- saving us a costly venture either by air from island to island, or by ferry to the mainland and over to Mackinaw City and to the passenger ferries waiting there. Mike and Chris Stitt devoted a large part of a day to transport us, with great gusto.
Kindnesses like that ring true with me, and reverberate through the years.
Whenever we visited with them, they were friendly, if not always forthcoming. As detailed in a journal I kept at the time, Christine once said:
“God sent us here. He provided the land, and the money with which to purchase it.”
I asked if she might elaborate: Where did the money come from specifically?
“A man,” she said. “An anonymous, very wealthy man. It was given to us.”
Mike told me he had discovered Bois Blanc 10 years earlier.
“A friend of mine wanted me to go deer hunting with him, but I don’t like deer hunting and told him so. But he insisted; said ‘You’ll like this place,’ and I did. And Chris and I came up after that, and camped out at Deer Lake (one of the island’s inland lakes). Then about five years ago, I brought the whole family up here and we had a couple of oxen pull us around on an old cart, the old-fashioned way. We saw the island that way, and the kids loved it and asked if we could come back.”
They had been living downstate, “in a place without electricity. And we thought we could live the same way here but even better: away from the hustle and bustle. It wasn’t long before I bought this place, and we moved in.”
Contrary to their initial intention, they had electricity on Bois Blanc, though Mike said his plan was to disconnect from it, going back to the old ways. He had a propane refrigerator, and would heat by propane or kerosene.
Eventually, he said, he planned to sell the land, all but seven acres. “We’ll sell 30 acres. The other seven will go to the older kids, for helping with all the work around here. Then they’ll have it to come up to, to visit or stay or whatever.”
That was the long-term dream; the hope.
A hammock built by Mike Stitt without benefit of nails stood on their front lawn near a pond they installed; he intended to add a small garden waterfall in the near future.
“I build stuff like that,” he said. “Small woodwork. I like to build it and sell it. But that’s another thing the town doesn’t like.”
I asked him about a structure barely visible through the woods in a clearing to the rear of the house. It was a light brown building, with what looked like windows.
“Our henhouse,” he said. “Nope, you can’t see it very easily. The town would have a fit if they knew we’d built it. It’s about zoning, really. They say we have a commercial concern in a residential area. But we’re just trying to make a living.”
Yes, I have to say they were nice folks, the Stitts.
Despite all that was happening, Mike on the day he transported us by boat to Mackinac Island had some kind words for the island residents.
A man on Bois Blanc had fixed the Stitts’ boat “for next to nothing” after a drive shaft broke. “We’re giving him and his wife all the eggs and vegetables they want. She said it was okay on the eggs, but insisted on paying for the vegetables, but I said no way. Uh uh. It’s going to take a lot of eggs and vegetables to pay him back. Not that they expect us to, but you know ...
“They showed us a kindness. A lot of folks on the island are like that, more than have given us a hard time. Oh, there’s still going to be fights with the town and legal bills, but all in all, the island folks have weighed in mostly on the good side. They’ve made our stay worthwhile.”
But that was 1998. The situation worsened the following year, and the Stitts moved on.
Their kids, in fact, constituted a large part of the school population on Bois Blanc, which has a small structure and basic playground in The Pines -- Pointe aux Pins, the lone municipality on the island -- as its educational center. Kids are enrolled there through eighth grade. The Stitts' eldest daughter, Kristen, of high school age at the time, attended classes during the week on nearby Mackinac Island, spending her weekends with her family on Bois Blanc. Others of the Stitt brood attended -- or in the case of the youngest, were planning to eventually attend -- classes in The Pines.
The Pines school, in fact, often has had in its lengthy history just a single student or two, and seems in repeated danger of closing, though it never has. I’m told that two years without any students would be its death knell, so I’m still surprised that the locals would turn on the Stitts and basically run them off the island and thus decimate the school enrollment.
That was about the time that my wife Susan, a teacher by trade -- and a very good one -- was hoping that the Bois Blanc teaching job might open, and that she might be named the successor to the incumbent.
We talked about it from time to time, and surmised how I might make a living on the island, too. We would have embraced the opportunity if it had proved financially feasible.
That was a pipe dream, though, because the island population would be unlikely to anoint an outsider. In fact, the successor turned out to be a young woman whose mother was raised on the island and who now lives here herself year-round.
Besides, Susan’s time on Earth ran out just five years after the Stitt showdown, when complications from cancer claimed her. That was about the time the old Pines teacher yielded to the new. Now, whenever I pass the island school house, a slight tremor runs through me as I recall that dream of Sue’s, and I feel the lingering weight of hopes that never come to pass.
My last time traveling by that small structure, in fact, brought into focus an upcoming date. The tremor the sight of the building caused, and the fact that the calendar had just turned to September, brought on a thought I’m now having trouble shaking.
The thought is this: Come this Sept. 18, I’m going to be struggling rather badly, I think -- on the 40th anniversary of the day that Susan and I married. She has been gone nearly 13 years now, and while I manage for the most part to put her passing behind me, certain dates -- her birthday, our anniversary, and Nov. 1, the date both she and my father died, 10 years apart -- tend to topple my equilibrium.
I’ll be back home by then, by Sept. 18, God willing, at my post covering sports and other Schuyler goings-on.
But you might not see me that day.
I might be somewhere private, thinking about the good years, and about the Stitts, and about the school house on Bois Blanc, and the job held there by an island woman, and about a life cut short.
And -- if only there had there been greater kindness on the island for the Stitts, and more charity from the Almighty for Susan -- I will think about what might have been.
Photo in text:
Top: A picture of the Stitts with three of their children. It appeared in an area publication with a story about their plight in 1999, the year they left the island.
Bottom: The Pines School today.
Soaring music, muted music
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 27, 2017 -- They gathered on the shore at noon Saturday, two dozen strong, to bid farewell to a husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend. It was time to say goodbye to Tom Williams, a retired school teacher who summered for years on Bois Blanc Island.
I knew Tom only briefly -- we were neighbors on the island’s eastern shore last summer -- but he left a deep impression as an intelligent, caring individual. I was stunned upon arriving here this summer to find that he had died of a heart attack in April at the age of 75. Now, in late August, the family had managed to gather from all around the country to watch as his two sons and widow ceremonially poured his ashes into the Straits of Mackinac -- a geographic and sometimes ethereal place he loved so much.
This was the climax of a spiritual sort of week on the Island, highlighted two nights earlier by a concert at the local Church of the Transfiguration featuring two up-and-coming opera singers and a wonderful concert pianist -- each brought to the Island by the Hoover Foundation, which distributes funds amassed by the late Hoover Vacuum Company Chairman, Earl Hoover, and his widow, 103-year-old Miriam.
The church is small -- maybe room for 100 parishioners -- and hardly the usual setting for the powerful voices of opera. One of the performers, a tenor named Alex Gmeinder, had a voice so strong that I thought he might blow out the stained glass windows or, perhaps, send one or more of the walls tumbling. It was akin to standing beneath a large fireworks display and having the senses overtaken by the strong external forces: disorienting and thrilling.
There were selections sung in Italian, Russian and Spanish, including one of my favorites, “Toreador” from “Carmen.” There were also a couple of non-operatic selections, including a piece from Tchaikovsky and a song made famous by Robert Goulet, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The other singer was a baritone, Evan Bravos, while on piano was Tessa Hartle, who is much in demand as a coach and accompanist in the operatic world.
About 70 people turned out for the evening, raising nearly $1,400 for the church’s outreach program. I’m sure the cost of getting three professionals to the Island cost a good deal more, courtesy of the Hoover Foundation.
That perhaps set my mood as I ventured next door Saturday for an informal ceremony honoring Tom Williams. The family and friends were seated and standing there on the beach, with some reminiscing about Tom, who was well known for the friendly bear hugs he dispensed throughout his life.
He was a lover of Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles, and was a fan of a particular piece of instrumental music that came out in 1958, called “Rebel Rouser.” That was played at the service over an iPod, with the volume limited and battling the sound of wind and surf. Also played: Creedence’s “Someday Never Comes.”
There was a prayer by Rev. Philip Chester of England, who summers on the island, overseeing services at the church during his stay. He said he realized that Tom was not here physically when he failed to get his requisite bear hug. “But I feel the hug in the air,” he added.
And there was a poem that was read aloud: “The Invitation,” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. In part, it says:
It doesn't interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart's longing.
It doesn't interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive ....
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human....
It doesn't interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
and not shrink back.
“I can imagine Tom saying those words,” said one of his friends after the reading.
“Amen to that,” added another.
When the words and music were completed, Tom’s sons Chris and Benn -- each of whom spent many a summer of their youth at the Williams compound along the shore -- and Tom’s widow Marje ventured out on the water in a rowboat that seemed to ride perilously low to the lapping waves. After traveling 50 yards or so offshore, Chris and Benn poured Tom’s ashes into the Straits as Marje looked on from the stern.
I don’t mean to dwell further on the particulars of the concert or the Williams ceremony, other than to say that both seemed to fit the mood of the Island in this difficult summer. With deaths and illnesses of longtime Island residents, and the two-time closing of the lone convenience store, Hawk’s Landing (now reopened again), a kind of world weariness has settled in here. So the concert, with its uplifting and -- given its setting and cause -- spiritual bent, and the obvious spirituality in remembering the life and times of Tom Williams, were the summer’s end-pieces: the soaring sound of the concert and the muted sound of music along the shoreline.
They were not typical island events -- those are square dances and art shows and pancake suppers and book discussions and cookouts and the like -- but they seemed to tap into the essence of Bois Blanc: a remote rock, yet in the center of the spiritual universe.
That’s how we who love the island see it, anyway.
I’ll be back home soon, God willing, to cover high school sports and all the other churning, developing news in Schuyler County. I’ll miss the opening salvo of the fall sports season, but should return in time for the second high school football game. Then it’s onward for another nine to 10 months of news, leading to yet another graduating class -- and to another Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student athletes from a dozen area high schools, a program sponsored since its origin by this website. This will be Top Drawer’s 13th year, and it seems to be bigger than ever.
And no, it’s not too early to start looking at prospective team members. I already have a few in mind, as I’m sure Top Drawer committee members and the organization’s chair, Craig Cheplick, do. You can help, if you want, by sending along a note touting the merits of a particular favorite you might have.
It can have an effect ... because we are listening.
Photos in text:
Top: From left, Tessa Hartle, Evan Bravos and Alex Gmeinder at the conclusion of their concert.
Bottom: Tom Williams with his wife, Marje. (Photo provided)
In the shadow of Hawk's continuing woes ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 20, 2017 -- As I write this, the foghorn out in the Straits of Mackinac is blaring every few seconds. It is calm on the water after two days of roiled waters and insistent winds. The temperature last night was suitable for sleeping with the windows open, and the temperature today seems suitable for a comfortable nap.
Not all is well, though; it never really is; not completely, anyway. Hawk’s Landing, the lone convenience store and best eatery on the island, went dark again the other day, this time “due to family emergency” -- specifically a seizure that struck the owner, Larry Phillips, and landed him in a hospital on the mainland. It would appear that without him and his wife Missy -- who I presume is with him -- that Hawk’s can’t operate.
The word circulating was that stress played a role in this latest misadventure -- likely an offshoot of the whole situation that forced Hawk’s to close for a week and a half in late July and early August. That whole thing seemed tied to the former manager (or was he buying the place?), Austin Sims, who departed earlier than expected last fall and is off island this summer. That forced Larry and Missy back into the kitchen.
Anyway, without Hawk’s we and other residents might run out of certain staples like milk and eggs -- and there is no more access to pizza or ice cream, not to mention Hawk’s amazing omelets. Well, we could order supplies from the mainland, I guess, or take the ferry over, but with greater effort and at a likely steeper price.
But I’m being churlish. We all wish Larry well, and in fact hear that his recovery appears to be rapid and that he might be back on the Island later today.
When Hawk’s might reopen, I can’t say.
There is an elderly couple -- in their 80s -- named Turner who enjoy Hawk’s. If the Red Hat Club is meeting there, for instance, Mary Lee will sit with the group while husband Dick sits off in a corner, reading and occasionally looking over to the group and smiling. I encountered him Saturday morning -- had just learned of Larry’s health issue -- and suggested that maybe he’d like to buy Hawk’s and take over the food prep business.
“Maybe I will,” he said, although that is wishful thinking at such an advanced age. Larry and Missy -- and whoever else is working there -- are finding it takes an enormous amount of effort to run such a place. That is partially due to a menu that offers too many choices. The Phillipses cut back on those choices this year, but honestly, if I were running the place, I’d trim them down even more, focusing on easy-to-fix meals, with an emphasis on pizzas, subs and ice cream.
But as much as I’d like to spend more time up here, that is not the method I’d choose to either support me or occupy my time.
So ... as I write this, I shake my head at the fact that the island, seemingly a bulwark for years against the encroachment of negativity -- of such things as fading health and death -- continues to dish it out. With the late great ferry skipper Ray Plaunt gone last year at the age of 95, and since then the locally popular Mickey Caulkins and the charming neighbor we met here on the eastern shore last year, Tom Williams, even the island is reminding me that time is fleeting.
Of course, I already knew that. I’ve seen the previous generation fade out almost entirely, with the exception of 103-year-old Miriam Hoover, widow of the Hoover Vacuum CEO, Earl Hoover, an extensive landholder up here.
I have, in my 20-plus consecutive summers on the island, seen the passing of many locals along with that of my wife, Susan, who was as much an island lover as I am -- perhaps even more so. And beyond that, in the past couple of years a prominent summer resident committed suicide, while one of his children, the youngest of five at about 20 years of age, died of a drug overdose.
My memory of the island is long, harkening back to my parents bringing me and my brothers up here for several summers in the 1950s.
My parents are gone.
Their friends the Bablers, Wayne and Mary, who introduced them to the island in the first place, are gone, too. As is the sister of Mary, a woman named Annette Blome, who served for years as my father’s secretary at his shoe-sale office near Detroit. She died of pancreatic cancer, but managed, during her demise, to spend several weeks here in her final summer on Earth.
Another of the Blome clan, Harriett Manning, is gone as well. She was, after her husband’s early death, the single mom to three girls, one of whom, Wendy, I was infatuated with as a teenager and ultimately used as the model for my character Addie Winger in two books, Island Nights and The Islander. I reconnected with Wendy, now living in Illinois, briefly a few summers ago on the island. Her mom passed recently, and I think of Harriett and her girls every time I drive by Wickie-Up, a cottage they inhabited those long years ago along the southern shoreline of Bois Blanc.
Gone too is Morgan Poole, who passed in 1998. He was a regular up here -- a big, burly, friendly guy with a crew cut and a wide smile who my brother and his friends picked on, calling him “Cess.” Morgan had a cottage that was made from a Sears kit; it’s still standing and in occasional use.
And the Reverend is gone, along with my grandfather and Al Smith. The Reverend -- that’s what I called him in Island Nights -- was Carl Zeigler, a minister at the local Church of the Transfiguration and somehow related to the Bablers. My grandfather -- my dad’s dad -- spent a couple of summers with us up here before passing on at 79. Al Smith was the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) warden, operating out of a building right next door to a cottage we were renting in the 1950s. He and my grandfather, lovingly referrred to as Papa Gus, spent many a bonding afternoon together, seated in front of the DNR building, sipping drinks. Al passed on at an early age -- around 50, maybe less, and was outlived by his widow, Alice, by a half century. She too is gone now.
The other folks from my parents’ generation have passed away, as well, with the exception of Mrs. Hoover, who has been much in evidence up here this summer, looking more chipper than in recent years.
Funny, but that whole train of thought -- this whole column -- was triggered by Larry’s seizure. He is only about 50, if the locals are to be believed, and I am a good deal older, so naturally (as when I publish obituaries) it got me to thinking about mortality, from which not even the island can shield us.
Of course, I’m not nearly as old as Mrs. Hoover. But I can hope.
Maybe, with some luck, I’ll reach 103, too, and be writing about Bois Blanc 35 years from now. That would be in 2052.
Well ... then again, probably not.
The matinee idol ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 11, 2017 -- I hadn’t seen Ed White in about 60 years. And yet, as I visited the old homestead of the late ferryboat skipper, Ray Plaunt -- a home now occupied by Ray’s daughter Leanna and the site of weekly get-togethers by people who want to remember, and talk about, the remarkable, long life of Ray, who died last year at 95 -- there was Ed White, big as life.
Well, not as big as I remembered. When I had last seen him, I was 8 years old, and he was 15, and he seemed tall to me. I have remembered, all these years, that he had chiseled good looks, and I envied him his height. I, by contrast, had been a tiny dweeb.
He and his brother Joel summered on the island just a couple of houses up the side street from where Ray Plaunt and his family resided -- from where the weekly gathering now was. I remember the White household as a meeting place for teens back in the '50s. Poker was an attraction for Ed and Joel and the rest of their friends, including my brother Bob -- who tells how Ed’s father wouldn’t let them play with poker chips (forget money, probably nobody had enough), but insisted that matchsticks be used in their stead. Poker chips, the Whites' dad thought, were too close to the real thing.
My brother relayed that tale to Ed while we were seated at Leanna’s home, jogging Ed’s memory, for at first he hadn’t recalled us. When we entered Leanna’s for the weekly gathering, I recognized Ed right away, although he is not nearly as tall as I remembered -- he is, in fact, slightly shorter than me, and I am myself a bit height-deprived When he was introduced to us, I nodded and said: “Well, the famous Ed White,” and he looked at me as though curious.
And my brother and I explained the common past we shared with him. Bob and Ed and Joel and a few others had palled around together those many years ago, while I -- excluded by age and size -- had placed Ed on some sort of pedestal.
“I thought, when I was a kid, that you looked like some sort of matinee idol,” I told him now, or words to that effect, and he laughed. “You must have me confused with someone else,” he responded.
But I wasn’t confused, of course. That is one of the beauties of this island: the chance that you can, and will, encounter someone you last saw six decades ago, and be given the opportunity to revisit that long-ago past and, at the same time, fill in the blanks about that someone who had, effectively, disappeared from your life.
Ed and Joel and their father and mother -- Minnie -- were, as I said, summer regulars back in the 1950s, as were the Haeffners. But my family stopped going to Bois Blanc around 1957, when we moved into a house on a lake in Bloomfield Hills, in the southeastern portion of the state. As my parents explained it, we had no need to go to the island any more because we had a body of water of our own -- albeit a tiny fraction of what Lake Huron (the body of water surrounding Bois Blanc) is.
I only visited the island once as a youth after that -- in 1962, an experience that three decades later led me to write a novel called “Island Nights.” My editor on that book was a man named Bunker Clark, a professor at the University of Kansas who, again, I had known on the island when I was a child -- albeit he was at that time a young adult. Bunker and I reconnected in 1998, and I allowed him access to my manuscript, which he fine-tuned and renamed from “Summer Nights.”
As I said, the island provides the opportunity to revisit the past.
After that 1962 island stay, I didn’t make it back to Bois Blanc -- with the exception of a day trip to deliver paperwork to my father’s secretary, a longtime summer resident here herself -- until 1979, when my wife Susan and I visited for a couple of days, staying at the old hotel that burned down four years later.
During that brief vacation we dropped in to say hello to the Babler clan -- to whom my father’s secretary was related -- and visited the palatial cottage inhabited each summer by Earl Hoover and his wife Miriam. Mr. Hoover was a retired chairman of the Hoover Vacuum Company, and owned a lot of island property, among which was a cottage, two doors removed from his, that he rented to my parents back in the mid-1950s. I guess I must have hung out at the Hoovers' main cottage back in those days, perhaps begging cookies from the family maid -- a large woman named Ethel, who, with Mr. Hoover’s “man” Maxie, were the lone black people on the island -- because when I knocked on the Hoover door in 1979, my wife at my side, Ethel had quite a reaction.
I explained to her that I wished to see Mr. Hoover (he was then 88, and would live to 94) to pay my respects, but she said he was napping and couldn’t be disturbed. So I told her that my family had once rented from the Hoovers, and asked her if she could convey that Chuck Haeffner (that was my childhood moniker) had stopped by. Well ... she squealed and said “Little Chuckie Haeffner!” and grabbed me, pulling me into her ample bosom in absolute joy. It occurred to me as I lingered there, helpless, that I might be smothered, but she finally let go, and I looked at my wife to see her reaction, which was one of disbelief.
Anyway, that remains one of my favorite island moments.
So ... Ed White. He’s 75 now, still looks good, had a successful career as an executive with the Ford Motor Company, including spending several years in Kenya, and rarely makes it to the island, since his wife of 50 years doesn’t really like it here. (That would help explain how I had missed seeing him each summer for the past 20-some that I've been comng here since reinstating my annual visits.) He was present this trip with his daughter Julia, who does like it.
That’s one thing about the island. Most people either love it or hate it (or if short of hate, at least prefer normal, congested civilization). I told Ed that my wife had absolutely loved it -- that we had started coming here on a regular basis in the mid-1990s, and that she made it annually after that. After her death, I continued the habit. I also told Ed that if I were courting someone and she didn’t like Bois Blanc, that would be a deal breaker.
Ed laughed and said, well, that hadn’t been the case with him -- evident by the fact that he and his wife have been married for half a century.
Somewhere in there, the conversation touched on someone who has been coming here longer than that -- Earl Hoover’s widow Miriam. As I recall, the Hoovers got married around 1950; she was either his second or third wife, and a woman to whom he was wholly devoted. Mr. Hoover passed away in 1985, and here we are 32 years later, and Miriam is still a summer visitor -- at the age of 103, nearing 104.
I’ve spotted her twice so far this summer -- once in a golf cart-styled vehicle at the Saturday farmer’s market held beside the island fire station in The Pines: Point aux Pins, Bois Blanc’s lone municipality. The cart was driven by a family member one generation younger, himself getting up there in age. She was greeted according to her standing with smiles and reverence by some of the locals.
And then I saw her at Hawk’s Landing, seated with family and friends at a big round table for lunch on the day Hawk’s reopened -- on Monday of this week.
There is something reassuring in seeing her -- a touchstone, if you will, to a time long past, as is much of the island, so unchanged in 60 years (with the same dirt roads, many of the same cottages, the same scenery and many of the same people).
Yes ... Hawk’s Landing -- the island’s lone convenience store and one of its two eateries -- is back in business after a week-and-a-half mysteriously closed. The folks who used to run it, Larry and Missy Phillips, are running it again after the departure of young manager (and, many thought, owner) Austin Sims. He is off-Island, whereabouts uncertain. I’m not sure we’ll ever know what exactly his status here was, what happened to effect his departure, or why Hawk’s closed.
Anyway, the place was packed on its reopening day -- and no island folks seemed to be prying about the cause of the closing. They were just glad the doors were open and the food was flowing from the kitchen. Well, maybe flowing is the wrong word. There seemed to be a dysfunction in the operation that first day, with delays in orders being taken and in food being produced -- and the workers, including Larry and Missy, looking harried. But by the third day, when my brother Bob and his wife Gussie and I revisited for dinner, it was all running more smoothly.
And the meat lover’s pizza was to die for.
Losses ... and a tavern visit
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 3, 2017 -- The rain arrived in northern Michigan Wednesday after days of bright sunshine.
And with it came a bit of depression.
It started with news Tuesday of the passing of Larry Wilson, a longtime Star-Gazette reporter and columnist who provided columns in recent years for the Watkins Review. Larry was not only a good writer and fine reporter, but a hell of a nice guy.
I met him when he joined the Star-Gazette many years ago, and saw him on and off since then. I wasn’t aware of his declining health at 71, and so found news of his death to be a shock.
(And Wednesday, I received an obituary for Barbara Westervelt, beloved Newfield teacher and the wife of Odessa-Montour School Board member Scott Westervelt. She was just 66. I knew of her declining health, but still ...)
As I progress along life’s path, the passing of acquaintances -- of people I have long admired -- is becoming more and more frequent, and naturally so. But it doesn’t make it any easier to digest.
On top of that -- and I’m not trying to be glib here -- I learned Wednesday, too, of the passing this summer of Jingles in Boofland. Yes, that’s correct. A man named Jerry Booth made quite an impression on me when I was a child through his Jingles in Boofland TV show, where he, the title character, was a court jester (or at least dressed like one) on one of our Detroit area stations.
He inhabited what was supposed to be a castle (though it looked more like randomly placed boxes instead of stone walls), and he had a couple of puppet friends, one of whom was modeled after (and sounded like) radio commentator Paul Harvey.
Jerry Booth’s son says his father didn’t talk much about his days as Jingles (in the late 1950s and early ‘60s), but that growing up as the son of Jingles “was pretty cool.”
Watching the show was cool, too.
So ... Jingles' death prompted me to check on another childhood icon, Milky the Clown (a man named Clare Cummings), who was a magician (dressed as a clown, all in white) who shilled for Twin Pines Dairy in the Detroit area -- you know, the kind of dairy that delivered milk in glass bottles to customers’ homes back in the day. Alas, I learned that even Milky -- who in completing a magic trick would entreat his young TV audiences to repeat the magic words “Twin Pines!” -- is gone, having passed in 1994. I missed that one ... and now I've caught up.
On a less depressing, but nonetheless annoying note, Hawk’s Landing here on Bois Blanc Island has closed. That’s the only convenience store and one of two eateries on the Island, closed suddenly last week, without warning or explanation, by the owners, Larry and Missy Phillips. Hopefully it's only temporary.
The place had been run the past couple of summers by a young man named Austin Sims, who reportedly departed last fall before the scheduled winter closing, presumably after a falling-out with the owners. It wasn’t even clear who was the owner, for Austin had announced in a 2014 news article that he had purchased Hawk's. Well, whatever the case, it has fallen back to the Phillipses, who I noticed on my first day here, July 26, had thinned down the stock of canned food and Island paraphernalia in the store and trimmed back the menu from the Austin days.
And then, boom! The door closed July 28th and the lights went out, and the staff -- there didn’t seem to be too many beyond Larry and Missy -- were without a paycheck I imagine each needed.
This happened just before the big Island softball game last Saturday, where a good portion of the Island population turned out for the second annual showdown between the East and West islanders on a field on the old Bible property out near the north shore. That’s in the general area where old John Bible, long deceased (but who I remember from my childhood) is said to wander around late at night, scaring the hell out of campers.
The game turned out to be hotly contested, back and forth, with the East rallying in the top of the final inning and then holding off the West in the bottom of the frame to win 25-23. East also won in the inaugural game last year, and so its name will be engraved on the winning trophy again.
Since Saturday's game (complete with hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and drinks) was preceded by a fund-raising pancake breakfast (heavily attended) on the Island’s East end -- at the Coast Guard Chapel, a converted boathouse -- the absence of Hawk’s Landing on that day was barely felt.
But come Tuesday, and Taco Night -- the only game in town was at the Tavern, located at the East end not far from the cottage we’re renting. We were going to eat steak at home, but naps superceded a thawing of the meat, and so we opted for the Tavern -- only to find the place absolutely crammed, with all tables filled (we got one just in time) and a couple of groups standing about, waiting for their orders.
The place has a popular bar (the only one on the Island), and the bar had the stereotypically loud, obnoxious resident, the kind of man (short-cropped hair, salt-and-pepper beard and darting dark eyes) who yells to be heard, and demands to be heard constantly, with his words punctuated on occasion by Scaramucci-style language.
With that foghorn going, and our position at a corner table crowded by the comings and goings of the room’s lone, hustling waitress -- and with a long, narrow shuffleboard table in constant use between us and the bar -- I felt like a sardine about to lose my hearing.
But I have to tell you: the burgers in that joint are superb, as are the fries. I haven’t had much of either since adopting a restricted diet a half-year ago, but treated myself to both on Taco Tuesday.
The taste buds ruled, and I loved the meal.
Though I wasn’t sorry to escape to the outside when I was done salivating.
If you’re ever in the neighborhood, check out the Tavern.
But maybe not on Taco Tuesday.
On the Island again ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, July 28, 2017 -- The drive up from the southern border of Michigan, northwest of Toledo, to the northernmost point of the Lower Peninsula brings back memories every time I undertake it -- for I was raised in Michigan, attending elementary school, junior high and senior high in communities north of Detroit, and college in Albion, in the south central portion of the state.
This is an annual rite, the drive north after cutting across the southern portion of New York and then into Pennsylvania and across Ohio. It is my traditional ride to Bois Blanc Island, a place I first visited as a child many decades ago, and to which I have returned a couple of dozen times since. The most recent return was on Wednesday, July 26.
I recall some of the highlights of those younger years as I pass highway signs. The turnoff to Adrian is one of the first, and that brings back memories of one teen summer when I worked there at a shoe store -- away from home and trying to fit into a new crowd in a new town. My father was a shoe salesman, traveling Michigan and selling to shoe stores throughout the Lower Peninsula. One of his customers was a man named Bill Cox, in Adrian; I stayed with Bill and his wife and toddler daughter, sleeping nights in a basement recreation room. By day I sold shoes, something I fairly well detested.
But it was overall a good experience. I remember a girl named Margaret who seemed to like me, and the other teens were welcoming. The Cox family was great, and it was my first prolonged time away from home, which was good training for college a couple of years later.
A sign a little farther north, pointing toward Pontiac, took me back mentally to my employment as an intern one summer during my college years, working at the Pontiac Press, later the Oakland Press. That was the summer of the moon landing, which grabbed everyone’s attention, and certainly no less ours in the news business.
I remember a beautiful, short, brunette nurse who I spotted walking to work every day as I drove past on my way to the paper. I never did actually meet her, but I was mesmerized. And I remember the gentlemanly publisher, Harry Reed, who I thought was a model of how to run a paper with dignity; and yet how there was a sadistical city editor who seemed to glory in humiliating me while I worked briefly for his department. And then there was Bruno Kearns, the sports editor -- a fair-minded man who mentored me in my final weeks there, teaching me about fairness and accuracy in reporting. He was a classic, old-school journalist.
(Parenthetically, it was during this period that Madonna was growing up in Pontiac, or so one of her biographies noted. She was just a kid then; but I sometimes wonder if perhaps I bumped into her while out covering stories that summer. Well ... probably not.)
I could go on. As I moved north on my journey Wednesday, heading toward the Straits of Mackinac and Bois Blanc Island, I passed signs that reminded me of my first serious girlfriend, and of a trip I took with my middle brother to Cadillac when we were both young, and of the ski slopes he and I and our friends used to populate outside of Petoskey, and of the Beatles-era parties we used to hold on those ski trips, often listening -- en route north and after a full day on the slopes -- to Fab Four music.
But the ultimate sign is the one announcing Cheboygan, where the Plaunt Transportation ferry boat awaited. (Well, there are actually three such signs, at intervals, pointing toward alternate routes to our destination). I was caravanning from Ann Arbor north, following the SVU carrying my eldest brother and his wife, up from Florida. We link up somewhere downstate each year, and make the crossing together on the boat, our two cars among the dozen or more that can be carried on the ferry now owned by the son of the man who used to be the ferry skipper for years, Ray Plaunt.
Ray died last year at the age of 95, leaving the Island poorer for his passing, but his offspring and grandchildren still either live or visit here for extended periods. A granddaughter is the local school teacher -- in a one-room schoolhouse that the teacher’s mother, Char Plaunt McLaren -- attended while growing up. Char says the school has been in operation here “forever.” (Some years it has had only one student, but never none, and thus remains open for kindergarteners through eighth graders.)
After reaching Cheboygan Wednesday and making the crossing, my brother and I visited the old Plaunt homestead on Thursday -- the home where Ray used to live for many years, going back to the days before electricity was established here, back to when outhouses were plentiful. We journeyed a few miles from our cottage on the eastern half of the Island to the homestead for a gathering that has been held weekly for the past four years in July and August. The first two years, they were designed to showcase Ray Plaunt himself, who despite failing eyesight and limited hearing made himself available for a couple of hours to anyone who wished to visit with him -- for he was a beloved individual. And the turnouts were sizable; he had impacted the lives of many Islanders -- both full-timers and summer folk.
After he passed away, the gatherings were held last summer, again weekly, so people could gather with Ray’s daughters, Char and LeAnn, to reminisce about their father and about the Island of years past.
This year, the meetings are being held again, but when my brother and I arrived, all we found was daughter Char (pictured at right) and a lifelong Plaunt family friend, Victor Babcock, who was born on the Island 84 years ago and has lived his entire life here, save for occasional trips off-Island, I suppose including military service.
Oh, and we had one other visitor -- a deer that came into the yard looking for food, which Char provided in a bucket (ground corn) stationed near the patio where we were seated. Char was also feeding the deer crackers that had been put out for the human visitors who had failed to attend; each time she held one out and tossed it to the deer, the critter came close enough so you could almost pet it.
The deer, I must say, appeared fearless -- and hungry. She looked pretty thin, I thought, and no doubt welcomed the handouts.
Anyway, we learned from Char that an accident we had heard about that occurred last week -- in which a pickup truck rolled not far from our cottage, pinning the driver and breaking her leg rather badly -- in fact involved a woman I have met before who is renting just two cottages west of us, on what is called Arnett Point.
Her name is Sarah Sims, whose half brother was running the Island convenience store and eatery, Hawk’s Landing, the past couple of summers before (according to reports) falling out with the Hawk’s owners and leaving the Island. (Hawk’s is being run now by the owners, who had operated it for several years in the past.) I also know Sarah’s half sister, Meghan, who used to play with my kids from the time she was about 8 or 9 years old. I saw Meghan grow through her teen years, embrace running with an almost religious fervor, mature into a lovely and caring woman, and marry. She now has three kids, with a fourth on the way.
But worse than that pickup-truck accident came word -- not from Char but from another woman later -- that our next-door neighbor here along the Lake Huron shoreline, a nice man named Tom Williams who was very helpful and friendly during our first summer, last year, in this particular rental -- was not present this year because he had, in fact, died last fall. He was felled by a heart attack. He wasn’t young, but didn’t strike me as particularly old, either, and so word of his passing came as something of a shock.
Add to that the passing last winter of Mickey Caulkins, a man in his 70s who split his time during most of his life between the Island and Cheboygan, and who had been something of a childhood hero to me -- racing a power boat up and down the waters of the straits when he was a teenager -- and this visit has started on a sobering note.
But things should pick up Saturday, when there is a pancake breakfast out at the East End's Coast Guard Chapel -- a converted boathouse that is used for weekly church services during the summer -- and then a softball game in the afternoon at what is known as the Bible Farm. That game will pit East End Islanders against West on a property that for a half-century was populated by John Bible and his wife Mildred along the road leading to the West End. The Bibles, now long gone, are something of a legend around here, and old John’s ghost is said to wander his farmland and the nearby north shore.
Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be up to playing in the game -- I am, after all, as old as the Island dirt (or at least feel that way some days) -- but it should be fun to watch. I’ll take my camera along.
Photos in text: The deer who came to eat at the Plaunt homestead gathering; and Char Plaunt McLaren, hostess at the gathering and daughter of the late Ray Plaunt, longtime ferry boat skipper.
Of progress and prose ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 16, 2017 -- Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED) executive director Judy Cherry says that the years 2019 and 2020 are likely to be "transformative years" in Schuyler County.
Since she has given me no reason to doubt her word or judgment since she arrived here three years ago from Delaware, I believe her.
It took something like 25 years before the idea for a waterfront hotel on Seneca Lake moved from idea to fruition, but we live in a much faster-moving society now, which I think long-term is leading us all (and not just Schuyler County) to the cliff's edge, but in the short-term can help us, at least locally, accomplish great things.
Cherry served this past week as part of a 21-judge panel witnessing presentations by representatives from Endicott, Ithaca and Watkins Glen vying for a $10 million prize from the state as part of the New York Downtown Revitalizaton Initiative (DRI) program awarded annually to one municipality from each of 10 regions. Last year Watkins Glen was a finalist in the Southern Tier, along with Ithaca and Elmira, with Elmira claiming the prize.
This year, Watkins Glen -- realizing that the key to winning is not just exceptional ideas and needs, but an exceptional presentation -- offered its in a virtual reality format, complete with goggles for the judges. That was an idea offered, says Cherry, by Schuyler County Administrator Tim O'Hearn, one of five members of the Watkins Glen presenting team at last week's judging session. Cherry, for her part, says she had nothing to do with the preparation (being a judge), and didn't see Watkins Glen's presentation any sooner than the other judges did.
Joining O'Hearn were County Planner Kristin Van Horn, Lakewood Vineyards' Ben Stamp, Watkins Glen International's Jon Beckman, and Watkins Glen Village Trustee Laurie DeNardo. Cherry deemed their presentation impressive, but said that no word on the selection will likely be forthcoming for weeks.
The presentation touted the potential of the Watkins Glen area -- all that it now offers and what more it could -- while focusing on needs like upgrading the waterfront and properties downtown near it, or on improving Clute Park. As the presentation in 2016 cited, the goal is to turn the "satisfactory" into something "stellar." And as with just about anything, what is needed is a shot in the arm called money.
Not that $10 million is what it used to be. But it can serve its purpose, both in procuring something of substantive achievement and, in the words of Cherry, in serving as "a trigger" for gaining other means toward the end -- the end being the advancement of Watkins Glen to a world-class destination. That is something it is inching toward, with the grand improvements at the State Park, with the appoaching addition of a new water treatment plant, with elimination of the old plant on the waterfront, and with all of the dominoes of advancement that other moves -- part of the Project Seneca vision -- entail.
Add in next year's repaving of Route 14/Franklin Street in the village and the accompanying addition of new sidewalks and various other tourist-friendly flourishes, and the ongoing efforts of the local Chamber of Commerce and other allliances to promote tourism .... and you have the makings of, well, transformation.
What would the $10 million bring? Hard to say specifically, since consultants hired by the state would descend on the village and help shape the spending decisions. There are many ways to spend the money, all of which, I imagine, will be closely examined by local and state representatives.
For her part, Cherry says she would like to see lights -- I suppose both decorative and fully functional -- installed up and down Franklin Street, adding clarity to the vision of Watkins Glen's future as it develops; adding charm to a village which, at its base (and despite some shaky infrastructure), already possesses a good deal of charm.
The future, lighting program or not, appears bright -- and would almost certainly be so with an influx of $10 million.
Let's hope that this time Watkins Glen is the judges' choice.
I like to promote the efforts of fellow local writers, most recently Molly Bilinski (Lady of Sherwood). Now, another is entering the realm of authordom: Barb Warner Deane, a Watkins Glen High School graduate (1979) who went on to Cornell (1983) and the University of Connecticut School of Law (1986). Then came a career that included paralegal work, bookstore ownership, book merchandising, travel writing, proofreading, writing consultancy, IT work, volunteerism ... and parenting. Now, with the nest empty, she is awaiting publication of two novels she has written.
The first is On The Homefront, which is being published by The Wild Rose Press, Inc. on Aug. 23. It is a story about three women in World War II who (the publicity states) "send their husbands, brothers, and friends off to war ... They lean on each other for support, aided by the family and friends who surround them, but when one decides to go to the front lines as part of the American Red Cross Clubmobile program, how can they cope with her absence -- and more telegrams reporting loss?"
The second, with a publication date yet to be determined, is Killing Her Softly, which Deane in an email described as "a romantic suspense" novel "that focuses on the issue of spousal abuse." She said a late-September release is possible, and that she is currently working on a sequel.
The books are set in fictional Finger Lakes towns, with the Softly sequel including Hector and Watkins Glen. (Barb says "I grew up in Watkins and, with my three sisters, still own cottages in Burdett, so I visit often although I live in the Chicago suburbs.")
She said she will be setting up a book signing at the Watkins Glen Public Library sometime in the fall, and wants to "make appearances at other local libraries, book stores, women's groups, etc."
Good luck, Barb.
As summer envelops us ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 11, 2017 -- First, a bit of verse:
I am no millennial
By age or attitude.
I’m more like a perennial
With many years imbued.
In fact, I have clear focuses
My yardstick is quadrennial,
I’ve weathered many POTUSes
En route to my centennial.
The point of that is simple. I have marked my years in fours, measured by the arrival of each election of a President of the United States.
When I was a child and young adult, I had an abiding interest in presidential history. I could rattle off the list of U.S. Presidents as easily as I could Mickey Mantle’s annual batting averages and home run totals. I could recite short biographies of each chief executive.
Only when I became more seasoned -- exposed to the workaday world and to a deeper understanding of history -- did I realize that we have, in fact, had some fairly ineffectual presidents. Some bad ones.
As we’ve moved from the 20th Century into the 21st, that realization has hardened with the accumulating years. I can’t think of a truly exceptional president since Ronald Reagan, which my friends who think me a Democrat probably find either funny or muddled thinking.
Anyway ... slowly, inexorably, I find myself slipping from a quadrennial perspective to something less finite, perhaps fitting considering I’m drawing ever closer to eternity.
And my dismay has at the same time -- which is to say across years -- expanded to include politicians of many stripes and importance. Most of my dismay is created by national figures, but local ones create their share of my angst, as well.
I include in that wide net figures both Democratic and Republican, not to mention Independent. And it extends from the zenith of Washington to towns and villages and, yes, school districts. For where votes are required for office, and the power therein given to appoint superintendents, then yes -- we are still talking politics.
But I will refrain from the temptation to wax negative about school superintendents past, for I am feeling optimistic. We have one I respect in Odessa, and another just entering the office in Watkins Glen -- and my first read on him has been positive.
So as I continue (hopefully) on my path to my first hundred years, I offer this thought:
Summer's here, and with it rest
From life’s wintry travails.
Come fall, the weather starts again
With all that it entails
There are some notable local occurrences between now and autumn, of course, such as the upcoming Wine Festival, and the Hector Fair and Italian-American Festival, not to mention the annual NASCAR race up at Watkins Glen International.
I will be missing most of those by going soon on vacation to Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac. I will be sharing a cottage there with my eldest brother and his wife, and spending time reading, watching the occasional video, hiking, and visiting with old friends.
In my absence, I would appreciate anyone with photos from such Schuyler events as those named above sending them along, so that I can continue to provide hometown news with visual accompaniment.
My thanks, meanwhile, to Sage Garrison and Amanda Pike for including me in their high school graduation parties. They were very enjoyable gatherings honoring a couple of special young women. Here’s wishing them well as they embark on their college careers.
Back to a better way ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 29, 2017 --The Island beckons, as it does every year at this time.
I'm talking about Bois Blanc Island, in the northern Michigan Straits of Mackinac. Sometimes I go there to simply recharge my depleted personal battery. Sometimes, as after a familial loss, I go there to repair my soul.
It serves as touchstone and as my fountain of hope.
I am a child of the 1950s and '60s. Accordingly, my perceptions of the world are largely affected by civility and heroism and rock 'n' roll.
I say civility, because the 1950s were, to my mind, very civil. Oh, there were many shortcomings, I'm sure, but everything seemed to move at a languid pace and one in which politeness prevailed -- even in politics, for we had a gentlemanly President named Ike and news each evening on TV from people we could trust.
I say heroism, for my first clear recollections of TV came from Disney's heroes of the Old West, in particular Davy Crockett. To this day, I stand in awe of Fess Parker and all he brought to the role of the Tennessee legend with the coonskin cap. And there were Disney's Elfego Baca, Texas John Slaughter and the Swamp Fox -- not to mention Zorro, the subject of a weekly show from 1957-59.
There were, I know, heroes of the big screen, too, but movies were not a regular staple of my life, and they were rare on TV, my main source of cultural intake. That box -- black and white until we entered the 1960s -- was a predominant social touchstone. We had newspapers, of course (remember them?), and magazines played a major role in our education, as well -- as did encyclopedias (remember them?). But TV was both new and vital.
I say rock 'n' roll was a dominant factor, too, for I was a product of an era that featured Elvis, and the Beatles and Stones, and all sorts of wonderful musical groups and individuals rising and falling in popularity. The Dave Clark Five and The Monkees were among my favorites, as were Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, as well as Neil Diamond.
Those last two played concerts at my college -- Albion College in the south central portion of Michigan. The Union Gap was a great studio band, but fairly awful in person. But Neil Diamond was a master showman.
I try not to hold against him -- and I'm fairly good at it -- the facts of the evening when he performed at Albion, whereby I was seated on the floor of the Kresge Gymnasium not far from the stage. The place was packed, with floor and balcony space jammed with Neil Diamond fans. Not long into his performance, Diamond spotted my date -- a cute blonde named Kathy who I was dating steadily -- and called her to the stage. This was typical of the entertainer, for he interacted well with his audiences.
But it turned out to be at my expense. Once he had Kathy up there, he was asking if it was okay with her boyfriend that he had selected her, and she just smiled her bright smile, giggled and said it was okay. And then Diamond, looking at me, said he wasn't sure; that I looked kind of upset and a bit dangerous.
"You think he might hurt me?" he asked, or words to that effect.
And with that, from the stands, came the loud voice of a friend named John, who called out: "Haeffner? Nah. he's a real weenie."
And the place erupted.
Now, that kind of thing stays with you. In time, while summering at my parents' cottage in northern Michigan, outside Gaylord, I was visited the same weekend by both my girlfriend, Kathy, and by John, and by chance my work hours left them with each other's company for the better part of their stay -- and she and I ended up breaking up before she departed.
Although it wasn't readily evident then or during the following school year, I suspected there was something between them, but I moved on and found someone else and got married while still in college -- and somewhere along the line, after college, those two did, in fact, marry one another. And ultimately divorced.
And somehow, in my mind, it all stemmed from that night when Neil Diamond performed.
So ... anyway, civility and heroism and rock 'n' roll were, and are, foundations of my psyche and of my code of honor, such as it is. I was dismayed to hear someone recently compare the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys, which to me is like comparing Tchaikovsky to Miley Cyrus. (Not that I dislike Cyrus; I'm just saying ...)
The point I'm reaching in a roundabout way is that today -- with the advent of the Internet and Social Media and with them a rudeness and crudeness personified by the fellow in the White House -- I look back on those days with greater fondness than I might. That is because what I embraced -- and there was plenty, from the food and shelter provided by a business-savvy father to a certainty that life was something to be enjoyed instead of (as an increasing number seem to espouse) endured -- seems to have dimmed in general.
We are in an age of increasing welfare and terrorism, of a split in the political world which -- while always present -- has widened, hardened and grown spikes, and of a tendency by everyone to not only avail themselves of the First Amendment right to free speech, but in too many cases to abuse it.
We could use a large dose of civility, and a rebirth of heroism, and a return to the sentiments of the early kings of rock 'n' roll -- from Don't Be Cruel, to I Want To Hold Your Hand, to Happy Together, to Stop! In the Name of Love, to Neil Diamond's America.
We need help, in other words.
It's not likely to come, though, so I'll follow my usual course and tend to my own spiritual needs with an annual trip later this summer to the Straits of Mackinac and Bois Blanc Island -- an hour north of that old Gaylord hangout where I used to summer as a teenager. My roots on Bois Blanc go deeper than in Gaylord, back to the early 1950s, for that was when my parents first took me there.
And little has changed in the intervening years. The Island still has dirt roads (though somewhat improved from the tracks of yesteryear) and square dances and many of the same faces that were there when I was a child. There is electricity now, and outhouses are a thing of the past, but the charm of the place is still of the '50s.
And there is, at the least, civility. When you are driving and another vehicle passes by, you wave.
And there were heroes, now passing into history. Ray Plaunt, the old ferry boat skipper I featured in two of my novels, moved on last year at the age of 95. Another man of the water, Mickey Caulkins, who used to run a powerful (and mesmerizing) speedboat off the Bois Blanc shoreline in the early morning hours when I was a child -- and who I also featured in my first novel -- was a recent addition to the Island obituaries.
Bois Blanc was not big on rock 'n' roll back in the day, except on whatever stations we could reach through a transistor radio, before electricity extended across the Straits from the mainland. But it has folk rock now in the person of a singer named Dan Reynolds, who has produced a couple of CDs and performs locally from time to time. Just Dan and his guitar. No fancy acoustics.
For the Island is a simple place; a simple existence.
It is the next best thing to going back in time, to a place and period where kindness and thoughtfulness reigned, and where it was not considered out of place to think highly of one another.
Call me old fashioned, but those are qualities I think we all could use about now.
Stunning, times five ...
The Odessa File editor and publisher is co-founder and co-sponsor (with WENY-TV) of the annual Top Drawer celebration of outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens in our region. Here, he ponders the success of this year's celebration and its aftermath.
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 14, 2017 -- The Top Drawer 24 celebration on June 5th was remarkable. I think it exceeded previous years (stellar themselves), but I'm still trying to figure out why.
That was the day of the big storm, which precipitated the closing of Rt. 14 between Montour Falls and Watkins Glen, the main route for folks heading north toward the site of the Top Drawer gathering, held each year at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
When I encountered that roadblock and was forced to take an alternate route to the site, I figured we might not have all of our honorees present, since half of them were coming up Rt. 14 from the south, down in Chemung County.
But they did make it, and the rain stopped long enough for a group photo outside the pavilion, and for the traditional outdoor presentation of Athlete of the Year awards. And then it rained some more, and in the shelter of the pavilion our speakers -- former Congressman Jim Gerlach, Elmira attorney Christina Sonsire and former Top Drawer honoree Matt Gill -- presented charged speeches, challenging this year's Top Drawer group to not just rest on their laurels, but to move forward in a positive and goal-oriented fashion.
I don't know why it all seemed even more amazing than ever. Maybe the atmosphere, charged as it was, added to the tone of the message. Maybe the evening, darkened even during daylight, sent its own message: Awards are nice, but you young adults have some serious work ahead if you are to add in a significant way to our society.
It was a night of muted light, but conversely one of spotlighted achievement. It was, like life, a mix of celebration and sober reflection.
It was rather stunning.
That is the operative word here: stunning. And I have, in the days since the Top Drawer party, found cause to apply it in five specific circumstances -- to five people who shared the glory of that evening.
Don't get me wrong. I think all of the honorees that night are remarkable -- each and every one. Their accomplishments -- athletic, academic and societal -- are, in sum, substantial. The enthusiasm they showed, almost universally, upon inclusion on the team was gratifying, as was that of the people they brought with them to share in the evening. (I loved the fact that one honoree brought 15 supporters.)
Anyway, as to the five circumstances, and the five people:
1. One of our speakers, former Congressman Jim Gerlach -- an old college classmate and football teammate of Top Drawer co-founder Craig Cheplick -- drove up from the Washington D.C. area just to address the honorees. And he couldn't stick around afterward, getting back in his car immediately for the return drive homeward. The fact that he thought so much of the ceremony -- which is, as Cheplick pointed out that night, a prestigious one, unlike anything else in the region and, possibly, in the country (or world) -- speaks volumes about our ongoing Top Drawer effort, now entering its 13th year. Gerlach went out of his way to come up here in what was obviously a busy time for him (he is president and chief executive officer of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee), and he did so not only willingly, but with great enthusiasm.
And it would not be excessive to say that Gerlach hit a home run with his speech -- a presentation whose easygoing style belied a tough message: Now that you've reached this pinnacle, honorees, the hard work of leading our country awaits you. And that comes from someone who knows, who has extensive government experience to back it up.
It was a significant effort, traveling up here as he did, and a spectacular speech.
2. Patrick Hazlitt had a good evening that night, taking home hardware as the Watkins Glen High School Male Athlete of the Year, as well as a medallion and certificates of achievement from State Senator Tom O'Mara, Assemblyman Phil Palmesano and Congressman Tom Reed for being named, for the second year, to the Top Drawer 24.
Hazlitt followed that up two days later with designation by The Odessa File as the Schuyler Spring Co-MVP, his second MVP designation this year after winning in the Fall for leading the WGHS boys cross country team to a state title. That marked the first time anyone has, in the 11-year history of The Odessa File MVP program, earned two in one year. It was his third such award overall, tying him with Shelby Olafson (2008, 2009 and 2010) and Matt Gill (2012, 2013 and 2014) for the most such honors.
Then Hazlitt went out the following weekend and won the Division 2 New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship in the 800 Meter Run, breaking his own school record in the process. First a cross country state title in the fall, and then this one. Amazing.
3. Amanda Pike was honored that night of the Top Drawer Party, too, both as a member of that exclusive team and as WGHS Female Athlete of the Year after leading her team's basketball team to its first-ever state title, a feat that earned her the State Class C Girls Basketball Player of the Year Award. And she had been an amazing, clutch performer on the school's volleyball team, which won the IAC Large Schools title in the fall.
After the Top Drawer party -- late that night -- she learned that her best friend, WGHS senior Ryan Pruitt, had died that evening. And so, in a horrible turn of events, she went from a very high high to the lowest of lows -- from a dream to a nightmare.
It is in times like this that a person's character can be unveiled, and if I had had any doubts about Pike (I didn't), she would have put them to rest with her response -- a very public display of the love she held for her dear friend, expressed days later at a microphone in front of hundreds of people gathered at the WGHS football field to remember Pruitt, himself an outstanding Watkins Glen athlete.
Manders, as Pike is known, gathered herself for this moment under a very bright sun, and shone just as brightly with her memories of Ryan, the high regard in which she held him, and the degree to which she will miss him ... and never forget him. She cried near the end, as most of us did.
Thank you, Manders.
4. Emily Lavarnway was honored at the Top Drawer Party, too -- one of two South Seneca High School athletes named to the team (the other being Skylar Shaulis). Lavarnway was, along with Shaulis, on the South Seneca basketball team that made it to the Final Four this year after winning the Class C title the year before. She was also about to try to repeat as State Champion in the Pentathlon, a competition in which an athlete faces five events, accumulating points from each. She had won the Division 2 title last year.
And repeat she did this past weekend, capping off her performance with a personal best of 2:19.17 in the 800 Meter Run. But that wasn't all. She didn't win just the Division 2 crown, but the Federation title, as well, meaning she outscored Large School and Catholic school and all school comers. In other words, she earned the biggest of the state's Pentathlon prizes.
I smile when I think of that, and when I think of her on that Top Drawer night -- for she was smiling a lot, enjoying the moment. And then she went out days later and created a new moment with the title of "overall state champion" attached.
5. Elmira attorney Christina Sonsire was another of that evening's speakers, and she gave a rip-roaring talk that challenged the honorees to carry this honor forward to meaningful lives. It was impressive; the first time I'd heard her present a speech, and one that left me wanting to learn more about her -- especially when she told me afterward that she was seriously considering running for Congress.
I had that chance, to learn more, when she beckoned the media to Corning City Court on Tuesday -- eight days after Top Drawer -- to a case involving a sexual abuse charge against a Corning chiropractor named Jeremiah Wright that was being reduced to a non-sexual violation, disorderly conduct. And there was an interesting maneuver in there by the court -- dismissing the first charge before applying the second, rather than simply reducing it. That meant the woman who had issued the complaint -- and now wanted to go on the record in court with a statement about the effect of the incident on her life -- had "no standing" in the case. (She also wanted on record the reluctance shown by the Steuben County DA's office to include her in the decision-making process, which is to say she was basically frozen out).
Sonsire represents this woman, and other women who have been subjected to sexual assault of varying degrees, and she talked passionately in a news conference outside after the court session -- talked about how this was a sadder day than most for victims of such crimes. But at the same time she praised not only the one woman, named Wendi Hammond, but another woman on hand from another matter, a sexual assault case brought against a health-care worker that had been dismissed without so much as a courtesy phone call from the DA's office to let the woman know that her horrible experience was being treated like so much jetsam. It was disposable.
Alas ... now, after her news conference -- where she expressed the hope that the bravery of the women at her side would inspire others who are sexually abused to come forward to tell their stories, too, despite the seeming indifference of the power elite -- Sonsire told me she had decided not to run for Congress, after all. She has two young daughters, and she is what she calls "a hands-on mom" who would find it difficult to take time away from them to campaign and serve at such a time-consuming level. Understandable, and even laudable.
But I couldn't help but think, also, what a shame it was. We need passion in Congress -- the kind that Christina Sonsire brings to her job, and brought to sports back when she was earning eventual Hall of Fame status on the high school, county and Georgetown University fronts for her soccer exploits.
While I admired her motherly decision at this juncture in her life, two words popped into my head that day, outside the courtroom.
They went like this:
Congressman Tom Reed makes a point in front of a crowd Saturday in Trumansburg.
At the end of the vortex ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 3, 2017 -- There was a moment, as I shook Congressman Tom Reed's hand, when I saw a pinched look on his face and a flicker in his eyes that looked suspiciously like pain. He had gone serious, his previously ingratiating grin evaporated.
He had just completed a town hall meeting -- this one Saturday morning at the Trumansburg Fire Hall, where a room that held but 180 people was full long before Reed's arrival. A crowd of roughly the same size, 180, built outside, milling around in the fire department parking lot and on an adjoining lawn.
These town hall meetings, when Reed started in Congress some years ago, were placid affairs that drew anywhere from a half-dozen to two dozen people. The questions were friendly, inquisitive. Anger was a stranger.
But now, in this age of Trump, when Republicans like Reed dominate the field of play in Washington and generally play with a team mentality -- and when the President has set the tone with often rude behavior -- town hall meetings have devolved to the same.
People are upset, and not shy about letting Reed know it. Such was the case Saturday, as the Trumansburg crowd gathered, awaiting his arrival. There was some grumbling about the site -- one woman said the school, a larger venue, had been offered and refused; a man questioned why the fire bays weren't emptied of trucks and used to house the crowd, as fire halls have been for town hall meetings elsewhere. And several suggested that this was how Reed wanted it: a small venue, to cut down the friction.
I wasn't buying that, not when the outdoor crowd wasn't going anywhere. Reed would, I suspected, in effect run the gauntlet as he crossed the parking lot to the fire hall's front door. Fire officials were there preventing further access beyond him and his staff; the community room being used was at its capacity.
When Reed arrived, walking up the roadway from down near the downtown and then onto the parking area and through the crowd, few seemed to recognize him. He was about halfway across when someone yelled: "Tom Reed is in the house!" -- which I found mildly amusing, for when he is in Washington, Tom Reed is indeed in the House.
His approach was interrupted only briefly by a couple of people, one of them clearly a supporter, shaking his hand, before he disappeared inside. But his words would not be hidden, for a sound system had been set up outside so that what was going on indoors could be shared by the scores in the parking lot.
And so it proceeded, with Reed, as he has at other recent gatherings, espousing his belief in the small-government philosophy of the GOP; defending his role in approving the most recent health care bill; supporting the President's decision to leave the Paris Accord, defending the need to restructure the whole Medicaid mess; listening to a mother afraid that her adopted children, Special Ed students with special needs, might be left in the cold by Trumpcare; and responding, time and again, to critical comments or shouts from the crowd, both inside and out, with a favorite expression: "I appreciate that; I appreciate that."
One question sounded like it caught him off-guard. I say "sounded" because I was among the outdoor crowd, blocked at the door from entering.
"Does Donald Trump scare you?" a woman asked him. This was met by loud and extended cheering from the crowd outside; I don't know about those inside.
Reed hemmed a bit, referring to the question as "very simple" in form but with something behind it. "Obviously there's a lot of fear" there, he suggested.
Then he responded a bit more directly, although subsequent cries suggested he was dodging: "No, he does not," Reed said. "I believe in the American people and the Democratic process ... I trust our Constitution" with its checks and balances "and I trust this." (At this point I imagine he waved his arm outward, toward the crowd on hand.) "Otherwise I wouldn't be showing up to these."
Inherent in there, it seemed, was a suggestion that we need those checks and balances, our Constitution and a responsive electorate like those on hand Saturday to combat the excesses of an administration such as that of Trump. But Reed is, regarding Trump, rather circumspect, given to toeing most of the party line, even when a majority of the voices are aligned against him, as they were on this day.
(Signs on hand were plentiful, and with one exception opposed to Reed or Trump or their policies. They read "Save the Planet," "I Stand With Planned Parenthood," "Make Earth Great Again," "Dump Trump," and "Breast Cancer Survivor Betrayed by Reed & the GOP." And others. The one sign clearly in Reed's camp read "Proud to Stand with Nicaragua & Syria Against Paris Accord.")
But it wasn't just signs that expressed displeasure. Really, nothing much of what Reed said escaped verbal volleys from the crowd, and when he emerged from the fire hall near the end, microphone in hand, to confront the (mostly) angry hordes outside, he was continually challenged for his GOP positions -- what some vocal attendees saw as his tendency to favor the rich and abandon his constituents in need.
Now, I say all of this with the caveat that I do not support most of the Republican actions of late, nor those of Reed, since he votes in lockstep with the GOP. In fairness, though, he seems much more environmentally disposed than the average Trumpian, and in fact came out in favor of the Paris Accord. Even so, he backed Trump's move to leave it.
"By entering this agreement unilaterally," Reed said, "President Obama created this situation" -- one in which President Trump could unilaterally withdraw. That was met with some hooting, to which he replied: "That's okay. I'm just telling facts here." Reed added that in any future such agreement, he hoped that Congress "and the American people" would be consulted before the U.S. committed itself.
Reed referenced again Saturday -- as he has at gathering after gathering -- his total constituency of 717,000 souls and the fact that many of them think differently from those people at town hall meetings. He was challenged about it this time by a woman who asked if he has ever polled his constituents to get a sense of where the majority stands.
His response: "I don't go by polls." Instead, he said, he bases his decisions "on information. Reflecting polls is not the way to govern." That, predictably, did not go over well with the folks on hand, most of whom would love to be polled.
Not much went over well, in fact, and I imagine the campaign arm of Reed's operation -- kept separate by law from his governing arm -- might suggest (as it has in the past) that the crowd was an organized leftist effort. It didn't look like it; it was a mix of young and old, but I noticed a preponderance of elderly couples wandering around looking worried. There might have been some professional agitators in there, but I'm guessing the heavy majority weren't.
Anyway, after getting verbally beaten up for more than an hour, and maintaining an either beatific look or what seemed like a ready smile, Reed had to leave, and was making his way through the crowd in the parking lot when he encountered me. We have a history, but not a significant one; I've attended some of his town hall meetings over the years, and spoken to him one on one as a reporter, and in one case -- where I criticized him for an overly negative campaign against a woman he likely would have beaten without even trying -- as a bit of an analyst. But we've always gotten along.
As he approached me Saturday I took a step to the right, into his path, and he slowed, and I stuck out my hand and said a perfunctory "Good to see you again, Tom," and he grabbed my hand. His grip is not normally a daunting one, but this time he squeezed very hard, as though (I thought) he were grabbing for a swinging rope that might take him from above an abyss to solid land atop the nearest cliff face.
And while I can't say for sure what he might have been thinking, his look was not only serious, but clenched -- as though he were grinding his teeth. And his eyes had gone somehow dark. It was a moment fraught with potential revelation, and I present it here as such -- not necessarily as a window to the soul.
It was but a moment.
But as they go, it was telling to me. And what it was telling me was this: while I don't think Tom Reed shows enough independence in a world of demanding political leadership, he has unusual nerve when it comes to facing off against a contentious crowd. And it may be taking its toll.
God knows it would wear me down.
Addendum: Reed attended three other town hall meetings that day, the last in Erin, where the crowd was much smaller -- only about 70 people, but they too were angry. The meeting started with some calm exchanges, but before long there were shouts and jeers and a clear sheen of anger, seemingly hardening like varnish in a hurry. The whole thing -- fueled by talk of Trumpcare -- was threatening to turn into something of a melee when an elderly gentleman who said he lived in Corning, near Reed -- but didn't always agree with the Congressman's politics -- admonished the crowd.
"The hatred in this room is insulting," he said from the front row, turning to face the audience. "There can be no reasonable discussion while you're yelling and interrupting. You don't need to agree" with Reed, "you simply need not to interrupt." He then turned his attention to Reed, criticizing the Trump administration's clearly anti-science position, whereby "99% of scientists say there's a problem that we need to act on right away, and the President says no, we don't need to. I don't understand."
Indeed, the session was not without seemingly deep chasms between some audience members and the Congressman on health care, the budget and other issues. A couple of questions were deliberately contentious, seemingly aimed at getting a rise from him. But the passion of the early going had dissipated by the end, when Reed's associates terminated the proceeding at the appointed hour.
The mood in the room, as the attendees exited while Reed remained a few minutes, chatting with a couple of them, was one of calm.
Nonetheless, a bad taste lingered.
An elderly man and woman, upon leaving the building, were shaking their heads.
"Well, that was unpleasant," said the woman.
And the man nodded.
A dark mood, a light mood
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 12, 2017 -- I was going to use this opportunity to criticize the Watkins Glen School Board for its secrecy in selecting the school district's next superintendent.
I was going to quote a school official who said "we're transparent here. There's nothing hidden from the public." She was discussing the budget, so I hope she was referring strictly to that. Because when it comes to picking Watkins Glen superintendents, transparency is forgotten.
I was going to quote a district resident who said -- in reference to the blackout the board adopted during the superintendent selection process -- "Everybody knows it's wrong ... except the board."
I was going to call the blackout "as black as a walk on a moonless, starless night along a back-country road." I was feeling puckish with that one.
I was also going to refer to "an absence of light -- bright, informing, democratic light" that straighforwardnesss would have provided. For we have no idea who the board interviewed or considered, other than its final choice.
And I was going to say that I -- along with most people, I think -- wish the next superintendent, Gregory Kelahan, well in his tenure, even as we scratch our heads wondering what, exactly, he thinks, feels and believes.
But I decided not to publish that very long column. I'm in too good a mood.
And that good mood was brought on by a book.
Yes, a book. I was provided an advance copy of Lady of Sherwood, Molly Bilinski's Robin Hood-based young-adult novel that has Robin, this time around, as a female.
I love the Robin Hood tale, and most of the Robin Hood movies and the TV show back in the 1950s. I even have some Robin Hood trading cards from back then.
So I started reading the book with an anticipation of something enjoyable awaiting me ... and I haven't been disappointed.
I'm not going to review it, because that tends to bring out the pompous in me, but I will say that thus far -- and I am two-thirds through the book -- my anticipation has been amply rewarded.
Good golly, Molly. Well done. It's a genius concept, so good that I might steal it: a female Davy Crockett, perhaps, or a female King Arthur. I'm kidding, but I will say this: Molly's success is inspiring, and I'm thinking more and more about spending my summer weeks on Bois Blanc Island in Michigan working on a book.
Actually, I'm thinking about a murder mystery set in a small village by a lake. Maybe with real-life characters. I haven't picked out a victim yet.
But writing a book is hard work. So we'll see if the inspiration lasts that long.
Molly, by the way, will be selling and signing copies of her book at the Watkins Glen Public Library from 7-9 p.m. on Friday, May 19, and from 10:30 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturday, June 17 at the Dutton S. Peterson Library in Odessa.
I'm also in a good mood because we -- those involved in the Top Drawer 24 program -- have finalized our list of honorees to be feted on June 5 at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. They will be notified the week after next. (The above-mentioned Molly Bilinski was on the Top Drawer team in her senior year in high school, in 2008.)
Then will come a story about each honoree, and then the party, and then a story about the party. The Top Drawer program is now in its 12th year.
Schools involved in the program include Watkins Glen, Odessa-Montour, Trumansburg, South Seneca, Horseheads, Notre Dame, Elmira, Elmira Heights, Spencer-Van Etten and Twin Tiers Baptist.
Honors that night will also include a Lifetime Achievement Award for the great WGHS swim coach, Kate LaMoreaux; the Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award for a Schuyler County athlete; and four Athlete of the Year Awards -- two male and two female -- selected by this website and presented by E.C. Cooper Insurance. The Athlete of the Year awards will honor deserving students at both the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour High Schools.
And I'm in a good mood because I will be visiting my granddaughter Marley soon -- only the second time I will have seen her in person. Distance (Asheville, North Carolina) precludes more frequent visits.
Anyway, she's seven months old now.
How quickly they grow.
Stars and a coaching legend
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 25, 2017 -- So there I was, cleaning a room, inspired by the advent of spring. Tucked in a corner next to a buffet was a slender box, seated on its side, long forgotten.
"What the heck is this?" I muttered, pulling it free of its shadows, and peered inside. It looked like some sort of posters were in there; maybe 10 or 12. I pulled the top one out, and smiled. These were the remaining specimens from a project six years ago in which I, along with former Watkins Glen High School athletic director Craig Cheplick and some committee members, came up with a Decade of Stars team -- the outstanding athletes from WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School from 2001-2011.
I hadn't thought of that team in awhile, which is surprising considering how much thought, work and out-of-pocket money went into it. The posters were designed by a former WGHS student, Nick Phoenix, who was twice a member of the Top Drawer 24 team that Chep and I devised a dozen years ago, and which is still going strong. The latest Top Drawer version, the 2016-17 one, will be unveiled in May and celebrated at the State Park pavilion on June 5th.
The athletes pictured on the Decade of Stars poster were drawn by one of my sons, Jon Haeffner, an accomplished artist and caricaturist. The paper selected was thick stock, so it has held up well over the years. The teams -- three divisions -- are pictured on the left side, with the Outstanding Boys Team, Outstanding Girls Team and Outstanding Coach on the right. Those honors went to The Wild Bunch of WGHS, a boys basketball team in 2005-06 that went unbeaten in the regular season; the O-M girls basketball Class D state championship squad of 2000-01; and O-M Coach Burton Brewster, longtime soccer and track mentor.
The first thing I spotted on the poster, actually, was the image of Alicia Learn drawn by my son, located in the second row, on the right. I guess it jumped out because Alicia -- who during her high school playing days was on a Section IV championship team and who went on to a successful basketball career at the University of Albany -- has been in the news lately as the coach of the three-time sectional champion and, now, state champion WGHS girls basketball team.
She was on the poster in the topmost division, called the Solar Division. This was devised to honor Schuyler County standouts who went on to exceptional college careers. Others chosen for that division included Watkins Glen's Courtney Warren, Olivia Coffey, Molly Schamel, Todd Lincoln, Julie Miller, Phil Brown, and Cathy Brown. The lone representative from O-M was Stefanie Collins, who led that 2000-01 basketball title team.
The Lunar Division was created for outstanding high school athletes who also had solid college careers. Admittedly, there was sometimes a fine line between Solar and Lunar, much discussed in the poster development stage. (As described back then, "On any given night, it could be argued, the Lunar athletes could eclipse the Solar, much as the moon can eclipse the sun.") Here we find O-M's Sally Wilcox, Katie Taber, Matt Shutter, Katey Cheplick, and twins Rebecca and Whitney Ayers; and Watkins Glen's Megan Matthews, Jaclyn Conklin, Michelle Thorpe, Sophie Peters, Jennifer Conklin, Molly Murphy, and Jonathon Fazzary. (Note: Katey Cheplick played her senior year at Watkins Glen.)
The Comet Division was for outstanding high school athletes who either hadn't gone to college or the committee decided hadn't quite excelled there at the Lunar level. Among them was a Watkins Glen athlete who was still in high school (heading into 12th grade) but considered so good that she belonged on the poster despite a then-incomplete WGHS career. That was Taylor Chaffee, an outstanding basketball and softball player who went on to a college career in softball at Binghamton University. Two others were Haleigh Wixson, who had just finished high school and was headed to a stellar swim career at SUNY Geneseo, and Michelle Melanson, just out of high school and heading off to play basketball at Nazareth College. Other members were O-M's Sparky Gardner, Sherry Benedict, Dan Stephens, Bobby Potter and Michele Kenney; and Watkins Glen's Lukas Buckman, Shelby Olafson and Brad Hrynko.
The August 16, 2011 article unveiling the team is still out there in cyberspace. To see it, click here.
As interesting as I found all of that, I couldn't help but think at the same time of the Top Drawer 24, an annual team of outstanding scholar-athlete-citizens which started with just WGHS and O-M students, and has over the years, under the guidance of Cheplick, expanded to include Trumansburg, Chemung County schools, and one district to the north, which is to say South Seneca.
A number of the Decade of Stars honorees were also members of the Top Drawer 24, although many pre-dated the Top Drawer program, which we started in 2006. Among those honored in both places were Courtney Warren, Katie Taber, Jaclyn Conklin, Katey Cheplick, Michelle Thorpe, Sophie Peters, Molly Murphy, Jonathon Fazzary, Taylor Chaffee, Sherry Benedict, Michelle Melanson, Dan Stephens, Shelby Olafson, Haleigh Wixson and Michele Kenney.
There have been a good many outstanding student-athletes passing through the hallways here in Schuyler County, and I have been blessed to meet and cover many of them. Some who graduated years ago have returned to work here, and some turn up from time to time, mostly around Christmas, while others I see only in the prism of memory.
But for me, the one that stands out -- not because I covered her exploits in her playing days, but for symbolic reasons -- is the aforementioned Alicia Learn. Watkins Glen girls basketball has four sectional titles to its credit, and she has had a hand in all of them -- once as a player and three times as coach. And most amazing was the last because it led to a state championship won in improbable style, her charges coming back to win after trailing by 16 points in the title game with less than seven minutes to play. She is at the forefront of both the playing and coaching fraternities.
Having said that, I'm guessing that if she stays with the coaching, she will eventually amass a record that will lead her to a Lifetime Achievement Award, much like the one bestowed annually by the Top Drawer committee. But not yet; not yet.
This will be the third year in which such an honoree has been selected, in fact. The first two were Horseheads' Patti Perone, a volleyball coach of extraordinary achievement; and Notre Dame's Mike D'Aloisio, who has mentored kids to championships over the years in football, basketball and golf.
This year's Lifetime Achievement Award winner
This year the honoree is someone I think almost everyone in Schuyler County knows and respects, and that's Kate LaMoreaux, who taught and coached swimming in Watkins Glen for many years, and still in retirement serves as a swim official at many meets. I recall taking my boys, Jon and Dave, to her swim classes at the old WGHS pool when they were wee lads, but I'm sure she taught more receptive students.
An example would be the Warren girls, Kim, Michelle and Courtney, who swam for Kate on her high school teams. I covered the latter two in my early years running this website. Both had impressive high school swim careers, and Courtney -- who a quick look at available records shows was winning a sectional crown in the Backstroke as early as 2000, in the 7th grade -- went on to a Patriot League MVP crown while swimming for Bucknell University.
(That same school year, 2000-01, another of LaMoreaux's charges, the aforementioned Cathy Brown of the Decade of Stars, was a senior winning Section IV titles in the 200 Individual Medley and the 100 Freestyle, and was on the winning 200 Freestyle Relay team with Courtney Warren, Teresa LaFace and Colleen Scott. Michelle Warren, then in 8th grade, won the 200 Freestyle sectional crown, while a trio of Senecas also topped the sectional diving competition -- sophomore Lane Van Emrik finishing first, freshman Denise Horein second and sophomore Lauren Wood third.)
Kate always seemed to have a great girls swim team, capturing numerous Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Section IV championships and winning more than 100 dual meets in a row at the end of her coaching career. She was even featured in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd for her coaching prowess.
Kate spoke at our Top Drawer celebration at the State Park Pavilion in 2010, telling the honorees that while they had had a lot of help from parents, coaches, teachers, siblings and the community in general (which financially backs the sports programs), they had achieved special things -- things that were anything but normal.
"But who wants to be normal?" she asked. "Your normal classmates are not here to be honored; you are."
I present here a synopsis of Kate LaMoreaux, as told in a story that year, 2010, about the Top Drawer speakers in advance of the ceremony:
Kate LaMoreaux (is) a legendary sports coach who was featured
in the Faces in the Crowd section of Sports Illustrated in January
2003 for her remarkable record as girls swim coach at Watkins Glen High
School, where she teaches English. She had, at the time of that national
publicity, led the WGHS girls squads to 109 consecutive dual-meet victories
-- "a streak," the magazine noted, "that goes back to the
middle of the 1994 season." The team, the magazine added, "has
won league and sectional titles every year since 1995."
A graduate of SUNY Cortland in 1970 and recipient of a Masters in Education
from Elmira College, she served as the Watkins Glen girls varsity swim coach from 1985
to 2002. Her career as varsity coach resulted in an overall record of
231 wins, 17 losses, and one tie. Her teams won nine league and 10 sectional
championships, and for seven years they were ranked the #1 Class C swim
team in New York State. Her coaching career ended with those 109 consecutive
wins. These accomplishments resulted in her election to the Watkins Glen
High School Sports Hall of Fame and the Section IV Hall of Fame. She continues
to "keep her feet wet" as a certified New York State Swim
A Red Cross Water Safety Instructor since 1968, she has annually taught
developmental swim classes to infants, children, teens, adults and senior
citizens. She also directed the Watkins Glen Summer Swim Program for many
years, starting in 1973. Among the memorable stories relating to her was
one in which a former summer swim student survived in the water off the
coast of Indonesia for 17 hours after her ship sank -- and the woman credited
Kate for helping her to help herself by teaching her how to turn her pants
into a flotation device.
“I consider myself blessed by the wonderful students and athletes
that have enriched my life during my career," Kate says. "As
they have grown up, many have continued our tradition of team as extended
family. I love 'my girls' and I’m so proud of the women they have
become. It’s a funny thing about giving … the more you give
of yourself to others, the more you receive in return."
Kate retired from the teaching profession at the end of that 2009-10 school year. But she has kept busy as a swim official and by playing the dulcimer at many events around the area.
Here's to you, Kate. You are one of a kind.
And I mean that in a very, very good way.
An action seeking millions ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 13, 2017 -- For those who might have been wondering just how much money is being sought in the Kristina Hansen lawsuit against the Watkins Glen School District and the Village of Watkins Glen, the answer is ... substantial.
It’s in the millions, in fact -- the best information seems to be $4 million total -- but the final amount is entirely up to a jury, should it reach that point in federal court, where it now resides. Suing, of course, is one thing; convincing a jury is another.
I raise this lawsuit because, in my last column, I touched upon it but mentioned that I had come up empty as far as damages sought. Since then, I have obtained the 20-page complaint filed in federal court in Rochester by Hansen’s attorney, Jacob McNamara of the law firm of Schlather, Stumbar, Parks and Salk of Ithaca.
The complaint goes over the facts of the case, from Hansen’s expulsion from the school campus to her arrests twice on the premises, once when she tried to attend a School Board meeting and the other when she was watching a tennis match. Both arrests were -- the complaint points out -- at the behest of Superintendent Tom Phillips, who had decided she was persona non grata on campus without his permission.
The complaint reviews the facts of the convoluted case in great detail, and lists the defendants: the school district; Phillips “individually and as superintendent”; former WGHS athletic manager Erich Kramer; high school principal Kai D’Alleva; John and or Jane Does (in case more defendants are unearthed); the Village of Watkins Glen; the village police department; and three officers in that department involved in the Hansen arrests, Isaac Marmor, Jamie Coleman and Jordan Walrath. Marmor and Coleman, however, are being sued for just $1 each.
There are 10 different “causes of action” in the complaint, each targeting a person or aspect of the case. An example: in the first one, against Phillips, the defendant -- whose long run as superintendent ends with the current school year -- is accused of having “deprived plaintiff of her federal and state rights.” There are many more such expressions in the various causes. The first and fifth ones are against Phillips; the second against the school district; the third, fourth and sixth against Phillips, Kramer, D'Alleva and John or Jane Does; the seventh, eighth and ninth against Officer Walrath; and the tenth against Officers Marmor and Coleman.
Each cause of action asks for anywhere from $1 million to $3 million, with the exception of the last one, regarding officers Marmor and Coleman -- which notes that the plaintiff thought both men acted “in ignorance of the law” but “in good faith.”
Because millions of dollars -- three here and three there, and one here and one there -- add up, I asked the attorney, McNamara, about it in an email:
“Not being well versed in the legal world, I am confused by the various dollar amounts. Is each amount being sought in each Cause of Action separate from one another?
"In other words, is the amount being sought in damages determined by adding each amount to the other? So, for instance, is a $3 million judgment being sought against Mr. Phillips in total? Or are there several different $3 million judgments, added together?"
McNamara responded as follows:
“Calculating damages in this type of case is difficult, and therefore left to the good judgment of the jury. However, Ms. Hansen is not seeking anything more than a total of $3 million from Superintendent Phillips and the school district.”
Apparently -- with that reasoning -- she is not looking for more than a maximum of $1 million from the village, the amount mentioned in each of three different causes of action involving Officer Walrath.
So ... the simplest (and safest) answers to “How much is being sought?” are these: a lot (though not, I suppose, when compared to what United Airlines might be facing) or, again, millions.
The whole court case, though, will take a long time to reach fruition ... if it goes the distance. There will be arbitration beforehand -- apparently standard -- and there is always the possibility of a settlement between Hansen’s attorney and whatever insurance company or companies represent the various defendants.
It all could take two years, McNamara confirmed -- if it goes to a jury trial.
If it reaches that far, well ... that would be interesting to watch.
The book signing at the Watkins Glen Public Library for Molly Bilinski's novel "Lady of Sherwood" -- about a female Robin Hood -- has been delayed from April 26 to an as-yet-undecided date. The print publication date has moved from April 24 to May 15, although the digital copy (ebook) will be available on April 24.
Molly, a Watkins Glen High School grad, indicates that the cause of the delay is a good thing: "a bigger first print run than we thought, and the publisher wanted to use a different printer."
It all sounds great.
And yes, worth waiting for.
Rolling the dice, and praying
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 4, 2017 -- I imagine a School Board's search for a superintendent of schools is a tricky thing.
You go through a number of applicants, perhaps winnowing the pool down to a specific skill set -- say only sitting superintendents. No principals allowed this time around. Or maybe some other skill set: a long teaching background, or perhaps a background as the CEO of a business.
Anyway, then you have the resumes to go through, and interviews with the applicants, and contact with various of his or her co-workers or other School Boards. If you are a place like Odessa-Montour, you employ a citizens' committee to interview the final three candidates and grade them on a point basis. Or you have the teachers' union interview them. Or both.
If you are like some districts, you hold a public gathering so that the finalists can answer questions from an audience of residents the final selectee will be serving -- or should be serving. (I say should because too often autocracy takes hold and a superintendent becomes isolated and forgets his or her intended role.)
And then, after all of the interviews and inquiries, the School Board seeking the new superintendent has to pull the trigger, so to speak, and hope for the best. Too often, it turns out that the proverbial barrel was pointing at the collective School Board's head, leaving a big hole of regret.
Now, I have no idea where, exactly, the Watkins Glen School Board stands in its search for a superintendent to succeed the retiring Tom Phillips. The process has gone fairly dark since an initial outburst of optimism and of community and teacher involvement seeking a feeling for the kind of leader that people might prefer. I've asked around, and have come up with no specific names.
School Board President Kelly McCarthy touched on the search briefly Monday night, after a board meeting. She said the search process has winnowed the field down to "a handful" of candidates, which I suppose could mean anywhere from one to five, fingers and thumb being my guiding light on the subject. (Parenthetically, "handful" can also mean a person who is "difficult to deal with or control," though I doubt she was referring to that.)
The search has indeed gone dark, with no further public input. I had a sense that transparency would rule the day on this thing, but it isn't, and that, says McCarthy, is because of "confidentiality issues" involving candidates who don't want their names out there being publicized while they are job hunting. I'm guessing they don't want the folks back at the home office knowing that they might be bolting, though that's hard to fathom in this day and age of instant and massive communication.
Will we be given notice soon of the School Board's selection?
Maybe soon, perhaps at the next regular board meeting, board member Kristin Hazlitt suggested, and McCarthy agreed.
"Yes, we might have a big announcement," she said.
Okay, but while we're waiting, here's a cautionary tale involving a sitting superintendent seeking another position, and how the investigatory stage of a search is so important.
There was an article a few days ago in the Ithaca Journal concerning a candidate for the superintendency of another school district in our area who had suddenly withdrawn his name -- "to take another position," the story said.
That got my attention -- not his name, for I had not yet (and still haven't) heard it mentioned aloud by anyone locally, but because of the circumstance: a superintendent candidate who turned down a job in the area for another one. (I floated his name to McCarthy after Monday's board session, but only got a smile and a "we aren't discussing candidates.")
This man in question is from the North Country of New York -- a superintendent of long standing who has clearly been putting himself out there for a new experience. After reading that article, I wondered if he had shown up on the Watkins Glen radar. I did some checking on the guy and found he had also been interviewing at another district -- in the northeastern corner of the state. We'll call it District B. He had gone through two levels of interviews there before the School Board suddenly pulled the plug on him and two other people, and was starting over. News reports failed to say if the District B board instigated that decision, or if the candidates might have done so by expressing a growing disinterest in the job. There was no mention in the District B story of "another position."
There was, however, a resume on each candidate from that interview process, and some quotes that showed the guy in question appeared pretty reasonable -- portraying himself as a team player, above all. His resume showed his current superintendency, and one he held before that, and a principalship he held before that, and a role, once upon a time, as a Division 1 college lacrosse coach.
"Hmmmm," I thought when I saw that, since the president of the Watkins Glen School Board, McCarthy, has been a strong proponent of -- and moving force behind -- development of a lacrosse program at Watkins Glen High School.
Anyway ... I continued on, looking at the website of the guy's own school district to see if I could glean anything there. But nope, no mention of him looking elsewhere, nothing in recent School Board meeting minutes. So I tried the Watertown Daily Times, a newspaper where I used to work. I thought it might have had something. My initial foray came up empty, but a secondary one turned up an article from about a year ago that did, indeed, involve the man in question ... and it was a little unsettling.
Turns out that a couple in his district were upset with what they considered some racial slurs being slung at a soccer event by a fan of the opposing team. The opposing school denied the accusation. It escalated from there, with the couple complaining that a district resident was abusive toward players at home basketball games, and should be reported to the state. The administration saw otherwise, and when the couple tried to discuss the matter further with the sitting superintendent -- the man whose trail I was dogging -- the following occurred, according to the newspaper:
"The couple alleges that (the superintendent) told them that if they 'made any further complaints regarding the issue, or (about) the (soccer) issue, neither would ever come to (the school) and watch their boys play as he would ban them from the building.'" The superintendent "allegedly said 'he had the full backing of the Board' on the matter."
The article detailed a notice of claim filed by the couple, contending they were the victims of "a series of malicious acts" following their complaints. The notice was a precursor to a possible lawsuit in which they wanted $10 million.
The "malicious acts" presumably included the superintendent's warning along with subsequent issues where their son was thrown off of the basketball team and they were indeed banned from school grounds, including from a park where they liked to walk their dog.
Now granted, this story was all very one-sided -- the superintendent was hamstrung from responding by legal niceties -- and I could find nothing that showed the couple followed through with their lawsuit; maybe their case lacked judicial merit. But it was disquieting, and rang a bell of memory -- brought to mind an unfortunate, ongoing chapter: a lawsuit involving the Watkins Glen School District that is still hanging in the air.
That's the one in which Kristina Hansen is in the process of suing the Watkins district and the superintendent and the Village of Watkins Glen and its police department and three of that department's officers involved in two incidents in which Hansen -- after being banned by the superintendent from entering the school grounds without his express permission -- was arrested on that selfsame property. The village justice, Connie Fern Miller, later came down heavily on Hansen's side, saying the superintendent, Phillips, had exceeded his authority and violated Hansen's civil rights by ordering the arrests.
I checked around on that case, too, and while nobody seemed to be talking -- these things are usually taken care of by insurance companies behind closed doors, where settlements are reached -- I did see that the case has been filed in federal court: the Second Circuit Court of the New York Western District. It lists the defendants: the school district, the superintendent, a principal and another employee involved in the second arrest (which took place beside a school tennis court, where a match was underway), the village, the police and the three officers.
That was filed on March 9th, but where it goes from there is unclear. The amount being sought in damages was also not mentioned. Summonses were issued, but there was also mention of an "automatic referral to Mediation" -- so maybe it was to be settled outside of open court, after all.
Lo and behold, the matter came up at the School Board meeting Monday, when the Board unanimously approved an "Indemnification & Defense Resolution" which specifically named Superintendent Phillips along with those two figures from the second Hansen arrest, High School Principal Kai D'Alleva and former employee Erich Kramer. All three, the resolution said, "should be provided defense and indemnification" in the Hansen case in District Court.
A definition of indemnify notes it is "to compensate for loss or damage; to provide security for financial reimbursement to an individual in case of a specified loss incurred by the person." Another: "To guarantee against any loss which another might suffer." Basically, it's holding the person financially harmless -- offering an umbrella of protection.
McCarthy addressed the court case, too, after the meeting, noting that it is her understanding that the next step, mediation within the court process, might take months to reach, and that the entire court process "could take up to two years." In other words, it won't be settled until long after Phillips has departed; in fact, the board Monday night approved a resolution accepting his "resignation into retirement," coming at the end of the current school year.
Anyway, I bring all of this up as an interesting exercise in the difficulty of governing, and as a subset of that, in the difficulty of picking a superintendent -- and the consequences that might or might not evolve from that selection. Sometimes -- most times, I think -- it's all a crap shoot. You never know completely what you're getting, nor what unforeseen circumstances might bring down the road.
But by playing it close to the vest, the Board is taking upon itself the full responsibility for its decision in the matter of a new superintendent. If it proves a bad decision, the board members own it. No pointing to a citizens' committee or teachers' union or the public. They own it.
Beyond that, the cautionary note in all of this is simple: It just pays to have all of the facts -- all of those facts that are obtainable -- going in.
To borrow an old chestnut: Look before you leap.
And prayer probably wouldn't hurt.
Watkins Glen girls varsity basketball team members pose after their come-from-behind victory for the state championship. (Photo by Don Romeo)
The ingredients of winning
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 21, 2017 -- What, exactly, makes a champion a champion? Or more specifically, what raised the Watkins Glen girls varsity basketball team up from some mid-winter woes to the zenith among New York State high schools of similar size?
There are lots of words to try to explain it. Tenacity. Courage. Talent. Teamwork. Chemistry. Community. Coaching. Ability. Resilience.
All play a role, I suppose, and taken in total, perhaps are most of the parts that equal the necessary sum.
But I think, too, that there is luck at play, and the ability to stare opponents down to the point where their knees buckle. And there is faith, each player in herself and in her teammates. And there is, I think, destiny ... sprinkled with a touch of magic.
The girls' season was amazing -- two losses at midseason, one by a lot and one by a little, and then nothing but victories after that, all the way to the state title. The Watkins Glen fan turnout in Troy for the final was significant, too, many times that of the fan base that showed up for Port Jefferson.
Almost everyone thought the game -- the title pursuit -- was essentially over when the fourth quarter started with the Senecas down 16 points. And they were still down 16 after a Port Jefferson 3-pointer more than a minute later.
But then the forces of the universe converged, and the magic happened. Or in the eyes of the Port Jefferson players, all hell broke loose.
At the end, as Hannah Morse's last-second, winning shot toyed with everyone's heart rate by bouncing around for what seemed a long time before falling through the cylinder, the first person to grab Morse was teammate Mariah Gonzalez. The two fell to the floor near the top of the key before the rest of the team joined in, like a rugby scrum, only celebratory.
It was a scene caught on video and replayed by Watkins faithful over and over -- the peak of joy tinged with disbelief. And what followed were more celebrations: the players acknowledging the hundreds of fans who had driven the four hours to Troy; and the fans waiting for the players back home and celebrating their achievement in a whale of a party in the school Field House, with food courtesy of the Sports Boosters.
I sought out the coach and various team members there in the Field House -- Amanda Pike, Hannah Morse, Emmie Bond and Clara Chedzoy -- for stories I was writing, but missed a couple of key players. I never did find Taylor Kelly in the crowd, nor Mariah Gonzalez. And I mention that because of something that Gonzalez wrote on Facebook after the cheers, wrote in retrospect at the end of a long, remarkable season.
So in the quiet aftermath (if you discount a celebration to follow at the school at midweek), I present it here, for it touches on one more of the many elements that help to create a championship run. I give you junior Mariah Gonzalez, and her emotional words in an emotional time.
It's about friendship.
"I never thought I'd be saying 'bittersweet' the moment after winning States," she wrote, "but here it is. I've never been so happy and sad at the same time. When that shot went in, Hannah jumped in my arms and the excitement was overwhelming."
But shortly afterward, Mariah was facing teammate Amanda Pike, a senior.
"Tears filled her eyes," wrote Mariah, "and I realized this was gonna be my last high school game ever played with her. So of course tears started coming to my eyes. This is a girl I've played basketball with my whole life. She was my pick-me-up when I couldn't hit a shot to save my life ... She was the person I always relied on to get us those points we needed. She's the person I'd hug after every big win and celebrate with even after the small ones.
"She's a teammate I've experienced the 3peat with (three straight sectional titles) and now a state title. I didn't want it to be my last game with her. After volleyball season, I was in tears thinking about how I would never play volleyball with this girl again. But all I could think of then was I had one more season of the sport we both loved the most: basketball. I'm beyond thankful that my last season with Amanda was the longest season it could have possibly been.
"So here's to the great memories I'll never forget": the long practices, the pregame talks, "making game plans with one another and them succeeding. Holding up three fingers when she drained a three from half court because she'd get in trouble if she did so herself. Doing the same handshake for volleyball and basketball.
"I'm gonna miss bus rides, and locker room talks with her. Most of all looking over at her and saying, 'We got this, Pike. Let's go, one more step!' I'll never forget the little things with one of my favorite people to play basketball with.
"I'm gonna miss you more than you know next year, Pike. It won't be the same. However, your basketball career isn't over. Do big things in college and hopefully I'll make it up to watch some of your games! I love you, Pikers!"
That was it.
As I said: friendship.
I like that. And I think it's one more reason we're all celebrating an unbelievable comeback and a hard-won championship.
Photos in text:
Top: The team members, after securing the title, acknowledge the hundreds of fans on hand to applaud them. (Photo by Don Romeo)
Bottom: A montage of photos featuring teammates and friends Mariah Gonzalez (25) and Amanda Pike (14). (Provided)
Losing a contemporary ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 8, 2017 -- I heard about it belatedly. Odd, given this age of rapid communication.
Ed Weaver is dead, I now know. It happened a month ago. A "cardiac issue," to quote one reference to his end, which came in a hospital in Troy, New York. He had been working in that community as a sports reporter for the Troy Record for some 15 years.
I knew him before that, when he worked in the same capacity at the Star Gazette in Elmira, and I was an editor there. For a period, he ostensibly worked for me, although I never quite felt that way. Ed was so intense about everything that I found it a challenge just to keep up with him.
I have Eddie stories, but they do not always cast him in a light that might be deemed favorable. That's not to say he was a bad person or a bad reporter; he certainly wasn't. It's just that -- and I think he would agree -- he was a serial debater. "A master" of informal debate, one friend said following Ed's death. He loved to argue. And that sometimes led to tensions that might otherwise have been avoided.
He debated me often, and with great enthusiasm. He critiqued my editing whenever it was brought to bear on his writing. He would attack if he saw a flaw in somebody's logic. He would argue for the sake of arguing.
But all of that aside, he was an old-fashioned sports reporter, and I say that with great admiration. He loved hockey, and covered it at Elmira College and later at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He loved other sports, too. He was, quite simply, the heart of the Star Gazette sports reporting corps for years, back when I worked there in the '80s.
Ed was serious about relaying the facts to his readers. I've told before, without using his name, about how he once upset an official at an Elmira school, a man who took exception to an article Ed had written about the poor condition of the school's athletic field. It was a story that Ed could have let slide, but he thought it important to share with his readers. The school official didn't see it that way, though, and called the paper, incensed, threatening to have Ed thrown in jail if he set foot on campus again.
I assigned Ed to go cover the next football game at that school. He would have been covering it under normal circumstances, but this time he pleaded against it. "They'll arrest me!" he exclaimed. I wasn't moved, and simply replied: "Then that will be another story."
Ed went, and didn't get arrested. He went right up to the football coach along the sideline, expressed his fears, and was told by the coach to stand by him there at the game; that there would be no arrest -- that nothing would happen. And nothing did.
The last time I saw Ed was out in Michigan, in the summer of 1999. I was visiting a mutual friend of ours, Mike Gossie, who had been my boss at The Leader in Corning for three years ending in January of that year. Mike and Ed and I had worked together at the Star Gazette more than a decade earlier.
Mike was recovering at the University of Michigan Medical Center after an experimental program that had saved him from a rare disorder called Wilson's Disease, a condition whereby a steady buildup of copper in the body can prove fatal. I was there with my son Dave, and Ed showed up, and we all (a group that included Mike's girlfriend and another visiting journalism compatriot, John Kelleher) decided to go into Detroit to watch a Tigers game against the Boston Red Sox. Mike's recovery had progressed to the point where he was granted an evening leave to go watch a ballgame. It was the Tigers' final season in Tiger Stadium before that venerable old place was abandoned, succeeded by nearby (and new) Comerica Park.
I was raised in that area -- specifically north of Detroit, in Birmingham and then Bloomfield Hills -- and should have known the way to the stadium. I had been there quite often. But it had been years since I had gone, and entering the city as we did from the west, I wasn't sure of the route. Ed led the way in his car, with me following, and he knew the way very well. He got us there without incident, and I was a bit amazed at the achievement. Detroit is not an easy place to negotiate, and yet he whipped in and out of traffic like he owned it. I wondered, and still wonder, whether he was that competent in any city -- even if he had GPS or an equivalent guidance system, which I doubted. He didn't seem like the kind of person who would rely on such technology. He was the kind of person who relied on himself.
I write this not because Ed Weaver and I were friends. We never reached that level; we were co-workers for years. We argued from time to time. We never celebrated together, nor commiserated. We co-existed, for the most part peacefully.
No, I write this because I think that Ed and I learned a few things, journalistically, from one another. The benefits were mutual.
I write this because Ed Weaver was a force of nature, a bit of a cyclone in the confines of a newsroom. The wind in his wake is still buffeting me years later.
I write this because he was, in short, pretty amazing ... and highly memorable. Indelible, really.
And with his passing -- at a year younger than I am -- the world seems a more barren place.
Arriving at a new favorite...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 17, 2017 -- I have a new favorite movie, or at least my favorite from this century. I'm still partial to Casablanca and The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Godfather and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and a few others from the last century.
My new favorite, one I had intended to see in a theater (but didn't, for I rarely go to such a venue anymore), is called Arrival. It stars Amy Adams (tremendous) and Jeremy Renner (always good) and Forest Whitaker (excellent as always). But it's not just the actors here; it's the story, one I viewed on DVD.
I won't detail the specifics of the film, other than to say it has to do with an arrival by 12 alien (as in outer space) vehicles that settle in spots around the world. Any similarity to Independence Day ends there. This is a film about linguistics, slow moving but engrossing, edited beautifully and with an ending that is nerve jangling and, more importantly, emotionally affecting.
When I was done watching it, I heard myself say "Wow," and realized I had tears in my eyes that kept coming for a couple of minutes. No movie has ever affected me like that. I'm still shaking my head in wonder.
It's been a fascinating winter sports season, with both the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour girls basketball teams excelling, as have the boys swim teams from both schools and O-M's wrestling team. There have also been some outstanding performances by Watkins Glen's indoor track team and impressive individual bowling performances at both schools.
I've been receiving word on strong showings at the college level, too, by a couple of 2016 WGHS grads, both members last year of the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding scholar-athletes sponsored by this website.
One is Maggie Bond (right), who had an exceptional cross country career at Watkins and is now on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) women's cross country team -- a squad that in the fall qualified for the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. Maggie then helped the team to 18th place nationally.
The other is Katherine Meehan (right), who attends Cazenovia College. Katherine, a sectional champion in high school in the 100 Yard Breaststroke, won Rookie of the Year honors at the recent league championships. She swam four relays and three individual events in three days, winning the 200 Breaststroke, finishing second in the 100 Breaststroke with a school record, and third in the Individual Medley. Her 400 Free Relay team also finished second with a school record.
Well done, ladies.
I've been feeling a little nostalgic lately, maybe because I too often publish obituaries of people younger than me. I tend, in those moments, to look back with fondness at moments of my life, wisps of memory, the players now as ancient as I am or, alas, already passed on. I mentioned recently to a friend -- a young one, who has yet to experience many of the ups and downs that life has to offer -- that I was surprised I've lived this long. That kind of thinking comes naturally when you outlive your spouse by a good many years, and watch other, more youthful people fall by the wayside.
"Maybe I'm just a survivor," I told this friend, and she nodded in what I thought was a knowing fashion, although in retrospect I'm guessing that she sees me as pretty ancient and therefore of a duration beyond understanding. Hell, I don't think I understand it.
Anyway, amid all of the nostalgia I have been thinking, not for the first time, of Mary Lou (Loupie) Norton, who I dated in college and who died in childbirth in her 20s. She is something of a ghost who visits to remind me that life is fleeting, and to hold on not just to the memories, but to the present. I can hear her, smile bright under her short red hair, saying what she sometimes told me as we sat in the student union or walked hand in hand around the campus.
"Isn't this nice?" she'd say. "Isn't life great?"
Amen to that.
Amen, my friend.
In the throes of anxiety ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 2, 2017 -- Have you ever encountered one of those days where things don't go quite right ... where people feel like they just have to criticize you, no matter how hard you are trying or how well you are succeeding?
Yeah, I had one of those this week. It was like something negative was in the air -- possibly an offshoot of all of the chaos at the national level, and a feeling among many that our leaders maybe don't know what the hell they are doing internationally.
But that's speculation. What I do know is that one woman -- with whom I spoke at Watkins Glen High School on a busy sports day there -- complained that I didn't have Tom Reed's mailing address on my website; I had listed just his email address. I didn't even realize it. Anyway, I asked her if she was trying to contact the Congressman to commend him for being a rubberstamp Republican. (I was being a little cheeky, and hit a nerve.)
"No," she said, fixing very serious eyes on me. "I want to tell him that this is not my President. I lay awake at night, I'm so upset." My takeaway was that she didn't like the aggressive, abusive nature of the Commander in Chief; nor of his cohorts. She went on to say that she had found Reed's mailing address on her own after some digging and was writing him accordingly -- snail mail being her preferred mode of communication.
Anyway, that was the gist of it. I asked her to please send me the mailing address, and I would be sure to add it to the list. She sent it along this morning. In case you are in need of it, the address is: Congressman Tom Reed, 2437 Rayburn HOB, Washington, D.C. 20515.
A short time before that discussion, a man whose son is on the Watkins Glen High School swim team approached me at a home swim meet to say that another swimmer's grandmother, a member of the Watkins Glen School Board, wondered why my website was down. I called it up on my handheld, and it popped up immediately.
"It's there," I said. "Huh," the man said. "Well, she wants to talk to you anyway," and he pointed across the pool to the bleachers, where she was standing at the railing. I went over, asked to see her phone, and sure enough, I couldn't call up my website on her device.
My youngest son, an IT expert, once addressed a similar issue -- where someone couldn't find the website even though it was operating perfectly -- like this: "Well, that's computers for you."
What the woman wanted to say (beyond her phone problem) was that while she hadn't read it -- and had just tried to access it on her phone -- she had been told that my article about a School Board meeting that morning indicated a resolution passed by the board (regarding the pending confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary) had been in response to a request by the head of the Watkins Glen Faculty Association.
Not true, she said; the resolution had been self-generated by the board. She said a few other things of a displeased nature; not directly attacking my article or an accompanying letter by a fellow board member ... but she was clearly not happy with me (you know, as in kill the messenger) or with the situation surrounding the resolution.
I don't like to get anything wrong, and determined to check out her claim regarding the resolution's genesis; to see if I had misunderstood. But subsequent contact with two other board members confirmed the role of the WGFA. So the woman, though clearly unhappy with the coverage, was apparently in error.
But that's neither here nor there. What matters in the short term is the aftershock of such a dialogue -- whether I'm right or wrong. It rankles for a little while.
And then, not long thereafter (all of this taking place at WGHS), I encountered the father of a school athlete who expressed some doubts about how his offspring's team might fare in the postseason; that the players on the squad seemed not to be pulling in the same direction.
Then he hit me with this: part of the problem was me -- the fact that I honor players as Athletes of the Week. I thought he was kidding, but then he got more specific, suggestng that athletes receiving such an honor sometimes take it to heart and head, and not in a good way -- or words to that effect (and with which I disagree). The award, he was suggesting, can tend to abet a team's dysfunction.
I've heard this argument before. A mother once complained (years ago) that a certain basketball player at WGHS kept being singled out for honors, whereas the woman's daughter and other players were left empty-handed. (Not quite true, since three of them, as I recall, earned Odessa File All-Star status, and the woman's daughter was a member of the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athletes sponsored by this website.) I pointed out to her that Michael Jordan got most of the ink in his years with the Chicago Bulls because he was the best. His teammates, just as those in support on the Watkins team, were important to the team's overall success. But to ignore the best -- to avoid highlighting it -- would be negligent.
I didn't respond to this latest argument by the father, and chalked it up to the day -- one in which, parenthetically, I lost an advertiser who had determined that his winery budget needed tightening, and that his Odessa File ad -- carried here for years -- was being squeezed out. That followed by a few weeks the departure of another winery, and a cutback by yet another advertiser doing some belt-tightening.
Amid all of that -- in fact that very morning -- I had added up the amount of donations to this website in 2016 (tax time being at hand) and found it was the lowest it has been since the early days of The File. Donations have traditionally -- across 14 years -- come from only about 1% of the readership, but this time dipped even lower. And so I began thinking of alternatives -- a renewed door-to-door effort in pursuit of advertisers, perhaps, or maybe setting up at more sports and movie memorabilia shows, that being a favored hobby of mine. Or, perhaps, I could take on photography jobs, or consider a gig as a Walmart greeter. (No, I'm not being facetious; at least not very.)
And then I took a deep breath. It's okay, I told myself. I've got Social Security, assuming that doesn't get carved up by a chaotic Washington. And then I thought of the woman who wanted Congressman Reed's mailing address, and I thought I might have a message for him myself.
When he first took office, Reed was a massive improvement over his quirky predecessor, Eric Massa, who resigned before the end of his first term under a cloud. But where Reed seemed like a straight-shooter then, he seems like a Washington survivor now -- and by that I mean someone whose be all and end all is serving long-term, at the total behest of his Republican Party. (My displeasure extends to the negativity he has adopted in the past two campaigns. In the race in 2014 against a seemingly hapless opponent, Martha Robertson, his advertising attacked and mocked her; the tone was relentless. I told him to his face that I didn't like it; that his ads amounted to taking a machine gun to a fly; and that he didn't need to do that. He won that race by a mile.)
But my dismay goes deeper, to the heart of our two-party system. It is a nasty game, and one full of people intent on keeping their seats forever. Until we get term limits and adopt some serious campaign reform, it will stay nasty and unresponsive, in essence, to the people it is meant to serve. So my message to him, I guess, would be along these lines: Be true to yourself, not the Party. It might not keep you in Congress long-term, but it would certainly look better when history writes about you, if it chooses to. If it were me, I would do that -- but then, I'm an idealist.
So there was that. And that somehow got me thinking -- governance to governance -- about the whole School Board issue, too. The subject might have been a carryover, too, from the woman at the pool getting in my grill.
I have an acquaintance, the pseudonymous A. Moralis, whose columns have graccd these pages over the years. We talked recently about the School Board and the district in general, and he said he was thinking about writing a piece for me about the status of the schools in Watkins -- the timing being an interesting one, with the pending retirement of the current superintendent and a search begun for his successor.
I asked what he might write, and he outlined it -- none of which I will explain here, for that would be undercutting him. (Well, one thing: If he had a wish list, it would include a school district encompassing the entire county, with one superintendent, instead of the three districts and three superintendents seated here now. That's all you get: a teaser.)
In the course of our talk it became clear that he too, like me, sees the times as disruptive. He was convinced Washington needed upheaval, but understands, too, I think, that almost every move made by the Trump administration has had and will have long-reaching, worldwide consequences. And he seemed to agree with me that the President's subordinates might not understand (as one analyst put it) "that the game they are playing is chess, not checkers."
Anyway, I will await A. Moralis's take on the world of education -- something to look forward to while coping, as so many of us are, with the concerns and anxieties that seem to be imbuing our everyday life -- that, in particular, imbued that recent, very odd day at WGHS.
In the Forest of Sherwood
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 20, 2017 -- She was on our Top Drawer 24 team -- the annual team of ourstanding student-athlete-citizens sponsored by this website-- back in her senior year of high school.
Her Top Drawer biography in 2008 read:
"Molly Bilinski joins the Top Drawer squad as a Watkins Glen High School senior for an outstanding year in
which she excelled on the soccer field, played varsity basketball, and
is a key player on the varsity softball team. A consistent High Honor
student, she recently toured Europe playing soccer, and was named student
ambassador to the Watkins Glen Public Library as part of its annual membership
"She has impressed administrators and teachers with her work ethic
and attitude, and has been a participant beyond the playing fields and
classroom, as a member of the cast of the recent school production of
the musical 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'"
Since those quoted days of yore, Molly Bilinski has gone on to William Smith College, graduated with a Bachelor's degree in chemistry, and then secured a job as a certified technician with an asphalt lab in Buffalo, where she currently works. (Parenthetically, the firm's Cortland lab developed the asphalt used in the recent repaving of the Watkins Glen International racetrack.) But what none of that mentions is her passion for storytelling.
"I always had a composition book," Molly said in a phone interview this week. And she always wrote in it, even back in high school. Back then, what she was writing was a long-term project, one ultimately set aside but now, once again, part of her focus: a young adult novel in progress. But it turned out not to be her first finished work.
No, she completed another one ahead of it.
Molly Bilinski is soon to be a published author, creator of a young adult novel titled Lady of Sherwood, a reimagining of the Robin Hood tale, this time with Robin as a female. And, says Molly, the band of Merry Men actually consists of mostly women.
"Robin Hood is one of my favorite stories," the author said. "I didn't want to do something already done."
And what of Maid Marian? Well, there is a male equivalent named Marcus.
Molly connected with her publishing firm, Clean Teen Publishing, an independent Texas outfit (not a self-publishing outfit, but one more along traditional publishing lines), through Twitter, and when they expressed an interest, she sent some of the story, and then at their request a synopsis and sample pages. Then they wanted more pages, and then the rest of it.
"I've always liked to write," said Molly in our interview. While maintaining a certain vagueness about it, the story she was working on back in high school has now re-emerged, at least as an ongoing development project.
The older story, re-embraced, "has nothing to do with Robin Hood," said Molly. And how much progress has she made on it? "I'm rewriting parts of it."
But all attention for now will be on her Robin Hood, on Lady of Sherwood, with a publishing date of April 24. At some point, Molly will have a book signing at the Watkins Glen Public Library -- an event we intend to publicize on this website.
About the time of publication, there should be reviews by journalists who are provided with advance copies of the book.
Is she looking forward to the publication itself, or the reviews, or both?
"A little of both," she said.
So am I. And I imagine all of us involved in the Top Drawer 24 program will be watching closely. When one of the young adults we honor at our annual Top Drawer celebrations makes strides like this -- and I'm not talking just about the book, but about her success in college and in her career track, too -- we are even prouder than before.
Well done, Molly Bilinski.
Photos in text: Molly Bilinski and the cover of her book (Photos provided)
Time tripping back home
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 9, 2017 -- I was relieved to see 2016 pass into history.
It was a lousy year, loud with politics, and full of personal physical challenges. When I wasn't wringing my hands in agony over the prospect of a Trump victory, I was gimping around with a torn miniscus, undergoing treatments to repair a damaged shoulder and an arm so wounded that I couldn't lift a camera for a couple of weeks, and undertaking medications for high blood pressure that have had subtle and annoying side effects. And an extension of lowering my blood pressure: the creation of one of those unmentionable maladies that, shall we say, made sitting a challenge.
My father-in-law told me, as he neared the end: Don't get old. I'm beginning to think I should have listened.
It's no wonder, I guess, that my mind has turned to happier, easier times -- whether a childhood that carries almost entirely positive memories; a young adulthood where I was feeling my sexual and amorous oats; or a middle age where raising a family was an adventure embraced, and where I enjoyed a marriage of co-dependency and trust.
I was talking to a friend recently about that; about being happily married for so long and about how, after my wife Susan had passed away, I expected to remarry ... and yet how I didn't after all.
"I discovered," I said, "that it wasn't that I enjoyed being married; but that I enjoyed being married to Susan."
I think back, too, to my parents, and how when I lost them, I lost my lifelong touchstones. They were rocks, those two: Gus and Eleanor. Married 54 years. Met on a raft on Owasco Lake, when Mom attracted Dad's 30-year-old eyes when she was but 21. It didn't take long for them to marry, and they were always a team. I grew up in a solid household, both financially and emotionally. Angry words were a rarity.
What a great way to grow up -- in an upscale community called Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit, and in an upscale house bordering on small Sodon Lake. It was a ranch-style home with all sorts of modern features for its day, which is to say 1957. I have a black-and-white photo of it during the autumn, and a winter photo of it on a clipping from a local newspaper. Its caption reads: "One of Michigan's finest. Custom designed contemporary bi-level on a lovely sloping wooded lot. Four bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, superlative kitchen with deluxe mahogany cabinets. Fine live-in space with adjoining recreation room on lower level." It then mentions "fishing, swimming, boating and skating" and "a truly resort atmosphere."
That was a bit much, so I'm guessing that might have appeared when my parents were selling the house, 10 years after they had had it built. That sale was in 1967, after I had gone to college. We had a getaway cabin by then in northern Michigan, and no great need for such a large dwelling. But even now, when I think of it, it's my house. It even (and this was cool) had a fallout shelter in the (finished) basement that served no useful purpose other than as a place to camp out (or in this case in) with friends both in comfort and away from the eyes of my parents.
Yes, a difficult (or at least annoying) year like 2016 can set the mind to ruminating on pleasantries past -- on parents now gone and on days forever lost except in the memory bank. I have (at least figuratively) been visiting those places I enjoyed and those people who helped shape me and who showered me with both love and protection in my formative years. I don't time-travel like Billy Pilgrim did in Kurt Vonnegut's masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, but it's my own lesser version: a kinder, gentler tendency to look for the good in life when current times are trying.
Here's to 2017. May it surpass its immediate predecessor, and thereby cut down on my need to visit past glories.
Pertinent six years later...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 27, 2016 -- I was looking over some of my earlier columns recently, and happened upon one from almost six years ago, on Feb. 22, 2011, in which I offered a poem that had been kicking around in my head -- one about the Internet and how it would lead us down the path to perdition.
It seems particularly timely still -- maybe more so in light of the recent election and the Russians and the hacking and the fake stories and the fact that the world, ever increasingly, is dependent on the Internet and social media.
I’ve renamed it “The Undoing.” It reads like this:
There was a day, not long ago,
Morality was fashion;
When violence was rare to see
And sex a private passion.
But with the 'Net came graphic scenes
Of murder, mayhem, gore;
Of bodies twined, of sweat profuse,
Of more and more and more.
Of troubled teens a-slicing arms,
Of vivid sights unbidden
By souls that fare far better
If life's truths are partly hidden.
And with these revelations,
These assaults upon our morals,
We came benumbed, were hardened
To life's marvels, life's rich florals.
And in the end, these images
This rampant information.
Led us to chaos, anarchy,
The undoing of nation.
When truth is bared in all its warts,
When Earth is shrunken, vile,
When compasses veer far from right,
When kindness turns to bile.
The end result is foreordained,
Upheaval will be ample.
Society will rupture, bleed,
Traditions will be trampled.
The moral here is simple:
It's far better -- not to lie --
But temper truth with veneer soft
With whispers, gentle sighs.
This high school sports season has thus far shown promise in several areas: boys swimming, where both Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen have shown strength (Watkins showed surprising depth when it defeated O-M in a face-to-face meeting); girls basketball, where both schools have gotten off to fast starts (they meet January 10th); the O-M wrestling team, with several successful competitors; the Watkins Glen girls bowling team (perennially challenging for sectional titles); and Watkins Glen indoor track (where several participants have as their goals school records, and have knocked down several).
I love reporting such successes.
With the Top Drawer 24 committee’s annual dinner meeting complete, nominations for membership on the team are starting to come in from school districts involved in the program -- which is sponsored by this website and WENY-TV and honors two dozen outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens from about a dozen districts in the area. Once the nominations are in, discussions will follow among committee members and with school administrators as we head toward the 12th annual awards ceremony in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all of you. I truly hope it is exactly that.
On the slopes, in my heart...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 16, 2016 -- I find myself, as one year leads to another, looking back at a growing mosaic of my past, for each time the calendar turns I have more to remember.
But oddly, lately, I’ve been focusing more on a relative sliver of the distant past, and in particular that period that encompassed my final few years as a teenager through my mid-20s: not exactly golden years, for I was emotionally vulnerable throughout, and not particularly happy ... at least until my second marriage.
I was seeking: validation that I was worth something; a relationship in which I might find unity instead of doubt and confusion; a direction that might illuminate my future.
And in that sliver of my past, in those few formative, emotionally roiled years, certain events or days stand out: my two weddings, certainly; and the birth of my first son (the other two came slightly later), and my work as a journalist both in college and soon thereafter, in Watertown, New York.
But above all, the memories come down to high school and college friends, and ski trips, and a cabin in the woods, and a girl whose name I can’t even remember, but who has stayed with me in essence all of these years.
She comes to mind fairly regularly, in fact ... most recently because of a fire.
Let me explain:
I spotted a news item the other night while surfing the Internet: the lodge at Boyne Highlands, a ski resort in northern Michigan’s Harbor Springs, had caught fire. A dozen people were injured, and dozens more were evacuated.
When I was a teenager growing up in Michigan, I utilized the ski slopes of Boyne Highlands, and of another resort, Boyne Mountain, and of another, Hidden Valley outside Gaylord. One winter break, before my parents bought a cabin in the woods west of Gaylord, my brother and I, along with various friends, traveled north from our Detroit-area homes to partake of some of those slopes -- at the Boyne Mountain resort, as I recall.
The Beatles were big then, and I had secured a wig -- I think from my mother -- that looked like their hairstyles, and I wore it while skiing, generating quite a few looks from other people. I was a bit of a showboat back then.
Back at the motel where a bunch of us were staying, we were playing Beatles albums non-stop after each day on the slopes. We played the Beatles’ “Help” and “Rubber Soul” and sang along, all of us -- I recall 10 or so boys of high school and college age piling into a couple of rooms -- knowing the songs’ words oh so well.
I would say this was late 1965 or early 1966, for “Help” came out in August of ’65 and “Rubber Soul” in early December. The ski trip was memorable, and fun, and almost magical, for that’s how the Beatles affected my generation.
The magic continued the next year -- the Beatles had released “Revolver” -- but in a different venue, for the need to rent rooms ended, my parents having bought the cabin near Gaylord in mid-1966. Before long my brother and I, along with our skiing buddies, were using that as an occasional base of operations.
Ah, the cabin.
It was a small place (before we enlarged it) -- kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a small bathroom with a metallic shower so small that if you moved your arms inside it, your elbows would meet metal and produce a clanging sound. And the only heater was a brown, boxy, electric one standing in the living room. I remember one very cold winter’s morning -- a bunch of us young skiers were there, sans grownups -- when we awakened to find one of our guests had unplugged the heater during the night and plugged in his electric blanket instead. We thought of tying him to a tree in the woods, and letting the animals have at him.
But all of this came after the ski event I remember most clearly; at least I recall the emotion and sense of it. It occurred in January 1965 -- and I specifically know the date of January 24. My family was at one of the resorts -- I believe Boyne Highlands, a memory reinforced when I saw the story about the recent fire there, and a picture of its ski lodge.
I remember the lodge: spacious, well-appointed ... but more to the point there was a girl present with me. It is strange that I don’t remember her name; I’m usually good about that. But I remember her looks: athletic, befitting a skier; blondish hair, medium length; piercing blue eyes, and a smile that touched my heart.
We had met on the slopes and struck up a conversation on our last day there, and kept talking afterward, way into the night, seated in the lodge, its large fireplace warming us. And as we talked, I became enamored, and wished the evening would never end. But it did, and so we did what we could: exchanged addresses before adjourning. I ultimately wrote her, but never heard back, and never saw her again.
I know the date because word arrived that day that the great English wartime leader Winston Churchill had died, and Jan. 24 was the date of his death. I remember discussing him with her, and how she seemed to know little about him while I, a bit of a history buff, knew substantially more. And she listened so raptly that I thought I must be interesting -- and hope soared of a future of possibilities that might include her, a mirage that young love often induces.
Alas, there was no future involving that young charmer and me, but of course life carried me on to other encounters involving other charmers, two of whom I married. I was a young man of strong feelings, often led by the heart.
I think now, in my approaching dotage, that I have lost the capacity for such soaring emotions, and I look back on those I experienced with some wonder.
I still carry with me, though, the memory (if not the feeling) of crushes I had: on a girl named Patti in nursery school who always wore polka dot-laden dresses; on a young, slender beauty named DeeDee Pipp in the 5th grade; on a young, physically advanced brunette in junior high named Sandy Smith, whose height overmatched that of me, a short dweeb; and on a wholesome lass in high school named Marsha Paul, who I envisioned as the perfect woman but who barely knew my name. And that was all before my confusing college years, which brought their own emotional experiences.
Yes, I recall all of those young ladies: their looks, their personalities, the sheer sense of them, the pain that young love for them brought to me, and the rarely concomitant joy.
And yet, perhaps sweetest of all, despite an inability to recall her name, I remember the girl whose day I shared on some ski slopes and in a ski lodge in northern Michigan on Jan. 24, 1965 -- the day the great statesman Winston Churchill passed into history.
Or as the Beatles put it:
Well, she was just 17,
You know what I mean.
And the way she looked was way beyond compare.
So how could I dance with another (Ooh)
When I saw her standing there.
A kindness for the ages ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 10, 2016 -- Jim Guild is planning to turn the building at 214 N. Franklin St. in Watkins Glen -- a structure that houses the Chamber of Commerce on the ground floor -- into a hotel.
I love the idea. I love hotels. I haven't stayed in many, but they were memorable. One was the old Pines Hotel on Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan, a building that burned to the ground one winter's eve under suspicious circumstances back in 1983. I loved that place; hung out there as a child during summer vacations, and stayed there as an adult. But those are stories for another day.
For now, another hotel comes to mind, and it encompasses a pretty good yarn.
It was in New York City, in 1968. I don't remember the name of the hotel, but it wasn't far from 42nd Street. I was there with a couple of college friends during spring break. We were there, among other things, to link up with a couple of girls -- one I was dating and one my friend Dick was dating. The third member of our group was Greg, an always well-intentioned, athletic fellow whose enthusiasm in all sports -- intramurals and up -- earned him the nickname "Coach."
We ventured east from Michigan -- where we all attended Albion College, west of Ann Arbor in the south central portion of the state -- and, being members of the Sigma Chi fraternity, stopped in Geneva and obtained free lodging at the Sigma Chi house there. The next day it was on to New York City, where we met with the girls, also Albion students, who were visiting the Big Apple with their respective parents. After a nice dinner, we went to a movie theater, where "Gone With the Wind" was playing on a huge screen in a wonderful old building that boasted a balcony. We chose the upper deck. It was my first viewing of the film, and to this day my best, for television pales next to the silver screen.
Later, back in the hotel -- a fairly snug, two-room facility that we three had rented for that single night -- Coach decided that he wanted to take a walk. Dick and I were tired, and declined his invitation to join him, and cautioned him that walking alone in a strange city might not be a good idea. Coach was undeterred; our caution was easily matched by his optimism.
An hour or so later, he returned -- with a companion. No, not a streetwalker, although Dick and I didn't exactly welcome this visitor -- a thin, quiet, straggly-haired young woman of pale complexion and very little means.
"She needs a place to say," said Coach, and we took him to the side room to talk.
"Are you nuts?" I asked. "We don't know anything about her. How the hell did you end up with her, and what possessed you to bring her here?"
He shook his head, signaling that I was being intolerant.
"She needs help," he said. "She ran away from home, up in Connecticut, and she has no money and no place to go. It's kind of a cold night, and I figured we could let her sleep here."
I looked at Dick, and then at the two beds in the side room. "She's not taking my bed," I said.
Coach shook his head again. "I was going to take the couch," he said, motioning to the adjacent room, "but she can have that. I'll sleep on the floor."
Dick and I conferred, and then I told Coach: "Okay. But that handbag she's carrying? I want to check it. You never know. She might have a gun."
"Whatever," said Coach, who adjourned to the other other room, spoke to the girl -- she was barely old enough to qualify as woman -- and returned with the handbag. We opened it, found little besides a wallet, her ID (she was indeed from Connecticut), a couple of cosmetics and a plastic comb with a handle -- the kind that tapered down to a point.
"Well, we'll hold on to this," I said, brandishing the comb. "It's a little too sharp for my taste."
I placed it in a dresser drawer, and Coach adjourned to the other room. He grabbed a spare blanket off the back of the couch and one of the couch pillows and sat down on the floor, facing the girl, who had sat down on the couch. And they talked in a low tone that only they could hear.
Dick and I looked each other, shrugged, and adjourned to our respective beds for the night. I slept a little fitfully -- a little nervously -- but managed to get plenty of shuteye. And when I awakened, I was pleased to find I was still alive.
That morning, our departure day, Coach left early with the girl, saying he would be back within an hour or so. Dick and I grabbed breakfast at a nearby diner, and then met Coach back at our room. The girl was gone.
I looked at him questioningly.
"I took her to the bus station," he said "She didn't have any money, so I paid for a bus ticket home. Called her folks, squared it away, and saw her on to the bus. And yes, I watched it leave."
It was an amazing display of kindness, and I suddenly felt badly for my suspicious, conservative approach to the whole incident. I asked how much it had cost him, and he told us, and Dick and I silently fished in our pockets for our wallets and handed him our share of the money he had spent, a third apiece.
It was only fair. And an inexpensive end to what, despite my earlier protests, was a humanitarian effort of impressive proportion. Coach had imparted a lesson of life, and it is one that has stayed with me to this day: Don't just turn a blind eye. How we are ultimately judged, and sometimes how we judge ourselves, can be determined by the simplest of acts.
Was Coach foolish? I had thought so, but I was wrong. Compassion -- something I clearly lacked -- had ruled his actions and won the day.
And in his kindness he might very well have saved the girl's life. I hope she has had a long and fruitful one.
Coach's act was so Biblical -- do unto others comes to mind, for starters, and a good many other maxims -- that across the decades, when I think of him, I consider him in almost saintly terms.
Maybe that's too strong.
But there is this:
In kindness can reside greatness.
From left: daughter-in-law Ali, sons Dave and Jon, granddaughter Marly and the editor. (Photo by Ali's father, grandpa Steve Piacente)
On meeting Marly ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 28, 2016 -- Allow me a personal note:
I finally got to see and hold our granddaughter. You would love her.
She has eyes the deep blue of that on the edge of space -- dark and yet somehow shimmering. She has gained weight so her cheeks are chubby, but I suspect she has more of Dave's looks than Ali's. Her mom's curly hair, though, might have been handed down to her.
She is trying to find support with her legs -- standing isn't far away -- when she is held on her mother's lap or that of her father, her uncles and, of course, her grandparents.
I say "of course," which is wrong; for you were not there; at least not that I could see, though I sometimes sense you. I did not sense you, though, on this weekend, when I met young Marlena Susan Haeffner, age 8 weeks, for the first time in person. But I certainly thought about you and what this would have meant to you had you lived this long.
She has among her attributes ("the best baby ever," brags Dave, who you and I thought was pretty good himself when he joined us in the world) a tremendous set of lungs, worthy of opera, I suspect. Hopefully she has your musical talents, and not my feeble ones.
We (sons Bill and Jon and I ) visited her on Long Island this past weekend, where Ali's side of the family had gathered for Thanksgiving. Despite the obvious benefits of a family gathering, the trip up from Asheville got Dave, Ali and Marly away from a smoky situation, wildfires creating an air hazard in western North Carolina. The fires have been burning some 20 miles from town, and prompting environmental hazard warnings.
Marly's presence just five hours away on Long Island was an improvement, too, over the 11 hours it takes to reach Asheville. So we took advantage of the shorter trip, staying (at an expensive Thanksgiving-weekend rate) in a Holiday Inn Express. The cost didn't really matter, though; you can't put a price on joy.
And that's what I felt, Susan, when I first saw and then held Marly: joy. And a sense, somehow, of completion -- that you and I, through our youngest son and his lovely wife, have finally seen our raison d'etre accomplished.
I wish that you could have been there, too. I find myself imagining the smile on your face, much as I was wearing one.
But who can say? Maybe you were there. Or maybe you have met Marly already in some metaphysical sense.
I certainly have no corner on knowledge or faith or an understanding of the nature of miracles.
But I have a holiday hope.
I pray that just such a miracle -- such a metaphysical one -- is possible and has occurred or will. I pray that somehow you know Marly and she knows you.
It just seems fair and right.
Well ... that's all for now.
God bless you and keep you, and I'll see you by and by.
Of meds and milestones ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 23, 2016 -- So there I was, getting clearance from a doctor so I could get some rehab done on my right knee's torn miniscus, when he tells me that my blood pressure is high.
And so I started in recent weeks on a strict diet and on three medications designed to bring the numbers down, and which can leave you momentarily loopy from time to time.
It was in one of those moments when I turned to my son and said: "These meds are something else. I'm sitting here imagining that Donald Trump, of all people, is our next president."
I'm not sure what caused the blood pressure issue. It could be genetics -- both of my brothers take similar meds -- or the prolonged election season, or maybe one too many run-ins with a school superintendent.
Something very realistically acceptable followed: the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity cross country team's state championship among Class C schools, led by the remarkable Patrick Hazlitt -- who was third at States among Class C runners and fourth when all class results were blended together. You can't get much better than that.
But matters improved even more. The Senecas went on to win the Federation meet against mostly larger schools, including the Class B titleist and the Class A runnerup. Coach John Fazzary likened the accomplishment to that pulled off by the basketball team from the small school in the film "Hoosiers."
I can't argue with that one.
A schoolwide celebration was held Tuesday morning at WGHS, in the Field House. Speeches, music and a colorful "Walk of Fame" with paper stars containing the names of each honoree made clear that the district appreciates the achievements of the cross-country runners; that enthusiasm for excellence extends beyond popular spectator sports like basketball.
Now, there is another competition for the team this coming weekend, at the Nike Regionals in Wappingers Falls. The top two teams there advance to nationals.
My son Jon, who resides in the family homestead with me, has been striving to break into the tough world of art, and has some successes, including a TV gig. Now he's created (and continues to create) a new story, in comic book form, about a woman lost in another galaxy who has essentially forgotten who she is or where she comes from. He has put a lot of time into creating the first chapter, which is online (here), and wants to work up a second chapter and publish the two in a printed comic book. This all takes financing.
So he's begun a Kickstarter campaign (here) with a goal of what seems a modest $7,000 to cover time, licensing, publication costs and so on. I am contributing what I can, and hope some of you out there recognize his talent and contribute too. In fact, if you were thinking of donating money to The Odessa File cause (always welcome), I would rather it be redirected to his campaign. It means a lot to him, and to me.
The weather turned from warm and wonderful to winter last Saturday, and the cat residing in my house, name of Leon, was looking out the windows with some alarm. And he's cuddling more, as if to stay warm. I'm afraid we're in for a long, cold season.
With the turn in weather comes the kickoff, really, of our Top Drawer 24 season, which extends until our annual party in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. Committee members, with input from school administrators, teachers, coaches and parents, keep a close eye on the academic, athletic and citizenship activities of the high school student-athletes in our region, mostly from schools in Schuyler and Chemung Counties. South Seneca was added to the mix last year.
The annual committee dinner to discuss strategies, policies and the like will be held in early December, and then the observations begin in earnest, although it is safe to say they started informally with the advent of the school year. The committee aims to ultimately select the best and the brightest of our high school students -- a total of two dozen honorees from about a dozen schools -- for Top Drawer membership.
This marks the 12th year of the awards program -- and as in past years, any suggestions or nominations can be forwarded to this website by e-mail. Links are available at the bottom of most pages on this site.
And the sun still rises ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 9, 2016 -- Well, I see that the sun rose this morning (sort of; it's rainy and gray outside right now), and that the world is still functioning despite what seemed improbable at the least.
Donald Trump, president-elect. Who'da thunk it? Last evening proved fascinating as the American electorate -- as those in the United Kingdom before them had done -- rose in large enough voice to effectively protest the status quo; rose to pluck battleground state after battleground state from the hands of Hillary Clinton.
Talk about slow-motion dominoes; it made for hours of mesmerizing television.
Now, I've not been a Trump guy -- I have thought the message is, in many regards, right but with the wrong messenger -- but now that this election has happened, I see that only someone so ingrained in our consciousness for so many years, and so outrageous, could have caused this to happen. He was the perfect mix of celebrity and soul (though I hesitate to use that latter word, since it strikes me as calming, where he is not).
Anyway, as a storyteller of sorts, I find this fascinating; I could not have dreamed it up, and when life (yes) trumps my ability to create, I'm left shaking my head in wonder.
And that's all I will say on the matter, other than this: I will pray for all of us in this turbulent time, and I will pray for Donald Trump -- pray that he has the wisdom and fortitude to lead us well.
And now ... it's time for all of us to move forward.
Meeting my granddaughter
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 25, 2016 -- I have a new neighbor, a new family on my street. They have a lovely home that has served about a half-dozen families since I moved in here. Oddly, I have known very few of them, other than in a passing way.
This one will probably be no different, since (and I know this sounds harsh, and hopefully I'm being a little facetious) I have noticed a couple of Trump signs on their front lawn. ....
The election is almost over, thank heavens. I can't stand one more appearance of Trump surrogates, those odd creatures who spin and spin and try to make their candidate seem feasible, even representational. I hope I run into a couple of them -- a white-haired CNN regular and a balding, overweight, New York styled lawyer who pops up on TV too often -- sometime in the future, just to see how I react in person. I don't imagine I'd have kind words. ....
But that's politics. Life intruded Monday.
I had kind words and soaring thoughts that day when I finally got to meet my first grandchild -- well, met her on my computer. As she was sleeping in her mother's arms.
I don't know why none of us had thought of it until the least computer-savvy member of the family came up with the idea earlier Monday. "Hey, why don't we use that thing where you talk to each other on the computer," I said to my son Jon, who lives with me. "You know, see each other, like you're in the same room."
Jon was seated facing away from me, but I imagine he rolled his eyes. "You mean Skype?" he said. "Yeah, that," I answered.
Not long after, my son Dave, the father of my sole grandchild, called me on my cell phone, to see when I might be heading south to Ashville to visit him and my daughter-in-law Ali, and granddaughter Marly, born Oct. 6th. I explained that certain responsibilities and appointments were limiting my immediate options. But, I said, what about Skyping?
"Huh," Dave said, chewing it over. He certainly knows how to set up a Skype conversation, just as Jon does. "I can't believe we didn't think of that before."
An hour or so later, he was texting me, asking if we could set it up right then. "How?" I asked, a simple response that revealed my total ignorance of the particulars of the maneuver.
Well, he said, he had just been conversing by text with Jon -- who happened to be seated across the room from me, the living room where I work, watching a movie with a couple of friends.
"Jon?" I asked aloud. "You been in touch with Dave?"
"I am right now," he said, and moments later stopped the movie, rose from his chair and headed over to my computer corner, motioning for me to rise and move aside. He and Dave were going to work their magic; were going to plug in whatever needed plugging, and connect my computer to Dave's in Ashville. I retreated to the other side of the room.
A few minutes later, I heard some beeps and a computer growl, and went over to the computer and its large screen, and there was Ali sitting down with baby Marlena Susan -- Marly, my first grandchild -- in her arms, sound asleep.
"Hey, Ali," I said. "How you doing?"
"Fine," she said, smiling down at the bundle she was holding.
I looked at Marly, too, and marveled at the peaceful scene. Madonna and child, I thought, a religious feeling washing over me. The baby was sleeping, and looking very content.
"Is Marly always like that?" I asked.
Ali laughed, and allowed as how the current state, sleep, was an occasional respite from a fairly active child -- one who, at 18 days old -- was as demanding as any other healthy baby her age.
I was wearing a wide smile at the scene in front of me -- was wearing it as Dave seated himself to the side and behind Ali. He had told me in our earlier phone call that they had gone out that day to vote in Ashville, and now Dave said "They gave us a sticker," which he pulled from his shirt and held close to the computer camera. "I Voted Early," it said.
I nodded. "Good for you guys," I said.
I was studying Marly, and said what many people who saw her picture on a column I wrote (below) had told me. "She really is a beautiful child," I said. Ali, beaming, thanked me.
It took me back in memory to my experience with my own kids, when they were demanding, dependent babies, and to the practice of changing diapers. I laughed softly and asked Ali: "How's Dave with the diapers?" She smiled broadly and said, "He's a champ!" Dave gave a small fist-pump and agreed. "I am," he said.
Jon's two friends who were visiting our home -- two young ladies -- came over to the computer to see the baby, and one asked if the name was Mar--lee--na or perhaps Mar--lay--na, and Ali said they'd thought about that, and considered both, though the former seemed to be holding sway. Time would tell.
I found myself smiling again, as were Ali and Dave. I said this was great. "Almost as good as being there," I said, "but not quite. But I'll be along before too long."
"We hope so," said Ali. "In the meantime, we should do this more often."
"I agree," I said. More Skyping was definitely in order.
Marly was still sleeping, so I added: "Such a well-adjusted baby."
Ali laughed again. She knew that was true, but that moments like this one -- where Marly was sleeping -- were but part of a larger, often exhausting mosaic of care.
"Well," I said at last, my eyes resting on the cherubic face of my granddaughter. "Good night, Marly. It's great to see you." And to Dave and Ali I added:
"I'll see you guys soon. Thanks for this."
"You're welcome," Dave and Ali said in unison. And Ali added: "Talk to you soon."
And with that Dave reached over and did something to the computer, and the picture faded, and Jon, standing nearby, reached over and disconnected from our end.
I looked at him as he finished, and we both nodded.
"Wow," I said. "That was great."
And in the quiet, as Jon returned to his movie, I thought of the political signs on the lawn of my new neighbors and on the lawns of far too many other people, and wondered if votes like mine would be numerous enough across the country to prevent a world where a demagogue like Donald Trump might rule during my granddaughter's formative years -- might poison the atmosphere (as he has for the past 16 months) with bile and a need to punish his enemies. And I said a little prayer about the upcoming election.
"Make this one for Marly," I pleaded softly, adding: "For her sake."
And I wondered if anyone heard.
What's in a name? This ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 9, 2016 -- Susan wanted a grandchild; looked forward to the day.
But the day never came in her lifetime. Cancer struck, and then a pulmonary embolism, and she was gone.
That was almost 12 years ago. We had been married for 27 years.
On Oct. 6, 2016, the grandchild Susan longed for arrived; it was a girl. She was born to our youngest son, Dave, and his wife Ali in Asheville, North Carolina, where they took up residence a few years ago. They've built a home there. It will be home, too, to little Marlena -- my first grandchild; Susan's first grandchild.
I knew in the wee hours of Oct. 6 that Marlena was almost here. Contractions were coming at 4:30 a.m., Dave wrote in a text message.
The hours passed, and eventually I went to a Rotary Club luncheon -- a weekly event in my world. Then, some 20 minutes past noon, as I was checking to see if there had been any new messages, the phone vibrated in my hand; it was ringing, on silent setting so as not to disrupt the luncheon.
Chris Burns, a club member, was holding a long-handled basket used to collect "Fines and Confessions" at each meeting: money voluntarily submitted by members for any milestones mentioned, meetings missed, and other reasons. Chris had just started passing the basket when my phone vibrated; it was Dave.
"What's up?" I asked quickly upon accepting the call. Across my dining table, club member Jim Somerville was watching, and said later that he wondered what the call was about, for my face bore a look of heightened interest and some urgency.
"Well," my son said to me across the phone from Asheville. "You're a grandfather. Congratulations."
Chris Burns was just passing in front of me with the basket, reaching out to another club member. I stopped him.
"Chris, hold it," I said, reaching out to his arm. And then to my son I said "Just a second."
I stood up, holding the phone out in front of me, and announced loudly to my fellow diners:
"It's my son on the phone. I've just become a grandfather for the first time!"
And the place more or less erupted. Congratulations, applause, smiles. I looked at a nearby table, where member Jim Guild -- who knows my three sons -- was smiling broadly.
"That's fifty dollars," he said, pointing at the basket.
I smiled back, and decided $20 was more my speed. "Hold on," I said to my son and set down the phone, extracted my wallet, pulled out a $20 bill and threw it with a wrist snap into the basket. And there was more applause; at least I think so. My head was buzzing with joy.
I grabbed the phone, held it to my ear, and asked: "You hear that?"
"Well, yeah," Dave said as if the question was silly. "Where are you? What's going on?"
I started walking through the dining hall, toward the exit; I needed to talk to Dave with some privacy.
"I'm at Rotary Club," I explained. "Your timing couldn't have been better; they were just passing the collection basket. You cost me $20, but it was well worth it."
And he laughed; and I laughed, for this was a time of great happiness. And I made my way outside, and we talked. Ali and Marlena were fine; Dave seemed relieved. The birth had occurred in their home, with a midwife.
At the end of our conversation, I passed along my love to them all, and closed as I always do, saying "Be careful out there."
And he responded, as he always does: "Among the English." It is a good-luck exchange stemming from a line in the Harrison Ford movie "Witness."
I returned to the luncheon, listened to the weekly program pertaining to the beautiful mural created on Main Street in Montour Falls this past summer, and then accepted congratulations on my grandfatherhood as the meeting ended and everyone was leaving.
"You didn't say whether it was a boy or a girl," a couple of people said, and I answered: "A girl, named Marlena. They're going to call her Marly."
Susan would have loved sharing that day, October 6th, with me. She would have realized a big goal -- a day that showed she would be followed by yet another generation, by a young girl. I think she would have loved the name Marly. We were usually on the same wavelength, and I think the name is an appealing one.
As the day progressed into evening, I was periodically tuning into my son's Facebook page, waiting for him to post the news, and to see the responses from friends and from members of the extended Haeffner clan in Colorado and Florida.
Susan would have been watching with me too, and probably itching to get down to Asheville -- a place I, along with Dave's two brothers, Jon and Bill, will be visiting in November. I'm not sure she would have waited that long; probably not.
Finally, Dave posted a photo of Marlena on Facebook, effectively introducing her to all those people out there who wanted to meet her.
"Ali Haeffner and I would like to introduce you all to Marlena Haeffner!" he wrote. "She was born today at high noon, weighing in at 6.5 pounds and 19 inches in length. All are healthy and happy."
I looked at the photo of little Marlena. And then I looked at the words again, and noticed: I had skipped right over one; an important one. Marlena has a middle name. Dave had not told me about it; it hadn't come up in any of our conversations.
"Marlena Susan Haeffner," the note read.
Marlena Susan Haeffner.
Dave had kept that interesting fact for last, whether intentionally or not. And it hit me right where my heart beats and my emotions live.
I choked up; a couple of tears escaped. And then a couple more.
Marlena Susan Haeffner.
"Wow," I said to myself.
And then to the air -- to my wife, to Susan, wherever she might be -- I added, as a few more tears fell down my cheeks:
"How about that, Sue?"
I shook my head at the wonder of a single word; of a name.
"How about that?"
And I sat, alternately smiling and choking back a sob, pondering that ... and then, more importantly, marveling at the miracle of a new life.
Photos in text: Dave and Marly on the day of her birth; and Marly on Oct. 8. (Photos provided)
'Here for the job, not the $$'
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 4, 2016 -- So I went to a "Community Meeting" -- that's how it was billed -- at the Watkins Glen High School cafeteria a few nights back. The subject was the search for a superintendent to replace the outgoing one. He's leaving after this school year -- riding into the sunset of retirement.
To set the record straight, there was very little in the way of community attendance, unless you include School Board members and their spouses, the district transportation director, a couple of reporters, and various members of the Watkins Glen Faculty Association. There might have been a few other residents there unconnected to the school, I guess, but if so, they were (with the exception of one) not people I knew. All told, there were a couple of dozen folks on hand.
The event was facilitated by a woman who oversees this kind of thing all over New York State, and what she did was break the group into subgroups with poster-sized pieces of paper to list ideas about the qualities a superintendent should have.
I was a little surprised at the civility with which I was greeted by School Board members (the Board was hosting the event), since I had days earlier criticized them in a column here ... questioned their dependability in choosing a new superintendent in a fashion that would put to rest a supposition that nepotism -- a frequent visitor to the district -- might rear its head once again.
For what it's worth, the gathering brought forth from its participants a number of good ideas regarding a superintendent. He or she needs, for instance, to be honest; that was paramount. Teachers want him or her to have an educational background; I (as the member of a group of four people that included Board President Kelly McCarthy) wanted the selectee to have large-budget business experience and some experience serving the public in government.
Broad subject headings on the posters included Experience, Education, Communication, Philosophy, Leadership Style/Decision Making, and Additional Qualities. The suggestion I liked best on that last poster was "Here for the job, not the MONEY!"
Other desired characteristics:
--Willing to listen;
--Good conflict resolution skills;
--Not autocratic/no bullying;
--End to "top-down" leadership;
--Supports BOCES and trades instead of just college path;
--Gives credit where credit is due;
--Engages with all employees;
--Ensures all information is passed along (to board, administration and teachers), not in bits and pieces; and
--"We" instead of "I."
I find it interesting that the party line -- which is to say the School Board's -- is that the incumbent superintendent has no say in this selection process. It also claims it is starting with a blank slate, with nobody specific in mind; that it will cast a wide net with advertising, utilizing some of the ideas from the "community meeting" and sessions with school personnel to create a flyer to be printed by BOCES; and that the flyer will be the only role BOCES has. BOCES could, if the School Board wanted, have a larger role -- but like a decade ago, it won't. McCarthy says that decision -- which a cynic could construe as the harbinger of a pre-determined superintendent selection -- carries no such weighted motive; is simply a matter of choice.
"I haven't got anyone in mind," she told me, referring to the line of succession. "And I haven't heard of anyone else" on the Board harboring a favorite, either. Whether the Board employs, as other districts have, a process organizer and consultant remains to be seen. It is one of the options under consideration, McCarthy said.
So ... I suppose I should be encouraged by the professions of intent; by the Board's announced plan to troll the waters around the region. Nobody has thrown his or her name into the ring yet, whether in-house or, I suppose, out-house. Understandable, McCarthy said, since the Board hasn't sought anyone yet. But there will be interest, and applicants soon, and the process will move forward fairly quickly, with advertising, applications, interviews and a selection. The successor needs to be in place by July 1, the start of the next school fiscal year, officials have indicated.
But somehow, lingering, is a suspicion, generated by a history in the district of nepotism -- that it could rear its head again. And then there are the machinations behind the scenes in the ongoing lawsuit brought by a district resident who the superintendent had police arrest three times last school year. (Those administrative actions were upbraided by a judge, seemingly buttressing the lawsuit.) The cloak drawn around that ongoing process -- seasoned by Board approval of the superintendent's contract for four years and then, months later, his announced retirement after the current school year -- has left much unanswered.
Maybe I shouldn't be suspicious; maybe the Board is sincere in its avowed selection efforts. But part of me suspects otherwise, and says this: If at the end the Board picks a specific man I have in mind -- one with a previous link to the district who could to my thinking be part of an arrangement -- then there will be something rather pointed to be said about administrative misdirection and nepotism.
But who knows? The board could easily prove my suspicion is way off-base.
I hope it does. I truly do.
There will be three new members of the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, announced recently: former State Senator Dutton S. Peterson, the late William "Bill" Wickham IV, and Tony Specchio. I like the selections, as far as they go.
This is only the second induction class since 2009. That's troublesome, given the rich history of our county, but more so is another fact that jumped out at me: There are only five women among the 44 Hall members.
Looking for elusive energy ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 27, 2016 -- Since returning from Bois Blanc Island in Michigan, I have found myself buried by work -- although part of that was caused by a sluggishness left over from my vacation. I encountered a slower pace on the Island, and have been having trouble finding a faster gear now that I'm back.
There's a malaise here, too -- a sort of judgmental self-disapprobation that comes with being left alone too often for too many weeks to read too many novels. It amounts to a sort of "I wouldn't wish me on anyone" mentality -- especially true in the emotional valleys that follow vacations.
The good news, though, is that by moving forward -- re-engaging in the goings-on in Schuyler County -- I will likely become energized again, tackling the many stories and trends and pronouncements in a period that will, after all, be very interesting.
First and foremost is the new wastewater treatment plant, being built in the near future along the canal beween Watkins Glen and Montour Falls. That will permit elimination of the old Montour plant and the smelly old plant on the southern shore of Seneca Lake, near the marina, and open up further lakeside development.
It's all part of the Project Seneca blueprint, which envisions development of a dynamic waterfront and other progressive moves. Part and parcel with that: the ongoing efforts of the Judy Cherry-led SCOPED (Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development) which, among many things, would like to see, at long last, use of the arid Business Park up the hill along Route 414 on the way to Corning.
It should be an exciting time ahead on the economic and development fronts.
There is, too, the matter of a new School Superintendent to replace the outgoing one at Watkins Glen, one whose penultimate year revolved around his incendiary insistence on the arrest three times -- for alleged trespass on school property -- of a female district resident who had opposed him in the past, and who is in turn suing him and the district and the School Board president. She won a significant ruling from the Village Justice overseeing the first case -- a ruling which said, in effect, that the Superintendent had no legal standing to do what he had done.
All of that mess (currently ongoing, behind the scenes) will be overhanging the School Board as it begins the process of finding a Superintendent successor, for the old one has set a departure date at the end of this school year as he enters retirement. Suspicious as I am of a board that seemingly condones the arrest of a citizen who is acting within her constitutional rights, I will cast a dubious eye on how this group handles the search.
Ideally, it would follow the process recently embraced by the Odessa-Montour district, which cast a net, whittled the field down to seven and then three candidates, and had them meet with a citizens group and other groups to be graded and, thus, locally vetted.
Given the occasional propensity of the Watkins district to engage in nepotism -- which, it could be argued, happened in that last superintendent hire 10 years go -- I hope the public weighs in loudly and clearly. Residents will have that opportunity at what is being billed as a Community Meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in the high school cafeteria. The board says it is seeking input there as part of its search.
Sounds right ...
Beyond that, we have the ongoing movement against the Crestwood firm's methane storage and proposed propane storage, and I imagine continued protests and arrests -- now well over 600 since the movement's inception. However, with a no-nonsense judge, David Brockway, now handling cases in the Town of Reading Court, the We Are Seneca Lake protest organizers might be rethinking the extent of their arrest strategy. One reader's recent suggestion: the protesters would do well to direct their efforts in a more positive direction.
Parenthetically, Crestwood has started running a couple of ads on this website, part of its public relations effort. I take no position on this conflict, and so overtly support neither their ads nor any that the propane opponents might decide to run. I just request a positive approach.
And ... the high school sports season is in full swing. That means lots of coverage, both written and through photos. The Athlete of the Week program operated by this website has resumed, heading toward the selection of seasonal All-Stars and, ultimately, an Athlete of the Year at both the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour schools.
On the horizon, too, is the annual Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens sponsored by The Odessa File. Committee members, teachers and administrators are already looking hard at students seen as prospective Top Drawer members. Selections won't come until the spring, followed by the annual celebration of the team at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion in early June.
This is the 12th year of the program, which includes schools essentially from Schuyler and Chemung counties. The State Park celebration has grown to include presentation of The Odessa File Athlete of the Year plaques that go to honorees from Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools, and are sponsored by E.C. Cooper Insurance; presentation of the annual Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award in my wife's memory, which goes each year to a student who exhibits fair play under adversity; and a Lifetime Achievement Award given to a high school coach who has built an impressive record across the years and served as a mentor to those athletes in his or her charge. Last year's honor went to Mike D'Aloisio of Elmira Notre Dame.
In keeping with past practice, I invite anyone out there to nominate -- through an e-mail to me -- any student-athlete they think deserves to be a Top Drawer honoree. We haven't received many such e-mails in the past, but those that were sent helped us place two students on the team -- one male and one female. It is easy, frankly, to miss a deserving student-athlete because he or she is, say, on the quiet side. So have at it. Send your nominations.
Dillinger redux ...
The late gangster weighs in on the presidential race
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Sept. 9, 2016 -- The road -- barely that -- was almost invisible.
I had gone for a walk on the beach fronting both our property and the two properties to the west of us. I had rounded the point of our bay, walked up to a driveway that took me to the main road, East Huron Drive, and headed east again, intent on traveling past the entry point to my rental cottage. I wanted a longer walk -- perhaps to the Bois Blanc Tavern a quarter-mile distant, and to Rocky Road beyond it.
Before I reached my driveway -- nearly opposite it -- I spotted two parallel tracks leading into the woods on the north side of the road. The tracks had been imprinted there by motorized vehicles, but not recently. Tall weeds had virtually obliterated the markings.
I will, in fact, call it a path, for it was little more.
It looked, at first, as though it reached only a few yards into the woods.
But I was wrong.
I considered it for a few seconds -- maybe longer -- before suddenly feeling a tug in its direction. Literally a tug, and so I moved forward, onto the dirt lip between the path and the main road, and moved tentatively forward.
After I had taken several steps in, I saw the path wind slightly left, into the darkness of the woods. It was as hidden a path as any I’d ever seen.
“What the ...?" I heard myself say.
Hesitating, I surged ahead. Before long, the darkness of the woods gave way to a break in the overhead branches and leaves, and sunlight fell upon me, and I saw on either side what amounted to a marsh covered with thick green shoots sticking up above the water, almost hiding it. The ground underneath my feet softened, and I sensed moisture seeping upward.
Then, a few yards farther ahead, the woods closed in on either side. Dimness ruled, but my eyes adjusted. I was keeping a lookout for deer on either side, for the growth there was mostly in the higher reaches of the trees. There was plenty of room for animals along the forest floor, though I failed to see any. I was watching too for snakes along the path, for on Bois Blanc you never know when you might encounter one -- whether garter or rattler.
And then a break ahead -- light at the end of the wooded tunnel -- appeared, and at almost the same moment a strong wind arose around me, but not coming from the opening ahead, but from my left, strong and swirling ... inexplicable, really, for the woods should have been blocking it.
And I had a sense, as I walked under a small tree that had fallen at a 45-degree angle across the path, that I had just passed through something. It felt like a force of some kind, very slightly gauzy. The wind died as I neared the light, which was now widening and, I could see, led to an open field. An open field in the middle of a forest.
“Okay,” I said tentatively, for the Island is thick with woods, not generally with meandering fields in its interior.
But here ... this was wide open. This was something else.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I took a few more steps, moving ahead into the bright daylight.
“Do you need an engraved invitation?”
The voice seemingly came from nowhere -- from the air above -- until, materializing, my old acquaintance John Dillinger was in the field in front of me, maybe 15 feet away.
As told in my book Cabins in the Mist, I have ventured from time to time across a portal out at Dillinger’s Cabins -- a trio of rundown structures on the Firetower Road on Bois Blanc Island's interior that Dillinger used back in the 1930s while recovering from plastic surgery employed to disguise him from the federal agents chasing him, Dillinger being one of the most wanted criminals of his time. He had, at the outset, basically invited me across the portal -- the doorway, or what is left of it -- at the centermost of the three cabins in order to fill him in on what was happening in this world, and to join him in target shooting in the ravine behind the cabins. He focused on me, I suppose, because I am an Islander of sorts, a journalist (and therefore abreast of the news), and a history nut -- so I have an appreciation of his place in it (which, parenthetically, included his death at the hands of the FBI). He also professed to being bored.
Prior to this meeting in the field, I had neglected him during my past couple of visits to the Island, and now it looked as though he was forcing the issue.
“Hello, John,” I said, smiling.
“Don’t give me that smile crap,” he said. “Where have you been?”
I thought a moment.
“Oh, kind of hobbled. A knee issue. This is one of my first hiking ventures in a while.”
He looked at my legs, inquiring. I pointed to the right knee, where weeks ago I had damaged some ligaments. He pursed his lips and nodded.
“Okay,” he said. “Come on.”
And just like that we were transported to the deep woods of his world -- a kind of afterlife Bois Blanc populated by folks whose eternity is indeed the Bois Blanc of yesteryear. I have met, as explained in the book, various long-departed Islanders, including a relative I never would have dreamed of meeting again. But you’ll have to read the book to find out who.
Anyway, we were back at the cabins -- outside his cabins, whole cabins, basically new -- and he reached inside the doorway of the center one, apparently to a nearby table or shelf, securing something. When he pulled his arm back, he was proffering a pistol for me to use. He had another one in his belt, which he pulled out, and we headed down to the ravine to shoot.
“Okay,” he said, “I’m hearing from some of my neighbors; they've had visitors here like you, people who are talking about this presidential contest. What the hell is that about? It sounds like an unending bash cycle.”
"Pretty much," I conceded.
To clarify: Dillinger is not the only one who can summon visitors to his world. While the visitors there from our world -- the world of you and me and Trump and Hillary -- are generally few, it doesn't take much, I'm guessing, for word to spread in John Dillinger's domain ... for the residents there to gain a working knowledge of what goes on here.
"I’m familiar with this Trump character," Dillinger said. "Hell, he was over here once; somebody invited him. I talked to him a bit. He seemed full of himself; a real braggart; an inveterate liar. Seemed to think of himself as intelligent; always a dangerous sign. I didn’t like him. Clinton, I’ve never met; but I guess she’s got a few skeletons in her closet, eh? Really closed off, and has her own truth issues?"
"Yeah, you could say that," I answered. And then, curious -- for Dillinger had in life been a blunt-spoken character, unsavory to some and a hero to many, much like Donald Trump -- I added this: "I thought Trump might appeal to you.”
He fixed his eyes on me, and I thought for a moment that I might have overstepped -- that it was not the smartest thing to say to a man who had, in life, been violent, who had been (to put it baldly) a gangster.
“I don’t think so,” he said finally. “Maybe back in the old days, but I’m pretty civilized now. I don’t think anybody should be president who isn’t diplomatic. It’s a pretty dangerous world out there.”
“Then you’d vote for Hillary?”
He shook his head. We had reached the bottom of the ravine, where some cans were set on a log about fifty paces away. He took aim and fired, hitting a can; I followed suit, but missed mine.
“Little rusty?” he asked.
“I guess,” I said. “So, neither candidate. But of course, you don’t get to vote, so I don’t suppose it matters.”
“No, but if I did,” he said, “I’d have to go with a third party. You've got a couple of them, right?”
“Yeah, Libertarians and Green Party. Fringy.”
He took aim again and fired ... and connected. I fired and barely grazed the edge of the can I had focused on, moving it about an inch. It stayed on the log.
He shook his head again, this time a silent commentary on my prowess.
“So ... you get to vote for either of two candidates who shouldn’t even be candidates, or one of two candidates who I'm guessing nobody knows much about. They might be even worse.”
“True,” I said.
“Sounds like a conundrum.”
He took aim again, and again blasted a can off the log. I slowed my breathing, steadied my hand and fired, and this time my can lifted off its perch, into the air and, after spinning, down to the ground.
“Sounds like just one solution,” he said.
“A solution?” I said. “I’m all ears. And please don’t say ‘Don’t vote.’ I -- we; you know, Americans -- have a moral obligation to do so. Not that my vote will particularly matter. I live in New York, and Clinton’s way ahead in the polls there, so she’ll win the state regardless of what I do."
“Thinking like that among her supporters will get Trump elected,” he said. “Not that I care, but she needs votes instead of shoulder shrugs.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “But like you said, there is no good choice, although I have to think Clinton is less dangerous. Still, that's a hell of a distinction. So ... what’s your solution?”
“Just write in your own name,” said Dillinger. “You won’t win, but I assume you’ll be voting for someone you trust.”
I laughed gently.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“I’m not sure of that ... although I do like myself better than those two birds.”
Dillinger shot again, and again sent a can off the log. Then he looked over at me.
“You could vote for me,” he said, “but I don’t think it would be valid.”
I looked at him and nodded.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “And I think the same holds for me. Unless I’m mistaken, my own name wouldn’t be valid unless I filed paperwork ahead of time with election officials, announcing my candidacy. And that's too much of a hassle. So ... ”
We shot a couple of dozen more rounds, reloading and discharging as we went, and then adjourned to his cabin, where we each sat at an old wooden table inside and had a drink of cold Island water.
“Well, the way I see it,” he said, “is you’re condoning if you do vote for any of these candidates, and neglecting if you don’t. Like I said: a conundrum.”
I studied him.
“I’ve been thinking," I answered. "Don’t you people here have a reasonable answer to it? With all of your life experience, I mean.”
He laughed sharply.
“Nobody ever saw anything like this election before. How would we know how to handle it?”
“Well ... I figured that after you came over here -- you know, died -- that you maybe gained an overview of life ... and with that overview maybe a greater understanding.”
Dillinger shook his head.
“Not of politics," he said, "at least not politics like this. I think I speak for everyone here when I say ‘You’re screwed.’”
We lapsed into silence and finished our waters. Then, when we were done, I thanked him for his hospitality and got up. He rose, shook my hand and, looking me hard in the eye, concluded.
“Don’t be such a stranger. Come out here next time you’re on the Island. Then I don’t have to go chasing after you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “About that. How is it I just happened to find a path that led me through ... to you?”
He laughed, but it came out more of a snort.
“Mind over matter, my boy. Mind over matter. And don’t bother trying to find the portal there again. It was just temporary; a substitute. The path is just a path, and the field is just a field." I thought about that later, and decided he wasn't being fully truthful; was being, dare I say, a bit of a politician. There was something special about that path and that field. I would have to study them further, for the Island clearly has layers of magic.
“And that other thing,” he said. “I meant it: If you simply can't vote for Clinton, vote for yourself. So what if it doesn’t count? At least you’d be making a statement, albeit small.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Good to see you.”
I turned to leave the cabin, and immediately passed through a portal -- located as usual, when needed, in Dillinger’s open doorway (again, see Cabins in the Mist) -- and arrived instantly back in the open field. There was no sign of Dillinger now, nor of anybody or anything other than grass and surrounding woods. I ventured back to the path on the field’s southern edge, the path that had brought me there, and upon entering it felt a slight breeze -- no mysteriously strong wind this time. I followed the path past the angled tree and the dark stretch of woods and the reedy marsh ... back to the road. Once there, I turned for another look at the path, and felt an adrenaline rush as it wavered in the soft light that reached down through the overhanging trees. It dimmed, and brightened, dimmed and brightened again, and stabilized. It was almost as though it were winking at me. I would definitely have to pay it a return visit in the future, I thought.
I then turned, crossed the road at an angle toward my driveway entrance but a short distance away, walked its 50 yards and reached the vacation cottage I’ve been sharing with my brother and sister-in-law.
As I entered the cottage, my brother -- out on the porch, reading -- called out.
“Find anything interesting?”
“Nah,” I said. “The same old same old.” He had not believed what I had written in Cabins in the Mist -- thought it an entertaining fiction -- and certainly wouldn't believe this latest adventure.
“What’s that?” he asked. He apparently hadn't heard me.
“Nothing,” I said, a little louder. “Nothing at all.”
I turned toward the stairs that would take me up to the second-floor office I've been using for my writing.
“Screwed,” I said softly as I started climbing.
Clouds float by above the Straits of Mackinac, as viewed from Bois Blanc Island.
Inspiration ... and longevity
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 26, 2016 -- In those moments when I feel my resolve wavering, I will sometimes look for inspiration -- something that shows me that difficult situations can be overcome, that solutions can be found, that a deep breath and some nerve can see me through .... by simply moving forward, by going through.
One such inspiration is in the form of a 12-year-old girl from Great Britain who appeared on the Britain’s Got Talent show back in April -- a little slip of a thing, seemingly shy, looking to her mother for a nod or a smile of encouragement, as the girl stood on the stage in front of a large crowd and before clearly dubious judges, chief among them the often disagreeable Simon Cowell.
She confessed to him that she was indeed nervous, and then when asked, said -- to Cowell’s eye-rolling -- that she was going to sing “Defying Gravity” from the play “Wicked.” Judge Amanda Holden first enthused at the announcement, and then confided to a fellow judge that the song was a hard one.
And then the music started, and the little girl -- Beau Dermott, with her mother in the stage wings and her father and brother in the audience -- started singing. In moments, she owned the place. She morphed into a poised adult-like phenomenon with a low, assured voice that soared as the song demanded ... and by the end, after the final note, gave a look of determined victory that just as quickly reverted to that of a little girl, complete with shy smile and tears.
I showed the performance to a very good singer, and asked how this could be possible -- how a little girl could steel herself in the moment of truth, before a large hall full of people and before four doubting judges; could transform from little girl to astounding diva before changing back again, once the challenge had been met, after she had surged forward and through.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But she’s good.”
“We were not expecting that,” said Cowell to the girl after her performance. “I like the way you came up here and just mugged all of us, like ‘yeah, I’m really nervous.’ But that’s how you do it.” The performance was so astounding that Holden pressed the “Golden Buzzer” that released confetti and advanced Beau Dermott right past the audition round to the semifinals.
That Beau ran afoul of some social media heat later on -- she had, gasp, had singing lessons! -- and finished but fifth (on voting by a fickle public), does not diminish the feeling of resolve I get just by watching that audition video. The kid has a great future on stage, but beyond that, I have to think her example can be a beacon of inspiration for folks beyond just me.
Check out her performance on You Tube.
I had a request from a reader who likes my adventures (or lack thereof) that I write about here on the Island. He said he wanted pictures of Hawk’s Landing (right), where I get the occasional meal and the frequent ice cream cup, and of the cottage where I am staying with my brother and sister-in-law this summer. We've shared lodging each summer for a good many years, and have resided at four different places in the last four visits.
The cottage this year (below right) is perhaps the best yet; very comfortable and close to the water, so that the waves, when they’re white-capping, offer a soothing cadence that serves as a sleep aid at night and a calming visual attraction during the day.
So I include both pictures this time, along with some other shots I’ve taken, mostly with my phone camera. I’m tending to leave my regular camera in its bag, so as not to put further strain on my damaged right shoulder, which feels that with limited use it might be returning to a serviceable status as the high school sports season nears. (I won’t hurry back home, mind you, and so will miss some of the early fall contests in Schuyler County. But I’ll report on them through phone conversations or e-mails with coaches, and will run photos snapped by any shooters out there willing to provide them.)
Yes, I’ll be returning home, by and by -- unless I find an heiress up here who can’t live without me.
A large number of Island residents -- almost entirely summer denizens, the winter population numbering only a few dozen -- have been coming here for a very long time. I met a man recently who said his family’s Island presence dates back to the 1920s, when his grandparents started coming here. His mother was married here in the early 1950s, and he’s been on Bois Blanc all but one summer of his life. A good many others I’ve met have been summering here since well before my first visit in 1952.
I’m a newcomer by their standards. I figured out that I’ve been on the Island 30 times, for a little as a day (back in the late 1960s) and as long as six weeks or more when I was a child. The visit this year is six weeks, as well. All told, I’ve spent well over a year and a half here.
But that’s not much when compared to, say, the late Mary Babler.
She and her husband Wayne met my parents when both families lived in Manhasset, Long Island, at the beginning of the 1950s.
When my Dad secured a new job with the United States Shoe Corporation as its Michigan wholesale salesman in 1952, the Bablers -- annual visitors to Bois Blanc -- urged the Haeffners to vacation here ... which we did for five summers, until building a house on a lake north of Detroit, in Bloomfield Hills. The thinking was that with the lake, we didn’t need the Island or the Straits of Mackinac any longer, and so stopped coming. (A few years later, we did return to the Island one summer -- in 1962, when I met a girl slightly younger than me named Wendy Manning, who ultimately was the model for a character named Addie Winger in two of my novels. Then, with the exception of a couple of visits, I didn't return here until 1995, and have visited annually since.)
Anyway, Mary Babler once told me, after she had passed her 81st year, that she had been on the Island every summer save one, when she was a toddler. And each time she stayed for a lengthy period, since Mary’s family had the physical and economic comfort of a cottage purchased by her parents many years before we ever arrived. Assuming an average of two months times 80 years, Mary spent many cumulative years on the Island.
But even that pales next to lifetime residents -- year-rounders like the late Ray Plaunt, who was born up here (some say on the Island, some say the mainland) and lived 95 years, missing a significant amount of Bois Blanc time only while serving in the Pacific in World War Two. Ray should have written about his life; it was fascinating.
One of his contemporaries who did pen an autobiography was Jim Vosper, who died a couple of years ago. He spent a good portion of his childhood here, and wrote about it in a book, “Island Boyhood,” published in 2001. As an adult, Jim summered on Bois Blanc for many years while living most of the time in Wisconsin, and was an avid hunter, bagging his final Island deer in his final year, at the age of 93.
Yes, Jim passed away in 2014, and Ray in 2016. Every year or two a notable Islander appears in the obituaries, and is buried in the Bois Blanc cemetery. It was Ray’s turn this time.
The cemetery is, by any standards, a peaceful place -- shaded and quiet. Its headstones are mostly low lying, the better to weather the Island storms. It is located at the edge of The Pines, the Island’s only municipality, and it is easy to miss the turnoff into it. The road leading to the graves is more of a path, a dirt track through thick woods -- for the cemetery is, in fact, in the woods.
And that’s fitting, since Bois Blanc means white wood -- or more popularly white woods -- reflecting both the Island's white pine and birch trees.
Photos in text:
From top: Hawk's Landing; our cottage this summer; an Island road, with appropriate speed limit (it's 20 on the main road, also dirt); one of many street signs that appeared this year, adorning most of the side roads (and some driveways); one of the jays visiting us after we put out some food for them; and the ice cream case at Hawk's Landing, a popular stop for Island residents.
Chairs stationed along the Island's southern shore await an evening cocktail social hour.
Sunset on Bois Blanc Island as viewed from in front of the Hawk's Landing eatery.
A storm in the Straits of Mackinac caused damage along the Island shore in 1953.
Of history ... and death
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 20, 2016 -- Two weeks into this vacation, life on Bois Blanc has slowed; many of the summer visitors are heading back home to work and to school. A young waitress at Hawk’s Landing departs soon for her freshman year at the University of Michigan.
“I’m really excited,” she said. "I'm not really mentally prepared, because -- you know -- I've been working hard here. But I imagine it will all fall into place when I get there."
Of course, that leaves the Hawk’s owner, Austin Sims, without one of his employees, and a very good one at that. Getting enough dependable help is proving a bit of a problem -- even with the dwindling population; another, middle-aged Hawk's waitress was lamenting recently during a break that she was working 12 hours that day.
“It’s a lot,” she noted rather obviously.
A longtime, dependable waitress named Carleen died in the offseason, which surprised me. She was on the elderly side, but didn’t seem at all ill. Besides, there is a certain sheen of longevity on the Island. We lost the former ferry skipper, Ray Plaunt, in February at the age of 95. Miriam Hoover, the widow of the president of the Hoover Vacuum company and a major landholder here, is 102. And one Island resident is 103. There are others, including a woman at the next table from us at Hawk’s the other day who mentioned that with the arrival of her 90s, she had relinquished a little in the area of her auditory capabilities. She wasn’t deaf, but leaning that way.
A group of mostly middle-aged to quite elderly folks showed up for a Memory Night at the Wagner Room the other evening. It’s a community room located at the rear of the fire department on the outskirts of The Pines, the Island’s lone municipality.
Memory Night was run by Mike White, a longtime Bois Blanc resident who is also its chief historian. But on this night he seemed disorganized. He had a computer that he was using to show some random photos of the Island -- most of them taken long ago -- on a screen as the gathering of about 30 people arrived.
His main presentation, though, was a video transferred from film shot by Miriam Hoover's late husband, Earl, back in 1966 and 1967 showing the construction of the Hoover Building, a one-story meeting place donated by him and located next to the Church of the Transfiguration in The Pines. The church is one of two on Bois Blanc, the other being a nondenominational chapel housed in a converted Coast Guard boathouse on the Island’s east end, some 10 miles distant from The Pines place of worship.
The film was interesting, showing the step-by-step process of building the Hoover structure. But when the film was done, Mike White seemed at a loss about what to present next -- until a woman in the audience said, “Well, show us those photos you had up there before, when we were walking in.”
It turned out that there were hundreds of photos in there, some of which Mike would show briefly, while keeping others up on the screen while people debated who might be pictured and when -- though some of the photos were marked accordingly. It turned into a long session of an historical nature, with audience members often able to add substance to the photos we were seeing.
One photo was of a storm in 1953 that struck the island, washing some small boats well onto the shore and damaging various docks. This happened after my family had started coming to the Island (in 1952) -- but occurred after our 1953 visit. I am presenting one photo from that storm (at the top of this column) that I snagged with my cellphone as I pointed it toward the screen. The original was snapped from a spot on the southern shore in front of the Hoovers' cottage, a sturdy old structure that dates back to around 1908. The Southern Straits sign in the photo still stands in front of the Hoover place.
Another photo shows the Atherton Ayers -- a smallish freighter, but far, far larger than the crafts that Bois Blanc normally welcomes to its shores -- aground off Sand Bay on the Island’s western side. This had nothing to do with the 1953 storm, though; it occurred in 1989.
And there was a rare photo of the old firetower -- gone for many years now -- used by volunteers and, I suspect, old Department of Natural Resources workers to scan the treetops of the Island many decades ago, keeping an eye out for any suspicious smoke or any flames. As the first line of fire defense, it was located on the Firetower Road that slices through the Island’s midsection.
It was also in recent years the subject of debate among locals, some of whom insisted it had four legs, while others said three. The latter camp, the photo shows, was right.
The evening ended before Mike White (pictured at right) got through all of the photos in that computer. He seemed intent on reaching the end of them, though it was clear he had no idea how many there were. Some of the crowd started leaving, in ones and twos, after 90 or so minutes while the Babcock family gathered outside, waiting entrance so they could set up tables and goods for the next day’s Babcock Family Sale in the Wagner Room -- a combination rummage and bake sale, complete with raffle. It was to start at 9 a.m.
Finally, Mike’s wife, there among the audience, sidled up to him and urged him to shut down the computer; the show had to end. He hesitated, but when more people rose to leave, he finally relented.
One of the Island residents -- a man who has summered here since childhood and is now over 70 -- laughed over Mike’s plight.
“Historians,” he said. “They never want to give up on the history.”
Photos in text:
From top: The old Island firetower, taken down many years ago; a freighter aground off the Island in 1989; and historian Mike White, who is probably the man with the most knowledge of Bois Blanc.
I have felt it in the air: death dancing around my psyche ever since I arrived on the Island this summer. Friday evening, it left its calling card.
I learned of the passing on Aug. 9 of a man who meant much to me in my early years -- a first cousin named John Schumaker of Queensbury, New York. He was 69, just a little older than me, and like the rest of the 13 first cousins in the Haeffner-Schumaker-Black-Bennett clan, we were -- through our first three decades -- fairly close. Then life took us over, and John and I and all the other cousins concentrated on family and jobs and personal pursuits that led us seemingly far from one another, though none of them have ever been far from my mind.
Now John, an architectural draftsman by trade, a Civil War enthusiast and a man with an infectious grin and laugh, has left us after a battle with cancer. He is the first of the first cousins to go, and I find myself battling back the tears -- not only for his passing, but for what we lost by straying from one another. I hope that my brother Bob and I can arrange a springtime reunion of the remaining cousins -- reunions being something experienced by our families on a regular basis growing up, and now long overdue.
But alas, one cousin for certain can't be there.
God bless you, John. I find myself missing you ... now that it’s too late to do anything about it.
A quiet Island hideaway ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 12, 2016 -- “Hey, the Haeffner boys are back!”
Larry Phillips, past owner (and still part-time worker) at Hawk’s Landing, called out those words when he spotted my brother Bob and me as we entered that eatery on our first evening this summer on the Island, a little over a week ago. Larry also operates a real estate office, located in a room in the corner of Hawk’s.
“How long this time?” he asked, which is a standard line here on Bois Blanc. Larry and his wife don’t get asked that, though, since they have managed to secure a year-round existence here -- one of the chosen few dozen who manage it.
Bob and I, with Bob’s wife Gussie, are here for a six-week stay -- the longest for any Haeffners since Bob and I were children and accompanied our parents to this unique setting in the 1950s. We told Larry as much, and asked what was new.
“Well, that place you stayed last year?” he said. I nodded, recalling with fondness a modern home overlooking Lake Huron on the Island’s southwest shoreline, on the outskirts of the lone municipality of Pointe aux Pins (referred to by locals as Point of Pines, or simply The Pines). We occupied that structure -- a comfortable two-story home -- for five weeks, and were thinking about buying it until a woman living full-time elsewhere on the Island purchased it before we could act.
“It just sold again,” said Larry. “Or at least the sale is pending.”
I was mildly annoyed, disturbed that I hadn't been notified when it became available. “You could have told us,” I said, but Larry’s blank look told me he didn’t recall my interest in the place last year.
“Yeah,” he finally said. "The woman selling it has to be out in sixty days,” but he couldn’t explain why she was unloading it after so short a time. “Anyway, welcome back,” he said. “Where you staying this year?”
“The Vanderbeck place,” my brother told him. “Out a couple miles to the east.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Larry. “Nice place. They’re not using it?”
In fact, we had been steered to this summer’s cottage -- our fourth different one in four summers -- by a lifelong Bois Blanc summer resident we knew when we were kids, name of Bruce McAfee. He knows everything about everybody on the Island, it seems. The Vanderbecks -- though we've never met them -- were regulars here for years until health issues precluded their annual visits starting last summer.
It is a beautiful cottage, right on the shoreline looking southeast across Lake Huron. It is approached on a narrow track cut through the woods -- a track that we had difficulty finding, since trees on either side hug the main (dirt) road (East Huron Drive) and thus obscure the entrance until a driver is on it or past it. I likened it to a hideout of the Old West.
“It’s like a Hole in the Wall,” I said to Gussie after she almost missed it while driving back on our fourth day here from a farmer’s market outside The Pines-situated Island fire station. I was referring to Butch Cassidy’s old hideaway, which is what this is: a hideaway -- quiet, tucked out of sight and barely registering traffic sounds, and receiving none of the dust that kicks up from the road.
(We solved the difficulty in finding the turn-in by tying three white kitchen garbage bags end to end and then looping them around the tree on the driveway entrance’s right side. It is easy to pick out that tree now.)
The cottage -- a two-story structure with modern kitchen and large, enclosed porch -- looks direcly out at the Poe Reef Lighthouse some miles distant. The shore is sandy, but the water is laden with small stones that are far from comfortable for wading. Protective footgear is a must.
Nonetheless, that discomfort aside, this is as placid a locale as we’ve occupied. We utilized one cottage -- owned by the Marconi family of Cleveland -- each summer for more than a decade, but it was sold during the spring three years ago, prompting a quick search for a replacement. We found a three-story structure with a red roof not far from our current place -- we called it, naturally, the Red Roof Inn -- but the stairs were killers on our old knees.
So we found last year’s place on the southwestern shore, and then this.
I have found that my love of summer reading has returned; I read three books the first week here, the same number I waded through during the five-week visit in 2015. I arrived this time with so many aches and pains -- sore shoulder (too much photography, I expect), sore leg (from slipping on a wet spot in the kitchen back home, leaving a stubborn knee bruise) and a seemingly hyperactive back -- that I decided I needed to sit and rest and read for the most part until I felt better. That approach seems to be working. The aches are slowly diminishing.
I have managed to keep up on most of the goings-on back home, but won’t be there to photograph anything for some time, so hopefully folks with cameras can send me some shots.
Meanwhile, highlights here are pretty low-keyed.
Beyond an occasional meal at Hawk’s -- which is one of the four or five social gathering places on Bois Blanc -- we have visited a weekly Farmers’ Market (a husband and wife there make the best pies) and will be attending a Memory Night (where folks presumably will regale us with tales of the Island as it used to be). There are also square dances, a reading club, a weekly fun night (through August) at the Coast Guard Chapel on the East End, and a big rummage sale (upcoming).
No, you’re right. There isn’t much going on here.
It is a hideaway, after all, and most people on Bois Blanc like it that way: quiet.
And I’m among them.
Farewell to a boyhood hero
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 6, 2016 -- The drive from Odessa to northern Michigan was uneventful. I left about noon on Tuesday, and arrived in Pinconning, well north of Saginaw, about 10:30 p.m. and found a motel with a vacancy.
I linked up with my brother and sister-in-law there the next morning -- they were en route from Florida and passing through Michigan by a different route, but Pinconning bound. That was one reason I decided to stop there -- to meet up with them and caravan from there to our destination two hours north. We had done so in the past.
We have shared summer lodging on the Island for many years, with various friends or family occasionally joining the fray. This time their son was planning to arrive with some of his offspring, but canceled out at the last minute. That made the logistics simple at the cottage we are renting this year: I get the upstairs, with two bedrooms, a bathroom with shower, and a work area designed for artwork but perfect for my computers. Brother Bob and Gussie get a large master bedroom, and Gussie generally owns the kitchen and laundry room. The general gathering area is a large enclosed porch that looks out on the Straits of Mackinac and toward Cheboygan in the distance.
After we had met in Pinconning Wednesday morning and consumed a huge breakfast at a diner across from the motel, we headed for that selfsame Cheboygan, where we would do some grocery shopping and board the ferry for the crossing to Bois Blanc Island. Bois Blanc (correctly pronounced with its Frenchness as Bwa Blonk, but called Boys Blank by far too many locals) is seven miles from the mainland.
When we arrived at the parking area where we would board the ferry, we went to the Plaunt Transportation office adjoining it to pay and pick up our round-trip tickets. There, we discovered a flyer that contained some unnerving news -- old by now to Island denizens, but fresh and thus painful to us.
It said, quite simply, that the man who had long run the ferry business years ago -- a man who had been, for me, a childhood hero -- had died in February. Ray Plaunt, with whom we (and other admirers) had met the previous year on the Island at a couple of special Thursday "Say Hi to Ray" gatherings -- has passed away after living for 95 and a half years.
At my age, death saddens, and especially when it's someone who has meant so much to me; but my first thought was "Thank God we got to see him last year."
Ray had been the Island ferry skipper back when I was a wee lad -- a man who piloted his boat casually while half-turned to talk to his passengers gathered in the pilot-house, which doubled as a passenger area. He was not a large man, but he seemed bigger than life to me; swarthy, wiry, tough, and yet fun-loving. He was a hunter and fisherman -- a man of the land who carved out a good living for his family. His son eventually took over the ferry business; his two daughters, raised on the Island, still visit there summers.
I used Ray as a model for a character in two novels I wrote: as a ferry boat skipper named Jacques Lafitte -- known as Lightfoot Jack, an anglicized version of his character's name -- who, in the second book, appeared to have had a World War Two role as a sort of superspy in Europe. When I told Ray about this some years ago, he laughed heartily and said: "I served in the Pacific." Whether he was actually a spy, he didn't say.
I had visited the Island as a child for several summers, and then not at all (save for one half-day visit) for 17 years -- and then not again for another 16 years. Then I wrote the first of my novels -- set on Bois Blanc in my childhood past -- and was about to write another, bringing the story up to the current day. But I needed to see what changes time had wrought, and so my wife and I ventured up here for three days in an October of the mid-1990s, and despite sleeping in small, now-razed, bug-infested cabins, were so taken by the Island that we wanted to return the following summer -- if we could find better lodging.
We knew of one rental cottage, owned by Ray's son Curt, and asked Curt if we might secure it for a couple of weeks the next season. He balked, explaining that he didn't normally rent to strangers, which we essentially were. I asked him to check with his father, for I hoped that Ray -- having known my parents in the old days -- might put in a good word.
And that's what he did. "The Haeffners?" Ray said to his son. "The Haeffners are good people!"
And so Curt rented to us, a situation that continued for several summers, until we opted for alternative lodging.
My brother and his family started coming up annually in 1999, and each year, with the exception of a couple, we saw Ray at one time or another during our stay, when he would visit the Island for a day or two. He was living in Cheboygan rather than on the Island, since medical care on Bois Blanc falls far short of that on the mainland. And along the way he sustained a stroke, fought through that, lost much of his hearing, and was working with diminishing eyesight.
And yet he was cheerful at those Thursday gatherings -- during day trips to Bois Blanc from his Cheboygan home -- and delighted to visit with people from his past who were delighted to see him. But one of his daughters, Lee, says he was frustrated at being dependent on other people. He had been a virile, independent spirit, and aging was tough.
Then in February he fell and broke his back. It wasn't considered major at first -- the Cheboygan Hospital didn't see the break on a scan, Lee said -- but the pain was significant, and he was finally taken to another hospital, in Petoskey, which is over on the western side of the state, along Lake Michigan. Doctors there confirmed the break, and admitted him.
Complications occurred -- blood pressure and heart-rate issues, among others -- until he finally told Lee that he was ready to go; ready to meet his maker.
"I'm just waiting for The Man to open the door," he said.
He seemed stable the last time she saw him alive, there in the hospital, but he passed on the next morning -- a legend going through that door to what I hope is a just reward.
There should be a special place in heaven for shining beacons, upstanding family men who also happen to be heroes to young, impressionable boys.
God bless you, Ray Plaunt.
You were -- to me and many others -- something special.
Photo in text: Ray Plaunt with a summer Island resident, Mary Ellen Landschulz, during a gathering on Bois Blanc in August of 2015.
Tendency to sensationalize
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, Aug. 1, 2016 -- I was dismayed to see the Star-Gazette and, then later, the local weekly offering in prominent headlines an audit finding from the State Comptroller taking to task the Odessa-Montour School District for having a fund balance with too much money, among other less than earth-shaking infractions.
There was nothing major in the pronouncement -- several areas, basically, that needed attention, the easiest to understand being the fund balance exceeding the legally allowed 4% of the total budget. Mistakes like this are not unusual; shortcomings occur in the fluidity of the budget process.
But by the way the system works, the Comptroller always releases his findings in a formulaic way, and news operations -- if they aren't careful -- fall into the trap ... overplay it all. They sensationalize something essentially humdrum.
In a basic summary the comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, wrote in part: "The (O-M) board and district officials did not adequately manage the district’s financial condition. They overestimated general fund appropriations when preparing and adopting the last three completed fiscal year’s budgets ... overfunded three reserves ... and overstated a liability, which further increases the excessive amount of unrestricted fund balance."
The School Board itself addressed the issue at a workshop meeting on July 28, where Superintendent Chris Wood (pictured at right, whose first reaction was a seemingly reasonable one, whereby he pointed out that there were three superintendents in the district recently, a disjointing transition that saw Jim Frame, interim Peter Punzo and Wood in the district's top chair) explained that he had sat down that morning with interim Business Manager Carolyn Benedict, a woman of extensive experience in the field of management and audits, to discuss each audit point. Some of it seemed pretty petty, Wood seemed to say, adding: "I think we're being smart. Two years in a row now we've gone below the (state's tax cap)." Taxes have remained almost constant for six years.
School Board President Rob Halpin took it farther, saying that while "It's good to have a broad discussion about what this is and what it means, if anything," the Comptroller uses a standard formula in his report that yields headlines that can "make it easy to panic." And some of the Comptroller's language, he said, is "asinine" -- helping to foment those headlines and leaving the victims, in some regards, scratching their heads.
"So it's best to have a discusson," he said. "What I saw was sort of a critique of our philosophy" used in "building a budget." But at the same time, he noted, there were a couple of points that needed study to "understand how they occurred." He also said the board was already aware of the excess fund balance. "We had a discussion about that," he said, "and what we might do about it." Next comes the expected "corrective action."
But first, Benedict had something to add. She said she had seen a story in Westchester County recently about health care costs, one that was blown out of proportion. The story made a relatively small amount of money sound excessive by quoting the dollars in question instead of the minisucle percentage of the budget that they constituted. "They tend to grab things that make for good press," she said in reference to either the Comptroller or the media before hesitating and adding: "I'd better not say any more."
And the discussion ended. But it left me nodding at a consistent, inherent shortcoming of the media: a tendency to sensationalize or, sometimes, create circumstances that beg sensationalism. Journalism is, alas, a business that requires attention in order to succeed -- and in our era of big business, that attention, at least on the national stage, requires constant feeding.
Maybe it's the constant drumbeat of negativity on the national airwaves, courtesy of a 24-hour news cycle -- but I can't help but attach this O-M situation, fueled as it by a faulty media mechanism out of Albany, with the ups and downs of a certain "Republican" presidential candidate reported ad nauseam by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Talk about your perfect marriage of needs.
Anyway, it was the headline-grabbing, one-sided system of state-level storytelling that kept me off the O-M audit story -- just as the national media should have resisted -- rejected -- its incessant need to interview Donald Trump every time he fulminated during the primary season. That raucous rudeness of his -- mixed with media attention -- helped create the perfect storm that has become Hurricane Donald.
Enough said. I don't feel like adding to that narrative -- at least not today, not any more than I just did. I could too easily get carried away by fulminating myself about him.
I'm leaving soon for my annual trip to Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac. I'll be hanging out there with my brother -- reading, writing, hiking and, I hope, relaxing. I will be taking my computers with me to keep The Odessa File up to date, following happenings back home through press releases, guest photography, and phone conversations. And I will, I expect, be writing about the Island and the people there. My son Jon will oversee the Odessa homestead in my absence.
Stealing more than words ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, July 21, 2016 -- I have a friend who lives up in Canada. In Kingston, Ontario. He, like me, is into card collecting and card trading; that’s how we met, although I can’t recall the exact moment. He’s been a visitor annually to my house for so many years that it seems as though I’ve known him forever.
I lost contact with him some months ago, and didn’t get it back until this week. It wasn’t unusual for him to be incommunicado, but he had been scheduled to send me some collectible materials I had paid for some months ago, and hadn’t -- and so I wondered.
This week, when he called, his voice was scratchy, his energy noticeably down. It turned out he had been in the hospital for five months after suffering a heart attack and, he said, after dying three times -- yes, thrice -- and undergoing triple bypass surgery. And he is barely older than me, at 68.
He was home from the hospital on leave; scheduled to return there. But he was itching to get into our old habit of trading cards. He wanted to know what I had picked up in the way of cards since his disappearance, and when I told him, he got excited and wanted a set of my Zorro cards from the late 1950s; in return, he would send me this and that.
I laughed. Here was a man who had touched death, and still isn’t well, and he wanted to get back to those things he enjoyed. I told him I could do a basic trade, but that we should wait until he was healthier before stepping up the game.
The other thing he wanted was this: He wanted me to check out my own health.
“This thing hit me without warning,” he said. “I was at an antique show, dealing with a customer, and I just dropped like a sack of potatoes. It didn’t hurt or anything, but I couldn’t move; couldn't do anything.”
Now, back from the dead, he was worried about an old friend.
“I’d hate to lose you,” he said.
Nice to be wanted, I thought, although I’ve long been inclined to let nature have its way; to live like my ancestors, checking out when the time comes. I gradually accumulated that philosophy, I think, starting with my father's death in 1994 -- and then with a visit to the hospital in 1999, when a shortness of breath led doctors to decide I’d had a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. I hadn’t, as a camera doctors ran up to my heart showed; in fact, the heart was clean and, two physicians told me, that of a man half my age.
The problem, we finally figured out, was a bad back -- which was an expensive lesson: don't necessarily trust a diagnosis. But before learning that, I had said goodbye to my mother -- a wrenching experience. And yet ... and yet I survived, only to see her leave us 12 years later. In between, I lost my wife and her father, not to mention an aunt and a brother-in-law. The longer we live, the higher the body count mounts.
But I don't want to discuss death per se. I'm taking a sharp turn here, from the personal to the political -- for the more death I have seen, the more sensitive, I find, that my BS meter has become. But with age has also come some peace. I don’t get as riled as I did when, as a young man, Richard Nixon set me off. I remember watching TV once with my Mom; it was a press conference, and Nixon said something that had me shouting at the TV screen: “You're lying!” My mother thought that was horribly disrespectful. I wonder what she’d think of our two current presidential candidates.
Back in those long-ago days, I guess I believed that Nixon and his corrupt running mate, Spiro Agnew, were the only politicians who were clearcut liars; call it naivete. I’m guessing that a high percentage of politicians then, as now, were full of BS. But Nixon and Agnew were the only ones I could read clearly back then as dishonest, just as -- in an opposite vein -- I think Ohio Governor John Kasich is the only mostly honest politician today.
Which brings us to the Republicans' quadrennial convention -- the hatefest the GOP has been running in Cleveland. At least the streets have been peaceful.
The most fascinating aspect of the convention, to me, has been the Melania Trump flap -- the fallout from her speech, one that carried a plagiarized portion of Michelle Obana’s 2008 convention speech. What was most alarming was not the plagiarism -- although I take such things personally, for a reason --- but the disingenuous, deflecting and dishonest reaction by the Trump camp, and in particular the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, trying to tell us the sky isn’t blue. The Clinton camp is dishonest enough, but at least in a traditional, political way. These Trump clowns are by habit bullies, deniers, accusers and deep-in-the-marrow finger pointers -- a more or less civilized street gang.
Now, about that personal affront that plagiarism triggers. I recall, first, how Senator Joe Biden ran into a mess back in 1987 during a presidential campaign when he lifted and used words from a British politician’s speech without attribution, although he claimed to have attributed the usage when employing the words before. Later it was reported he had similarly borrowed phrases in law school, and from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. I took particular exception because it created a conflict in me: I liked Biden, but I treasured the value of the written word. Of course, history tells us he dropped out of the presidential race, never to grab the brass ring.
Then there was a fellow college student -- actually two years ahead of me -- who was Harvard Law School-bound until he lifted some phrasing from an established work in a key history paper he wrote in his senior year. The way I heard it -- although the student wasn’t talking about it much -- is that his professor recognized the plagiarism, called the student in for a little chat, told him he would be passing him ... but that he would also be notifying Harvard, which in turn brought the hammer down on the student, blocking his admission and with it a rather prestigious career path.
Much later, in 1988, when I was working as a copy editor at USA Today, we had weekly contests for best headlines -- and one I wrote was claimed by another editor. I bit my tongue, since I ended up winning 17 awards in my 14 weeks there (on loan from the Elmira Star-Gazette). I figured one more award wouldn’t matter, while the guy claiming this one seemed somewhat desperate to achieve something. But it still rankles.
And I wrote a story once about a new sheriff in Jefferson County, up in Watertown, when I was a reporter at the Daily Times there. It was a feature piece, based on an interview with the sheriff and on research, and we published it prominently. A week or so later, a fairly new paper -- memory tells me it was a combination penny saver and news vessel -- printed its own story about the sheriff, with the byline of a reporter whose name I didn’t recognize. Alas, it wasn’t really “its own story”; it was mine, reprinted verbatim, with no credit to me whatsoever.
That one hit most deeply -- for it was like a thief breaking into my home and stealing something I prized. Plagiarism is theft -- of words, true, but behind them research and creativity and, in the crafting of a solid piece of entertainment and information, years of training. You use my words, you steal a piece of my soul.
I tried to connect with someone at that paper in order to complain, but they seemed to be ducking me; avoided me at every turn. So I took the matter to my publisher, but in true form -- for he was a quiet, thoughtful, pipe-smoking figure who approached most matters philosophically -- he told me it wasn’t worth my time or effort, for any newspaper that would purloin someone's work simply didn’t merit a second glance. It wasn't worthy of the attention of a real newspaper or a real reporter.
Besides, he said -- and this was a line I'd heard from him more than once -- “never get into a pissing match with a skunk.”
That last word, I suppose -- skunk -- is as apt a description of any plagiarist as I can conjure. And so I'll leave it there.
Except for this: Politics and plagiarism aside, I have some Zorro cards to mail.
A blast from the past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, July 10, 2016 -- I was watching a news account Thursday on MSNBC about the Baton Rouge police shooting of a black man on Wednesday -- an incident that had preceded by a day a similar shooting in Minnesota that led, ultimately, to the assassination of five police officers in Dallas.
The reporter in Baton Rouge -- on my TV screen -- was a slender brunette, a white woman sleekly dressed, talking about the situation there, but in truth I wasn't listening. I had in an instant thought she looked familiar, only to be told a second later her identity by a line of type at the bottom of the screen. It said she was Tammy Leitner.
"Oh, my god!" I said to the screen; to the woman. For I knew her -- past tense, years ago. Formal name Tamara. Last name pronounced Lightner. It could even be argued that if not for me, she would not have been in front of that camera in Baton Rouge, speaking to me through my TV screen.
I'm not claiming responsibility for her success; she earned it, being a very driven person who, from the beginning, aspired to career excellence.
But if I hadn't been involved in her first break in the journalism business -- had I not had a hand in hiring her -- it could be argued that the arc of her life would have been greatly altered.
Let me explain.
My boss, Mike Gossie, was out on medical leave for a few weeks while I worked at The Leader newspaper in Corning in the late 1990s. I'm guessing this was in 1997. Anyway, John Kelleher and I -- Mike's assistants -- were faced while he was gone with a need to fill a reporting staff vacancy, and accordingly interviewed some prospects.
One was Tammy Leitner, a college graduate with a master's degree from Boston University (at least that's what Wikipedia tells me; I had forgotten) who was in her mid-20s, confident to the point of brashness. I thought she did well in the interview, but Kelleher was only lukewarm and wanted to complete the interview process -- see who all was out there. And so some weeks went by before -- really needing a new reporter -- we contacted Leitner. Memory tells me I urged it, while John was still reluctant. By that point I thought she might have hooked on with another paper, but it turned out that she was still available, and so she reported for work at The Leader.
Fast forward to the return to work of my boss, Mike Gossie, who wanted right away to know who the attractive young reporter was. Mike, being single, was soon spending time with Tammy -- a relationship that ultimately had them living together and eventually leaving the paper and moving west to newspaper jobs in Arizona.
I have to say that Tammy and I never learned to like each other. Call it bad chemistry. She had a sharp tongue, even more so than mine, and we traded pointed barbs throughout her stay. Not that she wasn't a good reporter; she was, although a little too aggressive, too ambitious for my taste in pursuing stories. If there was one that she deemed important, she wanted to be involved -- refused to take "no" for an answer. She wanted, from the outset, to build a resume that would garner attention. (I recall in particular her coverage of a visit to our area by former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.)
And she wrote some entertaining stories, in particular one in which she spent time -- I don't remember if it was overnight or longer -- in the county jail, so she could see life there from the perspective of the inmates.
After she and Mike moved west, Tammy distinguished herself in a couple of ways: by saving an endangered swimmer from a lake near the house she shared with Mike; and then as a contestant on the "Survivor" television show in its fourth season. She parlayed her "Survivor" fame into a TV reporting job in Arizona, and started the arc leading to the Baton Rouge report in which I spotted her. She married Mike along the way -- in a West Coast ceremony attended by, among others, her friends from "Survivor."
She started her TV career at a CBS affiliate in Phoenix, and won several Emmy awards. She took up triathlon training and competitions, too -- and to her credit helped save Mike's life by alerting her brother, a physician, about a condition Mike had, called to his attention by an ophthalmologist who noticed too much copper color within Mike's eyes and cautioned that he should get it checked. This came just before the move west, and Mike started losing his energy shortly after. Tammy alertly notified her brother, who in turn recognized the seriousness of the condition -- a rare disorder called Wilson's Disease in which the body has a growing and unchecked supply of copper, which can prove fatal. The brother helped get Mike into an experimental treatment program at the University of Michigan Medical Center that was testing the effect on the disease of a derivative of Australian or New Zealand grasses. The treatment worked, and Mike was saved, although he had to temporarily adopt a lifestyle dialed down from his norm -- which has long included a lot of running and other athletically related activities, which he eventually resumed.
I had visited Mike near the end of his months-long stay at the U of M. This was in 1999, and we went to a Detroit Tigers game with him and Tammy and a visiting Kelleher -- who himself had moved on to another newspaper management position. (I too had left The Leader.)
Not long after, Mike was released from the U of M program, and he and Tammy returned to their lives in Arizona, and me to mine in New York. Eventually, I started The Odessa File, saw Mike once more, and then lost touch with him, other than through occasional e-mails. The years passed, and I ultimately heard through the grapevine in 2011 that he and Tammy had divorced, a fact that Mike confirmed in a message not long after. Mike moved on along the way to another Arizona job -- a prestigious management position in publishing -- while Tammy (Wikipedia tells me) joined WCBS-TV in New York City in 2013, continuing in her reporting strength of investigative journalism. From there she joined WMAQ-TV -- NBC Chicago -- in March of 2014 in the same role.
It was in connection with that job, I assume, that she was sent to Baton Rouge for a story that had garnered national attention and outrage -- a precursor to the Minnesota and Dallas tragedies.
In researching Tammy's career path, I happened upon her Facebook page, and was heartened to see, near the top, that "3,511 people like this," and that among them, pictured right there, was Mike Gossie.
I assume (actually, I hope) from that that they have remained friends, which is something Tammy and I never were; we remained, in fact, at arm's length and a bit adversarial in her early post-Corning years. It was in one of those years -- I think about 2003 -- when Mike's sister Lisa died, and a funeral service was held at a Hammondsport church. Mike, when he saw me upon my arrival at the church, gave me a bear-hug greeting, while Tammy and I merely nodded to one another. After the service, a group of us were standing outside, talking, and I happened to be next to Tammy.
At one point, neither of us was engaged in the group discussion, so I turned to her and said: "You're looking well, Tammy."
She turned to me and said: "Thank you, Charles."
After a few moments, I turned my head halfway in her direction, and leaning toward her, added this: "You realize, of course, how much it pained me to say that."
She smiled and nodded.
"Yes, Charles, I do."
And that, I believe, is the last time I ever saw her ... until Thursday, when her image was talking to me about Baton Rouge and I was saying, "Oh, my god ...."
She had made it to the national stage, this ambitious reporter. Had we never met, she probably would have made it, anyway ... but by a much different route. She would not have met Mike, would not have raised the alarm about his health, would not (in all likelihood) have been in a position to make the "Survivor" show and turn its fame into a TV reporting career.
But as I said: ambition. It is not always endearing, that trait, but it can prove to be unstoppable.
So to the "Oh, my god" I uttered to the television screen, I now add, in all fairness, and only a bit grudgingly:
"Damn, kid. You made it. Good for you."
Of justice delayed ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, June 30, 2016 -- The press release arrived as many of its type have: with fanfare and unavoidable bias, from the group protesting Crestwood's storage of methane and the firm's proposed storage of Liquefied Petroleum Gas in abandoned salt caverns.
If there was an accompanying soundtrack, it would likely have featured Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
The press release proclaimed "Victory for We Are Seneca Lake Protesters as Mistrial Declared in Town of Reading Court." Given the often partisan, sometimes outraged (depending on circumstance) tone of most such missives, I harbored doubts as to the validity of its facts.
But after checking with the District Attorney's office, it seems the release was reasonably accurate as far as the factual progression of a Reading court case gone horribly awry on Tuesday afternoon, June 28th.
The Town of Reading Justice is Raymond Berry, a man who to my thinking is a classic old gentleman. He is, like many locally elected town and village justices, limited in his law training. Now on the far side of 80, he has been faced -- at a time in life when any man or woman should be winding down, or at best operating with dignity in a traditional schedule unfettered by too much nonsense -- with a situation beyond the capacity of any such justice, whether 30 or 80.
His court has been inundated with hundreds of trespass and disorderly conduct cases stemming from the Crestwood protests. The protesters, with some regularity, gather at the Crestwood gate along Route 14 north of Watkins Glen, blocking the entrance and exit of any and all vehicles, prompting the arrival of Sheriff's deputies or village police to haul them down to the Sheriff's Office for processing and release.
The end result: the court system, which is to say primarily the Town of Reading Court -- since Reading is where the protests occur -- is overwhelmed. There is a second town justice, John Norman, but he has long since recused himself because of employment with Crestwood. That has put the onus on Berry.
I stood in court for some of the early protester proceedings, and it was a grind. The legal system moves ever slowly -- and for a man of advanced years (as Berry is) to tackle it, and seemingly embrace it, was a bit beyond my understanding. And that is not ageism from the keyboard of a spring chicken; I am of Social Security age, and feeling some of the weight of years.
No ... I thought, and still think, that Judge Berry is a sympathetic figure here -- not the image of the biased barrister that the protesters have promoted. I see him more as a kindly figure being steamrolled by sheer numbers.
And I can't help but feel he would have been better served by somehow avoiding the whole mess. Although, it must be said, he sought re-election in 2015 with protest cases gaining in number and his eyes presumably open.
Anyway, what basically happened Tuesday -- according to those news reports from the protest camp, and according to word circulating around the county courthouse the next day -- was that Berry, hearing the first of what promised to be scores of trials in coming months, listened to the prosecution present its case, listened as the defense moved for dismissal, and then declared the defendant guilty without the defense having presented its case.
That prompted the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John Tunney, to explain to the judge that he had to allow a defense, after which Berry is purported to have said "I still find him guilty." Ultimately, on motion of one of the defense counsel, Sujata Gibson of Ithaca, Berry agreed to recuse himself from the case and agreed to declare a mistrial. According to the press release, the motion to recuse also covered all future related -- which is to say protester -- trials.
I talked to the District Attorney, Joe Fazzary, the next day and he had heard much the same story, presumably as related by Tunney. He wasn't absolutely certain that Berry was going to recuse himself from all such future trials, saying that there is a process that must be followed -- application to a higher court -- for that to be put into motion. If it does take effect, he didn't know what the disposition might be of all of the upcoming trials. There are scores of them, and they would have to be reassigned.
The cases could be distributed to various village and town courts, or dumped into a single one. In any event -- recusals or not -- the DA's office continues to face a lot of work on protests, which will likely only continue, adding many more arrests to the 600 or so that have already occurred in the past couple of years. The workload will -- needless to say, I suppose -- still be intense for the presiding judge, too, whether it's Berry or someone else handed the reins to this judicial mayhem.
And that's what it is -- a deliberate move to clog the courts. After a deliberate move to keep law enforcement officers busier than they want to be. After signs are painted and protest themes concocted and supporters engaged to be at the Crestwood gate on specific hours of specific days.
It's all permitted, though; it's constitutional. And it's for a cause; one, quite frankly, with which I'm sympathetic. And I support the right to protest. But I don't like the means to the end here; it seems showboaty, and shallow, and aimed at the wrong target: the judiciary. I don't like when a good man like Ray Berry is hammered: disdained, denigrated. He signed on to run a court that dealt with things like traffic infractions, small claims, and zoning violations, with an occasional criminal arraignment thrown in.
This logically calls to mind the nature of the village justice system, which in New York State consists of some 1,900 justices in 1,250 courts. You or I -- or any resident of age -- can run for that office; get elected with no legal experience or expertise. Oh, there's a course that the newly elected must take, and a renewal course every few years, but the knowledge a course imparts pales next to law school and a daily dose of courtroom experience.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has pressed for reform of the system, its staff attorney telling the state Assembly's Judiciary Committee, for instance, that the majority of town and village justice positions are "filled by minimally trained non-lawyers ... (who) have the power to imprison people for up to one year, evict people from their homes, set bail that can result in lengthy pre-trial incarceration for people awaiting their day in court, and impose substantial fines. Though they wield this great power, (they) are not equipped to use it wisely."
"I used to be in favor of the village justice system," said one area lawyer who served as a village justice before going to law school and learning the depths and shoals and possibilities inherent in the tangled web of rules, regulations and parameters inherent in our legal system. "Now," he said, "I'm not. I would like to see a district court system. Get rid of all of these small courts, and move the cases" to a courtroom with a judge who has studied the law and understands trial procedures.
Problems with that, of course, would include the traditional: opposition by government to a loss of local control, to a wresting of a local residential right to choose judicial representation from within; and an inconvenience, should a successive court be located far away instead of nearby. The cost might also be a point of contention, what with the expensive surrogate trappings that come with sizable courtroom operations.
Yes, the current system has its shortcomings, and can yield wildly uneven results in court-to-court comparisons. And any town or village court, absent a judge with a legal background, will find itself severely tested when low-level lawbreaking is piled high and dumped at its door.
If it were me on such a bench and facing a procedural challenge such as that posed by the protesters -- had I assumed the mantle of office and the black robe at the ballot box, with the expectation of a reasonable workload -- I would have quit long ago, realizing the futility of dealing with scores of manufactured trespass and disorderly conduct trials.
An abrogation of responsibility? Maybe, and it perhaps points up that I shouldn't be on the bench at all. Being part of the existing system probably should require some basic loyalty to it. And I don't have that. Instead, I would hope that such a move -- self-ejection from the bench -- might lead to awareness of the system's flaws, and to change.
What I would ideally like to see is further debate on the merits of reforming the current system -- reform that would take financing of the courts away from localities, beef up state oversight, and require, as the ACLU attorney told the Assembly committee, "that (all) judges meet the same standards as members of the Bar."
But that's perhaps a pipe dream. Political pushback has come into play, and will again. While the law moves ever slowly, so does change.
Practically speaking, the bottom line for me is this:
Leaving the bench as I would -- dodging the whole mess brought into court by a group such as the protesters -- would seem to me to be ... dare I say?
Although I suppose a mass recusal by Judge Berry, if that's what's happening next, might be judicious, too.
Kudos, kudos, and not ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, June 16, 2016 -- Okay! Yes! Marvelous ...
I don't know if you saw the news the other day about the Elmira Notre Dame varsity softball team.
It won the Class C state title.
And playing key roles were Mackenzie Maloney and Alivia Clark -- Maloney with a three-run double and Clark getting the final five outs in a relief pitching performance, closing out the Crusaders' 8-6 win.
Why would I be so happy about that? Because Maloney and Clark were both members of the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athletes sponsored by this website. The 11th annual ceremony honoring the Top Drawer 24 was held June 6 at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Maloney and Clark were there with the 22 other honorees, and then days later the pair went out and helped ND win a state title.
I love that.
Kudos too to Marie Fitzsimmons, retiring from a long career teaching at Watkins Glen High School.
Marie has been a mentor to many, and the guiding light in the school's venture into the world of Model United Nations, where kids get a curriculum steeped in current and past events and governance, and an extended, hands-on course in debating.
She was also a very effective cross country and track coach -- author of a popular event called the Twisted Relays some seasons back. She was absent from the WGHS classroom last year while serving as a teacher overseas in the Peace Corps, and then returned to Watkins for a final, productive year.
Good luck in the future, Marie. You are one of a kind.
Now ... about this School Superintendent (Tom Phillips) vs. School District Resident (Kristina Hansen) case.
I've encountered Phillips' authority in the past -- most notably when he basically revoked a sort of carte blanche access I had to the school which had helped generate some positive, interesting stories and photos on students and programs. He was upset with some news coverage about him, and so figuratively slapped my hands, essentially saying I had to have prior approval to visit the school during classroom hours. The order was fairly vague and innocuous, but it has deterred me from going to the school during the day unless I have to.
No problem. It has cut down on school stories, but freed up some time for me to work on other things.
And it was absolutely nothing compared to the reaction Hansen encountered for trying on March 11 to enter the school on a non-class day to attend a staff meeting run by Phillips regarding the "state of the district." Hansen claimed the right to attend on the basis of service on a couple of school-related committees, but also because of the presence of four School Board members. That constituted a quorum that should have turned the meeting public, according to the recent ruling by Watkins Glen Village Justice Connie Fern Miller dismissing a misdemeanor charge of trespass against Hansen.
That charge, and two others, were brought against Hansen at the urging of Phillips in the weeks after he had had her removed from the building during that March 11 gathering -- charges based on an edict he issued banning her from district buildings without his written permission.
The first arrest, on March 21, surprised the hell out of me. That was when Hansen tried to attend a School Board meeting and was instead handcuffed by police and led away.
My disbelief was doubled when the School Board President moments later -- in answer to a board member who said "it's not like a safety issue. Why are we dragging people away in handcuffs?" -- said in a generally tarring kind of way: "We don't know what they're going to do. We don't know."
Whoever "they" might be.
I was, on the other hand, amused the next day when I heard -- and this was second-hand -- that Phillips was complaining that someone had alerted me beforehand to the arrest, and that that is why I was there with my camera to record it. The only person who alerted me was the superintendent himself, who greeted me anxiously upon my arrival shortly before the scheduled School Board meeting, and then -- after admitting me to the (locked) board meeting room -- bolted outside. He had gone out, I saw when I looked out a window, to talk to two village policemen who had just arrived.
"Oh, my god," I muttered, or something along that line. And I went outside with my camera at the ready and waited -- and was rewarded with the sight of Phillips rushing out again to confront Hansen as she arrived. He then turned the matter over to the police when Hansen refused to leave. She was verbally claiming a right to be there -- a plea the police ignored as they cuffed her, but a right which has been affirmed in the ruling by Judge Miller.
Anyway, I was going to talk here about people in positions of power who use it in a bullying fashion -- and accordingly somehow liken Phillips to Donald Trump.
But it's something I don't need to do. Phillips' actions speak for themselves, enough to have drawn Judge Miller's rebuke as to their legal standing: they were "not lawful."
What this all means now, I suppose, is either a noisy lawsuit (the intent of such action was announced by Hansen's attorney weeks ago) or a quiet settlement as the School District and other respondents -- including the Village Police Department, Phillips himself and the School Board president, Kelly McCarthy -- move to put this behind them.
A settlement would be prudent, I suppose, as would silence from the superintendent, who is quoted in the Watkins Review and Express as finding "a little perplexing" the contention in Judge Miller ruling's that Hansen was fully justified in trying to attend that March 11 meeting. The ruling also noted that there was no "breach of the peace, disruptive behavior or physical contact with any person" by Hansen, and no disruption to students, since classes were not in session that day.
That day -- when Phillips met Hansen at the school door and ultimately had her escorted out by police (though not, at that point, charged) -- was the trigger to this whole mess. His edict banning her followed, as did her March 21 arrest and the two other trespass charges.
About that day, March 11: Phillips was quoted in the Review and Express as saying, after the judge's ruling:
"I take seriously my responsibility to protect all people from security breaches, not just students. I still have a duty to ensure the safety and security of the building when staff is present."
The judge did not agree that safety and security were at stake on March 11. The fact is, Hansen seems to be a low-keyed figure, hardly threatening -- but adept at getting under the skin of authority figures by asking questions about their actions. This evidently bothers those being questioned -- bothers them a lot ...
Phillips told the Review and Express that he has followed and will follow the advice of counsel in all of this -- which, let's face it, has not served him well so far. According to that same article, "he said he will be speaking with the prosecutor and school attorney in regards to how they will react should Hansen visit school grounds again."
I hope that that is a misinterpretation of Phillips' remarks, because it sounds contentious, as though he thinks Hansen still might not have the right to visit.
For her part, Hansen, feeling validated, says she is looking forward to attending the next School Board meeting, on June 20.
I'd better plan to be there with my camera.
Considering the tendency of the School Board to shrug its collective shoulders whenever its superintendent says or does something controversial (for example, he said the county judge showed "a level of judicial incompetence" that is "inexcusable" following a ruling that went against the School District in the Kate Bartholomew stun-gun-on-a-bus case), will anything come of this series of Hansen incidents other than a quiet settlement? Will it affect the superintendent's job standing?
If it was my school district, I would be clamoring for resignations -- of the superintendent and the School Board president -- for letting things spin so far out of control.
But it isn't my district. And in the absence of much talk about it up here on my hill, I figured I might get some response on that and other matters from the horse's mouth -- from the superintendent himself.
So I e-mailed Phillips with some questions:
I see you are consulting with counsel regarding the Hansen ruling. Any further comment?
The Review story says "Phillips said he will be speaking with the prosecutor and school attorney in regards to how they will react should Hansen visit school grounds again." Is another arrest considered an option?
Since the ruling hinges largely on your actions on March 11, do you have any regrets about that day? Any thought that it could have been handled differently?
And is there any thought on your part and Kelly McCarthy's as to resignation? Has there been any call for such action?
Thanks, and have a good day.
I haven't heard back.
Absent of those answers, I'll content myself for now with reporting whatever I can about subsequent events in this matter -- although I suspect a settlement might include a confidentiality agreement that precludes an open discussion of any money changing hands.
And such an agreement will probably leave unanswered the head-scratching response of the village police in all of this. According to Judge Miller's ruling, Phillips, in his handling of Hansen, exercised power that he didn't legally possess. My question -- and others have voiced it -- is this: Did the police have to respond to Phillips' every urge to arrest Hansen? Does a position of authority (such as school superintendent) mean that the position holder should automatically be deemed right by other, arresting authorities?
I'm just asking, because I don't know.
In any event, the police -- who have said they were just doing their job -- appear to be on the hook here, too, as far as the lawsuit goes.
The bottom line, at least at this point in the proceedings (although nothing surprises me in the often gray, interpretive world of the law), is this:
It appears that right, at least sometimes in the legal arena, trumps might.
Going forth in the world ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, June 8, 2016 -- The 11th annual Top Drawer 24 ceremony at the Watkins Glen State Park was held June 6, and by all incoming reports was a sterling success.
Two dozen amazing young men and women from 10 high schools in the region -- primarily in Schuyler and Chemung counties -- were honored for a combination of factors: athletics, academics, citizenship, and a positive impact on the world around them.
The speakers, led by Pittsburgh Steelers scouting director Mark Gorscak, were uniformly good, each with a message that didn’t dwell for long on the honorees’ achievements, looking ahead instead to what they might yet accomplish in taking their places in the world.
Real leadership, as opposed to “fake leadership,” is lacking, said Top Drawer co-founder Craig Cheplick, telling the kids that they can fill the voids that exist. “We need you,” he said.
Gorscak employed a red rubber ball as symbolic of the creativity and drive required to turn a dream, with all of its unformed basics, into something fully formed and vital.
Former Top Drawer member Allison Stamp used her college experience as a soccer goalie -- three years on the bench before a breakout season full of achievement and reward in her final year -- to urge the newest Top Drawer 24 team to work hard and harder ... to never give up.
Penn State Altoona volleyball coach Phil Peterman said we all must expect adversity, and should meet it head-on: “overcome in order to become,” he said.
And Lifetime Achievement honoree Mike D’Aloisio said that success on the playing fields is not enough -- that it is how a person treats others that defines his or her legacy. He pointed to role models he knew: Elmira-based athletic standouts Ernie Davis and Joel Stephens, both taken early in adulthood by disease, and both with legacies that shine. Stephens, in fact, was the subject of a book written by D’Aloisio that focused on five C’s for which Stephens stood: Christianity, courage, compassion, character and commitment.
It is such messages and the annual Top Drawer ceremony’s locale -- the State Park’s beautiful, open-air pavilion -- that help make the program so unique. But the success each year also depends on the quality of the selected honorees. And from everything I saw this time around, this class was first-rate ... perhaps the best yet.
Now, for those late to the Top Drawer concept, or simply lacking in its historical perspective, let me note that the program's origin occurred at Craig Cheplick’s Montour Falls home, he being the Athletic Director and a teacher at Watkins Glen High School at the time.
I was there to watch some TV sports, and we got brainstorming, talking about award programs, none of which had ever totally appealed to me. Any honorary post-season teams selected were almost wholly sports-derived, and from my experience (as Sports Editor at the Star-Gazette years earlier) selected with too little thought, too little input from coaches, too little preparation. Oh, those sports-based teams usually boast reasonably representative selections, in their own limited way, since sports All-Stars tend to stand out. But that was the main rub: those teams were all about sports.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” I said to Chep, “if there were an awards program that took into account the whole package. You know ... sports, academics, how the honorees give back through public service or school clubs or church projects.”
Chep jumped on the idea immediately, making phone calls, recruiting a committee and basically setting the whole thing in motion. For Chep is an organizer, and a damn good one ... which made him the best AD that Watkins had seen ... so good that there has been a relative vacuum in the wake of his departure. He is a promoter, a showman ... and those are qualities he has utilized to promote the Top Drawer 24, gradually expanding it from two schools to many more now.
We’ve held the ceremony each year at the State Park pavilion because it offers a unique and beautiful setting that, for our purposes, outstrips any other local options. It has served us well no matter the weather -- heat, cold, snow, rain and, in the most recent instance, beautiful sunshine and moderate temperatures.
We almost always have a 100% turnout by the honorees -- we missed that level twice for good reason -- and with them come parents and grandparents and friends and, on occasion, coaches and teachers and school administrators. But the Top Drawer 24 is not about those mentors; it’s about the kids and about the message provided, in differing forms, by speakers recruited for their experience and their wisdom.
The message -- boiled down -- is ultimately this:
“Nicely done, honorees, but your work is just beginning. Go forth in the world, and do both well and good. And may God bless your efforts.”
The question is raised each year, too, about the program’s future. Chep is retired from his old teaching job now, and I’m past normal retirement age, and we might lose our glue -- super assistant Kathy Crans, who handles scheduling and an amazing amount of detail work -- to retirement in a couple of years.
As time marches along -- which is to say each year at this time -- I have said and Chep has said about the Top Drawer future: “Nothing is forever. But let’s do the best we can while we can.”
If there were an underlying message to us from ourselves, I guess it would be similar to the one we see delivered to the honorees. Ours would read like this:
“Go forth with the program, and do both well and good. And let’s just hope that God smiles upon the effort, and does so in the long term.”
In the presence of greatness
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, May 16, 2016 -- I saw the great Ben Hogan play golf ... in person.
I've also seen Jack Nicklaus. And Arnold Palmer. And Johnny Miller. And Tom Watson. And Billy Casper. And Lee Trevino. And some other greats.
But chief among them, to me, was Ben Hogan -- one of the greatest golfers ever, a man long gone now from our midst. He died in 1997 at the age of 84.
I say chief among them not because he was necessarily better than them (Nicklaus, after all, is considered the greatest of all), but because the window of opportunity in which I could see him was a small one -- and accordingly the fact that I did has left me with a sense of lasting gratitude.
I saw Ben Hogan at the Carling World Open, played on the Oakland Hills Country Club course near my Bloomfield Hills, Michigan home during late August in 1964, when I was 15. The Carling Brewing Company had sponsored several tournaments over the years beginning in 1953. This was the biggest, with big names -- the first year of four years in which it was held at varying locales.
Bobby Nichols won that 1964 tournament. He was a semi-big deal back then, the winner ultimately of 12 career PGA Tour events, including the PGA Championship the previous month. In this tourney, the inaugural World Open, he shot a 2-under-par 278 -- one stroke ahead of Arnold Palmer -- and took home $35,000. That's chump change out on Tour now, of course; but it was the biggest prize ever to that point -- almost twice what Nichols had earned for winning that major in July (his only major victory, as it turned out).
I chanced to see Palmer again -- along with Nicklaus and others -- years later when I attended the U.S. Open at the same course, but very little sticks out in terms of specifics -- save for when Nicklaus walked past me on a path near the clubhouse, and I was struck by the fact that he was not a larger-than-life individual, not when I was briefly measuring myself next to him. He's listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, and I think -- or at least in that moment thought -- that such a statistic was a bit of a reach. But he had huge forearms and what looked like powerful hands, and that mesmerizing face I had seen hundreds of times on television and in magazines.
I suspect that, as he walked by, my mouth was hanging open in awe.
But that was 1985. A more fixed memory for me was the one I have of the great Hogan at that Carling World Open in 1964. His return to Oakland Hills -- he had won the U.S. Open there in 1951 -- was a fairly rare appearance for him in competitive golf, for he had limited his number of appearances for several years after a near-fatal 1949 auto accident. And then he had tapered the limited number to very few.
He was in a good mood during the tournament, I have read; he was smiling and chatting with fans and signing an occasional autograph. This was contrary to his well-known inclination toward taciturnity. But his mood didn't seem to diminish his usual focus and drive.
He had plenty of both throughout his career, seemingly more so the farther along it went -- at least through 1953, the year he won three majors. All told, he racked up nine major titles: two Masters, four U.S. Opens, one British Open and two PGA Championships. Six of the nine came after the accident, in which he suffered fractures of the pelvis, collarbone and left ankle, a chipped rib, and blood clots. He was in the hospital for two months, and was told by doctors that he might never walk again ... and indeed was beset by circulation problems and other limitations through the rest of his life.
But defy the doctors he did. He not only walked, but returned to the PGA Tour in 1950, almost winning on his first try. He tied Sam Snead for the 72-hole lead at the Los Angeles Open before losing in an 18-hole playoff.
In 1953, he entered just six tournaments, and won five, including the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. That highlighted a career (that started in 1930 but wasn't truly successful until 1940) in which he was the leading money winner on tour five times, and PGA Player of the Year on four occasions.
Hogan was, in fact, diminutive in terms of today's sports figures -- about 5 feet, 8 inches and 145 pounds. "Bantam Ben," some called him. A slender Texan known for a sweet, compact swing.
And he was a serious man.
"I play with friends," he once said, "but we don't play friendly games."
And a perfectionist.
"I hate a hook," he said of a golf shot that swings out of control to the left, and was the bane of his early career. "It nauseates me. I could vomit when I see one. It's like a rattlesnake in your pocket."
In truth, I didn't know much about Hogan when I went (on at least two days, I think, and maybe more) to watch the golfers compete at the Carling World Open. My Dad and an older brother had tried to explain to me that there was more to the golf world than Arnie and Jack -- that Hogan in his prime finished in the top 10 far more often than not; that Hogan was a walking miracle, considering the severity of the injuries he had sustained in the accident; and that Hogan had a line of golf clubs named after him.
I knew about the clubs. I played some golf back then, and had a mismatched gathering of woods and irons that included a Hogan that I couldn't hit worth a damn.
In 1964 and the start of the Carling World Open, he was just an old guy to me, and one who hardly competed anymore. So this was, unbeknownst to me going in, a rare privilege; though I'm sure his fans knew that. As it turned out, Hogan didn't disappoint them. He finished fourth that week, firing a 68 on the final day, the day I remember most.
I saw him out on the course on a couple of early holes in the afternoon as I, along with some friends, scurried about, trying to witness as much drama as possible. I realized Hogan was doing well, and thought it odd that someone so aged could keep up with much younger competitors. But what I remember most about Hogan came from watching him on his final hole as I sat behind the 18th green. Memory says I had my Dad's old binoculars -- obtained in Germany in World War II's waning days -- though perhaps not. But whatever ocular device I was using, I remember clearly seeing Hogan's sweet swing on his approach shot, and the flight of the ball as it neared the green, and the bounce it took as it hit the green -- and the vibration in the flagstick when the ball struck it midway up before settling mere feet away from the cup.
"Wow," I thought, and probably said it aloud. The crowd was going wild as Hogan walked up the fairway toward the green. The cheering was louder than for anybody else that day, I thought. And I finally realized what I had started earlier to process: I was in the presence of not just an old man -- and his 52 years did indeed seem ancient to me -- but something far beyond that. I was looking at a demigod, though I would not have known that word back then.
This was a walking, smiling, crowd-acknowledging embodiment of golf history, a magnificent ball-striker from the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s who somehow had time-warped to a point there, in front of me, amid the stunning greenery of one of America's finest courses, vintage mid-1960s.
Did Hogan make the putt? Probably. I was in such a fog over the approach shot and the realization of the special nature of the moment, that that part of my memory bank fails me. But as I said, he registered a 68 that day, so he was economical with his shots.
I wondered -- as he left the green amid all those cheers, and headed away to register his score and talk to reporters -- just who or what had briefly entered my space and passed through. In the time that has followed, I have read much about the man based on statistics, on the numerical facts.
But the facts, while endlessly impressive, can't match what happened on that 18th hole -- a sliver of time that has become almost metaphysical to me: a perhaps supernatural conjoining of opportunity and timing that brought a legend into my sphere of being, and in the process impacted me, somehow, for all of my years.
While my glimpses of the man were relatively fleeting at that tournament, and while that one shot I have remembered all these years took but a few seconds, what I experienced that day comes down to this: it was a privilege that became a small personal touchstone.
And the touchstone is embodied in a phrase. It goes like this:
I saw Ben Hogan play golf.
On getting played ... or not
And we unveil our Lifetime Achievement Award winner
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, May 2, 2016 -- I was walking the aisles of Walmart the other night, doing a little shopping before perusing the latest in DVD fare, when a man approached me -- a man I didn't know -- and told me he enjoyed reading my columns. He said it twice, in fact, gently grabbing my shoulder for emphasis the second time. And I did what I do when I'm caught off-guard like that. I said thank you. Twice.
I'm honestly surprised when complimentary people approach me, but they do. If I thought about it, which I'm doing now, I would expect more naysayers to approach me than complimenters, in keeping with the age-old adage of "Kill (or at least berate) the messenger." But that's not the case. I rarely encounter such negativity.
About that: In my early years, criticism tended to sting, but living as long as I have (and this seems particularly true in the past couple of years), I find that thoughts harbored by critics -- verbalized or not -- really don't mean much. Not if I'm doing a job that the large majority seems to appreciate. I know, for example, that I am in disfavor in a certain administrative office; but that doesn't really matter. It means I'm doing my job.
That sounds trite, but it's true in journalism.
It comes down to this:
If the subject of a reporter's coverage is unhappy with the coverage, chances are it's because that subject has not been able to control it. Or has lost rapport with the reporter. In my young adult days, at a newspaper in Watertown, I was covering county government and was "befriended" by a member of the Board of Supervisors who fed me information under the misguided belief that I would print whatever he wanted. It didn't take long before one of his self-serving maneuvers ended up boomeranging on him, and I duly reported it. He was furious, calling me a number of creative names, and vowing never to speak to me again. And he didn't.
Such was the early lesson: cooperate to a point, but don't get played.
And a subtext of that is: anyone in authority has an agenda, and it is usually either self-serving or according to a heartfelt philosophy. Either way, the authority figure can be very passionate about his or her program, and about anyone (reporters included) who might get in the way.
That is one reason why I don't buddy up with anyone other than a couple of close, non-official friends whose judgment I fully trust, and often seek. I'm not a belonger, either, other than in one local club -- but even there I have maintained an honorary status for years. It is much easier to report on things -- and in particular on people -- from a personal distance.
I remain, in widowerhood, a family man. And it's a growing family. I was thrilled to be told recently by my youngest son, Dave, and his wife Ali that they are expecting a girl in early October. This will be my first grandchild, and it brings to mind how much my wife Susan had looked forward to being a grandmother ... but fell far short of witnessing the actual event here on Earth. I like to think she has taken notice and celebrated amid whatever heavenly schedule she is now following.
We are in the home stretch in the selection of our 11th annual Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens. The party honoring them is set for June 6 at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion, the location that has distinguished the program since its inception.
Speakers are lined up, and we will be honoring an amazing coach with our second annual Lifetime Achievement Award: Mike D'Aloisio (right) of Elmira Notre Dame. Mike has mentored kids for decades while carving out a long and distinguished coaching career in football and basketball. He is also an author, of 5 C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story, released in 2009 and chronicling the short life of the incredible Stephens, a Notre Dame athlete of remarkable abilities who died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 22. (The title refers to the Christianity, courage, compassion, character and commitment that Stephens stood for.)
D'Aloisio, a Notre Dame employee beginning in 1977, was already established as a successful football coach when I served as Sports Editor of the Elmira Star Gazette in the mid- to late-1980s. All told, he has totaled well over 200 wins on the gridiron, not to mention more than 250 wins while he served as coach of ND's boys varsity basketball team, winner of three sectional titles during his tenure. And he has served as girls basketball coach, taking his team to a sectional semifinal last season, and as golf coach.
(My favorite D'Aloisio story involved a sports reporter under my guidance at the Star Gazette who wrote a story critical of the condition of the Notre Dame athletic field back in the '80s. A school official -- a D'Aloisio superior -- was furious with the unwanted coverage, and thus called the paper and told me he would have the reporter arrested should he set foot on campus again. That was clearly an idle threat, since legal action in response to a news story (an accurate one at that) would be illegal and unwarranted, and only generate more unwanted publicity. Accordingly, I told the reporter to go there to cover the next Notre Dame football game -- and he, aware by then of the official's threat -- complained that he would be arrested. I told him: "If you are, it will make for a great story."
The reporter went to the game and, looking around, didn't see the official. But he feared he would at any moment, and so went to the sidelines before the contest started to tell the coach -- D'Aloisio -- about his predicament: how he might not be able to cover the whole game, jail beckoning as it was. D'Aloisio just laughed and told the reporter to stay near him, there on the sidelines, and he would take care of him ... make sure the official didn't follow through on his threat. And the reporter did as instructed.
The official never did try to have the reporter arrested. He ultimately knew better -- as D'Aloisio instinctively understood in that moment of kindly and wise laughter, and of encouraging protectionism. D'Aloisio in that moment created a buffer within which he realized the nervous reporter could function, and in functioning complete an appointed task.
That, I commented later at a news meeting at the Star Gazette, constituted both wisdom and leadership, and they are qualities for which Mike D'Aloisio has become well known across the years.)
D'Aloisio was inducted into the Section IV Hall of Fame in 2012. His upcoming lifetime award follows the inaugural one bestowed last year by the Top Drawer 24 program on longtime Horseheads volleyball coach Patti Perone.
Photo in text: Mike D'Aloisio
The emperor's clothes
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, April 23, 2016 -- It's been a while since I wrote a column. I've been busy, true, but also a bit put off by the obvious subject matter -- the use of handcuffs on outspoken citizens.
I figure there's a lot to be said about that, but I won't say it. It just stirs up more trouble over an incident that already is full of a great deal of underlying acrimony. Not to mention head-scratching bravado.
I received a letter from an Odessa resident taking the superintendent in question to task for his "volatility," and the School Board in question for its passivity and how it's evidently missing the obvious: that the superintendent works for them, and not the other way around.
But if I were to publish it, Board apologists would say it wasn't a Watkins Glen resident complaining. Well, some Watkins residents have complained too, but not in letters to the editor ... with a couple of exceptions. In each of those two, the writer was "appalled" at the handcuffing and critical of the Board and superintendent. But both also expressed concern about the personal consequence of publishing their letters, and so I did not run them.
"It's a small town," one said, leaving unsaid what can be applied to almost any small town: Openly challenging those in power can be a fool's errand.
So then I was thinking, well, maybe I could write some verse. That can sometimes lighten the mood.
So I tried a stanza, roughly in the style of e.e. cummings, without capitalization. I chose as a subject one which I visit from time to time: the emperor's new clothes, wherein a populace willingly turns a blind eye to something obvious despite understanding its absurdity.
In the traditional tale, an emperor, convinced he is wearing fine clothes that only the worthy can see, marches naked in a procession through the streets of his realm -- and all of his subjects, afraid to appear unworthy or (more likely) difficult, marvel at his raiment. It takes a child -- a person of pure innocence, unfettered by political pressure -- to say: "He has nothing on!" Others join the cry. The emperor, suspecting it is true, marches onward nonetheless.
Anyway, I've turned it around a bit -- made it more of a naturally reactive slice of life that comes after the emperor's march has ended. I've always imagined him small like one of my favorite characters, the king in The Wizard of Id, and all of his staff as very tall. Anyway, someone -- probably staff -- has made off with his clothes, and he is loath to don anything less than royal wear. He is scurrying about, trying to find something as the evening temperature dips: royal shirt, royal pants, royal socks. Something. But they are gone, too. Here's the verse, limerick style. It's called "Chilly night."
the emperor was seeking some clothes;
he was nude from his head to his toes.
but try as he might
he stayed bare through the night,
and his small royal digits soon froze.
There. Humor accomplished. (A friend laughed, anyway, when I read it to her.) Now on to something with wider repercussions: politics.
A friend recently asked me if I had gone to any nearby cities "to see the candidates" during their campaigns for votes in the New York Primary. He meant Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Two or three of them had meandered Upstate, I guess, though I wasn't paying attention. And so I said:
"Why would I want to? They're in my living room every night."
At least they are if I have the nightly news on -- or visit one of the 24-hour news channels, which carry politics ad nauseam.
"You know," I told another friend later, "I yearn for the days when we had just three or four stations on TV, and the news was in really short bursts."
That was a long time ago, when I was growing up in Michigan, though my son recently pointed out that he remembers that when he was a child, we couldn't afford cable and had just three or four stations.
I don't know about that. It's depressing to think of such a struggle. So I guess what I did was put such poverty from my mind long ago.
But speaking of depressing, here's my prediction: Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination and defeat Hillary Clinton for the White House.
"Then we might want to move to Canada," I suggested to my son. "But with The Donald in charge, I don't think any place will be safe."
Which brings us to this:
there once was a man named ted cruz
who so wanted the donald to lose.
but the more cruz would talk,
the more voters did balk
until finally cruz wasn't news.
Have a nice week.
Almost down the rabbit hole
By Charlie Haeffner
March 27, 2016 -- I was going to start this column like this:
My name is Alice. I'm a reporter.
I was visiting the land of Unbelievable -- to attend a School Board meeting -- but upon walking toward the school I encountered a rabbit who was bustling around all important-like, and as he passed by, my head was struck by what appeared to be a scepter he was carrying.
Stunned, I began falling to the ground. But my ears still worked, and I heard him mutter something as he raced on by:
"The issue is I'm late. I have a very important date."
And he dodged into a hole that seemingly appeared out of nowhere near us, and disappeared ... and I, stunned, crawled to the hole and followed him, falling and sliding and bouncing a very long way until rolling to a stop on firm ground, in a strange underground land lit by ... well, it seemed to be lit by the flashing lights of a police car. And two officers were nearby. And the rabbit was confronting some bespectacled woman, ordering her to leave ...
But then I thought: "No." As bizarre as the whole encounter outside the Watkins Glen High School on March 21 seemed to me (see Schools), this wasn't the way. "This is serious," I told myself. "We can't wave it away with humor or satire."
And so I struggled to write something more serious. But nothing worked. Nothing.
I finally gave up and instead wrote what follows ... which has nothing to do with the arrest that day of a Watkins Glen school district resident attempting to attend a School Board meeting without written permission from the superintendnent. Nor does it have to do with Open Meeting Laws or with the tendency of the School Board toward .... well, perhaps an antonym of humility. Pick your own word.
No, I opted for something, on this Easter weekend, that was more uplifting, more hopeful and less draining.
It deals with the gem called the Seneca Lake shoreline -- a wonder that helps make Watkins Glen such a great place.
I say let that other stuff -- any educational conflicts -- fall where they may. If there are more, I'll just try to cover them as they happen.
I drove down to the pier in Watkins Glen on Saturday, an afternoon when the sun was bright and, as it set, was casting some long and interesting shadows.
There were people out there, walking between the shuttered Village Marina and the pier itself, increasing in numbers as the afternoon inched toward the dinner hour.
The people were nodding to one another, even though strangers, and walking out to the edge of the pier and back, and sitting on the occasional bench or in cars, taking in the beauty of the southern shore of Seneca Lake.
There were joggers, too, gliding through the sunshine and the cool but mild temperatures ... and there were a pair of fishermen and two kayakers. But the focus of the majority seemed simply to be on enjoyment -- getting out of the house and taking deep gulps of fresh air that wouldn't freeze the lungs.
Yes, spring is here.
I give you, hence, some of the photos I snapped down at the lake, with an eye in many of them toward those lengthening shadows. Next chance you have, get outside with your cameras and send me some of your pictures.
Happy Easter, and God bless.
A week to test the soul ...
By Charlie Haeffner
March 14, 2016 -- Thank God that week is over.
It started on Sunday, March 6 with a sports card show in Webster, where I set up as a dealer. I managed to turn a throbbing arm -- a tentative case of tendonitis -- into a full-blown muscle attack by lifting one heavy box too many. It's amazing how painful a limb can be when it decides to rebel ... refuses to work properly, or in this case barely at all.
It was a show that saw me spend more than I took in, which didn't add salt to the wound exactly, but didn't help mitigate the discomfort the muscles were imparting.
Then, on the way home, fatigue started in -- long day, hard work, but above all (I suspect) I was experiencing a drain created by pain.
And that's when I encountered the police officer who handed me a speeding ticket in Geneva -- my first in something like 33 or 34 years. Four points worth, although I was directed to send a letter to the Ontario County Assistant District Attorney requesting a reduction to two points. I'm still waiting to hear back.
Anyway, anyone who has received a ticket probably has reacted as I did: with a bit of shock, and with anxiety in the middle of the night created by that shock and the uncertainty of how, exactly, to navigate the legal system.
Then came Tuesday, and more Donald Trump victories on the campaign trail. The man is a demagogue, yes, but so much of a nonsensical one that he strikes me as a menacing caricature -- or a dangerous wind-up toy. Turn the crank and he spews venom.
But he has a large following, which speaks volumes about the shortsighted state of our nation.
Then I found myself feeling a touch of guilt in the wake of transmitting news of the Watkins Glen School District that had called into question the judgment -- or at least the foresight -- of the people running the district, both School Board and Superintendent alike.
This news came in the form of two teachers lamenting the loss of basic, hands-on lessons for students in Shop classes in the rush to embrace the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) concept. The teachers, I was informed by one source, were invited by a board member to address that body in open session. Whether that's true or not, such a public approach turned the teachers' words into news, if someone covering the meeting deemed it newsworthy.
Which I did, and reported in the column below this one. The teachers' contention was backed by a couple of Corning Inc. engineers who have noticed a dropoff in the abilities of graduates seeking jobs. This situation gradually developed in a time when Shop equipment and tools were dispatched, sold away on the cheap, and various cool computerized equipment -- a machine that builds 3D shapes, and a virtual welder, for instance -- were purchased in their stead. Coincidental, unrelated timing? The teachers think not. And I think not.
To recap briefly, one of the teachers explained the problem like this:
"Kids used to build forts, ride bikes, make up their own games. They learned about chains, sprockets, and gears when the chain came off the bike; or that wood splits and metal bends. They learned about levers when using a hammer. They understood air is compressible when pumping up bike tires ...
"The kids didn't see (hand-on experience) as educational, they just picked up on it. So they gained knowledge without knowing it. Now children don't experience enough to gain 'assumed common knowledge.' The old shop classes are a way to bridge that gap. The new equipment is run by computers and doesn't allow students enough of the unstructured-experience learning."
I've heard whispers coming from that closed society ... that school district ... suggesting the two teachers might have been read the riot act by administration after the column appeared -- and that's where my guilt feelings came in. If they were called to account because of my words, I feel badly about it. But on the other hand, I don't think the judgment of people running a public instititution should be kept under wraps, no matter how badly those in charge might like to think so.
Anyway, keep that one word in mind: Shop.
It might prove important later in this column.
Then there was the matter of trying to handle a camera, or for that matter type at my computer, with my arm throbbing. I sought the services of a chiropractor for the first time in a decade or so, and found one who knows her stuff. The arm, still sore and achy, is responding to treatment ... but not for heavy use. This will take a while.
And then came the judge's ruling on a motion by the District Attorney to keep the files open and available in the Kate Bartholomew stun-gun case. Records are often closed after an acquittal, which is what Barthlomew got on a weapon possession charge.
I've been covering the case with mixed feelings, since I like the woman, long a Science teacher at Watkins Glen High School. But nobody in their right mind is defending her actions in giving a stun-gun device she purchased online to a student who in turn took it on a school bus. It was discharged there, thankfully without injury. It is, bottom line, a news story of local importance.
I don't know if you've ever studied a legal ruling, but at first glance it reads like so much mumbo-jumbo. I felt like I needed some interpretation after reading this latest one, but couldn't raise the district attorney right away. So I subjected myself to a second read, and it all snapped into place. The judge was telling the DA that yes, the records would remain available. It said, basically, that the DA could have at Bartholomew -- study the trial transcript for what the DA has said is a possible perjury charge. And the school district where Bartholomew taught, and the State Education Department for that matter, can look at the ruling, and at various exhibits, with an eye toward her possible removal from the teaching rolls. She has been on suspension since the stun-gun incident.
Next, I had to text the Superintendent of Schools for his reaction. The last time he had reacted to the judge, the Superintendent had said unkind things about him (after the judge had ruled Bartholomew not guilty on the weapon possession charge). I had subsequently taken the Superintendent to task in print for his indecorous language, which was rather Trump-like in its bluntness, I thought.
I didn't know what his response might be this time, if he deigned to respond at all. He did, though, and without any rancor (the ruling, after all, having gone his way this time). He was full of praise for the DA, but had nothing to say about the judge. Which might be just as well.
And then my pants split out. I don't know when; maybe in the washing machine. But I didn't notice until I was out in public, at a news conference celebrating the opening of the apartment complex in the converted Middle School. I noticed a state official peering at me, but not at my face; lower. And I glanced down and realized there was a gap in the front where the seam of the pants had ripped; a couple of inches worth. It's a good thing I wasn't going commando.
This wasn't like the dream where you're naked walking down Main Street, but it was bad enough. Fortunately I was wearing a coat, so I adjourned outside and removed it, tying it around my waist and positioning it accordingly to cover the mishap. While I was adjusting it, two officials from the high school -- a principal and a resource officer -- said hello as they approached to enter the building, and I pretended as though nothing was amiss. The officer has a wicked sense of humor, and I didn't need that.
I got through the rest of the news conference and a brief tour of the facility, and hurried home to find whole trousers before continuing on my way to the rest of the day's stops.
And then came Friday night, and the rally canceled by Trump when thousands of protesters showed up in Chicago in opposition to his candidacy -- to his hate-filled rhetoric. You've heard it: Little Marco. Lyin' Ted. Bernie the Communist. Hillary the Criminal. I'd like to punch him (a protester) in the face. Throw them out, Get rid of them. The Media is terrible; some of them are such lying, disgusting people; I hate them. The President is incompetent. If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. We won with the poorly educated; I love the poorly educated. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters. They're rapists (said of Mexicans entering the United States illegally).
And of John McCain: He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.
And that was followed by Saturday, when Trump was spouting off at a trio of rallies in Ohio, where he was trying to defeat its Governor, John Kasich, in an upcoming winner-take-all primary.
"I can't take my eyes off of this," I said to my son as CNN carried an hour-long rant by Trump. "It's like a slow-motion train wreck. If this guy wins the White House, nothing will get done. Every power clique in Washington will team up against him."
It all smacks, I told him, of classic literature in which demagogues gain power and abuse the hell out of it -- such as in Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, which reflected the rise and fall of Huey Long.
Here's the thing: If I were to say such things as Trump does, I'd be roundly roasted. And if most folks -- say you -- were to say them, people would think you reckless or nuts, and some of you would lose your jobs. But when he says them? He gains votes.
To which I respond with a four letter word:
Got your attention? I shouldn't use such a word, you say? If I was Donald Trump I could, with impunity.
But I didn't really say it. You only thought I did.
Sh** seems, at first glance, Trump-like in its intensity and offensiveness.
But what I said was Shop. Shop. Shop. That word ... that concept, when referring to hands-on projects and school lessons, seems to be the answer to many problems -- as opposed to hate rhetoric from an egocentric demagogue like Trump, a man who could (if he were civil) be a role model. But his words, his attitude, his unseemly attacks on just about anyone who doesn't support him ... are problems themselves.
Role model? No.
He is quite the opposite.
Matters of future shock ...
By Charlie Haeffner
March 3, 2016 -- The Donald is striking fear in the hearts of the Republican hierarchy, and fear in some of our hearts, too.
It could happen: a president with the social skills of a mongoose of the family Herpestidae, or pest for short. Carnivoran. And a skin so thick that the venom of snakes just rolls off of him, like so much Teflon. Able to mix it up with those snakes, and able to dispatch them. Embraced by common folks looking for a house pet, only to find destruction reigns once the pest is admitted into the house.
Annoying enough to be banned for import into the United States. But here's a stark difference: The Donald is already here.
Ah, politics. When Ted Cruz starts looking desirable -- as he was after Super Tuesday to Senator Lindsey Graham -- you know panic is setting in. Graham was quoted days ago as saying: "If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you." Graham has called Cruz "the least respected Senator," and he was also quoted as saying a choice between The Donald and Cruz would be like a choice between being shot and poisoned.
Now, he says, "We may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump."
This campaign season is either disgusting or fun. I haven't decided which. But it all is entertaining -- which is, of course, The Donald's strong suit. It comes with his years of TV stardom. We think we know the guy, since he has been in our homes seemingly forever. We can identify with him. But really, how many of us know what makes this guy tick?
We can thank him, I believe, for helping short-circuit Jeb Bush's presidential aspirations, which is fine by me. But his blunt outbursts are not just out of the norm; they could trigger not just our collective mortification, but potentially unwanted and dangerous responses from the leaders of other nations -- from men who might be able to match him, mongoose to mongoose.
Diplomacy is a word he should look up, and study. Just as we've been forced to absorb its antonyms after each of his progressively insulting performances: brash, graceless, ill-advised, imprudent, inadvisable, indelicate, injudicious, tactless, indiscreet and unwise, not to mention improper, inappropriate, indecorous, unbecoming, uncivil and unseemly.
He reminds me a little of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight film -- a frightening character with bad hair who says : "I'm an agent of chaos." Or (befitting the sophomoric nature of too many of the Republican candidates' campaigns): "Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push." Or: "I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."
Or (perhaps most applicable and disturbing): "Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it."
As Robert Redford's Senate candidate Bill McKay famously said to his political consultant after winning election in The Candidate -- as a noisy group of supporters and journalists closes in: "What do we do now?"
I, for one, don't want to find out what The Donald will "do now" after being elected. But let me play devil's advocate and say this: The fact that he's talking about doing something -- no matter how, from a logical standpoint, his promises sound outlandish -- seems preferable to government business as usual.
Of course, those promises might be no more than political rhetoric on steroids -- the words of a man with an outsized ego and a vision far beyond his grasp in the reality of a world where statesmanship, diplomacy and the legislative and judicial branches of government can counterbalance many a Donald-sized whim.
Even so, I can't shake the feeling that this portends trouble; a potential weakening in our government and in our standing worldwide.
Anyway, as The Donald might say: Stay tuned.
Worth noting from the Watkins Glen School Board meeting on March 2 was this: a presentation by tech teacher Karen Armstrong -- with supporting testimony from two Corning Inc. engineers, Jody Markley and Wayne Pike, both of whom have children in the school district -- saying, in essence, that the leap to a computerized STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program has overlooked the very essential matter of hands-on, old-fashioned experience and knowledge.
There are "gaps," Armstrong told the Board, in students' knowledge of basic science concepts and hands-on abilities. And the problem exists beyond high school, into college, as students bury their faces in handheld devices -- "playing games," said Markley, who noted that kids have been "coming out of college" for the past few years "without the basics."
"Give me a pencil and paper," said Armstrong, "and I can teach cursive writing. Give a student an underwater pen, and I can't." In essence, she was saying, school districts -- in taking the leap forward with the STEM advancements -- have moved too far forward too quickly. "We reduced what we thought could be eliminated," she added, "but they can't be."
Tech teacher Bob Hogan told the board a plan is being devised to use grant funds, donations and a budgeted amount of money -- $15,000 to $20,000 a year over five years -- to reestablish "real world experiences in class." This would include, for example, real welding to complement the recently embraced virtual welding. The goal would be to connect to two of the three particular career paths cited by colleges as needed in the region: welders, machinists and nurses. But donations of equipment by business, he said, is tied to a district commitment to the plan.
Beyond that, said Hogan, it would be nice if the Board considered providing a bay of the old bus garage for use by a Shop Club.
Asked to expand on the problem, Armstrong sent me an e-mail, which read:
"What has happened was the wood shop and metal shop labs closed down and new, more modern equipment was provided to us. However, the students need the old-style basic hands-on courses, as well. Students don't pick up unstructured knowledge from everyday life like they did in the past. For example, kids used to build forts, ride bikes, make up their own games. They learned about chains, sprockets, and gears when the chain came off the bike; or that wood splits and metal bends. They learned about levers when using a hammer. They understood air is compressible when pumping up bike tires.
"Mr. Pike (who is plant manager/director at the Corning Inc. Sullivan Park Research and Development facility) was referring to this learning when he said students don't always connect the dots (nowadays). The kids didn't see (hand-on experience) as educational, they just picked up on it. So they gained knowledge without knowing it. Now children don't experience enough to gain 'assumed common knowledge.' The old shop classes are a way to bridge that gap. The new equipment is run by computers and doesn't allow students enough of the unstructured-experience learning."
Now, she said, the district is planning "to cut another (tech) position; Greg Grodem retired in January. We are trying to figure out how to ... make sure we provide the education the students need. Both sides have valid points. There is a decline in enrollment and we need to prepare (for that). On the other hand, we can't afford to eliminate some of those (hands-on educational) areas. The $15,000-$20,000 would buy equipment that would bridge the gap between what we used to have and what we need now."
The board, along with Superintendent Tom Phillips, essentially did not respond to what seemed a respectful request rather than a rebuke -- a request to backtrack a bit, to correct what was perhaps a headlong rush into the STEM future without due consideration of the past, jettisoning the old equipment along the way. But the board didn't need to respond to the speakers; in fact it has a built-in defense -- policies that preclude debate with the public.
In any event, as with the national politics: Stay tuned. The abandonment of basics in the face of a technological onslaught -- one that seems to offer much, but has its obvious drawbacks -- likely goes far beyond the borders of Schuyler County. If so, it could portend a weakening of American society ... a quiet consequence in stark contrast to that created by the bombast of a President Trump.
Lots of Top Drawer interest
By Charlie Haeffner
Feb. 15, 2016 -- The Top Drawer 24 committee has been busy gathering nominations of students it might consider for inclusion on this year's Top Drawer team -- the 11th annual squad, to be unveiled in May and honored in June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Since the program was enlarged to include Chemung County schools, interest in the Top Drawer team -- two dozen of the best and brightest students that our area has to offer each year in athletics, academics and civic participation -- has intensified. We've received a large number of nominations this time -- 50 to be exact.
Consultation with administrators, teachers and coaches will follow, along with personal observation by committee members, until a consensus is formed. But the list of nominees might not end at 50. There always seems to be a student or two who suddenly comes to the foreground -- and we on occasion hear from parents extolling the virtues of their offspring.
Any parents so inclined can e-mail me accordingly. Just go to the click-on link at the bottom of almost any page on this site.
We are developing a strong list of speakers for this year's ceremony, but also cutting the length of the event. The emcee will once again be Renata Stiehl, WENY-TV News anchor.
More information will follow as the event nears.
Lou Condon Jr. is in the process of leaving Watkins Glen High School, where he has served as a long-term sub in math and been coach of a successful varsity football program -- one that merged with Odessa-Montour's last season and posted a 7-2 record.
According to reports, he has taken a tenure-track job at Campbell, to take effect later this month. At last word, his resignation had yet to be acted upon by the Watkins Glen School Board. If that transpires as expected and Condon leaves WGHS, he could conceivably still coach football there -- but not if someone on the Watkins staff wants the job. School district employees have long held sway over outsiders when it comes to coaching.
Stay tuned, folks. And good luck, Lou, wherever life takes you.
It might have escaped your notice, but the upcoming Section IV, Class C boys basketball tournament that starts Tuesday has a potentially interesting wrinkle to it -- a possible game between the Watkins Glen boys and No. 2-seeded Moravia ... at Moravia. That's if Watkins Glen wins its first two games of the tournament and Moravia, as expected, wins its first contest following a bye.
Recall, if you will, that the Watkins Glen school administration -- one official citing "prudence" and a need to let tempers cool -- uninvited Moravia from the recent Holiday Basketball Tournament at the Field House, the locale last year of a postseason game between WGHS and Moravia that ended with Watkins winning and the homestanding faithful at the south end of the court (the Bleacher Creatures) rushing on-court in celebration. There simply wasn't any safeguard against such action (since corrected), and the joy of the moment turned momentarily ugly with a little shoving. The situation, fairly minor in scope, was magnified in print by an Auburn reporter, and some bad feelings lingered.
The decision to jettison Moravia from this year's Christmas bash after it had already been invited (Trumansburg, Dundee and Watkins were the other participants) likely didn't set well with the Blue Devils; nobody likes to be shown the door. The Moravia Athletic Director, in any event, said in response that his school had been committed to the tournament and looking forward to it. As it turned out, no replacement could be found by Watkins Glen, and so the tourney had but three teams -- and was referred to in some circles as The Tripod Tournament.
If a Watkins visit to Moravia occurs this postseason, expect a chilly reception ... and a fired-up Blue Devils team. Call it cause and effect -- an incentive that probably shouldn't have been served up to them on a platter. They seem to be awfully good as it is.
Update on Feb. 20: Alas, the Watkns Glen boys fell to Greene 42-39 in the second round of the tournament, leaving Greene to face Moravia.
Congratulations to Watkins Glen's Ian Chedzoy and Brandon Gould on their Section IV wrestling titles and their resultant trip to States later this month. And congrats to WG's Patrick Hazlitt for reaching States in Indoor Track, and to the Senecas' Matt Doppel for his two wins at the IAC Swimming Championships.
Farewell to more friends ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Jan. 26, 2016 -- One of the more disconcerting, not to say saddening, aspects of operating this website comes in the form of obituaries I publish.
It is bad enough when one arrives through an e-mail about someone I never met. But when I know the person who has died ... I usually stop what I'm doing, bow my head, and mumble what I suppose is a prayer, although I think it's often more guttural than faith-based.
That, I suspect, is because at the root of it all, we are animalistic -- civil trappings to the contrary. I simply point (as I discovered in childhood) to the bees' and birds' inexplicable communication systems (have you ever seen bees swarm when one is endangered, or seen birds fly in uncanny formation?) to explain our own interconnection, operating though we do at a more sophisticated level.
When we lose someone, especially someone we know, we lose a part of ourselves; put to rest a part of our shared history, no matter how minute (or even seemingly nonexistent) our interactions. As John Donne put it:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in Mankind;
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Sometimes, for some reason, these passings occur in threes -- as last year, when we lost Ron Shutter, Michael Argetsinger and John Senka in rapid succession.
This year, in the past few days, we've lost Anne Meehan, Dodie Peckham and -- though his obituary didn't run on this website, but rather on the pages of The Leader in Corning -- a longtime Corning reporter, columnist and friend named Bob Rolfe. I was alerted to his passing through an e-mail from a shared friend directing me to the obituary.
I knew Anne Meehan through Rotary Club, where until recently she played piano, and where she always greeted me (and everyone else) warmly. A former teacher in the Watkins Glen school district, she had known my late wife, Susan, in that educational setting, and reached out to me through the shared connection. "Such a lovely girl," she said of Susan.
I knew Dodie Peckham through her late husband Bill, an engaging man who was a former school superintendent in Oregon who moved here in retirement with his wife, settling on farmland east of Odessa. Dodie was a voracious reader, and professed to be a fan of the last novel I ever attempted, The Maiden of Mackinac. We shared the love of words.
I saw Bob Rolfe as a sort of curmudgeonly Santa Claus -- which is to say he looked like Santa (white beard and all) but didn't sound like him at all. He was gruff, and often painfully to the point, and famous in Steuben County for his hard-nosed Corning City Hall reporting and his sometimes acerbic columns. But underneath it all was a core of kindness.
The first time I met him -- shortly after I had joined The Leader in 1996 as an editor -- he told me point-blank that he had long had an agreement with management that he could write what he pleased, and how he pleased, and that I was not to alter his columns at all. I nodded and said "Of course," and then blithely edited them as I saw fit, for I had not just an agreement of my own to do so, but a pledge. (Bob never commented on any of the changes I made, so I'm not sure he ever re-read his columns once they reached print.)
We grew to appreciate one another in my three years at the paper, and just before it was time for me to leave, Bob sat with me in one of the paper's conference rooms and commiserated. (I was leaving in a time of professional turmoil which is difficult to explain in a few words, and so I won't attempt it. Suffice to say I was resigning.)
In the course of our conversation, Bob Rolfe made an extraordinary offer.
"I'm with you on this," he said, and offered to resign in tandem with me. I smiled -- tickled at the thought, at the demonstration of loyalty -- but I said no, that wasn't a good idea. I told him he should check with his financial advisor (I believe it was his brother) before making such a radical choice. He was 62 or 63 at the time.
He nodded. "Well, you're probably right," he said. And he did check, and was dissuaded from the move, and stayed with the paper until retirement beckoned.
But I've always loved Bob for that offer.
A year after I left, Corning experienced some turbulence involving police policy toward youths gathering in downtown Corning. I composed one of those story poems I like to write that commented on that very subject, and sent it to Bob anonymously, thinking he'd get a charge out of it. The anonymity apparently intrigued him, for he ran the poem in one of his columns. And when I followed with another poem a few weeks later on another subject, he ran part of that one, but announced that as much as he liked the poems, he wasn't giving up his column to any more such words unless the writer came forward.
I decided, for some reason I can't recall, to maintain my cloak of secrecy. Bob and I rarely encountered one another in subsequent years, and when we did, I wasn't sure how to tell him I was the author. So I didn't, and to my knowledge he never knew.
In summary: Bob Rolfe and I connected on a professional level, on a level of mutual admiration, in friendship, and ultimately through verse.
And so when I heard of his passing, and then read of it, I bowed my head and -- as I had for Anne and Dodie -- let out a guttural sound.
But all three deserve more than that. So here's something faith-based. It was designed in the Bible as words for the living -- through Moses to the children of Israel -- but I've embraced it too as hopeful and encouraging for those loved ones who have recently passed away, and for whom we are praying.
It comes from Numbers 6:24-27: "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace."
Of respect and decorum ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Jan. 11, 2016 -- When I was a child in southeastern Michigan -- in my early teens, I would say -- I gave thought to being a lawyer. Oh, I had considered being a baseball player and a U.S. Senator, too, but lawyering sounded more within the realm of the practical.
There was an attorney who lived in our neighborhood -- the next street over and up a hill. He was the father of one of my brothers' playmates. His name was Ed Barrett, and he was, in his attorneydom, something godlike to me.
We talked about the law -- or rather he did, explaining its pluses and minuses, and some of his experiences -- and he told me he would let me accompany him someday to one of his trials. I looked forward to that, but was also a little apprehensive, for what I knew of courtrooms -- what I had seen on TV and read about them -- was a bit intimidating.
The trip to that courtroom never happened. Neither he nor I ever followed through, and Ed Barrett ultimately fell victim to cancer, dying -- if memory serves -- in his 50s.
But this is what I took away from my exchanges with him.
Courtrooms were treated -- and should be treated -- with a respect and decorum befitting the place they hold as one of the key foundations of a civilized society. Judges, by extension, should be treated with the same respect and decorum. They are human, yes, and no doubt as fallible as anyone else, but they are directed by a set of laws and regulations and guidelines that carry with them a certain institutional, and essential, protection from the vagaries associated with, say, politics. It's what I call the "shush factor." If you visit a courtroom, speak only in whispers if at all; and if you have anything to say outside of it, be measured and moderate in your tone.
The courtroom, and by extension the system of jurisprudence, demands this obeisance. It doesn't always receive it, for mayhem has occasionally overtaken court hearings in various parts of the country. But the precedent of respect and decorum is long held, and deeply guarded.
That's why, I think, it was so surprising to hear a school official in Schuyler County, unhappy with a court ruling, absolutely rail against the judge, saying the man had exhibited "a level of judicial incompetence" that was "inexcusable." The official was reacting to the acquittal of a female Watkins Glen High School science teacher on a weapons possession charge. The judge, after a bench trial, had said the teacher failed to act wisely in purchasing a stun gun for a student who ultimately took it on a school bus, but that the prosecution hadn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she was guilty of the charge.
The official who railed was the teacher's top administrative boss, the school superintendent -- a man not known for reticence and who, some think, stepped beyond the line of established propriety here. His words were so strong, in fact, that they at least temporarily deflected criticism and discussion away from the judge's ruling (which might otherwise have been roundly debated) and onto himself. Mostly what I heard in the days following the judge's verdict was criticism of the superintendent's words, deemed unseemly.
And given the nature of our court system -- its traditions and its reverence for the law and for muted ceremony -- his reaction was exactly that. And impolitic. And one-sided, for the judge is constrained by his office from replying in kind.
Alas, rather than retreat in the face of criticism to ruminate on the bastion-breaking nature of his words, the superintendent then allowed himself to be videotaped for TV news -- and said on-air that his reaction to the ruling was the result of his "passion" for Schuyler County. And he reiterated his plan to pursue the acquitted defendant's teaching certificate. In other words, zeal unchecked.
His "passion" plea probably fell on deaf ears among the populace that took exception to his post-verdict diatribe, in which he also said that "only in Schuyler County" could such a thing as the not-guilty verdict occur. He didn't use the word "travesty," but it seemed to logically follow.
Several readers -- through letters, phone calls and e-mails -- took exception to the phrasing only in Schuyler County as unduly critical of our chosen home. The result? A succinct verse on the matter that will hopefully run here soon in its entirety with a column by A. Moralis, a pseudonymous writer who on occasion comments on matters related to Schuyler County. The verse describes the attributes of Schuyler, and concludes:
Not everyone appreciates
The splendor offered thus.
Some pointed words, a biased blast
Might tend to debase us.
But in the end calm heads will rule
And verbal broadsides past
Will fade beyond our memory.
It’s Schuyler that will last.
Now that, to my way of thinking, is measured. Harmonious. Befitting the overlying atmosphere that our system of law offers as embodied in the history, symbolism and austerity of a courtroom. There should be no room here for stridency.
I can, having said that, still see adding to the verse a stanza suggesting the School Board not turn a blind eye to the superintendent's excess, nor to the fact that the media coverage surrounding the case might have been avoided if the matter had been handled in-house.
And for that matter, I might have written a stanza urging the Board to consider how, if at all, the culture of its school might have contributed to the stun-gun event -- whether there was enablement of any kind that could explain the teacher's mind-set when she purchased the gun and then, equally foolishly, gave it to the student.
But that's just me. Call me a believer -- in the respect and decorum due the judicial system, and in the maxim that the past can serve as a guidepost for the future.
To those who have mattered
By Charlie Haeffner
Dec. 30, 2015 -- Here is a tip of the hat to those who have mattered -- who have made a difference -- here in Schuyler County in the past year.
Naming these people is not a scientific analysis -- and nothing derived by discussion with a committee. This is just me, observing. If I miss someone, e-mail this website and we can give him or her some attention through your words, presented on the Forum Page.
First, I put at the head of the class a symbolically opposed tandem: the redoubtable Dennis Fagan, head of the county Legislature, and Sandra Steingraber, a woman who doesn't even live here, but has spent a good deal of time leading local protests against Crestwood's storage of methane and its planned storage of Liquefied Petroleum Gas in abandoned salt caverns on the west side of Seneca Lake.
Fagan -- as leader of a governing body that backs the Crestwood plans, and suspect in protesters' eyes as former owner of an engineering firm that caters to Crestwood -- is the devil incarnate to Steingraber's legions.
I personally see a man of principle, just as I see a woman of principle in Steingraber -- a renowned professor of biology, an author, and an environmentally attuned cancer survivor who resides with her family in Trumansburg.
Two strong wills, and one continuing story.
Beyond them, I would be remiss not to mention the drive toward a regional wastewater treatment plant -- and in that spirit I honor the mayors of Watkins Glen and Montour Falls who helped get the whole thing going: Mark Swinnerton (since defeated at the polls by one vote) and John King, respectively. There are others involved in the movement, to be sure, but these two serve well as functional and symbolic leaders.
And then there are:
--The Montour Moose Lodge, led by Mike Donnelly. This organization repeatedly offers its kitchen and dining facility and its support in important fund-raising breakfasts and dinners.
--Peggy Scott for her leadership in the United Way and Seneca Santa. Both are hugely important organizations, and Scott has led them for years with enthusiasm and efficiency, and did so again this time around.
--The new Odessa-Montour superintendent, Chris Wood, who brings an enthusiasm to the job and understands that he works both with and for the School Board. He also, unlike his predecessor, lives in the county. The attitude at the school -- personified in Wood's can-doism-- seems to have gone from wholly secretive to wholly positive in the past couple of years, led by Board President Rob Halpin -- another impact player who goes about his business in a quiet, efficient way.
--Joan Scott, for her leadership and guidance as head of the Schuyler County Veterans Service Agency. She impacts so many deserving veterans trying to negotiate the shoals of life after service.
--Keith Pierce, who in his years as leader of Odessa village government has put forth an agenda of positive change in a relatively stagnant community. The change has come necessarily slowly, and now he is hoping to upgrade the village from septic to sewer. He and the board are looking at a scenario that would tie the business district and school property into an expandable treatment facility on the west end of town. Other options might include joining the developing regional plant along the canal between Montour Falls and Watkins Glen, or utilizing equipment and land on Grant Road that once was a chicken farm.
--Restaurateur and brewer Doug Thayer, who with businessman Jim Guild are among the most active and important participants/promoters of downtown Watkins Glen -- gamblers with not only the bottom line, but the future of a vibrant village economy, on their minds. Guild, also a landlord (for the Chamber of Commerce visitor center and other properties), operates the hugely successful Famous Brands clothing store and spearheaded the Ben & Jerry's franchise operated by his son. Thayer, owner of the Wildflower Cafe and the Crooked Rooster Pub -- and instrumental in establishment of the Nickel's Pit BBQ -- has now purchased the old Clifford Motors building and opened a beer garden and tasting room there.
--Andy Manzer, who has overseen growth and renovation at Schuyler Hospital and at the Seneca View Skilled Nursing Facility, along with expanding the local hospital services through an affiliation with Cayuga Medical Center. He will be leaving us in the next few months for a job in the Cooperstown area, and will be missed.
--Judy Cherry, who brought with her from Delaware -- to the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development, where she is Executive Director -- both enthusiasm and extensive experience. During here short tenure, there has been a remarkable upswing in grant funding, state awards and the like in Schuyler ... which common sense alone says is no accident, and which observation says is inevitable given her capacity to interact, encourage and cajole.
--District Attorney Joe Fazzary. Somehow, year in and year out (and again this year), Fazzary steps into the law enforcement limelight -- this time in his handling (they would say ham-handed, but I say creative) of the scores of cases involving Crestwood protesters and, just this month, in his prosecution of a case involving a Watkins Glen High School teacher (now suspended) who supplied a student with a stun gun ultimately taken onto a school bus. The ruling on that by County Judge Dennis Morris is pending -- expected soon, the DA's office says, in written form. We'll keep you posted.
Beyond those folks, I tip my hat to the vintners among us, for they have spearheaded an industry here that has given new life to Schuyler tourism. The size and impact of their wineries vary, but their importance is uniformly of the highest order -- both for the past year and the future.
We are, as I write this, on the verge of the so-called Tripod Tournament -- the three-legged Boys Holiday Basketball Tournament at the WGHS Field House created when the district dismissed Moravia from the lineup. That move was ostensibly to maintain order in the wake of last spring's on-court dustup following a postseason Watkins-Moravia basketball game.
First up: today (Wednesday, Dec. 30), Trumansburg vs. Dundee. with the JV at 5:30 and varsity at 7.
WGHS plays Dundee on Saturday (JV at 6 p.m., varsity at 7:30), and WGHS plays Trumansburg Sunday (JV at 3 p.m., varsity at 4:30).
If all three teams go 1-1, there will be no champion. But there will be an All-Tournament team and MVP at both levels.
See you at the Field House?
Of jokes and jousting ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Dec. 16, 2015 -- I was told by a female reader that I was rather "morose" in my last column, reminiscences of Mr. Jim -- an old dance-class instructor -- notwithstanding.
And I tended to agree with her. Sometimes, when I fall into analytical mode, a veil of seriousness -- sometimes combining regret and frustration -- tends to wrap itself around the narrative.
So I'll try for lighter here.
For instance, I told another female friend about a joke relayed in a magazine article by comedian Lewis Black -- one of his favorites, and one that he was (and I am) concerned might create a negative reaction. But it is funny. It goes like this: "If a man speaks and a woman isn't there to hear it, is he still wrong?"
(My friend laughed and answered an emphatic "Yes!")
I'm not a joke-teller, though. My father was. He told stories and jokes quite often, and I could never understand how he could remember them. I couldn't -- although there was one about milk and cookies whose basics stuck with me because I heard it so much growing up. I won't share it here, though, because while it was funny, it was off-color, too.
The punch line became a part of family lore. It was this: "A cookie, maybe?" My mother, my father and (I suspect) my brothers and I used it one or more times in answer to a situation crying out for a solution or balance; a yang for a yin.
Whoops. There I go getting analytical again.
Okay, I was going to try to break up any recurring seriousness here by presenting something that appeals to me from time to time: verse.
I was going to take you back to a time long ago, back when horsepower actually meant horses, and when competitions -- and the honor of neighboring communities (kingdoms or fiefdoms, for the most part) -- had nothing to do with the inflation (or deflation) level of footballs, nor with other modern curiosities.
I was going to take you to a time when tournaments meant horsemen doing controlled battle with lances that had blunted tips. It was called jousting, and it was very popular, complete wilth enthusiastic fans. You might have even called those fans "Bleacher Creatures."
The poem is fairly long, though, and even I have trouble keeping my focus when reading it. So I'll refrain from publishing the whole thing.
But since I went to the trouble of writing it, I will run a sampling here, to give the flavor. The poem is called "The Tournament." The first couple of stanzas read:
Wars can be such tricky things.
They start too easy, end too hard.
Consider please Muldavia,
A kingdom recently on guard.
Its peaceful mien was shattered
When accused it was of sin.
It lost a joust to Jefferson,
The host, which loved to win.
Coincidentally, Watkins Glen was once known as Jefferson, right after it was known as Salubria.
Anyway, the joust devolves into a chaotic post-game fracas, with each side blaming the other, and when Muldavia is invited to a subsequent competition at Jefferson, the proud Jefferson monarch, upon discovering this, gives Muldavia the boot, saying: "I will not have a repeat / of what happened once before. / Keep those Muldavians out of here. / Let's raise the drawbridge, block the door."
A stanza that came later on -- one that struck my funny bone (I'm easily amused, I guess) -- was among several stanzas contemplating the disappearance of the Jefferson monarch (from our vantage point, into history), which ultimately blunted war preparations and led to Muldavia being invited back to joust:
A whimsy that so many liked
Says that he ran afoul
Of teachers who dissected him
with consonants and vowels.
On a similar topic -- the Watkins Glen High School Boys Holiday Basketball Tournament scheduled for after New Year's but on hold for a while after Moravia was jettisoned from the lineup for reasons never fully explained, though fairly evident (think last spring's postseason game and postgame dustup in the Field House) -- WGHS Athletic Manager Erich Kramer was asked by e-mail if a replacement had been found or if the tourney was being canceled. He responded like this: "There will be something that weekend whether we find the 4th team or not, (and) still have the hole in the bracket."
The details of that plan are now public. There will be a three-team tourney in the WGHS Field House gym, as follows:
--Dundee and Trumansburg will compete on Wednesday, Dec. 30, the JV at 5:30 and the varsity at 7 p.m.
--Watkins Glen will play Dundee on Saturday, Jan. 2 in JV and varsity games at 6 and 7:30 p.m.
--Watkins Glen will play Trumansburg on Sunday, Jan. 3 in JV and varsity games at 3 and 4:30 p.m.
If one of the schools goes undefeated, that team will be champion. If all three go 1-1, though, there will be no champion. Beyond that, there will be JV and varsity All-Tournament teams with MVPs.
"It's not ideal," said one observer. Another had unkinder words for administrators who created this oddly shaped event only after (and because) Moravia was no longer coming.
My own viewpoint? Somehow this tourney reminds me of a three-legged hamster I once owned. He lost his fourth limb in an accident. We called him Tripod. He couldn't run on that wheel in his cage worth a damn.
We'll see if this three-legged tournament runs any better.
I got an eyeful recently during a tour of Watkins Glen High School's developing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program, part of a national and state trend. The tour preceded a School Board meeting, and showcased the array of modern devices available to students in various classes -- what used to be Shop (but is way beyond it with Virtual Welders, 3-D printers and the like), Architectural Drawing (with an advanced laser printer on hand), and a lab where Robotics and intense studies in engineering design can be used to reach mathematical conclusions -- such as employing a model of a stream, complete with silt and flow, to determine velocity, slope and volume, among other things.
One student, confidently downloading instructions into his Lego-laden robot, said he was in 7th grade. When I was in 7th grade, I tried without much success to fit into a school society that penalized youth; I struggled with a new, basic Math whose logic seemed to elude me, and I pined for girls about a foot taller than me.
That was my school landscape.
Robotics? 3-D printers? And for that matter, computers?
Not even in my dreams.
As the ghosts rise ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Nov. 29, 2015 -- From my perspective, the holidays aren't what they used to be. I'm sure that's a sentiment experienced by many of the elderly as they sail on through their "sunset" years.
Part of the problem -- at least for me -- is that I possess a rich past. Not rich in money, but rich in family. I was raised in a loving family, and helped raise my own children in a loving one, too.
But with time comes attrition. I've lost my wife, my father and mother, an aunt and uncle, and a couple of in-laws. Not to mention friends who have fallen by the wayside as my own life has stretched onward.
Every Thanksgiving, and for that matter at Christmas, that past rises in my mind and in my heart, and creates an ambivalence -- a feeling, on the one hand, of loss, and a feeling on the other hand of joy at having been so blessed with so much for so many years ...those years during which those people now departed were part of this world.
And in that ambivalence I find myself turning, inevitably, to those people who shape my daily existence now -- my three sons; a couple of very special friends with whom I have frequent contact and whose counsel I often seek; and the many people with whom I interact in my role as a photojournalist.
I encountered one such man on Thanksgiving day, as I and two of my sons attended a feast at the Burdett Presbyterian Church. His name is Dick Evans, and he was serving as the event greeter. After I had eaten and was about to leave, he thanked me for what I do in providing news to the area populace, and surmised how it's probably a lot of fun.
"Yes," I admitted, "it can be."
"Almost like it isn't work?" he asked.
"Well," I responded, "I wouldn't go that far."
It is mostly fun, tinged with hard work. I feel lucky to be doing it, especially given the thought that it so easily might not have happened at all.
Think about it. We all are on paths with choices, with forks in the road (which Yogi Berra suggested that we simply "take") that could so easily lead in unintended directions -- far different from the routes that have led us to the here and now.
If my first wife, met in college, had not been from Northern New York, and had we not decided to move there following graduation, and had we not divorced, and had not my second wife -- met in Northern New York -- been from Watkins Glen, I wouldn't have settled here. And those are just the main forks; there are so many seemingly minor ones that present themselves along the way; that seem inconsequential, but can change the course of our lives.
And there is always the wild card with the largest impact: health. I need mine, after all, to achieve the daily goals of my job.
Yet ... I vividly recall lying in a Schuyler Hospital bed back in '99, talking on the phone to my mother, explaining how I was in ICU after what was assessed as a myocardial infarction -- a heart attack. I felt, talking to her, that this might be our last conversation, and in that realization I felt a great sadness.
I was there because I had had trouble gaining a deep breath, and my alert wife, Susan, upon discovering it, had immediately transported me to the hospital. And from there the doctors, being cautious, placed me in Intensive Care for the night. I was transferred next morning to the Packer complex in Sayre, where I had a choice of a stress test -- only 85% accurate -- or a camera in my heart. I opted for the camera, which showed that my heart, then 50 years old, was equivalent to that of a healthy 25-year-old. That was the word from the doctors, who in turn released me back into the world.
A lung check the next day back at Schuyler Hospital failed to produce a reason for my breathing malady, but a subsequent trip to the chiropractor did: misalignment in my back brought on by stress and by shoveling away a 10-inch snowfall from my driveway days before.
Even with insurance covering most of the cost, it proved to be an expensive backache.
But it was valuable in the residue of sadness it left; the realization that at some point there would be a final conversation. That led me to write a rather ambitious novel (The Maiden of Mackinac) and, then, to start The Odessa File.
You see, I viewed both endeavors as an effort to do something constructive, something worthwhile before I came to my end. The novel has never caught on, although those who have read it have, for the most part, professed to enjoy it. But The Odessa File, after a bumpy start (few readers and almost no ads) gained steam and has endured for nearly 13 years.
And it is that to which I point now, with some pride and amazement, as the one thing I have done that seems to matter. And the fact that I do it (for the most part) well -- as opposed, say, to how I dance -- makes it all the sweeter.
I mention dancing as an example of memories that wash up during the holidays. This one in particular has to do with Mrs. Young's Dance Class, run by a woman who, from my perspective at the time, was incredibly old -- although, I suspect, younger than I now am.
She ran her class with a couple of helpers -- a woman whose name eludes me (Miss Vickie, perhaps?) and a fairly short, handsome man with slicked-back black hair who we called Mr. Jim. The class was held in the gymnasium at one of the area schools where I was raised in southeastern Michigan, north of Detroit. Memory insists that it occurred during winter, in the several weeks on either side of Christmas.
I went to the dance class -- or rather was transported, since I was too young to drive -- with two girls from my neighborhood, one named Karen and the other named Debbie. The class wasn't my idea -- my mother was insistent -- and to be saddled with two girls in my grade (Girls, ugh, I thought) was tantamount to beating myself on the head with my beloved baseball bat. I would much rather have been outside my house at dusk -- the time of the dance lessons -- hitting stones with that bat into the hillside across the road from my family's house. I earned points (bestowed by myself) for those stones hit well; I don't recall earning anything from dancing except a degree of embarrassment.
What I remember most about Mrs. Young's class is lining up to dance with either Karen or Debbie, my left arm outstretched, the right hand of my partner in my left, and Mr. Jim -- after bounding from couple to couple -- stopping next to me. He always did this, and always smiled, nodding. "Good form," he would say. "Good form." And he'd reach out and give my hand and that of my partner a soft pat.
I wasn't ever sure if he was commenting on the form I was exhibiting in those moments, or admonishing me, his smile covering his disdain. (I was fairly insecure.)
Anyway, as an aside, I had a brief relationship a few years later with Debbie, a caterpillar who blossomed into someone quite beautiful -- and in typical form I was so spooked by the strength of my emotions that I retreated to singledom before many blissful encounters had passed.
My dance experience lives on in family lore for the time that one of my brothers, having found the love of his life (and ultimately his wife), had taken her to visit our parents. This occurred in Michigan; I was living in northern New York. I received a phone call from my mother, who announced that my brother was there, and that Karen was with him.
"Karen who?" I asked with some suspicion, my mind going back to the uncomfortable days of Mrs. Young and Mr. Jim.
Well, it was a different Karen -- which is what, after all, the odds favored. But my mother -- having served as occasional chauffeur for me and the two girls to and from dance class, and no doubt remembering my discomfort with it -- thought I was hilarious, and never let me forget those simple words: "Karen who?"
I will confess having harbored a hope -- despite my misgivings -- that I did fairly well in following Mrs. Young's and Mr. Jim's instructions. But any ability I might have shown during class has wafted away over time. I completely lack rhythm on the dance floor.
Mr. Jim would be appalled ... or maybe not. Perhaps he would be nodding amiably, knowing full well that "good form" was indeed beyond me.
So ... I will stick to what I know best -- words -- in the hope that I do better with them. And in the words I will seek some measure of solace during this holiday season ... some measure of peace with the ghosts that rise at this time of the year, triggering memories of wonderful Christmases I experienced when I was a child and when my sons were growing up.
And in that peace I will say to you, with sincerity: I hope you have a loving -- and, yes, memorable -- holiday season.
For the memories, while perhaps saddening in later years, can have a saving sweetness about them.
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