May 2 – Happy Birthday Jeremiah Billings

Today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant appears to have had some very distinctive lineage surrounded by mysterious if not outright sultry circumstances. His Dad’s name was James Van Rennselaer. But today’s birthday boy’s name was Jeremiah Billings. So it appears as if his birth might have been the product of an affair. That birth took place on May 2, 1846, right here in Amsterdam, NY. His Mom was a woman named Tempe Jane Bunn Billings, which makes it appear as if she was married to a man named Billings at the time she gave birth to Van Rennselear’s son.

Having the Van Rennselear name back then in this area of New York was the equivalent to being a Rockefeller today. The family first arrived in this area of New York State from Holland in the 1600s and was granted title to millions of acres of land by the Dutch Royal House. They used that land to become wealthy beyond imagination and politically powerful in local, state and eventually national politics. Jeremiah Billings was certainly aware of the panache of the name, which may explain why he did nothing to hide the identity of his true father and in fact made it public knowledge. Back at the turn of the 20th century, the Who’s Who of American business, government and society was an annual publication called The American Blue Book of Biography. Beginning in the early 1900’s, Jeremiah’s name began getting listed in this yearly encyclopedia of the rich and powerful.

Billings did not remain in Amsterdam. According to his Blue Book profile, he received a “common school” education, migrated west, and married Chloe Cable, a woman from Cedar Falls Iowa in 1867. The couple and their three children eventually settled in a place called Alma, a small town in the Republican River Valley of Nebraska that had been the buffalo hunting grounds of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian Tribes until the US Military chased them out after the Civil War.

Billings formed a real estate company in Alma called J. B. Billings & Sons and became heavily involved in the local Republican Party. When Alma won a decade-long battle to become the County seat, Billings was in the perfect position to benefit. He became the first Mayor of Alma and the president of the Alma State Bank. His local political power zoomed and he evolved into a power broker in the Cornhusker State’s Republican party.

That’s how Billings’ name ended up in the Blue Book. All of the folks selected for this distinction were asked to complete questionnaire addressing their backgrounds. This is why I’m assuming Billings did nothing to hide his illegitimate birth. He listed James Van Rensselaer as his father’s name.

 

May 1 – Happy Birthday Mike Sampone & Bob Purtell

samponeHappy Birthday Mike Sampone – On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Amsterdam’s Mike Sampone was supposed to have been meeting with staff in the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance office that was located on the 86th floor of Tower II of the World Trade Center. A last minute change of plans is quite likely all that kept Mike from being one of the 40 employees in that office who were killed in that morning’s infamous attack. Not only were several of these victims direct reports to Mike, they were also his close friends. I will never forget hearing Mike tell this story the first time and seeing the sadness in his eyes as he did so. What helped him recover was his appointment to the Governor’s group that was put in charge of making sure the millions of dollars of donations that were sent to the state on behalf of the families of the 9-11 victims, were fairly and properly distributed. I have valued Mike Sampone’s close friendship for over 40 years. During that time we have played softball together, bowled together, golfed together, watched almost every Super Bowl played and enjoyed a beer or two along the way. He is the kind of person who would do anything he can to help a friend and I’ve seen him do just that so many times since I’ve known him. Now retired from the State, Mike sells commercial real estate. I wish him the happiest of birthdays and I thank him for all of the great memories he’s contributed to my life. Happy Birthday Soups!

Happy Birthday Bob Purtell – Coincidentally, today also happens to be the birthday of another good friend of mine who also happens to sell real estate. His name is Bob Purtell. I met Bob nine years ago, when I was initially asked to serve with him on the Board of Directors for Liberty/Montgomery County ARC. I liked him immediately. He’s the kind of guy who speaks up for people who can’t or don’t do a very good job of speaking up for themslves. He also loves this community and is willing to do anything he can to make it a better place to live. For example, if it wasn’t for Bob Purtell’s persistence and intense hands-on work, there would be no Land Bank program in Amsterdam. When Hurricane Irene hit this area, Bob spent huge amounts of his time helping area residents clean up and recover from the destruction. Whether its helping out the Amen Soup Kitchen, organizing the team of volunteers to Clean Up Amsterdam every spring, or representing his constituents as a district legislator in Fonda, he’s the type of guy you want on your side when the going gets tough and I consider myself privileged to have his friendship. Happy Birthday Bob!

April 29 – A Quiz About Amsterdam’s Division Street

Though still a major west-to-east route through the city, the younger generations in Amsterdam most likely have no idea just how significant a street Division was in the history of this community. Right up until the mid 1930’s the eastern end of the thorougfare was home to this town’s post office, it’s high school and it’s phone company. From Guy Street east beautiful architecture graced both sides of the street in the way of well kept private homes, houses of worship fraternal clubhouses and professional offices, a few of which still stand. The street pretty much maintained its professional composition right up until the 1970’s when urban renewal, relocation of the junior high to Lynch Middle School and accommodation of the housing needs of Amsterdam’s senior and affordable housing residents created a whole new look and feel to Division. Let’s test your memory of this historic Rug City artery.

1. This business has been owned by the same family for almost 90 years, all of them spent on Division Street. The original owner was tragically murdered in the store’s first location. His son converted the original business model of the business from retail to strictly wholesale in the current Division Street location and his grandson (pictured above) and now great grandchildren have kept it going. What is the name of this business?

2. Can you name all the side streets that connect Division Street to West Main Street?

3. The Amsterdam Doctor pictured above maintained both a home and office at 87 Division Street for many years. What was his name?

4. The Division Street edifice pictured above once served as the regal residence of one of the biggest button makers in the United States. What was his name?

5. At the turn of the 20thCentury, the ornate row of Division Street apartments pictured above was considered one of the most exclusive residential blocks in the City of Amsterdam. Urban Renewal  demolished them in the 1970s to clear the way for the New Amsterdam rent-controlled housing complex that still occupies the south side of Division west of Wall Street. What was the popular nickname for the original block of apartments pictured above.

6.The building pictured above was once a private residence located on the northside of Division St. in between Leonard and Yeoman Streets. In 1888 it was converted into what?

Click here for the correct answers:

If you’d like to see the rest of the questions in my 20-question Division Street Trivia Quiz when it becomes available next week, put your e-mail address on my Amsterdam Trivia Quiz mailing list. There’s no charge. You can sign up here!

 

April 28 – Happy Birthday Enders Voorhees

enders2The Voorhees name is one of the oldest in both North America and Amsterdam. Steven Coerte Van Voorhees came to America from Holland in April of 1660 and settled in what is now Bergen County, New Jersey. His grandson Hendrick, moved north to Montgomery County in 1782 and became a prosperous farmer. His offspring and their’s branched off into local banking and industry and the Voorhees name became synonymous with success in this Mohawk Valley community for the next century and a half. Both Voorhees Road and Voorhees Street are named after the clan. But it was a family member who left the Rug City after graduating from college who became the most famous and influential Vorhees of all.

Enders McClumpha Voorhees was born on April 28, 1891.He was the fifth child of   Jame Voorhees who had succeeded his own father as President of Amsterdam’s Farmer’s National Bank. With so many siblings ahead of him in the pecking order, when Enders began his college career at Dartmouth, it was unclear where or how he fit into the family’s succession plans at either the bank or the knitting firm they controlled.  Sure enough, after he graduated from the Ivy League school in 1914, instead of returning to his hometown he accepted a position as an accountant with a firm in Boston and a year later took a job with a New York City importing and exporting firm that sent him around the world. But it was a huge $100,000 inheritance he received from his father’s sister, Sarah Voorhees in 1917, that made him independently wealthy and most likely turned his status as an ex-Amsterdam resident into a permanent one.

Back then a guy with a hundred grand in his bank account could afford to be very choosy about where he worked and very demanding when it came to his job description. Voorhees just kept moving up the corporate ladder, from company-to-company. He became assistant controller for the United States Rubber Company, then got into industrial engineering and in 1927 began a decade long career at Johns-Manville Corporation that saw him rise to the position of Vice President.

In 1937, he went to work for the United States Steel Corporation, at the time the most powerful corporation on Earth. During his seventeen years with US Steel, he rose to the position of Chief Financial Officer, making him one of the most influential and highest paid corporate executives in this country.

Voorhees married his wife Blanche in 1923 and though the couple never had any children of their own, they took the son and daughter of a close divorced friend into their home and raised the two as their own. They had a permanent residence in Manhattan, and vacation homes in Florida and on the St. Lawrence seaway.

After he retired he started the Voorhees Technical Institute in Manhattan, a trade school that was eventually absorbed by the City College of New York. He also continued to support his family. One of the conditions of his Aunt Sarah’s bequest to him was that he assist Voorhees family members in need and Enders did that faithfully until the day he died in April of 1980, just two weeks short of his 89th birthday.

 

April 27 – Happy Birthday Tim Santoro

I believe my April 27th Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant had to be one of the most courageous  individuals in the history of this city. His name was Tim Santoro and he was born on April 27, 1952 with a facial deformity that made him look very different than everyone else. Since I grew up during the same time he did, I saw him quite a bit as a kid, mostly in church on Sundays with his Mom. I knew he attended St. Mary’s Institute and graduated from Bishop Scully. Then I lost track of him. I had not known that he went on to FMCC or that he eventually got a job doing maintenance at Auriesville Shrine.

Tim passed away in April of 2015 at the age of 63. His online obituary and the comments and condolences friends added to it are all I know about his personal life. The clear message was that he refused to let his appearance define him. He wanted friendships, not pity.

But what I do vividly remember about Tim was that every time I saw him in church or in a group photo of his class at school there was always a larger than normal space between him and the person standing or sitting next to him. As I read his obituary, it was that space that I found myself thinking and wondering about. I had always assumed it existed because people felt uncomfortable being next to him but now I wondered if Tim, knowing that, began creating that space himself.

Fortunately, he was born into a family that loved him like crazy. But even still, for him, waking up each morning and walking out his front door to face a world filled with so many different kinds of attitudes had to have taken an enormous amount of courage on his part.

I remember when I was in grade school, a nun in our catechism class told us that when folks born with physical or behavioral disabilities enter heaven, God “cures” them. But the heaven I’m hoping to reach is a place where what we look like or what we can’t do matters not at all. In that heaven, the spaces between Tim and everyone else have finally disappeared.

 

 

 

April 26 – Happy Birthday Dr. Tom Catena

There are no words that can adequately describe the admiration I have for Amsterdam native Dr. Tom Catena. A brilliant student, a highly talented athlete with an Ivy league education as a mechanical engineer and a medical degree from Duke, he could have gone to any city in this country, made a huge amount of money and lived the proverbial American Dream.

But instead, he chooses to live in the Sudan, one of the most under-developed war-torn countries on Earth. Instead, he chooses to work as the director and only surgeon in a crude mountain-top hospital that serves a population of 750,000 members of the Nuba tribe. They are among the poorest people on this planet and they have been caught in the middle of a hellish civil war in which the Sudanese Government has actively been trying to eradicate them. Catena struggles to keep them alive. He risks his life, working twenty-hour days, treating every type and scope of injury and illness known to man with medical supplies that must be dangerously smuggled in because the Government bans all forms of humanitarian aid.

Tom Catena does this because he firmly believes it is what God wants him to do. His only reward for his incredible level of service and sacrifice is the feeling of peace he gets from helping these beleaguered people live through another day.

Dr. Catena’s life has experienced some major changes since I first wrote the above post four years ago. He got married to his wife Nasima in 2017. She is a nurse at his Mother of Mercy hospital. Recently in an interview he talked about how having her as his wife has brought a huge positive change to his life because now he has someone to share the dramatic ups and downs he experiences performing the incredible work he is doing. Those who know him understand how important having “family” has been to the person he is today. The Catena’s have been a bedrock of our Amsterdam community for generations. Which brings me to the second major change that has taken place in the good Doctor’s life, the recent loss of his father, Judge Gene Catena. If you saw the wonderful documentary, The Heart of Nuba, you heard Tom talk about how difficult it was for him to be so far away from his parents at a time when he knew they were going through the problems and challenges of aging. The death of his Dad, though it was not unexpected, had to be heart wrenching for Dr. Catena.

Even more recently, massive civilian uprisings in Sudan preceded the over throw of the country’s long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir, the leader who has made the lives of the Nuba tribe a living hell for the past generation. Dr. Catena is cautious about the impact of Bashir’s arrest and is waiting to see how the military tribunal that has replaced him will behave.

Despite these major changes in his life, one thing hasn’t changed in the last four years. This gallant man is still performing the work of God. On his Facebook page, when friends and admirers ask how they can make a donation to his work, Dr. Catena personally responds by referring them to the African Mission Healthcare Foundation. He credits this group with keeping his hospital open. I can think of no more appropriate way to extend birthday wishes to this heroic Amsterdam-born humanitarian than to click on the link below and make a donation .

www.amhf.us

 

April 25 – Happy Birthday Art Cotugno

cotugno2I spent a lot of nights sitting next to Art Cotugno at the large conference table used by the Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education during our meetings at the former Central Administration Building on Amsterdam’s Liberty Street. Our Board had created the position of Director of Staff Personnel in 1983 and Art was selected to fill that role. As he had done in every prior position he had held with the District since he was first hired as a Spanish teacher in 1961, he filled it more than admirably.

Art had climbed the career ladder during his 30 plus year GASD tenure. An Amsterdam native, he served as a teacher, department chair, assistant principal, principal, director and finally superintendent. Others before and after him took similar paths but Art was one of the very few who mastered each. I think it was the fact that he never forgot where he came from so it was an easy and natural thing for him to be able to put himself in the shoes of the folks he managed. He understood, respected and trusted what they did as professionals and whenever you went to him with a problem or idea, you knew he’d give you a fair hearing. As a result, even if his final decision was not the exact one you had hoped for, you walked away knowing you had been listened too and appreciated for coming forward.

As soon as ypaul copyou talked to Art, you liked him instantly. He had that unique smooth yet sort of gravelly voice that was so easy to listen to and I was fortunate to be able to listen to it often. There was very little he didn’t know about the public education system in this community and he always made sure he explained both sides of every issue I asked him about.

One of my favorite memories of Art was his sense of humor. Our Board meetings had a tendency to get long and drawn out. I would often pass the time doodling, usually drawing pictures of others seated around the table. I am a terrible artist and when I’d finish a sketch I’d slide it over to Art and ask him to identify my subject. He’d love to play along and would often add funny captions to my creations. He’d also lean over and whisper familiar phrases in Italian that we had both grown up hearing inside our boyhood homes.

Even in retirement he was one of the most active guys in Amsterdam and a legend on the racquetball court. His family was his life and usually every Friday night you could find him and his lovely wife Mary Grace having dinner at La Cuccina on Amsterdam’s South Side. In fact, it was not seeing him there for a while that first gave me an inkling something was wrong with my friend. I was shocked when I learned about his illness. I miss that unmistakable voice.

April 24 – Happy Birthday Max Zucker

Zuckers22

On January 15, 1973 Barney DeStefano and his wife Mary held one last party at their popular Italian Restaurant, which was located where the Windmill Diner now sits on Route 30 in the town of Amsterdam. The purpose of the get-together was to say thank you and goodbye to all of the patrons who had dined at “Barney’s” over the years and to introduce the couple who had purchased the business from the DeStefano’s. Five weeks later, today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant and his wife Irene, opened the door of Zucker’s Restaurant.

Max Zucker was one of those individuals who looked exactly the way his name sounded, like a character actor who would have been perfectly cast as the owner of a restaurant. I met him and his wife Grace after they had hired my brother Matt to play dinner music every Saturday night on the organ that sat at one end of the restaurant’s large bar area. My then fiancee and I sat at the bar on many of those Saturday evenings and would often join Mrs. Zucker on sing alongs, while Max, who didn’t know the words to any of the popular tunes my brother would play, would just sit there at the bar with a smile on his face, tapping along to the music

The Zucker’s ended up selling the building to the folks who turned it into an upscale Chinese restaurant called the Canton Inn. The couple retired to Florida, but there daughter Maxine remained in Amsterdam and operated the popular Greenery flower and plant greenhouse with her husband Gary, just north of her parents’ former eatery on Route 30. Max Zucker passed away in 1984.

 

April 23 – Happy Birthday Rachel DiGennaro

digennaro222

When the decision was made, it was perhaps the most coveted elementary school assignment in the history of the Amsterdam School District. That’s why few were surprised when Superintendent of Schools, Raphael J. McNulty announced in April of 1964 that the Principal of the brand new elementary school named in his honor would be today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant.

Rachel DiGennaro was at the time a shining light in the public schools of this city. She had been born in Amsterdam on April 23, 1912, one of three daughters raised by Nick and Carmella Bursese DiGennaro. She graduated from Amsterdam High School in 1930. She obtained her original teaching degree from Oneonta State Teachers College and then went to Syracuse University where she earned both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s in Education along with certification as elementary principal.

She then returned to Amsterdam and started teaching third grade at Arnold Avenue School. To this day, if you run into one of her former classroom students from that institution and ask them if they remember her, be prepared to hear the phrase “the best teacher I ever had” in their response.

She started her administrative career filling in as “acting principal” of Woodrow Wilson Elementary. It wasn’t long after that the school board approved her appointment as principal at Arnold Ave. Simply put, everyone loved the way this elegant lady ran a school including the students, their parents and her staff. Miss DiGennaro had the sort of positive attitude and enthusiasm for school and education that was infectious. She treated everyone with respect but also with a polite and professional firmness that left no doubt who was in charge. Her leadership skills got her elected president of both the Amsterdam Teachers Association and the Amsterdam Business & Professional Women’s Club.

She had a beautiful singing voice and loved teaching her classroom students music during her days as a teacher. She sang for years with the Mohawk Valley Choir. When the students there learned she was retiring as principal of McNulty School in 1969, many actually went home crying…for their principal! She may have been leaving her work at the time but she was far from ready to pack it all in. Following her retirement, she volunteered as a tutor for the Literacy Program at the Amsterdam Library. She also started a singing program at area nursing homes to help lift the spirits of the residents. She became active in the Amsterdam Retired Teachers Association and was a pillar of the former St. Michael’s Church on Grove Street. She was a tireless volunteer for the St. Mary’s Hospital Auxiliary.

Fortunately for all of Amsterdam, this amazing woman lived to be 98 years old, passing away in April of 2011. In one-way or another she had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of this community’s residents.

 

One of Amsterdam’s very first car dealers was also born on April 23.

April 22 – Happy Birthday Tom Brownell

BrownellTomSo you’re at an Amsterdam clam bake and the guy pictured here walks up to you and says I’ll bet you $100 that I can throw 75 horseshoe ringers out of 100 tosses. Do you bet him? Heck if that happened to me, I’d probably have said let’s make it $200. Not any more! Not after researching this guy’s past.

Tom Brownell was the greatest horseshoe pitcher in the history of Amsterdam.He was born in Olean, NY on this date in 1923 and moved to this area when he was just a boy. He started pitching horseshoes when he was 14 and proved a quick study, winning the Fulton County Horseshoe Tournament that same year. He won his first New York State Championship in 1940, at the State Fair in Syracuse. He successfully defended that title the following year in Rochester and also went to work for GE, getting hired at the Schenectady main plant.

World War II interrupted both his GE and horseshoe careers. He went into the Army in 1943 and saw action in Europe. When he came home from service he stepped up his horseshoe competition level, competing in both the state and world championship tournaments. He went on to win five more New York State titles. His best performance at the World level  was an incredible third-place finish at the 1955 World Championships held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom married Amsterdam native Shirley Palmieri on New Year’s Day in 1948 and their son Tom was born that December. The family lived in the lower East Main/Cranesville neighborhood of the city. In 1956, GE transferred him to their San Jose, California plant, where he became Manager of Drafting Documentation for the Company’s Nuclear Energy Division.

So how good was Tom with a horseshoe? During his best years, he averaged 75 ringers for every 100 shoes he pitched. In the 1955 State Tournament, he set a New York State record by throwing 30 ringers in 31 pitches for a percentage of 96.9%. So if it was Tom Brownell who approached you and me at that Amsterdam Clam Bake I was referring to up in the first paragraph, you’d be $100 poorer and I’d be a couple of C notes lighter myself.

Tom died in 1976 at the very young age of 53, one year after he was selected as one of just four people to go to South Africa to put on a horseshoe-pitching exhibition.

Two interesting side notes to today’s post; Tom Brownell was also an excellent kegler, competing in this City’s best bowling league back in the 1950’s, the old Carpet City Classic that used to roll at Tony Griffin’s Wilton Lanes. Like bowling, the secret to horseshoe pitching is replicating the exact same body motion and arm swing on each toss. The best bowler in the City back in the 1950’s was Jinx Brooks. In 1955, Jinx finished 12th in the New York State Horseshoe Tournament. He was eliminated by Tom Brownell.