June 13 – Happy Birthday Dr. Benjamin Button

buttonIt was a scary day. Our first born Michela had been fighting a cold and all of a sudden her fever spiked and she went into a seizure. It was winter time and freezing outside so we bundled our little girl up in a snow suit got her in the car and flew to the old St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room. I remember holding her in my arms and running through the door and down the ramp yelling help. And the first person we ran into was Dr. Benjamin Button.

He was wearing his standard blue operating scrubs and he grabbed my daughter out of my arms carried her into an examining room and started taking off her snow suit and pajamas to cool her body down. Within seconds her terrifying shaking stopped and her eyes regained their focus and I remember she started crying and Dr. Button, while rubbing her little belly to calm her down, explained to the two of us that it was the high fever that threw her into a convulsion and the best thing to do should it ever happen again is to cool her down not warm her up. From that day forward, I became a fan of Doc Button, though fortunately, because he was a surgeon no one in my family ever had to see him as patients again.

Benjamin Button was born on his family’s farm in the town of Canajoharie on July 13, 1933. He graduated from Sharon Springs High School, SUNY Albany and SUNY Medical School in Syracuse. He then spent five years at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, where he did his surgical residency and in July of 1963, he opened his practice in Amsterdam as an orthopedic surgeon. For the next 27 years he was the Rug City’s go to guy for any kind of surgical procedure required to treat musculoskeletal trauma, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumors and congenital disorders. And since his training predated arthroscopy, he frequently signed his operations with large and sometimes pretty ugly scars. It was an occupational hazard and not anything he was doing wrong but the truth is, back when he was cutting people open, many of us were a bit intimidated by the good doctor.

That all changed when he retired from his practice. That’s when everyone learned about the real Dr. Button. He spent the next fifteen years doing medical missionary work mostly in Africa. He transformed his image from Amsterdam’s scar maker into a compassionate caregiver to the world’s most needy.

He lived to be 80 years old, passing away in January of 2014. He left behind his wife Jane, two sons and a granddaughter. I only met him that one time but I will never forget his laugh and the twinkle in his eye as he rubbed our daughter’s tummy and helped two very young and concerned parents make it through a very frightening day.

 

June 12 – Happy Birthday Dot Calloway Connors

31729dc4-8837-4228-bc57-d3a300c75ab4_0There were no nominations for a June 12 birthday celebrant but while I was researching for a future post I learned about a remarkable achievement by a former Amsterdam resident that I wished to share and wouldn’t you know it, today was her birthday. It all started when I came across the name of “Ernie Centerbar.”

That name was a familiar one around here, especially among folks from Hagaman, where Ernie used to live and was heavily involved in the village’s politics and youth sports programs. Ernie was married to Irene Calloway. Irene had a sister named Dorothy who was born on today’s date in 1932, but not in Amsterdam. The Calloway girls were born in Huntsville, AL. They moved north as teenagers, when their parents re-settled in Amsterdam. Dorothy was better known as Dot and she was a sharp, very confident young lady who graduated from Wilbur Lynch in the Class of 1951. One day after she got that diploma she went for a job interview at GE in Schenectady and so impressed her interviewer, she was hired on the spot. It was while working at GE that she met and fell in love with Howard “Pete” Connors of Mechanicville.

Pete and Dot got hitched and during the next twelve years they had what can only be described as the perfect marriage. She described her husband as her best friend and soul mate and they had eight children. That’s right, they had eight children in twelve years. Then tragically, Howard died. Stop and think what it must have been like to be in Dot’s shoes. A single Mom in the early 1960’s with eight young kids to raise, alone.

The remarkable thing about all good Mom’s is that regardless of how tough life becomes for them, they somehow find the strength and courage to go on for the sake of their children. Dot Connor was a perfect example.

She would spend every day of the rest of her life taking care of and nurturing her family. Every morning each of her kids ate a good breakfast before school, a lovingly packed lunch and a full course dinner in the evening, always with a special dessert. Dot also made sure each of her six sons and two daughters participated actively in scouting, music, creative arts and sports. Those of us who are blessed enough to have raised children know full well the time, effort and commitment necessary to do so. My wife and I had four and I honestly can’t imagine how I could have done for them alone what we were able to accomplish together, even with help from extended family. That’s why I was in awe when I came across Dot’s story.

As you might expect, she also did not stop being a mother when her last one left the house. She continued to be the center of the family, keeping everyone connected to each other, bringing them together whenever possible and becoming a wonderful grandmother of twelve and great grandmother of three.

She closed her eyes for the last time at the age of 80 on the final day of January in 2013. After reading about her amazing achievement, raising a family of eight youngsters without her husband or their father, I found myself wondering what the first thing Howard would say to her when she was reunited with him in whatever place the spirits of two good loving people go when they die. Perhaps the most appropriate greeting would be simply, “Thank you.”

 

June 11 – Happy Birthday Warder “Snuggy” Steward

Warder-Steward-1436973573I first formally met Warder “Snuggy” Steward when we were both students at Guy Park Avenue Elementary School. I last saw him a few years after graduating from college in the mid seventies. A long time has passed since we last spoke. Still, his death on July 15, 2015 jolted me.

My best memories of Snuggy remain crystal clear despite them being formed so many years ago. I remember his smile first and foremost along with his distinctive laugh. I know “lit up a room” is a cliche but its one that makes too perfect a description to not use in Snuggy’s case. He had the sort of magnetic personality that didn’t just light up a room, it lit up an entire school and neighborhood.

I remember Snuggy running. It wasn’t just that he was physically fast, this guy honestly glided. Since I was slow and ran heavy on my feet like an elephant, I was always amazed at Snug’s elegant long stride. My sneakers used to wear out before I grew out of their size. I bet Snuggy could have worn the same pair his entire life if his feet didn’t grow.

Next thing I remember about Snuggy was his kindness. It extended to everyone. Add to that his ability to hang comfortably with every type of crowd and you more easily understand why I think he was one of the most universally liked and respected Amsterdamians of my generation.

Its impossible to think of Snuggy and not see him playing drums. Whenever I hear the Marching Ram drum cadence I think of Snuggy with that ornate hat cocked at a weird angle on his head, setting the proud tone of a proud group of musicians. And I hated school dances but whenever Snuggy’s band, “Collector’s Item” played one you simply had to go because you didn’t want to miss the chance to hear him and see him play on a full set of drums.

When I was in high school I had a job pumping gas at Joe Montuoro’s old Sunoco Station on Amsterdam’s West Main Street and Snuggy lived almost directly across the street before his family moved up to McClellan.Often at dinnertime, Snuggy would run over to the station to buy a few bottles of soda. He would always stick around long enough to shoot the breeze and we’d catch up on things.

His Dad was a wonderful man and one of my favorite customers at the gas station. I had a secret childhood crush on his beautiful sister Donna and his older brother Ronnie used to make me laugh as much as any other human being has ever been able to.

I had no idea he was gravely ill. In fact, when I noticed Warder’s name was on Facebook. I’m the kind of FB user who doesn’t like to ask people I haven’t seen in a long time to be my friend because I think I might be annoying them. I figure if they want to reconnect with me they’d ask me. Now that he’s gone, I so wish I had sent a friend request to Snuggy just so we could shoot the breeze one more time.

June 10 – Happy Birthday Chris Covell

chris covellIf you remember watching the 1995-96 State Champion Amsterdam Rugged Rams football team then you should also remember that team’s senior quarterback, Chris Covell. Chris is the same age as my oldest son Matt and they became close friends in middle school, sharing a near-fanatic devotion to the Yankees, the football Giants and the Boston Celtics. Frank Derrico told me he made Chris the QB of that State Championship team because the kid knew how to lead. Boy was he right about that.

When Chris left AHS, he still had dreams of becoming a professional baseball player but after playing football during his freshman year at Buffalo State, he realized he was not going to be a professional athlete and he also realized he was not going to stay at Buffalo State. He ended up at Northeastern, where he got his bachelor’s in business administration and where he met his future wife, Kerry. When he graduated, he and Kerry decided to travel the world until there money ran out and then come back home and make a life for themselves.

SmartWattVectorThey settled in Saratoga and Chris got a job selling industrial lighting. Excuse the pun but within a few months of being in that job, the light bulb turned on in Chris’s head. He recognized that as energy costs grew the incentives for business to invest in improved energy efficiencies would grow with it. At the age of 23, he decided to start his own company, one that specialized in helping businesses make the most efficient lighting decisions possible. That meant helping each customer take advantage of every possible energy tax credit, utility incentive and technological advancement available and managing the lighting upgrade from start to finish. The beginning years of the 21st century was a perfect time to be in that business, as the volatile Middle East situation caused energy prices to soar. Within ten years, Chris Covell’s company, SmartWatt Energy Inc. grew from a three-man office in Albany, NY into a nationwide powerhouse doing $50 million in sales annually with 250 employees and 18 locations throughout the US.

SmartWatt has made INC Magazine’s list of fastest growing companies several times. Its also appeared on the Capital District Business Review’s Best Companies to Work for compilation. Every time the company makes a sale, another business saves energy and money, the US becomes a bit less dependent on foreign oil and the air we breathe becomes a bit cleaner. I tell people who knew Chris as a kid (his parents Rich & Leah owned Covell’s Furniture on Route 67) about what he’s accomplished and most are amazed that they’ve heard nothing about it. Heck, the only reason I know about his success is that my son Matt was one of SmartWatt’s very first employees and now serves as one of Chris’s VPs. In fact, Chris has brought in a few of his old Ram football teammates to work at SmartWatt. I love learning how native Amsterdamians have accomplished great things. Stories like these can be used to inspire others (especially our young) to challenge themselves and pursue their dreams, so if you know of any others, please share them.

Happy Birthday Chris and congratulations for what you’ve accomplished with your amazing company.

June 9 – Happy Birthday Nicholas J. DeGraff

NickDeGraff222Male residents of Amsterdam, NY had two legitimate ways to avoid military service during the Civil War. According to the provisions of the conscription act the US Congress had passed in March of 1863, able-bodied young men between the ages of 20-45 could legally avoid being drafted into the Union Army by buying an exemption for $300 or finding a substitute to take their place. Amsterdam native Nicholas Jeremiah DeGraff would have had no problem coming up with the $300. His family was one of the largest and most influential landowners in this area of the Mohawk Valley and I’m sure if they wanted to come up with a substitute to take this young man’s place, they’d have had no problem with that either.

But young Nicholas, who was born on his family’s farm just east of Amsterdam on June 9, 1842, had no interest in either option. Eight months before the conscription act was put in place and just one month after he turned twenty years of age, he became the third generation of the DeGraff family with the first name of “Nicholas” to fight in a North American-based war. He enlisted in the Union Army, joining Company D of the 115th Regiment of New York State Volunteers. This contingent of fighting men, which would later earn the nickname “The Ironhearted Regiment” was raised from the counties of: Saratoga, Montgomery, Fulton, and Hamilton, and stationed just north of the village of Fonda, on land alongside present day Route 30A. DeGraff was one of 1,040 enlisted men who joined its ranks.

During the next three years, this brave native of Amsterdam took part in nineteen battles and skirmishes, was wounded in action and truly proved to be a great soldier. He was promoted from private to 1st sergeant , to 2nd lieutenant, to 1st lieutenant and finally after he was mustered out in October of 1865 and returned to Amsterdam, he discovered he had been breveted major for gallant and meritorious conduct in the field.

Back home, he and his brother, Edward Teller DeGraff pooled their resources and purchased their family’s farm in 1868. At that same time, DeGraff married a Tribes Hill native named Debbie Young. They would raise a son and a daughter who both ended up leaving the Amsterdam area. DeGraff worked the farm for his living until 1873 and then relocated to Amsterdam where he opened a shoe store at 29 East Main Street. He ran that business for the next 27 years.

He then spent his retirement years as a very active leader in Civil War veterans’ organizations, coordinating and appearing at their reunions throughout the upstate New York region. A tall and extremely handsome man, De Graff grew even more distinguished looking in his senior years. Though I have been unable to find the exact date of his death, I did find local newspaper accounts of him attending veteran soldiers’ reunions as late as 1926, at which time he would have already been 84-years-of age.

(Another military hero from Amsterdam was born on today’s date in 1921.)

 

June 8 – Happy Birthday Luther Dean

LdeanIt is too bad Luther Dean has been dead for just over a century because I could sure use an individual like him if I’m elected Mayor of Amsterdam. Listen to this resume. He was born on the South Side when it was still called Port Jackson on this date in 1842. His dad was a shoe salesman. After finishing his studies at the Amsterdam Academy, he went to work as a clerk in Gardiner Blood’s dry goods store. After four years of doing that, he became a bookkeeper for the Farmers’ Bank.

Apparently everyone in town loved Dean because he was such a personable, hard-working young man. After four years at the bank, he was ready to go into his own business and he and a partner named John Larrabee purchased a small local hardware store. By the time he sold the business 14 years later he had grown it into the largest hardware store in Amsterdam, one that would continue to prosper for the next eight decades under the name of Larrabee’s.

Dean, his brother-in-law and a New Jersey cousin then started the Park Knitting Mill in Amsterdam and ran it successfully for pretty much the rest of his life. Meanwhile he was one of the founders of the Amsterdam Savings Bank, the Amsterdam Board of Trade and the Amsterdam Library and sat on the boards of all three organizations. He was also a three-time president of the Amsterdam YMCA, an elder in the Reformed Church and he ran that Congregation’s Sunday School program for thirteen years. Believe it or not, there’s more folks!

He was a Village of Amsterdam trustee for three years, its assessor for three more plus he was a leading member of the commission that built this City’s first sewer system. Originally, the design called for 15 miles of sewer pipe at a cost of $268,000. Thanks in large part to Dean’s banking and business management experience, the finished system was expanded to 24 miles of pipe at a cost of just $240,000 and when it was made operational, it was considered one of the most complete and effective sewer systems in the country.

Dean and his wife Mary had four children but just one daughter named Fanny survived them. Dean himself passed away in 1912.

 

June 7 – Happy Birthday John Handy

handyThere have been a whole bunch of folks throughout the history of this old Rug City who never lived in Amsterdam but spent much of their professional lives working here. Many of these commuters enriched our lives either via their professional ability or their friendship. Quite a few were teachers, who lived in nearby communities and taught in Amsterdam’s schools.

Today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was born in nearby Gloversville on this date in 1937 and was a much loved and respected citizen of that community his entire life. For over thirty of those years beginning in the early 1960’s, he taught high school social studies, first at Wilbur Lynch, when it still housed grades 9 through 12 and later at Amsterdam High School up on Saratoga Avenue.

John “Jack” Handy loved teaching teenagers. He enjoyed being around them, he respected them and he knew how to engage them in a classroom. Even though he taught for over three decades, long enough to teach both my older brother and my daughter, he never got tired of the job. Because he had a passion for history and politics, he kept his class presentations current and relevant. That helped him get his students not just interested in these topics but also excited about them.

Outside the classroom, Mr. Handy was a valuable member of the Amsterdam High School football coaching staff. He also was a frequent chaperone on those annual spring break student excursions to European cites, not just because he enjoyed the traveling but also because students enjoyed being around him. I’ve often felt the people most qualified to evaluate teacher performance are the students themselves, not immediately after they finish the class but instead three of four years later, when they’ve had the opportunity to use and build upon what the instructor was trying to teach them. If you held a reunion of former Jack Handy students and asked them to describe their opinion of him as an educator, you’d hear the same thing over and over again; “Great teacher. Great Guy.”

Mr. Handy died in January of 2012, at the age of 74. He’s buried in Gloversville and remembered fondly in Amsterdam.

 

June 6 – Happy Birthday Torby MacDonald

220px-Torbert_MacdonaldHe was Captain of the Harvard football team, held that school’s record in the 220 yard dash for forty years and was a member of the Crimson Football Hall of Fame. He commanded a PT boat in the Pacific during World War II and won a Silver Star for bravery. He was elected a Massachusetts Congressman in 1954 and during the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1961, he was called to the White House to help his best friend, President John Kennedy deal with the crisis. Was there anything he wasn’t good at? Well according to former Amsterdam Rugmaker business manager Spencer Fitzgerald, Torbert “Torby” MacDonald had real trouble catching high fly balls, especially at night under the lights when he played in the outfield for the Class C Yankee affiliate back during the summers of 1940 and ’41. MacDonald’s Rugmaker manager, Eddie Sawyer concurred and even suggested that his Ivy League outfielder should have probably worn a helmet in the outfield because of his inability to track high fly balls. I came across both these observations about MacDonald in Amsterdam native David Pietrusza’s excellent book “Baseball’s Canadian-American League,”

MacDonald’s amazing life story began on June 6, 1916 when he was born in Everett, Massachusetts. He grew up in a middle class family. An outstanding student athlete, he was able to get himself into an exclusive prep school and then Harvard, where he roomed and played football with the future President, beginning an incredibly close friendship that would continue until Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. He was an usher at Kennedy’s wedding, served as the Godfather at John Kennedy Jr.’s baptism and was an honorary pallbearer at the President’s funeral.

After his WWII service in the Navy, Macdonald returned to Harvard and got his law degree, got deeply involved in labor relations law and Democratic Party politics. He won election to the US House of Representatives in 1954 and served until January of 1976. During a portion of his time in Congress he served as Democratic Whip. Two major pieces of legislation he championed were the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and the “sports blackout bill” which forced professional team owners in every sport to televise games that were sold out. He was stricken with a fatal stroke in 1976.

June 5 – Happy Birthday Dick Betz

rbetz2It is not an exaggeration to refer to Dick Betz as one of the most well liked Amsterdam natives of his generation. He was much loved and respected by so many students fortunate enough to have had him for political science during the 33 years he taught that subject in the Greater Amsterdam School District. Ditto for the hundreds of student athletes he coached in golf and wrestling. He also became a mentor to many young Amsterdam educators who strived to emulate the vitality he injected into the learning process. He was a popular member of the Muni Golf Course and a much respected advocate for the facility.  Although he did not take as active a role in his family’s business as his Dad, Mom and Brothers, he was definitely a key component in the funeral home’s legacy for caring and compassion. Perhaps the greatest testament to how much he cared about this community and the people in it was the fact that after he retired from teaching, he didn’t leave. Instead he continued to help so many folks of all ages feel better and get healthier via his involvement with Healing Touch and yoga. Whenever you saw this guy anywhere, he had a smile on his face and kind, encouraging words coming out of his mouth. He was a bright positive light in a community that was combating the darkness of negativity.  I regret very much that I never had the opportunity to regularly interact with Dick Betz because everyone I know who did, enjoys the memory of that relationship. His death in 2012 was a shock to the Wife and family he adored and to the thousands of lives he touched in very positive ways.

Dick Betz shares his birthday with this longtime co-owner of a popular Division Street restaurant.

June 4 – Happy Birthday Edward Partyka

EdPartyka222Albert Partyka came to Amsterdam from Poland at the beginning of the 20th Century, but unlike so many of his fellow countrymen, he did not go to work in Amsterdam’s rug mills. Instead he became a builder and started his own contracting business. A few years later, he opened up Partyka’s Market, which would become a Reid Hill institution. He also married Mary Przybylo and the couple had five children, three boys and two girls. It is their son Edward who is today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant. Born on June 4, 1923, he graduated from Lynch High School 18 years later and got a job at the former American Locomotive Company plant in Schenectady. He then joined the US Navy in April of 1943 and was serving as a Machinest Mate on a transport and supply ship that was serving US Military bases in the Pacific.

On December 13, 1944, some of his shipmates had transported a work party of Construction Battalion members to an island in the Aleutians. While the ship was sitting off shore, the work party had completed their mission and were in the process of being returned to the ship. Though the weather had been fine all day, a strong unexpected storm had begun to brew and the resulting heavy seas capsized the motorized landing vessel that was being used to transport the SeaBees to and from the island. That’s when Ed Partyka volunteered to return to the island in the ship’s only remaining rescue vessel, a large rowboat, to pick up the three remaining members of the work crew. With his shipmates looking on, the Amsterdam man had almost made it to shore when the huge waves from the raging storm capsized his boat. The officer of the work crew pulled Partyka out of the surf and brought him to shore. Not only had the ship lost both its rescue boats, the storm was now in full force and the gale force winds were endangering the stability of the vessel. It had to be taken out to sea, leaving the work crew and their brave would-be rescuer stranded to deal with one of the worst winter storms in Aleutian Island history.

The captain of the ship had told the officer of the work crew before he went ashore that the only habitation on the entire island was ten miles away from the worksite over horribly rough terrain. That’s where the four crewmembers and Partyka headed when they saw their ship was forced to leave them stranded.

Unfortunately, the same storm that forced the ship back to sea was also making it impossible for the crew to contact the army installation on the other side of the island to let them know the five men were headed their way and to summon a search team to go out and help them get there. It wasn’t until late the next morning that the ship was able to contact the outpost. A rescue crew was able to find three of the C. B.’s but not the fourth one or Partyka.  The Captain of Ed’s ship then talked to one of the rescued men to find out what had happened.

As expected, the five of them had departed from the beach toward the outpost as soon as the ship went back out to sea. The trip turned out to be even rougher than anticipated. The 100-mile per hour wind was accompanied by a pelting snowstorm and plunging nighttime temperatures. They walked all night against the killer wind and made very slow progress. Ed and two of the C.B.’s were having a difficult time keeping up with the other two. It was decided that the two stronger C.B.’s would go on ahead to reach the outpost as fast as they could and summon a rescue team for the three others.

It was at this time that Ed really began experiencing difficulty moving. He complained he was tired and needed to go to sleep. But going to sleep meant freezing to death so he was forced by the others to keep moving. The two C.B.’s he was with reported that they tried to help him along the way, even carrying him at times. It got to a point where one of the C.B.’s also weakened enough that he too needed assistance to continue. At that point the stronger of the two would get Ed to a sheltered spot, leave him there and then go get the other C.B. and bring him to the spot he had left Ed. On one of these maneuvers, the two C.B.s reached the spot where Ed had been left earlier and he wasn’t there. He had wandered off. The two C.B.’s said they searched all over for him but could not find him. Only one of those two remaining C.B.’s was able to get to the outpost. Meanwhile, as soon as the storm subsided the Navy began a huge all-out search effort for the two men that was still going on four months later when the Captain of Ed Partyka’s ship explained all this in a letter addressed to Ed’s dad. His son’s remains have never been recovered.