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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.

Why I’m Voting for John Lambert, Jim Seward and Not Bill Magee

I‘m not an evangelical voter, though I’m happy to have any honest discussion about politics. I like information and understanding.

I’m not a secretive voter, either. I don’t mind telling anyone how I vote or why I do it.

As a resident of Otsego County, I’ve got 3 local races to vote on tomorrow:

Otsego County Judge, Jill Ghaleb [D] vs. John Lambert [R]

john lambert

Mr. Lambert turned in an impressive performance last Monday at SUNY Oneonta. Though the Otsego County Judge handles mostly Family Court cases – about 70% are family cases, I think [***please read the addendum below] – a deep knowledge of Surrogate’s and Criminal Courts is necessary. Lambert’s experience as Asst. District Attorney has prepared him will for the job. While Ms. Ghaleb’s familiarity with the Family Court is admirable, it isn’t enough to warrant a 10-year term as Otsego County Judge.

Ghaleb’s speech at the SUNY Oneonta event was weak. I want a clear, confident, knowledgeable judge on the County bench. Mr. Lambert talked to us like a judge. Ms. Ghaleb talked to us like a kindergarten teacher.

My vote for Otsego County Judge is for John Lambert.

*** Mr. Lambert’s campaign sent a brief explanation of the 70% Family Court figure. I could have been more clear, but what’s above does imply that the majority of cases heard by the Judge are Family Court cases. I referred to the number of cases, not the Court’s commitment to those cases.

In short, it stands to reason that several custody hearings are easier than a single murder trial. They explain it this way:

“In your blurb about John, I couldn’t help but see that you mention that Family Court is 70% of the job.  Unfortunately, this statistic is misleading.  Ms. Ghaleb wants us to believe the job is 70% family court, but it’s just not true.  For example, in county court during a given week there may be 5 family court matters.  One a day for the week.  In that same week there could be one trial in criminal court.  That one trial could take the entire week (usually longer).  There are also several steps to a criminal trial that need to take place outside of the court room as well.

So, as far as Ms. Ghaleb’s statistics are concerned,  the above scenario would count as 5 family court cases and 1 criminal court case – While the number of family court cases may show a number at or around 70%, the time it takes to run a single criminal trial is actually much longer.

If Ms. Ghaleb’s numbers were true then Otsego County would probably have its own Family Court Judge like many other surrounding counties.  Also, if the criminal court aspect was less than 15-20%, then Otsego County would not need a full time district attorney and 4 assistants to handle the case load.”

I’d contend that the numbers are true, just that Ms. Ghaleb hasn’t been clear about the meaning of those numbers. I’ve found her commitment to statistics favorable to her to be disingenuous.

111th NY Assembly District, William Magee [D], unopposed

william magee

Though William Magee is running unopposed, I will not vote for him.

I don’t know Assemblyman Magee personally, but he seems like a delightful guy. Unfortunately, Magee could be the posterboy for the philosophy that has turned Central New York into a stale, atrophying wreck.

Check Magee’s questionnaire for the Observer-Dispatch – including his answer of “Yes.” to whether the state Legislature could reduce property tax burdens.

Magee is all over the board philosophically with little for substantial plans. Property tax cuts, yes – school funding from the state? Yes as well, though that tax money has to come from somewhere Magee hasn’t disclosed. He’d like to stop the ‘brain-drain’ but thinks that making New York a “mecca of green” and pushing an ad campaign for hiking and biking will do the trick.

Bill Magee, your platform could be held responsible for 111th District New Yorkers under the age of 35 being damned miserable. I don’t care that you’re unopposed – I won’t give you a vote. It might not be your fault personally, but what you stand for is a problem.

And if I’d known sooner that the Republicans didn’t have a candidate to run against you, I would’ve run against you myself. I thank Assemblyman Magee for his many years of service, but I’d like to see him move along in 2010.

My vote for the 111th NY Assembly District is for no one, despite William Magee running unopposed.

51st NY Senate District, Jim Seward [R] vs. Don Barber [D]

james seward

I attended the 90 minute Seward/Barber debate in Oneonta last Monday. It was a clear victory for Jim Seward, who is one of the finest, most benevolent politicians in New York State. I think if Seward moved to Park Slope, even those folks would drop their arugula and pick up an “Another Family for Seward” sign.

Don Barber comes off as a sneaky, dishonest leftist – not to be confused with a liberal. As I wrote about Barber’s school funding ideas, he’s comfortable with a bait’n'switch on taxes and state healthcare.

I like openness and honesty, and it’s why Barber received the lowest grade [D+] of any profiled candidates who submitted an answer.

I sincerely believe what Barber says about wanting universal healthcare for New Yorkers, and in a way, this race will gauge the 51st District’s interest in and support for that issue. Barber does not, however, address the issue honestly in terms of how the fiscal ramifications will impact New Yorkers.

Seward has exercised excellent judgment during his tenure and has balanced well the interests of our District’s businesses and citizens. Seward is responsible, responsive and has progressive ideas for how to keep Central New York’s talented younger generation in New York – like tax credits to forgive student loans over a 10-year period for those who take up residence. I can’t imagine where Central New York would be right now if it wasn’t for the work of Seward and friends.

In this case, I want more of the same – not a shifty leftist bent on bankrupting our businesses to fulfill the agenda of the Democratic party’s social engineers.

My vote for the 51st NY Senate District is for Jim Seward.

Why I’m Voting for Richard Hanna and John McCain

I‘m not an evangelical voter, though I’m happy to have any honest discussion about politics. I like information and understanding.

I’m not a secretive voter, either. I don’t mind telling anyone how I vote or why I do it.

There are two races on which I’ll vote tomorrow that have national significance:

House of Representatives, 24th District, Michael Arcuri [D] vs. Richard Hanna [R]

richard hanna

Richard Hanna is a breath of fresh air in Central New York. He’s a businessman, not a career politician. If he’s not silver-tongued like his opponent, it’s to his credit. I’ll take a genuine guy over a weasel of a politician any day.

Michael Arcuri is a shill for his party – he’s a Blue Dog on paper only. As late as September, over 80% of his campaign contributions had come from outside our district. Arcuri serves his party nationwide and in Washington more than he serves the 24th Congressional District. They might love him for it. I don’t.

Richard Hanna didn’t have $5,000/plate breakfasts held hundreds of miles from his district. If he’s a shill, it’s for people in Upstate New York – and that’s exactly the type of shill I want.

Their stances on the large, looming national issues are fairly predictable given their respective parties. They did differ a great deal on education funding, as I wrote last week, and on their understanding of public education. Hanna not only gets how we deliver, monitor and improve public education, but he understands how it relates to that ‘brain-drain’ we’ve got in Upstate NY.

After two years of Michael Arcuri’s impotent representation, Richard Hanna is a welcome alternative.

My vote for the 24th Congressional District of New York is for Richard Hanna.

President of the United States, John McCain [R] vs. Barack Obama [D]

john mccain, young

I’m a simple guy. The government’s got two main functions: to keep me safe and to stay out of my way. Senator John McCain will be better than his opponent at both.

My vote for the President of the United States is for John McCain.

Grading the Candidates on Education Funding: Richard Hanna and Michael Arcuri, NY 24th Congressional District, US House of Representatives

Thanks to the Observer-Dispatch, we’ve got the local candidates’ views on education – grades and analysis below.

The New York 24th District of the United States House of Representatives covers parts or all of 11 counties in Central New York State. Incumbent Michael Arcuri [D] is being challenged by Richard Hanna [R].

The O-D asked candidates in some state and federal races about their proposals for education funding. Here are their answers:

Michael Arcuri, D-Utica

michael arcuri, congressman, 24th district NY

Education funding is a state issue, but if the federal government wants to regulate it, it cannot keep passing down unfunded mandates to states and localities.

Although the No Child Left Behind program has a role in creating standards to help students, it is woefully underfunded, which hurts local schools. No Child Left Behind takes away educators’ incentive for creativity and development of new methodologies for teaching children, and assumes that all children learn at the same pace.

NCLB’s cookie-cutter approach is also detrimental to school districts like Utica where many languages are spoken. I hope to see legislation reforming the No Child Left Behind program to encourage teacher creativity, so innovative programs created here in Utica can be shared with Auburn and Binghamton, and students aren’t just taught to the test.

I also believe the federal government must finally step up to the plate and fund programs like NCLB and IDEA sufficiently.

Grade: C-. Congressman Arcuri knows so little about education at both the local and federal levels that he repeats meaningless criticism and offers no plan for future development. Arcuri’s answer says little and means even less. His ignorance of education and education funding – both important issues to saving what’s left of a Central New York economy suffering from rapid atrophy – is apparent. That, and it expresses a near-total misunderstanding of No Child Left Behind.

On a positive note, Arcuri’s particular strain of ignorance is cheaper than most.

News to Rep. Arcuri: Education funding has been a federal issue since President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 [which he followed with the Higher Education Act in the same year]. A not insignificant number of schools in the 24th District – the district in which Arcuri has lived for years and has represented in Congress for two – rely on the Title 1 funds from that 43-year old legislation. To say education funding is wholly a “state issue” is disingenuous. As every taxpayer, politician and bake-saler knows, we fund our schools from the top down and the bottom up.

Arcuri’s line about No Child Left Behind taking away a teacher’s “incentive for creativity and development of new methodologies for teaching children” will tickle the unions’ fancies and play well with compassionate voters. Unfortunately, his criticism is baseless and misleading. Had he examples of how average teachers developed “new methodologies” for teaching children before NCLB, he might have an interesting point. But the evidence of 20 years of stagnant, unimpressive performance in Central New York schools renders Arcuri’s objections moot.

The truth is that Central New York’s teachers are not innovative researchers held down by NCLB. Blaming NCLB for our uninspiring performance is scapegoating; reducing the legislation to a barrage of tests to which teachers must submit ignores both the purpose of the Act and the failure of teachers/administrators to implement it properly. That some teachers “teach to the test” is the fault of district leaders and administrators, not No Child Left Behind.

Arcuri’s argument about NCLB being underfunded is sound, and his point about urban, multi-lingual districts resonates. But instead of parroting victimization and offering no plan for how to rectify NCLB’s shortcomings, a responsible Congressman should encourage districts to meet legislation halfway as they lobby for better funding that could lead to the successful implementation of education reforms.

We’d like our schools to be efficient, productive and cost-effective in Central New York. If we are to see those results, both sides have to accept responsibility – and our Congressman needs to facilitate that shared effort. Until then, we will continue to lose our most talented graduates and the jobs that come with our most promising businesses.

Central New York suffers from an economic wasting disease. Congressman Arcuri’s thoughts on education funding offer hollow moans and no solutions.

Richard Hanna, Republican

Richard Hanna, congressional candidate, 24th district NY

Current educational policy pits the property owner against the educational system. If we are to compete in the new global economy, it will be through the value- added nature of education.

We need a less adversarial way to pay for our public schools. New York state’s universities produce some of the finest students in the world – we must stop the brain drain.

Rebuilding our economy will help offer opportunities for these people to build their lives here. Tough economic times call for hard decisions, but education funding should be the last thing we cut. We must, however, spend our money more wisely and understand that more money does not necessarily mean a better education or produce better outcomes.

Many improvements could be made to the No Child Left Behind Act. It has not produced the outcomes it was expected to. Testing and accountability issues must be addressed.

Grade: A-. Hanna’s answer is short on specifics, but he’s got his eye on the right issues.

Property taxes weighed on Central New Yorkers even before the economy and fuel prices caused their own strains. Hostility between taxpayers and schools is building and Central New York can’t afford the tension.

Education is Central New York’s best bet for attracting employers and encouraging our brightest to stay in the area – or, as Hanna put it, to “stop the brain drain.” Cutting education funding straightaway should be our last resort. We will only begin to address our place in the global economy if we align our schools with successful education reform efforts and the needs of the economy while funding those efforts adequately.

Spending money “wisely” and looking at the results, including using “value-added” measures, will alleviate  tension between taxpayers and public schools while strengthening our local economy. We can’t just throw money at the problem – thankfully, both Hanna and Arcuri seem to agree there.

Hearing that Hanna seeks “improvements” to NCLB is welcome. The Act is flawed, especially with its implementation and support – its outcomes are, as Hanna states, different than what we expected. Testing, accountability, funding and implementation are critical issues for reforming and reauthorizing NCLB.

I wish that Hanna had mentioned explicitly that most important issue to education reform – teacher quality, and specifically, how we might improve teacher quality, hiring and retention in Central New York. Then again, I wish that any candidate in Central New York had spoken about teacher quality.

On the question of education funding, the advantage goes to Richard Hanna.

Grading the Candidates on Education Funding: James Seward and Don Barber, 51st District NY State Senate

Thanks to the Observer-Dispatch, we’ve got the local candidates’ views on education – grades and analysis below.

The 51st District of the New York State Senate covers Otsego, Tompkins, Cortland, Chenango, Herkimer, Schoharie and Greene Counties. Incumbent James Seward {R] is being challenged by Don Barber [D].

The O-D asked candidates in some state and federal races about their proposals for education funding. Here are their answers:

James Seward, R-Milford

James Seward, 51st district, ny state senate candidate

As the state works toward a more sound fiscal plan, there are several items that need to be considered, and no doubt education funding will come under the microscope. We must avoid, however, cost shifts and new pressure on property taxes. People are already struggling to pay their school tax bills. Many area school districts are under pressure to keep up with education mandates, particularly rural, low-wealth districts in our area. I have already fought for pension cost relief, and energy savings for schools. I am also calling for an end to unfunded mandates, and encouraging school consolidation and superintendent sharing where it makes sense.

We need to continue to improve accountability in our schools, and also make sure students are getting every advantage possible to keep up with our ever changing world.

Grade: A-. Seward’s concise answer nails several key issues and how he will deal with them. Controlling property taxes while maintaining the effectiveness of current education funding resonates with many in his District. The real specifics of school budgets – pensions and energy are two elements spiraling out of control – must be addressed. Though an end to unfunded mandates may be the pipe dream of all candidates, consolidation, sharing resources and an eye on the future make up for it.

Don Barber, Democrat

Don Barber, 51st district, ny state senate candidate

We must continue to shift funding for education from the property tax and fund it through the state. Funding would be based on a fairer state tax system, including a millionaire’s tax that would only affect the top 1 percent of earners. The state must take over the 97 underfunded mandates that don’t affect the student-teacher relationship.

Finally, we need publicly funded, privately delivered, quality, universal health care. Currently, the school budget is driven by the exorbitant cost of private health care to such an extent that the benefits para-professionals receive exceed their entire salaries.

Most school professionals receive this expensive health care benefit in retirement. If we remove employer responsibility for providing health insurance, we can finance universal health care through a payroll tax similar to Medicare’s. School budgets would decrease by a huge margin under this plan.

Grade: D+. There’s no denying that Barber is a thinker. The problem is his uncommon mixture of good-faith lack of clarity and deliberate smoke and mirrors.

Barber’s idea to “shift funding… from the property tax” to the state conveniently forgets from whom state funds are derived: taxpayers. Barber cites a “fairer state tax system” which is unclear aside from it being an income tax on the very top earners [to an extent unexplained]. And when Barber figures out mandates as they relate to the mysterious “student-teacher relationship,” I’ll be glad to talk over how to deal with those expenditures. Until then, it’s rhetoric that will get coos from the teachers’ unions and a blank stare from me.

Barber’s proposition on health care is unique among Central NY candidates’ education funding solutions. Unfortunately, it’s dishonest.

He is right that school budgets, and therefore school funding, will go down if NY adopts a system of universal healthcare. Healthcare costs, including what is drawn by pensioners, simply won’t be a part of the school budget.

And again, Barber fails to point out that the tax money has to come from somewhere. When “the state” absorbs or creates a new program, the state bills us through taxes.

Barber’s agenda is clear: universal health care and more taxes on the wealthy. That’s fine for a campaign platform, but it doesn’t address education funding – and we should raise an eyebrow at the bait-and-switch.

On the question of education funding, the advantage goes to James Seward.

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