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Down in the valley ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 13, 2021 -- School budget votes are upcoming.
In both cases -- Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen -- the folks going to the polls on May 18 have spending plans in front of them that are seemingly reasonable. That’s if you assume as a starting point that school taxes that have evolved over the years to the current levels ... are reasonable.
Not directly related to this year’s budget in Watkins Glen -- but intertwined, I imagine, in the minds of taxpayers -- is the last move by the Watkins Glen School Board, whereby it approved the payment of about $170,000 from the Fund Balance to pay out a “Pandemic Persistence Honorarium” to each staff member of an association, plus some non-member civil service workers. Each payment is $750 if the employee has been on board since the start of the school year. After taxes, Superintendent Greg Kelahan said, it’s about $500.
“Oooooh, let’s go out to dinner,” said one such staffer -- a teacher -- with a touch of sarcasm after I informed her of the honorarium. She hadn’t heard about it. Her second reaction: “Didn’t we already get a stimulus check?”
The School Board sometimes does that kind of thing -- which is to say takes actions which, whether intended or not, are seemingly unbeknownst to staff (or anyone else) until after the fact. I recall that when the board hired Kelahan -- announcing it at a meeting attended by almost nobody -- school staff learned about it first thing the next morning by reading it on The Odessa File. That just struck me as wrong.
Another sudden, unanticipated move came when this year’s graduation date was moved from June 19 to June 26 in deference to the new Juneteenth holiday. That upset staff and a number of parents, so the date was changed again to June 20, the day after the original date.
I got a call the other day from a Watkins Glen school district parent who had been upset by the initial graduation change, wasn't thrilled with the alternative, and now was irate over the Pandemic Persistence Honorarium. He couldn’t understand how the district could “just do that” -- reach into its coffers and pay out that kind of money. It was unnecessary and unwarranted, he said. Another observer thought the honorarium a public relations disaster -- a slap in the face to district taxpayers whose own livelihoods have been endangered and in some cases upended by the pandemic.
I’m not a resident of that district -- I’m up in the Odessa-Montour district, which seems to be doing very nicely, thank you, without an honorarium -- and so I don’t have an emotional basis for reaction. I just find the actions of the School Board down the hill to be ... well ... interesting. And inconsistent.
Back when Dr. Mary Ellen Correa was planning to vacate the district superintendency, she prepared a list of a dozen potential candidates the School Board could look at. It didn’t, plucking Tom Phillips out of a job at South Seneca instead. All of a sudden, there he was in Watkins Glen. I was introduced to him at a basketball game in the Field House.
“Charlie, this is the next superintendent,” I was told by whoever introduced us as Phillips reached out his hand in greeting.
I believe my reaction was something like, “Say what?” At least that was what I was thinking, along with “How did that happen?” and "Where did this guy come from?"
Then, the next time around, when Phillips was preparing to depart the job, the Board decided to involve the staff and district residents in a handful of meetings to determine the kind of person they wanted as his successor, and the philosophical direction they wanted in the district.
Sounded great, but then the Board went dark after those meetings, only rumors leaking out. First they had a guy, then they decided he wasn’t right when he continued shopping himself around; and then they settled on Kelahan, a superintendent in Oriskany who nobody around here had heard of.
And now, this time, they simply turned to the high school principal, Kai D’Alleva, without benefit of a lengthy search. Interestingly, his salary was not mentioned upon his approval as superintendent -- a matter raised at the last Board meeting when one of only two people in attendance for a public hearing on the budget asked what that salary will be in D’Alleva’s first year. Business Manager Amy Howell had to look it up before telling the curious attendee -- Board candidate Jim Somerville -- that D’Alleva’s salary would be $130,000.
That’s considerably less than what they paid Kelahan at the outset ($165,000), but more than the O-M district pays its superintendent, Chris Wood, after he’s been here, and doing a good job, for something like a half-dozen years.
Whether by coincidence or in reaction to the Board’s actions, there are eight candidates for three Board seats on the May 18 ballot. Only one candidate, Barb Schimizzi, is an incumbent. Two longtime members of the Board, Kris Clarkson and Gloria Brubaker, will be leaving. Clarkson’s latest term is ending, and Brubaker -- openly tired of catching flak as the Board President -- is stepping down only a year into her latest of several terms.
So two of the seats will be for three years, and one -- Brubaker’s -- will be for the final two years of her term.
The candidates are largely unknown to the general public. The aforementioned Somerville, who ran once before, is on the ballot along with Schimizzi and relative newcomers Joseph Crane, Amanda Voorheis, Heather Dawson, Michael Myers, Joe Stansfield, and Brittany Oliver.
This should prove ... well ... interesting, as so many things related to the Watkins Glen School Board are.
Big signs & a crowded field
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 26, 2021 -- If the size of campaign signs matters ...
The signs are up in increasing number around Schuyler County in the current battle between Undersheriff Breck Spaulding and Investigator Kevin Rumsey to succeed Bill Yessman as Sheriff.
A Republican primary election is set for June 22, but that isn't expected to settle anything. Both camps say they will continue campaigning until the November election, the primary loser simply moving forward as an independent or under the banner of an alternative party.
And here's the striking thing: Some of the signs I'm seeing are pretty darned big. I saw three Rumsey signs yesterday that look to be about 4 feet by 6 feet or larger. Most of the Spaulding signs I've spotted are the traditional stick-them-in-the lawn variety, except for one large one up in Catharine. There are probably others.
It's those larger signs -- some with wooden stands and a wooden framework holding them in place --- that grab the attention.
Maybe I haven't seen it yet, and maybe it's out there: a billboard sign. If it hasn't happened yet ... well, I kind of expect it..
Anyway, they say size matters.
Does that hold with signs?
If so, keep an eye on who has how many of those really large ones.
Eight candidates for three seats.
That’s what voters in the Watkins Glen School District will find when they go to the poll in the coming School Board election, set for May 18.
In an age of apathy, that list of eight might speak volumes about what exactly is perceived by the public to be happening in that school district. I don't think a crowd would be forming for board seats if the perception was one of success, but I could be wrong.
Maybe, as we (hopefully) turn the corner on the pandemic, many are feeling a sudden burst of energy; and with that, a zeal toward public service.
But really: eight. I recall one election with six, but eight? One more and they could have fielded a baseball team. (In fact, there was a ninth petition taken out, but never turned in.)
The Watkins Glen voting situation is in sharp contrast to an adjacent district, Odessa-Montour, where three candidates -- two of them incumbents, Rob Halpin and Dana Sgrecci, and a newcomer, Kurt Anderson -- are running for three seats. Each is for a three-year term. One incumbent, Jeff Parmenter, decided not to run again.
It must be said that from all appearances, O-M -- which a decade and more ago seemed to get things wrong from a public relations standpoint on a semi-regular basis -- is running smoothly. School has been open almost every day this year to any district student who has wanted to attend classes in-person instead of remotely. I’ve heard nothing in the way of controversy, or missteps. The district appears to be well operated, with solid communication between the School Board and the superintendent, Chris Wood.
But in Watkins Glen, where a hybrid attendance plan that got each student into school an average of only two days a week through the opening months -- and where some parents were disgruntled by the district’s rather late-in-the-game graduation-date change (since changed again, so that it is now only one day later than originally scheduled) -- the crowd has formed on the ballot.
Does that signal dissatisfaction? I don't know. But I do know that the pro forma board silence at meetings, instead of give and take with the public, leaves a bad taste among those who want answers, just as adjournment to executive session right after each public meeting is called to order falls flat. Said one parent attending his first School Board meeting, after the board had disappeared behind closed doors for an executive session: "Do they always do this?" He seemed a bit put out. Well, I answered, pretty much.
Beyond that, the reaction of the district to an attempt by teachers to talk to the School Board about -- well, about how things might be improved -- seems baffling. The teachers seemed to want a sort of brainstorming session, the kind of thing I have, in my personal life, seen bear fruit many times. The reaction by the district? A cease-and-desist legal volley across the union bow.
The Watkins district, like O-M, has three School Board seats up for grabs. Two of them are for three-year terms and one for two years, the latter the result of the Board President, Gloria Brubaker, choosing to step down early. Only one incumbent is running.
That’s Barb Schimizzi, the board vice-president.
The other contenders include Jim Somerville, Michael Myers, Joseph Crane, Amanda Voorheis, Joseph Stansfield, Heather Dawson, and Brittany Oliver.
We already received letters from several of them for publication on The Forum page. And from their tone, they all seem hopeful; positive. And that, I suppose, might give us all hope .
I ran into Grace Vondracek recently. She showed up to watch an O-M soccer game, O-M being the school from which she graduated last year. Grace, who was an outstanding softball player during her years at O-M -- but who lost her senior season due to the pandemic -- is playing her beloved sport at Corning Community College.
She pitched in high school, but is playing shortstop at CCC. What hasn’t changed is her hitting prowess. She hit .700 in her last season -- her junior year -- at O-M, and now, after 24 games at CCC (her team is unbeaten) she is hitting an eye-popping .625, going 45-for-72 at the plate, with 8 doubles, 3 triples and a homer. She has scored 52 runs, driven in 25, amassed 18 walks and stolen 26 bases. She has struck out just three times, and has an on-base percentage of .703.
I checked the St. John Fisher website, too, to see how WGHS alum Hannah Morse fared on that school’s basketball team.
Hannah, you might recall, scored the championship basket in the state Class C final for Watkins Glen in 2017 as a sophomore, was a First Team All-State pick in her senior season, when the team reached the state final again before losing, and spent a year at CCC before shifting to St. John Fisher. In her first season in Rochester, she played a significant role in her team’s 9-3 campaign.
She averaged 8.1 points a game, with a season-high of 16, led the team with an average of 3.3 assists, and averaged 2.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals. She hit roughly 40 percent of her shots from both 2-point and 3-point distances, and sank about 70 percent of her free throws. Across the 12 games, she played a total of 321 minutes.
I for one look forward to following both Grace and Hannah to see what else they might achieve.
Of highs and lows ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 13, 2021 -- Talk about your highs and lows.
First, the high school athletes finally got clearance to compete --- first virtually, and then mano a mano.
That was pretty exciting, until the reality of the pandemic reached out and smacked some of them in the face.
The combined Odessa-Montour/Watkins Glen wrestling program barely got off the ground before it was grounded by exposure to COVID-19. Then the boys basketball team at O-M lost 10 days in a compressed season, and the players never really got their legs back after the layoff. Then Watkins Glen girls swimming was hit when four freshmen were temporarily sidelined. And now it’s the girls varsity soccer team at O-M, which had just reached a rhythm that was carrying it to several victories in a row. One player tested positive with COVID, and suddenly a busy soccer slate was vacated by quarantine.
The girls soccer team will return for a game on April 20, hosting Tioga. The game will also serve as Senior Night, where the team's seniors will be honored.
But with the track record in sports thus far, the question has to be asked: What’s next? When will another COVID shoe drop?
I received a phone call recently from an acquaintance seeking information about the Watkins Glen School Board. He wanted to understand where the board was coming from in the district’s controversial decision to change the date of graduation from June 19 to June 26.
He wanted to understand the relationship between the board and the man who made that date-change decision, Superintendent Greg Kelahan. He wanted to know the relationship between the board and that portion of the electorate that was upset with the date change -- altering as it did, rather late in the game, the plans of various district families regarding graduation celebrations.
He also wanted to know something of the history of the board, in order to understand the present.
And he wanted guidance, I guess you might say, on whether to run for the board himself. Could he have an impact if he was elected?
I answered all of his questions, filling in the answers with history and personal experience that I don’t overtly include in any news articles about the board. I try to stick to the facts in those stories, as I do with any news article on this website.
And in the discussion with this gentleman, I realized I know quite a bit about the people and policies not only of the Watkins Glen School District, but of the Odessa-Montour School District, over the past two decades, and I suppose much longer. I have lived here, after all, for almost 41 years, and have been running this website for 18 of them. And I wrote about the O-M district in some detail before this website began, as a reporter for the Corning Leader back in the late '90s.
Go back even further than that, and I was writing about the high school sports in both districts while Assistant Sports Editor and then Sports Editor at the Elmira Star-Gazette from roughly 1984-88; and in the three-and-a-half years before that, I edited news stories filed from Schuyler County while serving as a Copy Editor and then on the Regional desk at the Star-Gazette.
I have retained a surprising amount of minutiae from those 41 years, never really employed as informational fodder in my news articles, but there nonetheless. I suppose -- biases being an innate part of all of us -- that my approach to many stories is colored by them. Oh, not in the sense of employing adjective means to reach a political end (I try to keep adjectives at a minimum, and am forever deleting them in press releases submitted to me), but in the sense of deciding what deserves coverage, and what doesn’t.
The most compelling kind of story is the one that has a kick to it ... a snap, a subject or subtext that appeals to the general populace. It might be good news or bad news.
A recent example was the plan by Tompkins Trust Company to close its Odessa branch bank -- a bank which, under various ownership, has operated since 1930.
The story has a commonality. Almost everybody banks, and everybody recognizes that this closing leaves a gaping hole in Odessa’s downtown. And it smacks of big business (well, big for around here) impacting a community with what seems like a figurative shoulder shrug. Add to that the human element of tellers who have worked in that bank for many years suddenly facing a possibly jobless future, and you have ... well, a really troublesome story.
I prefer news of a more positive nature. I like to promote our area. It’s a special place, flooded by tourists in the summer, but somehow remote and singular even when tour buses fill the streets.
Have I changed over the 18 years in which I’ve been doing this? Of course I have. That’s natural. I tend not to react very often when confronted by naysayers -- although, in truth, their number has dwindled to almost nil over the years from a time when I found my first blush with daybreak to be nerve-racking. There was a time when a few of those naysayers would shoot off some scalding emails that greeted me as I first sat each day at my computer.
Anyway, it’s been suggested to me that I should write a memoir about small-county life and small-school-district life and small-town law enforcement, and so on. I suppose if done right, it would be interesting.
But will I?
Damned if I know.
That’s the team of outstanding student-athletes being honored this year by The Odessa File -- six representatives each from the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high schools.
There has been an emphasis on academics in the selection process, but sports play a role, as do leadership and character.
With guidance by school administrators and coaches, we’ve almost settled on the dozen -- 12 people who show promise going forward into the workaday world awaiting them.
This is a time different from the past, with changing hopes and aspirations. As a result, an increasing number of our youth have a pandemic-altered mindset. While college remains a priority for many, others are questioning the wisdom of spending so much money on a degree in a world full of ominous developments -- full of doubts.
So college plans have not been a major determinant in selecting this group of honorees. While education counts, the hint of things to come, of potential to be realized, is equally important. Sophomores, juniors and seniors have been considered.
Stay tuned. Plans call for the unveiling of the honorees in late May.
A pain in the back ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 29, 2021 -- I’m feeling overmatched.
By the computer gods, by my ailing back, by ... life, I guess.
The back flared up a week ago Friday, when I was standing out in the cold, photographing a football game down in Watkins Glen. That’s the same night that fencing snagged my down coat, bringing out a small cloud of feathers.
There's no effective fix for something like that, so I am planning a suitable coat-burial ceremony. Fortunately, the bitter cold of winter seems to be over, so I can go down-less.
Then there's the computer. Anytime I try to do something simple, like clean out files, the darned machine rebels -- does something to challenge my nerves and intellect. It usually costs me hours trying to clean up the mess that I know I've caused, but will forever blame on the computer.
Beyond that, there's the host of this website. It's gone a little ka-flooey. I can’t send items across the simplified File Transfer Protocol (FTP) because there’s been massive adjustments underway on the server’s end. One problem was the server itself is ancient by today's computer standards, so they're supposedly shifting a bunch of accounts (including mine) over to a new server. But that's been going on for several days.
The only good thing -- well, two good things -- is there is a back door through the host site that enables me to send over new items and update pages (although much more slowly); and the site itself hasn't crashed (knock on wood). One techie with the server company asked if we’d checked to see if the site was still there, because maybe it wasn’t (he thought); but it was up.
Anyway, about my back: A trip to the chiropractor popped a bunch of things back into place, and I've been heat treating and getting a lot of sleep -- probably partially the result of my second vaccination, which came the day after the chiropractic appointment.
I didn't suffer much from the vaccination -- not like some folks who’ve fallen ill for a couple of days after their second shot -- but did feel fatigued. But maybe a sore back contributes to that.
Bottom line: As long as the back aches, I'll be taking it a little easy on the photography. Lugging a heavy camera around does not feel good under such a physical limitation. But I'll keep trucking the best I can.
Now, on a completely different subject, I’ve heard from Tom Williams, who coached some remarkable Odessa-Montour girls varsity basketball teams back in the '80s.
He was responding to the story here recounting the state Class D championship won by the O-M girls basketball team 20 years ago, in 2001.
He suggested I research the 1982-83 O-M team. Fortunately, he saved me what would probably be hours of work by providing some particulars himself.
That team went 25-1 back in an era when girls basketball was just coming into its own -- "smaller ball, 30-second clock, elimination of the over-and-back rule, and no 3-point shot," he pointed out.
His team featured Jennifer Leszyk, Kathy Beebe, Laurie Nichols, Chris Slusser, and Jeannette Dillon. "Individually and as a team they are in the O-M Hall of Fame," Williams said.
They won the IAC division and league championships, a Section IV title, and a Central New York title before falling to the Section V champion, Bloomfield, "losing something like 39-34."
And "Oh, yeah," said Williams, "this was in Class C. Just wanted you to know."
He added that a record of "25-1 in Class C isn’t bad."
Amen to that.
The Top Drawer 24 committee -- or at least part of it -- will be meeting in-person for the first time in over a year this week to discuss the upcoming TD24 honors. This year’s program is expanding both geographically and in numbers. Since I’ve already announced my intention to step back from the program’s nuts-and-bolts operation, I honestly don’t know how many high school student-athlete-citizens will be honored, nor who they are.
I guess I'll find out more at that meeting. Beyond that, I've let it be known that I am undertaking my own, smaller honors program, quite apart from Top Drawer.
It will consist of either 10 or 12 sophomore through senior student-athletes at two schools -- Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, the two institutions where the TD24 program originated 16 years ago.
The emphasis here will be on academics a bit above athletics. Both are also inportant in Top Drawer, but it has tended to favor athletics. Where citizenship plays a role in Top Drawer, this will include a character assessment as provided by school administrators and my own observations. I will be depending on school superintendents for input.
Depending on the number of honorees decided upon, this group will simply be called The Ten or The Twelve.
Announcement of the honorees will come in the next couple of months. Further details are in the development stage.
A half-dozen fans sat in front of the press box at Alumni Field during the scrimmage. Others were scattered among the bleachers.
Not quite like old times ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 14, 2021 -- It felt like old times ... well, almost.
There weren’t as many people on hand on the sidelines -- in the stands -- as in the past, but at least there were some, a marked improvement from the ban on spectators that had been in place during the last, compressed winter sports season of basketball, wrestling, boys swimming, and bowling.
Now, on the football field, the players could hear the sound of applause and encouragement as they went about the business of blocking, tackling, throwing, catching and so on -- all the rudiments of a sport that this country long ago fell in love with.
It was a scrimmage against Waverly, precursor to a season opener Friday night against Ithaca on the same field -- Watkins Glen High School’s Alumni Field, which has sat unused, if not unloved, for lo, these many pandemic months.
Spectators were allowed two to an athlete, on both sides of the field. I walked onto the field with the mother of Waverly’s Sidney Tomasso, a girl who will be attending St. John Fisher in Rochester next school year, playing on the same basketball team as Hannah Morse, not long ago the top female athlete (a standout in both basketball and soccer) at WGHS.
Mrs. Tomasso -- whose son Joe plays quarterback for Waverly -- was headed to the bleachers outside the fence along the west side of the football field. I was staying on the east, where a larger bleacher section was host to a scattering of fans -- mostly parents, I surmised -- of the homestanding athletes on the field, members of the Seneca Indians, a combined force of WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School students.
I encountered WG Athletic Director Rod Weeden on the track that surrounds the field, and he explained that while state rules regarding spectators are a bit open to interpretation, the Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the school district were holding fast to the two-to-an-athlete maximum. While we talked, a woman in a portable stand near the parking lot -- she was taking the temperature of anyone entering the field and making sure they all filled out an attendance slip that assured they had not been exposed recently to COVID-19 -- called Weeden to say that four people were there for one athlete ... and what should she do?
Weeden told her it was definitely just two to an athlete, and to tell them they could watch the scrimmage on their phones since it was being live-streamed. Two of the four had to turn around, he told her -- perhaps to watch it in the warmth of their car.
Warmth was not to be had on the field, where a 36-degree day was made considerably colder by a north wind off the lake. It was numbing, and particularly difficult for someone trying to manipulate a camera with his bare fingers. My fingers hurt so much after a few minutes that I stayed but a half-hour. (I'll be shopping for thin, insulated handwear this week.)
I saw enough in that half-hour to get a sense of what to expect in the season opener. The Seneca Indians are a team that passes a good deal more than in the past -- “We just threw more passes in two possessions than we have in two years,” noted one of the assistant coaches. The quarterback is Cameron Holland, son of head coach Trevor Holland. His chief targets are Owen Scholtisek and Travon Jones, both exceptional athletes who have stood out on the gridiron in the past -- the most recent such opportunity a year and a half in our rearview, back in the autumn of 2019.
I watched the Seneca Indians go through three possessions. Each team got 10 plays per possession, starting back on their own 40-yard line. While I watched, WG/OM scored once on a 15-yard Jones run and a 2-point conversion pass to Scholtisek. Waverly almost scored on the 10th play of its second possession, but an apparent completion in the end zone was broken up by Scholtisek, who sent the would-be receiver flying out of bounds, right to my feet.
Overall, while the weather was “absolutely miserable,” in the words of Coach Holland, the team performed to his expectations -- the aerial aspect being something new.
“We don’t have the size or bulk that we’ve had in recent years,” he said. “But we have athletes, so we’re looking at it” -- the offense -- “a little differently.” Which is to say they are not only running the ball with Jones, Scholtisek and Dominick Fazzary, but throwing it to them and others, as well.
Was Coach Holland pleased with the scrimmage outcome?
“Absolutely. We made the plays,” he said -- both during the 10-play possessions and, near the end, when the two teams played closer to game rules regarding first downs and continued possession. But no score was kept. Points were not the point of the scrimmage.
And the two-per-player spectator limit?
“It’s a league thing,” Coach Holland said. “ I hope people don’t think that’s just us. It’s something we have to adhere to.”
Football is not the only sport in our towns, though. After that sport kicks off Friday, we will have volleyball at both schools, plus cross country at WGHS, and girls swimming -- which combines the rosters of the two schools into one squad. Last time the Watkins girls swim squad competed, back in the fall of 2019, it won its third straight Section IV, Class C championship, and a good deal of its team is back for the upcoming campaign.
And there is soccer -- both girls and boys -- at both schools. The O-M girls squad looks to be particularly strong, with returners like standouts Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster, both sophomores. Nolan scored 19 goals as a freshman, and Brewster drove opponents crazy with her speed. And joining them on the field are other girls with varsity experience, including Camille Sgrecci, a stalwart on defense.
All of those sports will attract spectators, much as football did. It will be two per athlete both indoors and outdoors, although the indoor sports are limited to home spectators only.
Ah, yes ... signs of normalcy. But other signs -- daily in the news, and on occasion in the schools or in competition -- are of COVID-19 not yet squelched.
Where caution remains a byword, so do such words as pandemic, exposure and quarantine.
That last, quarantine, brought a combined WG/OM wrestling season to a screeching halt almost before it had begun. When the seasons are compressed -- such as the basketball/wrestling seasons were, and like the football, volleyball, soccer, cross country and girls swimming will be -- a quarantine can pretty much eat up the schedule.
The O-M boys basketball team just completed a 2-5 season in which four of the seven games came in the last week to help make up for time lost by a 10-day quarantine brought on by exposure to a COVID case in a game against Spencer-Van Etten.
Yes, we are seeing the light of hope and promise.
The action on the football field seemed to signal it.
But we’re not out of the dark tunnel yet.
The Seneca Indians' Travon Jones (32) completes a 15-yard run for a touchdown.
Change is upon us ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 28, 2021 -- Ah, changes.
They are an ever-expected -- and inherent -- part of life. The past year being a prime example.
But to put a finer point on it, which is to say changes smaller than the isolation, say, wrought by a pandemic, there are a number of both local and recent derivation.
For instance, we have a new Public Health Director now that Deb Minor has retired, effective this past Friday.
Her successor is Annmarie Flanagan, a Nurse Practitioner with Masters and Doctoral degrees. She started her career in Penn Yan, and is based there -- and will (as Minor did) oversee the Public Health Departments in both Yates and Schuyler Counties, splitting her time between the two. She will have an office in each of the two counties.
She has been working with Minor since the beginning of the year, and now steps up into the lead role.
There is Wesley Roe, Public Defender for years in Schuyler County, who is leaving to assume a role in the Office of Court Administration in Elmira City Court. Roe, who has worked for Schuyler County for more than 10 years and who assumed the role of Public Defender when Holly Mosher departed, will end his Schuyler run Tuesday.
There's the matter of County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, who has been rumored to be retiring soon.
But O’Hearn says that's not quite right -- that while he will soon be retiring for pension purposes (this coming month), he will be reappointed Administrator to serve as a transition figure while the county finds and then grooms a Deputy Administrator to succeed him. That process has gone through a preliminary stage, where a Search Committee whittled a pool of 30-plus applicants down to eight who, O’Hearn says, “meet the qualifications.”
The interview process begins Monday, and O’Hearn said that between finding the right candidate and the transition process, the whole thing could take anywhere from 6 to 18 months.
Only then, says O’Hearn -- who has been the Administrator for 16 years -- will he reach the actual point of retirement.
“I don’t even consider this retirement at this point,”he said. “That’s why we haven’t put out any news release ... why we haven’t really said it.”
We had a news story this past week about a change at the top of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County, where Nathan Scott has succeeded the retired Phil Cherry. Scott, who brings 18 years of experience managing non-profits, comes from the Thrive Education Center outside Ithaca.
Following in the lead of the baseball, football and wrestling programs, the girls swim programs at Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools are merging for the upcoming, compressed season. Practices get under way this week.
According to one member of the O-M team, only three or four swimmers are expected back at Odessa. A couple of former team members are trying other sports, and one is out with an injury.
WGHS Athletic Director Rod Weeden said it will be a one-season-at-a-time merger, with future numbers the determining factor on a return to separate programs.
There is the planned retirement of Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan after 12 years as a superintendent (four years here and, before that, eight in Oriskany). The School Board is playing its replacement plans close to the vest, but since its president, Gloria Brubaker, said the board has a plan that apparently does not include the lengthy and costly interview process, speculation is swirling on a promotion to superintendent either from within the district or from within a restricted geographical area.
(Addendum: The position, it was unveiled soon after this column was published, goes to Watkins Glen High School Prinipal Kai D'Alleva, who succeeds Kelahan on Sept. 1.)
The Top Drawer 24 program honoring outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens, now in its 16th year, is expanding its coverage area to include Bath and home schoolers and even some Pennsylvania schools. Up in the air: the nature of the celebration honoring Top Drawer selectees. We (I am a co-founder of the program) hope it’s at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion, where it was each of its first 14 years before the pandemic shelved in-person gatherings. Last year, we simply announced the team on The Odessa File and on WENY-TV.
The expansion constitutes change enough, but the future is likely to see more, at least in the administration of the program. With super Executive Secretary Kathy Crans retiring at the end of the school year -- and likely available after that in no more than an advisory capacity -- and with my own determination to step back from my role (I have been heavily involved in the nuts and bolts of the operation ever since its inception, but am looking to trim my workload), there’s no telling what shape the program might take in the future.
But we’re focused for now on this year’s, and thankful for another change -- the recent advent, at last, of some athletic competition to help us judge the various nominees.
It’s going to be quite a strong Top Drawer 24 team, I think.
One thing that never changes:
The presence of occasional mayhem and the need for law enforcement to step in to subdue it. Something new this century, though, is the means of communicating it.
I give you a Feb. 25th Facebook exchange that came to my attention.
The initial entry: “High speed chase in Burdett. Anyone know what’s up?"
The following responses from different people tell the story:
“Let us know.”
“Heard they got them on Lake Street currently. Threw baggies out of the car. Drug involvement maybe?”
“If they can get them on one of the muddy roads they will catch them. I was sliding in the mud all day today. Crazy people!.”
“It was a woman. She got stuck, so in the end she got caught.”
“We needed some excitement on this street. LOL.”
“One female in custody. Got her.”
“It’s not me, Ma.”
“They went flying by my house on 4th Street.”
And it all concluded with this succinct entry, which I particularly liked:
About that retirement ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 14, 2021 -- I was at Harborside Lanes in Watkins Glen for a small (masked) ceremony honoring the graduating seniors on the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity bowling team: Michael Cook, RJ Bannon and Matt Irwin.
Among the few folks present were the parents, the coach, the school Athletic Director and -- in keeping with a habit of dropping in on such events -- the School Superintendent, Greg Kelahan.
When he spotted me, Kelahan walked over and told me something I wasn't expecting.
"I want you to know I'm retiring," he said.
I thought immediately that he was kidding, this pronouncement coming mere days after the School Board President, Gloria Brubaker, had announced her intention to step down as of June 30 after 20 years of board service.
"Right," I told Kelahan. "Very funny."
"No, I'm serious," he said.
I looked closer, into his eyes. I couldn't read the rest of his face because of the pandemic mask he was wearing.
"No, you're not," I said, not sure now.
"I am," he said. "I've been sending out a notice to a number of people ..."
"You're serious," I said, finally digesting the news.
"I would not joke about that," he said, "not to you, my friend. You know, I could have gone last year, but I thought, in the middle of a pandemic it probably would not be the best thing."
I was still confused. Was he even old enough? For some reason I had him pegged at 54. The retirement age in education is 55.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"Fifty-six," he said. "Well ... in June."
"Oh, I didn't' know you were up there yet," I responded.
"Yeah, I just look so young," he said, joking. "So ... I'm excited, man. I'm gonna join you. Hire me."
We both laughed. Then I asked:
"Are you staying in Watkins?"
"So, when does this take effect?"
"Once the board decides on the next superintendent," he said. "I will stay as long as they need me to train the person, but I want to be done before the kids come back September 1st. So definitely over the summer."
We were interrupted at that point by the seniors' ceremony. Afterward, Kelahan started to leave, saying we could talk more later. I pulled out my phone/recorder and said, “How about a couple of minutes now?”
He agreed, and so we stood there, in the bowling alley, near its exit, and I started recording the following conversation.
"So?" I asked.
And he responded.
Kelahan: "It gets to the point where you recognize that the things that the district was able to accomplish are starting to feed themselves, are able to continue to progress on their own. That's what you're after; you're after establishing systems, to continue the work when you become unnecessary to the process. That's what you look for."
Interviewer: "Are you calling yourself unnecessary?"
Kelahan: (Laughs) “Absolutely. I'm not the first one.”
Interviewer: "This'll be four years here?"
Kelahan: "Yes, four years here and 12 years as a Supe, total. That's a lot of time as a superintendent." (Note: He was superintendent at Oriskany after serving in administrative posts at Cazenovia, in the Madison Central School District and for Madison-Oneida BOCES.)
Interviewer: "How many years in education?"
Kelahan: "Thirty two. Thirty-two years in education."
Interviewer: (Puckishly) "So you're 42."
Kelahan: "Yes, I am. I was a child prodigy. ... I turn 56, in June."
Interviewer: "So ... Gloria leaving had nothing to do with this?"
Kelahan: "Oh, no. Gloria was instrumental in charting the course for the district during my time here.The board president that hires you is very important to the superintendent. (Her leaving) was not a surprise to me. Gloria and I have talked, so ..."
Interviewer: "Did she know you were going to retire?"
Kelahan: "Yes, absolutely. I actually let the board know in August that this would be my last year, so we've been in discussions for quite a while ... how to transition."
Interviewer: "And what does the transition look like?"
Kelahan: "Right now, that's in the board’s hands. The board's making their decisions on how they're going to proceed. I have complete faith that they're going to do the right thing for the district. I am here at the ready; whatever it takes, I'm going to help the next person along."
Interviewer: "And you said that after you're done, you're going to stay here?"
Kelahan: "Yes, I'm looking for the next chapter in my life. I'm looking for another exciting career. Honestly, I want to do something that allows me to work my creative side more. It's a little challenging as a superintendent to really fully embrace your creativity. I'm looking to work with my hands, do something manual ..."
Kelahan: "I'm trying to figure out what I want to do. I'm a painter; a woodworker."
Interviewer: "Oh, no kidding, what kind of painting?"
Kelahan: "Right now I'm doing oil. I'm more of a modernist, impressionist, abstractionist."
Interviewer: "So, do you have any shows?"
Kelahan: (Laughs) "This is all private painting. I'm not ready to show the world. But honestly, through high school, I was an art-music student. That's where I took a lot of my classes."
Interviewer: "Where was that?"
Kelahan: "West Genesee, outside of Syracuse."
Interviewer: "Not far from here."
Kelahan: "Nope. But my wife has another at least four years before she can retire, so ..."
Interviewer: "What does she do?"
Kelahan: "She's a school counselor in Elmira. So, I've got a lot of possibilities. I'm excited. I want to try some new things."
Interviewer: (Perhaps reflecting his own fantasies) "Maybe a boat service on Seneca?"
Kelahan: (Laughs) "Yeah, yeah. ... I have not ruled out anything, but I know I want to do something. ... And let's face it, this was a tough year for educators; a tough year. I have tremendous respect for those people who are able to continue to persevere through these challenges. It's been a terribly difficult year. I don't want to say just for educators; those are the people that I know. To have your entire profession turned upside down ... I've been in awe that they've been able to do what they've done. The staff members, the teachers at Watkins Glen ... just tremendous, to be able to overcome such obstacles. And I want to speak on behalf of all educators, not just the ones I know at Watkins; all educators. They deserve such credit for keeping this ship afloat. It should have sank; it really should have. There's no reason schools were able to succeed to the level that they did, but for the staff members."
Interviewer: "You said you told the board in August. Is that when you decided, or had you been planning this longer?"
Kelahan: "I was eligible for retirement last year. I had considered it, but I thought it would be ill form for a leader to abandon ship in the middle of a pandemic. But, obviously, I believe we are in a position where things are somewhat more settled than they were last year. And I feel they are going to be in very good hands. I wouldn't be able to leave if I didn't feel that way. I feel they're going to be in good hands. It really is exciting. It's an exciting opportunity. Everywhere. For the entire organization. They'll have new leadership that will chart a course that's going to be appropriate for the times."
That was the end of it. The next day I phoned the School Board President, Gloria Brubaker, to see what progress the board might have made in finding a successor to Kelahan.
He had, indeed, notified the board in August, she said, that he was "seriously considering retirement." She added this: "I about fell off a chair. I was flabbergasted."
The board started soon thereafter considering its various options, which can range from far-reaching (and time-consuming, not to mention costly) interviews, to employing a headhunter to find candidates, to going through the BOCES board for a list of potential superintendents. BOCES has said there aren't too many candidates out there.
After consultation by the board with its attorney and plenty of discussion, Brubaker said, "I think we have a good plan," but it's one she did not feel at liberty to discuss.
"No matter what you do, you can't please everybody in the school district," she said. "So I told the board, 'Let's do what we want.'
"It's going to be good," she said. "We just need to see how it plays out. It might or might not work."
In any event, Kelahan’s targeted departure date -- Sept. 1 -- is more than a half-year away.
"So we have some time," she said.
Photo in text: Greg Kelahan
A matter of trust ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 2, 2021 -- Well, as (bad) luck would have it, I recently fell ill.
It set in on a Saturday night, when I suddenly couldn’t get warm. I was shivering so much that my hands were shaking.
A hooded sweatshirt, a blanket and a heater got the shakes to stop, and before long I managed to sleep.
The next day, I felt better, but that night I was feeling weak, and went to bed early. Four hours later, I awakened drenched. I had employed a heating bottle to ease a stiffening neck, and thought maybe it had leaked.
But it hadn’t.
I realized I had fever-sweated instead, and promptly disrobed, toweled down and donned dry clothing.
The next day I felt better, but still a little weak. By evening, pondering what to do, I received a phone call from my youngest son, Dave, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and who had recently recovered from a bout with Covid-19.
I told him about the extreme shivering, and he replied: “That’s how it started with me. I couldn’t get warm.”
And on the second night, I told him, I awakened drenched.
“That’s what happened to me,” he said. “Everything was wet. I had to strip and put on dry clothes.”
“Oh, good Lord,” I said. “How long did it last?”
“All told, about 10 days. Most of the time I was just tired. No enthusiasm. So I rested a lot. That’s what you should do: rest.”
And get tested, he suggested.
So there I was, convinced the coronavirus had finally come for me.
So I checked on-line to determine where to go for a test. To receive it at Schuyler Hospital would require a physician’s recommendation, so a call next morning to the office of my doctor seemed in order.
But my son Jon, who shares my home and therefore was exposed to whatever I was afflicted with, suggested a more streamlined approach: a visit to a WellNow clinic down near the Arnot Mall.
And so we signed up on-line to go the following afternoon. By the morning of appointment day, I felt fine. Really good. A little tired, but not ill. But we went to the clinic anyway and got tested by people behind masks and plastic shields and bulky protective gear.
And waited. And while waiting, I felt stronger and stronger. And would have been surprised to find a positive test result.
It came back negative, as did Jon’s.
So my initial fear -- an expectation, really, that I had contracted Covid -- was wrong. Which just goes to show, I guess, that we can’t trust our own instincts where the coronavirus is concerned. Fear can govern our responses. Nor, I suppose, can we trust our instincts regarding the new strains that are popping up.
We can only trust the virus to keep on coming until the vaccine distribution overwhelms it.
That trust seems ironclad. But trust, when applied to human nature, proves a much more unreliable thing.
I had a personal relationship of some duration implode over the loss of trust. I’ve had professional relationships do the same. In the latter case, it’s been a matter of manipulation: if a source (sometimes a newsmaker) cannot get from me (always a journalist) a one-sided loyalty, then I become a pariah. Trust (if you can call it that in such a twisted form) is broken.
We trust teachers to give our kids not only a good education, but one that prepares them for success in a rapidly changing and often cruel world. We trust deliverymen to get us our fuel oil and propane before the tank runs dry in the middle of a cold spell. We trust our friends to have our backs. We trust that the love we provide our offspring will be returned in kind.
Trust comes in many forms. One is a trust in our political leaders, which has been shown on the national level to be a foolhardy expectation. Congress has become a circus. (Well, in truth, it probably always has been one; but just not to this extreme.)
On the local level, it's more a hit-or-miss proposition.
I have lately been observing an unfortunate sequence of actions in one Schuyler County community -- Watkins Glen -- and it presents once again that trust issue: If the actions of an elected official are called into question by a string of related events and by the open complaints of an aggrieved party, how are a community’s residents affected? Can they fully trust that official to represent them in a fair and balanced manner -- even if he or she fully intends to? Where does the belief that led to his or her election -- and the trust that came with it -- end? Can fairness prevail in an emotionally charged case that by its very nature cries out for more facts?
I wish the answer to that last question could be yes -- an affirmation that no one is guilty until proven so. Or that the official should be given the benefit of the doubt in a case of competing narratives. But of course it isn’t ever that simple. While accusation does not equal guilt, we have long since come to recognize that politics breeds partisan positions, and that power held can be both corrupting and a strong aphrodisiac to those in its orbit who want a piece of it. Still ... whether innocent or guilty, the power holder (and any entourage that might be attached) can usually hold sway while a murky gray mist swirls around him or her, waiting for the clearing wind of truth.
While that wind might not arrive in a timely manner, life nonetheless always tends to equalize matters ... eventually.
For the record, while other news organizations are carrying the aggrieved party's (the Brandon Matthews family's) side of the aforementioned Watkins Glen issue -- having to do with a Notice of Claim (a precursor to a possible lawsuit) that involves such subjects as alleged sexual harassment and abuse of power -- nobody evidently, prior to those stories, contacted the elected official being most accused: the mayor of Watkins Glen, one Luke Leszyk.
They would undoubtedly have found what I did: no comment to speak of. But within the context of that response, there was a little more.
I suggested in my phone call to Leszyk that he was getting "pummeled" by the media, to which he responded "I am," adding: "That's the way it goes. ... But my attorney says I can't say anything."
He later said of the Notice of Claim, "Take it for what it's worth," but added: "I can't make any comments."
As far as responding to the accusations in the Notice of Claim, he said "I would love to," but added: "My attorney has told me not to comment. He's been really strict on it. He says I can't comment."
When asked if any news publications -- those running accounts of the Notice of Claim and about a podcast interview of Mrs. Matthews -- had contacted him regarding the story, Leszyk said "No ... but I can't comment on anything."
Even an effort to get him to respond to one aspect of the Notice of Claim that seems separated from the rest of it -- a statement to the effect that he wants to disband the village police department -- drew a no comment.
He then suggested I contact his attorney, Daniel Rubin of the Albany law firm of Girvin & Ferlazzo, which I did by e-mail, asking for a response to the Notice of Claim, to the podcast interview, and to the news stories about them -- and whether a counter-suit was being considered.
Not surprisingly, the response was succinct, echoing the mayor:
"Thank you for your e-mail," it said. "The Board and the Mayor cannot comment on ongoing personnel matters or pending or threatened litigation."
And apparently an attorney can't (or won't) either.
I long ago learned that there are forces at work at the governmental level -- and from there down to office and even familial levels -- that challenge the concept of trust, which is, thanks to human frailty, a veritable house of cards.
I believe that almost any power holder -- whether Mayor Leszyk or any other person in a position to hold sway over certain aspects of a community's life -- has, before holding that power, wanted it. Empowerment is almost always sought. The philosopher in me suspects it is a cry on the power holder's part for validity in the universal void.
It’s a sad truth: We are all so weak, so compromised. So ... human. If not holding power, we are at its mercy. And so it has been down through history.
At least, with the coronavirus, we are dealing with a basic force of nature without manipulative, power-seeking traits that define humans in less than flattering terms. The coronavirus simply is.
And yet, as dangerous as Covid-19 is -- as much as it should be worried over and, yes, feared -- I think I will trust it above, say, politicians ... with the stress on national politicians.
And let's face it:
That’s a hell of a note.
Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
An Inspirational Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 22, 2021 -- Maybe it’s the dark winter, a January where isolation has continued, a byproduct of the unremitting onslaught of the coronavirus. Maybe it’s the fact that I fell ill for a couple of days myself -- illness in any form bringing on alarm bells, all things (meaning in particular 400,000 deaths) considered.
Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, the memories have settled in, and especially of one man and the impact and inspiration he brought with him.
I was raised in southeastern Michigan, and part of that upbringing was weekly attendance at an Episcopal church.
I was in the choir when quite young, and then St. Andrew’s Guild, which meant I was an acolyte, garbed colorfully on Sundays in cassock and surplice, leading the choir into the church and down the center aisle to their seating in the chancel -- that area beyond the nave (the rows of congregation pews) where resided the altar, the pulpit, the lectern, minister seating and, in my church, a large pipe organ. Among my duties, I also assisted the rector during such ceremonies as Communion.
I don’t recall where I was baptized, but my Confirmation service came at the aforementioned church, Christ Church Cranbrook, an impressive stone edifice in Bloomfield Hills, near Birmingham and north of Detroit. I remember the building quite well, for I explored its many hallways and (I imagined at the time) secret passageways, including one leading to the bell tower. I was a curious and, I suppose, less than ideal aspirant for religious commitment.
(My mother taught Sunday School there, and I, along with another student, were the least well behaved in her classroom. I remember my mother expelling me one Sunday to the hall outside, I was so disruptive.)
Eventually, despite all that -- and at the behest of my parents -- I was set in my mid-teens to undertake the Confirmation ceremony, not just as an acolyte, but as someone ready (if you can be at such an age) to commit myself more fully to my faith, and I guess to the precepts of the church.
As my Confirmation approached, my parents raised my enthusiasm level by telling me a Bishop would be presiding -- and not just any Bishop, but one I knew, a man who had been the rector at Christ Church Cranbrook through the 1950s (my early church years) and one I knew and deeply respected: one Robert L. DeWitt.
I don’t recall exactly how the DeWitts came into my parents’ world, but a recent check with my brother Bob down in Florida confirmed that my family had been going for a short time to a Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Michigan, after we moved there in 1952, but that Mom didn’t like it at that institution and decided on Christ Church Cranbrook -- a chief reason being the presence there of Bob DeWitt.
My brother didn’t recall how, but thought that Mom knew Reverend DeWitt before that. Memory being a tricky thing, my own told me that Bob DeWitt’s brother Bill and my parents had both resided in Auburn, New York. That’s where my parents grew up, and where they met and married. My brother only vaguely recalled Bill DeWitt, but thinks that yes, there might have been an Auburn connection. (An online story I subsequently found, published upon Bill DeWitt’s passing in 2013, confirms he lived in Auburn for quite a few years, but is vague on the dates. Both he and his father are buried there.)
Anyway, whether by reference from Bill DeWitt (who, with his brother, hailed originally from Massachusetts) or through a previous acquaintance with Reverend DeWitt, the move to the Cranbrook church was decided upon as a matter of personal affiliation of some kind. And that’s the place, Christ Church, where I was brought up Episcopalian.
And that’s where I sang in a youth choir, and marched down the center aisle in church garb, and started to come of age -- to the age of Confirmation. By that time, 1964, Bob DeWitt had been gone from Christ Church for four years -- after being named suffragan Bishop of Michigan. Now, for Confirmation, he was coming back to participate in the ceremony -- not long before he was to depart for Pennsylvania, where he had been named Bishop Coadjutor (assistant, with the right of succession). Not long after arriving in Pennsylvania, he became Bishop upon the sudden death of his predecessor.
I felt a natural affinity with Bishop DeWitt, and not just because he had been my church’s rector for a number of years. Perhaps (I think in retrospect) it was because we both had liberal leanings, and perhaps because I -- despite my growing cynicism toward organized religion -- gave at least some thought to the ministry as a valuable (if underpaid) career.
I thought Bob DeWitt -- like his brother Bill -- was cool. While not tall (though to me, as a child, Bob seemed so), the Bishop was (like his brother) something I wished I had been: slender, assured and, well ... adult. Both seemed almost regal, but not stuffy; they had fast, great laughs, healthy senses of humor.
I was, by contrast, short, too round and totally lacking self-assurance.
Eventually I grew and gained some assurance, moving on to college and to marriage while still an underclassman. Then -- a common story -- I lost contact with much of my youthful past as I entered adulthood and left the state of Michigan behind -- including any contact with the church. But I followed Bob’s career for a while. He was Bishop of Pennsylvania for about a decade, a period in which he became fairly well-known for his liberal tendencies, including a desire to see women become ordained as ministers. He also pushed for integration, and opposed the Vietnam War -- all in his quiet, low-keyed, reasonable voice.
(The ordination, eventually, of many hundreds of women in the Episcopal church can be traced back to a stand he and two other bishops took in ordaining 11 of them without the approval of the church. An obituary published upon his death at the age of 87 in 2003 explained: “The ordination occurred in 1974, near the end of Bishop DeWitt's tenure in Philadelphia. He was one of three bishops who ordained a group of women called the ‘Philadelphia 11’ without seeking the blessing of church officials. Although he immediately was denounced by some officials, the action helped lead to the church's 1976 reversal of a ban on women in the priesthood. In 1989, the Rev. Barbara C. Harris became the first female bishop, elected to serve the Massachusetts diocese.” His action “opened doors to thousands of women who have since become priests.”)
He retired from his post in 1973, and became editor for the next eight years of a national ecumenical journal, The Witness. After that, he moved, according to his obituary, to a “small Maine community, Isle au Haut, where he had first spoken from a pulpit. In retirement, he helped lobstermen haul in traps, toss back the little lobsters, and store the larger ones until prices were optimal. He also spent much of his time writing songs.”
That same obituary quoted one of his two daughters (he also had three sons) as saying that while “he often preferred a baseball cap, bluejeans, and knee-high boots around town, he looked regal in full vestments, carrying a shepherd's staff.”
I have discovered (and ordered through the mail) a book he wrote titled Ebb Tide, about his experiences with his wife as she battled Alzheimer’s. (I opted for a used paperback at less than $20, since the only two hardcovers available ran in excess of $700 and $900, respectively.)
Some people, even if only briefly in your life, leave a lasting impression. Occasionally, a person might be so important that his (or her) moral compass becomes a guidepost of your own. Bob DeWitt was such a man for me.
I remember the Confirmation ceremony, at least in generalities, to this day -- again, memory being a tricky thing. Maybe it happened the way I see it; maybe my mind has shaded things, or even manufactured them. But whichever -- accurate or imagined -- I remember kneeling on the steps leading to the altar in Christ Church Cranbrook. I remember it being uncommonly cold in there. I remember Bishop DeWitt as an important component of the service.
Although I’m sure the Rev. Michael Hartney, now retired as the Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Watkins Glen -- a man who also knew Bishop DeWitt -- would likely correct me if I tried on my own to further explain the service, I instead quote an online source, starting with the important “laying of hands.”
“The laying of hands on the candidates by the bishop and the concelebrating priests represents the biblical gesture by which the gift of the Holy Spirit is invoked,” it reads, going on:
“The bishop and the priests who will administer the sacrament with him lay hands upon all the candidates (by extending their hands over them).” The bishop then proceeds with a prayer that includes: “Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding.”
Well, there’s very little I’ve ever fully understood of my belief system (conflicted) or my faith (sometimes fully blown, and sometimes stretched to the point of disbelief and accompanying despair).
But one thing I remember with a sense of surety is the feeling of Bishop Bob DeWitt’s hand upon my head.
I was kneeling, with my head down, so I couldn’t see exactly what was happening above me. That online description indicates the Bishop’s hands and those of concelebrants were held “over” the candidates.
And maybe they were. But in my mind -- and across the years -- I have felt the firm hand of the Bishop on my head, atop my hair. Perhaps it is an imagining; a wanting. And perhaps not.
But that laying on of his hand -- whether spectral or real, or merely an extension of the impact the man had upon me -- has been a guiding influence in all the ensuing years. It has quietly guided me as I considered, on occasion, a role in the ministry. It sustained me as I opposed, as he did, the Vietnam War, a conflict I considered wrong on so many levels. And it guided me as I entered a career, journalism, in which I tried to spread not the word of God, but the truth (as I perceived it) of this life on Earth.
When I think of my religious upbringing, it brings a warmth to me. Was that the result of fervent faith ... that there was a just reward ahead for a life well lived?
Or was it the feeling that comes from having been blessed by someone truly blessed with the love of God? Someone whose personality and integrity and quiet assurance helped transfer that love of God to an accepting young soul?
Bob DeWitt is long gone now, but not really. Not as long as my brain can function -- as long as memory and appreciation of a life well lived exists within me.
I feel like I owe you so much, Bishop DeWitt. If I had achieved, in my chosen profession, just half of what you achieved in yours, I would have considered myself a worthy disciple.
Maybe this testament redeems a little of that existential shortcoming.
I pray so.
Photos in text: Bishop DeWitt; and DeWitt with his family in 1960, when he became suffragan Bishop of Michigan. (Provided)
This is a better year?
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 3, 2021 -- First I lost a crown. It came out of my mouth in classic fashion, while I was eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Then I snagged a fingernail; nothing major, but temporarily painful.
Then one of my kitchen lights died -- an odd bulb that Walmart didn’t carry, so I had to wait until I could reach a more comprehensive store.
Then I ran into some technical difficulties with my computer -- the one that I use to run The Odessa File. I straightened it out all right, but nothing sets me off like computer ills; I am poorly equipped manually and emotionally to handle that stress.
And that was just in the first two days of the New Year. I knew I’d been putting too much hope on any year that wasn’t 2020.
And then, on the third day, I received word that a beloved aunt -- my last living aunt, Jean Schumaker -- had died. It was not unexpected; she was, after all, 98 years old. But the death of a loved one -- someone I had known all my life -- shook me to the core.
I was already on shaky ground, but with this news it felt like that ground was now opening up to swallow me whole. Perhaps perversely, I hoped so, as the tears welled and my breath caught.
“Damn,” I said.
Jean had been having problems -- with a fall, a heart attack and a positive covid test, all in the past week -- so something was bound to give. But as her daughter Anne said in an email notifying me of her mother's passing, this was both a sad occasion and a happy one, for Jean had lived “longer than she thought or wanted,” and was moving on to the next adventure.
She was the last of the Bennett girls -- a trio of Auburn, New York charmers, the oldest of which was my mother, Eleanor. Jean was next, and then the effervescent Betty. Both Mom and Betty passed away years ago, but Jean continued on, healthy for years but finally leaving her longtime walk-up apartment in Auburn when she was about 90, moving to an assisted living facility in that city’s downtown.
All three had been married, my Mom and Jean once each, to the loves of their lives. Betty was married twice. All were housewives in the traditional American 1950s sense of the word, raising families. Mom had three boys, Jean two boys and a girl, and Betty a boy and three girls.
The Bennett girls had a brother, the baby of the family, Bob. Their mother died delivering him, way back in 1931; their father, a popular Auburn physician, died in 1942 at the age of 49, the victim of a stroke. Like his sisters, Bob ended up a family man, with two daughters and a son. He divorced, remarried, and died before his sisters.
All of their kids -- me and my cousins -- were quite close growing up, not in a geographical sense, but getting together nearly annually and thoroughly enjoying one another ... to the extent that I actually fell in love with one of Betty’s girls when I was 15. My mother tsked tsked me, and said it was a good thing we didn’t live any closer. We resided in Michigan, while Betty’s family lived in Massachusetts, summering in New Hampshire.
My worst winter growing up was when I got really sick about the time my family was heading east from our home in Birmingham, Michigan, to visit Aunt Jean’s family in Syracuse. I was left behind in the care of a kindly neighbor couple, and so missed what I figured was a great adventure, for in my absence Syracuse had received three feet of snow -- an amount I had never seen, and which I thought must be most marvelous, perfect for building icy forts. I regret missing that trip to this day.
Jean was married to a great guy, Uncle Jack. I don’t recall what he did for a living, but it was undoubtedly something brilliant -- engineering maybe. He was very smart, very personable, and, alas, dead long before what I thought should be his time. I seem to recall talk of diabetes; in any event, I was no more than a young adult -- 23 -- when he died in 1972 at the age of 50.
I remember Jean taking it well; I also recall a wake at their Syracuse home that was a celebration of sorts -- the first wake I'd been to. Any other deaths of relatives or acquaintances -- mercifully few at that point in my young life -- had been somber affairs. I thought Jean and her children such strong people for their brave faces. No, it was more than being brave; it was a sign of profound love.
Nobody, I decided, had more class or was more wholesome than my Aunt Jean.
She was also the family genealogist, digging through old records for years, compiling charts of our family tree. The Bennett clan, for instance, had in its lineage other family names such as Havens, Morse, Griffin and St. John. Supposedly we were descended from, among others, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who invented the Morse Code. There was apparently a Native American in there somewhere, but all in all it seems as though the extended Bennett clan was pretty much New York State-settled after emigrating from the British Isles. The Haeffners, on the other hand, had a German background.
(I notice in her compiled genealogy that one ancestor on the Bennett side, Rachel Freer Hood, was married at 16 in 1802 and gave birth to her first child the next year -- early unions and early motherhood being quite common back in a day that lacked every modern convenience that we know. Children were essential in an agrarian society that depended on offspring as part of the workforce. Parenthetically, Rachel lived a full life, to 83.)
But that’s ancient history. What is more recent, and thus painful, is the passing of someone who was always part of my life. We were not in close touch in recent years -- not at all, I think, since the pandemic struck -- but she was never far from my conscious thoughts.
Now, with that e-mail note from her daughter, I am grappling with the fact that she is gone. Since she lived “longer than she thought or wanted,” as Anne put it, I celebrate her passing, but I do so with tears in my eyes. God bless you and keep you, Jean.
After mourning, I will turn again to the days and weeks and months ahead, but right now -- at the outset of this new year -- I have an unsettled feeling.
It's a feeling that 2021 should not, cannot continue this way -- not if it intends to improve on the year just passed.
Photo in text: Jean and Jack Schumaker on their wedding day in 1945.
To Serve Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 1, 2021 -- I’ve started and restarted this column, only to come up dry.
It was supposed to be a retrospective of the year just ending.
But on this January 1, just days after the 18th anniversary of the start of this website, I find that I really don’t want to look back at the year just ended, the nefarious 2020.
Any time such a retrospective has appeared on TV, I've changed the channel. Any time I have attempted to look back myself for highlights, I have only been able to think about all that has been lost.
Well, I did enjoy Dave Barry’s annual look back in the Washington Post, just because he is so irreverent and entertaining. But irreverence doesn’t suit my writing, nor does it suit the mood I have sensed here in Schuyler County.
We considered ourselves very lucky when we saw hardly any coronavirus cases, but now that we’ve topped 530 (out of a county population of just 18.000), that feeling of being invulnerable has pretty much gone blowing in the wind.
From a personal standpoint -- and coming off a semi-annual physical checkup that showed marked improvement in my blood work and blood pressure -- I have to say that the lighter workload created by the pandemic has proven beneficial to my health. I’ve gotten more sleep than when I was assiduously covering high school sports, and I have, with time to ponder such things, restructured the amount of manual labor I do (more) and my diet (decidedly healthier).
But the fact is: I, just like everybody, am going a little crazy with the solitude; with the lack of social interaction. While covering their sporting events was taxing, I miss the kids ... and their parents and the fans and the excitement that comes from a shared love of competition.
Ah, the kids. They're the reason we’re moving forward again this year with the Top Drawer 24 program -- which for the past 15 years has annually honored outstanding high school student-athletes -- although we’ll have to gauge things a little differently: figure out what, in this changed environment, constitutes “outstanding.”
Well, there might actually be a few sports ahead to help us make that determination; I certainly hope so. And it is that glimmer that gives me some optimism as we head into 2021.
In discussing the year past with a friend, he thought I should look back in this column beyond the past year -- back through the 18 years (as of Dec. 29) in which I’ve published The Odessa File -- way back to when I started this site on a dime and a prayer.
He pointed to some highlights (tenacity and durability have led to a substantal number of them), but also thought I should delineate the obstacles I faced along the way -- if only to explain that the odds were perhaps not very high that this thing could succeed. Not being a person who dwells on negatives for long, I see those obstacles as character builders -- things that were bothersome at the time, but which I, looking through my rose-colored glasses, see only as steppingstones. Any experience was one of growth.
As a longtime supporter and cheerleader of this website, my friend nonetheless urged me to at least touch upon those negatives -- not wallow in them -- in order to illustrate the difficulty involved in establishing a small information business and seeing it somehow grow. And I suppose he's right. So I will, for one paragraph:
There were a number of incidents: demeaning comments from an occasional parent or school administrator in person or by email or social media; a telephoned threat against me that prompted a call to law enforcement (threats are unavoidable and unenviable hazards in both journalism and politics, sorry to say); a couple of confrontations with angry readers who accosted me in store check-out lines; false accusations (such as one allegation that parents had to pay to get their kids featured here, a practice that would if true have made me quite wealthy and long since retired); irate calls from dissatisfied readers (usually parents); a refusal by most coaches one year at one school (Odessa-Montour) to contact me with sports results; a ban from the building during school hours at another school (Watkins Glen), and an attempt (quite futile) to ban me from the sidelines of sporting events (O-M again). I experienced a very slow growth in advertising (my chief source of income); have been called everything from "that crazy old man on the corner" (that from an O-M official, referring not only to me, but to my abode down the street from the school) to "yellow journalist" (that from a School Board president in Watkins Glen), and been asked by more than one person: "Who do you think you are?" The answer to that is "nobody, really." But I have certain rights afforded me by the First Amendment. An unfriendly and aggressive reporter asked me in an on-camera interview early in my tenure: "What gives you the right to do what you're doing?" I replied: "The same thing that gives you the right to stick that microphone in my face and ask that question."
I could go on, but the truth is that none of the negatives has amounted to much in my mind when compared to the satisfaction I derive from presenting the news in a county that has too often lacked enough of it. And there is the knowledge that providing a public service is something to be valued from a personal standpoint. I would hate to leave this life without having done something contributory.
There has been some acknowledgment of that along the way.
I’m not award-oriented; for instance, I haven’t submitted anything for trophy consideraton like newspapers do. (I won a bunch of in-house awards while working at USA Today, and captured several state awards over the years while working at the Elmira Star-Gazette and Corning Leader. But those latter two papers, like most, had to submit all sorts of paperwork and quite often a fee to be award-considered on the state level. Such fees do not exist in my budget.)
But what was really nice -- and neither expected nor lobbied for -- were two honors bestowed locally back when I’d been doing this for about five years: a Community Spirit Award from the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, and induction into the Watkins Glen High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Those are measurable achievements. Anything else is an estimate: the number of stories I’ve written over the 18 years, the number of local sports and news photos I’ve published (alas, none paid for by the photo subjects), the number of columns I’ve written, the number of letters I’ve published, and so on. And there is the indefinable nature of how the coverage has impacted life around here, if it has at all.
But really, what it all comes down to for me is this: I have been blessed to be able to do something I love, and to do it for so many years -- weathering a roller coaster of health and finances. I think -- I hope -- that it all has been encouraging ... that the coverage has provided some insights that might otherwise have been missed; and that it has provided the kids on the playing fields and courts and in the pools at O-M and Watkins Glen with something of value through the stories and photos I have produced.
These 18 years have been challenging and rewarding. I’ve tried to turn negatives into positives -- not always successfully, I’m sure; but the effort has been there.
I’m sure, at my age, that another 18 years are out of the question. But as long as I do this, it will be with the best of intentions.
I will continue to try to serve mankind -- not in the Twilight Zone sense of its famous episode To Serve Man, where a book by that title brought here by aliens turned out to be a cookbook, with humans the main course.
I mean it in the other way. No cooking. The serving will be stories and photos, most of them produced by me -- half baked, I'm sure some will say. But always with a little seasoning ... among the condiments a pinch of opinion and a dash of love for Schuyler County.
I’m thinking that perhaps there is a student out there, or perhaps there are two, who might be interested in writing a bi-weekly or monthly column for The Odessa File. Any budding journalists who might be interested? We could discuss it.
Beyond that, perhaps there is someone else out there -- adult aged -- who is interested in writing. Perhaps a wine column. Or an agricultural column. Or a financial column. The legal one we carry from Jim Reed at Ziff Law has been very successful.
These columns would not be tied to specific businesses, but to the general subjects I named, and perhaps one or two others.
We could use some more photography, too. This is a good venue to get your work recognized. For several years we carried regular groupings of photos by Liz Fraboni of Watkins Glen -- 50 such groupings over a half-dozen years. She still provides an occasional scenic shot with her unerring eye for beauty and composition.
And, as always, I invite political leaders -- mayors, the county administrator, our assemblyman -- to write columns whenever the spirit or circumstance warrants. Our State Senator’s office generates one a week.
Should our lives continue in the restrictive nature of 2020, I’ll perhaps try some other things to better pique my, and your, interest. Perhaps in-depth interviews. Perhaps personality profiles. There are a lot of interesting people around here.
Anyway, the thinking cap is on. So stay tuned.
And an update on books I've been reading. The autobiography of Demi Moore, titled Inside Out, is quite illuminating. Moore really bares her soul -- a good read.
And I've finally gotten around to reading historical novels by Paula McLain. The Paris Wife, about the romance between Hadley Richardson and her husband Ernest Hemingway, is marvelously well done. Next up: McLain's Circling the Sun, about aviator Beryl Markham.
Happy New Year.
The comfort of books ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 21, 2020 -- In times of isolation, I have found books to be a balm for the soul.
I even, in my more romanticized imaginings, liken them to the RMS Carpathia, the ship that in April 1912 raced to the point in the Atlantic Ocean where Titanic had sunk two hours earlier. The Carpathia picked up just over 700 survivors from lifeboats and transported them to New York City, arriving three days later. (An estimated 1,500 passengers died in the Titanic’s disaster).
More specifically, words are my lifeboat, and well-told tales fashioned from those words are my Carpathia.
I was enamored of the written word as far back as I can remember. I recall as a small boy visiting the library in Birmingham, Michigan, not far from my home, and feeling as though I had been dropped into a treasure trove. It was frustrating, though, since I was so young that I had not yet mastered the art of reading. I knew a lot of words, but others I did not, and any progress I made through any book beyond a basic, illustrated reader was slow going. In time I mastered use of the dictionary, repeatedly useful when I encountered yet another strange word in whatever story I was attempting to read.
I was not, to my way of thinking, a fast learner, but I was a determined one, and words eventually became my forte -- including spelling them, something at which I excelled. I won my share of spelling bees in my elementary school classes.
For a kid who was uncommonly small -- my nickname was Half Pint -- being champion of anything loomed large.
I read voraciously throughout my youth, and started amassing a small library of my own during my first marriage, a union that occurred in college and lasted a handful of years. When that ended, I leased a second-floor apartment where the only neighbors of note -- aside from the drunks in a rowdy bar across the street -- were the cockroaches inhabiting the cubbyholes of my kitchen. I was lonely enough that I started naming them, my favorite being Fred.
That period -- one of poverty -- was made less lonely by the books I had taken with me. I could always find friends within their pages. Eventually, I entered upon a second marriage that lasted over a quarter of a century, until death intervened. During that marriage my library steadily grew.
I have, since then, found the occasional solace in novels and biographies that fill many a shelf in my house, although this website occupied most of my attention and time before the pandemic hit. Back then, I was covering every sport in the two area high schools on top of the news available through meetings, interviews, press releases and so on, and had little time for recreational reading, other than on my annual sojourns to my favorite summer hideaway, Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.
Now, with the pandemic throwing so many of us into an isolation we could not have imagined a year ago, books have once again stepped to the forefront of my daily existence.
Nonfiction, fiction, classics, pulp, mysteries, romances.
I just finished a quick run of several books. First was Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, which for some reason I hadn’t read before, despite it being on lists of some of the great novels of the 20th century. I found it interesting and its style singular, but I was not engaged, and not at all sorry when it ended.
Then came Bagman, by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz -- a look back at the Spiro Agnew vice presidency, rife with corruption and outrageous behavior by Agnew. Having lived through that period, it was more a trip down memory lane for me than anything, although there were some revelations that added perspective.
I read another Jack Reacher novel -- this a joint effort by Lee Child and his brother Andrew titled The Sentinel -- and I found it wanting. If editing it, I honestly would have sliced about 50 to 75 pages out of it. It seemed slapdash and repetitive and not at all engrossing. That was disappointing, since I had very much liked Blue Moon, Lee Child’s previous Reacher effort.
And then there was a prize: The Giver of Stars, by JoJo Moyes, a novel based on a Depression-era program espoused by Eleanor Roosevelt -- to deliver books, and through them education, to folks living in the mountains of Kentucky. The characters grabbed me, and the story took twists and turns that had me up late reading.
It was my first try at a JoJo Moyes book, and it won’t be my last. Her characters were strong -- and if not strong, resilient -- which made it appealing to me, just as two other books I read recently (devoured, really) had me shaking my head in admiration at the strength of their protagonists, almost all women, and the high level of the writing.
Those two books were by Kate Quinn. One is titled The Alice Network, a spy novel set in two time frames -- World War I and the aftermath of World War II -- which was based on some historical figures: women who, in fact, spied for Great Britain in occupied France in the First World War. The second book was The Huntress, a novel about the search for a female Nazi who had committed several wartime atrocities. It also dealt with a flying corps of women in Russia during World War II -- an actual group dubbed Night Witches by German soldiers the women were dropping bombs on nightly.
Those three -- the Moyes book and the two by Quinn -- are the best historical fiction I’ve read since the heyday of Herman Wouk -- author of some tremendous books: The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, to name three.
So ... are you looking for a way to combat the isolation blues? Tired of watching the news, or other offerings on TV?
You could try a good read. The words, if well woven, might possess a transformative power -- just might present you with an alternative to the tedium, and with it journeys of the mind far beyond the walls of your home.
The Dance of Life ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 13, 2020 -- My first -- and in truth my only -- brush with ballroom dancing came in Mrs. Young’s dance class, a weekly gathering during my early teen years in the auditorium of an elementary school outside Birmingham, Michigan, a few miles from my home in Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit.
Mrs. Young was always gowned, as was her female assistant, Miss Vicki. Her male assistant, Mr. Jim, always wore a suit -- and if memory serves, a tuxedo at the class’s grand finale, actually held in a ballroom.
I’m sure I resisted the need for such punishment, which had been inflicted by my mother -- ballroom dancing, indeed! -- but I suspect in retrospect that it served me well, teaching me the basics of the waltz and foxtrot and cha-cha and tango, not to mention introducing me to social interaction.
There were two girls from my neighborhood in that class, along with a lot of kids I didn’t know or simply don’t recall. I had grown up with the two girls; they were in my grade, but that fact really only seemed to make the mortification of ballroom dancing greater. While a romantic at heart, I had no feeling whatsoever for either one, considering them (as many boys might feel toward neighbor girls) something beyond understanding and thus to be avoided.
I don’t know if Mrs. Young’s dance class had anything to do with a subsequent episode I had with one of those two girls, a young lady named Debbie. But within a year or two, I found myself head over heels in love with her -- we spent numerous afternoons together in my first foray into emotional extremism -- and I floated around in a daze for weeks before my defenses kicked in and, fearing the strength of my feelings, I fled the scene like a burglar when the lights come on. My first brush with love ended because I was simply afraid of it.
I raise the matter because of Brian Marshall, a boy who resided two roads over from mine; he was also in my grade at school. We used to pal around together when we were 12 or so, and got hooked on a board game called The Game of Life. I don’t know how many times we played that thing, but we were obsessed with it for a while.
Alas, Brian and I didn’t stay close for long; at some point he linked up with the group in school we nerds considered the hoods, growing his reddish hair out in ducktail fashion and wearing a leather jacket and a give-a-damn attitude.
Not long after I fled Debbie’s charms, Brian moved in on her, and they dated seriously for quite a spell, and I thought they might embark on their own Game of Life after graduation. Being in a different clique, I could only read the tea leaves from a distance, so I didn’t know the depth of their feelings for one another.
But as fate would have it, their path together, their chance of a life together, was -- if still a viable alternative after high school -- closed off in a most sudden and violent fashion.
On one trip home from college -- I was attending Albion College in Albion, Michigan -- I spotted a news story my mother had clipped for me from the Birmingham Eccentric, a weekly newspaper in the area read by folks in the adjoining suburbs outside Birmingham, including by my parents in Bloomfield Hills.
The article said that Brian Marshall had completed basic training in the Army. There was a picture of him with his hair shorn, looking more -- disregarding the age change -- like he had in the days in which we had played The Game of Life.
“Man,” I thought. “There but for the grace of college goes I.” College was a shield against the draft. I deduced that Brian must have bypassed college or delayed it. In any event, he was now part of the military.
A couple of weeks later, I was back at my parents’ apartment for another weekend visit and to do my laundry. My mother had clipped another story from the Birmingham Eccentric: this one had the same picture of Brian, but the headline was what jumped out: Local soldier dies in battle.
I stood there, blood draining from my face, as I read the account. Brian, a Private First Class, had been sent to Vietnam and had barely arrived when he was killed. His end came in a mortar attack on his first day in that faraway country. His Game of Life had reached a sudden, cruel and violent conclusion.
As surprising as his end might have been to him -- if he in fact had a moment to contemplate it before the explosion ripped his life from him -- reading that article was a shock to me. As quiet as the moment was, the words of that headline screamed at me, and have continued to do so periodically over the years. Some bonds, whether between 12-year-olds playing a board game, or more substantive, might be physically broken by the vicissitudes of life -- but they remain part of our memory, and thus part of our soul.
My lesson from all of that? Well, it’s complicated. It has something to do with life’s various strands being intertwined in often emotionally complex and unavoidably fateful ways.
To me, ballroom dancing shares space with death in wartime. That sounds absurd, but it comes down to a running equation: that Mrs. Young’s dance class = Debbie = Brian = the Game of Life = a story in a newspaper = death. And in the unavoidable conclusion of that equation, the music of the waltz or the foxtrot triggers in me a mix of emotions running the gamut from love to horror to regret. I can see Miss Vicki and Mr. Jim demonstrating their dance moves to a roomful of young novices; Debbie sitting with me in the branch of a tree overlooking a flowered field, each of us holding the other; and -- in a vision no doubt informed by war movies -- an explosion of incredible force and destruction in a foreign land.
And atop those images I have layered a term employed by the great writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: it is Duty-Dance With Death, part of the subtitle of his masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
Mrs. Young’s class was, for me, a duty dance -- an effort to placate my mother, who thought I needed some culture ... which I’m sure I did.
My dance away from the emotional upheaval wrought by my relationship with Debbie was, in truth, a duty only to my own fragile, developing ego, one wrought with insecurities.
My dance with Brian was traditional: we bonded in youth, but danced apart as we chose different segments of our high school society; different classes not in the school sense, but in the sense of societal strata.
And Brian’s final, short arc to oblivion was, as Vonnegut put it, a duty-dance with death. He was part of the military complex, sent to a faraway land; sent to an explosive -- and to my mind then and now -- horrible death.
And in telling you this, I am undertaking a duty-dance: a waltz of contrition, if you will, owed to Debbie for her charms and my cowardice; to Brian, for our early friendship and for his early death, which haunts me still; and to Life itself, a Game both endlessly fascinating and in turns magnificent and heart-breaking. It is one, I fear, in which I endlessly fail to measure up.
But whether I do or not, I -- not to mention you -- will keep on dancing until the music finally stops.
Legacies past and present ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 6, 2020 -- Word filtered up here quickly this past week concerning the passing in Florida of Elmira coaching legend Dick Senko. It was noted only obliquely, perhaps, by some Schuyler County residents, but was big news indeed in Chemung County, where Senko’s positive and very successful football coaching career is well recalled.
A Section IV Hall of Famer, Senko was in fact an honoree -- or scheduled to be -- at the last Top Drawer 24 gathering up at the Watkins Glen State Park. He was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for a career that not only stood out for its numbers -- a 193-81-2 record while coaching at Elmira Free Academy from 1975 to 2003 -- but for its impact on young, developing students who learned both how to excel on the football field and how to enjoy the work that went into it. He will long be remembered by those he coached.
That Senko was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease was no secret, and made it virtually impossible that he might receive that Lifetime Achievement award in person, but we had hoped a family member might attend. Alas, the pandemic struck down our State Park celebration, and now we are hoping to make such a presentation this coming year.
In any event, while I had little contact with Senko myself, our paths crossed in minimal ways while I worked in the Elmira Star-Gazette Sports Department back in the mid- to late-1980s, the last two years or so as Sports Editor. I was mostly an office kind of guy, assigning coverages -- such as EFA football -- to staff members, and editing their subsequent work. But I met Dick a couple of times and spoke to him occasionally on the phone, my role leading me into the sphere of any notable sports personality in the city or region at that time.
I recall that even then -- not too many years into his reign -- that he possessed a reputation both as a tough (he looked, in his short-haired, rugged way, like a no-nonsense guy), successful, innovative coach and one who was widely admired by a rabid fan base. Back then you had EFA and you had Southside, and the rivalry between the two was fierce. Now, there is just Elmira High, a merger that left behind many great rivalry games.
Having had a mother who, like Senko, suffered from Alzheimer’s for several years before her death, I can fully sympathize with the Senko clan, knowing all the conflicting emotions that come with, in essence, losing a loved one twice: first in his or her memory and then in life.
But I am sure the family takes comfort knowing that his passing has not gone unnoticed or unremarked, for he left behind a rich legacy.
Photo in text: Dick Senko (Photo provided)
Now, I direct your attention to a couple of people who are Schuyler-oriented and are building, as Senko did, a legacy of service to the community. I am referring to Odessa-Montour School Superintendent Chris Wood and Schuyler Hospital President and CFO Rebecca Gould, homegrown products who are the subjects of an article that outlines their rise and their impact on Schuyler County lives. (Click here.)
The idea for the article, for the recognition, came from the ever-present depression wrought by the pandemic, a malaise that I realized was being combatted in interesting ways by those two individuals. I know Wood well, and Gould only recently. But both have left significant impressions.
I turned to other people who know them even better than I for information, filling in with Wood from my own memory bank. The bios were essentially provided, then, by longtime Wood acquaintance Craig Cheplick and hospital Community Public Relations Executive Director and Gould friend Michelle Benjamin.
I tried at beginning and end -- pre- and post-biographies -- to put what Wood and Gould have done for us in context. Others who know them can no doubt fill in more blanks with memories of their own personal interactions.
We are fortunate to have such leaders -- and others, such as County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, Public Health Director Deb Minor and SCOPED Executive Director Judy McKinney Cherry, to name three -- in our midst as we fight the pandemic.
Thanks to all of them.
The trouble with mascots ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 23, 2020 -- When I was a boy, I loved watching Western movies on TV. You know, where the cowboys or the marshals or the mountain men prevailed against the elements or -- horrors -- against the Indians.
I took it for granted that the Indians -- except for Tonto, the sidekick of The Lone Ranger; or Little Beaver, who was a young pal to Red Ryder in a series of movies -- were the bad guys. The white man always prevailed.
Then I heard that there had been more Indians killed on screen than actually ever existed, and I started thinking things were more than a bit askew. It seemed excessive -- and reached my ears at about the same time that I was realizing that in life, nothing is really black and white. Life is gray.
And then I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee -- a wrenching account of American expansionism in the 19th century and its effect on the natives the white man overran. It culminated with the massacre of Lakota by whites at Wounded Knee, an account that deeply affected me -- and from then on I looked upon the history of this country from a different perspective, shaking my head at the cruelty with which it was settled.
There have been various movies since then that have focused on the culture of the Native Americans -- that showed life from their viewpoint as they were displaced from their lands by the encroachment of settlers and cattlemen and military. I was, and still am, taken by the charms of Dances With Wolves on screen, and by Little Big Man both in prose and as a motion picture.
Along the way, wrapped though I was in my Caucasian culture bubble, I was exposed to the occasional minority, including one Native American woman who became a friend before she moved away. After the fact, I learned she had returned to her native roots -- a reservation where she became involved with something far too prevalent in a world gone wrong: drugs.
She ultimately overdosed and died -- a sad fact that haunts me still.
Which brings me to something smaller and yet very much related.
The Indian -- the Odessa-Montour school district variety -- is an endangered species.
The long-simmering dispute over the disparagement -- others say glorification -- of Native Americans through the use of nicknames such as Indians and Redskins and Chiefs and Braves and so on, has reached a tipping point.
Gone is the Redskins name in Washington. Next up: well, probably the others. And O-M is in the thick of change.
School Superintendent Chris Wood said months ago that potential change in the school’s longstanding mascot was on his plate, after the more important matter of getting the kids back in school after a 2019-20 school year that ended with nobody attending on-site classes the last three months, courtesy of the pandemic.
He prepared the table for a hard look at the issue -- of nicknames and mascots and the utilization of a native race as representational of athletic teams -- by polling some people who matter: members of the real Seneca Nation, not the Watkins Glen High School sports fans of the same name.
And having been asked, they made clear what they thought -- to Wood and in a position statement that they wrote. It read:
“The use of Native American names, references, and imagery for the logos and mascots of schools and their sports teams is blatantly offensive to the Seneca Nation and has no place in a multicultural society that values diversity. It is not an “honor,” as many schools and teams assert, to be inaccurately portrayed by caricatures and references that have no connection to our history or our living cultures. The Seneca Nation calls on all districts and educational institutions to immediately cease this practice.“
The O-M hallways, which have seen their share of Indian murals painted by students (and eventually, with time, painted over), will not likely be seeing any more added to that artistic lore. The district, through its athletic department, has formed a student committee to work with the school in understanding the nuances of prejudice and steer the way toward a possible new mascot, and with it a new outlook.
This is not confined to the school bubble; outside influence has entered the picture: an attorney here (consulted by the district, and expressing surprise that it still had an Indian mascot), and a parent or other district resident there.
Always, always there has been a balance of arguments -- one side saying the Native American heritage is being honored; the other saying no, it’s degrading. Even students were split at first, although Wood said they all seem now to understand -- or are heading in the direction of understanding -- the position of Seneca Nation representatives.
“The Seneca Nation didn’t ask us to do anything,” said Wood, although its published stance pretty much sums up its determination that something should be done.
“We’re making it right,” Wood added, “but it’s gonna take time” -- probably the rest of the year to shed the old Indian mascot (if that’s what the students and school leadership decide on) and come up with a new mascot and logo. And after that, there is the transition from Indian uniforms -- a costly endeavor that “could take years.”
After the first of the next year, Wood plans to enter discussion with Watkins Glen school district officials, since the two schools share a name -- Seneca Indians -- in the joint sports of football, baseball and wrestling. Not that Watkins Glen will be new to the subject: Athletic Director Rod Weeden addressed the matter in July, discussing the expected need to shed the district’s Seneca Nation moniker and its mascot name: the Senecas.
“We could be given a directive from the state and we want to be prepared for that,” Weeden said. “On a more human level, I think this is a discussion we need to have. Outside of financial concerns there is bigger question related to the potential perpetuation of any negative impacts our mascot may have on a race of people. We are first and foremost an educational institution and we should be having educated discussion about hot topics such as this so we can become better. We all want to do and be better role models for our communities' children.”
I do not profess to understand all of the wrinkles of this issue as though I were a Native American. (Well, there is evidently a sliver of Native American heritage in my family, according to a genealogist aunt. The figure to whom she alluded was a 19th century male ancestor who inspired a novel I wrote about a 700-year-old Ojibwe maiden from a region near here who ultimately settled on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. Hence the title: The Maiden of Mackinac.)
But I'm trying to put myself in a mental position to understand -- by flipping the script, by becoming the victimized; by imagining that I, we, the white population, has been shunted aside by a stronger, or meaner, or better armed part of our species, perhaps one whose skin is differently shaded; and that we have been largely relegated to reservations.
In that frame of mind -- in that upside-down imagining -- I try to gauge how I’d feel if that victorious culture had school districts with sports teams that professed to honor the heritage of we, the vanquished.
I'm sure I would have other grievances, as well, but for purposes here: How would I feel knowing that the ethnic group in charge would be utilizing our past to highlight part of their present.
It's a thought; an imagining.
And worth having, I think.
Years ago, we started this program called the TD24 ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 16, 2020 -- Since we were forced indoors and the kids were sent packing from school last March, one thing I’ve missed has been the opportunity to watch those young athletes excel on the playing fields and courts and in the school pools.
If there were no pandemic, the return to school this year would have led about now to the selection of Odessa File All-Star Teams and to a Schuyler Fall MVP -- the MVP honor being a seasonal tradition here.
I don’t know how the football team or the soccer and volleyball teams would have fared, but I assume the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity swim team would have posted another Section IV, Class C championship to go with those earned the previous three years.
And I assume that the Fall MVP might have been a 9th grade swimmer, Thalia Marquez, or possibly swimmers Faye Mooney or Amanda Wilbur -- or maybe all three. They shared last year’s Odessa File WGHS Female Athletes of the Year Award with their since graduated teammate Peighton Cervoni.
And a fall sports season would have given the Top Drawer 24 committee a pretty good start on assessing who might be considered for this year's TD24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens -- a squad unveiled each year in May. The honorees were, until the pandemic, feted annually in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. We couldn’t meet for that ceremony last June, but we hope to again in 2021, what with vaccines on the way ....
Anyway, this brings me to Brian O’Donnell’s compendium of facts -- his Watkins Glen Central School District: A History, 1853-2008.
I was looking through it the other day for some information on Bill Davis, who had died in Florida. Davis was a longtime fixture at WGHS --a physical education teacher, a coach, and for more than a decade the Athletic Director in the 1980s and '90s. He was also an outstanding athlete in his youth, excelling in football, basketball and baseball, and a first-year member of the WGHS Athletic Hall of Fame,.
According to O’Donnell’s tome, Davis played baseball for four years at Ithaca College, “signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs and played two seasons of minor league ball.”
While poring through O’Donnell’s pages, I happened upon a separate section he devoted to the early years of the Top Drawer 24 program, which is now in its 16th year. It was, in fact, first called the Brian O’Donnell Top Drawer 24, with O’Donnell playing a key role in each annual ceremony at the State Park until retiring a few years ago.
I’ve got lists of each team compiled in my computer, except for one: the first year. I had remembered a few of those on the squad, but if pressed would not have been able to list them all. But O’Donnell did -- filling in a frustrating hole in my own memory bank. In all, there were 14 students from WGHS and 10 from Odessa-Montour on that first squad.
Those two schools were the only ones from which we selected honorees in the first two years, before Trumansburg and Bradford Central Schools were added to the mix. Later came Spencer-Van Etten and South Seneca, and Chemung County Schools: Elmira High, Notre Dame, Edison, Horseheads and, while it existed, Elmira Christian. Another religion-based school, Twin Tiers Christian Academy, has been on board now for years, while the Corning and Waverly school districts joined the program last year. Bradford dropped out along the way.
So, from two schools we have grown to a dozen. I say we, because I was, along with then-Watkins Glen Athletic Director Craig Cheplick, a co-founder. I’ve sponsored the program all of these years, joined along the way by partner WENY-TV, while Chep has overseen the whole program with incredible help from super executive assistant Kathy Crans.
For the record, those first-year honorees -- feted at a ceremony on May 23, 2006 at the State Park pavilion -- were as follows, along with their grade number:
Top Drawer 24
First Year 2005-06
Molly Murphy 10
Sophie Peters 10
Jaclyn Conklin 10
Jon Fazzary 10
Alan McIlroy 10
Steven Combs 11
John Michael Bianco 11
Michelle Thorpe 12
Courtney Warren 12
Jeff Kellogg 12
Phil Brown 12
Natasha Evans 12
Ashley Evans 12
Molly Oates 12
Katey Cheplick 9
Sherry Benedict 10
Ryan Goossen 11
Matt Thomason 11
Katie Taber 12
Brad Stephens 12
Shannon Westlake 12
Pat Barnes 12
Melissa Shutter 12
Jordan Janke 12
The one freshman, Katey Cheplick, turned out to be the only freshman ever selected. That was entirely my call, in the face of opposition from some committee members who thought her too young. (The rules still specify anyone in grades 9-12 is eligible.) I found her a bit bigger than life, a judgment that I think has been validated by her successful academic and athletic college career and her key role now in the administration of Keuka College.
Anyway, she was one of several students honored more than once by the Top Drawer committee. Others in that first-year list who were honored again (and in some cases again and again) were Sherry Benedict, Ryan Goossen and Matt Thomason at O-M, and Molly Murphy, Sophie Peters, Jaclyn Conklin, Alan McIlroy and John Michael Bianco at WGHS. Other multiple honorees followed in succeeding years, including these students first selected in the program’s second year: Jamie Sedlack and Ellie Fausold at WGHS, and Cassie Fitch, John Blaha, Jesse Johnson and Michele Kenney at O-M.
Other multiple honorees followed, but in diminishing numbers as the program expanded. Until last year, we held the line at 24 honorees. Last year, for a number of reasons that included the addition of Waverly and Corning, and in the face of pandemic challenges, we honored 30 students.
One of our first-year honorees, Katie Taber, after a successful college track career at SUNY Cortland, returned to O-M in an instructional role, and has since joined the Top Drawer 24 committee, a vital cog linking the program’s origins to its present day.
O’Donnell’s history even carries a photo of that first-year team, posed on the lawn fronting the State Park pavilion. That was -- and continues to be -- the chosen spot for the annual group photo, moved one year by adverse weather to the interior of the pavilion, in front of a large fireplace. The only thing marring the first-year photo was my presence, for some reason, kneeling on the left side of the front row.
Without sports this fall, the ability of the Top Drawer 24 committee to assess each member school’s standout students has been hampered. And there is no guarantee that we will see any sports in Section IV this entire school year. But we will be in even greater touch than usual with school administrators and, perhaps, community leaders to help counterbalance that loss of perspective that has accompanied the loss of athletics. After all, academics and citizenship -- in fact character -- play equally significant roles in the selection process.
So anyone with suggestions -- with nominations -- may contact me by email at email@example.com or by snail mail at P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.
I would also like to hear from any former Top Drawer 24 honorees who feel like sharing what they have been up to in the intervening years. Where are you? And what are you doing? Married? Kids? Jobs and hobbies? Achievements?
Let me know, and I can pass it along to our readers.
Shades of the Heidi Game
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 8, 2020 -- It was kind of like reading a novel and getting to the last chapter, and it’s not there!
Well, that’s not quite right. The entire chapter is gone except for a paragraph closing out the story on the last page, telling us -- for instance, in Elswyth Thane’s Revolutionary War romance, Dawn’s Early Light -- that Tibby and Julian, star-crossed lovers for hundreds of pages, are kissing ... and much to Tibby’s surprise and delight, are to be married, against what had seemed, when the last chapter ended, to be all odds.
How did that happen?
Or it was like watching a movie, only to have a reel missing, and the final scene comes up -- whereby Reacher in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is moving on to the next town after an adventure involving a wrongly accused female major and a teenager who appeared to be his daughter (or not; we don't know yet); or whereby Rick and Louis are at the beginning of a beautiful friendship in Casablanca after an adventure involving a freedom fighter and a former lover who Rick might or might not help elude the Nazis.
Explanations, please! How did they get from a cliffhanger to a resolution?
In this case, it was a televised sporting event on WETM Saturday night. There I was along with a lot of folks around the Twin Tiers, watching a classic college football showdown between Clemson and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, played at ND’s home field in South Bend, Indiana. The Irish tied the game with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime ... and then the last chapter disappeared.
The WETM News suddenly was upon us, with a youthful cast telling us some of what was going on around our area, and about the weather, and about local sports. But not about Clemson and Notre Dame.
Where the hell did the football go? I yelled at the TV when it became clear that the news was settling in for its usual half-hour stint. But it didn’t answer right away.
I tried calling WETM, which was not a lot of fun, because first it was busy -- four times -- and then when I got through, a voice directed me to the News Department, which didn’t respond until a news director who identified himself as Mark Silberstein answered on tape, providing his cell phone number in case of emergency. I googled him and found he had moved to Texas in August, so he didn’t seem likely to help.
So I called the switchboard again, and directed my call to Sports, and got a standard recorded message from Sports Director Andy Malnoske, who apparently wasn’t even there that night; Chuck Brame, as it turned out, was handling the sports report. I left a message identifying myself, and asking where the football went. Not cool, Andy, I concluded.
Then the weather guy, Austin Evans, finally -- midway through the program -- gave a brief and unsatisfactory explanation.
“We did not make the decision to leave the game,” he said to the camera, adding: “We were caught off-guard.” And that was it.
If not you guys, then who? I’d really like to talk to the person who did decide. You know, so I can understand how these things happen, against all logic and against all theories of customer satisfaction.
Does anybody remember the Heidi Game? Back in 1968, there was a great American Football League game on TV between the Jets and Raiders -- a game in which the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last minute to win 43-32. The problem was that NBC -- which was broadcasting it -- decided to break away from its East Coast coverage to show the movie "Heidi" before those two touchdowns, leaving a whole lot of us without the game’s conclusion, and fuming. That led to a lot of complaints, and to subsequent communication and contractual changes that would prevent such a thing from happening in the future.
But a Heidi-like game was upon us again Saturday night -- at least locally -- this time on the college level. And what a game -- between two unbeaten teams, one ranked No. 1 (Clemson) and the other No. 4 (Notre Dame). And just like a book missing most of the last chapter or a movie missing a reel, it was an investment of time and emotion that left the viewer with ... the local news.
So, aside from calling WETM, what was there to be done? Well, I checked a sports channel for any updates, though the game was not available to watch. That way, I found that Clemson scored first in OT to lead 40-33, and that Notre Dame then tied it, 40-40. And then I lost track ... until, with the WETM news team leaving the air (finally), the football game was suddenly back, a half-hour after it was yanked from our living rooms.
And it was almost over. It was the second-to-last play as Clemson, now down 47-40 -- how did that happen? -- needed 24 yards for a first down to keep the game going. A pass on third down went incomplete. On the next play, a pass was caught, the ball was lateraled, the ball-carrier was tackled ... and the game was over.
And so the Notre Dame crowd rushed the field, and Julian and Tibby kissed, and Rick and Louis wandered off into the fog, and Reacher had his thumb out, hitchhiking until he paused to answer a cell phone in his pocket that he didn’t even know he had. And it was a text from the girl who he thought was his daughter -- or maybe not -- and she had obviously put the phone in his jacket pocket, and now was asking in type: “Miss me yet?”
Yeah, I missed you and a lot more. Like the heart of the best game of the season.
Adding salt to the wound, one of the football announcers intoned this while signing off:
“It’s a night they’ll remember forever in South Bend.”
Yeah, I might.
For all the wrong reasons.
The virus & the motorcycle
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 25, 2020 -- With the coronavirus running rampant, I haven’t felt this helpless -- this vulnerable -- since Vicki Smith dumped me for a guy with a motorcycle back in high school.
Lovely Vicki. My first real girlfriend. Time with her was like a dream.
Everything seemed fine ... until it wasn't.
How does that relate to the pandemic? Well ... no matter what I think about doing today or tomorrow, I will feel ... well ... neutered (as in "deprived of vigor or force") by Covid -- while keeping my guard up, fully aware that there have been so many people going along, healthy and fine ... until they weren't.
Although a journalist, I have to think twice about attending meetings I am covering as news events; there’s no telling when, for example, a teacher or student at a School Board meeting might test positive, sending me and everybody else at the meeting into quarantine.
I even had to give extra thought to a lunch with the two area school superintendents, down at the Harbor Hotel. Say what you will about supers (and I’ve no gripe with these two), but I’ve never before feared picking up an errant germ from them.
Shopping? Yeah, that’s another problem -- enough to set my teeth jangling.
But I’m not alone. The powers that be -- in this case Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, SCOPED Executive Director Judy McKinney Cherry, Schuyler Public Health Director Deb Minor and Schuyler Hospital President Rebecca Gould -- held forth with a Zoom session Thursday on the burgeoning Covid-19 infections occurring here.
More than 80 folks joined the session -- mostly business owners looking for some guidance in such an unsettling time.
The message was cautionary; extremely so, with the warning that Schuyler County, if the numbers keep rising, could end up with the same kind of restrictions visited earlier in the week upon Steuben and Chemung counties.
There are three color-coded state designations you don’t want to be tagged with: yellow, orange and red, in ascending order. The latter two -- when cases rise above a certain threshold, trigger all sorts of things, such as schools going entirely remote.
“It’s a pretty pivotal time for us here in Schuyler County,” said Cherry at the outset of the meeting. The situation is “serious,” she said, and although the county has been pretty fortunate with a low number of infections until the past month, “now is the time we have to double down” with the efforts that had provided us with those early low numbers: social distancing, masks, washing hands, and disinfecting..
“We cannot afford to become a hot spot,” she said.
Minor recounted the recent trend upward in infections, which reached 99 total on that day. Seventy-two of those people had thus far recovered.
“The vast majority of positives are linked to social gatherings,” she said: such things as parties outside the home, and church services. “People are starting to let their guard down.”
That 99 total, Gould pointed out, was probably low, since there are undoubtedly asymptomatic cases out there that haven’t been discovered or recorded.
One thing that should be attended to by local businesses, said Cherry, is an affirmation with the state attesting to an intent to follow state guidelines. Of 364 businesses in the county with employees, she said, only 147 have filed that paperwork. Among the benefits of an affirmation, she said, is liability protection.
The overall “goal here,” said O’Hearn, “is to avoid a cluster designation” of yellow, orange or red. While the majority of people and businesses are following the rules, he added, “some are not. And now we are seeing the results of careless behavior.”
He said any Executive Order from Governor Andrew Cuomo “is the law. We need 100 percent compliance to change the trajectory of this disease.” Wearing a face mask “is recognized as the greatest deterrent.”
Said Cherry in conclusion: “The collaborative nature of this has made us successful. If we take it up a notch, no business will have to close.”
Then, the next day, the upward trend continued. There were five new cases, and Schuyler County's total since the start of the pandemic topped 100, reaching 104.
Yes, it’s all enough to make me think twice before going to a meeting or the store.
It’s enough to make me think twice before joining superintendents for lunch ... or lunch with anyone, for that matter.
It’s enough to make me think twice before going anywhere.
And yes, it’s enough to remind me of Vicki Smith, riding on that damn motorcycle.
Our heroes matter ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 14, 2020 -- Not long ago, on Aug. 31, Tom Seaver. died. Then, on Sept. 6, Lou Brock did. And then, in the first two weeks of this month, we lost Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan.
These were all baseball Hall of Famers, each of them an integral part of my formative years.
I loved baseball when I was younger; still do, though not to the same point. Back when I was a kid, I knew about all of the players, and the key statistics of the better of them.
I was a Detroit Tigers fan growing up, living as I did just 20 miles north of that city. (An early hero was Al Kaline, who passed away in April.) After I emigrated to Upstate New York after college, I turned to the New York Yankees for emotional sustenance.
But it didn’t matter for whom I rooted; I always admired the best, among them Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Ford and Morgan.
Ford was the earliest player of the five, and at 91 the oldest of them to pass away. He was amazing throughout the 1950s and up to the mid '60s. Gibson came along in 1959, Brock in 1961, Morgan in 1963 and Seaver in 1967.
I remember seeing all five of them in person -- all but Ford at one Hall of Fame weekend or another. Morgan stands out among those Hall memories. I specifically remember observing him in the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel, where the Famers stayed when in Cooperstown each summer to celebrate new inductees and bask in some glory themselves.
I had secured credentials from a friend, and was seated on a sofa in the Otesaga lobby next to renowned slugger Johnny Mize, chatting a little with him but mostly watching the various other famous men milling about. Morgan moved around effortlessly, engaging the others, a smile on his face, clearly enjoying the weekend and, by extension, the fact that he was among his game’s elite. He was a natural at networking, and everyone there seemed to love him.
As for Ford. I might have seen him when he pitched against the Tigers in Detroit, but I saw a lot of games at Tiger Stadium, and only specific moments -- generally Tiger highlights -- stand out.
What I remember clearly, though, is this: I saw him years later at a baseball card show up near Niagara Falls, where he was present to sign autographs -- for a fee, of course, which became a source of income for retired ballplayers when the trading card market heated up in the 1980s. They had missed out on big salaries back in the '50s and '60s, mega-contracts not gaining a foothold until the '70s.
I actually caught Ford’s attention momentarily that day. I had gone to the show to sell cards to dealers set up there. Dealers normally like that, buying cards below market value from show visitors, but one such dealer took a dislike to me. Whether it was my face or the fact that I arrived probably with as many cards as he had (I was lugging them around on a cart) I can’t say. (Such a maneuver -- peddling a cart full of cards -- was something I had never seen done before, but it had worked for me at several shows around the state.)
Anyway, I thought it a fair practice, not to mention effective, but that one dealer complained to the show organizer, who accordingly asked me to leave. Out in the parking lot, I was venting at this injustice as I loaded my remaining merchandise into my vehicle, not far from the show-building entryway.
As I vented, I looked up toward that doorway and there was Whitey Ford. He had just stepped out --for what reason I don’t know; maybe just to get some air -- and he was looking in my direction, where my invectives were flying about. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I was stunned into silence.
I can’t be sure, but I think he smiled and shook his head before turning and walking away, around a corner of the building.
I felt a bit like an idiot, letting my emotions out like that in front of one of my childhood heroes. It wasn’t my finest moment, and one that has stayed with me over the years.
Call it one of my life’s regrets -- a small one among many.
Anyway, it came back to me in detail when I heard of Whitey’s passing.
But that interaction aside, I am left with memories, and gratitude, that I was able to watch on television how he and Gibson, Brock, Morgan and Seaver performed on the playing field time and time again, year after year -- serving as sterling examples for a young man navigating life with far less skill and success than they possessed.
I was able to draw inspiration, and hope, from their performances, and an appreciation of what we, as human beings, might achieve if we aspire and persevere.
Heroes matter. The lessons they impart through their heroics matter.
Those five gentlemen mattered.
A rocky ride ahead ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 2, 2020 -- I was sitting across the room from my TV just before 1 a.m. Friday, not paying attention to the news it was broadcasting, instead watching a Monk episode on my computer -- from a disc, part of that popular series’ complete run.
Then something from the TV caught my attention despite the headphones I had donned that drowned out the news report -- maybe it was a single word, maybe two; but I leaned back and looked around a printer that had blocked my view of the TV, and saw the ribbon at the bottom of the screen.
It said that the President and First Lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Holy s--t,” I said, and ripped off the headphones, and stood, and edged away from the computer and soon found myself standing in front of the television, my mouth (I suspect) agape.
I stood there, watching and listening, absorbing. And trying to organize the thoughts bouncing around in my head like a pinball.
Make no mistake; I’m no fan of President Donald J. Trump, although I rather like his wife. But this really had little to do with any of that. Politics tend to fall by the wayside when something so stunning confronts us.
As Dr. Vin Gupta was saying on MSNBC: “This has nothing to do with what we feel about the man’s performance in office.” It has to do with so much more.
Being a history major in my college days and a longtime student of the presidency -- it is an office I have long revered, if not all of the people who have occupied it -- I didn’t have to be told the import, or at least the potential import, of this development.
More than 7 million people have tested positive for Covid-19 in this country, and more than 208,000 of them have died. Many of them have fallen into the high-risk group of 65 years and above, often exacerbated by obesity. The President is 74, and he is a large man, wearing extra weight on his tall frame. And now he and the First Lady have become part of the statistic of infections.
The effects of this are mind-boggingly extensive.
“It’s almost unfathomable,” said one reporter, Jonathan Lemaire, during special early morning (1:30 a.m. coverage) on MSNBC. “It upends everything the President has said about the pandemic,” which Mr. Trump admittedly downplayed as it developed and gained a head of steam.
“What is next?” Lemaire asked. If the President falls ill (he and his wife were reportedly asymptomatic after testing positive), the reporter asked, how will that play out in terms of leadership here and relationships abroad? If he and his wife remain essentially without symptoms, will he again downplay the severity of the illness? Or, asked another talking head later in the coverage, will the President become an advocate for safe practices?
Beyond that, what about all of the President's contacts, including on a stage Tuesday night with Presidential candidate Joe Biden? They were spewing invective from a short distance -- maybe 12 or 15 feet apart -- for 90 minutes. Was the President a carrier at that point? Will Biden and his wife be tested? Yeah, almost certainly.
What about the people who traveled the past few days on Air Force One? They will all have to be tested. And what about the people the President and his entourage encountered on the road? There was a rally in Minnesota, and a fund-raising dinner elsewhere.
At 2 a.m., Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor, handed the news report over to Ali Velshi, a mainstay on that cable news network. This was going to be covered all night and through the next day. That’s what happens when something historic and potentially devastating happens.
We are barely a month from election day, which makes this even more complex. What happens to the campaigning that was gaining steam? What happens to the remaining Presidential debates? And what about the Vice Presidential debate set for next week? Was Vice President Mike Pence anywhere near the President in recent days? And considering the possibility of Mr. Biden having been exposed, was Democratic V.P. candidate Kamala Harris anywhere near him in the past day or two?
Pence issued a statement at about 2:10 a.m., pretty standard stuff, directed toward the First Couple. Love and prayers for their swift recovery. There was no indication whether Pence or his wife had been tested.
And another politician weighing in was a Democratic Congressman, Eric Swalwell. “This is a national security crisis,” he intoned. Perhaps. A national security threat, in any event.
One thing for sure: The phone lines in D.C. were burning up. Every news reporter who had any steam left at 2 a.m. was waking whoever they could think of. There were going to be a lot of sleep-deprived people the next day.
Reporter Lemaire weighed back in with this thought: What about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who met recently with the President, and who in turn met with a lot of Senators?
And what about the other people with whom the President had contact the past couple of days? One of them, Hope Hicks, a confidante of the President, tested positive, something known Wednesday night. Her infection -- the origin of which is open to question -- was the first one announced Thursday night. Then came word that the President and First Lady were being tested.
Then came speculation. Then came confirmation. Covid-19.
Said one doctor on TV: Hicks could have been a super spreader. "The network of people who will need to be tested is vast. There is no end to the problems here."
“We have,” said Lemaire, “stepped into the unknown.”
“The whole world is watching,” added MSNBC’s Williams before handing off the anchor desk to Velshi.
Among the watchers: the Dow Futures, down 500 points almost immediately.
Yes, this is likely to be a rocky ride.
Updates late Friday morning:
--Both Vice President Pence and his wife tested negative, with further checks to come, just to be sure.
--Supreme Court nomineee Amy Coney Barrett tested negative.
--The Dow Futures rebounded to the 300-400 range by dawn, and as of 10:55 a.m. the market
was down 221 points.
--The chair of the Republican
National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, has tested positive.
--The President is experiencing "mild symptoms" of Covid-19, it was announced.
Swirling autumn winds ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 28, 2020 -- Autumn has arrived, not just on the calendar, but in the leaves falling, swirling in the winds off the lake and bouncing along the lawns beneath shade trees.
The temperatures have been sinking notably at night, then warming in fits and starts -- as if holding desperately to a lifeline in a steadily growing current. We have accordingly been provided with some of the crispest, clearest weather this year after a sweltering summer.
Those leaves flying about are symbolic, I think, of the world we inhabit. We are the leaves, and events on the local, national and international stage are the wind.
Batten down the hatches, folks, because the winds will likely be picking up. But they won't be the worst of it. If we pay attention to all of the nonsense and self-serving maneuvers coming out of Washington, D.C., if the spread of the coronavirus intensifies, and if we allow depression to take hold, I fear we’ll feel as though the winds have reversed themselves, forming whirlpools that grab us and suck us down into a dark and menacing rabbit hole.
We’ll feel the pull of it every time another number is added to the list of coronavirus-infected individuals in our area; every time another 10,000 deaths are recorded nationally; every time an area student tests positive, sending school administrators into hyper mode, figuring out the best way to handle that which seems beyond handling.
I’ve observed from a distance as the school administrators and School Boards have grappled with the mercurial beast known as Covid-19. I’ve admired the determined path taken in one district while, along with other people, I've tut-tutted the vacillation in another. I’ve admired the “speak with one voice” philosophy of one district while puzzling over the “speak with a dozen or more” in another.
And we’re barely weeks into the school year -- one without any sports to occupy the student-athletes and their fans. That should simplify matters from a health standpoint, but there are so many other variables at play: state aid, quarantines, contact tracing, masks, social distancing, student dismay, teacher fatigue and an overriding, never-ending concern that the other shoe -- the one that could prompt a conversion to remote learning for everyone -- might drop at any moment.
The stress level for, say, superintendents, has got to be high, and with it the enervation that accompanies a thankless task. I wouldn’t relish being a School Board member, either, though Odessa-Montour, by virtue of its continued Zoom meetings and its seemingly simplified approach -- five days in school each week, with nobody but the superintendent speaking for the district, unless the School Board president weighs in -- tends to address its evolving issues efficiently. There’s something about the Watkins Glen approach -- public meetings with open and earnest debate among a Board that has obvious differences -- that tends to roil the waters.
And yet, you might argue, either approach is representative of the people, by people who are just trying to do their best. The public, and history, will be left to judge the capabilities and successes or failures therein.
And amid all of this aggravation and insecurity, one thing that has become a tradition -- the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens selected by a committee each year for the past 15 -- will continue with a 16th year.
Yes, things will be different. If we lack sports and concerts and plays, we have other options -- among them an expansion into the world of home-schoolers. That is an as-yet untapped resource for the Top Drawer committee. Beyond that, there is the possibility of expanding regionally.
When the program began, it included just students from Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, but has grown to incorporate a dozen schools. Last year participating schools included O-M, Watkins, South Seneca, Trumansburg, Twin Tiers Christian, Spencer-Van Etten, Thomas A. Edison, Elmira Notre Dame, Elmira, Horseheads, Corning and Waverly.
Program co-founder and chair Craig Cheplick says he’s looking at possibly including other districts -- maybe even branching down into Pennsylvania. Since we broke the number barrier of 24 by selecting 30 kids last year (the Big Ten has 14 schools, so such a misnomer has precedence), we might well do that again, maybe going numerically higher.
The program, which I co-founded with Chep and which is co-sponsored by this website and by WENY-TV, might look a little different this time around, but desperate times call for creative measures.
Anyone with any suggestions as to worthy honorees, feel free to email this website through a click-on link at the bottom of any page. The past was mere prologue. We want to have more fun with this event than usual, and I think we will.
Coach D ends his career ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 17, 2020 -- I see that Mike D'Aloisio has retired from coaching.
Mike has been something of a legend at Elmira Notre Dame, winning 12 Section IV Championships, four regional titles, and one Intersectional one while coaching various sports: football, girls and boys basketball, and golf. Recently he headed up the school’s 8-man football team, leading it to a sectional title two years ago.
His career at ND dated back to 1977, and he took over the reins of the football team in 1981.
I remember him back in the '80s, and in fact covered him for a few years -- from 1984 or so to 1988 when I worked in the Elmira Star-Gazette Sports Department, the last portion of that period as Sports Editor.
I've always admired the guy, from back then to now -- and in fact I was pleased to be part of the mechanism, part of the Top Drawer 24 committee, that honored him in 2016 with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was, four years before that, inducted into the Section IV Hall of Fame.
He graced me with a copy of a book he wrote about his experience knowing and coaching Joel Stephens, a standout multi-sport athlete at Notre Dame who went on to begin a professional baseball career before dying of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 22. The book is titled "5C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story," released in 2009. The title refers to the Christianity, Courage, Compassion, Character and Commitment that marked Stephens' life.
My admiration of D'Aloisio long preceded the Stephens years. It dated back to those early years on the football field, and was cemented by one experience, which I related to Mike when we were honoring him with that Lifetime award, but which he didn’t seem to remember. I imagine it was just one incident of many in a busy day in the midst of a busy football season.
It was either in 1986 or 1987, while I worked at the Star-Gazette. We had with us at the time a reporter who wrote about the poor condition of the Notre Dame athletic field, a story that so enraged an official at the school that he called the newspaper demanding a retraction -- which was not forthcoming, since the field condition was, in fact, poor. Failing in his demand, the official (a superior of D'Aloisio's) threatened to have the reporter arrested the next time he set foot on the ND campus -- a hollow warning, this not being a banana republic.
Nonetheless, the reporter was frantic, especially when I assigned him to cover the next Notre Dame home football game. He pleaded with me, saying: "But they’ll arrest me!"
To which I replied. "If they do, it will make for a great story."
The reporter protested, but ended up going, and as soon as he arrived on the football field, he approached Coach D'Aloisio on the sideline, and explained that he was fearful that he might not be able to cover the entire game, since arrest appeared to him as a distinct and imminent possibility.
"Just stand next to me," D'Aloisio told him. "You’ll be fine. Nothing will happen to you."
And the reporter stuck close to the coach, and nothing in fact did happen. The school official in question had, as I knew, simply been blowing off steam.
"I did that?" D'Aloisio asked when I related the story to him, some 30 years after it had occurred.
"You did," I said.
He simply smiled, and nodded his head. He knew it was something he likely had done -- an act with trademark D'Aloisio qualities, an act I deemed both wise and welcoming.
Now ... well, now he has reached retirement. I find that both depressing -- for it is something I personally do not look forward to -- and yet celebratory, for few people have graced the playing fields of the Southern Tier with as much class as has Mike D'Aloisio.
So here’s to you, Mike. I wish you well in your retirement, and in life.
We'll miss your on-field expertise and empathy. But your impact will long remain.
Ah, yes: retirement. It beckons to those of us fortunate enough to live that long. I haven't had the urge to hang up my spurs, but if I came into a substantial enough amount of money, I'd be buying a certain property up on Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, and setting up shop there. The place I have in mind is a bed-and-breakfast with 7,800 square feet and a lot of rooms. I’d throw it open to my friends for free -- again, if I had the money to do so.
Of course, I don't have such resources, especially now, with the pandemic hitting me as it has hit most businesses, putting a dent in my advertising income, which is the primary way I keep this ship afloat. Related to that plight, I was considering possible alternative ways to generate income when I got to thinking the other day about Soupy Sales, an entertainer I grew up watching on TV, and the New Year’s Day 1965 prank that got him suspended for a couple of weeks.
Miffed that he had to work on that holiday, he urged his young viewers to gather those "funny green pieces of paper with pictures of U.S. Presidents" from their sleeping parents' pockets and purses, and then "put them in an envelope and mail them to me." He actually received quite a bit of money (although some of it was play money) that he said he would donate to charity. That didn’t pacify the victimized parents, who wanted his scalp, and they got it for those two weeks before he was back with more of his entertaining nonsense. (His trademark was a pie in his face.)
No, I'm not advocating that my young readers do what those kids did for Soupy. But I thought then, and I think now, that it was a classically funny, if ethically flawed, flight of Soupy's imagination.
Besides, it was from my childhood, which I tend to view with great warmth. The good old days, you know?
Photos in text: Mike D'Aloisio (top) and Soupy Sales.
In the valley of uncertainty
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 7, 2020 -- That silence you hear is all of us holding our collective breath.
School is coming at us fast, and with it a return to the classrooms. It is normally a time of hope and expectation. Now it is a time of trepidation ... of worry.
Two weeks after the start of school, athletics are scheduled to start -- at least practices in soccer, swimming and cross country. Football was pretty much put on hold by the state, and then jettisoned by our local school districts, Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour.
The question, I imagine, on the minds of a number of school administrators is whether we will even make that two-week mark, Sept. 21, without a mishap along the way in the form of a spike in coronavirus infections.
Nobody seems quite sure how that might be handled, fraught as it is with uncertainties and so many variables, from severity to extent. Plans are in place, to be sure, but life has a funny way of throwing curves; of failing to cooperate.
Therein lies the collective breath-holding.
If everything goes well, from the standpoint of health, the situation is still burdened -- by the need for social distancing; by the seeming incongruity between rules for gym class (12 feet distant) versus those for, say, soccer (no such distancing, from what I can tell); by the stresses on teachers to educate not just those on hand in the classroom, but those at home, as well; and by inevitable confusion and conflict among administrators, teachers, students, staff and parents as previously unimaginable problems surface. And they will, and with them frustration.
Then there’s the fiscal aspect -- with the state waiting (and waiting) for the federal government to bail it out, and the school districts hoping it happens sooner rather than later, so that 20% of the promised state aid does not get withheld monthly (as has already begun). Without that money, all sorts of problems ensue -- as evidenced already by the Watkins Glen School District trimming $710,000 from its budget out of a possible shortfall of $2.9 million for the year. Odessa-Montour also faces a sizable state-aid deficit -- of about $2 million.
Where can that loss of funds be counterbalanced? Well, there’s always sports as a go-to budget cut. Football was already axed. Will others follow?
The kids are anxious to get back to some sense of what used to be normal. O-M has them coming back to the classroom five days a week (more than 600 of the 700-plus students opted for in-person education), while Watkins Glen decided, after some vacillation, to split the student body in two, with Group A attending Mondays and Tuesdays, and Group B attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are all-remote.
School starts this week, with that first group at Watkins attending classes on Tuesday, and after a couple of conference days off, the second group attending on Friday. Odessa-Montour begins Thursday, the 10th. I would prefer to see both districts all in with five days of in-person instruction, but that’s merely a preference, and not a judgment. Either system could prove a success or a failure. Only time and the virus will tell.
I’m crossing my fingers on the sports. Anybody who knows me knows I love sports, and in particular high school sports.
I really need a fix. I would love to see the WGHS girls swim team in action again. There are a lot of impressive competitors on that three-time Section IV, Class C championship squad. The team boasts names like Amanda Wilbur, Faye Mooney, Thalia Marquez, Malina Butler and Alannah Klemann. Wilbur, Mooney and Marquez, along with recently graduated Peighton Cervoni, were this website’s WGHS Female Athletes of the Year last year.
And the O-M girls soccer squad has a lot of returning talent -- talented players like Hannah Nolan (the team’s leading goal scorer last year), Tori Brewster and, on defense, Camille Sgrecci. Missing thanks to graduation: last year's O-M Female Athlete of the Year, goalkeeper Grace Vondracek. The WGHS boys soccer team, meanwhile, had a solid season last year, so it will be interesting to see how well it fares without top goal scorer Isaac McIlroy, an Odessa File Co-Athlete of the Year in 2019-20 who is now in college.
The WGHS boys cross country team is coming off another Section IV championship year, but looks ahead to a season without the graduated Gabe Planty, an Odessa File Co-Athlete of the Year who moved on to Syracuse University and its running program.
In sum ...
I would like to say I have some answers, but all I have are opinions that change like the wind -- with every whim coming from the state government, and with every alteration adopted on the fly by the school districts.
It is a confusing time -- and one challenging to all of us not only from physical and fiscal perspectives, but in a spiritual vein, as well. There are days when we are ready to flex our independence and say to hell with Covid-19, but of course that is a very risky proposition, as evidenced by the recent crackdown on a local pub where two cases popped up and might spread from there.
It is a time when our faith in so many things is being tested:
Faith in our system of government; in our leaders.
Faith in our economy, and the value of a dollar.
Faith in our health-care system, and whether it is being supported sufficiently by a federal government that seems reluctant to do so.
Faith in our neighbors, in particular those who ignore the need of a face mask.
Faith in ourselves as impatience overtakes us and fear rears its head.
Faith in the future.
And faith, for those of us so disposed, in God.
With 190,000 dead and increasing at an alarming rate, one wonders what it’s all about ... what God was thinking at creation, and what He or She is thinking now.
That last I find a compelling thought, and my answer is simple:
Darned if I know.
And to add to the depression that periodically washes over me these days, Tom Seaver and Lou Brock, two baseball Hall of Famers admired by any sports fan, died within a week of one another: Seaver on Aug. 31, and Brock on Sept. 6.
Anyone who has followed baseball over the years knows their accomplishments, so I won’t recite them here. What always impressed me about the two men was not just their achievements on the field, but their attitudes as they climbed those heights.
Seaver was outgoing, fun-loving, considerate. Brock was quiet, self-effacing, efficient. Both were highly regarded on and off the field, and thus longtime ambassadors for the game.
They were also on my list of heroes. Most of mine are sport figures. A couple of politicians are on there, too -- but certainly none from the present.
To Tom and Lou:
Requiescat in pace, gentlemen.
Ghosts of journalism past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 31, 2020 -- Garth Wade was from a journalistic era that is now but a memory -- back when the Elmira Star-Gazette hummed with activity, fueled by the energies of its talented and dedicated roster of reporters.
If you walked in the building back then, the first floor was full of business and advertising and circulation workers during the day -- the accounting and bookkeeping heart of the operation.
If you went upstairs, you emerged from the stairwell into the newsroom, a hive of worker bees, more during the day than at night, but a busy place for about 18 hours out of every 24. The hum was punctuated by cries of frustration or the banging of phone receivers or an instruction called across the room by editor to reporter.
There were dozens of desks, starting with the copy-desk area run by a News Editor, who was surrounded by a City Editor and Regional Editor and just plain copy editors. Heading south across the room, there were rows of reporters’ desks, left and right, and then a gathering of more desks at the far wall, where the Sports Department held forth.
Around the corner of the L-shaped room was the Features Department -- with several more reporters working on what was considered “light” news -- which is to say stories that had little to do with the workings of government or education or the courts, and more to do with the workings and lives of everyday people.
Beyond that area was the morgue -- the term used for the library, where clippings of past stories were kept alphabetized, and past issues could be viewed on a microfiche machine. Along the hall and down a back stairway was the route to the mailroom, where papers were bundled for distribution after coming off the press, which was a mammoth machine in a partially subterranean enclosure adjacent to all that bundling.
That was my favorite place in the whole building -- the pressroom, late at night, when my work as an editor was done and I could unwind to the rolling thunder that emanated from that machine. I could sit in a corner of the room, on a stool, and take in the sound, with the knowledge that my work was part of what was passing along those rollers, was part of the paper being printed and cut and shipped out to the readers.
It was the strictly aural equivalent of standing near a fireworks display -- disorienting and yet soothing, providing a re-ordering of my soul after it had been sorely tested by the bane of my existence: the deadlines that came with editing a newspaper’s stories and pages.
Garth Wade was among the reporters in that busy newsroom, a place quieter by several degrees than the pressroom but nonetheless both energizing and yet enervating -- a twin reaction to the distractions that dozens of allies generate when facing the challenges of time and space and bosses waiting to critique both your work and your timeliness. Mishandled syntax and misspellings were one thing; missed deadlines were considerably more serious. “Time is money,” one of my bosses stressed.
Garth was very economical with his time. He was usually out gathering the news, then made his entrance into the newsroom with a loose gait and greetings to his fellow workers, calling out to the editors, telling them what story he had researched through interview or observation, and was soon to write. And write it he did quickly -- speed being a valued commodity in any newsroom, but all the more remarkable for his, and the story’s, accuracy and engaging nature. Garth Wade knew how to write a compelling story -- reflective of his personality.
His outgoing nature was a holdover from his experience working in the personality driven world of radio that preceded his print experiences. He seemed almost brash, except for a counterbalancing native reticence. He was quick to deduce and express, but never with animosity. He struck me as about the most clear-eyed reporter -- and for that matter clear-eyed man -- I’d ever met: direct, assured, and with a writing style that said Read Me. His were qualities I found both engaging and intimidating, I being neither outgoing nor particularly clear-eyed. Every day seemed to me a struggle to make sense of life; to bring order to chaos.
Garth was old school, fitting in beautifully with a cast of characters like Jimmy O’Hara and Peg Gallagher and Al Mallette -- longtime journalists who made their marks across decades, who loved the pursuit of stories and the satisfaction of informing the readers what was going on in their community.
When I hooked on with the Star-Gazette in 1980, they were all there, although O’Hara -- a highly regarded government reporter -- passed away suddenly not long afterward. Mallette, a longtime Sports Editor, retired in 1985, while Gallagher lasted beyond my tenure, until 1990. I left in 1988.
Garth Wade was there when I arrived, and was producing stories long after I left. He became a school bus driver in later years, and our paths crossed infrequently -- until I was invited a couple of dozen months ago to join a periodic gathering of former Star-Gazette employees, including Garth, in the cafe at Wegmans, not far up the road from the building where we all once worked, but which was vacated by its journalism practitioners years ago.
Oh, the paper still exists, more or less -- with a handful of workers in a small building a block or two away from the Star-Gazette headquarters on Baldwin Street, which stands across the street from M&M Red Hots. All that remains of the journalism that held forth in that old building for decades -- an operation once held high as the First Gannett Newspaper -- are the echoes of ghosts.
The ghosts of the late Jimmy O’Hara and Peg Gallagher and Al Mallette -- all gone now -- and of Garth Wade, who joined them Thursday.
And, I suppose, the ghosts, or slender memories, of me and those Star-Gazette alums who gathered at Wegmans.
It was a delight to reconnect with Garth and the rest of that reunion group, although clearly age had taken its toll on him. He looked worn, but he still had that ready, trademark smile. He didn’t seem as brash as when he was working the stories and channeling the words through a typewriter and, later, through a computer. He seemed honestly pleased to be part of a gathering of people who had populated part of his past, to be back among friends.
He seemed particularly tickled that one of us -- which is to say I -- was still involved in journalism so many years later. The fact that I was, I told him, was a matter of luck -- that after several years away from the game I rejoined it for a couple of years in the late ‘90s at the Corning Leader, and then after another break tried my hand at a news website that somehow caught on.
Yes, those Wegmans gatherings were something I looked forward to -- meeting with Garth and the meetings' organizer, Brian Pappalardo, and with Ray Finger, Ed Bond, Peg Ridosh, Bob Jamieson, Salle Richards and (before he moved West) Roger Neumann.
We had all aged significantly (thirty years will do that to you), but the conversations on current events and remembrances of co-workers past (“Hey, do you recall that young photographer who forgot to put film in her camera for that All-Twin Tiers Football Team shoot?”), along with explanations of what we were now doing, was a tonic to retired (and just tired) souls.
And then the pandemic hit, and the reunions stopped, and the shared remembrances ended, and then ... then Garth Wade died.
When I heard he had, I wasn’t terribly surprised, for I knew -- had been told through the grapevine -- that he was struggling.
But damn, it knocked the wind out anyway, and left me feeling weighted down for a full day and more. Depression, and loss, can do that to you.
And it left me thinking about the man we had just lost, about how he would breeze into the newsroom with a story, about the wide smile and sudden laugh, about the talent he brought to the news, especially in feature pieces about regular folks. He could identify with anyone, and they would open up to him, and the result was always a story that sang.
Yes, his passing leaves a void in the here and now, but as long as I draw breath, he is very much alive in my memory.
God bless you, Garth. You were unique, and like your fellow ghosts of journalism's heyday, you were both a treasure and a measure of excellence that community news outlets in our region and across the nation can only hope to emulate.
Photo in text: Garth Wade (Photo provided)
Nerves are rubbed raw ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 23, 2020 -- This might not be a time (as Thomas Paine penned) that "tries men’s souls" -- at least not the souls of most of us. But it certainly is trying our patience.
Consider school officials, including those in the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour districts.
Front and center among their frustrations is the need to pretzel themselves, their staffs and their planning in an attempt to meet constantly shifting state requirements -- all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of you might have heard of a man who went ballistic at the second of three presentations for parents by Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan this past week. The presentation emanated from the school auditorium (with a few district residents present) and streamed on Zoom for the convenience of those viewing from home. The three presentations were mandated by Governor Andrew Cuomo so that parents could better understand what awaits their children in education this year.
The angry man, whose invective lasted for well over a half-minute, was one of a relative handful of auditorium attendees. The parent of a student at the school, he took exception to the rule-making the district has undertaken to meet state standard in a situation where the coronavirus could pop up at any time.
While Kelahan said it was difficult to understand much of what the man was yelling -- although “Marxist” and “Socialist” were discernible early in the tirade -- he said the outburst was evidently triggered by the school mandate that any student refusing to wear a mask would not be allowed to attend school in person. He or she would become a remote learner.
“He’s one of our very concerned parents,” Kelahan said the next day, rather diplomatically. As for the mask mandate, he said the rule doesn’t insist on mask wearing in class. Once seated, and with the teacher’s approval (which Kelahan said he would strongly encourage), the kids can take the darned things off.
The man’s reaction, while extreme perhaps, is not unique.
“Across the country,” Kelahan said, it’s a common perception that “government agencies are overstepping their control.” At Watkins Glen, though, “it’s imperative that we maintain safety standards to protect students and staff. We have safety standards all the time, such as against running in the halls or shoving in the halls." And when the district says no firearms are permitted, that’s obvious, "but what they all have in common is a safety component.”
Face masks, of course, have become politicized, with encouragement from the man in the White House.
“People are latching onto masks as the great divide,” said Kelahan, adding: “People have a right to have feelings." The angry Watkins parent “was expressing himself. Being an Irishman, my emotions are often out there, too.”
The man ended up departing of his own volition after the outburst, “talking as he left,” said the superintendent.
Of course, that was just a sliver in time. The frustrations we are all feeling go far beyond a mask mandate. They go to the heart of our personal darkness: the depression brought on by sustained removal from societal interaction. So yes, I sympathize with the parents who are starting to lose control, just as I empathize with the students who are facing such an uncertain short-term, and perhaps long-term, future.
When I was a kid, it was 2+2=4. But in today’s upside down and inside out daily conundrum, it seems that 2+2=2 in the Watkins Glen school district. As in: two days of in-person schooling at the beginning of the week, and two days at the end of the week, but no student in school more than two days in any week.
That’s the scheduling plan at Watkins Glen -- 2+2, where half the students (the Blue group) will go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half (the Maroon group) will attend classes on Thursdays and Fridays. The plan was adopted by the Watkins School Board after it first embraced a hybrid attendance plan that had envisioned elementary students in school full time, and the older students attending on alternating days. It also followed a flirtation with an alternate schedule, which posited one group of students (Blue) in school three days one week and two the next, with a second group (Maroon) in school two days a week and then three the next. A third group (Silver) constitutes those students opting for remote learning.
The School Board seemed to be leaning toward the 3/2, 2/3 schedule at its last meeting, but in the words of one board member, “we left it to the discretion of the teachers.” According to Superintendent Kelahan, teacher representatives contacted preferred the 2+2 plan, wherby no students attend in person on Wednesdays.
In talking to two board members after the fact, I asked if they were getting “beaten up” by the public for their decision to go with the 2+2 plan, and they said no. When I pointed out that some people were obviously comparing their plan to the one at Odessa-Montour, where school is being offered five days a week, in person -- and where at least 610 of the 770 students have opted for in-person instruction -- the response of the two board members was immediate.
“Different district,” said one.
“Different people,” said the other, noting that Watkins district residents “just want us to settle on a plan.”
Meanwhile, good news from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced new laws expanding the limited allowable reasons for submitting an absentee ballot to include as a reason a fear of Covid-19. In other words, a fear of voting in person, among possibly infected people.
That in effect opens mail-in voting to the masses, which will likely increase voter participation -- always a good thing. Up until now, New York was one of a handful of states that didn’t permit mass mail-ins.
And on the down side, Superintendent Kelahan mentioned in his final presentation to parents Thursday night that signals from Albany indicate the district -- all districts in the state -- could well be facing a takeback, a reduction, in state aid. Kelahan said after his presentation that the takeback could be 20%, which would mean significant cuts “in programs and people.”
He and O-M Superintendent Chris Wood have been fearing this right along. It would not only impose a large financial hit, but force a realignment of their educational plans. Athletics -- even if permitted this year -- would be among the first casualties.
It all seems to hinge on Congress and its ability to reach an agreement on a bill that would provide relief to states. With Congress deadlocked -- and in any event taking an awful lot of breaks from its duties during such a critical summer -- it’s anybody’s guess whether our representatives will finally do the right thing and bail out the states.
It seems like a massive game of chicken: Republicans vs. Democrats, the Feds versus the States, and essential workers like firefighters, police and teachers with their professional heads on the chopping block.
Gad. What a time in which we live.
Photo in text: Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan in the high school auditorium during his final presentation to parents.
The anti-postal polka ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 14, 2020 -- You might call it “going anti-postal” -- a less violent term than its progenitor, but a nonetheless threatening one.
It’s what the Trump administration is doing with the Postal Service, denying it needed funding in an evident attempt to reduce mail-in voting in the Nov. 3 election. That’s got the attention of a lot of folks right now and is garnering a lot of ink.
But before that maneuver, a tandem move to slow the delivery of mail was instituted. It has to do with the new Postmaster -- a crony of (and large contributor to) Donald Trump named Louis DeJoy. He’s taken measures that have slowed the delivery of mail significantly, raising howls of protest from some in Congress, and the ire of common folks, like me. It is, quite simply, affecting a lot of people, and they’re none too pleased. Little wonder DeJoy is being called Delay.
I don't usually weigh in on national issues -- but this one is becoming personal for all of us.
For instance, I received an invoice on Aug. 13 for a couple of items I won in an online auction. The company that sent it provides such payment reminders as a matter of course, and such invoices normally arrive within two or three days from Maumee, Ohio.
That is, they used to.
This time, what came was an invoice containing items for which I had long since paid. The invoice was dated July 23. It took 21 days -- three weeks -- for this simple missive to make its way to my mailbox.
A week earlier, I received a package in the mail that I had been expecting for some time. It was sent from the same source on the same day as another package. The other package took but three or four days to get here. I waited another 10 days for its partner to show up.
This is emblematic of the strategy the Trump Administration is utilizing as the President bobs and weaves in an attempt to gain re-election. But it’s a dangerous game, among its dangers the fact that mail service provides delivery of prescription drugs needed by hundreds of thousands of ill and elderly in a timely, not tardy, fashion.
This is also a danger to our ballot process, since the President is, to my mind, clearly trying to disrupt a mail-in voting practice that he insists will be rife with fraud -- an unsubstantiated claim by any measure, and not the case, in any event, in Florida, where Trump needs the heavy population of his elderly supporters to vote for him in what could be a tight race. It’s okay if that state has a heavy dose of mail-in ballots, he has said. That's amazing gall.
The ploys -- the delays and the underfunding -- are obvious, and the President isn’t even trying to hide them. He is, in the view of many, trying to shrink the number of mail-in votes that will be counted in the Nov. 3 election. How? Well, some 32 states have rules saying a ballot that arrives after election day will not be counted.
By constantly bashing the mail-in process, Trump is eroding public confidence in it. Beyond that, assume someone sends in his or her ballot two weeks ahead of Election Day. If it takes three weeks to arrive -- as my invoice did -- then the result will be disenfranchisement. The man or woman who mailed that ballot would lose his or her right to vote in that election through the whim and chicanery emanating from the White House, through Delay.
Even Congressman Tom Reed, as loyal a foot soldier to the Trump parade as almost any other member of the House of Representatives (he toes the Trump line in House votes almost 90% of the time), raised the matter in a press release on Aug. 12. Perhaps he fielded enough complaints to make him think (long shot) that his re-election might be endangered. Whatever the reason, it was (despite his being somewhat bold in questioning a Trump maneuver) steeped in cautious rhetoric.
It was headlined: Rep. Tom Reed calls for Postmaster DeJoy to provide additional information on USPS operational changes. It was subtitled: Congressman expands on efforts to ensure vulnerable communities and rural regions don’t lose access to vital USPS services.
I would have preferred to see a headline titled: Knock it off, Delay.
The press release read, in part:
“Today, Representative Tom Reed voiced his concern over national reports and constituent outreach regarding delays in United States Postal Service (USPS) deliveries, substantial USPS operational changes, and staffing reductions. Reed called on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to provide Congress and the public with specific details on:
“--What changes or pilot programs the USPS has enacted.
“--What steps are being taken to ensure these changes do not delay the delivery of mail or the Post Office’s capacity to perform essential services.
“--How these new policies will impact customers and postal workers.
“Given mounting public confusion and misinformation, policymakers need to know immediately the extent of recent operational changes to the USPS and what is being done to prevent mail delays during this uncertain time. We should all want to help set the record straight and ensure the USPS and its postal carriers have the financial resources they need to carry out their mission and continue serving our communities.
“Improving the Postal Service’s financial solvency and boosting USPS efficiency is an appropriate goal with bipartisan support, but achieving those goals can’t come at the expense of New Yorkers who rely on the USPS to continue delivering packages, medicine, and other critical items in a timely fashion.”
Nicely said, I suppose, but if push comes to shove, will Reed act in support of Trump, or will he follow through on those printed words and risk an unflattering tweet?
On another matter:
Two very different approaches. That’s what we have in the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen school districts. At O-M, which is following an in-school, full-time reopening effort, students will -- I suspect -- be looking more forward to getting back to classes and to their friends than the students in the Watkins Glen district are. There, in Watkins, the School Board has opted for a half-and-half, or what some are calling a 50/50, proposition.
Watkins students in an “A” group, pre-K through 12th grade, will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, with group “B” attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be devoted to disinfecting the buildings, with no in-school instruction. No day will see more than 50% of the student body in school, and on one of them there won't be any students present at all.
When not in school, Watkins students will be remotely learning, which was forced on kids around the country with the arrival in force of the pandemic in March. So ... with two days in and three days out, it’s really a 40-60 deal for students in the Glen. (What's wrong with Group A going to school three days one week and two the next, and Group B going to school two days one week and three the next? You really can't clean the place after school each day?)
Parents in both districts with an abundance of concern about their children's health have the option of remote learning for their kids. O-M reported Thursday that it had contacted the families of all but 114 of the district’s 770 students, and that 547 of those children are planning to attend school in person, with 104 doing remote or distance learning through at least the first semester. Five have opted for the more independent home schooling.
It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. Given the seemingly equal chance in either locale that the Covid-19 might rear its ugly head, I would much rather be an O-M student right now than a Watkins student. Five days out of the house instead of two. Regaining a sense of normalcy, of familiarity, of badly needed social interaction.
Of course, time is often a harsh teacher, and might yet instill another of life's lessons in me, proving my folly in issuing that assessment.
But we'll see.
A difficult road ahead ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 10, 2020 -- So ... Governor Andrew Cuomo has given schools the green light to open this fall.
Sounds great. But now comes the tough part ... and, I suspect, a rolling wave of confusion.
There are so many questions ahead:
--What form will the reopening take? This will likely vary from district to district. Odessa-Montour Superintendent Chris Wood has made it clear the preferred route is full-time, full-day, in-person education. Watkins Glen Superintendent Greg Kelahan has said he has no preference, which pretty much leaves it with the School Board to consider: in-person, remote, or a hybrid of the two.
--Cuomo insisted on three sessions by each district with parents by Aug. 21, to gauge their preference, and one with teachers, who may or may not have serious concerns about putting themselves in an enclosed space (a classroom, not to mention a school in general) at a time when indoor gatherings are seen as a major transfer point of the novel coronavirus.
The results of those conversations -- public and teacher -- add all sorts of variables to the mix: will there be teachers who resist a return; and will there be a resistance by parents to send their kids into what they see as harm’s way? Those are two key factors -- neither of which, apparently, a school district can control. Cuomo said you can’t make either teachers or students attend in-person schooling if they feel their health might be at stake.
--What will be the response ... the overall effect ... if a student or students bused to school are found feverish upon entry (temperatures will be taken at that point) and ultimately are found to test positive for covid-19? What kind of delay will occur between test and test result? What if the test gives a false negative or false positive? What kind of contact tracing will be in place, and does that mean quarantining, say, for the whole busload who accompanied the infected student to school on the day his or her temperature spiked?
--And there are a myriad of subtle strategy shifters that will need attending to, probably daily ...
--Unless, of course, the state doesn’t get a federal bailout, and the state aid is pulled back by, say, 20%, which at the O-M district would equal a couple of million bucks ... which would necessitate a return to Square One. The whole darn thing would have to be reconsidered. Reducing aid by that much, or even anything approaching that much, would have serious repercussions.
Well, I’m no expert, with no sound answers, so I’ll be listening carefully to those closer to the educational systems to see what they figure out.
And on the upside of this whole covid-19 mess, I was directed by Judy McKinney Cherry, executive director of the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED), to a Letter to the Editor that ran in the Lancaster Online news site in Pennsylvania. It was from Donna M. Dinger of West Cocalico Township in northeastern Lancaster County, concerning a visit to Schuyler County. It follows:
“My husband and I recently returned home from a glorious four-day trip to an event held on New York’s Seneca Lake. While we were there, we frequented restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores, gas stations and a small (25 people or fewer) outdoor gathering.
“No employees in public establishments were without masks and all were wearing them correctly. Not once did we see customers or clients enter a public building without a mask, nor did we hear arguments or witness confrontations. There was never a question in my mind that outdoor restaurant tables were 6 feet or more apart.
“Since we travel with our dogs, we have come to expect outpouring of affection toward them, but this year everyone admired them from afar. Folks at the outdoor gathering wore masks until seated at their tables and were physically and politely distancing from others. The state park where we hiked required masks on the trail; we met very few noncompliant hikers.
“It was evident that the people in this area took safety protocol seriously and without complaint. We never felt that we were in a stressful situation or that our health and safety were compromised. Respect was overwhelming.
“The reality of COVID-19 cases? In Schuyler County on Seneca Lake, there were 20 COVID-19 cases at the time and zero deaths.
“Coincidence? I think not.”
And I received another email regarding another positive occurrence -- the response to a potentially fatal accident up in the Watkins Glen State Park gorge last month that contained an element of Scouting that demonstrates the value of the skills imparted in those youth programs. Actually there were two separate missives in the email, one in which Victor Otruba, of Mansfield, Pa., explained how he and his sister Ariel, of Hellertown, Pa., helped a stranger in need. Writing on July 10, Victor shared the following:
“I could not be more proud of my sister, Ariel. Today we were at Watkins Glen when an older gentleman was overcome by the heat and unconsciously toppled headlong backwards into the crevasse.
“We didn't see it, but we heard the splash and screams from those near him. Before I knew it my sister and I had climbed down and plunged into the waters of the gorge. The man's son reached him first and never have I been so relieved as to find him conscious and aware. My sister took the lead in first aid; we immobilized him in case of spinal injuries and treated for possible head trauma and shock.
“We must have spent a good 40 minutes in the water getting to know the man (John Whitford of Liverpool, Pa.), before the pros arrived with proper rescue gear. Ariel kept him talking. He was a lifelong Boy Scout, having even taken his walking stick with him over the edge. ... If Ariel and I had not been Scouts ourselves, we would not have responded as we did.
“UPDATE: Received word from John! Luck was truly on his side today, leaving him with only some bumps, bruises, and a minor cut on the head!”
The other missive was written by John Whitford himself:
“I guess what happened to me qualifies as a near-death experience,” he shared in part. “Passing out, falling 40 feet into a gorge and coming to in water ... I expect that qualifies, as I was unconscious for the fall and briefly while in the water.
“While I do not recall specific details of my fall, when I opened my eyes I was floating in water with my son on my left and two strangers named Victor and Ariel on my right. I felt very comfortable and even ‘refreshed.’ I was mostly uninjured, a scrape on my scalp and possibly a mild concussion along with some muscle strain and pull in my left arm and my neck.
“My son Matt’s immediate response without any real regard for his safety, jumping over the wall and going down the hillside after me, was what kept me from major damage from inhaling water or even drowning. Without his actions I would very possibly be dead or brain damaged. Ariel and Victor saw someone in trouble and immediately came to assist my son and make sure I was stable. Everyone was soaked from jumping into the water to assist with my rescue.
“My thanks to all those that came to assist me. Thanks to the multiple fire and rescue units, the EMT and ambulance crew, the park staff, the police, the folks at (Schuyler) Hospital and all those who were so caring and compassionate; to my wife and son; and to Ariel and Victor, who jumped into the water to help care for me. God Bless you all ... "
Of hopes and dreams ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 29, 2020 -- Life is not just loss; it is also vanquished hopes.
Gad, that sounds depressing. But it’s pretty much true, or at least I’ve found it that way. Which means we all need to be flexible; to rebound from disappointment and rejection. At least in normal times.
Those oft-fractured hopes, to my mind, are largely represented by career aspirations. For instance, I thought when I was young that being a United States Senator would be just about the highest calling there is.
I didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to put myself out there for public consumption, though, so I ended up going in a different direction. Good thing, since I discovered along the way that Washington, D.C. is rife with corruption, and that a seat in the U.S. Senate is hardly a high calling at all.
I thought too that being a major league baseball player would be fantastic, but I learned early on that I had neither the talent nor the drive for such an undertaking. Along the way, in 1963, I was befriended by a major leaguer who talked of the excitement of the game but also of its divisions and (as in just about any aspect of society) inherent problems.
Whether that included a racial divide on his team, I'm not sure, although that particular organization was the second-to-last to abandon complete segregation on its roster, securing its first black ballplayer in a trade in 1958, fully 11 years after Jackie Robinson had ascended to the major leagues. The team had six black players in 1963, which was, I suppose, a significant step forward.
Put it this way: Whether racism played a role in the 1963 version of that squad is a matter of perspective and interpretation, often nebulous factors applied any time racism rears its head -- which I think by definition and nature is just about any day in anyone's life. (Well, it is perhaps not a constant consideration in Schuyler County, which is -- if a population of 17,000 can be considered overwhelming -- overwhelmingly white.)
In my own life, there was a black cleaning lady who visited our home every week when I was growing up, and on at least one occasion oversaw the family while my parents were away. When first told by my parents that they had hired this “colored woman,” I thought -- being young and quite literal -- that a many-hued person would soon be inhabiting our world. I was disappointed to find she was but one color. On occasion, a man related to her -- I can’t recall if he was son or brother or nephew -- did some manual labor on our property. I was always a little intimidated by him -- inherent racism, I suspect -- although he never did anything to warrant that reaction.
(The cleaning lady, name of Clara, did not intimidate me; and at the risk of sounding like the man who denies being a racist by claiming that "one of my best friends is black," let me say this: Clara became a part of my upbringing, growing old and gray as I negotiated my teen years. She was, in fact, a comforting part of my life, and a person I grew to love, and still love many years after her passing. She was a touchstone of kindness and yet firmness; wry humor laced with wisdom. I can hear her infectious laugh to this day, and miss the wide smile that went with it.)
A couple of decades later, I worked at USA Today on loan from the Elmira Star-Gazette for about four months, and did so well (the most in-house weekly awards among the entire staff during my tenure) that I thought I should have been considered for full-time employment. But I was told by an official there (off the record; it was more in the spirit of friendly advice than any edict) that I was not only "too old" (39) and "too male," but "too white."
So ... the paths we think we’d like to take are often blocked by our own shortcomings -- lack of confidence, inadequate talent, lack of drive -- or by societal limiters such as affirmative action. I faced all of those, and I think came out the stronger for it. Hell, we all get beaten down, but as the great fictional boxer Rocky Balboa said -- well, in essence it was "Get back up!"
Which brings me to this point:
Before the pandemic, we all had -- our own shortcomings or societal strictures notwithstanding -- the opportunity to follow that path or those paths that we chose. We had opportunity. If we had the will, we might just find a way -- or could take an alternative route that led to other achievements, others hopes and dreams.
But now, and for the foreseeable future, so many paths have been closed off. For 150,000 (and counting) souls, those paths have been closed off for eternity. For those still standing, things are not fatally dire, but “standing” seems to be the operative word, for we’re moving in place. Most of us, armed with the facts we can glean from conflicting national sources, choose not to travel, such travel presenting the risk of taking out or bringing home coronavirus infections.
I have taken a trip to northern Michigan -- to Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac -- annually for the past quarter century, and before that visited the island several summers as a boy. It is part of my soul. But now I’m not going, not this year. My brother and his wife, who have joined me for many summers on Bois Blanc, are staying put in Florida, it appears. The risks of an annual trip to the wilds of Michigan seem daunting. Besides, Bois Blanc Islanders have made it known they don’t want visitors, and that if we come, we can damn well stay away from them -- in a distant cottage or a cabin in the woods -- for at least two weeks.
Air travel is way down, the cruise-ship business has pretty much tanked, and the raging pandemic has reduced car travel substantially. We are urged to stay home. Moving in place, going nowhere.
The kids -- the students in high school and recently graduated -- have found their hopes and dreams, if not exactly short-circuited, put on a remote (as in distance learning) basis. That’s a general statement. I’m sure if you dug down under its surface, you’d find some students whose families have been so economically stressed (or worse) by the pandemic that plans for potentially expensive college educations have gone by the board. Hell, colleges themselves are facing all sorts of economic concerns, the effects of which will be playing out before long, impacted (as are we all) by the recession (depression?) in which we’re mired.
Which leads us to the upcoming elementary and secondary school year. What will it look like? Will it be in-school, a hybrid of school and home, or simply online? Who knows? The Governor has yet to weigh in, and local districts have been hard at work preparing plans for each of those three contingencies.
At Odessa-Montour, School Superintendent Chris Wood said on Tuesday, July 28, that the district was “working on it (those state-ordered plans) even as we speak,” with a deadline of July 31 looming. The School Board would be discussing it at a meeting on July 30.
The same day, Watkins Glen Superintendent Greg Kelahan said his district was “finalizing (a) draft today,” and that the Board of Education would “review and adopt” at a meeting on July 29.
We all -- well, most of us, I assume -- hope there is a clear way to get the kids back in the classroom and, beyond that, onto the playing fields. Students in essence lost a third of their year the last time around, and the fear nags that they could -- if this pandemic keeps gaining steam -- lose even more this year.
Granted, they are not alone in loss, and 150,000 dead attests to the fact that there are worse things than online learning.
But God, it sure would be nice if our kids, if we all, got a break, and reclaimed a situation where excessive death in this country was curtailed, where our economy regained its health, and where desired paths -- career aspirations -- and their concomitant hopes and dreams became part of American life again.
That's my fervent wish.
That is my prayer.
T. Rump Rabbit's ghost ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 14, 2020 -- Theodore “Rump” Rabbit is dead.
That sad news reached me by e-mail mere days after the column I wrote (see below) in which he and I had a lively discussion regarding the nation’s various maladies.
The local fire chief, John Jelliff, told me in an e-mail that his wife Lisa had found the body of poor old T. Rump Rabbit in their yard off Church Street in Odessa. T. “Rump” (the nickname was in reference to his ample behind) was old -- I figure about 75 in human years -- and crusty and, as it turned out, probably carrying too much weight.
That’s a dangerous thing at his age.
“In all seriousness,” the chief wrote, “we are going to miss him. The entire neighborhood has grown attached to him.”
I wrote back, expressing the hope that his demise was not caused by anything I had written, or for that matter by anything I had said to T. Rump.
Well, the chief, surmised, “I think maybe he couldn’t take the heat.”
I’m not sure if the chief was referring to the glare of publicity, to the unfriendly banter the rabbit and I had exchanged, or to the actual weather, which for days -- at the time of T. Rump’s passing -- had been regularly in the mid-90s.
I know, I know. You think I’m kidding. But I’m not. T. Rump did pass away in the yard of the village fire chief, who did in fact inform me of it by e-mail. That is true. And the rabbit is buried there (in the grave pictured on the right). Whether you believe I had actually conversed in the past with that old right-wing carnivore is up to you. But die he did.
Which makes what followed even more interesting. Call it a flight of fancy, the product of an overactive imagination, or perhaps simply a commentary on our times.
With T. Rump’s passing, I figured I wouldn’t be doing any sort of sequel to that previous column, death being a final kind of thing. Or so I thought.
But as shown in my own past (I’m thinking in particular of an amazing Aurora Borealis show the week after my wife’s passing in 2004, along with other oddities that bespoke ethereal messaging during that funeral week. Click here.), the end might not ever really mean the end.
But I digress.
Days passed after T. Rump's death, each one seemingly hotter than the previous one, and I continued to take my daily walks along the village streets -- waiting until near sundown so as not to roast.
Then, at about the spot on College Avenue where I had last encountered T. Rump on the right side of the road not too many days earlier, a voice from my left, the opposite side of the street, caught my attention. It was a squeaky vocal, almost a screech, uncomfortably audible to my ears.
Part of that discomfort was because of the words: “You murderer!” I looked over and saw a cottontail, back on its haunches, studying me -- and I could have sworn steam was coming out of its ears. Or maybe it was just the remaining heat of a long, sauna-like day.
This unfriendly little rabbit -- I had seen him around from time to time, but never engaged him before -- twitched and snorted and gave out something that resembled a sneeze, and then raised his arms, gesticulating, in what I could only deduce was a spasmodic jerk. And he again sputtered “Murderer!” before taking off, moving in leaping strides across the lawn on which he had perched, over the side road branching off of College Avenue, and then past and around a house on the far corner.
I stood there, transfixed, wondering what the heck I had just witnessed -- or done to deserve such vitriol -- when another voice to my right, on the very lawn upon which I had encountered T. Rump the week before, broke the lingering silence.
“Don’t mind him,” said this higher -- a feminine -- voice. “That’s just old Lindsey. He says things he doesn’t mean half the time.”
I turned and saw a small bunny -- gray furred with long whiskers, along with what I thought were huge eyes -- sitting there, chewing on some grass.
“Lindsey, eh?” I said.
“Yeah, Lindsey Gee,” answered my newest acquaintance. “He spouts off, but nobody pays much attention.”
“Uh, huh,” I said. “I’m Hef, by the way. And you are...”
“Call me Aosi,” she said. “Everybody else does.”
“Hello, Aosi. I don't recall seeing you before.”
“Oh, I'm from downstate,” she said. “I caught a ride up here on a truck recently, just to see how Upstaters live. And honestly, everybody -- well, maybe not all of the rabbits -- are much nicer up here.”
Just then, from behind me and across the road, Lindsey had reappeared at the far edge of the corner house, and was screaming again.
“Murderer!” he yelled, although it came out more of a tortured croak. “And you, Aosi. You shut up! Just go back to where you came from!”
In response, Aosi hissed in Lindsey’s direction, and he took off again.
I turned back to Aosi, who was shaking her head. “What did he mean?" I asked. "Why is he so lit up about me?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “It's about T. Rump. Kind of a fixture around here. His friends are upset.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not one of my favorites, though. Kind of contrary. Really conservative -- or at least that’s the pitches he was throwing. But ... murderer? What did I do?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it," she said. "It's just a timing thing. You wrote about T. Rump, and he read it and was all pumped up and telling everyone about it, and then he dropped dead.”
“Yeah, well, I don't think I have any kind of life-or-death power," I answered. "My jokes about using him in a stew aside, I've never wished anyone dead."
“It wasn't you,” said Aosi. “I think T. Rump actually liked the attention. He was just old. Old and too fat. It was his time.”
I mulled that a moment, and nodded. “Okay, good,” I answered. “Thanks, Aosi. I'll see you later.”
“Bye, Hef,” she said.
I walked about a half a block, past the high school -- empty since the pandemic took over our lives -- and past a large house just beyond it. I reached a shaded stretch of road, with a garden on either side of the pavement, when I was stopped by another voice.
“Hey, Hef,” it said, and I turned to my left. There, within fencing around a lush growth of vegetables, sat ... well, it was a large rabbit, and yet not quite one. Which is to say, it was ethereal, a figure not quite whole. I could, in fact, see right through it, although its features were clear.
It was, I knew in an instant -- and through my shock -- the ghost of T. Rump Rabbit. I had certainly not expected this; nor would I have wanted to. In life, he had not been my favorite acquaintance, and so there was no reason to long for that which was lost. Not in this case.
The fact is, I’m of neither major political party, nor of any minor one; I consider myself, if forced to a label, a Practicalist. T. Rump Rabbit was a Paininthebuttist.
“Hello, Theodore,” I said, using his given first name. Then I added:
“I met a friend of yours down the road there, Lindsey Gee, I believe his name is. He’s pretty upset with me.”
“Oh, don’t let him bother you,” said T. Rump. “He was loyal to me -- or maybe a little afraid of me. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t pay him much attention if I were you.”
“If you say so,” I answered. “Another rabbit, Aosi, told me roughly the same thing."
“Ah, yes, Aosi,” he said. “Nice looking young lady, but a little mouthy. I didn’t much like her in life ... but you know something, Hef? When you see the light -- you know, the bright light when you die -- well, you really see the light!”
I looked around -- to determine if anyone was watching me talking to a ghost, and at the same time thinking that when I turned back, this vague image of the late T. Rump might not be there. I hoped not, anyway, for I was questioning my own sanity.
But when I turned back he was still there, so I asked him about that light he was touting: “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, pausing a moment, “the light frees you of all the clutter; the BS, the political noise. I mean, I understand now that ‘fake news’ is -- aside from the rare aberration -- a weaponized term, and I can understand why you might take offense at it.”
Might. I simply smiled in response while shaking my head.
“And yes,” T. Rump went on, “as you have suggested to me, the current occupant of the White House has completely undermined what is supposed to be an inherent dignity of the office -- and yes, the pandemic does exist and is serious, and he really shouldn’t be ignoring it -- and yes, he’s undercutting the rule of law with his henchman in the Justice Department -- and yes, he’s a narcissist who thinks of nothing but himself. With his poll numbers, I don’t think it will end well for him in the upcoming election.”
“Well, amen,” I said. “I think I like that light of yours.”
But then a thought occurred to me. That would have to be one strong, amazing light to change a curmudgeon -- a right-wing curmudgeon -- like T. Rump. Unless ...
I eyed him closely. “Theodore,” I said, “are you just jerking my chain?”
Theodore “Rump” Rabbit smiled -- or at least bared his teeth. In retrospect, I realize it was a sign of evil glee.
“Good guess, moron,” he said. “You bleeding heart liberals are all alike: gullible. That’s why we will always win. I can’t wait until November. You are going to be so disappointed.”
And with that he disappeared. No puff of smoke. Just your basic ghostly evaporation.
I stood there, still at the edge of the road, wondering if I had just hallucinated all of that -- or if, as I feared, it was real. Either way, it triggered a philosophical corner of my brain, producing the following thought: it occurred to me that truly bad philosophies, truly bad political and religious movements, truly bad eggs occupying government positions of power are like cockroaches, taxes and alimony.
They will always be distasteful, and -- alas -- will always be part of us, at least until we’re wiped out by a large meteor, a thermonuclear war, or a virus with a little more bite than the covid-19 possesses.
Yeah, we’re damned if we’re here (well, life does have its attractions), and damned if we’re not (as in, you know, dead.)
But, I thought, I’ll take the former, warts and all -- those warts even including right-wing rabbits, both earthly and otherwise.
I smiled ruefully, nodded, took a deep breath, and looked ahead, down the road.
And with that, I took a step, resuming my evening walk.
Photo in text: The gravesite of T. Rump Rabbit, on the Jelliff property in Odessa. A photo of T. Rump leans against the headstone.
Theodore 'Rump' Rabbit puts his right foot forward
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 5, 2020 -- When I was a young man, every day seemed like a new adventure.
I was fascinated by the possibilities ahead -- at the way life seemed to turn on a dime; how a trajectory that seemed boring could suddenly be altered into something exciting.
I’m a good bit more jaded now. Too many bosses, too many job critiques, too many partings, too many disappointments, too many regrets. They all, when combined, can drain you.
Oh, I still get a kick out of some things -- in particular photography and writing; in covering the news of Schuyler County. But the most enjoyable of that reporting has been wrested away from all of us, what with school and the accompanying sports on which I’ve long reported being canceled out this past spring by the pandemic.
One thing I’ve added to my daily regimen, in the absence of the physicality required to photograph and report on those sports, is a daily walk around my village, the ever-quiet settlement known as Odessa.
I rarely encounter anyone on the walk, coming as it does in the early evening, likely while much of the populace is indoors at supper. Once in a while I meet someone of my acquaintance sitting outside on a patio or porch as I pass; in such instances, I might pause for a conversation.
Less likely is the situation where I meet an acquaintance also out walking. But I did encounter one the other evening. He was on the lawn fronting a house on College Avenue, hopping around, stopping, sniffing the air, hopping some more, digging a little in the turf, and then hopping some more. When he spotted me, he turned, raised his ears, widened his eyes, and smiled in recognition.
“Hef!” said T. (as in Theodore) “Rump” Rabbit. Then he moved his head to the right and left, looking at my hands, to see what I might be carrying, if anything. “I don’t suppose you have any carrots there, do you?”
I held my arms out, hands open and palms up. Both empty. “Sorry,” I said.
“Ah, well,” he said, and I thought he didn’t really look like he needed much food. He had gained a bit of weight since I last had seen him. Somebody must be feeding him more than carrots, I thought. He had gotten the nickname “Rump” for his big derriere, and it was certainly not diminishing.
“So,” he added. “How goes the battle? Still putting out that news rag of yours?”
“It’s a website,” I said. “A rag denotes paper. This is paperless.”
“Your ragless, then,” he said. “Still publishing? Still feeding the masses your version of the truth? I don’t suppose you admit to fake news.”
I was beginning to remember why Theodore was merely an acquaintance, and not a friend.
“Whatever,” I said. “How is it over on the far right?” Theodore is, if nothing else (besides a fat rabbit), far more conservative on most social issues than I am.
“Good,” he said. “None of my family has that virus. In fact, none of my kind have caught it. I could joke and say we can still get together like ... you know ... like bunnies. But truthfully, I think this whole pandemic thing is overblown. A bit of fake news there, don’t you think?”
“Hmmph,” I heard myself say, and decided I didn’t really need to hear any right-wing conspiracy theories. I just wasn’t in the mood. “So,” I said, looking to pivot and leave, “good to see you.” And I started to move off; to continue my evening trek.
“Well, wait,” he said. “You used to be a lot more engaging. No politics? You usually have a lot of misguided advice.”
I paused and looked at him. He was licking his front paws with an expression that I thought was far too self-satisfied. “Well, I guess I don’t this time,” I said.
“Cat’s got your tongue?”
Actually, my reticence was caused not by a cat, but by a rapidly growing aversion to a rabbit -- and I thought, probably not for the first time since I met this particular herbivore, of practicing some carnivorism on him.
I took a deep breath, and decided to confront this particular demon. “What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“You coming out against mail-in balloting? It’s ripe for cheating, you know.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “That’s White House BS.”
“Oh? And how about this virus thing? You're blaming the Chinese, aren't you? It’s all their doing, you know.”
“Open to debate,” I said. “They’re not clean, but it’s more complicated than that. Besides, I thought you said it was fake news.”
Undeterred, he went on. “And this Russian bounty stuff,” he said. “It’s hogwash.”
“If by hogwash you mean outrageous in its concept and its permissive execution, then I agree.”
Theodore sneezed, which I knew from experience was his way of expressing disagreement.
“Never happened,” he said.
“Intelligence agencies beg to differ,” I said.
“Deep state,” he responded. “They’re all out to get the incumbent. Everybody’s out to get him. It’s a really unfair world, you know.”
“Sometimes it is,” I agreed. “But there are times and circumstances that I find satisfying.”
I smiled. “Like consuming a nice meal called Hasenpfeffer.”
He looked at me. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“It’s rabbit stew,” I said, “served with red wine and various flavorings.”
“Ha, ha,” Theodore responded. “Leave it to you liberals to resort to threats.”
“No threat,” I said. “Just imagining a tasty meal.”
“Yeah? Well, one thing you can’t argue.”
“The elimination of traces of the Confederacy. Talk about your BS. Totally unwarranted. I mean, come on, Robert E. Lee?”
“I’ll grant you on Lee. And Stonewall Jackson.”
Those two were ingrained in me as heroes when I was growing up, and I can’t shake that.
“But really,” I said, “crappy Confederate generals with U.S. forts named after them? I don’t think that was ever justified.And existing statues of them were, for the most part, politically charged -- which is to say Jim Crow statements -- erected forty years after the Civil War.”
“They’re part of our heritage ....”
“They’re part of a Southern heritage steeped in racism. They’re not our heritage.”
“I disagree. What about the Confederate flag?”
“What about it?” I said.
“That is part of our heritage.”
I thought a moment, and nodded.
“It is," I answered. "But that doesn’t mean it has to be honored -- especially when it reveres a way of life built on something as heinous as slavery. The flag had its place, and now it doesn’t -- except as an historical footnote. The war, after all, lasted just four years. Hardly what I’d call entrenched. And certainly not part of 21st century life.”
“This 21st century life," Theodore said, "was just fine before the left-wing drive to undermine it and to overthrow this duly-elected government.”
“Huh?” I said, for I was having trouble following his path through extremism.
“It’s the minorities,” he said. “They’re being used. They’re being pushed by the left-wing extremists. You saw all those protests. It’s all part of a planned revolution, a blatant attempt to end this country.”
I shook my head.
“Those protests,” I said, “were the culmination of decades of frustration, of centuries of racism, fanned by an open murder of a man by police in Minneapolis -- one of many, I might point out, that have occurred across the years. Mix in the fears wrought by the virus and a tumbling economy ...”
“Blah, blah, blah,” said Theodore. “Bleeding heart-ism. You really are a tool.”
I laughed. For some reason, that term has always struck my funny bone.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “at least I’m not hopping around with a chance to be someone’s dinner.”
Theodore “Rump” Rabbit stared at me, and I back at him. Then -- on key and completely unexpectedly -- he started whistling “Dixie,” a musical ode to the Confederacy -- its marching song during the Civil War.
He really was pretty good -- the genesis of the song notwithstanding. The whistling was great, the enthusiasm of the song’s sentiment shining through. He pretty much nailed it.
I shook my head, not in admiration and not, despite the symbolism of the song, in dismay. It was more a sign of incredulity.
“What?” he said, seeing my reaction.
“Nothing,” I said.
“No,” he insisted. “It’s something. What?”
“Well,” I said, still shaking my head.
“What?” he said again.
So I answered.
“Well, it's the darndest thing ... what you were doing. Pretty amazing, really. I mean ... whoever heard of a rabbit that could whistle?”
Photo in text: Theodore "Rump" Rabbit at the time of our conversation.
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