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Posts Tagged ‘Rockland County Trivia’

So, the Sochi Games are up and running and athletes all over the world are sliding, flying, spiraling, slaloming and sweeping their way into the history books… does Nyack have a connection?

One of my favorite things to research is any connection Nyack or the surrounding area has with famous events, people or things – particularly if the aforementioned famous items also happen to coincide with other interests of mine.  I was thrilled when I found that Nyack had a Titanic survivor; let alone the World War I spy ring that connected Nyack to some of the most famous (and infamous) ocean liners of all time; or Marilyn Monroe’s visit – and I think by now most of my readers know that I just love the fact that Nyack was home to a small herd of elephants for decades!

So, I hoped to find some connection between our home and my favorite quadrennial sporting event, the Winter Olympics…

I must admit, that I scored neither a Gold nor a Silver in my search, but I do think I grabbed a Bronze.  I have yet to find a link between Nyack and Sochi – and considering the human rights atmosphere over there, that is just fine with me. However, there ARE some cool facts I can send sliding down the ice…

Bear Mountain Inn photo courtesy of the Nyack Library Collection

Bear Mountain Inn photo courtesy of the Nyack Library Collection

1. THE 1932 WINTER OLYMPICS WERE ALMOST HELD HERE.  Not kidding. Just like today, the IOC seriously considered several possible locations for the ’32 Winter Games which eventually wound up in Lake Placid, New York. Those locations included famous world locations like Oslo, Montreal, Denver and Bear Mountain. Yep, Bear Mountain, Rockland County, New York just up 9W.  See, at the time, Bear Mountain was the premier Ski Jumping site in the entire United States and with the world-famous (at the time) Bear Mountain Lodge, our own state park was almost given the nod for the Games, but lost in the final round to our upstate neighbors.  That Ski Jump would continue to be used (especially by the cadets at West Point) up until 1990 when it was finally retired.  As a consolation prize, Bear Mountain would wind up being the Spring Training location for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World War II years.  And for a closer tie to Nyack, the then ultra-hip Bear Mountain Inn was managed by the father of our former mayor, Terri Hekker.

Bear Mtn Inn from the Ski Slope. Photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commission.

Bear Mtn Inn from the Ski Slope. Photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commission.

2. THE NBC OLYMPIC BROADCAST SET WAS DESIGNED HERE.
Black Walnut, a design company from Valley Cottage is responsible for the spectacular NBC broadcast sets.  Though one of the largest jobs they’ve ever done, they are not new to this kind of work.  They describe themselves as “fabricators of scenic environments for television, exhibits, live events and theatre” – and they do a superb job, made evident by their Emmy Award winning status.  Along with NBC’s Sochi studios, they’ve also designed and fabricated other NBC News sets here in New York, along with sets for Major League Baseball, Fox Sports, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Rock Center, The Weather Channel, and even our local Channel 12 News Studios.  Check out their work at their website http://blackwalnut.tv.

3. A US WOMEN’S CHAMPION IN SKELETON IS FROM HERE.
Katie Koczynski of Upper Nyack competed in three World Cup Championships for the United States in 3 years, 2003, 2004, and 2005 – with a Fourth Place finish at the Calgary World Cup in 2003, a very high placement for an American Slider. Though she did not compete in Turino in 2006, she did bring worldwide attention to the American Team and to our women sliders particularly.  All while maintaining a 3.8 GPA at Columbia University, remaining on the Dean’s List and graduating Cum Laude in Sociology in 2006.  At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, her then boyfriend Bill Demong – a Gold Medal winner in the 10 km large hill Nordic Combined, and a Silver Medal in the 4×5 km team Nordic Combined in Vancouver proposed to her in front of his teammates and coaches.  Bill Demong is in Sochi trying to do a repeat, and his now wife Katie is rooting him on…

The Proposal. Photo from skitrax.com.

The Proposal. Photo from skitrax.com.

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Nyack was in an uproar.  Residents reported their quality of life being severely affected by the latest lifestyle trends and changes in the business district.  Old respectable businesses were closing to be replaced by gathering places for the young and idle. Occupancy numbers in these dens of depravity frequently exceeded any safe number as more and more revelers flocked to Nyack.  Add to that the downtown streets made impassable by wheeled menaces in odd togs and footwear with little concern for those on foot or in respectable carriages and coaches, and the undercurrent of anxiety all of this brought to the local populace and Nyack had a “situation” on its hands.  Sound familiar?

Bars and Bicyclists, you might ask?

No. ROLLER SKATES… and Skating Rinks. Seriously.

The more things change the more they stay the same. If Villagers aren’t complaining about Bars and Bicyclists, its Skating Rinks and Roller Skaters.  In the fall of 1884, roller skating fever hit this country and while rinks began popping up all over, Nyack was to have a good number of them populating the downtown area. First the Village Board was approached by an investor wanting to use Voorhis Hall – where Turiello’s Pizza is now on the corner of Broadway and Main – as a rink, but just a week or two before he opened, another entrepreneur opened HIS rink at the Nyack Opera House – that structure was on the corner of DePew and South Franklin until demolished by the “urban renewal” project of the 1960s that deprived the Village of half its’ downtown and its train stations.

Rear of Nyack Opera House, photo from Nyack Library Collection

As if two skating rinks downtown were not adequate enough for the platoons of skaters invading the village, arriving nightly by train and omnibus, a third emerged that fall of 1884 called “The Casino” located further north on Franklin Street.  By all accounts, “The Casino” was pretty darn large as it regularly recorded 700 – that’s right SEVEN HUNDRED skaters on many nights, and they were open seven nights a week.  The success of the first three ventures led to a fourth and fifth rink in the works when the New York Times wrote a feature article on “Skatertown” on December 22nd of that year with follow-up stories for several weeks afterwards.  Though the skating craze seemed to travel the length of the Hudson Valley and its industrial towns, cities and villages in no other place did it catch on quite so quickly and with so many rinks – let alone the sheer number of skaters coming to the village and partying late into the evening, frequently traumatizing those out on the sidewalks as they whizzed by intent on moving from one venue to the next.  One of the NY Times articles ends with the statement “People here are becoming alarmed, and every time a stranger alights from an incoming train, someone asks with a shudder: ‘Is that another skating rink man?’.”

Live music accompanied the skating in each venue on most evenings, giving Nyack a reputation for a good place for employment among professional musicians – a reputation that would last through the Edwardian Age and Jazz Age to follow and continued up into the 1980s, and which may be seeing a resurgence today, giving a positive side to what many perceive to be a negative late night problem in Nyack’s currently expanding cadre of drinking establishments.  Since there have been times when Nyack had even MORE bars, saloons and pubs than we do today – and one of those times was during the skating boom, perhaps our ‘ancestors’ here in Nyack had an even tougher time than we do today. While todays residents may complain about the cyclists and the bars, well, at least the cyclists aren’t drinking while cycling which was NOT true for many of those with wheels on their heels back in Nyack’s part of the Gilded Age!

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I’ve been on hiatus since Christmas while attending to my wedding and my honeymoon. Having just returned from our celebratory Cruise, I can get back to regular posting…

The Great Blizzard of 1888 – Nyack’s A-drift

This year’s “Winter That Never Was” is the – pardon the pun – polar opposite of 1888, which brought the worst winter snow disaster the United States had ever seen.  Beginning on March 11 and stretching through March 14, this monster storm would dump 50 inches of snow on Connecticut and Massachusetts and 40 inches on New York and New Jersey, with sustained winds of 45 miles an hour. Entire homes were literally drifted over; a drift in Gravesend, Brooklyn was measured at 52 feet high.  Railroad lines were blocked taking days to clear; telegraph and telephony lines snapped or exploded isolating the metropolises of Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC for days. Electrical lines dropped all over New York City adding electrocution deaths to deaths from exposure and building collapse.  Over 400 people would lose their lives on land – more than 200 in New York City alone – and 100 more lives would be lost at sea in coastal vessels sunk from wave battering or by the enormous weight of ice that formed on superstructures.  This storm would prompt New York City to bury its electrical lines and its train stations and push harder for a subway.

In Nyack, snow accumulations were less than in Brooklyn though well into the two foot range,  while drifts engulfed entire houses and blocked streets and docks.  Nyack was isolated from the rest of the Metropolitan Area  with both ferry service stopped and trains unable to get through the drift.  Daily commuters who had left Nyack on the train that morning were unable to return for days (Fancy that, train service right from Nyack… hey Albany!! ).

The archives of the Erie Railroad show a report from Harry Lewis Sarvent engineman from Nyack and at that time foreman of the Nyack Engine Yard.  (Sarvent is a descendent of Phillip Sarvent, mentioned in several of my blog posts as a hero of the British Attack on Nyack and is a possible candidate for the identity of the legendary ghost in the Old Palmer cemetery – see October 2010 posts). Harry Sarvent reports to his superiors that: “On March 12th, 1888, the time of the blizzard, I was called to ‘fire’ locomotive engine 327 for engineer Benjamin Scribner at 4:30 a.m., Monday, and left Nyack about 7:30 a.m. We got back to Nyack the following Thursday afternoon.”  This for what was normally a one-hour or less return trip.

Many Nyackers and other Rockland Residents were trapped at various workplaces – several Macy’s Saleswomen from Nyack were permitted to sleep in the store for the duration, in – where else – the mattress department.  Nyack’s pioneering woman physician Dr. Virginia Davies (yep, Dr. Davies Farm on 9W in Congers was hers) was in March of 1888 in the middle of her four-year stint as Head of the New York Infant Asylum and had arrived in the city quite early that day.  Like so many others she became trapped at her workplace, fortunately for the infants and children there, for after over two full days of her snowy imprisonment she led a party who TUNNELED through 18 foots drifts to get milk since there had been no supplies that entire time. This act of heroism was braver than you might first think – the majority of deaths from the blizzard were those who had attempted to bludgeon their way or tunnel their way through enormous drifts – and women pedestrians had a significantly higher rate of mortality because their heavy petticoats dragged them down, and frequently prevented their desperate attempts to extricate themselves from their snowy entombment.  An odd quirk of history shows that as a direct result, petticoats became far less massive and calf-length skirts made their first appearance in modern fashion.

Nyackers and City Folks had all adapted to “modern conveniences” such as electricity, gas stoves, telephones and easy access to fresh milk, groceries, heating fuel, transportation and newspapers. The papers published at least two additions a day back then, and people read them as avidly as we watch the news twice or more times a day in 2012.  At first, just as would be likely today, people griped about not having anything to read, or being able to go to the theater, or not having their lights or telephone work. That was “at first”. As the isolation stretched to days and no supplies could get anywhere on the East Coast, lack of food and heat switched from frustrating to fatal.  Urbanite and Villager alike were used to picking up fresh food daily (home refrigeration not being widespread) and having the coal man deliver regularly. Trapped in their homes and offices and shops and tenements and hotels, millions in the New York metro area were threatened with death from exposure or from hunger.

Many were forced to improvise, and that improvisation would result in one of the Nyack areas longest lived legends.  On the border of Blauvelt and Nyack, near Buttermilk Falls a family on Greenbush Road living in one of the old Dutch Sandstone Colonials was literally trapped in their home by drifts as high as the roofline.  The quickly ran out of firewood and could not get out their doors to get more – so they began to burn anything in the house that they could – newspapers, artwork, beds, tables, chairs, and finally only one thing was left.  The family patriarch had passed away at an advanced age just prior to the blizzard and his coffin was in the parlour waiting for a now postponed funeral. With no other options, the family was forced to do the unthinkable — burn the old man’s coffin, and keep granddad’s body in deep freeze just outside the door.  Apparently, the old man (or his shade) was not amused. By all accounts, no one has ever been able to satisfactorily heat that parlour since; and it remains chill even in the hottest dog days of August.

photo: Henry Insley, Nyack Library Historical Collection

  

photo: Nyack Library Historical Collection

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I thought I’d return to discussing some of the previous “incarnations” of some of our most recognizable Nyack area buildings.

THE VANILLA FACTORY:  This quirky building on the corner of Piermont Avenue and Main Street is the oldest brick commercial building in the village, having been constructed in 1836. It originated as Ross’s General Store on the main floor with various manufacturing businesses occupying the upper floors. For many years all of the space above was a shoe factory (Nyack was for a time known as “Shoe Town”). A hoist still present in the building was installed during the tenancy of a furniture moving and storage company. In 1924, Seeley & Company began manufacturing of extracts and flavorings here, and the pleasant aromas would lead to the building being known forever after as “The Vanilla Factory”. One of the most interesting incarnations was from the early 1970s to the 1990s – “The Elizabeth Seeger School” an alternative High School founded by 5 breakaway teachers from the Dalton School in NYC. Currently the building houses offices and residential space, but the old hoist and other mercantile details can still be seen around this fascinating building that has changed so little on the outside!

photo by J.P. Schutz
CASCADIAN BOTTLING COMPANY: Ever been driving or cycling on River Road in Grandview and wonder what in the world that long low Grecian Temple was on the west side of the road approaching the bridge? That building and the large mostly unseen warehouse behind it were for years Grandview’s only industry.

photo courtesy of Rich Ellis

 
The first business there was the Onderdonk Stone Quarry, where brownstone for New York City’s luxury brownstones were mined going back to the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s. There had been a hat factory there in the 1800s that failed in the Depression of 1893. The old building was raised and the property purchased by none other than D.W. Griffith, my grandmother’s old boss, and one of the most important director/producers of the silent age. Think “Birth of a Nation”… yeah, THAT D.W. Griffith.  The city’s water was not in the best shape at the time there being a switchover from the old aqueducts to the new water tunnels, so spring water was bottled here and shipped from Nyack down to NYC under the name of Crandel Spring Water. Griffiths would bring his friends including the Gish Sisters up to Grandview for both relaxation and shooting of scenes in his films. My grandmother, Irene Lane Dunn, was Miss Lillian Gish’s stand-in for scene set-ups and also did what few “stunts” would be called on for Gish’s character; she would also play small or medium roles in the films as well. (I would later meet Lillian Gish several times when I would sing Christmas Parties at Helen Hayes MacArthur’s house, and she would always refer to me as “Little Irene’s Grandson”.) My Nana fondly remembered shooting several films in Grandview and Piermont and South Nyack and found them a nice change from Fort Lee and Brooklyn which were where the studios were mostly housed at the time. (If anyone is interested, the last film my Nana appeared in was “Bathing Beauties of 1922” – not kidding!) My grandmother would never leave New York and continued on the stage here, but Griffiths and the Gishes and the Studios all moved west, and the bottling company was sold in 1920 to become the Cascadian Products Company bottling carbonated water and later sodas.  From around 1930 to the mid-1960s their premier product would be ‘Cliquot Club Soda’. By 1960, the plant and spring were purchased by the Raso family and the name changed to Spring Water Beverage Company; and in 1968 another name change and a return to just bottling spring water, under the name Canaday Eagle Spring Water.  Operations ceased in 1975. The front building was converted to a unique residence and the rear warehouse in to a recording studio. Those remain the uses to this day, although one can still see the fountain on the lawn and a number of other remnants of the bottling and spring water days. The property consisting of house, recording studio and warehouse, spring, waterfall is currently listed for sale with Rich Ellis of Ellis Southeby’s Realty.
photo by J.P. Schutz
 

COUCH COURT: The building on the southwest corner of Broadway and Depew has been many things in past years, including the Orangetown Town Hall and the location where the New York State Supreme Court met several times when needing to do “downstate” business.

photo by Barbara Gill Porta

Built in 1854 for A.J. Storms of the Storms Tub and Pail Company, it would then pass into the hands of Captain Edwin Stillwell of the Nyack Ferry until 1882. In 1885 it was purchased by the Couch Family and gained its current name.  Dr. Louis Couch would use the building to house his Homeopathic Practice and his family, including his ground breaking daughter, Natalie. I’ve mentioned the formidable Ms. Couch in a number of prior postings – she was a suffragette and great proponent of women’s rights and she was in charge of the ambulance crew that were first on the scene of the Analine Dye Factory explosion.  Natalie Couch Williams was born in Nyack and graduated Wellsley College in 1907 and continued onto Fordham Law School where she graduated first in the class and became Rockland County’s first woman attorney. In Nyack, she organized the first women’s Republican Club in New York State immediately following passage of women’s suffrage in 1920. While maintaining a law office in Nyack, she would also go on to become Journal Clerk to the New York Assembly (another ‘first woman” achievement for her) and be legal secretary to NYS Supreme Court Justice Arthur S. Tompkins. She was nominated by the Republican Party and ran for the State Assembly as early as 1934 (and was defeated by another woman, Democrat Caroline O’Day who had the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, in the first woman vs. woman US election).  She was married to State Senator Lawrence G. Williams.

In her 66 years, she would become the first woman elected President of the Rockland County Bar Association, the first woman to be Vice-Chair of the Rockland County Republican Committee, and the Police Justice for Grandview-on-Hudson. She was considered a key member of the election committees of Governor Thomas E. Dewey and the failed Presidential bid of Wendell Wilkie. She was hosting a “Citizens for Eisenhower” rally in Nanuet when she was stricken with a fatal heart attack in 1956. In a story about her death, The New York Times would call her “New York State Republican Leader”.  Her law offices at Couch Court would become from 1942 to 1951 the Town Hall for all of Orangetown, and the Supreme Court of New York met there several times. During the time that she was the only female lawyer in Rockland, she had two male lawyers as employees of her practice. 

After her death, Couch Court would house a Medical Supply outlet and other healthcare related businesses. Later renovated and refurbished, the gracious building now serves as home to my own office – Better Homes & Gardens Rand Realty of Nyack; along with the real estate investment company Rock-n-Real Estate; K.A. Consulting; internet designers Center Line Design; and a residential unit on the top floor.

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

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For those who religiously trek to Arthur Ashe Stadium at Forest Hills each September, or remain glued to the US Open on their televisions or computers for the duration, it may come as a bit of a shock to discover that the Nyack Country Club Open Tennis Tournament was for many years a major competition.  National and Internationally ranked stars came to Upper Nyack to compete in the event which was covered daily by the papers from New York City and around the world.

The building and grounds currently known as the Nyack Field Club on Midland Avenue in Upper Nyack for a time belonged to Pierre Bernard (aka “Oom the Omniscient”) who called it “Braeburn Country Club” when he acquired it in 1918. However, prior to 1918 it was called “The Nyack Country Club” and that was the period of its’ national reputation.  The savvy planners of this tournament generally timed it for the month of September, allowing world-class and seeded tennis players – male and female – to finish up the competition at Forest Hills and then stay in the New York metro area while they then competed in Nyack.  Held under the auspices of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the National Tennis Association), the Nyack Open even had its’ own corporate sponsor, the Spalding Tennis Ball company.  I found references to the tournament as far back as 1893 in The New York Times and 1894 in The New York Sun – both references making it clear that it was already a fairly well-known tournament by the early 1890s.  As far as I can find in my research, I can verify the tournament continuing at least through 1915, and it was reported daily in the Times and the Sun, as well as being previewed in both papers months in advance.

In 1904, The New York Times reported 110 Contestants for the titles which included Mens Singles, Mens Doubles, Womens Singles, Womens Doubles and Mixed Doubles.  The Spalding Tennis Annual of that year had this to say about the 1904 competition:

“The courts, which are considered especially fine, were in the best of condition. Good weather made it possible to run the tournament through to its completion without interruption and added considerably to the attractiveness of the picturesque club house and grounds. Many contestants availed themselves of the privileges of the club, which are extended to all players during tournaments, and all expressed themselves as having enjoyed a most delightful week.”

So, if we had ourselves a major stop on what was the equivalent of our modern Pro Tour, we should have had ourselves some major players in the area, perhaps even a Tennis Star? Well, it appears that we did indeed have a hometown tennis hero, or heroine as it turns out, Augusta Bradley Chapman.

photo courtesy of Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame

Born Augusta Bradley in January 1875, she was the daughter of socialite Augusta Tremaine Bradley and Stephen R. Bradley, founder of the Fiber Conduit Company of Orangeburg, known worldwide as “Orangeburg Pipe”.  She would be a lifelong resident of Nyack and Upper Nyack, and marry George L. Chapman, himself a tennis player of note, and later the Vice President of The Nyack Bank.  Her professional tennis career spanned 30 years (three decades in pro sports, there’s a record to be proud of!) and was considered one of the finest women players, indeed finest women athletes, of her era.  She won over 60 major tournaments, including the Nyack Country Club Singles Championship, the Singles State Championship of New Jersey, and 7 times won the Hudson River Tennis Association (which included Forest Hills) Singles title. Her performances in Women’s Doubles with partner Mrs. Marshall McLean would place them in Second Place in the 1915 US Open and finally win First Place in the US Open in 1917 (due to the USA’s entry into WWI, the 1917 US Open was renamed “The 1917 Patriotic Tennis Tournament”). She would also win First Place in the country in Mixed Doubles that same year and same tournament with her mixed doubles partner, Nathaniel Niles.  Augusta Bradley Chapman would go on to represent the United States of America in the Wightman Cup Tournament against the players of the United Kingdom.

As noted in the annals of the National Tennis Association, the Tennis World mourned pioneer Augusta Bradley Chapman’s passing on February 11, 1949, having been preceded by her husband. She was 75 years old and still resided in the Nyacks.  In 1977 she was elected to the Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame, becoming chronologically the first woman in the Hall, and first Nyacker as well.  She and West Nyack’s John Koster (pioneer in pro-bowling, 4 time national champ) are the earliest athletes so honored, both being at their peak in the early years of the 1900s.  Augusta Bradley Chapman is one few professional athletes in the Rockland Hall that lived their entire lives here, a distinction she shares with Pearl River resident John Flaherty, formerly of the West Nyack Little League and catcher for a little team called The New York Yankees, with whom he caught for the likes of Mariano Rivera and Rogers Clemens, and in the 2003 World Series helping to cap his 14 year career.  

It seems amazing to me that with all of the tennis courts in the area, as far as I know, none have been named in honor of our hometown tennis queen Augusta Bradley Chapman. Perhaps I’ll “lob”-by for one!

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10 Years Ago Today: 9/11/2001 Nyack’s 9-11 Hero

I’ve been planning a post about a certain young man for almost a year – half out of the concern that perhaps he’d be forgotten in the crush of politicization of the event; conflict over the museum and memorial; bickering between New York and New Jersey over who should be “invited”; the inevitable conspiracy theories and an undercurrent of still simmering anger and unresolved grief. I was wrong.  Mercifully  he has NOT been forgotten in the chaos of this anniversary. People have remembered to celebrate and tell the story of this remarkable young man.  The mysterious and miraculous “Man in the Red Bandana”, a Nyacker who on 9/11/2001 lived – and died – according to what he believed and what he had been taught by his family, his church and his schools growing up among us. Welles Remy Crowther, NHS Class of 1995. He did us all proud.

The Honor Student from Nyack High and volunteer member of the Empire Hook and Ladder Co. in Upper Nyack graduated from Boston College in 1999. He was working at Sandler O’Neill & Partners as an Equities Trader. From his lofty office on the 104th Floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower it seemed that the world was literally and figuratively at the feet of this polite, dedicated, brilliant young man.  Then that dream exploded on the wings of hijacked planes and a religion hijacked by fanatical extremist devotees.  Wells Remy Crowther would counter those acts of crushing hate with acts of towering love. 

This athletic young man would have easily made it out, and could have. At 9:12 AM he would call his mother in Upper Nyack from his cellphone to say he was okay. His mother would never hear his voice again. For Wells Crowther (who had already somehow miraculously made it down to the 78th floor skylobby from the 104th) could not see the pain and fear and confusion in the Skylobby’s burning ruins and not ACT.  He led people to the only remaining usable stairwell to the lower floors and carried a facially burned woman down all the way to the 61st… and then he went back up for more people, and brought them down, then back up again… On March 19, 2002 Wells Remy Crowther was finally recovered in the company of several FDNY and EMS members – the group had been heading back UP with a ‘jaws of life’ device when the South Tower followed its’ sister in a slow cascade of doomed hopes and broken dreams. At least 18 people are known to owe their lives directly to the selfless acts committed by a man in a red bandanna. On December 15, 2006, through a Special Commendation by the NYC Fire Commissioner Welles Remy Crowther was made an honorary member of the FDNY.  This was the first time in history that the department had done that posthumously. The Crowther family was presented with a framed certificate of appointment which included a department badge and a red bandanna.

The word “hero” is sadly overused these days.  Pampered overpaid athletes simply doing their job are not heroes.  Politicians mouthing platitudes  and slogans of every variety are not heroes. Even those who survive an act of horrifying evil, or lose someone to it, are not heroes but victims of an assault on humanity. People who put their lives on the line everyday fighting fires, crimes and dire illnesses – or fighting in service of their country – are heroes. And people who go back upstairs over and over in a conflagration of staggering proportions, knowing full well that the edifice’s twin has already collapsed, and who are not even “official” rescue workers on the scene? Well to me, that’s the definition of a superhero, or perhaps, a saint. In the spirit of “No greater love than this…” , young Mr. Crowther laid down his life – not even for friends – but for perfect strangers. Strangers he believed were his brothers and sisters in the human condition. When I reach my last day on Earth, I hope that I can face it the way Wells Remy Crowther did – with courage, honor and love.

photo: Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust

 

10 Years Ago Today: 9/12/2001 Nyack the Day After

Of course, everyone over the age of 18 remembers where they were on “that day” 10 years ago – I was with most of the other Rand Realtors in Orangeburg at a conference that quickly came to a halt and we watched horrified as friends, neighbors, and even spouses died in front of us on TVs in the lounge of the Holiday Inn, before slowly singly and in pairs we slipped out and headed home to some perceived place of safety or at least of isolation from the horror.

But what about the next day? Do you remember where you were on September 12, 2001?

I do – I spent much of it at the Runcible Spoon cafe in the center of Nyack and just blocks from my house.  Still staggered by the events of the day before and sitting up literally all night watching the news and waiting for reports on loved ones and friends, we crept out of our homes and our modern-day isolation in desperate need of human contact. The first thing I noticed was the silence – not a single plane was traversing that blue sky. Almost no one was in a car, there were people on the street, strangely hushed and many with red-rimmed eyes. And there were… flags. In a trendy village that considered overtly patriotic displays to be inappropriate or gauche except on special holidays, suddenly Old Glory could be seen on flag poles, on porch railings, hanging from the terraces in my building the Ivanhoe and down the street at the Rivercrest, or tacked up in the windows of apartments or the few open businesses. I stifled an urge to cover my heart with my hand right in the middle of the cross walk.

Arriving at “The ‘Runce” there were some subdued greetings and some deep quiet hugs – assurance that YOU and I were still here, that there was some sanity left in this bad dream. And newspapers everywhere – I must confess, I still have not looked at that famous photo in the New York Times – it seems somehow obscene (and I mean that word in its’ original meaning) that the terror and horror of some poor soul’s last plummet to the ground could be tossed out like a vacation snapshot. I felt violated for that man when a friend reading the Times started to fold the paper back intending to show me, and I turned away. Looked around instead. Confusion. Muffled sobs. Inappropriate laughter. Then silence again. I heard a child’s voice ask “But when is mommy coming home???” and silently wept in my heart for the adult who could not answer that innocent question. A question that burned in my mind all day and that evening back home listening to Chuck and Sue continuing to give us more information on what was happening, I wrote a lyric for a children’s musical I was writing with composer Neil Berg. “Someone’s Always There For You” became the most loved song from the musical the HHPAC had commissioned us to write. 

The next morning there would be more flags, eventually every car would begin to look like it was in the Presidential Motorcade and bunting and banners were everywhere. On September 10 we were grumbling about parking, arguing over the Nurses’ lawsuit at Nyack Hospital and really oddly, on September 10, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was calling for a downsizing of the Department of Defense, giving it a grade “D” for business efficiency and comparing to “Soviet Central Planning”. The tragedy of September 11 put away our differences for a good long time – reminding us of our shared experience as human beings and as citizens of the United States of America.  We came together in a way that had not happened in some time – as shared crisis will always do.  Yes, as the tragedy receded into the past, the events of that day would be used over and over by numerous politicians of all stripes as a tool to be used to get elected; and religious denominations bemoaning perceived flaws in some other religious denomination or lifestyle, and yes, the makers of really tacky Americana kitsch would make a windfall on items that can be looked at now while shaking one’s head and thinking “how did I ever buy THAT?”  The tragedy has been used, and abused. But it did bring us together as a Nation when we had spent so much of the late ’80s and all of the 1990’s in a long era of self-interest and diffidence toward community.

Fast forward to September 11, 2011. When I was on the altar at St. Ann’s this morning (now yesterday morning, good grief!) singing “God Bless America” at 9:59AM – I found myself mentally and emotionally flashing back to the horror, the fear, the anger and the pain of that day and feared I would lose my composure before I could finish the song. Then I looked out at the congregation, many of the same faces I saw a decade ago, and I remembered the day AFTER – and the sense of community that saved us from despair in 2001 saved my song and tribute in 2011. One cable TV station chose to honor the 9-11 Anniversary by playing my favorite film “Casablanca” which puzzled me at first.  Then we got to the scene where everyone at Ricks is looking at the floor while the occupying Nazi army sings a victory song. One man with the courage to risk his life and resist – Victor Laslow or Wells Crowther? – goes to the bandstand and conducts the orchestra into playing “La Marseillaise” the National Anthem of then occupied and conquered France. Eventually everyone else in the cafe joins in the song – not a fist fight or exchange of shots, but a subtler battle for the heart and mind – the offensive Nazi battle hymn is drowned out by people realizing that they are more than the sum of their parts, and that when they join together they cannot be defeated.

Donations can be made to the  Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, P.O. Box 780, Nyack, NY 10960-0780;  crowthertrust@aol.com. The trust endows scholarships for Nyack High School students and helps fund local music, environmental and educational charities.  

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It sure is political season, isn’t it? Seems you can’t turn around without bumping into some reference to this year’s local and state elections and – enough already! – NEXT year’s presidential election. Since everyone is talking about this week’s mayoral debate at the Nyack Center, while serendipitously Nyack Library chose the following as its local history picture of the month, I’ve decided to discuss a very famous man’s political speech not 100 feet from where the candidates debated on Wednesday.

photo: Nyack Library History Collection

The photo shows the Doersch Brothers Grocery, which was located just steps away from the current Nyack Center in the building that would come to be known as the Broadway Theater, then the Tappan Zee Playhouse.  Currently the closed Chef’s Market occupies the spot – a spot that began as a warehouse and closed, became a Grocery and closed, then a movie theater that closed for 27 years, then a live theater that closed, then rebuilt as a Grocery… that closed.  One of the topics in the mayor’s debate was the economy and the state of downtown businesses, and on September 1, 1868, Horace Greeley stopped by to make a political speech discussing very similar issues and 1500 people filled what would become the Tappan Zee Playhouse while another 300 had to be turned away. Greeley opposed monopolies and the vast accumulation of wealth by real estate developers who bamboozled the public with schemes that seemed to promise wonderful things for everyone but at heart were nothing more than ways to line the developers’ pockets. His own paper The New York Tribune, opened up the closed doors of congress and the railroad barons and openly opposed government subsidies for the already profitable railroad barons and real estate speculators, along with the vast wealth being acquired by a very few while jobs were lost all across the country. His speech would discuss his insistence that the federal and state governments should be instituting high protective tariffs and sponsoring internal improvements and infrastructure support for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than creating laws and regulations that benefited a tiny few.

Sound familiar?

Horace Greeley was a fascinating, quirky and sometimes self-contradicting figure – no wonder all of Nyack turned out to see him, he must have fit in perfectly! And by the way, he never said: “Go West Young Man”… that’s a never uttered paraphrase ranking right up there with “Play It Again Sam” and “Beam Me Up Scotty”.  Born in New Hampshire, he moved to New York City in 1831 and by 1834 was involved with the publishing of The New Yorker joining his name to political reforms along with such luminaries as William Seward (who’d become Lincoln’s Secretary of State and purchased Alaska for the USA).

He established his daily New York Tribune and its’ weekly national version The Tribune in 1841.  He was a great supporter of workers rights and his own business reflected that: excellent work conditions and hours, a profit-sharing plan, organization of his workers and cooperative groupings. His paper garnered great respect for its higher tone, lack of sensationalism, cultural additions like book reviews and straightforward reporting. It also gained him a large following to whom he could present his views and causes.  He espoused Women’s Rights and suffrage and opposed Slavery – though he bemoaned both the political machinations and the sometimes violent behavior of some Abolitionists.  He supported the Temperance movement to a point. He opposed the Mexican War feeling that it only benefited the slave owners of the south.  He was appointed to fill a Congressional vacancy in 1848 but only served 3 months as he continually reported on what REALLY went on behind closed doors in Washington and his editorials strongly condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act (effectively opening the possibility of additional slave states in the northern prairie territories – resulting in rioting, death and political upheaval in “Bleeding Kansas”) would prove to put a gulf between Greeley and his former friend Seward. Greeley’s support of a gentleman named Abraham Lincoln over the Republican Party’s chosen frontrunner – William Seward – served to clinch Lincoln’s nomination and Seward’s everlasting hatred.

Though he supported Lincoln, Greeley was not one to let things rest when he perceived what he believed was injustice or political posturing. He was tough in Lincoln and initially argued that we were better off without the South and should let them secede. He did eventually come to Lincoln’s way of thinking regarding preserving the Union as a whole, but stridently criticized Lincoln for not freeing the slaves immediately. He was not one to wait for change to come, he demanded it now, and did everything he could to become part of the change himself. Perhaps that passion was what brought so many people (a very large crowd for Rockland County in the 1860s) out to listen to him speak.

Oddly, after the Civil War, Greeley supported amnesty for Confederate Officers and angered many Northern supporters by posting bail for Jefferson Davis!  He did continue his support for universal suffrage for all races and for women, and the rights of workers. He was not an avid expansionist, but rather recommended an orderly westward movement. What he really said was “The best business you can go into you will find on your father’s farm or in his workshop. If you have no family or friends to aid you, and no prospect open to you there, turn your face to the great West and there build up your home and fortune.”  He was frequently misquoted in his lifetime too, and once quipped, “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers; what I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.”

He was a man of diverse and sometimes odd interests that ranged from literacy to election reform to spiritualism to phrenology – and really, advocating Women’s Rights in the mid-1800s? He was never seen in public without his full-length duster coat and his bright shiny umbrella even on the hottest and sunniest of days.  And yet, even after his public gaffe with ol’ Jeff Davis, he remained immensely popular. In 1872 he would become the Presidential Candidate for BOTH the Democratic Party and the then existent Liberal-Republican Party. In his acceptance speech of the Liberal-Republican nomination, he said “The masses of our countrymen, North and South, are eager to clasp hands across the bloody chasm which has so long divided them.” But a Greeley Presidency was not to be – he lost steam and all interest in the subject when his wife tragically died, and he foundered without her, dying of a broken heart and loneliness just a few weeks after the election to which he paid such little attention. He had garnered 44% of the popular vote and his electoral college votes were posthumously assigned to three candidates of minority parties.

Horace Greeley was a real American Character, and one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received was from someone who called me ‘Horace Greeley, Jr.’ intending it as an insult.  For Horace Greeley firmly believed that the USA’s best times were ahead, and that only by joining together – North and South, Male and Female, Worker and Employer, Democrat and Republican, White, Black, Native or any other ethnicity – would we find our best destiny and fulfill the dreams of our Founding Fathers.   I’d like to think that those were precisely the reasons that on that day in September of 1868 so much of Nyack turned out to listen to a political speech.

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