Great Amsterdam Traditions – New Years Eve Celebrations

Amsterdamian’s still celebrate New Year’s Eve the same way they did back when I was a kid. You either attend a house party or you go out to a restaurant or club of some sort and celebrate in public. The difference between then and now was that thirty, forty and fifty years ago, Amsterdam offered a lot more options for your New Year’s Eve celebrating. It seemed as if every fraternal, religious, veterans, social and ethnicity-based organization in Amsterdam, hosted catered New Years Eve parties in their club rooms, complete with noisemakers, open bar, and live music. The phrase “From 10 PM to ?” was a common element in each of their newspaper ads, signaling that the evening of fun would only end when you decided to go home, usually at dawn the next day.

Augmenting these closed group celebrations were the New Years Eve parties hosted at many of Amsterdam’s restaurants and bars. Several of these establishments brought in live music for the night, offered special menus and provided plenty of party hats and noisemakers. Going back to the 1930’s, Amsterdam had major hotels, like the Warner, the Barnes, the Philip Schuler and the Conrad, offering Complete New Year’s Eve packages that included dinner, dancing and a room for the night. Decades later, the Holiday Inn would revive this total package concept at their new Market Street location.

As you might imagine, every band, combo and quartet both from in the city and from miles around would be working that night. For local musicians like Tony Brooks, Deanie Dale, Dusty Miller, Johnny Cole, Alex Amendola, Art Hoefs, Butch Robertshaw and every Polka Band on Reid Hill, New Years Eve was just another work day.

It was also the one night of the year that my Mom and Dad would actually dress up and go out on a real date. My two older brothers and I would end up doing what the rest of Amsterdam did to celebrate. Go to a house party.

New Years Eve celebrations at my grandmother’s house are one of my favorite childhood memories. Talk about tight quarters, she lived in one side of a two story duplex in Amsterdam’s West End. There would be eleven of us crammed into her 12 x 10 living room that seated five. Instead of Carson Dailey or Ryan Seacrest on a 55 inch flat screen with stereo sound system, we’d watch and listen to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians orchestra ring in the New Year on my gram’s 15″ black & white Philco. My Aunt Onnie would make fried dough with raisins (Italians called them azeepoolah) and dozens of sandwiches which she’d package in those tiny wax paper bags that were used before clear plastic wrap came along. Us kids would drink Shirley Temple’s out of the same bell-shaped green and black circled glasses she’d use for our Sunday night ice cream sodas in the summer. At midnight, she’d make us a genuine highball. Since I was only five or six year’s old, she’d only give me half a shot of Seagram’s 7 with my ginger ale! (I kid you not)

The dining room in my Gram’s apartment was the same exact 12 x 10 size as the living room and it also contained the dreaded gas stove that used to heat the place. They’d keep that sucker so hot they would actually roast chestnuts on it. The temperature in the room would get so high, the grownup men would take their shirts off (in January!) At exactly midnight, my crazy Uncle would grab his shotgun and go out in the middle of Leonard Street in his long john’s to fire a salute to the New Year. We celebrated New Years exactly the same way for the first ten to twelve years of my life. The only thing that changed was that when I turned ten, my aunt would make my highball with a full shot of Seagram’s instead of half. It’s one of those great memories you store away and never ever forget. May your next New Year’s eve celebration be the best yet and may it usher in a year filled with good health, much love and good fortune (and at least one azeepoolah!)

Great Amsterdam Traditions – Big Black Pocketbooks

Didn’t matter what ethnicity or Amsterdam neighborhood we came from, I’m guessing at least 90% of us had an older female relative who carried a big black pocketbook!

In my own family, it was my Dad’s oldest sister Onnie, who owned this nearly sacred accessory. Now when I say “big,” we’re talking Samsonite size and I don’t mean one of those modern day carry-on’s that fits in the overhead or underneath the seat in front of you. Nope, if my Aunt was still alive today and needed to fly somewhere on a plane, she’d not only be required to check her pocket book, she’d have to pay the overweight surcharge as well. Which would be better than emptying the thing at the security checkpoint. You know those gray bins they provide to empty your stuff into? If they had made my Aunt empty the contents of her purse, she’d have needed about a half dozen of those.

So what was in the darn thing you wonder? It would take me less time to tell you what wasn’t. Every dollar she owned that wasn’t in her Amsterdam Savings Bank Account (or Christmas Club) was in that purse, neatly stacked in the order of each bill’s denomination in one of those old Amsterdam Savings Bank money sleeves. And every bill in that sleeve looked like it had just come off the press at the US Mint, crisp, clean, green and as wrinkle free as a baby’s butt.

Another compartment of her satchel contained personal expense records. Every paid bill from last month, every due bill from the current month and a complete list of every dime she gave her husband, what he spent it on, what date he spent it and how much change he gave her back. There was also a list containing every gift and donation she made to every individual and any organization.

Another section contained important papers. These included the birth and death certificates of her parents, their parents and grandparents. One of the death certificates was so old it listed the cause of death as “The Evil Eye.” She had a copy of the mortgage on the family home, the warranty on the 42 year old Crosley Refrigerator still humming along in her kitchen, a list of birth dates and accomplishments for each of her nephews (Mine was always the longest by the way!)

Yet another flap in the purse held a collection of family photographs dating back to the invention of the very first camera. Some were actually of dead people lying in coffins, which leads me to imagine the kinds of shots they would have taken if there were cell phones with digital cameras back then.

Then there was the family jewel compartment. This flap had a zipper on it. My Aunt had a small collection of jewelry, none of which she ever wore. (My daughter was given her beautiful engagement ring) The only gold on my aunt was her wedding band, all the rest of the watches, bracelets, necklaces and rings including her Mom’s were carried in the black leather sack.

I could keep sharing the contents with you. We haven’t covered nail accessories, medical supplies, religious tools and keepsakes, hair brushes, writing utensils and the world’s largest collection of bobby pins but it was all in my Aunt’s big black pocketbook.

So you can understand why whenever she went anywhere, the bag went with her. At home, it was kept in the end cabinet of the dining room buffet. Both the latches of the pocket book and the buffet door made clicks that when opened were so freaking loud and distinctive, my Aunt could have been in the backyard garden watering the tomatoes with a train hurtling through Amsterdam just 500 feet away on the old tracks that used border West Main St and she’d still scream, “Who just opened the door on the buffet?”

If she came to the house of one of her nephews for a birthday party or holiday, she’d walk in the front door, we’d give her a kiss, take her coat and then she’d peer around to see who was there. If it was just her nephews, she’d give you the black pocketbook and tell you to “put it someplace safe.” If God forbid you had invited an outsider to the gathering, the Pocketbook remained with her. Fortunately the damn thing was big enough to double as an ottoman in such cases.

Me and my brothers and cousin received many wonderful gifts from that amazing valise. My Aunt was an extremely generous Aunt who would often tell anyone who would listen that “her nephews were her life.” Holidays, birthdays, good report cards, religious milestones, college books, clothes for the kids etc. all meant hearing Aunt Onnie say “Jim! Go get me my pocketbook!”

And then she died,

Twenty five years later me and my brother Jerry were in her old house, emptying it of stuff that had simply been left there over the years and we came across Aunt Onnie’s big black pocketbook. We looked at each other and smiled and opened it up not knowing what to expect. Her husband had emptied most of its content but we did find pictures of all of her nephews and our children and a wonderful letter my brother Matt had written to her on our behalf one long ago Christmas. It explained how much we loved her and how much we had appreciated all of the wonderful things she had done for us during her lifetime. It was still in the original envelope but you could tell unlike the dollar bills she used to carry those old Amsterdam Savings Bank sleeves, she had handled this piece of paper several times.

Great Amsterdam Traditions – Halloween

Amsterdam continues to develop wonderful new Halloween season traditions. I just participated in one of them. The Historic Amsterdam League’s 7th annual Ghost Tour took place last weekend (the accompanying photo shows your’s truly playing the ghost of Henry Grieme, one of Amsterdam’s most accomplished builders and business owners). This Thursday, another rendition of the popular Trick or Treat on the MVGO Bridge will be taking place. So I thought today would be a good time to look back at how Halloween in Amsterdam spawned three older traditions that entertained an entire community, especially the Rug City’s young ones.

Paintings on the Windows of Downtown Stores
Every October back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70’s, the Amsterdam Kiwanis Club sponsored a Halloween window painting contest for the youth of our community. Instead of soaping windows as a Trick-or-Treat prank, the Kiwanian’s awarded cash prizes to the teams of Rug City students whose plate glass backed depictions were judged to be prize-worthy. Over fifty different downtown merchants would participate in the event, donating one or more of their store’s display windows to serve as canvases for the amateur artists. Dozens upon dozens of kids would descend on Amsterdam’s downtown armed with paper sketches of what they were planning as their finished piece, wax pencils, paint brushes and jar upon jar of different color paints, heavy on the orange and black. Each sketch had to first be approved by the children’s art teacher. When all the windows were done, downtown would become very crowded with amateur art lovers who would walk the L-shaped outdoor Halloween gallery, which extended all the way from the corner of Market and Division to the Bargain City discount store on Main Street.  In 1962, the talented team of Louise LoBalbo, Sharon Pallotta, Stella Kohut and Agnes Boccio collaborated on the ghostly checker game that is pictured with this post, which appeared on the window of Morrison & Putman’s popular music store then still located on Market Street. The four young painters split a first prize of $10. Such a paltry sum is a clear indication that the kids who participated were in it for recognition more than money. How valuable was that recognition? A kid named Paul Tonko made the prize list at least a couple of times during his childhood and today he’s a US Congressman!

The Annual Halloween Parade
Another Amsterdam Halloween tradition once sponsored by the Kiwanis Club is the annual Halloween parade. Every year for as long as I can remember, the kids of this city put on their costumes and headed toward the parade route to march past thousands of parents, grandparents and kids who were either a bit too old or thought they were a bit too cool to join the promenade of witches, ghosts, monsters and some of the most creative disguises many of us have ever seen. The Little Giants players and cheerleaders and all of Amsterdam’s various youth scouting organizations had it easy when it came to figuring out what to wear because they always marched together as groups dressed in their uniforms. All the other costumed marching participants were divided up by which school they attended. One of the highlights of each year’s parade and a custom still being practiced is the appearance of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes all dressed in their own costumes of choosing. I remember my own four kids marching in this parade and in fact have a vivid memory of myself as a youngster doing the same. The late ABC Newsman, Joe Spencer, his little brother Phil and I marched in the 1964 parade as the Spirit of 76. We won a pen set, but so did everyone else. The Amsterdam Elks Club took over sponsorship of the Parade in 2000 and have made sure it continues on as an Amsterdam tradition and they deserve the gratitude of our entire community for doing so.

Trick or Treating
My own children and grandchildren still don’t believe this. When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ’60’s, Amsterdam had three official nights of Trick or Treating. That’s right, Rug City youngsters would gobble down their suppers, put on their costumes, grab the brown paper grocery bags their Mom’s used to fold up and store on the back porch and spend the next four hours knocking on doors seeking full-sized Milky Ways, Hershey Bars, Almond Joys, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups etc. I repeat, home owners and apartment dwellers in every neighborhood of this city used to hand out full sized versions of these popular sweet treats not the little miniatures they do now, for three full nights. Of course those big bar versions were only a nickel back then and lot’s of people still gave us apples and the dreaded popcorn balls, but it did seem that it was a lot easier for everybody to get into the candy-giving spirit than it is now-days. The three-day span also gave kids the opportunity to scope out a trick-or-treating travel strategy to maximize both the volume and quality of stuff dropped into your bag. We used to do the flat streets of the West End the first night, the hills the second and then on the third, we’d attack the fringes of surrounding neighborhoods always making sure to revisit the places that gave us the best treats from the nights before.


Great Amsterdam Traditions – Sunday Family Dinner

Sunday Family Dinners:

In our Amsterdam family the Sunday routine consisted of going to the nine o’clock mass at St. Mike’s, purchasing the Sunday newspapers, and then heading over to our grandmother’s house to watch the TV Tournament Time bowling program, hosted by the popular local television weatherman, Howard Tupper. While Big John German or Skip Vigars was battling Joe Donato or Johnny Walthers in a televised three game match, my grandmother and aunts were busy as hell in the kitchen finishing the sauce they had begun cooking the evening before and preparing all the other components and courses that made up a Cinquanti family Sunday meal.

My father’s two sisters were physically large women and when the two of them and my grandmother were working in that same tiny kitchen there was no room for a fourth person to get in there. At noon, eleven of us gathered around a dining room table designed to seat a half–dozen to eat a three-course meal that began with homemade soup, either chicken with postine or Italian wedding, served piping hot. It could be a ninety-five degree day in August or a below freezing day in February, it didn’t matter. Hot homemade soup was always on the menu on Sunday’s at Gram’s house. My family loved to eat soup, not just because one of my aunts was a soup-making wizard but also because we were a clan that loved to slurp. When all of us got going on that soup at the same time, my grandmother’s 10’ x 12’ dining room sounded like the end of a drain cleaner demonstration.

As soon as the soup bowls emptied, huge platters of the main course would start appearing on that table. There was always a platter containing five-dozen meatballs, enough so that every person at the table could have at least five. My Aunt made a delicious meatball, unlike any I’ve ever tasted before or since. Fortunately, both my mom and the woman I have been married to for over 40 years also made their own versions of a terrific tasting meatball. The result is that I have spent my entire life in meatball heaven!

Along with the meatballs would come a platter containing 24 links of sweet Italian sausage purchased from Califano’s Market on the corner of Division and Clinton Streets. Alongside the sausage was the same number of braggiole, each still tied into tight little rolls with my grandmother’s white braggiole string. In our family, kids learned how to get a hot braggiole untied without burning your fingers long before we learned how to tie our shoes.

Once all the meat was on the table the pasta would be served in my grandmother’s huge pasta bowl, which could have doubled as a backyard wading pool. Every week that gigantic bowl was filled with five pounds of P&R Pasta. It might be rigatoni, ziti, the little shells, spaghetti or my personal favorite, the accordion-shaped macaroni’s. The third and final course was always a tossed salad, which my aunt seasoned by hand, rubbing the olive oil, red wine vinegar and spices into each lettuce leaf, black pitted olive, home grown tomato and cucumber with her thrice-washed fingers. Strangely, the Cinquanti’s of Leonard Street always ate their salad as the final and not the first course.

I still remember the taste of every dish on that Sunday table and the sounds and voices that were as much a part of those family meals as the delicious food. There would always be arguing, sometimes loud and long, lot’s of neighborhood gossip often spoken in Italian and lots and lots of laughing. One of my uncles would always tear apart a paper napkin and convert it into eyebrows and a beard that he’d stick on his face. He’d also stand up after filling his belly to the brim, unbuckle his pants and pull them down in front of us all to “get some room to breathe” as he would explain it.

“Give my baby another meatball, he’s a growing boy!” “Eat, please eat, there’s more in the kitchen!” “Finish your macaroni little Jerry, it’s a sin to leave ziti on your dish!” “Who’s on Ed Sullivan tonight?” And while all this is going on, my sweet grandmother is sitting off to the side with a huge smile on her face watching her beloved family gorge themselves with all this delicious food she had helped make. On her lap was a little bowl with a few pieces of pasta and maybe half a meatball. She would eat more later, after she was sure there was enough food for everyone else.

October 11 – Happy Birthday Steve Soulla

22soullaEvery school year from September of 1966 until June of 1969, I not only saw Steve Soulla every day of the week, I gave him some of my money too. Well, actually, it was my parents’ money. He was the proprietor of a store called Soulla’s Card-Craft that used to be located on the southwestern corner of Guy Park Avenue and Wall Street, right across from the old Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School Building. Today, there’s a gas station on the site of Soulla’s old business and a seniors’ high-rise where the school used to be. But back in the day, the traffic back and forth between those two locations in the morning before the first school bell rang, at lunchtime and in the afternoon after the final bell sounded, was a constant flow of hundreds of kids spending between fifty cents and a dollar each on candy, gum, baseball cards, school supplies, ice cream bars, etc.

Today’s Birthday Celebrant was a lifelong native of Amsterdam, N.Y. born here on October 9, 1921. He was one of the eight children (6 girls, 2 boys) born to Fedele and Evelina Soulla. During his high school years at Wilbur Lynch he was a very talented basketball player for Coach DeWitt Benjamin’s Purple & Gold cagers, jumping center and usually finishing among each game’s top scorers. After graduating in 1941, Soulla joined the Navy and saw action in both Guam and Okinawa. After returning from service he went to college, eventually earning his degree from Qinnipiac University. Steve’s athletic talents extended to both golf and bowling. He excelled at both for a very long time.

His Card-Craft store was a hit from the start with its perfect location and Soulla’s knack for staying on top of the nickel-and-dime-costing tastes of the Amsterdam adolescent market. He and his long-time friend Tony Cosentino would both work the counter when the store got busy.  I used to jokingly refer to them as Batman and Robin because the old Batman television show was a hit back then. The girls loved Cosentino, who had Bobby Darren type looks, the patience of Job and always wore a smile. Soulla was the disciplinarian no-nonsense expeditor of each purchase. If you took too long to make your buying decision he’d come up with a line like, “You know we close in six hours.”

When the Gas Station owners purchased the corner property, Card-Craft was forced to move to the kitty-corner location of the same two streets but the end of the store’s days as a thriving business was fast approaching. Soulla went to work at Mohasco for a short time and then became the superintendent at the Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course until he retired and moved south to Florida. He passed away in March of 2009 at the age of 87. I can still hear him tell a 12-year-old at the front of a long line who’s trying to count out the correct change, “You’ll never be a math teacher kid!”

October 10 – Happy Birthday Anthony Kosiba

tonykosibaFuture generations of the families of Amsterdam veterans who made the supreme sacrifice for their Country during World War II will forever be grateful to the late Bob Going for painstakingly compiling and so eloquently chronicling the stories of their ancestor heroes. Knowing the effort I’ve put into just my own “Birthday” compilations, I can attest to the fact that his two books on the subject, Honor Roll and Where Do We Find Such Men represent huge undertakings and I’m confident they will continue to be recognized as treasured local history references long after we here now are gone.

I’ve learned so much from both books and one of my favorites is Bob’s story of today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant. Anthony Kosiba was born in the Rug City on October 10, 1908, one of eight children. At the age of fifteen, he began working for the Fitzgerald Bottling Works in Amsterdam. By the time he was called into service, he was 35-years-old, had married his wife Olga and had put in 20 years of service at Fitzgerald.

Kosiba was inducted in the Army on April 12, 1943. He did his basic training in Florida and then received additional training at bases in Arkansas, Alabama and Maryland. On August 1, 1944, a little less than two months after D-Day took place, Private First Class Kosiba was shipped over to England and was subsequently sent into action in France. He fought his way through Belgium and reached Hitler’s Germany by early Fall. That’s when the telegram addressed to his wife arrived back home. It informed her that her husband had been killed in action in Germany on October 6th.

A funeral Mass was held for Anthony at St. Stanislaus Church and Olga set about making the sad adjustment to the life of a young widow and then a letter arrived at her McCleary Avenue home. It was from her husband.

Going’s books include descriptions of a few instances when widows of fallen Amsterdam servicemen received letters from husbands who had lost their lives in action after the correspondence had been written and mailed back home. That’s exactly what Olga thought the circumstances were as she read what she thought were the last words her husband would ever share with her.  But then she noticed that her husband had dated the letter and he had written it after the date he supposedly died.

Going tells his readers that Olga later learned that Anthony had been so seriously wounded in battle that it was initially thought he was dead. Going surmises that at that point his nametag was collected and the process that culminated with the initial telegram being sent to Mrs. Kosiba was initiated. Meanwhile, Anthony Kosiba’s Guardian Angel went to work and Kosiba showed the sign of life necessary to make someone realize he was not ready to meet his maker quite yet. After a long and arduous recovery period in Army hospitals, he came home to Olga. He went back to work at the bottling plant and retired as production manager. He and Olga got to spend another 55 years together before she died in 1998.  Anthony Kosiba lived another five years before he passed on March 6, 2003, at the age of 94. As of today, no one has reported receiving any letters from him dated later than that.



October 9 – Happy Birthday Ed Hardies

22ehardiesLike his contemporary Otto Greco, whose birthday we celebrated yesterday, Ed Hardies was an Amsterdam native who had a trade that he could have practiced and done just fine with in his life. But like Otto, he was willing to take that extra step and make the extra effort necessary to go into business for himself.

He was born in Amsterdam, NY on October 8, 1926. He graduated from Amsterdam High School in 1944 and then joined the US Navy. It was in the Navy that he took classes in electronics, did really well in them and realized he could make a career out of it.

He married an Amsterdam girl, Nora Mae Koch in 1947, they had their first two children and then Ed got called back into the Navy during the Korean conflict. He then went to work locally as an electrician. By 1959, his family had grown with the addition of four more children and he decided it was time to go out on his own. He began Hardies Electric that year and with a family of eight to support, worked his rear end off making sure it succeeded. And it did.

Hardies focused on electrical contracting work more than residential and that’s really how he grew his business. He also took an active role in his community’s affairs, getting elected to the Greater Amsterdam School Board and serving three terms. He was a Mason, an Elk, a member of Rotary and the Green Hill Cemetery Association.

In the early seventies, Amsterdam Mayor John Gomulka asked him to serve as the City’s Commissioner of Public Works, which he did for four years. He was also the City’s Water commissioner for a short time before returning to Hardies Electric to help his youngest son Sean, who had by then taken over the business. In 1974, his oldest son, Dr. Michael Hardies called upon his Dad to help him build the new Medical Center he opened in Troy, NY and Ed ended up managing that facility for his son for the next dozen years.

As if he didn’t have enough to keep him busy, Hardies also invested in and developed several properties in Amsterdam, including both the Highland and Holland Garden Apartment complexes. Whenever he could squeeze in the time, he absolutely loved to fish and hunt and he cherished the annual chartered trips he’d take into Canada with Sean and a bunch of his buddies to do both.

Unfortunately it was a hunting accident that slowed him down physically when Ed was in his sixties. Sean Hardies told me that his dad never fully recovered from it. He died in 2001 at the age of 74. In addition to his wife and two sons, he left behind four daughters who he absolutely adored and fourteen cherished grandchildren.

October 8 – Happy Birthday Otto Greco

Otto Pic2There were quite a few of them from my Dad’s generation back then here in Amsterdam. Today they call them fancy names like entrepreneurs or job creators but back in the day, right after World War II, they were the guys who just worked harder and longer and smarter than everyone else. Otto Greco was at heart, a painter. He was honest, took pride in his work and didn’t try to cut corners when it came to doing a job the right way. He started his own painting business called West End Painters after the War. He married his wife Josephine in 1953 and together they would raise two sons and all the while Otto’s business kept growing.

When a huge job was being bid in the late fifties, he noticed another Amsterdam firm called Port Jackson Painters on the bid list. It was owned by Amsterdam resident, Joe Carlucci. The two men made a deal. If either won the bid they would combine their crews and form one company and that’s exactly how the Amsterdam Painting Company was born. Before you knew it, their painters were painting just about every new commercial building going up in Amsterdam as well as plenty from outside the area as well. Business was good but Otto wanted to take it a step further.

Painting contractors just like every other type of business get better prices on the supplies they need to complete their work when they can buy in bulk. Otto figured if he opened up a paint store and did his own paint color mixing, he could buy his paint in larger volumes and what he didn’t use on his contracting jobs could be sold in the store. Now this was several decades before “Do It Yourself” became a hot consumer trend as well as a television network, but when Otto opened the doors to his new Amsterdam Decorating Center at 333 West Main Street, it was busy from the get go. It seemed as if everyone who needed a gallon of paint in the Rug City drove down there to buy it and they’d always pick up a brush, some roller heads and a roller pan as well.

A huge key to the retail store’s initial success was Otto’s brother Tony Greco, a well-liked crackerjack store salesman who had worked for years at Sears. Otto had convinced his sibling to join him in the business and Tony proved to be the perfect choice. In addition to paint the store sold all kinds of wall and floor coverings and maintained a talented team of installers who were kept constantly busy.

With both the store and contracting business booming, Otto could finally sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor but he never really did. He was too much of a hands-on guy to stay away from the store for long and he enjoyed interacting with his customers. I used to buy all my paint there. Otto would always start laughing when I walked through the door of his store because he knew it meant my Wife had roped me into a home improvement project and he also knew I hated to paint! He’d always tell me a story about when him and my Dad were kids growing up on the West End. He’d also always throw a roller head or paint brush on the counter and tell the cashier “That’s on the house.”

Otto Greco died in 1992 at the much-too-young age of 67. He lived long enough to see his good ideas turn into a great Amsterdam business.

October 7 – Happy Birthday Rip Rowan

73593Though he was born in Schenectady where his Mom Clarissa hailed from, William Rowan Jr. did his growing up in Amsterdam, NY. He resided on the lower “200 block” of Guy Park Avenue and he graduated from Lynch High School in 1953. His father was “Red” Rowan, a skilled Rug City bowler in his day and a huge sports fan, a trait he certainly passed on to his namesake. The kid loved sports and was a fanatical follower of his beloved New York Yankees. He played Church League basketball for St. Ann’s and was an outfielder on the old Mortan’s team that used to compete in the inter-city State League. The team played its home games at Mohawk Mills Park and I came across a 1953 Recorder article that documents the fact that the young Mr. Rowan was a powerful enough hitter to have driven a ball over that venue’s distant center field fence in one such contest.

He graduated from Ithaca College, did his military hitch with the Air Force and got his first job behind a mike at Amsterdam’s WCSS radio station in the late 1950’s, where he quickly became a listening audience favorite, noted for his rapid-fire, high energy play-by-play announcing of high school basketball games. It was 1966, when Rowan landed the sports casting job with WTEN that ended up making him a Capital District Sports Legend. He and Bob McNamara, another long-time Albany-area sports broadcasting celebrity, were hired by the station at the about the same time. When “Mac” accepted an offer the following year to anchor the sports desk at Schenectady’s WRGB, Rowan took over as Channel 10 anchor and the two competed for audience share for the next 20 years, prompting the question heard in thousands of Capital District taverns and bars, “Who do you like better, Mac or Rip?”.

As for the nickname “Rip,” it came from a former star Army running back from the late 1940’s by the name of Elwyn “Rip” Rowan. Rowan was also pretty well known for his ability to “pass gas” on demand and he was not above covertly doing so “on the air,” which added a different level of appropriateness to his nickname, especially when it was extended later in his career to “the Ripper.”

Rowan’s love for the game of baseball made him this area’s biggest advocate for the return of minor league play and he got his wish when the Oakland A’s put a farm club here, resulting in the construction of Heritage Park in 1981. Two years later, Rowan’s beloved Yankees replaced the A’s as tenants of the Park and offered Rip a job in the team’s front office, which he quickly accepted. It was the job of his dreams. He became best of friends with Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto and got to watch Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera up close and personal on their way to the Bronx. Current Yankee GM Brian Cashman interned for Rowan one summer and George “the Boss” Steinbrenner would actually pick up the phone when his secretary told him he had a call from Rip. He spent the next twenty years working as a minor league team exec, switching to the Diamond Dawgs when the Yankees abandoned Albany and then the Tri City Valley Cats.

He retired from everything in 2006 and spent the last seven years of his life living in Saratoga, staying connected to his three kids and five grandchildren and paying occasional visits to his favorite corner of the bar at the Barnsider Restaurant in Colonie. Rip Rowan died in November of 2013 at the age of 79.



October 6 – Happy Birthday Billy Bernat

bernat2Sometimes life isn’t fair. It certainly wasn’t on the afternoon of January 29, 1997, when 42-year-old Billy Bernat died shortly after being admitted to Albany Medical Center. I wasn’t a close friend of Billy’s but you didn’t have to be to like him anyway. He was a year behind me at Wilbur Lynch High School and he was always smiling and upbeat. He was a superb athlete in high school. I believe he made the varsity squads of all three major sports as a sophomore, which was incredibly hard to do. But his best sport was baseball. As a senior, Bernat was a left-handed starting pitcher for Brian Mee’s 1973 Class A Section II Champions. That was the first-ever sectional championship for Amsterdam baseball and it ended the Suburban Council’s dominance over the old Class A League in sectional play. Bernat was the mound ace on that very good squad. He went a perfect 7-0 that season and one of his victories was an amazing 11-inning complete game stint over Mt. Pleasant! He was also one of the team’s best hitters. That Ram nine finished the season with16 straight victories with Billy getting the win over powerhouse Shenendehowa in the championship.

Billy was named after his Dad, a popular local insurance agent who never missed one of his son’s games. His Mom Pauline was a nurse. He also had two sisters. The Bernat’s were a solid close-knit family.

After high school, he had gone to St. Rose and after getting his degree from there he went to work as a salesman for a food broker in Albany. He married an Amsterdam girl named Maureen Harrington, who was the daughter of former Amsterdam mailman Jack Harrington and his wife Anne. They had settled in Altamont and had two daughters. He and his wife were back in Amsterdam often with their children and Billy kept in touch with old buddies via his memberships at Bigelow Weavers and Irish American Club. What made Billy’s death at such a young age so hard for me to believe was the fact that he had always kept himself in great shape. He exercised regularly at the Albany Y. His family buried his remains in St. Stephen’s cemetery in the village of Hagaman, where he grew up.

An annual award is given in Billy’s honor by the Amsterdam High School Football Booster Club which recognizes a volunteer for contributions to the AHS Football program that go above and beyond what has been asked of that individual. It has become a distinguished annual honor given in memory of a highly admired and wonderfully talented former AHS athlete.