Bob Lettis’ Tales of Cooperstown: Influential People, Teachers

I wanted to highlight a neat article by Bob Lettis that appeared this week in a Cooperstown paper. He reminisces about some of the great Cooperstown teachers of his day – Red Bursey, Nick Sterling, etc.

Perhaps one day I’ll write my own version of this article. Tom Good, Ted Kantorowski, Dave Fundis and another Mr. Tabor populate a very short list of Cooperstown teachers of my era who possessed uncommon teaching ability. Cooperstown Central School has a laughable “Greatness by 2010″ plan – lipservice to improvement, really – as they move further away from these masters of development.

But enough of that – here’s Bob Lettis’ take on the great Cooperstown educators of his day, courtesy of The Freeman’s Journal.

Apologies for the wonky formatting, it’s part of the e-original.


Red Bursey Never Mentioned That Cigaret


Cooperstown was a wonderful village for a boy to grow up in. Being somewhat handicapped, the village was especially protective of me. It was a great place for all its children, but I seemed to get more attention than most.
Many special people guided me as I grew up. I cannot mention all those that were helpful, but I will try to pick out those that I felt were the most important and influential. All, I think, are dead now, but regardless of their circumstances, all will have a special place in my heart reserved for exceptional friends.
Lester Bursey was my gym teacher, coach and friend. He made sure that my polio affliction never stood in the way of an opportunity to participate in games and sports. From the time I went to the summer playground as a young child until I graduated from high school, having played varsity sports in football and baseball, Lester “Red” Bursey was my mentor.
When I was a 120- pound sophomore, trying to make the varsity football team, he wrote
in the local paper: “Bob Lettis can lick his weight in wildcats.”
I made the varsity that season, and Red encouraged me all the way. I was his varsity catcher on the baseball team, batting fourth in the batting order, which is the spot for the best hitter on the team. His advice and inspiration allowed me the chance to play sports at a very high level. Without his confidence in me, I might never have been given the chance to even try out, let alone play, baseball (and certainly not football).
As wonderful as he was to me, I’m afraid I let him down very badly.
He was always encouraging his athletes to maintain a healthy life style while participating in high school sports. When I was 16, I started smoking. I felt, as most smart-ass teenagers do, that I could smoke and play sports without any adverse effects.
One day I passed him on the street with a cigarette in my hand. He never said a word, either then or later, but I knew that he saw what I had done.
I’m very ashamed of that violation of his trust. I now know that it made a difference. Perhaps not physically, but psychologically it made me ashamed of having let down such a dedicated and warm human being. He had given me the opportunity to become a good athlete, despite my handicap, and I felt that I had been a disappointment.

While Red was very influential helping me with sports, there were others who had an intereste in my artistic development. I had several wonderful art teachers when I was growing up.
At an early age in elementary school I had Miss Bea Prine. Alongside several other talented students, she saw potential. She proceeded to nourish this talent by giving us special attention and encouragement. Our work was always well displayed and we were continually talked to about going on to art school to develop our skills and talent.
When Miss Prine retired, she was replaced by a beautiful young woman, Marcia Matoon. Miss Matoon had graduated from Syracuse University, where I eventually obtained my undergraduate art training. She continued the encouragement begun by Miss Prine years before. She entered my work in national poster contests, in scholastic art competitions and I won several awards.
She wrote a letter of recommendation that went into my school records, and, when I attended Syracuse University, it became part of my entrance credentials. After graduation from high school, I went into the army and Miss Matoon wrote to me several times while I was in training and serving overseas.
However, the most influential art teacher that I had was Helga Edge. I not only learned a great deal from this wonderful, dedicated woman and professional artist, but was also encouraged by her to pursue art as my life’s work. She was British, though had come to the United States just prior to our country entering World War II and stayed here for the rest of her life.
I took private art lessons from her for several years, paid for by my patron, Grandma Hail. After high school and my stint in the army, I attended Syracuse University because Miss Edge thought that it was the best art college in our area. After graduation, she was instrumental in my getting my first teaching position, at Worcester Central School.
During my years as an art teacher in Worcester and Cooperstown, I maintained close contact with her. We worked together in her studio in Toddsville and my son, Daniel, took art lessons from her at that time. Upon her death in 1980, she willed her entire professional art library and her small etching press to me.

During the years I attended elementary and high school, many teachers took a special interest in my life. I’ve already mentioned Miss Prine and Miss Matoon. Mabel Wagner, a drama and English teacher was also one of them. She came to our village as a beautiful young woman who immediately gained the attention of all the single men in the community. We as high school boys thought she was pretty terrific as well.
At that time, I had a slight speech impediment that she helped by giving me lessons in oration and allowing me to compete in several speaking contests. She cast me in several plays and encouraged me to enter an essay and speaking contest. Miss Wagner was the kind of a teacher that every one of her students could fall in love with.
Alas, Robert Atwell, a young and upcoming civic leader, won her hand and her heart, for they were married a few years after she came to our village. They had two beautiful children, Bobby and Neil, both of whom were students of mine when I came to teach here.
Nick Sterling, another teacher, was a special person in my life. He became principal and superintendent of our high school when I was a sophomore. While I never took a class from him, he always treated me with kindness and respect. I was on the ski team at the time and Mr. Sterling became our coach.
When I was teaching art in Worcester and Schenevus, I chaperoned a group of students to a basketball game in Cooperstown. I met Nick again for the first time since I was in the service. He had become superintendent of Cooperstown’s schools by then. After asking me how my teaching was going in Worcester, he said that he was looking for a high school art teacher and asked if i might be interested.
After talking it over at home, I decided to accept his offer. And so for the next eight years I taught at my old alma mater. Besides teaching, I coached junior high baseball, was adviser to the Student Council, taught ski lessons at Mount Otsego and collaborated with Bob Squires, another teacher, on high school theatre productions. I did sets, lighting and costumes while Bob directed and took care of the drama end.
As well as working on high school theatrics, Bob and I were instrumental in starting a community theatre group called “The Back Stagers.’’ Both in high school and the community we managed, in just six or seven years, to stage many productions ranging from musical theatre to Shakespeare. (Nick Sterling gave us a free hand to do all these things.)
I need to say at this point, Nick Sterllng was the finest educator and energetic community leader that Cooperstown has ever had.

I’ve mentioned these people because they stand out in my mind. There were others, as well, who were not quite as central, but nevertheless played a role in my life within this village.
To name a few: Greeny (I do not know his real name), Smith Tolmie, Harold Wall, Bob Wright, Jake Schaffer, Ellamae Hanson, Mrs. Denton Stillwell, Angelo Pugalese, etc. Not all were teachers. All helped me through my difficult years as a polio kid. After my mother and father separated, all acted as friends and mentors.
The cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child,” was certainly true in my case, at least.

2 Responses to “Bob Lettis’ Tales of Cooperstown: Influential People, Teachers”

  1. JTHRC says:


  2. Gernant Maurer says:

    I was interested to learn about Helga Edge. I purchased a watercolor painting by her many years ago when I lived in New Hartford.

    Do you know of anyone who collects her art and would be interested in purchasing it?


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