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A dime, a penny & greatness
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, March 18, 2019 -- I had missed the trip to Troy two years ago. High blood pressure (I didn’t yet know I had) was wearing down my body. I simply couldn’t go watch the Watkins Glen High School girls basketball team compete in the Final Four. Fortunately, I had a photographer there in my stead: Don Romeo, who captured the action beautifully.
I was thrilled when the girls -- led by Amanda Pike -- won the semifinal, and I was perched by my radio, listening to the play-by-play for the finale, taking notes feverishly so I could write a story worthy of the event. When the Senecas were down 16 points with 6:30 to play, I pondered whether there might be a parade on their return home if they lost by 30.
And then the magic struck, and they fought back and won the game at the buzzer on a floater by then-sophomore Hannah Morse. It was the first state title for a basketball team in the school’s history.
Then Pike and others graduated, and all that remained two years later of that title team were Morse -- now the senior leader -- and fellow senior Taylor Kelly. They were joined in their amazing year-long trek by a cast of players led by senior Danielle Leszyk, not on the team two years ago, but now an integral part of the offense and a superb defender.
With juniors Adrienna Solomon, Kelsey Kernan and Ali LaMoreaux, along with seniors Jena Slater and Kathleen Clifford and long-range sophomore shooter Aislinn Klemann, the magic started happening again. They didn’t win their Interscholastic Athletic Conference division, losing twice to Class B Waverly, but there were only two other losses, one to Class A Ithaca and one to Newark Valley on the road.
Come postseason time, they were supposed to lose to Newfield -- that’s what most observers said -- but beat the Trojans by 32 points. Then came a string of 11-point wins, which carried with them a story. They beat the No. 1 seed in Section IV, Unatego, 53-42, to win the sectional title, and then Cooperstown, 60-49, to claim a regional championship. That was followed by a victory over Millbrook, 53-42, in the state semifinal. In each case, prognosticators had said the Senecas would lose.
Now, about that 11-point story.
I was in the lobby outside the gym at Hudson Valley Community College after Watkins had upended expectations by defeating the defending champion Millbrook squad and their outstanding junior, Erin Fox, last year’s Class C Player of the Year.
I was standing talking to a friend when a woman approached -- from Watkins Glen, though I don’t know her name. At least I think she was there, and I think she told the story, but I can’t swear to it. I was swooning at that point at how the Senecas had managed their victory over Millbrook. Besides, her story was so ethereal, I thought in retrospect that I might have been hallucinating. (Addendum: I'm told by someone who read this column that the woman's name is Betty Scott from the Town of Montour, and that she has told other folks the same story. So I guess I didn't imagine it.)
The woman said she had been shopping at Tops Market in Watkins Glen when -- I believe it was on the lip of a vegetable display -- she discovered a dime and a penny, and picked them up, and divined from the find that the Watkins girls would win their next game -- against Unatego -- by the number of points equal to the number of cents she had pocketed: 11.
And the Senecas did, and followed it with two more wins by the same margin. After hearing that, I half believed they would beat Cambridge in the championship game by 11. And I contemplated buying a lottery ticket with the number 11 in it, and maybe 53, 42, 60 and 49.
If they had won by 11 again, I likely would have freaked about the woman's story -- but they didn’t. The number did pop up in defeat, though-- as the most points scored by any Watkins Glen player against Cambridge. That total, 11, was registered by both Leszyk and Solomon.
Anyway, that was one memory of a memorable weekend I spent in Troy, staying with school official Rod Weeden and Assistant Coach Ralph Diliberto in the Marriott where the team was housed. After the Senecas surprised the prognosticators and Millbrook by winning the semifinal by 11, I dined that evening at a nearby Olive Garden with Weeden and Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan, who was on hand to cheer on the girls and to partake the next day of a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Albany.
Saturday was a long day -- a long wait for the girls from their midday victory Friday, for their title game wasn’t until 7 p.m. Saturday. They (and I) had breakfast at a nearby Denny’s. Service was a little spotty, and a corner table with players Morse, Kelly, Leszyk and Klemann was the last served among our group, raising a lament along the way from a very hungry Morse. When their food was finally delivered, they devoured it.
The team -- after returning to the Marriott to rest and digest -- went off to a nearby high school for a shoot-around (a warm-up, basically) in the early afternoon, and then back to the Marriott to await the delivery of food ordered from Panera’s and picked up there by Weeden after he and I had visited a mall just around the corner from the restaurant. Lunch was served by Weeden, with the help of Coach Alicia Learn, in a room at the Marriott, and then the girls returned to their rooms to await their departure at about 3 p.m. to the tournament site.
Weeden and I followed them to the community college, and I watched with interest as a Class D school, Franklinville, defeated Edwards-Knox behind a 40-point onslaught by a slender 5-6 junior named Danielle Haskell. “She reminds me of Amanda Pike,” said one Watkins fan who may or may not have known that Pike herself, now a sophomore at East Stroudsburg University, was in the stands to cheer on this year’s Senecas. Another observer thought Haskell was reminiscent of Pistol Pete Maravich: she never saw a shot she didn’t want to take, launching (and making) several bombs from far beyond the arc.
I hoped, as the Watkins Glen-Cambridge game neared, that someone could step up big for the Senecas as Haskell had for Franklinville -- but things did not go as hoped.
As everyone knows, Kelly got into foul trouble early and missed 2:16 of the first quarter and the entire second quarter. In her absence, the Senecas stayed close, and continued to stay close after Kelly returned. Alas, the team shooting went ice cold, and Cambridge’s twin Phillips sisters were too tall and had huge wingspans that pretty much negated any inside drives. And when Cambridge took control in the fourth quarter, nothing could be done to stop it.
No dime, no penny, no nothing.
In defeat, the girls were disappointed. There were tears, and hugs. And there were no platitudes -- “great season,” “nothing to hang your heads about,” and “making the final is nothing to sneeze at” -- that could salve the pain. But these are young, resilient girls, and by the time they returned home the next morning on the school bus that had ferried them to, fro and all about Troy -- smiles countered the red eyes, and the welcoming reception was clearly welcome by them. The gathering of family, friends and admirers in the WGHS Field House gym was a celebration.
I interacted, talking to a couple of them, hugging a couple. And it was when Klemann -- as sweet a girl as you can find -- said to me “I enjoyed your poem” (published as part of the semifinal victory story), I decided I needed to create a sequel.
What follows are the original, and then the sequel, which I wrote after that Field House celebration.
When e’er the scribes
record this day,
Four words will rise
to mark the play.
Four words will rise.
A stopless force.
Four words will rise:
"It starts with Morse."
You take one Morse
Mix in TK.
Add D and Drie
and Kelsey K.
Add Jena, Aislinn
And Coach Learn
With manic defense:
The wins keep coming:
It’s down to this:
They need one more.
If they can conquer
One more foe
They’ll be atop
Class C once more.
If they can win
Just one game more
They’ll be forever
And this is the sequel:
The cheers have died,
The crowds have left.
The loss has gone down hard.
But sting will yield
To mem’ries bright
We’ll hold in high regard.
For life is not all victories.
Sometimes the losses teach
That rising high’s its own reward
When we achieve beyond our reach.
The cause in this case
As so oft is not a lonesome act.
It’s many minds and many hands
Which joined create a pact
Of movement, merit, goals set high
A drive for great, not good.
These girls, these proud Senecas
Grand roundball sisterhood.
A centennial observance ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, March 8, 2019 -- It is a few minutes past midnight as we cross into March 8, 2019 -- leaving behind a day significant in the annals of the Haeffner family.
My mother would have been 100 on March 7, had she lived that long. She would have been embarking on her second hundred years. Alas, she was taken from us at the relatively young age -- relative when compared to a second hundred years -- of 92, back in 2011.
Her name was Eleanor Leigh Bennett Haeffner, married to Augustus Charles Haeffner Jr. -- Gus Haeffner -- for 54 years before his passing at 84 in 1994. He had married at the advanced age of 30 -- which is to say advanced over Mom, who was just 21.
They met outside Auburn, New York, on Owasco Lake, during an outing in the summer of 1940. She was sitting on a raft talking to an acquaintance, Ruth Haeffner -- Gus’s sister -- when Dad swam out to join them, and he was apparently smitten immediately.
He was, like her, from Auburn, but was already well out of college and into the workforce -- a salesman (shoes were his forte) on the road in Indiana. He was home for a visit, and after that made time for a couple more visits to see Eleanor.
They liked to say they were married after two weeks and two weekends, which is the time they spent together over a handful of months before marrying on Oct. 12, 1940. That was Columbus Day -- a date that was always Columbus Day as I grew up, before the government decided to add another long weekend to the arsenal of its workers, making Columbus Day a floater, and thus rarely on the 12th.
Mom and Dad always seemed like a strong team; presented a unified front, as far as I remember. She never, to my knowledge, had a job while married -- a job outside the home, that is. She raised me and my two older siblings, and ran the household, and was a master at cooking and at staging entertaining evenings for Dad’s customers. Those customers were owners of shoe stores or small chains who bought footwear from Dad. For most of my childhood years, he was a representative of the U.S. Shoe Corporation, headquartered in Cincinnati.
Mom had her hands full with us, I’m sure, although my memory tells me I was almost a perfect angel. Well ... maybe not, although she liked to tell me and my brothers Bob and Jim that we were no trouble to raise.
She liked art, and was a pretty good painter of landscapes and, especially, of avant garde subjects. I recall she created one painting of a drummer going crazy on his drums. The viewpoint, I believe, was from above, and you could feel the energetic motion going on inside that frame. I think she sold that one to a family friend.
I’ve retained some of her work -- have a fairly large one on the wall behind the recliners in my living room. It captures the view of a small, crater-fed Sodon Lake in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a community where I spent 10 of my childhood years. I have another of her works displayed upstairs.
Mom was beautiful in her younger years -- inside and out. The physical part of that waned as she aged; she often complained about “these damn wrinkles.” She could be direct like that; I always seemed to know where I stood with her, whether I was the apple of her eye or a pain in another part of her anatomy.
She was besieged by macular degeneration as part of the aging process, too, which finally prevented her from seeing much, and certainly from driving. But she kept trying. In widowhood, she had a Ford Taurus that she drove locally near her Venice, Florida home -- where she and Dad had retired after raising us in Michigan -- until one day when she had a near-accident on the way to the grocery store. The car had only a few thousand miles on it.
She called me to offer it to me for $4,000 -- the amount of money she needed to fix the roof on her home -- and I flew down to Florida and drove the car back. Best buy I ever made.
In her final years she was assaulted by Alzheimer’s, and our phone conversations ended. We had often talked, but now she wouldn’t answer the phone, more and more becoming unsure to whom she was speaking. I was up in New York, and she was in a retirement home in Bradenton, Florida. Accordingly, my eldest brother, Bob, who lived near Bradenton, in Sarasota, bore the brunt of the emotional toll -- visiting Mom regularly.
He’d take her out to lunch, for instance, and she might comment about what a nice man he was, and how he reminded her a little of her son.
Eventually, her life force waned, an infection claiming her. She died peacefully at 92.
We all gathered, family driving and flying in from scattered points, to celebrate her -- to celebrate the matriarch of the clan, a woman whose own mother had died in childbirth when Eleanor was just 12; a woman who ended up helping her widowed father -- an Auburn physician -- raise her siblings: two sisters and the youngest member of the family, a boy.
Those skills of raising a family -- an art learned early -- carried naturally into her adult years as she raised her own brood of three boys. She did it well, showering her boys with love -- and, when needed, discipline -- during a period in which Dad’s business blossomed and we lived well, indeed, in a large house on a lake.
Eleanor Leigh Bennett Haeffner would have been 100 yesterday. It is an age that seems, and is, quite old, notable for how few people reach it.
But I wish she were still here, as she once was, before age and its vagaries worked against her. She was strong, and made me strong. She was fair, and I like to think that quality rubbed off on me, too.
Her little baby -- I was the youngest -- is no baby anymore. But I guess I’m like most people.
At heart, I’m the little kid who loved his Mom, and never wanted to grow up and leave her. And, in the end, I certainly didn't want her to leave us.
So ... happy birthday, Mom. I love you.
And if you are, as I suspect, with Dad, tell him I said hi, and give him a hug for me.
Miss you both.
Photos in text:
Top: Gus and Eleanor Haeffner in their early years together.
Bottom: One of Eleanor's paintings, kept by her son in Odessa.
Of athletes, hoops & mentors
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Feb. 24, 2019 --This is the time of year when I, along with other overseers of the Top Drawer 24 program, receive nominations for the Top Drawer team -- a team unveiled each year in late May and honored in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
We’ve received those nominations for the 2018-19 school year from administrators, teachers and Top Drawer committee members. Anyone else wanting to submit suggestions -- nominations -- is free to do so. Just email them to me, with supporting arguments: grades, athletics, citizenship, character and so on. Whatever comes to mind.
When we started the Top Drawer program more than a dozen years ago, we honored student-athletes from the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour schools. Then we branched out to Trumansburg, Twin Tiers Christian Academy and Spencer-Van Etten, and then to South Seneca and schools in Chemung County: Horseheads, Elmira, Notre Dame and Edison.
The team is theoretically open to anyone from freshman up, but only one freshman ever made the squad, and now -- with so many schools and still only 24 honorees -- it is mostly seniors, with a few juniors. Repeaters are unusual; last year there was only one.
This year the team will be notable for its high level of athletic achievement -- quite a few students bound for Division 1 colleges, for example. And as usual, academic excellence is a must, not to mention involvement in clubs and civic endeavors.
There are hard choices to be made by the committee members between now and May. Their eyes will be trained on the conclusion of winter sports and the advent of the spring sports -- and their minds focused on the debates and endorsements that are part and parcel of the selection process.
In the end, we hope to name the best team possible. We’ll try hard, anyway.
As I write this, the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity basketball team -- led by seniors Hannah Morse and Taylor Kelly -- have advanced to the semifinals of the Section IV, Class C Tournament, with Newfield’s team awaiting them Tuesday at SUNY Cortland.
You can point to several players -- those two mentioned, plus Danielle Leszyk, Drie Solomon, Kelsey Kernan and Aislinn Klemann -- as key contributors to the team’s success. But the one ever-present constant over the past five years has been the coach, Alicia Learn.
As a coach, she has some naysayers; every coach does. But I maintain that she’s the glue to this remarkable program. After her less than stellar first season, we have this: visits five straight years to the sectional semifinals; visits the past four years to the sectional finals, with wins the first three times. And the icing: a state championship two seasons ago.
Morse was very much present on the team that title season, and in fact delivered the championship-winning basket at the buzzer. That was a team that also had the state Class C Player of the Year in Amanda Pike, now at East Stroudsburg University.
Mention to Learn that her record is remarkable, and she will smile and say, her arm waving toward the court and her players: “Well, I’ve had a little help, you know.” And she has: good players, good assistants. But I maintain that she is a coach worth celebrating: a team builder, one who fosters teamwork, both on the court and off.
And she does it with an equanimity worth noting ... and emulating.
Kudos, too, to WGHS senior Joe Chedzoy, selected as one of 48 students around the state to be selected to the New York State High School Football Coaches Association’s 2018 Scholar Athlete First Team.
“This award,” wrote the organization’s executive director, Lyle Dixon, in a congratulatory note to Joe, “is given not only for your athletic ability but for your academic excellence, as well. Your hard work and dedication certainly shows in your achievement.”
Two certificates accompanied the letter: “one for you to keep," said Dixon, "and one to give to your school’s Athletic Director.”
Congratulations to Dylan Houseknecht for his wrestling championship at 285 pounds at the State Meet in Albany. Dylan, an Odessa-Montour High School senior, beat a fellow -- Trentyn Rupert of Newark Valley -- who had defeated him twice earlier in the season. Dylan got the best of Rupert at Sectionals and then, as the No. 2 seed to Rupert's No. 1, defeated him in the final second of the first overtime period at States.
Well done, young man.
I awakened to the following in my email in-box. I present it here with no judgment. It’s interesting, though, how Woodstock tends to focus the attention.
And so, the snow-white rabbit said
We’ll set the county rocking.
We’ll smoke the grass and snort the dust
Oh, yes, we’ll be Woodstocking.
Ignore the cries of chaos
That the local farmers spiel.
Their minor losses pale, my friend
To what this festival will deal.
If plans go south, disaster reigns,
don’t fret, critics ignore.
We’ll lick our wounds, reset our sights
And try the gig once more.
And on a much more positive note, I turn the column over here to Susan States Heale, who wrote me a rather remarkable letter a few days ago. I present it here in its entirety.
"Dear Mr. Haeffner:
"My name is Susan States Heale, daughter of Claude and Patricia States, formerly of Odessa, New York. I graduated from OMCS in 1990 and Elmira College in 1993 before moving to Seattle in 1994.
"I have enjoyed reading your online newspaper for many years now (making donation for sure!) and it's allowed me to stay in touch with happenings around my hometown. I would bet that many people formerly from that area appreciate your work and effort to publish this for the community and far beyond.
"I have wanted to write to you for some time now but life has been very busy for me. However, recent connections on Facebook with old friends from home and with some of my former teachers made me realize I needed to make time to email you. I have been so blessed in my life by my wonderful upbringing there in Odessa and Schuyler County. I am hoping to return home this summer for the first time since 2008.
"Growing up in Odessa, I was so privileged to have had amazing music teachers. I had Mr. Stephen Shewan and Mrs. Sharon Anderson for band. I had Ms. Dawna Fetter for chorus and was in several musicals she directed at OMCS. I had years of mentoring from Sally Michel, who played piano with me for the OMCS choruses and at my former church, Glen Baptist. I also had three stalwart Schuyler County music teachers as private piano teachers -- Mrs. Brown, Jean VanderVliet and Judy Feitner. So much talent in this group!
"In 4th grade, I was in my first musical -- The Wizard of Oz-- at OMCS. I fell in love with musical theater and there was no stopping me from there. My current life and career were so beautifully formed by these mentors and teachers and I credit my upbringing in Schuyler County with the many successes I am now experiencing as an adult in Washington State.
"In 2006, I opened a music school in my home with just 11 students. By 2013, I had 400 students and 16 staff members. I've been incredibly blessed to have been able to provide music education to over 2,500 kids from my community in Kirkland, Washington (a suburb of Seattle), over 1,000 kids have attended my rock band and musical theater camps, and over 300 members of the community have participated in my community musical theater program.
"In 2013, I formed a musical theater restoration company with my partner, Joshua Sibley. We write original musicals from classic literature and restore old musicals from the early 1900's and return them to the stage. We have written five full-length shows and 11 musicals for camps and school groups since that time. Last May, we landed a multi-year publishing contract with Chatwin Books of Seattle, Washington to publish our shows, and our masterpiece, SCROOGE, is releasing by this summer. We also made a full-length movie of SCROOGE last year which will release on iTunes and Google Play this coming holiday season.
"In addition, we are currently raising $450,000 to purchase and restore an 1889 theater in Ellensburg, Washington as a venue for our historic shows. Our soft release of the fundraising video last week has had over 11,500 views on Facebook in eight days! We are also purchasing a house for the music school here in Kirkland and have raised $66,000 towards that this year. The school became a non-profit in 2016 so that we could better serve the community and apply for grants.
"Every day I am grateful for my hometown of Odessa and the surrounding Schuyler County area. I feel privileged that I have been able to take what I learned there and share it in another part of the country. And, I've only just begun. I hope to have another 20 years ahead of me to continue building amazing musical programs here and, with the publication of our shows, all over the world.
"I have reached out to Tracy Gavich, who runs Dream Barn Productions in Odessa, and told her I'm coming home in late August. I've offered to assist her in raising funds for her group. If my visit to Odessa can draw attention to her organization, which I consider my home group even though it was Tracy who started that particular group for theater in Odessa, then I'd love to help. Many of those who help in her program and support her work were my former colleagues and mentors in musical theater there in Odessa as a child.
"I have included some pictures of what I'm doing. I would love for you to use my story to bring honor and gratitude to those fine music teachers and musicians that I named above. They certainly deserve it. I know some of them are no longer with us, but their families are still local to the area, I believe.
Cheers to many more years of success for The Odessa File. Blessings to you for doing this.
Susan States Heale
Photos in text:
Top: Susan States Heale and partner Joshua Sibley.
Second: Susan States Heale leading one of her Rock Band camps.
Third: Heale's partner Josh and her daughter Olivia in a restoration of the 1904 George M. Cohan show, Little Johnny Jones.
Bottom: Susan's son Cody as the Beggar in Scrooge.
Dr. Borzell was one of a kind
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Feb. 13, 2019 --I’m going to present here some thoughts on the late, great Dr. Blanche Borzell, who died a few days ago at the age of 73. I knew her, but not well; I was always a little intimidated by her, as I often am by people who seem to me larger than life.
She was -- not just my opinion, but shared by many -- a very special person.
The thoughts here, though, should come from someone who knew her far better than I did. And so I turn this over to a person who prefers not to become part of the story by identifying herself. The story here, she wants you to know, is entirely about the life of Dr. Blanche Borzell.
These are her words.
An unpretentious sign hangs outside of 801 Decatur Street in Watkins Glen identifying it as the locale of Dr. Blanche Borzell’s Family Practice. It was exactly that until recently, but is quiet now. The doctor who was there for so many years is gone now. It doesn’t seem possible, and it is far too soon.
The sign and the office have been there for many years ... possibly close to 43. I would imagine that 43 years ago it was not very easy for a woman to be a physician. But Dr. Borzell was a trailblazer, and like all trailblazers was fearless and determined. Those were hallmarks of her character.
Who was Dr. Blanche Borzell? To many, she was known as Dr. Borzell, but to others she was known as a wife, mom, grandma, Aunt Blanche, friend, sister, and godmother; to a few she proudly announced herself as Great Godmother. She was a woman who loved her family and cared deeply for the community where she lived. She had a great sense of humor and was not known to ever be in a foul mood; she was also the first female family practice physician in Schuyler County. To other female physicians, she was their hero, someone whose pioneering spirit made it a little easier for them to follow in her footsteps and practice medicine. To the nurses who worked with her, Dr. Borzell was always kind, supportive, and willing to educate.
She loved TV’s Jeopardy and reading Patricia Cromwell novels featuring a character named Kay Scarpetta: a medical examiner, which was fitting for a coroner -- for Dr. Borzell was one for many years. Beyond those TV and book interests, Blanche, like most of us, had a common side and loved the quirky, over-the-top entertainment the National Enquirer presented.
While in graduate school she met her future husband at a surprise party. Although many men asked her to dance, she denied them because she had her eye on the one gent in the room wearing a kilt. “What great legs!” she would later enthuse. When she graduated Medical School, she borrowed money from her sister and brother-in-law to buy a 1972 orange Corvette convertible. “A gift to myself,” she called it.
She liked to keep a Doctors’ Joke Book and learn a new joke each month to share with her patients. When her great nephew was reciting the Lord’s Prayer to her, he said “And we forget those who trespass against us.” Her reply was “You’re learning!” and loved it when he referred to Christmas as “payday.” She deeply loved her grandchildren; and her children remember her for always having time for them, finding a balance between family and career, and teaching them to be independent. She is described as the glue that held the family together.
She was always an educator, mentor, and encourager. Some people have said there were three influences in their lives: Mother, Father, and Dr. Borzell. Just ask Dr. Jamie Coleman, Dr. Christine Franzese (a doctor and goddaughter), Dr. Blanche Franzese DDS, and Anthony Fraboni, Bank Manager, community leader, and village trustee. He was honored to be her godson.
Dr. Borzell was a pillar of the community, willing to help out, and do what she felt was needed. This is what led her to be a coroner. (Her husband would argue with a smile that it was so she could learn ways to kill him and get away with it.) She enjoyed attending medical examiners’ conferences, and often returned with interesting souvenirs.
Although Dr. Borzell was brilliant, she could talk to anyone and never made you feel like she was any smarter or better. She never forgot her humble beginnings; never got upset, and always saw the good in people. On holidays she invited someone to family dinners who was otherwise going to be alone. She was unfailingly kind and caring, and liked to help. She was one of a kind.
To quote one of her patients: “I don’t want another doctor. I’ve had Dr. Blanche for 35 years, and there is no one who could possibly take her place.”
Rest In Peace, Dr. Blanche Borzell.
You will be forever missed.
Photo in text: Dr. Blanche Borzell (Photo provided)
Alice Trappler redux ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Jan. 24, 2019 -- The two men skulked -- that is one word for it -- from the roadway to the lawn fronting the house. They angled to the side of the front porch. They had been alerted to a sensor alarm greeting any front-step visitors.
The younger of the two -- mid-20s, a stepbrother to the first -- was on edge. His companion was carrying a shotgun, and had baldly announced, just a half-hour before, that they would be committing murder that night.
“Wait,” the younger man muttered as they reached the porch. “Listen, I don’t know about this.”
His half-brother turned toward him, the barrel of the gun swinging in his general direction.
“Shut up,” he said.
And the younger man, easily cowed, swallowed down any other potential words.
Protests were not his strong suit.
The older man -- early 30s, thickening, a truck driver by trade with hair kept short -- turned back to the porch, stepped onto it and edged along the front wall of the house, avoiding the sensor. The younger man -- gaunt, nervous -- followed behind, peering in a window but seeing nothing, for it was dark inside. He was shaking his head. He had thought, until that last half-hour, that they were going to beat up the man they were in fact going to kill.
They reached the front door -- no screen, just a wooden barrier -- and the older man tested the knob. It turned easily; not locked. His information on that point had been correct. Now, if the rest of it held up, this would be done quickly, and their departure would follow cleanly. He knew that the victim's father was also present, but asleep in the basement; he should be no problem. They would be done and gone before the old fellow could react.
The man with the gun pushed the door open, hinged to the right, and stepped back, grabbing the double-grip, pump-action weapon tightly and motioning to his stepbrother to move in and turn on the light.
“On the left,” he whispered, and the younger man did as he was asked -- angling in front of his companion, reaching around the door jamb, finding the switch and flicking on the living room's overhead bulbs.
The interior, he saw in an instant before backing away and letting his weapon-wielding stepbrother in the door, was far from tidy. It was lived in: an old TV, newspapers scattered on the floor, a well-worn armchair opposite the TV, a threadbare carpet, and directly ahead, a sagging sofa -- occupied by a large figure, a man who had been sleeping and was groggily coming to in response to the light.
The victim was right where he was supposed to be.
The younger man took all of that in, and then cleared the way for his stepbrother and the 12-gauge shotgun. The assassin didn’t say a word, just moved inside with two long strides, hesitated a moment, perhaps waiting for his victim to absorb what was about to happen, and then, with a determined look, leveled the weapon at the waking man’s face and pulled the trigger.
The explosion was deafening, the scene a horrifying mess as exploding shell hit flesh and bone and shattered both, sending them away from the shooter, into the sofa, onto the floor and walls beyond. As the sound faded and the finality of the shooting settled in, the assassin, almost in victory, pumped the weapon, expelling the used shell, and scanned what he had done. And listened; he heard nothing from the basement yet, from the direction of the victim's father. But his ears were ringing, so he couldn't be sure. It was time to leave.
He nodded once, retreated a step to the front door, turned to his younger accomplice, and found that he had relocated to the front lawn -- was standing there, looking toward the door, wide-eyed and mouth open, but no words coming out. Even in the dim light provided by the building's interior, he looked ashen. The older stepbrother reached over to the switch to extinguish the light, closed the door behind him and joined the younger man as he turned on the lawn in the direction of the road.
They walked briskly back to their vehicle, an aged pickup truck, which they had left a short distance down the road. They started up the old, cranky, muffler challenged engine, and raced away -- they thought to safety.
But the shell left behind on the floor, and other clues -- including text messages embedded in the records of cell-phone companies, messages snared by nearby towers -- would prove them wrong. Within days, one of the two men would be dead, the other singing the truth to inquiring authorities, and a woman deemed the instigator by the local District Attorney would be behind bars and headed to trial for murder.
I often thought that the murder of Daniel Bennett in his father’s home on April 19, 2012, the subsequent death of the shooter, Thomas Wesley Borden, when he leaped into the path of a moving train while being pursued by police in Pennsylvania, and the arrests of Borden's stepbrother, Nathan Hand, and Borden's ex-wife, Alice Trappler -- the mother of a child, Lily, fathered by the late Mr. Bennett -- would make for a fascinating In Cold Blood-styled book. I would call it The Goat Ranch, for that’s where Ms. Trappler lived: on a ranch with -- among other things -- goats, located not far from Addison in Steuben County. It was the center of her universe and the place -- both physically and symbolically -- from which all of this sprang.
Trappler, you might remember, was put on trial back in 2013 in Schuyler County Court, in a case presided over by Judge Dennis Morris early in his tenure on the bench, and prosecuted by D.A. Joe Fazzary, who Morris had defeated in a spirited race for judge in November 2011. The defense attorney was Susan BetzJitomir of Steuben County.
The jury, after two weeks of testimony, found Trappler guilty on two counts of murder in the second degree (intentional and felony), two counts of burglary (first and second degree), and conspiracy, second degree. She was sentenced by Judge Morris to the maximum: 25 years to life in prison.
I covered the trial in extensive detail (still available if you click
here), but almost didn’t. Or at least I thought I might not be able to. I was part of the jury pool, and went the first day, but wasn't among those called up to the jury box for questioning and either acceptance or rejection. At the end of the day, the full jury had not yet been seated, and Judge Morris said we would have to come back the next day to finish selections, but not to tell anyone about what had transpired. Since I had been planning to tell about 20,000 anyones through The Odessa File, I needed to do something; to find out where I stood.
I went up to the prosecutor's table after court was dismissed to explain to Fazzary -- who was packing his papers for the day -- that I felt handcuffed by the judge's order; and that in fact if on the jury, I could not cover the trial. I figured that with the scope of the case and the public interest in it, the D.A. would want it covered as thoroughly as possible.
I was right. He seemed surprised at what I said -- that I was part of the jury pool -- and acted quickly, calling to an associate for a list of prospective jurors. The clipboard with the list was handed to him, he scanned it, found my name, crossed it out and then, rather than let me totally off the hook, sent me downstairs to the County Clerk’s office to make sure I was placed in the pool for a subsquent case. (I was in fact called mere months later.)
And thus I was off and running on a fascinating and yet grueling two-week coverage. Check it out, if you'd like; I synopsized the words of every witness. I think there were 62 or so.
Anyway, I bring all of this up now because the Trappler case landed right in front of me again recently. First, I received a copy of a Forensic Science Paper titled People v. Alice Trappler: How Cell Phone Forensic Technology Influenced a Jury to Convict a Murderer. It was written by Jessi Woodward, the stepdaughter of Judge Morris. She is a third-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law. In her paper, she told me in an email, “I specifically focused on forensic technology (cell phone 'pings') used to show the location of Trappler’s and Borden’s cell phones on the night of the murder.”
She sent me the 13-page paper “because of how heavily I relied on your articles ... Although I attended (the trial) every day, I never would have been able to write this paper without your detailed summaries.” I’m even mentioned occasionally in the footnotes.
Beyond that, I received a call from Rich Bitter, who had served in that trial as the Paul Drake (Perry Mason’s investigator) to Trappler’s defense attorney, BetzJitomir. He had read a recent column I’d written in which I’d mentioned that Fazzary was not going to run for County Judge when the bench opens later this year with the retirement of Judge Morris. Bitter wondered if I was sure of that fact, and I assured him I was. He subsequently called Fazzary to lament the D.A.’s absence from the race, which is expected to attract several candidates.
Fazzary subsequently told me about Bitter's call when I encountered him at a school swim meet, where he was helping with the timing. And that reminded me that Fazzary had told me he had been working recently on a response to an appeal filed by the convicted murderess herself, Alice Trappler, who is seeking “that the judgment of conviction be reversed and the indictment dismissed, or that a new trial be ordered." She filed the appeal, almost 60 pages long, in two sections.
Fazzary responded to the appeal with a 55-page brief, refuting Trappler step by step. That was filed early in the holidays. Now, in the wake of the Christmas season, I asked to see those papers and Fazzary provided me with copies a few days later. So, while I was battling a cold last week (and covering key Watkins Glen vs. Odessa-Montour girls and boys basketball games in between my coughing and sneezing fits), I had a little reading to do.
Which prompted the top of this column -- a slightly elongated version (with some assumed or invented details) of the murder, an event presented in all three accounts I had just read: Woodward’s paper and Trappler’s and Fazzary’s briefs.
The scene could, I suppose, serve as the introductory chapter to The Goat Ranch.
Where will this flurry of paperwork lead?
Maybe noplace beyond where the situation currently stands. Trappler, residing at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility downstate, is something of a jailhouse lawyer, I’m told, helping other inmates with their appeals. It took her a few years to get hers in the pipeline, and then it took time for Fazzary to respond. And now more time will likely pass before the State of New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, calls for oral arguments, and then more time after that before any decision is issued.
The odds are against Trappler. A very small percentage of appeal cases lead to new trials or are overturned. And Fazzary, who mounted a vigorous, imaginative and obviously effective prosecution the first time around, has issued a compellingly detailed refutation of Trappler’s appeal claims. Or so my non-legal mind tells me.
For the record, Trappler raised objections on five points in the first of her two submissions:
“Point One: The evidence was legally insufficient to support a finding of guilt.
“Point Two: The verdict was against the weight of the evidence.
“Point Three: Appellant was denied the effective assistance of counsel.
“Point Four: The trial court improperly admitted hearsay testimony, depriving (appellant) of her constitutional right to confront her accusers and her right to a fair trial.
“Point Five: The court erred in denying appellant’s C.P.L. 330.30 motion.”
That last was a motion for an order “setting aside the verdict ... The issues raised in the motion included allegations of jury misconduct, to wit: failure to disclose prior interactons with members of the defense team; the jury’s consideration of extraneous evidence; and newly discovered evidence.”
Two other points were raised in the second submission, "Appellant's Pro-Se Supplemental Brief." One dealt with alleged deprivation "of her Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury" emanating from the questioning of potential jurors. The other had to do with the judge's instruction to the jury, which Trappler deemed "improper."
The detail in all of this -- in the Woodward paper and the briefs (a curious term, considering their length) filed by Trappler and Fazzary -- brought back to my mind the murder and the trial, neither of which I had seriously pondered of late.
But now I am. I am re-fascinated.
Well ... I guess I have some time to work on The Goat Ranch -- the book, not the actual locale -- if I wish to before this whole case is completed.
If the court rejects the appeal, that would cap the book.
But if it granted it -- set aside the verdict or ordered a new trial -- the book would obviously be drastically altered. So I wouldn't want to get so far along that I would have to mount a major rewrite.
If there were a new trial, I imagine I would be sitting in that courtroom again, at the press table, feverishly taking notes each day and then spending my evenings fashioning it all into stories.
But as I said, that is a less than likely result -- and the decision is in any event likely a ways down the road.
There is a saying, with variations but similar gist: The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.
So true. Slow enough so I can write at least a few chapters .... staying away for now from any hard-and-fast conclusion.
Going all weak-kneed ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Jan. 12, 2019 -- So, I was going to talk here about the local political landscape.
About how, at a recent invitational swim meet produced by Watkins Glen High School swim showman Jason Westervelt (it was a big hit), I encountered political folks like District Attorney Joe Fazzary and former Watkins Glen Mayor Mark Swinnerton -- neither of whom is running this year -- not Fazzary for County Judge (the bench is opening with the retirement of Dennis Morris) nor Swinnerton for Mayor.
I had thought both might run.
And I was going to talk about how another politico at that meet, Watkins Glen Police Sergeant in Charge Steve Decker, confirmed he is running for Village Justice with the departure of Connie Fern Miller from that seat.
I was going to postulate on the potential candidates for County Judge and Mayor (the Justice job doesn't seem to be drawing a crowd, while the Mayor's post seems to be and the County Judge job might).
But I decided not to. It will all shake out in due time.
I'll take the opportunity, though, to say that I, too, am not running for any office.
Not that I was even considering one.
Nor was I asked.
Nor did I want to be.
No, more to the point:
I don't know if it's my meds or my age or something else, but I find myself a little more emotional than usual lately. Tears well easily.
It happens when I think about the passing of my late wife. Or of my parents. Or even of my dog Gizmo.
Or of Mary Lou Norton.
I knew two such Mary Lou's. One was born a Norton; the other married one.
It is the native-born Norton who springs to mind here. We called her Loupie. She was a toothy, friendly, reddish-haired freshman at Albion College when I was a sophomore.
We dated a little while, then parted, but remained friends until life took us in different directions. Next thing I knew, she had died in childbirth, felled by two strokes. She was just 26.
She personifies not only lost youth, but lost life and lost opportunity: I sometimes think we would have been good partners. We were compatible; but I wasn't ready.
Anyway, her memory has brought tears to my eyes recently -- symptomatic of what I fear might be part of my own slower demise.
Has anyone else in the 60-plus age group been experiencing this? Had bouts of emotion -- sadness; regret -- that were not in such pronounced evidence before? I'd love to hear about it -- maybe just to encourage me that I'm not going all weak-kneed without good reason.
I'm not kidding. I just got around to watching the film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and the same damn thing happened. Tears. A couple of sobs. Every time Lily James (as the young Meryl Streep character Donna in flashbacks) was on-screen, I felt an emotional tremble. Same when Amanda Seyfried (Donna's daughter) would start singing.
Are there any similar symptoms out there?
Or do I just have a touch of the flu?
Finally, on another matter, it's going to be a fascinating year in the development of Watkins Glen, in the improvement of Franklin Street, and in the summer festival season.
On that last, two words suddenly stand out:
Woodstock 50. A musical festival harkening back to the most famous of them all.
That's slated for mid-August up at the track -- during my scheduled vacation time in northern Michigan.
I might have to break from vacation to come see that.
As I said when I first heard of it:
Only I didn't say "sugar."
Same first letter, though.
16 years and counting ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Dec. 25, 2018 -- When Dec. 29 arrives and passes, I will have completed 16 years at the helm of this website, and started my 17th.
For those of you who don’t know me, I have decided that maybe it is time to introduce myself. For those of you who do, I will try to illuminate some of my darker recesses.
I was born a long time ago, near the end of the first half of the 20th century: 1948. I was born during the World Series that year between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Braves -- a showdown won by the Indians in six games. Game 5 was played the day I was born, with Warren Spahn on the mound against Cleveland’s Bob Feller. Two future Hall of Famers going at it. Spahn won, 11-5, in a game featuring an appearance by the Indians’ Satchell Paige -- the first by a black pitcher in a World Series.
I was told my dad was listening to the game that day. I came into the world at about 1:30 p.m., and the Series was always played in daylight back then, so maybe he was ...
Chances are he had it on the radio the next day, too, back in Mom’s room, when I was just figuring out that the warm surroundings I had been enjoying were a thing of the past. That day, Cleveland won the sixth and final Series game, 4-3, after building a 4-1 lead.
Dad told me once that he thought maybe I loved baseball so much because I was born in the middle of its showcase event.
So ... I lived and breathed baseball growing up. Played it, collected baseball cards, managed once in a while to get down to Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium in Detroit to see my baseball heroes, chief among them Al Kaline.
I was little, but that didn’t deter me from playing the game. In Little League, I would try to convince my coach to let me pitch by warming up on the sidelines. One game, he put me in, and the darndest thing happened. My pitches were so slow that they acted like knuckleballs, dancing around on the path from the mound to home plate. My teammates called my pitch the jitterbug. It worked well enough so that I won a few games, bolstering a fragile ego.
I played Babe Ruth ball, too -- though not always well (see Bubba) -- and high school ball, though in a support roll. There was one player on the latter team -- a year behind me, I think -- who had the sweetest swing and could hit the ball a ton. Kim Kezlarian. I always remembered him, and recently googled him to see if he made anything of himself. He did, becoming a doctor -- and was still practicing when I found him online. Well done, Kim.
I played intramurals in college, and softball for my newspaper team when working while a young adult at the Watertown (NY) Daily Times, where I was a reporter and editor. I slept on my right arm wrong one night and tore my rotator cuff, so I couldn’t use the darn thing for throwing for a couple of years, but managed to get back to the game eventually.
Then I moved, and lost touch with all active sports -- until I had passed 50 and was visiting a friend in Florida, on Sanibel Island. He talked me into playing a night softball game on a beautiful field, and my first time at bat I took a mighty swing and sent the ball to the base of the wall in right center. Trouble was, I hadn’t really run in a long time, and almost fell moving down the first-base line. My legs weren't keeping up with the upper part of my body. I somehow made it to third base, but decided that night that my playing days were best left behind.
So much for my sporting life. I live a more internal life than a competitive one now. I’ve always loved to read, and I long struggled to write in more than a superficial manner. I was inspired early by authors such as Mark Twain and Harper Lee, and later by Kurt Vonnegut and John Fowles. More recently, I have loved a well-written mystery-adventure by Michael Connelly, Lee Child or John Grisham. And on the shelves in my little reading room sits a collection of sports-related books: essays, biographies, and autobiograhies, such as Veeck: As in Wreck, by Bill Veeck, former owner of the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. His book was a prized possession in my childhood -- a present on my birthday or at Christmas that I somehow lost. But I have secured a copy for my library.
As old as I have become, I still am somehow linked to my childhood; I’m still the little boy and then the young man wide-eyed with wonder at the possibilities offered by life; perhaps we all are. I have on my library shelves, too, a couple of other books from that era that meant the world to me: Henry Reed, Inc., which I recently reread, and The Kid Who Batted 1.000. I need my touchstones as I head into my "golden" years.
My internal-looking tendencies have translated well, I think, to this website. I use it for musings such as this, but more importantly to create a reflection for us all of the world we inhabit: the remarkable landscape known as Schuyler County. That is my general focus; what goes on beyond its borders do not mean too much to me, from a professional standpoint.
Within Schuyler, I have smaller focuses, sometimes driven by common sense; sometimes by the buzz a particular event or anticipated event might be creating. That covers government in general, and law enforcement, and firefighting, and so on. And then there is the matter of high school sports, which has been a focus of mine on these pages from the beginning.
I’ve covered those sports for 16 years now, the first year or so at Odessa-Montour alone and then at O-M and Watkins Glen. I tried Trumansburg and Bradford coverage for a while, but deemed it too much work for very little reward. I don’t think the kids at those schools ever warmed to The File, and maybe didn’t even notice; there was little to no feedback. But Odessa and Watkins were different stories: we have been, for the most part, mutually supportive in The File’s coverage.
Along the way, I instituted Athlete of the Week honors, and All-Star recognition after each season, and Athlete of the Year awards, and with my consistent advisor, Craig Cheplick -- retired teacher and former WGHS athletic manager -- we started the annual Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding scholar-athletes. That has been running for 13 years.
And I’ve watched all of these kids I’ve covered as they received their diplomas and moved on. A handful have maintained contact; most have left the area and, I suspect, forgotten me -- no surprise, given the onslaught of life and love and family and job.
But ... I was never in this for recognition or anyone's remembrance; it started, in fact, as a hobby, and took off from there. Now it is, I’m told, a responsibility. If I mention retirement, I’m usually told: “You can’t retire.”
Well, I can. But I have no plans to do so.
Part of me has always belonged to Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac. I went there for several summers as a child, and again annually for the past quarter century. It claims me for several weeks every year, and if I could afford it, that is where I would settle for longer periods.
While leaving the Island is difficult each year, returning to Schuyler County and its various lakes is not difficult at all. I have the best of both worlds.
I was born into this world on Oct. 10, 1948, while the Indians were busy winning a World Series. I was baptized before I was 2, on June 18, 1950 at the Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York, on Long Island. My family had moved there shortly after my birth in Auburn, New York. We moved from Manhasset to Birmingham, Michigan, when I was 4 years old.
From there we moved to nearby Bloomfield Hills about five years later, to a house my parents had custom built: their dream home. My Dad had a good job selling shoes for the U.S. Shoe Corporation to retail outlets around the state. It provided a comfortable upbringing. I lived there until I graduated high school in 1966; my folks sold the house soon thereafter, building instead a cabin getaway in northern Michigan, outside Gaylord.
I settled in New York -- up in Watertown, where my first wife hailed from -- upon graduation from Albion College in Michigan. The Gaylord cabin was my go-to hideway for several years, until it too was sold and my parents relocated in retirement to Florida. My second wife, Susan Bauman, was from Watkins Glen -- or specifically from Coydendall Road off of Route 414 above Watkins and Montour Falls. Her mother ran a gift shop in Odessa; her father was a prison guard and later a bullet manufacturer. We moved down here in the late 1970s to be close to her family.
We lived briefly in Newfield, then the other side of Ithaca and then, in 1980, bought the house I still inhabit in Odessa. Having worked through the 1970s at a newspaper in Watertown, I hooked on with the Star-Gazette in Elmira in late '80, worked there until '88, got into the sports memorabilia business, worked odd jobs, did some writing (novels), worked for the Corning Leader from 1996 to 1999, wrote some more, and started The Odessa File on Dec. 29, 2002. My wife passed away less than two years later, an event that sent me into deep despair and threatened my own health. But I persevered, I survived, and have been publishing news of Schuyler County ever since.
Yes, I started this 16 years ago.
And here we are.
You and I.
So, as we near Year Number 17, I want to say:
Thanks for including The Odessa File in your lives.
And, of course, Happy New Year.
A cardboard connection ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Dec. 8, 2018 -- I have received word of the passing of a friend. His name: Allan Armit, once of the Toronto area, and later of the Kingston area. A Canadian who visited me here in Schuyler County many times.
We had a shared passion: collecting and trading cards. Specifically baseball cards, although we dealt as well with football and hockey.
I met Allan through another shared avocation: dealing such cards at shows. To tell the truth, I don’t recall exactly when we met, but he and his wife Carol would visit the United States -- primarily New York and Pennsylvania -- annually, and they would stop at my house in Odessa.
Carol would visit with my wife Susan; maybe dabble in the kitchen, creating some concoction. Allan and I would get down to the serious business of trading cards -- always trying to get the better of the other, although I think we broke about even.
For those uninitiated, cards long ago -- in the 1980s -- evolved into something with value, if you had the right ones in exceptional condition. When I was a kid, we didn’t give much thought to card condition; would flip them for distance, the longest heave winning the other guy’s card.
Why baseball cards? What is their allure? For people like me -- baseball lovers who thought a major league baseball career would be about the highest calling -- cards offered a dream: the idea that we too might one day be featured on one of those cards collected by worshipful boys.
There are certain touchstones of childhood that never quite fade away. Baseball cards were chief among them for me and many others. And so, in the ‘80s, the whole idea of collecting was resurrected, and as cards gained in value -- thanks to the advent of price guides -- the card-printing industry boomed.
Enter Allan Armit somewhere in there -- I’d say in the mid ‘90s. And then came his annual visits, and our friendly cutthroat competition as we traded our cardboard treasures.
Allan reminded me, in a way, of another man I had met through collecting: John Selsam, a Pennsylvania-based retiree who was connected to the Little League Museum in Williamsport in the ‘80s. He too was a dealer; we met at a show where my table was next to his, and before long made a habit of an annual sojourn together to Cooperstown, NY, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and, each year, the host of a Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
John, through the Little League Museum, would receive credentials that got us access to private parties on Hall of Fame induction weekend, where we could hobnob with Hall members and other baseball entities; and into the Otesaga Hotel, where the Hall of Famers on hand for the big weekend would hang out.
John carried with him an unnerving number of pills he needed to consume with regularity; he was a walking time bomb, as it turned out. One year, after he had failed to connect with me by phone to confirm our pending Cooperstown trip, I called his house and was told by his wife that John had died. Our relationship was such that I had never met his wife, and she wasn’t sure how to reach me, and so I learned of his passing months after it had occurred.
The same thing happened with Allan.
First, my wife Susan died. This was back in 2004, and I was so distraught that I forgot to call the Armits and let them know. Only when he called me about another, pending visit to the States did I let Allan know. “Oh, God, Allan,” I said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t call. Something horrible has happened here.”
Before long, he and his wife made that trip and appeared at my doorstep, but Carol -- the full-time driver since Alan’s eyesight wasn’t good enough for a license -- took off for a few hours to shop. There was no longer a kitchen mate with whom to while away the card-trading hours.
Then Carol died a few years later. Allan informed me by letter not long afterward, and urged me to be careful with my health. His visits after that were in the company of another baseball card junkie, until Allan remarried, this time to a woman he had dated back in high school. I met her but once, when she dropped him off for our annual trading competition.
And now Allan has died, a fact I was expecting, since his health had nosedived two years ago when he collapsed at a card show in Canada at which he had a table. He told me months later, when he was strong enough to call, that he had had a massive heart attack and had, at least technically, died -- but been resuscitated.
He never really recovered, though -- never visited here again. He kept trading cards with me through the mail, but about a year ago that stopped, and I didn’t hear from him again. I wasn’t even sure where he was, since he had moved.
And his new wife ... well, I guess she didn’t know how to reach me. Or at least didn’t try.
I kept a watch on the Internet for an obituary, but didn’t see one until yesterday. Why it took so long to find I don’t know; but it said he had died in late July, with services in early August.
I was up on Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan at that time -- a place I have visited annually for years, and a place that Allan occasionally said that he would like to visit sometime. The way I talked about it appealed to him. But he never did.
On one of his visits here, Allan accompanied me to a basketball game down at Watkins Glen, in the Field House. He was curious about my job, and being a former basketball coach, wanted to watch the game. He observed me at work -- my interactions with many people -- and said afterward.
“My God, these people love you, eh?”
I laughed at that, it being a purely Allan expression -- Canadian and direct. Kind of a complicated matter distilled to a few words.
I thought about that night as I read Allan’s obituary yesterday. It said he had been in a care center in the weeks leading to his passing, and had died peacefully with family by his side.
While I had been expecting the news, I felt like I’d been kicked when I found it. My son Jon, noticing my mood, asked if I was okay.
“No,” I said, and looked at him. He knew about Allan’s health, and how he had dropped out of communication. And so all I needed to say were two words.
“Oh, God,” he said, and gave me a hug.
I needed it.
Susan, Carol, Allan, and before them my father, and after Susan my mother; and along the way a father-in-law and brother-in-law and various friends, some from my past, some recent and local: Jo Fitch, Don Roberts, Michael Argetsinger, Bill Peckham, John Senka.
The list of those departed is getting longer.
"I'm beginning to feel like a survivor," I told my son.
And there's some truth there.
It's an unnerving feeling.
As a friend of mine says, we all have an expiration date.
That date has come for so many people I have cared about. They were marvelous, and now exist only in memory.
I think about them. And wonder sometimes how it is that I'm still here.
Distilling it all down, as Allan liked to do, I am left with this:
God bless you Susan, Carol, Mom and Dad, and all of my absent relatives and friends.
And now God bless you, Allan.
You were one of a kind.
You were an excellent competitor.
You were a true and highly prized friend.
Photo in text: Allan Armit
Another honor for Livy ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Nov. 28, 2018 -- Back in the day, which is to say around the 2003-04 school year, I tried in my own unimportant (and ineffective) way to convince a young woman to stay in Watkins Glen with an eye toward having her help the high school girls basketball team win a state championship.
That’s how highly I thought of Watkins Glen High School freshman Olivia Coffey, a then-gangly teen who had been the center on a team that had reached the Section IV final, only to lose in the closing moments to Candor on a Megan Shay jumper. Shay went on to claim the section career scoring title, edging past Odessa-Montour’s Stefanie Collins in the closing moments of her final game -- oddly enough against, once again, Watkins Glen.
Coffey had yet to grow into her body, which had -- in keeping with the rest of her remarkable family -- sprouted to six feet on its way to a couple of inches above that. She had, as I recall, just taken up rowing with some earnestness, and I could see it wouldn’t be long before muscles filled out her form.
But she, again in family tradition, was about to exercise an independence and a will to reach beyond the readily available: to go to a prep school, where she would become a very good, rough-and-tumble ice-hockey player while, I assume, continuing to learn the finer points of rowing.
She came from a family perfect for learning the sport -- both of her parents, Maggie and Cal, having succeeded in rowing to impressive degrees. Cal was on an Olympic silver-medal team, and Maggie was on an Empire Games (New York State) winner. And Cal was manufacturing various rowing shells.
I recall the school district opening an area of its property along the canal so the Coffeys could pursue a rowing club, one member of which was Livy, the freshman phenom.
I also remember a local coach -- a basketball guru from another school -- questioning my sanity in trying to lobby Livy Coffey, and in speaking glowingly of her. He didn’t see the greatness building there. As it happened, she went far beyond success in ice hockey at prep school, attending and graduating from Harvard, where she was an All-American in rowing.
She has since been on teams contending at World Rowing Championships -- including a gold-medal eights team this year. It was a year, too, in which, while pursuing a Masters degree at Cambridge University, she helped that school to victory in The Race -- an annual rowing event of significant note against Oxford University.
Back in 2011, an ad hoc committee sponsored by The Odessa File unveiled a Decade Greats team that recognized athletes from Schuyler County who had excelled both here and beyond. There were three tiers of teams, each significant and based on experience, the top tier reserved for those who had significantly exceeded beyond their high school years.
That was the Solar Team (as opposed to Lunar and Comet). And that’s where Livy Coffey landed. Others were Watkins Glen’s Courtney Warren, Todd Lincoln, Julie Miller, Phil Brown, Cathy Brown, Alicia Learn and Molly Schamel, and Odessa-Montour’s Stefanie Collins.
That Livy has ascended since then is without dispute. Among her achievements was status as an Olympic alternate (she reportedly is aiming for a seat in an Olympic boat at the next Games), and now -- now -- she has won a singular honor. She has been named National Team Athlete of the Year following a readers’ vote (limited to a single ballot per voter) in USRowing’s Fan Choice Awards. The honor was announced on Wednesday, Nov. 28. (At last count, near the end of the contest's final day, she led runnerup Glenn Ochal by a vote margin of 1,110-738. So it wasn’t very close.)
From gangly teen to All-American at Harvard to Olympic alternate to part of The Race win to World Champion, Olivia Coffey has followed a singular path, and is still on it. Her races aren’t over, and I, for one -- as I always have -- will continue to marvel.
On another matter having to do with Watkins Glen, we have bad news and good news.
First, in this winter when the Mike Watson Invitational Wrestling Tournament has been canceled and the Boys Christmas Tournament has fallen off the grid, the Section IV, Division 2 Wrestling Tournament held at the Field House the past two years (after it parted ways with the Binghamton arena over increasing costs) has departed, too. It will be held at the smaller venue of Windsor.
Watkins reportedly had the tournament (set for early February) and then suddenly didn’t. Why? Former Watkins Glen AD Rod Weeden said this: “Windsor put in a bid and the Section voted to give them a shot at their last meeting. Ben Nelson (the Section IV coordinator ) said he preferred WG and hoped to get it back here next year.”
Another source, with the Friends of Section IV, alluded to “several factors” without specifying which ones. But the aforementioned Section IV Coordinator Ben Nelson filled in the blanks, responding thusly to an email inquiry about the reasons for the tourney move:
“Two reasons, but this in no way is to indicate that Watkins Glen did not do a great job hosting the Wrestling Championships, as did Corning two years ago (the Division 1 tourney). One concern was the change in Athletic Directors (Rod Weeden to Craig Lattin), with nothing against WG’s new AD. Rod Weeden did an outstanding job of Administrating the Tournament and we didn’t want to burden the new AD, nor were we sure that Rod would be free to help with the event. And, we do try to move the Events when possible to share geography. We do hope to be able to return to WG in the near future.”
All well and good, but there is this: With those two wrestling events (the two-day Watson and the very popular Sectional) removed from Watkins, the school district coffers and the community lose out on a good deal of income. Not only will the school budget notice, but so will the hotel, motels and possibly other local sleeping venues, along with area restaurants.
Meanwhile ... the good news:
Watkins Glen’s Melissa B. Wilson Memorial basketball tournament, moved for some vague reason a handful of years ago to before Christmas -- where it had since languished -- has been moved back this year to after Christmas. It will feature Trumansburg, Elmira Notre Dame, Newfield and Watkins Glen on Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 26 and 27.
And while there is no boys tournament, a single boys game against Spencer-Van Etten is scheduled for Dec. 28, so there are three straight days with some basketball in the Field House. Good news indeed, and kudos to the school district for providing it.
But after that -- beyond regular-season basketball -- there’s not much. For a venue that once hummed with winter activity (the Watson tourney, the IAC Cheerleading Competition, a Home School basketball tournament, recently the Section IV tournament and, on occasion, IAC Wrestling), the Field House, come January, will seem like a pretty empty shell.
On another matter involving a former WGHS basketball standout: Amanda Pike is playing regularly in her sophomore year at East Stroudsburg, Pa., and is averaging 12.4 points a game after five contests -- with a high of 20 points and two different games with 14 each. Pike, remember, was the New York State Class C Player of the Year in her senior season of high school -- the year WGHS won the girls basketball state championship.
Congratulations to Phil Barnes on winning a tight race for Schuyler County Legislature, where he has served the past eight years. He defeated challenger Brian Eslinger by seven votes, earning another four years on that legislative body.
And the Top Drawer 24 committee will be holding its annual dinner meeting soon to discuss the June 3, 2019 event. As in previous years, the TD 24 -- which honors two dozen outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens from 10 area schools -- will be held at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. There is a strong field of contenders this year, along with many fine candidates for the Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award and for the annual Lifetime Achievement Award that each year honors a coach who has built a long record of success and impact.
My thanks are many. Include among them the NFL's Lions
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Nov. 20, 2018 -- Some things you never outrun.
The death of a loved one.
First, painful, lost love.
Certain health issues.
Bankruptcy, earthquakes, fire, flood.
They are many, these obstacles.
And yet, each year as we reach Thanksgiving, I, along with millions of others, give thanks. I give it for what I used to have but no longer can, and for what I have now. The two tend to blend.
Though I live fully in the present, I harken back each Thanksgiving to the dining room on Cedar Bend Drive in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where my family ate almost all of our meals as I was growing up. Facing out through a large window to a porch and, beyond that, down the hill to Sodon Lake -- my boyhood lake -- I found these meals comforting.
This was especially so on Thanksgiving, as my mother placed heaping plates of hot food -- stuffing, squash, mashed potatoes, peas, and turkey to be carved by Dad; along with rolls and cranberry sauce -- on the table, brought from the open kitchen immediately to my left.
On the right was the rear of our fireplace, a handcrafted, artistic structure with carefully chosen stones; and behind me, a custom-made mahogany cabinet that held our dishes and glasses.
There was a warmth to the setting -- the soft, muted colors of the room, the lake before me, the love of family as we gathered for our annual feast.
Each Thanksgiving, I harken back to those times -- to when life was full of promise, albeit a little frightening to a teenager who wondered what he might possibly do when he grew old enough to leave this loving environment. Social interaction was not his strong suit, and especially not the confrontation that often comes with his chosen path of journalism.
I was raised in a bit of a cocoon -- nurtured, both financially and emotionally.
The National Football League Detroit Lions -- who played 20 miles south of us at Tiger Stadium -- were a perennial Thanksgiving Day combatant, always against the dreaded Green Bay Packers. The Pack, under Vince Lombardi and featuring such stars as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Jerry Kramer, was the better team, although the Lions were pretty good in the halcyon days of the early ‘60s.
We had a TV that picked up some Lions games through an antenna that would reach a signal in Lansing. As I recall, that sidestepped local football broadcasts that were often blacked out, though I can’t recall specifically why. Economics, I suppose.
Anyway, on Nov. 22, 1962-- exactly one year before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- the Lions rose up and defeated the unbeaten (10-0) Packers 26-14. The Lions (9-2 after the win) built a 26-0 lead through three quarters -- on two Gail Cogdill touchdown passes from Milt Plum, a fumble return for a TD, a safety and a field goal --before Green Bay scored twice down the stretch. It was a victory that surprised many, and was a very pleasing result in our house.
Really, after they had won the championship five years earlier, the Lions had receded -- were still pretty good, but no world beaters. Despite the victory on Nov. 22, they didn’t catch the Packers in the standings that year (the Pack going 13-1 and then beating the New York Giants 16-7 in the championship, and the Lions going 11-3). And it only got worse after that, with losing seasons not far ahead.
But the Thanksgiving Day game was always part of the annual celebration.
Parenthetically, we would sometimes encounter some of the Lions in the neighborhood across our small lake -- when they visited the team physician, Dr. Richard Thompson (Doc Thompson), who had a beautiful shoreside home.
After I married, the Thanksgiving tradition continued with home-cooked meals. In my first marriage, the holiday dinners were often at the in-laws'. In my second, they were in our house.
After my wife’s passing in early November 2004, I depended on the kindness of friends for Thanksgiving dinner -- one year at the home of the Coffey family in the hills above Watkins Glen, and one year at the home of Watkins Glen School Superintendent Mary Ellen Correa. And for several years after that I feasted each Thanksgiving at the home of a brother-in-law in Ithaca. I lived alone for a few years, but now I have two of my sons sharing our old family homestead. In recent years we’ve eaten Thanksgiving dinner at the Burdett Presbyterian Church; this year we will be eating as guests of friends George and Ellen Hoffman at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.
So now, as another Thanksgiving arrives, I give thanks for the fact that I can still rise in the morning and function as a useful resident of Schuyler County; that I have family whom I love and who love me in return; that I have friends upon whom I can always count, and who greatly enhance my life; and that I have the privilege, as I have for the past 16 years, of reporting on the goings-on in Schuyler and on the achievements of the amazing youths in our area school districts -- a focal point of this website’s coverage.
I am thankful to not live in a city, and to not live where tornados are habitual.
I am thankful for the home in which I was raised in Michigan, and for the one I now inhabit in Odessa.
I am thankful that, through whim and luck, The Odessa File exists. It would not if I had taken a left instead of a right (or vice versa) at any number of forks in my road.
I am thankful that I can type these words: Happy Thanksgiving.
And I am thankful that because of modern technology, you can see them.
Now ... let’s all enjoy the holiday.
In the land of Baba Yaga ...
By Charlie Haeffner
The Bogeyman (also Boogeyman) "is a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults to frighten children into good behavior. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community; in many cases, it has no set appearance in the mind of an adult or child, but is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror." (Wikipedia)
Odessa, NY, Nov. 16, 2018 -- All hell has broken loose.
The administration is to blame.
It has a new leader who is totally responsible for the mess.
Things used to be much better.
The crew is jumping ship.
The ship is foundering.
It is time for the life jackets.
We’re talking about the local school district.
Watkins Glen, that is.
And those sentences in italics above are hyperbole -- words that have been floating about ... or exaggerated sentiments along those lines.
If they were all true, then we’d have a real fix.
The captain of the ship would be the Bogeyman.
Or maybe Baba Yaga. That’s what -- in the John Wick film -- they called the person who was so frightening that even the Bogeyman feared him: the supernaturally determined and lethally skillful person (or, in lore, a creature) who is sent to dispatch the Bogeyman.
That's not the Watkins Glen School District superintendent’s name, of course (although it might stick, for it has a certain allure, even if not deserved).
His name is Gregory Kelahan -- who I assure you is no mythological creature. But stuff happens, and when it does, nicknames, appellations, are born. Kelahan shakes his head at the simmering stew in his district, and admits:
"Change is hard." (The School Board admits as much, too, in an Open Letter on Schools.)
Yes it is, and especially when the change agent tries to move too quickly.
Kelahan -- here for a year now -- admits he misread the willingness of the local workforce to readily agree to the innovations he was instituting. Change, he found, has traditionally tended to come slowly in Watkins Glen.
Among the changes-- and there appear to have been quite a few -- was one to reduce staff.
“There were too many people working here,” he said over lunch recently. The enrollment had, over the past 10 years, dropped 17%. The teaching staff -- and staff in general -- had not. So one goal was a reduction through attrition -- not replacing some of those departing. And there has been an inordinate number of departures.
Now, I’m not privy to the man’s style, although he seems upbeat -- likes walking the halls in the morning, greeting people and being greeted in turn.
"I enjoy that," he says, but then: “I shake my head later when I hear some of the things being said.”
Such as, I suppose ... he’s the equivalent of the Bogeyman. Or Baba Yaga.
There are other names being bandied about, too, for humans are verbally resourceful.
But I'll stick to those two. They are facetiously useful.
There are misconceptions.
One report -- I have to think created in part through Kelahan’s own words (note: verbal communication can be easily misconstrued) -- had him embracing the philosophy that every student should go to college.
“Not so,” he says. “I believe every student should have the opportunity to go to college.”
He says he believes in the trades -- that some students aren’t destined for, and in many cases don’t want, a college experience. We need people with trade skills, he said. He says he’d like to try, on a small scale locally, what BOCES offers on a large scale regionally: a trade curriculum.
Although not, he seems to be saying -- and as the School Board emphasizes in its letter -- dispensing with BOCES.
“We could do more with our shop classes here,” he said. Which is true; but that was made more difficult when the district, before he arrived, sold off the school’s supply of shop tools for pennies on the dollar as it turned instead to virtual shop -- to teaching, for instance, welding without real flames.
Part of the fog of discontent was cleared at a recent School Board meeting when some staff members lodged various misgivings about changes in their departments or classes. I wasn't there (busy at another meeting), but there was a press account, and a lot of discussion in the community. My sometime columnist A. Moralis said he thought that, at least in part, it came down to wounded feelings -- that teachers were not feeling appreciated. And maybe they weren't. Beyond that, word was floating about that they felt they were not being given proper input as changes were implemented.
And, it came out, there are problems too with Special Education. Kelahan admitted as much over lunch, although he wasn’t clear about the cause or the extent. There was a loss of personnel, for one thing, with accompanying class sizes grown larger.
One parent I ran into recently was railing at the “incompetence” of the school district’s Special Ed program. It was the administration, she said ...
I debated her, having some experience peripherally in this area: My late wife was a Special Ed teacher in the classroom and in area homes. The whole system was a bureaucratic nightmare; the paperwork alone would send her into fits of frustration.
I allowed as how the system itself could be blamed -- that administration missteps might be part of it, but that ineffective teaching habits might be too, as well as other factors. This is not a simple subject ...
The mother of the Special Ed student was not pacified.
Because, really, it’s easier to point the finger at a discernible target. Someone is to blame when things go awry. Right?
Hence the Bogeyman.
Or Baba Yaga.
A pause here, to say this: I have no answers to the woes of this or any school district, largely because of their very nature. Each is layered protectively, from the administration on down, and despite claims of transparency, each is built to function otherwise. And I have no clearcut assessment of the current superintendent. Our interactions have been positive, though.
There are a host of holdover issues that any new administration faces upon assuming the reins at any school district.
It is not part of Kelahan’s DNA to rip his predecessor. But logic says that whatever Kelahan has found -- whatever displeased him -- was left behind.
That includes the Kristina Hansen case, which Kelahan openly says is still ongoing. There was a settlement with the village, but not yet with the school district. For those who have forgotten, Hansen is the woman arrested upon the directive of Kelahan's predecessor when she tried to enter a public School Board meeting and later while she was attending a tennis match on the school grounds. The reasons on both sides were a bit convoluted; there was a history there, and one has to think there were poor choices at one time or another on the part of just about everyone involved.
The case -- brought by Hansen against the school district -- is still in the U.S. District Court in Rochester, with motions upon counter motions. The latest was filed last week, leading to a period for the other side to respond. The wheels of justice ... grind ... slowly.
Odds are the matter will be settled before it reaches an open court hearing, and odds are the amount of the school's settlement will never be announced. Whatever the total, insurance will pay it, and rates will go up, and the taxpayers will cover it without, I’m afraid, knowing how much it all cost.
I'm not employed by the school district, so I have no daily, workaday beef that is common (from my observation) in most workplaces. The superintendent has been friendly and fairly open with me, in itself refreshing.
But there is this: This district used to be a shining sports beacon in the dark of winter. And now it isn’t. The Field House used to draw thousands of people across the winter to a number of high-profile events. And now it doesn't.
It once had -- in the not-too-distant past, when Craig Cheplick walked the halls as Athletic Manager -- four straight days of basketball tournaments between Christmas and New Year’s, a girls event and a boys event. Good teams. Great matchups. Nice crowds that found it an entertaining way to fill the lull between holidays.
And the district had, mere weeks later each year, the Watson Wrestling Tournament, which annually had athletes from 20 and more schools competing on the Field House mats. It was a showcase.
And it had, not long after that on the calendar, the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Cheerleading Competition. That drew in many hundreds of kids and parents each year, filling the Field House gym. Area restaurants loved that one, because it jacked up their business noticeably.
Alas, the girls tournament, a memorial to Melissa Wilson -- a basketball player at Watkins Glen in the 1990s -- was moved to a slot before Christmas, when folks are busier and the resulting attendance lower.
Earlier this year, the great Watson Tournament, following a steep decline in wrestling at WGHS, was canceled.
The Cheerleading Competition was allowed several years ago to move -- landing in Dryden and, now, someplace else.
And there is the matter of the boys tournament. Word is that Trumansburg and Lansing pulled out of this year’s event, leaving just Watkins and Spencer-Van Etten. There is no such thing as a two-team tournament. Officials at the school have been scrambling to find replacements, but at last word ... no go.
I don’t know what can be done to reprise that era when the Field House was the place to go in late December and through January, but some Chep magic would be useful.
Or maybe there could be some Baba Yaga -- make that some Greg Kelahan -- influence ... looking ahead to the future, to what otherwise promise to be more cold and dark winters.
To be the devil's disciple ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Oct. 29, 2018 -- I wasn’t going to go. I really wasn’t.
But something drew me there. I think it was the Tom Reed ad that called her an “Extreme Ithaca Liberal” and -- the announcer fairly growling -- accused her of various nefarious deeds.
It’s the same playbook the Reed folks used to attack Martha Robertson four years ago. Since it seemed to work then -- Reed crushed her -- they probably figured it was time again for that oldie but goodie.
We’re talking here about his latest opponent, Tracy Mitrano, candidate for Congress. Democrat. Running against an entrenched (I’m sure he would like to think) incumbent, the very Republican Reed.
The recent ad that caught my attention spewed out some aggressive charges based on what it said were Mitrano positions. It made her sound pretty scary.
I was thinking, by the end, that she might be responsible for that caravan of immigrants moving up from Central America.
And there was this tagline:
“You can’t trust Tracy to tell the truth. You can’t trust Tracy in Congress.”
I smiled. If she lies, then she probably belongs there. But that was a fleeting thought, for I was a bit stunned by what a dangerous character she seemed to be.
Watching that ad, I thought: My goodness. She must have two horns and a pointy tail. And probably eyes that glow red.
I was sure she had to be the devil. Tom kind of suggested it, at least to my politically charged imagination. And you know Tom; he’s always smiling and soothing on camera. So you can trust him, right? I think he might make a pretty good used car salesman. Anyway, smilingly, he endorses these ads ...
So ... what exactly is an Extreme Ithaca Liberal, I thought. Mitrano’s not actually an Ithaca resident, though I gather she used to be, and worked from 2001 to 2014 as Director of Information Technology Policy at Cornell University. She lives now in Yates County. But, what the hey, once an Extreme Ithaca Liberal, always one, I guess. That, I gathered, was the growling message's underlying theme.
(I’m surprised Reed’s ad arm hasn’t added in a few lyrics from Cliff Richards’ song "Devil Woman":
She’s just a devil woman
With evil on her mind
Beware the devil woman
She’s gonna get you.)
So anyway, there I was at home, thinking about dinner not long after seeing that Reed ad, when I spotted the online ad that Mitrano supporters had run on The Odessa File. She was holding a town-hall meeting right then -- at that moment, for a two-hour period -- down at the Human Services Complex in Montour Falls.
I hadn't been planning to go, but I really just had to.
How many chances do you get to see the devil herself?
And so I went.
The crowd was a generally friendly one: Maybe 60 folks on chairs in the building’s public gathering room. I fired off a few photos, and then accepted a chair proffered by one of Mitrano’s people.
That’s pretty underhanded, I thought. Offering me comfort. They probably wanted something. (Positive coverage?)
Of course, chances are they didn’t know who I am or what I do, although my camera had to be a pretty big tip-off.
Still, I was on guard. The devil is a trickster.
And so I sat, and I looked around at the people present. There were some familiar faces, like Van Harp from the Schuyler County Legislature. And Watkins Glen Mayor Sam Schimizzi. And retired teacher Jim Murphy and his wife, Joan Harriss. And Democratic operative John Vona.
And some longtime acquaintances like Drew and Rebecca Guild, and Cal and Maggie Coffey.
Boy, I thought to myself, I hope they brought some amulets or something to ward off the evil. I had my camera ready to swing if need be; I think there’s something in devil lore about the power of cameras. But I could be mistaken.
Anyway, after pondering how, exactly, I might use my Canon for protection, I listened to what was being said.
Mitrano -- who in that light didn’t really look very menacing -- was engaging easily with her audience, a number of whom were asking questions of her.
Boy, I thought, she’s good. Covering all that Extreme Ithaca Liberalism with charm. How devilish ...
Then I realized she was talking to some guy who had evidently asked a question. And she was smiling and identifying him as from Reed’s camp. Quite literally, from Reed’s camp -- on hand, I gathered, to scout the opposition before the two candidates met the next week in another debate. I knew that they had already had one debate, because I got press releases from both the Reed and Mitrano campaigns claiming victory.
Par for the course. Nobody ever loses a debate, if the debaters do the judging.
She was sort of funning with the guy; seemed loose; was smiling. The guy wasn’t smiling, unless a pained grimace can be counted.
Nasty, I thought. How dare she toy with some poor guy who’s only there doing his job -- which I gathered was to strategize. You know, take something Mitrano said and then twist it five ways from Sunday and try to hang it back around her neck.
Anyway, I listened, and learned, and didn’t really have to be told that Mitrano isn’t really extreme or a liberal. Oh, she’s more liberal than Reed, and has her Ithaca roots, but I'd call her centrist, or near to it. Another thing that separates her from Reed is a willingness to learn and change -- her gun control position has shifted, she conceded, as she’s looked at the issue from different perspectives. Reed is predictable; rather inflexible, I have long thought. And it’s a tendency, I believe, that is hardened by the GOP tendency to go for the jugular.
Anyway, that one favorite attack phrase of Reed’s -- Extreme Ithaca Liberal -- drew plenty of comment from the Mitrano audience, who saw it as a deliberate slur by Reed on the entire community.
Shame, said one woman. A disgrace, said another.
Which I have to kind of agree with. But it’s a calculated denigration, too. Politics, you know. Reed figures he doesn’t need Tompkins County votes, and basically rejects those to bolster-- to fire up -- his base elsewhere. It's basic, if unsavory.
Also basic: It is a tendency of a Reed campaign to use a machine gun on a fly (think of the hapless Robertson campaign, where he creamed her by something like 30 points, an outcome that was clear from the outset, but didn’t diminish the puerile enthusiasm of some of the attack ads). So it's no surprise that this time the Reed camp is blasting away at a tougher opponent.
So .... beyond that subject of Ithaca denigration, Mitrano and her audience discussed health care, immigration, taxes, and Reed’s adherence to Republican Party dogma, since the Party (fueled by special interests) is where much of the money comes from to mount a race every two years.
In truth, it’s worked so far for Reed. I personally abhor blind allegiance, but in this case many folks (which is to say Reed supporters) wouldn’t dream of questioning his. After he succeeded the entertainingly short-termed Eric Massa in Congress, he fought off Nate Shinagawa (who was from Tompkins County) and Robertson (Tompkins again) and then somebody from the western realm of the 23rd Congressional District. What the heck was his name?
Well, I don’t recall, but I remember he was lambasted by the Reed machine, which seems to glory in negative campaigning. It certainly worked that time.
But I wonder if Mitrano isn't going to gum up the machine.
Sitting there listening to her, it was clear to me that she not only didn’t sound like the devil or look like the devil, she wasn't oily like many politicians; wasn't slippery, ducking questions by changing the subject or employing what-aboutism, the practice of deflecting by blaming the opponent instead of answering the question. She seemed normal, and well-intentioned. And pretty well versed in the issues.
Wow, I thought: Tom's ad was misleading. Imagine that. True, Mitrano’s a politician, which is a breed I’ve learned to generally distrust. At least I distrust those in Washington, where she’d be headed if she upended Reed on Nov. 6.
But first things first. Let's deal with the here and now. While Mitrano sounded reasonable that night, I wasn’t on board with every position. But she was clearly intelligent and in control; in fact seemed to be enjoying herself. The devil herself couldn’t have owned the room as she did.
So ... Is there a lesson to be learned here?
If you’re a diehard Republican, probably not.
But otherwise ... yeah, maybe.
Don't listen to the ads, which generally are over the top. Do yourself a favor and seek out the candidates themselves, in live settings. You can get a much better read on what they're about.
So, how will I vote?
Well, I'd have trouble going with Reed. I’m just turned off by the growling extremism of his ads and the machine politics. I've complained in person and by phone about both in the past, to no avail.
But can I vote for Mitrano? She’s smart, and seemingly savvy, but can she be trusted? She’s a politician, after all.
I know, I know; we have to vote for someone, or should. It's a simple enough concept: the ballot is the foundation of democracy.
So ... Is it better to stay with the devil you know than the devil you don’t? (I’m spit-balling here; borrowing some thematic phrases.)
Maybe it’s “Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” (Well, that kind of fits the current GOP philosophy. It sounds cool, but has a less than empathetic meaning.)
I like this one better: “He who sups with the devil should use a long spoon.”
Well, Reed is no more a devil than Mitrano is, I suppose, but I don’t figure I’ll be supping with him this election cycle. But now I'm thinking ... I might with Mitrano.
Photo in text: Tracy Mitrano at the Human Services Complex town-hall meeting.
Hello, my name is ....
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Oct. 21, 2018 -- As the midterm elections approach, I shudder.
There's so much hooey coming out of Washington, from seemingly everybody, that it has rubbed my nerves raw.
But I’m learning.
I’m watching fewer news accounts, and more movies.
Reading more, but not the news.
No ... novels are on the menu, not newspapers.
But we can’t always escape politics.
Just driving along, I keep running into clusters of candidates’ signs.
O’Mara, Molinaro, Mitrano, Eslinger, Barnes and ... Tom. Smaller letters underneath those three large ones say “for Congress.” But you have to look closely to see those. They're easily missed. So if you're driving by, all you see is "Tom."
First time I saw that, I wondered: Tom? Is Gifford (the former Schuyler Legislature chair) back in politics?
I didn’t think so.
O’Mara? No, he has State Senate signs out there.
That guy who was School Superintendent? Not that I heard of. Besides, he retired.
Tom Petty? He was head of a community in “The Postman” film. Quite competent.
But no. Petty died.
Ah, I realized at last. Reed.
First name only, like Madonna, and Rihanna and Cher. Or Arnold.
I can only guess how his ad agency arrived at that one.
I suspect the term "warm and cuddly" might have been bandied about. Or “It works for rock stars."
Yeah, well ....
No offense, but a rock star he ain’t. Nor a movie star/governator.
Aside from that single-name hokum, which I only find annoying, I think I actually short-circuited on the rest of politics.
Oh, local races are okay. Local matters matter.
It’s all this screaming and outlandish bull emanating from Washington. No, I’m not crazy about the President with all his excesses. But I’m equally appalled by the entrenched nature of the GOP versus the Dems. I honestly can’t claim to admire anyone in Congress, not since John McCain passed on -- and I only agreed with his politics some of the time.
But he was a hero -- maybe our last one.
But admiration for his colleagues?
The system won’t allow it. It is a serious mess, and will remain so as long as special interest lobbyists exist, and as long as term limits don’t.
Am I a Democrat? Never have been. A Republican? No. A Liberal? Sometimes. A Conservative? Sometimes.
Paint me Independent, I guess. I never have been good at belonging. Comes with the job -- with the idea that journalists should not be biased.
Of course, that’s a lot of hooey, too. We all have biases; if we didn’t, we’d be dead.
But clinging to a set of organizational values, and in particular those of a political organization, would not be a very bright way to go for a self-respecting journalist.
And journalist I am. Have been for decades. A photojournalist, actually. I’ve always had an affinity for the camera and what it can accomplish. I bought one when I was a young reporter, the better to illustrate my stories, rather than depend on the hard-to-schedule photographers my paper -- the Watertown Daily Times -- employed. All two of them.
Of course, those two didn’t like me doing any shooting. Felt it was a commentary on their work -- that I felt I could do it better.
But it was all about convenience, and the personal rush I got -- and still get -- out of a good photograph.
I started with film, moved into digital when it became available, and haven’t looked back.
Part of the satisfaction I get from this job comes from the occasional photo that absolutely resonates -- the kind that I marvel that I, of all people, can take.
I’m really not a photographer -- not in the sense that I understand all the bells and whistles offered by today’s cameras. But I don’t need to. I need only understand those things that can accomplish for me what I need to make this website work.
And I think it does work. At least I hope so.
Anyway, now that I think about it, some people know me only by my first name. At least I think so. Very few use my last -- the exceptions being polite adults who telegraph my age by calling me "Mr. Haeffner." That's well intended, I know, but grates a little bit.
It’s usually kids who call out just my first name -- high school student-athletes I cover on the playing fields and courts and in the pools of our county.
I was at a sporting event the other night, for instance, scanning the stands, looking for familiar faces, when my name rang out.
I looked in the direction of the voice and saw the face of a young student I have, indeed, covered on these pages. She was smiling and waving.
I waved back.
Another photographer, standing nearby, marveled at the incident.
“You’re famous,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I just know a lot of students.”
But I wonder at that.
It’s a fame of sorts, I guess.
Not like Tom, I suppose.
You know. Gifford. Or O’Mara. Or Petty. Or Thumb.
Which, as I said, is annoying.
But what the heck.
Maybe it’s okay. Maybe a single name is the way to go.
I feel a contagion coming on. Not from illness, though; maybe from ego.
So, anyway ... forget my last name, if ever you knew it. I'm certainly not running for Congress, but ...
Do like the students do.
Just call me Charlie.
Ah, high school sports ....
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Oct. 8, 2018 -- As I creep up to a birthday that I used to consider belonging only to the old, old, old, I turn to our athletic youth for inspiration.
What I like best about high school sports is the camaraderie that is evident on teams that are coached properly. It is no secret that sometimes a coach is there either for the stipend or because he or she was either convinced through flattery or -- gasp! -- leaned upon.
In all cases that I see now, our local teams -- successful or not -- are very upbeat operations. I especially like the spirit shown by the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity swim team and the same school's girls varsity soccer team.
With the addition of Jason Westervelt to head up the WGHS swim program, we are seeing what seems a renewed spirit -- from the introductory music accompanying the swimmers as they enter the pool area from the locker room; to parents manning the timer posts; to parents raising funds for a large new podium to replace an old and, by comparison, rickety one; to the support given by teammates to teammates that somehow makes the roster seem larger in numbers than it is.
And with that spirit -- a can-do attitude energizing quite a lot of talent -- has come a lot of winning as a half-dozen members of the team have consistently placed first or come very close to doing so: Allie Gibson, Peighton Cervoni, Sarah Swinnerton, Jillian Cantieni, Amanda Wilbur and Maddy Kilcoyne. And others are not far behind: Isabella Fazzary is a proven winner in distance races, but is just now coming off an injury. Other young swimmers like Thalia Marquez, Faye Mooney and Malina Butler are showing signs of future success, too.
This is fun to watch.
Amendment: In the above, I indeed did what former Coach Kate LaMoreaux said: I shortchanged Coach Nikki Chaffee, who put the team on its path to success before Westervelt's arrival. She instilled fun and a drive for accomplishment, and led them to a sectional title last year. Jason has built on that, turning it all into a remarkably enjoyable show.
As Kate wrote early on the morning after this was published: "Nikki and Jason are great friends and good partners, so he has enhanced what she has been building."
Sorry, Nikki. Carelessness on my part.
On the soccer field, Coach Scott Morse has led a group of girls who -- despite the departure through graduation of bunch of players -- have won a division title. Chief among them is Morse's daughter Hannah, a senior who long ago surpassed the school career scoring record held by Megan Matthews (34 goals) by scoring, to date, a total of 66.
This year alone, Hannah has scored 26 goals, which is one shy of Matthews' single-season mark. If it seems odd that Matthews only had 34 total goals, it's because she was, until her senior year, a defensive player. When the coaching staff put her on offense in her final season, she was nearly unstoppable -- like Hannah Morse.
But the team has more, with goalkeeper Cierra Barber, sharpshooters Danielle Leszyk and Taylor Kelly, and up-and-coming Haley Dean, Aislinn Kleman, Abby Gibson, Abby Congdon, Carly Arnold, Briana Hayes and Genevieve Osborn. They are enthusiastic, and yes, also fun to watch.
But there are other teams with spirit, like the WGHS cross country, volleyball, and boys soccer squads, the Odessa-Montour boys and girls soccer teams, the O-M volleyball team, and the O-M girls swim team, which has too few swimmers but lots of heart.
The Seneca Indians football squad started out with great spirit, but a close loss (one point) to Waverly and a near-miss against Honeoye Falls-Lima (losing by a point by yielding 13 points in the final 3:06) seemed to take the wind out of the team's sails (hence a 42-0 loss to Tioga in a game most people expected to be close). WGHS Homecoming is upcoming, the team's first game on the new Watkins Alumni Field artificial turf. We'll see if the built-in enthusiasm of the day can reignite that early passion. I hope so.
Now, about that field ... the artifical turf: it seems pretty terrific. And it's getting a lot of use. Every day or night -- and sometimes both -- during the first week saw soccer games there. And this week it will be busy again, culminating in the football team's first game there -- at 7 p.m. Saturday against Moravia.
The Seneca Indians -- a combined team of WGHS and O-M athletes -- is 2-4 (and oh so close to 4-2), while Moravia is 1-5, its lone victory coming against Edison on Oct. 1st, 34-20. The Seneca Indians defeated Edison the previous week, 46-12. The Seneca Indians have outscored opponents 163-159, while Moravia has been outscored 221-102.
That sounds promising for the home team. But they play the games for a reason. Sometimes stuff happens.
But not this time, please, Homecoming gods. You screwed things up for us at O-M's Homecoming (the Honeoye game), and I have to think that that particular experience should more than guarantee us a little good juju this time around.
And fnally, it's Schuyler County Hall of Fame induction time this week -- on Thursday up at Seneca Lodge from 5 to 7 p.m. Joining the Hall are Judy Phillips, Georgie Taylor, Kate LaMoreaux and Brian O'Donnell.
With the addition of the three women, the Hall now has a 40-8 male-to-female membership -- or put more simply, 5-1.
I've been studying this situation for a while, and have found many other women I consider amazing enough to join those ranks. I will -- God willing -- be unveiling a dozen soon along with a dozen men not in the Hall, a group I'm calling The Essentials. Nobody in the Hall of Fame is eligible. These are Schuyler folks who impact or have impacted life here or elsewhere, but haven't received their due.
The funny thing is, filling 12 slots was easy on the female side; in fact, I had to winnow the list down from about 20. But so many men have joined the Hall of Fame that I found it a little more challenging to come up with a dozen not so honored. But they were there, and will be unveiled in due course.
But while the lists are fairly well set, further input is welcome. Flexibility is always a good thing, I think. So send any nominee suggestions to me in the next week or so. Thanks.
Back in town, and at work ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, Sept. 20, 2018 -- The drive home from my vacation was 12 hours long after a 45-minute ferry trip from Bois Blanc Island, Michigan to the mainland community of Cheboygan. I would have liked to spend a little time in the Cheboygan shopping district, for it has improved dramatically over the past decade.
But it was already 10:15 a.m.-- the earliest ferry that late in the season, which is to say Sept. 5th, was at 9:30 -- and I would not be getting home until fairly late, long after darkness had descended ... and fatigue might eventually become a factor.
So I journeyed on, avoided rain, thought about stopping in Erie, Pa., but ventured up Route 86 to Hornell, Bath, Corning and finally Savona, and then north and east to Watkins Glen, and up the hill to Odessa.
The getaway from Bois Blanc was complicated by an accident suffered by my sister-in-law, Gussie, who fell while loading her rooftop carrier and landed on her wrist, injuring it and leaving it virtually useless. So I took on an added role of loading heavy luggage. It turns out she had two broken bones, and is now wearing a cast.
Anyway, I returned home to a fairly heavy schedule that didn’t leave much time for rest, and it’s taken all of this time before I’ve caught up on my sleep.
Most of the work schedule has been sports coverage -- fall high school sports are in full swing -- along with the Grand Prix Festival and then the GlassBarge festival down at the waterfront. And then Monday night there was a marathon public hearing at the Watkins Glen Village Hall that kept me up late writing a story about it -- and a Planning Board meeting Wednesday night that did likewise.
And rumor has it that I’m not getting any younger.
So, anyway ... I’m hardly back in town, and already we’re getting suggestions on this year’s Top Drawer 24 celebration, which will be in June at the State Park pavilion.
For those of you late to the party, the TD24 has been honoring two-dozen students in athletics, academics and citizenship each year for more than a dozen years. It started with two schools -- Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour -- and now embraces 10 schools around the region, including those in Chemung County.
Each year we also honor a coach with a Lifetime Achievement Award. This year we’re considering several nominees; and I expect there will be some lobbying going on along the way. It is a prized honor.
We -- which is to say TD24 Chair Craig Cheplick and I, along with a committee of various educators and non-educators -- are already looking at potential TD24 honorees. It is normally a pretty fluid process; we see how things shake out academically and athletically through the year.
Last year, we had only one repeater from the previous year. That’s because it’s mostly seniors who are honored. Seniors will be at the forefront again this year, despite the rule, from the beginning, that 9th through 12th graders would be considered. There was one 9th grader our first year, but none since, and likely none again since we have expanded the number of schools without expanding the number of honorees.
That celebratory evening also sees presentation of The Odessa File Athlete of the Year Awards for WGHS and O-M, as well as presentation of the annual Susan Award -- a sportsmanship-in-life honor named after my late and very fair-minded wife. And some in-house honors are usually bestowed on folks who have helped us put the program together year after year.
If you have any nominations for Top Drawer, Susan, or Lifetime Achievement honors, send me an email along with some supporting reasons, and I’ll pass them along to the committee.
It might not be wasted motion on your part; such nominations have yielded fruit before.
And finally, the Schuyler County Hall of Fame will induct four new members in October, and lo and behold, three of them are women: Georgie Taylor, Kate LaMoreaux and Judy Phillips. The lone male: Brian O'Donnell.
The Hall has been basically a boys club, with 39 men and five women to date. Now, with this change in stratagem and these three women, the differential has been narrowed -- to 40-8. Five to one.
There are a lot more women out there who deserve recognition. I'm in consultation with a small committee in an attempt to come up with a list of 24 deserving people, 12 men and 12 women not currently in the Hall. I'm not trying to undercut the Hall; it is full of remarkable people.
But there are these others, who I would call a Top Drawer 24 if that term wasn't already taken. So ... I'll think of some other name.
Perhaps this, borrowing from Turner Classic Movies: The Essentials.
Twenty-four members, each essential to Schuyler County.
I like that.
Then, when one or more are plucked from the ranks of The Essentials for inclusion in the Schuyler County Hall of Fame in the future, we could add replacements -- maintain a 24-member level.
Behold the Pinnacles ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Mich., Sept. 2, 2018 -- The vacation days are waning, and with the approach of my ferry ride off-Island on Wednesday, rain is on the rise.
A couple of nights, we’ve had thunderstorms and white-capping waves crashing repeatedly, almost hypnotically, onto the shore fronting our rental cottage on Lake Huron.
I love it here, bright sun or dreary clouds. When I was a kid, rainy days on Bois Blanc were known as Monopoly Days, because we would hunker down in our rental cottage, near a blazing fireplace and in the light of a nearby kerosene lantern, and play that particular game.
Now, I tend to read by the light of an electric lamp, or watch videos. For the intervening years have brought electricity to Bois Blanc, not to mention running water (replacing pumps) and indoor toilets (replacing outhouses).
And yet the place is much the same as it was a half century ago: dirt roads, passing drivers waving to one another, only a couple of places to secure meals away from home cooking, thick forest dominating the shore and the interior, just a handful of year-rounders, and some of the same people who were here in the summers of the late 1940s and the 1950s.
One is named Chuck Maki. He’s been coming here since 1948, along with his wife. He stopped in with his son -- a fellow pressing 50 who has been here just about every summer of his life -- while I was running the local library/museum one day last week.
The library is small: some fiction, some regional works, some photos in scrapbooks, some audio recordings from History Nights they hold here every so often. It is in one half of a building that used to be the Island headquarters for the DNR -- Department of Natural Resources. The other half serves as a museum, with mementos from Island years gone by: photos, books, news clippings, artifacts such as old agricultural tools, a couple of arrowheads, and various maps.
I was in there at the request of a woman overseeing the place. It is open for four hours a day, three days a week through July and August. The woman came up empty on workers, and so I received the call, and agreed to work. I’ve done it before; it’s not really work; just helping anyone who might stop by, such as Chuck Maki.
He reminisced for a while, and we compared notes of people he might have known versus those I have known. There was very little dovetailing, since he is an East Ender, miles from the Island’s lone municipality of Pointe aux Pins, where the library and museum reside. The Pines, as the municipality is known, was where I stayed in the few summers I visited here as a child.
Maki had not, for instance, known Earl and Miriam Hoover, the king and queen of the Island -- owners of many acres in and near the Pines. Mr. Hoover, former head of the Hoover Vacuum Co., died back in the 1980s; Miriam passed this past winter at 104.
I was, in fact, perusing a biography of Mr. Hoover when Maki entered the library, which was why I asked if he had known the old gent.
“Nope, never met him,” he said.
I did; we rented a place from Mr. Hoover for two summers when I was quite young. It was situated right next to the main Hoover cottage, a large structure that is the centerpiece of an Island estate that now includes four residential dwellings and a tennis court on beautifully landscaped acreage. I remember him well: a gentleman, always well dressed, seemingly kind; and frequently smiling. He seemed to enjoy life.
Coincidentally, I got a tour of that very cottage -- the main Hoover structure -- days later. My brother Bob and his wife Gussie and I are always looking for possible rental buildings for future summer visits, and that particular one will soon be coming on the rental market. And so we imposed on a woman who manages the property, and she guided us through it.
It’s a classic old-style cottage, with pine walls and a thick darkness to the interior, until you reach the living room -- lit by a large picture window and adjacent to a solarium that lets in nothing but light. I don't recall ever being in the front portion of the structure before.
I imagine I might have been invited in the back door -- to the kitchen -- when I was a boy, to beg cookies freshly baked by Ethel, who with husband Maxie worked for the Hoovers for years. They might have been the lone black couple on the Island back then.
I encountered Ethel once again years later, in 1979, when my wife Susan and I visited Bois Blanc as part of a round-the-country trip we were taking. We stayed a couple of nights in the Pines Hotel -- which was an arson victim four years later -- and visited places and people I remembered from childhood.
One stop was at the Hoovers' place. Susan and I were greeted at the front door by Ethel. I explained that I had hoped to pay my respects to the Hoovers, but she told me Mr. Hoover was napping and Mrs. Hoover wasn't home. So I asked that she pass along greetings from Chuck Haeffner -- Chuck being my childhood name.
“Oh, my goodness. Little Chucky Haeffner!” Ethel exclaimed. And she grabbed me and pulled me into her ample bosom, and I entertained the possibility of suffocation. My wife watched from the side, I think both amused and astounded.
That was a moment that has lived with me. I never did get to see Mr. Hoover on that trip or ever again -- but here I was, on this year’s visit, at the same cottage. And it called to mind years long past, and feelings long suppressed -- warm and embracing and connected, I think, to the sense of adventure that summer used to provide me in childhood.
As I described in an earlier column, I also reconnected on this vacation with childhood acquaintances Bruce McAfee and Sally Babler Sperry. Accordingly, we embarked on a three-hour ATV tour of the Island interior, visiting inland lakes -- Thompson, Mary and Deer.
I got a second chance the afternoon of my Hoover cottage visit. The three of us headed out on ATVs again, this time visiting different locales, including the site of a tombstone -- a shoulder-high creation -- in the middle of sparse woods in honor of Mary McRae, who died in 1897 at the age of 72. She and her husband John had operated a farm nearby -- on the Island’s northern half, where farms were once common. They no longer are.
The stone is the only one visible now, although local lore has it that several other people were buried nearby. There is a poem chiseled into the memorial -- quite a work of art, from a technical, sculpting aspect; and not a bad poem, popular for headstones back in that era.
Tis hard to break the tender cord
When love has bound the heart.
Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words
“We must forever part.”
Dearest loved one, we must lay thee
In the peaceful grave’s embrace.
But thy memory will be cherished
Till we see thy heavenly face.
We reached that site along a fairly easy, grassy path that was nonetheless blocked by a fallen tree. There was no way around it, so Bruce -- ever the ready explorer -- produced a chainsaw and cut a section out of the tree just wide enough for us to pass through.
That was not the first blockage we had encountered. Bruce had managed to cut enough away from another fallen tree on a deep-woods route early in our travels, too -- created a path around the wreckage, as long as we ducked low to avoid fallen and dangling debris.
This was on a narrow path we had followed in from the Firetower Road -- which is a relatively wide dirt track that cuts through the heart of the Island, north to south. But having cleared the one obstacle, we encountered another -- were forced to retrace our steps a short time later when suddenly blocked by not one, but several, fallen birches.
“It was probably the high winds the other night,” said Sally, referring to one of the two recent thunderstorms.
And we encountered a similar roadblock late in the journey, taking what was supposed to be a shortcut back to the Firetower Road. That path was grassy and fairly wide, but we were stopped about midway by another grouping of flattened trees, with no way around them. And so we doubled back the long way.
We also visited, during our three-hour-plus travels, what I presume is the Island’s highest point. We parked off the North Shore Road -- a wide path that can entertain one car moving very slowly, or any number of ATVs moving quickly -- and walked up a fairly sharp incline, through tangled underbrush and around various trees, until reaching a level landing.
There we saw, in front of us, a sharp rise -- what to my tired eyes looked like a cliff, really, rising to four separate large boulders spaced out across perhaps a hundred yards.
“The Pinnacles,” said Bruce. “At least that’s what I was told they’re called. I didn’t even know about them until about 15 years ago.”
I was surprised by that, since Bruce has been exploring the Island for many years.
“When I heard about this place," he said, "I asked: ‘Where the heck is that?’ And I was told, and came and found it. Amazing, really.”
Especially considering that most folks think of the Island as practically flat from stem to stern. Its highest point is, in fact, 692 feet, according to Wikipedia.
Now, eyeing those cliffs, I shook my head. My legs were already screaming from the lengthy uphill climb to the landing; Sally looked as pained as me.
“No way,” I said. “I’m not climbing that.”
“No, I suppose not,” he said. I doubt -- though I’m not sure -- that he had actually entertained the notion.
On our way out the Firetower Road, and on the way back, we passed Dillinger’s Cabins -- three ruined structures, only six logs high now -- that reputedly housed gangster John Dillinger after he underwent plastic surgery as a mode of disguise back in the 1930s. The Feds were after him, and he wanted to change his appearance to keep them at bay. Alas, they caught up to him not long thereafter in Chicago, killing him.
I wrote a novel titled "Cabins in the Mist" some years ago about those cabins and a portal there, through which I encountered Dillinger and became a target-practice partner of his in a ravine behind the cabins.
Now, both times we passed the cabins on our ATVs, I could almost swear I saw Dillinger wandering up from the remains of the main cabin. And I think he waved, but I was moving pretty fast.
After we had climbed to the base of the Pinnacles and were catching our breath, Sally commented on those cabins; she’s of the opinion, I gather, that they hardly warrant a number out front (20) that declares the spot one of the Island’s most interesting to visit. I get the feeling she might not even believe Dillinger was ever there.
“You probably don’t know,” I told her, “that if you enter the main cabin’s remains through the remains of the door, at twilight, that you’ll actually encounter Dillinger.”
“Encounter him,” she said, looking at me as though senility were setting in on me. I guess she never read “Cabins in the Mist.”
“Yeah, he’s there,” I said. “It’s like an alternate reality. But he’s there.”
She smiled, and shook her head, probably pityingly.
“Okay,” she said, and moved on to another subject.
Yes, the vacation time is waning, but my feelings for Bois Blanc never have and never will wane. When I set foot on the ferry on Wednesday, I will feel regret; I always do upon leaving the Island.
But there is also the possibility of a return; at least a hope of it. With age comes doubt about how long such trips are feasible. But I look at it this way: If I can roust myself to go on rather difficult and lengthy ATV excursions to the Island interior, negotiating narrow, dark passages with trees and bushes that often resemble an obstacle course, then I can raise myself up for just about anything.
Certainly a 12-hour drive to the ferry landing in Cheboygan and the 45-minute crossing should be no great challenge. By comparison, that should be a piece of cake.
And so, as I leave, I will be looking backward at the Island's wooded land, watching it grow smaller as the ferry makes its way toward the mainland.
I will be a little melancholy, true.
But I will also be smiling.
Photos in text:
From the top: The Island library (left half) and museum (right half); the Hoovers' main cottage; the Pines Hotel, destroyed by fire in the early '1980s; Bruce McAfee and Sally Sperry at the McRae grave site; Sally taking a photo of one of the Pinnacles from flat land at its base; and the remains of one of the three Dillinger cabins.
Islanders Bruce McAfee and Sally Sperry look out upon Thompson Lake, one of Bois Blanc Island's inland lakes, during a break in an ATV ride.
An ATV tour of the Island ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Mich., Aug. 23, 2018 -- The Island is dry -- which hardly seems right, with all that has been happening back home.
The dust on the roads here can be thick -- and hover. It’s even dry in the deep woods, a fact to which I can attest since traveling for three hours the other day on an ATV through often tight island trails, which were also low, the various species of trees reaching down and smacking my helmet every few yards.
I went out with two Island veterans, a man named Bruce McAfee, six years my senior, and a woman named Sally Babler Sperry, about my age -- both of whom I knew when we were children during the 1950s.
Bruce ran in my older brother’s crowd back then. Sally and I were Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, about seven years of age, fashioning a makeshift raft and paddling around the island’s southwest point.
Sixty-some years later, we were still playing.
Bruce has an extra ATV, and Sally has her own, and so the three of us visited all sorts of inland spots -- the beautiful Thompson Lake, which has an island of its own, and is virtually unspoiled; Lake Mary, which has a public dock where a young girl was fishing, and which sported two pontoon boats in the distance, and one multi-level cottage to the west; and Deer Lake, which is more of a marsh and a draw to various wildlife, including a crane family we saw in the distance.
Sally had been missing from the island during the early part of my current stay -- gone traveling, she said, to see a few things on her bucket list, including a moose. She showed up the night before our ATV excursion, at a party thrown by the nephew of the recently departed, 104-year-old Miriam Hoover, widow of the former president and CEO of Hoover Vacuum.
The party was on a large deck behind a cottage the nephew has remodeled into a beautiful home. It was strange to tour it, for my family stayed there in the 1950s for two summers, renting from the Hoovers. Back then it was a rustic cottage with bats upstairs and an outhouse for a bathroom. Water came from a pump, and night light from kerosene lanterns.
There were all sorts of familiar faces at that Saturday gathering: the Plaunt girls, Char and Leann, daughters of the late great ferryboat skipper Ray Plaunt, whose craft in my childhood was the Char-Leann; and Wendy, daughter of Char. Wendy is the local school teacher, who this year will have two students when classes start in the one-room island schoolhouse on Sept. 4. And there was the visiting minister, Philip Chester of England, whose birthday prompted the celebration; and various of the elderly islanders I tend to see each year, folks who have cottages that they have been inhabiting during summers here for decades.
It has been good reconnecting with all of them, but I have felt a little guilty, what with all hell breaking loose back home. An ugly storm, of course, brought flooding and tremendous damage on Lodi and Valois Points and to parts of Peach Orchard Point; and plenty of flooding elsewhere in the area, from the west hill of Watkins to the outskirts of Montour Falls and beyond. Blessedly, we escaped any damage at my home in Odessa, overseen in my absence by son Jon.
And I was ostensibly relaxing through some disquieting deaths back home -- of Tom Moran of Odessa, like me a sports card collector and all-around friendly guy; of Timateo Kamanga, whose violent death by vehicle while walking in Hector was reported to me rather quickly, sending me into a mild depression; and of Bill Elkins, a wonderful guy who meant a lot to Schuyler County for a lot of years.
And with all the angst caused by the storm and death, there was angst -- from what I hear -- caused by the proposed Business Improvement District in Watkins Glen, by the struggle by the village to counteract the negative effects of short-term Airbnb rentals, and then by the decision by Village Board member Kevin Thornton to depart his seat seven months early. He did so in a sort of scorched earth fashion, taking to task the spotty communication among board members and between the board and the community, as well as the project selection in the Downtown Revitalization Initiative promulgated by the state.
Seems he thinks the infrastructure in Watkins needs some work, a fact underscored a day later by the broadside fired on TV and in the press by Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting -- basically leveling both barrels at foot dragging he said has taken place over the years on improving the village's water quality, a matter tackled the past couple of years with the ongoing development of a $30 million-plus water filtration plant along the canal.
Yes, all of that angst has been going on, as well as some family issues that have occupied a bit of phone attention. It’s hard, after all, to really go on vacation.
But like I said, it’s been dry up here, and correspondingly sunny, though the temperature and humidity have remained moderate.
I hope to tackle another ATV ride, to travel again into the depths of the island woods and witness again some of the inland marvels. Maybe this time I’ll stop on the way back, on the Firetower Road, which cuts through the island north to south. About two thirds of the way back, heading south, there is a marker, the number 20, which connotes one of the island attractions -- the remains of three cabins that many believe housed the gangster John Dillinger and his gang while he was recovering from plastic surgery designed to help him escape the law.
It didn’t work; he was killed on the mainland shortly thereafter, back in the 1930s. I’ve stopped at the cabins before, and in fact wrote a book largely based on an anomaly there. In the main cabin, which is only three logs high now, the entrance is still identifiable, on the Firetower Road side. Step through that opening at the right time -- which is to say sunset -- and you just might encounter Dillinger himself, or rather what I take to be his spirit, inhabiting a complete cabin on that very site.
Those of you who know me probably think I’m crazy enough to believe it. But that’s only because it’s true.
If I meet with Dillinger on this vacation, as I have in the past, I’ll fill you in.
Deer Lake, located on the northern side of the island, has a low water table.
Photos in text:
Top: A girl fishes off the end of the Lake Mary dock.
Second: At the Saturday party. From left are the Plaunt girls, Char and Leann, and Sally Babler Sperry.
Third: Sally Sperry and Bruce McAfee head back toward the deep woods after a break along a trail turnoff.
Fourth: The editor's ATV, provided courtesy of Bruce McAfee.
A few Schuyler County flood photos snapped from a drone camera by Tony Vickio can be seen here.
A smile a mile wide ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Mich., Aug. 15, 2018 -- I’m feeling a bit disconsolate -- not from anything happening on the island (there is blessedly little going on), but from news back home. Timateo Kamanga is dead, struck by a vehicle while walking along Route 414 in Hector Saturday night, around 10 p.m.
Police are investigating, and the facts are largely unknown, other than that the driver has been identified. So without further facts, I’m not going all judgmental here; what I am going is into a deep well of sadness, for Timateo -- identified as Timothy by the police (a friend from college tells me Tim took on the Americanized version of his name “to make it go easier over here”) -- is gone for good.
He was an exchange student at Watkins Glen High School, back in 2005 and 2006 -- here from Malawi Children’s Village, which is on the continent of Africa. I remember him as a young man with a ready smile; he enjoyed other people, and especially enjoyed being in this country.
I recall him telling me in high school that he was returning to Malawi after graduation, but wanted to come back for college, which he did -- earning a couple of associate's degrees and a bachelor's. Over the years, I encountered him from time to time around Schuyler County, and he would greet me with his wide smile and, with a light accent, say my name with an emphasis on the second syllable. “Hello, Char-leeeee.”
I’m sad to say -- now that it’s too late to correct -- that I lost touch with him recently, although I heard he was still nearby, up Hector way. And that’s where his dream -- his dream of living and succeeding in America -- ended nightmarishly Saturday night.
I sit here at my keyboard remembering him; but in particular that smile. I recall he spent his exchange year here with the Fitzsimmons-Peters family, and participated in all sorts of school events, as exchange students tend to do.
I imagine I could conjure up a few more specifics -- but overriding it all would be the memory of that smile. It was as wide as the kid’s heart.
The heart that no longer beats.
Not that it does him any earthly good now, but I’m saying a fervent prayer for him.
I decided, in this well of sadness, to contact someone who knew him better than I did: Marie Fitzsimmons, who with husband Kirk Peters served as the host to Timateo during his exchange year. She was teaching at Watkins Glen High School at that time. I contacted her after finding an entry on her Facebook page regarding his passing.
She said in that Facebook posting that Timateo, at the age of 17, “bravely made his way from Malawi's Children's Village to our Hector home. His journey began with the Watkins Glen High School Interact Club, Rotary Club and a dream that Nancy Loughlin (then a guidance counselor at the school) and my beloved students turned into reality. This is the boy who came to live in our Hector home and became a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin. And a beloved member of our school community.”
She goes on to say how a classmate, Shane Absalom, “could not bear for Tim to leave upon his graduation from WGHS.” So Shane’s mother Cindy, with her husband Ed Atwill (they ran a bed and breakfast, the Seneca Springs Resort along Route 414), took Tim in upon his return to the U.S. Thus Cindy “began her journey of love and became a mama to Timateo.” She and Ed “moved heaven and earth” for Tim “to pursue his education, and the story of their love and devotion is that of mother and father.
“We are so grateful," Marie said. "Tim's family has entrusted the Atwills and Fitzsimmons-Peterses, and the Turners (Mitch and Debra, with whom he was most recently living) to make arrangements for Tim" -- which include a celebration of his life, to be held from 4-7 p.m. August 25 at Damiani Wine Cellars. A private burial will take place at the Seneca Union Cemetery.
"Much love," Marie concluded, "as you walk this journey of love and grief.”
I had more questions, so I contacted Marie by email, and she jotted down some thoughts -- expanding on who Tim was and how he impacted people.
“That this is the end of his story of such hope is heart-wrenching,” she wrote back. “This can't be.”
And then she added:
“The back story to Tim's journey to us is quite something -- some poignant connections: Dorothy Elizabeth (my sister-in-law) was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. She gave a presentation to the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club that inspired Rotary to support the Malawi Children's Village. Rotary was so generous.
“Nancy Loughlin and I co-advised Interact (a Rotary-affiliated club) at Watkins Glen High School. She listened thoughtfully as I agonized over exchange programs being so remarkable -- but out of reach for young people without family resources. And as she always did, she began the work to make a dream into a reality.
“Nancy is a devoted Rotarian who is deeply committed to the Rotary Exchange program and is instrumental in its implementation. As she worked with Rotary, the Malawi Children's Village unfolded as our partner. Interact kids raised the money for plane fare and such. Rotary took care of other financial needs. And Tim came to live with us.
“His high school experience was truly remarkable as the students fell in love with him, and his beautiful spirit and exquisite mind blossomed. It was an astonishing year. His 18th birthday brought a celebration, and our house was jam-packed with all the friends who loved him. Presents overflowed -- most to do with Bob Marley posters, hats, CDs and shirts. He was so, so happy.
“The Atwills were remarkable in their quest to help Tim pursue higher education. You can imagine all the difficulties in navigating such a feat, but through their efforts and the support of so many wonderful people, Tim obtained his associate’s degree from Tompkins Cortland Community College, and his BS from Hobart. I believe he also earned another associate's degree!
“As Tim grew from boy to man, he became so well known in the community,” working at the Seneca Springs Resort, which the Atwills eventually sold. “He is known and loved by so many in the Hector community. But of course, that was also true at TC3, at Hobart, in Ithaca, and everywhere he went. People were drawn to him, for he was a beautiful spirit.
“Many people have asked to contribute toward the cost of Tim's service, and that is so lovely. Any funds remaining will be sent to the Malawi Children's Village in Tim's name. After all, that is where his journey to us began.”
Timothy Kamanga Memorial Fund
P.O. Box 101
Burdett, NY 14841
I was awakened early Tuesday morning by a phone call from someone I’ve never met -- a young man named Will Gleason who lives in Auburn, New York, the city in which I was born. He lives there, and works in Newark.
He read on this website about the accident, and wondered if I knew anything more. He wanted to contact other folks who, like him, had attended Hobart with Timateo. That’s what he called him; he said Tim told him once that he would always be Timateo to his family and friends who knew him across the years.
“Everybody loved him,” said Will. “This is just so hard.”
Will in fact lived with Tim for two years, with a group of several students in a Hobart facility known as Odell’s Pond. He, like me, had lost touch over the years, but one thing he remembered vividly.
“He wanted to experience everything; be involved,” said Gleason.
He wanted to experience everything.
Sadly -- and that doesn’t really cover it; how about horrifically -- Timateo's experiences ended on Route 414 in Hector, while he was out walking Saturday night.
The waning of traditions ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Mich., Aug. 6, 2018 -- A week and a half into my vacation, and I’m relaxing. I’m really not doing much, other than feasting on books and movies and walks along the Island roads and beaches, or in the Island woods.
Seclusion reigns here. That’s why most folks frequent this rock; for the solitude. But also for shared memories.
And that’s where matters are lacking a bit this summer.
Most notable is the absence of familiar faces, although I have encountered a few in recent days. One, a gentleman of my age range named Ron Mars, was off-Island after rushing home to Indiana upon a report that a tree had fallen on his house. Fortunately, damage was minimal, and he was back up here in a few days.
One of his sons -- whose first name I forget (awful as I am with retaining names of new acquaintances) -- was here, too, but heading home to Kansas City, where he worked for the National Weather Service, running its website. He wasn’t looking forward to the trip, because it has consistently been in the 90s at home. Turns out he can’t control the weather.
The Plaunts are around, minus patriarch Ray, who died several seasons ago at the young age of 95. He had been a childhood hero to me: a very cool ferryboat skipper.
But one family that is not around -- or not for the most part -- is the Babler clan.
Twenty years ago, after I had started visiting the island again after decades away (drawn here again by the spirit of the place, which induced me to write a couple of novels about it, Island Nights and The Islander), I stopped by to say hello to one of the Bablers, Marilyn. She's a half-dozen years older than me -- ran around in my oldest brother’s crowd back in the '50s on the island -- so I wasn’t sure she’d remember me.
She was on the phone when I arrived unannounced. I had been welcomed onto her front porch by her daughter, who had called into the cottage: “Mom, you have a visitor.” Marilyn came out from the interior, phone to ear, her husband trailing behind her, and interrupted her call to ask me: “Who are you?”
“Chuck Haeffner,” I replied, using the childhood nickname I once wore.
She shrieked at that, tossed the phone to her husband, and gave me a big hug. And we visited the rest of the day away.
That’s the island. One of old acquaintances, old traditions.
The Bablers are the folks who first invited my parents to the Island back in 1953.
When we first came here, the matriarch of the clan was Lila Blome -- quite ancient to my then-young eyes. She had daughters Mary and Annette. Mary and her husband Wayne had been friends of my parents on Long Island, in Manhasset, and had told them about Bois Blanc -- what they called “our island.” After my Dad got a job selling shoes for the U.S. Shoe Corp. around the lower peninsula of Michigan -- settling us in Birmingham, north of Detroit -- the island was an accessible destination, and my parents took the Bablers up on an invitation to visit, securing a rental property, a cottage, for our stay. We did that annually for several years before my parents built a house on a lake in Bloomfield Hills, and the need for a watery getaway like Bois Blanc evaporated.
The other Blome daughter, Annette, became in time my father’s secretary; was, in fact, for a number of years. When matriarch Lila died, Annette inherited the old family cottage on the eastern edge of The Pines -- Pointe aux Pins, the island’s lone municipality.
Wayne and Mary -- my parents’ friends -- purchased a cottage around the southwest point on the island, on a bluff overlooking roughly where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet. Eventually, two of their offspring, Sally and Wayne Jr., purchased their own cottages near that of their parents. The Bablers’ other daughter -- Wayne Jr.’s twin sister Marilyn -- eventually inherited the old Blome cottage when Annette died.
That’s the cottage I visited when I re-introduced myself to Marilyn.
Okay so far?
When Wayne and Mary died, their cottage remained in the family, used from time to time by a fourth Blome-Babler generation -- Marilyn’s two kids.
There are usually Bablers all around Bois Blanc, all summer long.
This year, however, all we’ve seen of the clan is Wayne Jr. and his wife Pattie. We saw signs of life at Marilyn’s place -- it was her daughter briefly visiting the island, I think -- and heard that her son Eric had been here. But that’s it.
There has been no sign of siblings Sally -- who is seemingly always here -- or Marilyn. This is alarming in the sense that the Bablers historically have not missed any potential Island time. Mary Babler, until she reached well into her 80s, and maybe even 90 -- had missed only one summer here, and that when she was a year old.
Marilyn was much the same. Now in her mid-70s, she was up here every year except one -- when she was a toddler -- until last year, when she and her husband Joel failed to appear. The word was that a storm had damaged their home in St. Louis, and that they couldn’t afford the trip. But this year they are absent again, and I fear it is health matters. Joel has been struggling -- a walker is not a convenient device on the island -- and rumor has it that Marilyn is ill.
My point is this: The island -- beyond being a physically mystical place to me -- is a place of familiar faces and families dating back to my childhood. It is a place of tradition: family tradition. And time is robbing it of that quality.
Those faces of my past -- friends of my parents, friends of my brothers, and friends of mine -- are disappearing all too rapidly as my generation and that immediately ahead of mine fades away.
This trip is designed as a renewal, and perhaps I will find the rest I need to tackle another school year's worth of news back in Schuyler County.
But I’m finding the exercise -- this vacation -- to be a bit depressing.
That is the end result, I know, as time marches on.
To counter that malaise, I have started doodling what I hope will be a novel. The plot is not set here -- in the Straits of Mackinac -- as my previous works have been.
This one is set back home, and will involve (I suspect) some familiar figures from Schuyler’s past and present lore.
I will try to be kind.
I will also counter it by attending, I hope, various functions that mark summer on the island. There is a Nature Night coming up, and next Saturday the annual Babcock Family party, whereby members of the island’s extended Babcock clan offer various prizes and foods at the Wagner Room in the Bois Blanc Island firehouse.
There is a weekly Fun Night out at the Coast Guard Chapel on the east end, which is a good place to catch up on news, and the library/museum is open three days a week through August for four hours each day. There is an adult mixer coming up, and if I’m so inclined (which is unlikely), I could attend a square dance. I believe that is run by the late, great Ray Plaunt’s granddaughter, Wendy Spray, who is also the local school teacher.
And I imagine a visit is in order to Dillinger’s Cabins -- remains of three cabins that once housed gangster John Dillinger and his gang. As I’ve detailed in a book called Cabins in the Mist, I visit Dillinger's spirit from time to time, usually entering through a portal at the entrance to one of those ruined cabins, located deep in the island woods out along the Firetower Road.
A couple of summers back, you might recall, I also encountered Dillinger in a field not far from the place I am renting, a field accessible along a narrow track through thick woods. I visited there last night, but saw nothing of the man -- just a white-tailed deer loping away after I spooked him. And I made the mistake of wearing shorts, which resulted in a nasty leg scratch administered by a protruding branch.
“Long pants, dummy,” I told myself.
Which somehow, metaphorically, seems like an apt epitaph.
Photo in text: The island's southern shoreline.
I've returned to the island ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Mich., July 30, 2018 -- The Island seems a little bit different this year. Miriam Hoover, queen of Bois Blanc and widow of the former Hoover Vacuum Company president, died recently before she could reach her 105th birthday.
Others of Island note passed, too; but beyond that there seem to be some familiar faces missing, faces I normally see on my annual summer visits.
One I did see was that of Sheila Hyde. I managed to greet her briefly at the Hawk’s Landing restaurant-convenience store, the business she established and in which she still holds a stake. She was grabbing breakfast before heading off-Island to some function in New Jersey run by General David Petraeus, an old acquaintance of her husband. And then home to Florida, not to return here until October, when she would help her mother close up the family place inland.
“She’s on a six and six,” Sheila said, pointing to her mother seated on the opposite side of the booth they shared in the back corner of Hawk's. “I'm not there yet; can’t do six and six. But I will soon.”
I smiled; that was appealing. Six months on the island each year. I manage a maximum of six weeks.
My brother and I -- he and his wife Gussie have traveled to the Island from Sarasota, Florida, during each of the last 20 summers -- stopped by the Plaunt homestead on our first full day here. I had seen advertised on the ferry boat crossing that Thursday gatherings would be continuing at the Plaunt home, occupied these days by Leanne, eldest daughter of the late, great Ray Plaunt. Those meetings started a few years ago, when folks could visit with Ray, the esteemed retired ferry boat captain of many years, including those years of my childhood. After Ray died at the age of 95 a few seasons ago, the gatherings continued at the house, which he built many decades ago.
But when Bob and I arrived for this gathering, there was none. Fortunately, across the street lives another of the Plaunts -- Leanne's sister Char and her husband Jim McLaren. I spotted them on their back deck, and called out: “Are there any Plaunts around here?”
Char is about my age, and Jim a little older. Their daughter Wendy Spray, fortyish, was also there. She’s the teacher at the Island's one-room schoolhouse, and so lives here year-round.
They hailed us to park in their driveway and join them on the deck, and then asked us how long we were up for, and I said six weeks.
“Oh, nice,” said Wendy, and I laughed.
“Right,” I said. “You’re here all the time. Now that’s nice.”
It turns out the Thursday gathering is no more; that the ad on the boat -- behind glass in one of the craft’s two cabins -- was from last year.
“That’s still there?” asked Char. “Oh, brother. I’ll have to take that down. I’ll go meet the boat as soon as it comes in.”
But wait. Three days later, on Sunday, at a fundraiser for an Islander seriously injured recently in an auto accident on Bois Blanc's east end, I encountered Leanne, who said the gatherings had generated no interest recently -- but that my brother and I were welcome to stop by at the appointed time on coming Thursdays, or any time.
I suspect we will.
The third annual East-West softball game was held on our third full day here, a Saturday, out at the old Bible farm. That's a stretch of land upon which lived John and Mildred Bible for several decades -- with Mildred staying on after John died, until her passing. His death started the rumor that his ghost was often seen there and along the nearby North Shore Road, scaring hell out of campers.
All that is left of the Bibles’ abode is the crumbling, roofless wreck of their primitive shack. Other, more modern structures are utilized by today’s owner, who provides a field for a softball game each year in late July to help raise funds for Island projects -- in this case reconstruction of the old dock in the Pines (the Pines -- Pointe aux Pins -- being the lone municipality on Bois Blanc). The dock used to be the main one on the island, but a much larger, cement-based and thus sturdy one was built years ago a mile or so to the east. But the old dock is still a popular spot for swimmers and sunbathers.
The East team was full of young, strong batters who rather consistently hit the ball into the woods in right field or over a string in left field that served as the home run marker. The West team had mostly middle-aged and older players who seemed oblivious to the art of fielding.
The result was a 34-10 victory for the young East squad -- the third straight win for that half of the island. A sizable crowd was on hand -- mostly seated on portable chairs in the shade of woods along the third base line and behind home plate. Hamburgers, hot dogs and orange sherbet cups were plentiful, all under a beautiful blue sky and a sun whose heat was mitigated by a gentle breeze.
A perfect afternoon, although I failed to see John Bible’s ghost. Maybe he doesn’t like crowds.
This is my 23rd straight summer on Bois Blanc, a roughly five-by-ten-mile mass in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet. It has dirt roads, a 25 mph speed limit, one deputy, and limited health-care facilities, although about a dozen firefighters are first responders.
There are only about 50 full-time residents, and maybe 2,500 visitors in the course of a year, though that is a guess. Most folks, once they arrive, disappear into the woods to cabins and cottages. A hundred people is a large turnout at a softball game, or at a joint church service (such as they held Sunday morning, the Church of the Transfiguration in Pointe aux Pins hosting parishioners from the Coast Guard Chapel on the east end).
I have visited here some 30 times -- counting several summers here in my childhood -- and have spent a little over two years of my life (as best as I can estimate) enjoying these throwback environs. I have some land here, but haven’t built, finding rentals easier and far less demanding than maintaining my own structure.
Two years. A small percentage of a life pretty well lived. This existence would be much less than it is without this place, this feel, these personal journeys I take to Bois Blanc and its pristine shores.
Photos in text: A deer in the field beside Hawk's Landing; the wreck of the Bibles' home; a young woman on the East squad hits a double.
Blast from a pivotal past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, July 22, 2018 -- The arrival in our area of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team pulled the following story from my memory bank, thanks to who the team’s Executive Director is: 2004 Watkins Glen High School graduate Desiree Ellison.
The story goes like this:
It was perhaps the pivotal day in the history of The Odessa File. Starting the website had been significant, but keeping it going was proving somewhat difficult.
This particular day assured, ultimately, that the effort would continue.
I had been covering Odessa-Montour sports since starting the website in the winter of the 2002-03 school year, and did so again at the start of the 2003 fall sports season.
That was the idea -- to cover that one school and the two communities that made up its name. Accordingly, I ventured to the school athletic field on an afternoon when Watkins Glen’s girls soccer team was visiting Odessa.
As I arrived, I saw a player on the Watkins team go down -- hard -- as she stopped a ball with her face. I was rounding the field, on the way to the far side, where I wouldn’t be facing the sun. Photography was better over there, and I needed all the help I could get -- as I was just learning action photography, really.
I asked someone who the girl lying on the field was. The game had been stopped, and she was being tended to.
“Desiree Ellison,” someone told me. My first thought was: pretty cool name. But then common sense took over: God, I hope she's okay, I amended my thinking
As I was walking along the sideline, I heard a voice to my left, from a man leaning against the fencing that circled the track.
“You the guy who runs The Odessa File?” he asked.
I was immediately on guard, for I had found, much to my chagrin, that starting a website like this was not something immediately embraced. I had been getting some pushback from the school and from coaches reluctant to contact me after games. I had also been interviewed by a TV reporter who asked rather rudely what gave me the right to do what I was doing.
I told him it was the same thing that gave him the right to stick that microphone in my face and ask me such a question: The Constitution’s First Amendment. It reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Now, facing toward the man leaning against the fence at the O-M athletic field, I sized him up: large, looming, another (I thought) in a list of doubters.
“Who wants to know?” I asked back.
“My name is Craig Cheplick,” he responded. I had heard the name, but couldn’t place where. “I’m the Athletic Director at Watkins Glen High School.”
I ambled over, leaned against the fence next to him, and asked: “Since when?” I had recently heard another name in that post. While I had heard of Cheplick, I had not heard of him as AD.
“Just recently,” he said, and got to the point. “Look ... I want you to cover Watkins Glen sports.”
I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “I have my hands full now.” Which I thought was true; I had not started The File with the intent to have it dominate my waking hours. I thought that taking on another school -- when I was having enough difficulty settling in at O-M -- was a little too daunting.
But as we talked some more, he reiterated the invitation. He thought my presence, my coverage of sports, would be well received down the hill.
And again I said no ... and I thought that was that. And we departed on friendly enough terms.
But it wasn’t done. He called me several times over the next week -- persistently asking the same thing. “Why don’t you come down and cover a game? See how it goes?”
Eventually, I tired of his tenacity, and relented. I figured the only way I would get him to stop was to go down to Watkins, as he asked. Then, if it didn’t suit me, I could say I had tried.
But a funny thing happened when I got there to cover a girls soccer game. Most of the kids seemed to know who I was, and welcomed me.
And so I quite surprisingly enjoyed the experience, and decided to try another sport at Watkins, another game ... and found the same thing.
And before long I was covering Watkins as much as I was covering Odessa-Montour. And in so doing, I soon found advertisers in Watkins Glen. My basic support went from mostly donations to mostly advertisements, and the ads grew in number ... but so very slowly.
About a year after my entrance into WGHS -- on Nov. 1, 2004 -- my wife, Susan, died from cancer, and I thought about folding The Odessa File. The income from ads had not grown fast enough to make what I was doing viable from an economic standpoint. Another job -- another path -- seemed a reasonable option. But in one of our final conversations, Susan had urged me to continue.
“It’s going to happen,” she said. “The ads will come; they will start falling like dominoes.”
And mere weeks later, they did. The seeds that had been sown by my move to Watkins Glen -- a process begun on the day that Desiree Ellison stopped a soccer ball with her face -- started germinating.
And I stayed on.
I told Desiree about that day after she had contacted me last week in her role as Executive Director of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, which plays slow-pitch games around the country and was in our area for a contest against the Elmira Pioneers at Dunn Field.
She laughed when I was done; said she hadn’t heard that story, but seemed pleased that she was, indeed, a memorable part of the history of The Odessa File.
I had gotten to know her that senior year of hers, after her soccer wound had healed and she was back in action. We became friends, but as happens so often, I lost touch as she ventured out into the world, earning an undergraduate degree down in Virginia, and a Master’s, and began working on a PhD.
I was delighted to hear from her now, although her initial email about the softball game wasn’t directed to me by name; it was addressed to whoever was in charge of The File. She was looking for some publicity for the game in her first visit here with the team since taking over as Executive Director some months ago.
I wrote back to her initial inquiry like this:
“There was a Desiree Ellison who I seem to remember stopping a soccer ball with her face in a game between Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour at O-M in -- oh, let's see -- maybe 2003.
“I'm assuming there is only one Desiree Ellison.
“I would be glad to talk to you. Call me at 742-2772.”
She responded like this:
“Ha ha. That would be me! Didn’t know if you were still the man in charge!
Give me a bit and I will call :)
We talked at length when she called, and she invited me to a cookout at the home of her parents, Will and Dodie Hrynko, in Burdett, on a 17-acre spread overlooking Seneca Lake. It was a party thrown for the players, so I got a closeup look at them a day before the game and got a sense of the camaraderie that helps carry them from city to city for 25 or so events -- individual games and tournaments -- each year.
I actually arrived early, and so got a chance to talk to Desiree before the party got rolling. She told me about the road she took to her current job -- school, more school, a position with the Syracuse Chiefs baseball team, other jobs and, currently (in addition to everything else on her plate), pursuit of a PhD.
And she talked about the Wounded Warrior team. These guys find a wholly worthwhile shared experience with these games, and pass that along each year to 20 kids who have amputations, along with the kids’ parents. That effort is in the form of a camp, where the team plays softball with the kids and interacts through other games, bonding and showing the kids that they are not alone in the world. When the kids come to camp, said one player, they have a tendency to hide behind their parents, but by the end they are clinging to the players, not wanting to leave.
It is a life affirming and life altering experience for them.
And it is one that Desiree is crazy about. She learned about the team several years ago, when she was working for the Chiefs, when they hosted the Amputee squad. She was so impressed, she subsequently contacted the team’s Executive Director and offered to help in a voluntary capacity. But that gradually “just kind of faded away,” she said, until she learned recently of a pending opening: the Executive Director was leaving.
Desiree applied, went through “the whole interview process,” and got the job.
Now, several months into it, she speaks of her chosen employment with a smile.
“It’s easily the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I love it every day.”
She was smiling, too, at the game against the Pioneers at Dunn Field in Elmira the next night. It was a drizzly evening, in turns soakingly so, but that didn’t dim the turnout -- sizable -- or the enthusiasm of the crowd, which cheered on the accomplishments of the Wounded Warrior team.
The visitors started fast, with three runs in the first inning, but then were blanked for three innings and fell behind 5-3. But then, as the rain intensified, so did the Warrior offense -- the team scoring five runs in the 5th inning and then three in the 7th to win going away, 11-5.
The crowd was happy, the players on both sides seemed happy -- and while I had by that time lost track of Desiree Ellison, I assume she was happy too.
After the game ended, and being fairly drenched, I made my way to my car and, as I pulled away, I heard and felt what seemed like someone pounding on my car roof. It took me a few moments to realize it was the sounds of a fireworks show over the stadium behind me.
Most of the crowd had stayed for that -- a traditionally patriotic conclusion to an evening honoring patriots who, despite the loss of limbs, had risen to the occasion and showed what they show crowds dozens of times each year and what they show those kids at camp: Life can rob you of so many things, but courage and determination can more than even the score.
It is a message worth delivering, and Desiree Ellison is more than pleased to be part of it.
It's easy to understand why.
Photos in text: Desiree Ellison in the Wounded Warrior dugout at Dunn Field; and Desiree as she observed pre-game ceremonies.
I scrapped my column ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, July 18, 2018 -- I wrote another column for this space -- one that rambled on and on, and that I ultimately found boring, and that I jettisoned.
It had to do with the state’s decision to put the kibosh on the proposed LPG storage in abandoned salt caverns deep along the western shore of Seneca Lake. The primary reason for the rejection: the common-sensical observation that the project would have a "significant adverse impact on community character."
The column also had to do with the Schuyler County Legislature’s coincidental move days before to rescind its four-year-old resolution in support of the storage plan.
It had to do with the fact that the Legislature stood virtually alone for those four years among area governments and businesses, almost all of whom were adamantly opposed to the project.
It had to do with the environmental concerns in an area that depends on tourism -- an economic driver that could go horribly awry with a single ecological catastrophe.
It had to do with the protests that followed that initial resolution -- the hundreds of arrests that ensued in the following months, and the clogged court up in the Town of Reading.
It had to do with the folks on the Legislature who voted for the storage, and those who voted against it, and their reasons, where given.
It had to do with the misguided notion by the Legislature chair that the storage proposal, four years ago, was about to be approved by the governor.
It had to do with the Legislature’s sudden recent change of heart, precipitated by the company that had proposed the storage admitting that, yeah, one of the caverns might be leaky.
That seemed like a big duh.
However ... I scrapped that column. It was too easy to beat up on a Legislature that stood alone for so long, seemingly fighting reason.
I’m astounded that, in suggesting women for the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, I overlooked Georgie Taylor, head of the Schuyler County SPCA.
She's a remarkable businesswoman who spearheaded the facility in Montour Falls that houses cats and dogs. Our animal friends are so very much better off thanks to her.
Her name came to my attention when someone nominating her asked if I could be used as a reference. I said yes, of course.
So, the number of females that I and various readers have spotlighted is growing: Belle Cornell, Jane Delano, Dr. Blanche Borzell, Carol Bower, Kate LaMoreaux, Angeline Franzese, Barbara Halpin, Queen Catharine, Judy Phillips, Glenda Gephart, Georgie Taylor.
Awaiting them in the Hall are Jean Argetsinger, Patricia Suits Ellison, Barbara Bell, Louise Stillman and Max Neal.
And I have suggested, among men: Jim Guild, J.C. Argetsinger and Frank Steber.
I’m sure there are others who merit consideration from both genders.
But the count right now is 39 men and 5 women in the Hall of Fame. That disparity needs to change if the Hall hopes to retain a sense of validity.
Balloting is currently under way. Click here to access a nomination form.
I recently watched one of those wonderful black-and-white classic films -- "Meet John Doe," a Frank Capra-directed gem starring Gary Cooper as the title character and one of my favorite actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.
What struck me upon this viewing (it had been a few years since I had last seen it) was the passion with which the average man and woman portrayed in the film embraced the idea of helping their neighbors.
Back then, the chief forms of communication were radio and newspapers -- in this case a crooked, bad-guy-owned newspaper that spewed (dare I say?) fake news.
Now, lo these 77 years later, we have much greater communication through the internet, but instead of drawing us together, it divides us. The newspapers now aren't as vile as the one in "John Doe," but with press reporters now doubling as media (read that TV) darlings, and with the rise of Fox news as a sort of extension of the governmental right, the effect is the same.
The hero of "John Doe" threatened to jump off a very high tower as a form of protest. With today's lack of decorum, extreme (and growing ) divisiveness, truth twisting, extensive welfare, religious extremism, toothless representatives and senators, government corruption (I'm thinking mainly of Albany, but Washington fits, too), rampant pornography, an opioid epidemic, and the absence, for far too long, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that form of protest rings truer now, I think, than it did in the film.
Although splat is not my personal idea of a proper exit.
For those unfamiliar with it, the film ends on an up note, with John Doe stopping short of jumping, carrying his ladylove to safety and, embraced by the common folk, effectively snubbing his nose at the nasty multimedia publisher-curmudgeon.
Nowadays, John would have been ripped to pieces by either the left or right or both in the blink of an internet eye. Analysis prevails now, to the nth. Talking heads propound, and media wannabes spew their bile on blogs.
Viral, instead of a type of illness, becomes a communicable way of life: a judgment by the masses writ quick and large and, quite often, worldwide.
Meet the future. Alas, it is here.
Ah, for those simpler days ... good and bad.
Hall of Fame & other lists
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, NY, July 2, 2018 -- I’ve received a number of comments on my last column, where I made some suggestions concerning people who should be considered for the Schuyler County Hall of Fame. (See column below.)
Most everyone who commented agreed with the names I proffered, and some added others, in each case the name of a woman -- for it is hard to refute the fact that a 39-5 male majority in the Hall of Fame makes it something of a boys club. (The past four induction classes have seen an 11-1 male advantage -- good picks individually, but completely gender unbalanced.)
Other names suggested to me since that column was published have included Belle Cornell and Jane Delano, local figures of historical import.
Dr. Blanche Borzell was suggested, too. She is a longtime and highly respected physician and coroner. Add to that Carol Bower, the grand caterer who has long provided meals on site and at her home on Cass Road.
I would hasten to add Kate LaMoreaux, a Watkins Glen High School swim coach of amazing success who still oversees an annual summer swim program (and plays a mean dulcimer).
"I hope," I said to one person, "that they pick at least five inductees this year, and that a majority are women."
"They should pick 10 and make them all women," that person responded.
Speaking of lists, I’ve updated those of my favorites in movies, books and music. I offer them with the thought that perhaps a reader might have missed a great opportunity for entertainment, and finds it mentioned here.
Casablanca remains my favorite film, a nearly perfect gem that I’ve watched many times. I include Godfather in the top five, along with Arrival (a recent Amy Adams offering), Sullivan’s Travels (with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake), and a John Wayne-James Stewart masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Close behind: two other Wayne films, Red River and The Searchers, along with Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
Favorite actors: John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Gregory Peck and Errol Flynn.
Favorite actresses: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Kerry Washington, Audrey Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake and Emma Stone.
My top guilty pleasures among films include Imagine Me and You (an offbeat romance with Lena Headey, Piper Perabo and Matthew Goode), Leap Year (which is another Amy Adams film, again with Matthew Goode), Forever My Girl (with a couple of unknown leads, a wonderful child actress, and a great musical bit by Travis Tritt), The Age of Adaline (with Blake Lively and Harrison Ford in a story about a woman who doesn’t age), The Choice (with Teresa Palmer and some great chemistry between her and co-lead Benjamin Walker), and Patrick Swayze's Road House.
Favorite novels include Gone With The Wind (by Margaret Mitchell), Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller), Time and Again (by Jack Finney), Cat’s Cradle (by Kurt Vonnegut), Dawn’s Early Light (by Elswyth Thane, the first in her seven-book Williamsburg Novels), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (by Larry McMurtry), and To Kill A Mockingbird (by Harper Lee).
Favorite authors (for their bodies of work) include Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, John Fowles, Elswyth Thane, James Herriott, Michael Connelly, John Grisham, Lee Child and Larry McMurtry.
Favorite musical groups are mostly from years ago -- The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Monkees, The Association, Fleetwood Mac, The Beach Boys -- but favorite individual singers run the gamut of time: Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Adele, Neil Diamond, Pink, Lady Gaga, Grace Slick, Paul Simon, Bev Bivens (of the group We Five), Chloe Kohanski (a 2017 Voice winner with a fantastic delivery) and Courtney Hadwin (based on a slim volume of work, but really amazing stuff for a 13-year-old).
Care to share lists of your favorites?
Things have quieted down tremendously since graduations, and the heat index has gone sky-high. It was over 100 yesterday and today.
With summer here and thus no high school sports, my job has eased up, and just in time. I had what the doctor described as a gastric episode the day after the last graduation, when exhaustion and a poor diet of several days combined to work against me, sending me leaning over the railing of a friend’s back deck, gasping for breath and turning the remnants of dinner into a projectile. Yuck.
The thing is, age is moving in on me, and my powers of stamina aren’t what they used to be. I have to start thinking about the future in judicious terms. If I push too hard, I’m afraid my wheels will come off. So from now until the start of school, I will not be going out of my way to dig up news, although I’m sure plenty will land on my doorstep through press releases and tips. (My annual visit to Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan should help me recharge.)
I won’t be much good to anyone if I push too hard and collapse -- which is basically what I did on that back deck: collapse. I subsequently got a fairly clean bill of health from the doctor, but he also reminded me that old age comes to us all, and with it diminishing wells of energy.
So ... bear with me. As long as my mind is sharp and my health holds, I will keep going ... on a trajectory that has now entered the second half of The Odessa File's 16th year.
I'll just be going a little slower.
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.
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