Going Home to the Place I Never Left
- by Bruce E. McKinney
The McKinneys [L to R], Bruce, Linda, Tom and Adelaide on Huguenot Street after high school graduation in 1964
Jenny and I flew to New York on Tuesday 4 September and drove up to Lake Mohonk at New Paltz in Ulster County. From age 5 to 21 New Paltz was my home town. We’re going for a week; for the chance to visit my brother who lives there still and who’ll be 77 this fall. My sister Linda who has lived in Maine for the past thirty years is also joining us. We get together at Mohonk several times a year.
Two years ago, when I reached 70, I set aside $150,000 to support various projects near and around New Paltz that my family, newspaper publishers in their prime, supported during their lifetimes. My mother’s preferences are clearer because she lived longer, into the summer of 1987. My father died just short of his 62nd birthday in 1974. Over the past two years the amount gifted rose to $180,000 as specific proposals emerged that I knew to be consistent with my mother’s thinking. This year, at 72, I’m setting out to gift a further $150,000 to be dispersed before I reach 74, God willing.
New Paltz has long been associated with history. It is an early Dutch settlement whose local interest in preservation has ensured its early old stone houses, some dating to the late 17th century, survived, even prospered. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s when I lived there, its University, SUNY New Paltz, was a house cat. Today it’s a lion, covering a significant portion of the town and providing education to some 8,000 full and part time students. it’s a storied old town now defined by its biggest business: education.
Typical of what has changed are the Elting Memorial Library and P & G’s Bar across the street. The library is a revered institution, located in one of the community’s old stone houses. Across the street is one of the town’s four bars that is packed at every hour of the day and today a valuable business while the library makes appeals for funds to continue its operations.
New Paltz, in many ways, is a more significant place today than it was in the 1950’s but it is substantially so because it is a different place. The surest way to succeed today is to cater to the University’s community. But many too are the people interested in preserving area history, even as the University’s footprint grows. They believe. As do I, that there can be an understandable balance between past and present.
In going back to visit New Paltz I carry with me the goal/ambition of supporting, in this and surrounding southern Ulster communities, they that are trying to preserve the past, an important goal, and see in that process, some potential to resolve other long term issues as well.
There are six elements or aspects of local history in Ulster County that I can identify; the health and survival of local history organizations, the collection and recording of local history, the acquisition and collection of local material by collectors, the building of a database that converts all relevant text and images into easily searched results, a location and mechanism to physically display and explain material that tells the story of the past and suggests its relevance to today and the future. And finally, I see a way to test/evaluate how best to convey this history to future generations. The University at New Paltz, that has transformed the community, if they can accommodate a plan to embrace the history of southern Ulster as their own history, may become the bulwark for defending, explaining and promoting local history specifically and as well as history more generally because the lessons we learn here will apply generally, certainly to the other universities in the New York State system, to the other 61 counties in the state, and to all the 50 states. New Paltz and southern Ulster, as the test tube for the worldwide challenge of translating the past to those who will be our future: this is our opportunity. How will the past fit into the future? This question has an answer and I propose we find it here.
Not yet mentioned, but also part of my thinking, are a series of paintings by Lenny Tantillo: the Ulster County Cycle. They are envisioned as eight paintings of local places that will connect passersby with aspects of southern Ulster history. The first is a painting of the Burning of the Normal School at New Paltz in 1906. The next is a depiction of the industrial center of Ulster County at Rondout in the later 19th century, the third reflecting the nearby town of Lloyd.
These are all simply elements. What will connect them?
It will require a shared database and in time shared space.
The ideal location will be the Sojourner Truth Library at the University. The space is exceptional, bright and very alive. It provides all the environmental controls any archivist could imagine, various sized areas for storage and display and various discussion areas nearby. Some work space for historians would also be accommodated.
Various Ulster County history organizations, of which there are many, would divide responsibility for arranging speakers so that, throughout the year, there would be regular talks as well as changing focuses and displays. Many disciplines would be involved, be they printed and manuscript material of all description, objects, art and paintings. We live in a more intense world these days and these talks and their supporting material would seek to reflect that intensity.
This is important because, in addition to providing support and organization for the sharing and merging of individual groups, we would have the opportunity to test the relationship between history as we have known it and the next generation that will interact with it. The old model is in decline but I have confidence we can figure out how to fit historical perspective into the emerging world and the University would be an exceptional place from which to confront this challenge.
Finally, because the University is very large we’ll have the opportunity, via announcements, to test responses and in time know what resonates with students. Our findings will help other organizations in other places find their places in their world.
This ultimately is the goal and I will support this project.
We can expect wide interest and broad participation among the many elements that today comprise the field. And I will of course, circumstances permitting, continue to further invest in the area every two years where I grew up but, in fairness to my family, will keep such commitments to 2 years. My family will have their own preferences after I have exited stage left.
We’ll see what can be done.