June 3 – Happy Birthday John Sanford

220px-John_Sanford_(1803)June 3rd is a huge anniversary date in the history of the City of Amsterdam, NY. It marks the birth in 1803 of John Sanford. He is the patriarch of Amsterdam’s Sanford family and if he did not move from his birthplace of Roxbury, Connecticut to this place in 1821, many of us who were born in what would become known as the “Rug City” might not even be here.

Interestingly, this guy made the move not to start a factory but instead to become a teacher, first in Amsterdam for a few terms and then in Mayfield. It was in that village that he opened a store, which he later moved down to Amsterdam. It was as a merchant that he became well known and respected, so respected that by 1840 he was a successful candidate for US Congress. He served just one term in Washington before returning to Amsterdam to become partners in a rug mill that had been started by William Kimball Greene. One might assume that Greene was looking to bring the influence of an ex-Congressman to his firm’s executive suite. But just a couple of years later, Greene ended up selling his end of the business to Sanford.

Sanford must have found he was not up to the task of running the mill by himself because he forced his eldest son Stephen, who was then a Cadet at West Point, to leave that academy and return to Amsterdam to help run the business. Regardless of the true motive, it proved to be a brilliant decision because in 1854, when the mill was destroyed by fire it would be Stephen who would not only rebuild the business but also turn the Sanford name into the most powerful name in worldwide rug manufacturing.

At the time of the fire, John Sanford was just 51 years old but evidently, he had had enough of the business world because he chose to retire. Just three years later he was dead.

While individuals like John Sanford, his son Stephen and William Kimball Greene helped forge this area’s reputation as an industrial center it would be later generations of very sharp men and women who would extend it to modern times. One of those very smart people and a long-time resident of Amsterdam, shared a birthday with John Sanford.

 

June 2 – Happy Birthday Joanne Sollecito

JoJoIIIShe was born on Long Island, coming north after she graduated high school to attend Fulton Montgomery Community College. It was while at FMCC she kept running into a good looking guy with blonde hair, who always seemed to be playing cards in the student union. She ended up getting her teaching degree, marrying the blonde guy, raising three wonderful kids and putting together a stellar career as one of the most beloved school teachers to ever grace a Greater Amsterdam School District classroom. My own youngest daughter does not throw around praise too easily but after completing close to twenty years of formal education she still considers Joanne Sollecito to be the best teacher she ever had.

Joanne’s classrooms were real-world examples of warm and welcoming learning environments. Her specialties were science and reading. She spent weeks of her summers attending science camps and teaching seminars to refine her professional skills. One of her most effective techniques was her creation of a grow lab, which enabled her students to learn about living things by creating their own living things and observing them evolve and grow. Her former students will tell you that lab in Joanne’s class was a key reason why they went on to major in  science in college and choose science-related career fields.

She also had an amazing ability to inspire her students (including my daughter) to develop a passion for reading. She did this by taking the time to to have wonderful one-on-one conversations with each of them on a comfortable sofa she made part of her classroom. She used what she learned about students during their couch conversations to help them select books she knew would appeal to them . Though she taught in a small community where everyone seemed to know everyone else, she made it a point to never assume anything about any of her students, regardless of what she might have heard from others or what was written down in folders. Each and every kid in her class started with a completely clean slate. She never loudly or angrily demanded they work hard, she just made it very clear that was what she expected them to do and the vast majority of her young minions did just that because they wanted to please a wonderful teacher who made them feel special.

She started teaching at Bacon in the 1970’s and then took a leave to raise three children. When she returned she was assigned to fifth grade at McNulty and from there she went to Middle School, where she finished her career.

June 1 – Happy Birthday Benji Isabel

benji2Today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was born on June 1, 1957. He was one of three sons born to Gerard “Pup” and Angela Isabel. He was a math wizard, a sports scholar, an enthusiastic veteran of Amsterdam’s softball wars, a gallant GAVAC volunteer, a highly respected letter carrier for the Amsterdam Post Office and he once hosted his own television show. Most of all Benedict “Benji” Isabel was well-liked, as well liked as any person who ever lived in this town.

He worshiped his parents, adored his brothers, in-fact family was the center of his being though friends were a very close second. He had an amazing intellect and thirst for knowledge, much like his Dad. There was nothing he did not know about sports, nothing! He loved the New York Mets, the San Francisco 49ers in football and the Tampa Bay Lightening in hockey and when he hosted a popular talk show on the now defunct Gateway Channel 8 local television station, viewers who tried to stump him never could. Pretty much the same was true for music and politics and so many other topics.

In his younger days he seemed to be everywhere in this town! If he weren’t playing softball, I’d see him delivering mail or jumping out of a GAVAC rig. He was so proud of the work he did for both those organizations. The last time we conversed was the summer of 2015, when I was preparing an Amsterdam Birthday post for his beloved father, Pup. He was so happy I was doing that and so appreciative. I did not realize at the time that Benji was a very sick young man. The months that followed were tough on him physically but his beloved Mets’ great postseason run that fall helped lift his spirits.

Sadly, Benji passed away in February of 2016. Even though he had a famous Amsterdam last name all you needed to hear was his first one to know who folks were referring to. Benji Isabel was truly an Amsterdam original and when he left us at much too young an age, this community lost a gem. Rest in peace Benji.

 

May 30 – Happy Birthday Elizabeth Ridder

Elizabeth S. Ridder was born in Amsterdam, NY on May 30, 1900. The “S” stood for her maiden name. She was the daughter of Florence Sullivan, who had moved to Amsterdam as a young boy with his family from Saratoga Springs and grown up to become a lawyer. Just before she was born, Elizabeth’s Dad had accepted the position of Amsterdam City Attorney in Mayor Sam Wallin’s administration. He had a brother Dan, also a lawyer, who had served as Assistant Attorney General of New York State. Dan convinced Elizabeth’s father to move to New York City and set up a law practice. With Dan’s connections, the firm was immediately successful.

Elizabeth's more famous cousin
Elizabeth’s more famous cousin

So that’s how little four-year-old Elizabeth Sullivan from Amsterdam ended up spending the rest of her childhood growing up in the Big Apple. In addition to her father and her Uncle Dan, she had another uncle already living in New York. His name was Peter Sullivan and he worked in New York City’s Customs House. Peter’s son was Ed Sullivan, who was a year younger than his Amsterdam-born cousin. Ed would grow up to become a popular newspaper columnist and then the host of his own TV variety hour, which would become one of the most watched television shows in history. It was called “The Ed Sullivan Show” and it was on CBS on Sunday nights. It ran for 23 consecutive years and was ranked the 15th Greatest Television Show in history by TV Guide Magazine. (Hard to believe that none of my four children, who are all in their 30’s and 40’s, ever heard of Ed Sullivan, his variety show and just barely remember TV Guides!)

Elizabeth Ridder would graduate from Trinity College and then become a New York City public school teacher for the next 20 years. Always active in social causes, in 1934, she and her sister Claire co-founded Casita Maria, a settlement house in East Harlem for the children of Latino immigrants who were coming to New York City in droves. The facility relocated to the Bronx in 1961 and over 80 years later is still serving the cultural and assimilation needs of Latino youth.

In 1944 Elizabeth met and married Charles Ridder, one of the heirs to the Ridder Publishing Empire (later becoming the Knight- Ridder newspaper chain.) Charles was the publisher of “The Catholic News,” the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

Mrs. Ridder was asked to serve on the national board of the Girl Scouts and two years later she became National Secretary of that organization, a position she would hold for the next two decades. She would receive several major awards for her philanthropy and social activism during her lifetime.

Her husband died in 1964. She lived until 93, passing away in August of 1993. She had no children of her own.

 

May 29 – Happy Birthday Admiral Martin

martin222When Lou Gorski made the decision to move his Gloversville Glovers to Amsterdam prior to the 1938 Canadian-American League baseball season, he did not have much working capital but he did have a manager. Admiral “Pepper” Martin, a career minor leaguer, had skippered Gorski’s Glovers in 1937. Before moving to Gloversville, Gorski’s team had played the ’36 season in Watertown and Martin had managed for the mobile owner there as well. When Gorski reached an affiliation agreement with the New York Yankees just before the ’38 season began, George Weiss, New York’s legendary front office executive agreed that Martin would skipper the Rugmakers as well.

Though he was about to turn 36 years old when he arrived in Amsterdam, Martin was still a player manager, filling in for his squads in the outfield and infield as the need arose or the mood struck him. That didn’t happen very often during his days as a Rugmaker because the roster he skippered was loaded with quality players. His pitching staff featured a starting rotation that included two seventeen game winners and two fifteen game winners. His lineup included five regulars who averaged over .300, led by the potent bats of two future Major Leaguers, Ken Sears and Ford Garrison.

The Rugmakers 78-34 record made them the runaway winners of the 1938 league pennant and you would have thought that performance guaranteed Martin some job security. But Weiss and his super scout, Paul Krichell had other ideas. By then, Gorski had sold the team to a group of Amsterdam investors. Though the team’s local braintrust, led by Herb Shuttleworth and Judge Felix Aulisi wanted Martin back in the dugout for the 1939 season, the Yankees wanted younger blood at the helm. It seems as though some of the Rugmakers biggest stars on that 1938 team may not have been huge fans of Martin’s managerial style. Duke Farrington, for example, one of Amsterdam’s 17-game winning pitchers had almost come to blows with his field boss in the past.

So the Yankees insisted that if Amsterdam wanted to keep Martin on the payroll in 1939, it would have to be as the team’s business manager. As you might expect, this did not sit too well with Martin, so he resigned and became Manager of the Rome Colonels, one of the Rugmakers’ CanAm League rivals.

Two interesting side stories about Martin’s only season in Amsterdam. As mentioned above, Martin was technically a player manager and he saw fit to put himself into his team’s games 11 times as a Rugmaker. But he had never signed an official “player’s” contract permitting him to do so and when league officials realized this, they were seriously considering taking the six Rugmaker victories Martin played in away from the team. In the end, they did not.

Though the ’38 Rugmakers had enjoyed a terrific regular season, their playoff appearance that year was a washout, literally. After falling behind 2 games to 1 in the best of five finals, three days of continuous downpours here in Amsterdam forced team and league officials to suspend the series. It seems that without the gate receipts from the postponed games, both teams were running out of the cash needed to pay the players per diem salaries they were earning during the playoff round.

Martin went on to have a great year managing Rome in 1939, leading the Colonels to a 75 win season. That was good enough for second place. Who finished ahead of them? The Rugmakers under their new skipper, Eddie Sawyer, who would also go on to lead the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” to a World Series.

Martin would continue managing in the CanAm League until WWII forced a suspension of league play in 1942. He passed away in 1990 at the age of 87.

This former skipper of the Rugmakers shares his May 29th birthday with this former skipper of the city of Amsterdam.

May 28 – Amsterdam Birthday Bits

MaryDorisIf you simply pay attention, you will see amazingly beautiful things happening all around you. About a month ago, I had the opportunity to sit at the same dinner table with Mary Doris DiCaprio, her husband Al and two of their sons, Paul and David. Paul and I serve on the Board at Liberty ARC. He’s a very sharp guy who has had a wonderfully successful career in the silicon industry and has contributed so much of value to the Liberty organization. David DiCaprio works at Liberty and is served by some of its programs. He was born in 1969 with Down Syndrome. He is a gem of a young man. For slightly more than two hours that April evening, as Mary Doris sat between her two sons at that table, I had the opportunity to listen to a wonderful Mom share stories of raising her four boys, of her marriage to Al, of her own important role as a Liberty Board member during that agency’s formative years. But I also had the opportunity to observe a Mom interact with her two sons, to actually feel the pride and joy and love she had for each of them and they for her. I guess you had to be there to understand why it had such an impact on me and also on my wife, but it did. So thank you Mary Doris and I hope your 85th birthday was as special as you are.

Maureen_HandI wish Maureen Hand had been one of my high school English teachers. Why? Because you can tell she is absolutely passionate about all types of literature and truly appreciates that people use language in such different ways. You really can’t teach English effectively without that passion or appreciation. After spending a quarter of a century teaching the subject at Amsterdam High School, she has devoted much of her retirement to continuing to help and encourage people to become more expressive and better writers. She does workshops, writes poetry and fiction and is a driving force behind the award-winning “Amsterdam Reads” program. Her work on behalf of the Amsterdam Free Library has been exemplary as well and she is an amazing mom and grandmother to boot. Our community is so lucky to have this talented, creative and very generous woman within our midst. Happy Birthday Maureen and thank you for all you’ve done and what you continue to do for folks in this community!

Memorial Day Means Something Special in Hometowns Everywhere…Including Amsterdam

Like all communities in this great country, Amsterdam, NY has an abundance of heroes to remember and pay tribute to on this Memorial Day. I’ve written about many of them in my effort to document the personal histories of people from my hometown, including the three below. When I write about these people, I actually picture in my head the homes they lived in, the schools they attended, the neighborhoods in which they grew up. In many cases, I personally know family members and friends they grew up with. I seldom am able to get the last sentence of these stories completed without tears welling in my eyes. Their bravery, character and patriotism is awe inspiring. While I will never glorify war I will also never forget and always honor these gallant human beings.

31713_Lynch_Michael_DOB_19482Michael Lynch was one of them. He ran into Bert DeRose in the parking lot of a local grocery store in 1968  and told his former principal and drama club advisor that he had just enlisted. At the time, Lynch was attending SUNY New Paltz and had a student deferment. He could have done what so many of his generation chose to do and completely avoided the situation that caused his death. Instead, explaining his just-made decision to DeRose,  he told his old mentor he just didn’t feel right knowing others his age were there in harms way and he was not. He became an Army medic in the 5th Infantry and was sent to Vietnam. On March 15, 1969, his mechanized unit was on patrol between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh, South Vietnam when, their convoy of Armored Patrol Carriers was ambushed by the enemy. When the two lead vehicles were hit with rocket-propelled grenades, this young hero from Amsterdam rushed to help and as he was bending down to assist a wounded soldier he was hit by small arms fire and killed.

cassetta2Frank Cassetta grew up on Mathias Avenue. He enlisted in the US Army in 1951 and was sent to fight in Korea the following year. Promoted to Master Sergeant while there, on December 23, 1952 he was one of the leaders of an assault force about to attack a heavily fortified enemy hill near Sataeri, a city situated just to the northern side of the present day border between North and South Korea. As the patrol was moving up a narrow valley to position itself for the attack, one of the soldiers tripped an explosive device, alerting the North Koreans of their location. Frank’s patrol came under intense fire and was greatly outnumbered. As the American soldiers scrambled, they triggered another booby trap and with enemy grenades and small arms fire pouring down on them from both sides of the valley, their situation became bleak. Though Frank had been wounded himself, he made two, not one, two perilous trips back into the field of fire to retrieve injured comrades and bring them to safe cover. He then returned to direct friendly fire against the enemy positions and realizing that additional support was essential, he volunteered to make his way back to contact reserve forces for assistance. While attempting to do so, he was mortally wounded by enemy machine gun fire. He got a Silver Star.

Makar.PhotoSo did Mike Makarowsky from Amsterdam’s Park Hill neighborhood. He was a member of Company G, Amsterdam’s hometown unit in the 105th Infantry of the 27th Division of the New York State National Guard. No Guard unit in the country faced any more danger in battle during WWII than this gallant Rug City fighting force. On June 21, 1944 Sergeant Makarowsky’s platoon had been pinned down by enemy fire while advancing through a field of sugar cane on the Island of Saipan. When one of the soldiers in his platoon was wounded and left lying in the open field of fire, Makarowsky and another of his men grabbed a stretcher from an abandoned ambulance and went and got him. They brought him back to the ambulance, which was under intense fire by the Japanese, and when Makarowsky’s efforts to start the vehicle were unsuccessful, he carried the wounded man to safety. Not too long after that rescue, Makarowsky became the first Amsterdam native to lose his life in the battle for Saipan when he was killed in a subsequent encounter with the enemy. In that encounter, Makarowsky’s commanding officer had been killed and he had taken over command of the group and was leading them “in defiance of all enemy action” when he was shot down. Three other Company G residents of Amsterdam lost their lives on Saipan. They were Sergeants Peter Sansen and Edward Golenbiewski and Private First Class Paul Sierotta. According to Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister during WWII, losing Saipan was what lost the war for Japan. It was certainly one of the most important victories in the history of the US Military but it came at a huge cost to four families from Amsterdam, NY.

 

May 26 – Happy Birthday Stephen Sanford

The future of Amsterdam New York’s rug-making legacy was at stake. John Sanford had settled in the city along the Mohawk River in 1821 and built a rug mlll. Today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant went to work for his father in that mill in 1844. Ten years later, a monster fire burnt the place to the ground. John, who was 52-years-old at the time of the blaze, threw in the towel and retired. his oldest son Stephen, who had attended both West Point and Georgetown could have moved to any city in this country and had his pick of the very best jobs at the very best companies, chose instead to remain in Amsterdam and rebuild the mill.

That decision secured the future of this city. By the time he handed off the reins of the company to his own son John, the Sanford rug mills were employing 2,500 people whose wages were being spent in Amsterdam businesses that employed thousands more. Just as important to this town’s development, Sanford’s success also attracted other entrepreneurs to locate their mills here.

Stephen married Sarah Jane Cochran in 1849 and the couple had a total of five children. After she died in 1901, Stephen donated the land and the money used to build the elegant Sarah Jane Sanford Home for the Elderly that still stands and operates at 69 Guy Park Avenue and was in fact recently expanded.

Another famous Amsterdam landmark today’s featured Birthday Celebrant was responsible for was the Stanford Stud Farm. Stephen’s doctor had advised him to take up farming as a way of relieving the pressure of running his huge industrial enterprise. Instead of growing corn though, Sanford chose thoroughbred horses instead and had the then state-of-the-art training and breeding farm built just north of Amsterdam on Route 30. He originally named it Hurricana Farms and it would go on to produce some of the greatest thoroughbred champions in history, including a Kentucky Derby winner.

Like his father before him and his son after him, Stephen Sanford also served as Amsterdam’s representative in the US Congress. He was elected in November of 1868. He served one term and then refused to run for reelection. He was already a good friend of Ulysses Grant, who was serving as US President at the time because the two men had been cadets at West Point together. Sanford also became a good friend and confidant of the powerful New York State Senator and political boss, Roscoe Conkling. Those relationships and his fortune helped the Amsterdam Industrial Baron quickly become a force in Republican Party politics at the national level.

At the time he passed away in 1913 at the age of 86, his carpet mills, racehorses and political resume had made the name “Stephen Sanford” one of the most famous in America.

 

May 25 – Happy Birthday Isabelle Orante

orantehome
Former home of the Orante’s

They were one of Amsterdam’s coolest couples. He was the artist, a painter and sculptor who also owned Matthew’s, a different kind of men’s clothing store on Main Street in Amsterdam’s downtown. She ran an interior decorating company called Eljoor’s from a second floor office at that same location. They were the Orante’s, Isabelle and Matthew and if you were fortunate enough to have known either or both of them, you will never forget them.

It is Isabelle who celebrated her birthday on today’s date. Back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s she was the go-to decorator for Amsterdam businesses- and upscale homes. She had the absolute perfect look for the job too.

Born in New York City, she carried herself like a runway model and usually dressed like one as well. I remember during my bartending days at Ralph’s on Market Street, her and Matthew would very occasionally stop in on a Friday evening if the right band was performing. They’d sit in a corner booth and he would always wait on her like she was royalty and he loved doing it. They were one of the best dancing couples in the City at the time and I’ll never forget how the entire crowd at Ralphs’ would gawk at the two of them perform what seemed like choreographed routines on the lounge’s ten foot square parquet dance floor.

Early on in her career as an Amsterdam interior decorator, Isabelle had partnered with Elsie Curran and John Wolfe. She and Wolfe then established Eljoor’s as a partnership and when Wolfe left the business, Isabelle became the sole proprietor. Her and Matt ended up purchasing several Amsterdam properties and converting them into stylish apartment buildings.

The Orante’s own apartment was as cool as they were. It was in the refurbished former headquarter building of the City’s old telephone company at 40 Division Street. The place served as  an ongoing real-world exhibition of Isabelle’s decorating skill and Matthew’s artistic talents.

As you might imagine, to function even semi-regularly as an interior design consultant in this town required one to be flexible. Isabel worked her magic on everything from mansions to a bowling alley during her heyday. Her company vehicle was a gray Cadillac convertible and her assistant was usually Matthew himself. I only wish the two of them had been in their prime when the hit design show Trading Spaces debuted on TLC in 2000 because the Orante’s had the talents, personalities and intriguing eccentricities to become television stars.

Isabelle passed away in 2011 at the age of 85, three years after Matthew died.

 

May 24 – Happy Birthday Monsignor Peter Nowak

FatherNowak222One hundred and thirteen years ago, a delegation of Amsterdam men, all of them natives of Poland, called on Father Anton Gorski, who was then the Pastor of St. Stanislaus, the city’s first Roman Catholic Church for people of Polish descent. It was not a social call. Quite the contrary, the men were there seeking Gorski’s permission and blessing to create a second church for the segment of Amsterdam’s Polish families who had congregated several blocks north of St. Stan’s, Reid Hill neighborhood. A reluctant Gorski gave them neither. Undeterred, the delegation then approached the Bishop of Albany, Thomas Burke, who was most gracious and receptive to their request. He did give them permission to begin the process of forming a new parish along with instructions on how to do so, but he also cautioned the men to proceed carefully and not get ahead of themselves.

Filled with enthusiasm, the delegation returned to Amsterdam and as Bishop Burke instructed, formed a committee to find a building site for the new church, a rectory and a school. They selected four lots on Van Derveer Street and proceeded with a fundraising campaign to build the new house of worship, which was to be christened St John the Baptist. A total of 48 families had expressed an interest in joining the new parish but back in 1909, the average salary in Amsterdam was only about $8 per week. Despite that, the first $1,600 was raised relatively quickly. But the antagonism from the parishioners of St. Stans proved to be an intimidating and divisive force and with no counterweight to the influential Father Gorski, the committees’s fundraising and recruitment efforts stalled. So in September of 1909, they went back to Albany and asked Bishop Burke to appoint a priest for their new church. The Bishop had none available to give them but he promised he would do so when a new group of young men were ordained the following June.

True to his word, on June 2, 1910, today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was brought to Amsterdam by Burke’s assistant and introduced to the St. John’s committee as the new pastor of their new church. The Reverend Peter Nowak would spend the next half century, making St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church a spiritual bedrock of Amsterdam.

Born in Koscina, Poland on May 24, 1883, he studied for the priesthood in Belgium and was ordained on July 12, 1908, celebrating his first mass in his hometown parish. His older brother, Father Stanislaus Nowak was already a priest and already in New York and he had told Bishop Burke about his younger brother’s ordination. Burke quickly sent the younger Nowak an invitation to join the Albany Diocese. It was just as quickly accepted and Nowak boarded a ship and sailed for America. The young priest spent a few months getting acclimated to the US at a Schenectady parish. Burke then sent him to Granville, NY to organize a new church there. One year later he came to Amsterdam to begin his long and illustrious career at St. John’s.

StJohn222

The committee had been right. Their floundering church had needed a priest and leader to legitimize their efforts and Nowak would do much more than that. Within two years, the impressive white brick structure with its trademark double-steeples rising 137 feet above VanDerveer Street, opened its doors for the first time. A new rectory was finished by 1917. Both buildings were completely paid for by 1926. Nowak’s flock then built a convent on Milton Avenue for the parish’s Nuns and in 1929, purchased 16 acres of land and built a cemetery and a chapel off of Widow Susan Road.

He oversaw the formation of several societies for both the men and women of his parish and a church choir. He also served on the advisory board of St. Mary’s Hospital and for many years was also that health care facility’s chaplain. He truly did for St. John’s what Father Gorski had done for St. Stan’s and was rewarded for his effective stewardship by Pope Pius XII in 1955, when he was elevated to the position of Monsignor.

In early February of 1960, the then 76 year-old Nowak entered St. Mary’s Hospital and underwent abdominal surgery. He died one week later on February 17 just a few months shy of his 50th anniversary as pastor of his beloved St. John the Baptist. The Church would continue in operation until February 25, 2009, when it was closed by the Albany Diocese.