Reading recently about the 50th anniversary ceremony at Herkimer County Community College reminded me of those halcyon days when a handful of teachers and administrators laid the groundwork for what would become one of the finest two-year colleges in the state. I was 23 when I received the letter informing me that I had been appointed Instructor of Social Sciences; hired to teach American History, Western Civilization and, thanks to choosing the right minor (attn.: prospective college students), American Music. There are not too many things more important in life than enjoying your job. Until we retire, we spend more time at work than anything else save for sleep. I loved my job!
It’s funny how the mind works when you’re 73. I can’t remember to pick up the milk five minutes after my wife asks me to, but I can remember vividly that first year at the college. I’d like to share a few memories in the unconscious stream of thought that follows: The first week stacking books in the library with fellow faculty members-a campus located on the second story of a factory building; Ralph’s "greasy spoon" and the Dinner Bell’s $1 spaghetti specials; Chuck Sadowski (Rutgers wrestler who taught Soc and Psych for one year); the great Biology prof "Doc" Bob Dorrance who mentored me; Shirley Samuels; Artie Muller; "Wild" Bill Elenko; Irv Mason; John Thayer; Jean Stapleton and the Canton Conference; our gifted, tough, visionary president Bob McLaughlin; his Sancho Panza, Dave Trautlein, whose evaluations helped me grow as a teacher; Winslow’s cheeseburgers; $5,200 starting salary and helping two local families at Christmas.
I was fortunate that first year to have understanding, responsible and patient students who were subjected to my unreasonable demands — I thought I was teaching an advanced history class at Harvard. They kindly endured as I modified my approach to accommodate their needs and capabilities. I owe them more than they’ll ever know and probably learned more from them than they did from me. So-thanks to Maggie Mootz, Elaine Ciccone, Rod Clem, Jim McLeod and all the other graduates of our first class.
The next few years were equally memorable for a variety of reasons and critical insofar as the college’s growth was concerned. Division Chairmen were chosen and given the responsibility of growing the faculty. As one of the former, I had the opportunity in 1967 to hire four men, all younger than me (the Kiddie Corps), two of whom, Gary Ruff and Bill Pelz, made major contributions to the college and community over the years. I held my division meetings in the back room of the iconic Ilion Hotel where sessions began not with the presentation of an agenda but, rather, with the question — ‘Who’s buying?" Ruff developed a sociology department and student club (Social Issues) which addressed the key issues of the day, while Pelz did similarly in his field. Both men have remained on staff until today; Pelz full-time and Ruff as a part-time teacher and student retention counselor. The addition over the next few years of John Reese, Fred Lieber, the late Jack Christensen, Tim "Pops" McLain and Pete Turner made ours a formidable department.
One of our main objectives as teachers was to challenge our students to develop open minds and to embrace Socrates’ admonition: "the unexamined life isn’t worth living." We also encouraged them to get involved. And the late 60s and early 70s (Civil Rights and Vietnam) provided all of us with opportunities to do so. We organized a spirited debate featuring several faculty members on the topic of the Vietnam War. Pelzie took an old Freihofer bread truck and several students to D.C. for a national anti-war rally. Ruffer, John Bullis and four other students traveled to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 in support of the American Indian Movement. I organized a Vietnam veteran advocacy organization (Save-A-Vet). Ideology and reality didn’t make strange bedfellows-they complemented each other.
One of the hallmarks of "Harvard on the Hill" has been its athletic department and like academics, we helped build its foundation-a fact rarely remembered. Ruff was our first basketball coach. Two of his stalwarts, Herkimer High grads Donnie Kane and Lennie Mitchell, could have started for any of the legendary Jack Alofs’ teams. My fast pitch softball team, with exceptional hurlers Chas Edwards and Billy Korosec from West Winfield, won three Mountain Valley Conference championships. Tom "Cuke" LaPuma introduced lacrosse to the school while one of Doc Dorrance’s skiers won a national championship.
It was my great privilege to have played a small part in the development of HC3. I experienced so much joy in the process that at times I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for the effort. Working with exceptional teachers (Pring, Piwinski, Greco, Eichholzer, Barthel, Devitt, Corriero along with the previously named among others), superlative secretaries (Marion Hall, Gail Burroughs, Dede Deneski, Flo Spencer), personable maintenance guys (Bob Petkovsek, Gordie Fike, Joe Mead) and having great students, many of whom enjoyed successful careers (Lou Patrei, Mark Vivacqua, Coz Tangorra, Bill Plante, Cindy Gabriel, Andy Devitt and Rob Juteau to name a few) made my career as ideal as might have been imagined. So Happy 50th HCCC and thanks, thanks, thanks for the memories.
Ray Lenarcic is a retired history professor at Herkimer County Community College. He lives in East Herkimer.