Selecting “Amsterdam’s “All Time Top Ten Most Famous Residents” was an easy task to begin but it became instantly and more increasingly difficult after the top slot of the list had been addressed. To be fair, I couldn’t just weigh an individual’s level of fame as it exists today. Instead, I tried to factor in the degree and scope of each candidate’s fame at both the time they were at the pinnacle of their careers and then beyond, right up until today. Here are my picks for the top five slots. The entire list will appear in my new book “Fifty Top Ten Lists for Amsterdam, New York” which will be available later this year.
1) Kirk Douglas – When I’ve met people while traveling and told them I’m from this place, many have asked me “What is Amsterdam, NY known for?” I’ve always responded “Its where Kirk Douglas was born!” I’m guessing that’s the same answer almost everyone born in this town before 1990 gives whenever they are asked that same question. That pretty much explains why this recently turned 100-year-old son of a ragman, who was born in the East End of Amsterdam was a no-brainer choice for the very top of this list. Douglas left this city after graduating from Wilbur Lynch High School in 1934 still carrying his birth name of Isadore Demsky and began an acting career that would see him rise to the pinnacle of Hollywood’s top box-office attractions. He appeared in 90 films and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
2) Stephen Sanford – This was a tough number two pick because the height of Sanford’s popularity was so long ago, right around the turn of the Twentieth Century. But back then the Amsterdam business he rebuilt from the ashes of a devastating 1854 fire had become the greatest carpet-making company in the world and Sanford had evolved into one of this country’s most respected industrialists. He was also a Republican Party force at the national level, having served in Congress from 1869 to1871 and becoming a close friend and confidant of both President Ulysses Grant and New York State Senator and political boss, Roscoe Conkling. Add to this the fact that the Hurricana Stud Farm he started was beginning to breed some of the finest thoroughbred racehorses in history and you can understand why the name Stephen Sanford was at the time of his death in 1913, certainly considered a very famous name in America.
3) Rocco Petrone – The first time Petrone’s name appeared in the local Amsterdam newspaper was September of 1927 when his father, a railroad worker was killed on the job when he was struck by a passing train just east of the city. The article describing the tragedy listed then just one-and-a-half year-old Rocco and his brother Johnny as survivors. But Petrone did more than just survive the tragedy. He went on to achieve like few other Amsterdam natives who came before or after him have ever achieved. He excelled at everything he did including school, where he was named Salutatorian of his 1945 Wilbur Lynch graduating class, and in sports as a star tackle on Amsterdam’s varsity football team. He got an appointment to West Point and after receiving his commission, he went on to earn a Masters Degree at MIT in mechanical engineering. He then helped develop the Redstone rocket, America’s very first ballistic missile and the vehicle used to send the first American astronaut into space. After Redstone he was put on loan to NASA, where shortly after retiring from the Army in 1966, he was given the job of director of NASA’a launch operations. He then became director of the Apollo program. It was in that role that Amsterdam native, Rocco Petrone became responsible for all phases of the flight that landed Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 20, 1969 and returned him safely back to Earth. That one small step for man was certainly one giant leap for a fatherless boy from Amsterdam, NY.
4) Dr. Tom Catena – Before his career is over, I’m pretty certain that this amazing young man’s rank on any list of most famous people from Amsterdam will rise even higher. He is already without a doubt the most well-known and respected humanitarian to ever have lived in our community. Some in the media have gone so far as to describe him as a living saint. His inspirational and absolutely selfless effort to provide medical care to a population of 750,000 members of Sudan’s terrorized Nuba Tribe is one of the most noble stories of this still very young 21st Century.
5) Sir William Johnson – Of all the names that made this list, only this Irish-born Baronet’s will continue to appear in future U.S. history textbooks addressing 18th Century Colonial America. His accomplishments included the founding of communities, the naming of “Lake George”, negotiation of national treaties and commanding an entire Army. Johnson’s Amsterdam connection began in 1738, when his British Admiral uncle sent him to settle a tract of land he had purchased on the south side of the Mohawk River in today’s town of Florida with instructions to initiate a fur trading relationship with the Indians in this area. When Johnson arrived and began those tasks, he quickly took note of the fact that the most popular Indian trading routes were north of the Mohawk so he took the initiative and purchased land on the opposite bank which today constitutes the very western portion of the city of Amsterdam and the village of Fort Johnson. This astute move enabled him to intercept Mohawk Indian traders on their way east to his Dutch trading competition in Albany and convince them to trade their furs with him instead. His subsequent close and trusted relationship with the Mohawks would catapult him into the position of the Crown’s Indian Agent for the entire Iroquois Nation. He went on to play significant military, political and trade roles in colonial affairs right up until his death in 1774.
The next five members of this list will be selected from a deserving group of one-time Amsterdam residents who have each achieved national recognition and acclaim. Putting this list together has once again reminded me that my hometown has been and always will be a very special place.
Once a month, I will be sending out a newsletter that includes a portion of the All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists I happen to be working on at the time. I will also use this monthly newsletter to announce the topics for upcoming Top Ten Lists and welcoming readers to put forth their own nominations for these compilations. If you’d like be included, please add your e-mail address here.