Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sanctuary for the winged wounded

Editor's Note: A different version of this story appeared in the Berkshire Eagle July 17, 2011. For pictures, directions, and more information on Berkshire Bird Paradise click here. For more information on the work of Barbara Chepaitis click here.

Mitch, a steppe eagle from Afghanistan, has become quite a celebrity over the course of the past year, but remains humble, sharing his living quarters with a golden eagle named Thor and Buddy, a red-tailed hawk.

"I think he considers Thor like a father figure," said Pete Dubacher as we watched the birds.

Dubacher runs Berkshire Bird Paradise in Grafton, N.Y., where Mitch will be living out the rest of his life, thousands of miles from where he was shot by an Afghani soldier and rescued by a U.S. Navy SEAL team.

Dubacher’s role in Mitch’s rescue began with an unexpected call.

"Last June I got a call from Afghanistan," Dubacher said. "I thought it was a prank."

It wasn’t.

A special operations unit had taken the bird in after it was shot in the left wing at a rifle range. The team, while working in a combat zone, spent four months caring for the eagle they named "Mitch" after the snake in the movie "Road Trip."

"It shows compassion," Dubacher, a Vietnam veteran, said of the soldiers’ actions. "It’s a testament to our country."

The soldiers had heard about Dubacher’s work and asked him to take the eagle.

"Of all the places in the country, they called me," said Dubacher. "I’m a nobody. I’m in the middle of nowhere."

In truth, Dubacher has made a name for himself nationally for his dedication to the thousands of birds he’s rescued
over the years.

He’s been caring for birds since 1972, a hobby that quickly spiraled into a life’s work.

"People would call me and ask me to take these birds," he said. "I can’t say no. If I don’t take care of them who will?"

By 1975 he had converted his parents’ 20-acre farm into a bird sanctuary.

He admits it’s not an easy life. He does most of the work himself, which helps keep costs down, but is hard on him and his family.

"You make a lot of sacrifices. I have no social life. You put everything into it, but I’m loving what I do," he said.

After the phone call from Afghanistan, Dubacher called his friend, the writer Barbara Chepaitis, to help in trying to coordinate getting Mitch to America.

"She doesn’t take no for an answer," he said.

Chepaitis spent the next 137 days tirelessly taking on numerous government agencies.

"I delved into it with gusto," she said. "It felt impossible to get one good thing done. I devoted myself to proving that wrong."

Her fight went all the way to the White House, she said, and by September Mitch was allowed into the country. After a month in quarantine he was at his new home in upstate New York.

The experience taught the writer that "change is possible if you are persistent," something she also finds in Dubacher.

"His perseverance is what inspires us all," she said.

Dubacher, she said, works on the edge between "all possibility and all risk," a place she was drawn to as a writer.

She ended up writing a book about Dubacher and his work, "Feathers of Hope," and is now working on a book about Mitch -— "Saving Eagle Mitch: One Good Deed in a Wicked World."

And as for Mitch he has adjusted well to his new life, according to Dubacher, and is once again healthy, although unable to fly.

Mitch is just one of more than a thousand birds as well as tortoises, squirrels, deer, and orchids at Berkshire Bird Paradise and Dubacher seems inspired by them all.

He also raises bald eagles he releases into the wild, helping to repopulate the species in the region.

Saturday, he was doing a "soft release," with a 13-week old bald eagle, beginning the process of teaching it to live on its own.

"I’m so proud right now," he said watching the eagle soar across the sky. "I’ve got goose bumps."

Turning away from the scene he seemed reflective.

"I'm blessed to be able to pull this off," he said. "When you do things for the right reasons, put your body and soul into it, there's a power out there that will take care of you."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hazel Rowley on the Roosevelts

Editor's note: Hazel Rowley, a biographer whose most recent work dealt with the complicated relationship of first couple Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, died suddenly March 1 after a series of strokes related to an undiagnosed infection. I had interviewed her only weeks before for this piece, a version of which ran in the Register-Star Feb. 10. I found the 59-year-old Australian-reared writer funny, brilliant and giving. She told me she was planning on writing about the era just after FDR's death when a pall of conservatism hung over America. I only wish she could have finished.

In Hazel Rowley’s newest book she explores one couple’s “extraordinary marriage.” That couple happens to be made up of two singular Americans — Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — who helped define an era and hold a country together during the dark days of the Depression and World War II.

According to the author, she hit upon the idea of writing "Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: An Extraordinary Marriage," while visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park.

She said that while on the tour people kept asking questions about the Roosevelts’ marriage. Many were interested in the couple, it seemed, as was Rowley, so much so that she spent three years writing the book.
And in her opinion, it was an extraordinary 40-year marriage and one that moved from a conventional Victorian relationship — the distant cousins were married in 1905 — to one that encompassed an openness that included romantic friendships with others, but remained rooted in abiding love and respect.

Theirs was a “community marriage,” said Rowley, filled with close-knit family, including FDR’s overbearing mother, and friends.

When Franklin contracted polio at 39 the circle grew, since he needed help almost 24-hours a day. The disease created a situation where the couple were living at close quarters with a number of aides and others who were fiercely loyal to them and in return received the same.

“They were an unconventional couple ... after Franklin got polio in 1921 their marriage opened up,” Rowley said.

Distance would seem to have been one factor in the nature of their relationship.

“There was five years — between 1923 and 1928 — where he was away from home more than at home,” said Rowley.

For example, FDR was away from home during the period between 1925 and 1928 for 116 weeks while trying to recover from his disease. His wife was with him for four of those weeks, while his social secretary, Missy LeHand, with whom he ended up having a long romance with, was with him for 110.

“He had to find himself again as a man,” said the author. “(Eleanor) understood that.”

Eleanor’s role also changed after FDR contracted polio. She pushed him to continue his political career and took on much of the burden of making his political life possible.

“It was her passion,” said Rowley. “It was the glue that held their marriage together.”

FDR apparently understood this.

“He knew what he owed to Eleanor,” she told me.

While Eleanor denied the fact that she wanted to be First Lady, saying as much in her autobiography “This is My Life,” Rowley doesn’t buy it.

“She said it in her autobiography, but that doesn’t mean we need to believe it,” the author said.

Rowley said it was written while the couple was in the White House, at a time when the Republicans were looking for fodder against the administration and already calling Eleanor a “petticoat president.”

Rowley doesn’t believe the Roosevelts could have lived the life they did in today’s world.

She said it was a different time, with the press respecting their privacy and the president’s public image, going so far as to never film FDR being lifted in and out of his car.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor continued to be a progressive voice in a newly conservative America, said Rowley.

This period, beginning just after the Roosevelt era, when a “fog of conservatism” fell across America, in Rowley’s words, will be the subject of her next book.

The author, who resides in New York City, has written a number of other biographies including one about the relationship of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The crime commission comes to Hudson

Mention Hudson’s Diamond Street to people of a certain age in the area and you may be likely to hear a story about a neighborhood known for its flaunting of the law, a place where gambling and prostitution thrived.

The funniest story this reporter heard related to Diamond Street, by then renamed Columbia, involved a man I met in Kinderhook. It was the late 1940s and he and his new bride, on their way south to honeymoon, stopped in Hudson for the night. Not knowing their way around, the newlyweds ended up on Columbia Street looking for a hotel. The man left his bride in the car and went to find out the price of a room at what appeared to be a small hotel. He soon realized his mistake when he was greeted by the denizens of the establishment. Needless to say the couple didn’t stay.

Our friend in Kinderhook may not have been aware of Hudson’s reputation, but he was apparently in the minority.

“The little town with the big red-light district,” as Hudson was known for many years, had a reputation that stretched along the east coast and through history, beginning almost from the founding of the city in 1785.

Everyone from early sailors who plied the Hudson to Albany politicians who came down from the capitol on Fridays, allegedly after knocking off early from governmental duties, spent money and time with the painted ladies of Hudson. While there they could also take a roll of the dice, plunk down cash for a chance to win at the numbers, or place a bet for horse races anywhere in the country they happened to be running.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly with Hudson’s vice trade until that warm summer night when a long line of trucks and sedans slowly pulled onto Columbia Street.

Fifty state troopers quickly smashed in the doors of six “disorderly houses” as the newspaper delicately put it, located on Columbia Street between North Third and Fourth Streets. Twenty three women were rounded up, as were two Hudson Police Officers who were in one of the houses of assignation at the time. Four of the women were charged with operating the houses; the others, prostitutes all, were charged with vagrancy.

A pinochle game was raided as well that night, with other gambling house raids following.

While the raid stirred the city and county up and generated some headlines regionally, it also turned the head of a man who had of late lost a run to the White House.

A year and a half after the raid, in December 1951, then-Gov. Thomas Dewey issued an executive order that sent his State Crime Commission, created by Dewey in April 1950, to Hudson to look into “the relationship between organized crime and units of government.”

The committee reported its findings to the governor and legislature.

Hudson was only the third place the commission had been to, the others being Staten Island, where waterfront corruption was looked into, and St. Lawrence County.

The public hearings, according to Judge Joseph Proskauer, who headed up the commission, were being done for the sake of “the public peace, public safety and public justice.”

The commission came to Hudson and set up camp at the county courthouse for three days, from Dec. 17 to 19, subpoenaed 200 county residents and ripped the lid off a corrupt system that included collusion between government officials, gamblers, and houses of prostitution. Several wire services were also brought to task for providing tickers so that illegal horse room operators could get up to date information on horse races around the country.

Interestingly, the only connection the commission found between organized crime and Hudson’s inner-workings was between a gambler named Raymond Van Buren, who ran an illegal horse room and had a tenuous connection to Frank Erickson, New York City’s “King of the Bookies.” Van Buren allegedly gave a good bit of money to the Hudson Democratic Committee in order to keep his business open.

What it did find included a city police force and city officials who seemed to look the other way when it came to prostitution and gambling and both Republican and Democratic committees that shook down vice peddlers and used some of the money to buy votes.

John Gibbons, the former Democratic County Committee chair from 1931 to 1951, admitted that he would meet with other committeemen at the Register-Star building, then known as the Evening Register, to dole out funds to be used “as they saw fit.”

When asked if the money was used to buy votes, he answered in the affirmative, adding “anybody likes a dollar bill.”

When confronted with paperwork that showed the party disbursed more money than they had taken in, he had no answer.

The Republicans, according to testimony given at the hearings, apparently ran things the same way.

Former district attorney and city judge Thomas Kennedy told the commission that he made “contributions” to the county Republicans and that the amount paid was directly “calculated on length of term and salary.”

John Fardy, the former head of the Hudson City Democrats and police commissioner, told the commission that there was an arrangement with the Republican Party to divide up city government positions, giving the example of the Republicans agreeing not to run anyone against the Democrats’ city judge candidate and in exchange the Democrats allowed the Republicans to run the mayoral candidate unopposed.

Vera Faith, who operated a house of prostitution at 340 Columbia Street, was brought before the commission. She said she usually had between one and three girls working for her at any one time. An advertisement in a Poughkeepsie social event program that read “Vera’s, Come on up boys. Sporting Merchandise” was trotted out for the hearing.

Carol Desmond, the operator of a house at 325 Columbia Street, also appeared. She was a little less forthcoming than Faith, saying that the three girls that worked for her—Donna, Patricia and Billy—“sold things.”

When a stack of cards with the girls’ names and heart-shaped punch holes was proffered, Desmond answered simply that they “were used in my business.”

In the eight month period, in 1949-1950, she operated her business, Desmond made $24,000, almost $220,000 in today’s dollars. She didn’t pay taxes on any of it.

The citizenry, when brought to bear for Hudson’s rampant vice, pretty much had the same attitude as Samuel Berman.

“They might profit by it, but I don’t think they condone it,” he said of the city’s business community.

Berman owned the house at 325 Columbia Street, which he rented to Desmond and eventually sold to her.

He told the committee that he suspected what the house was being used for, but didn’t know for sure.

When Kennedy was asked why he didn’t clean up the city while D.A., he answered that he had tried to get outside help for an undercover investigation, but was told that he would have to go through regular channels, that is, Hudson’s mayor and the governor’s office.

“I might just as well put it in the paper,” he said.

The district attorney who did finally help clean up the city was John McLaren. He went directly to the governor’s counsel, who put him in touch with the NYS Police superintendent, leading to the Hudson raid.

He told the commission that he had had trouble getting the Hudson Police to cooperate. They balked in regard to getting warrants, he said.

But even McLaren had balked at untangling the strings that led from vice to government.

He told the commission he would be “glad to prosecute gamblers and hoodlums, bring some political figures in here, as you’ve’s tough.”

After the dust cleared from the commission’s presence, a dozen Hudson officers are brought up on different charges, with nine being reinstated with back pay. Benjamin Goldstein, a crap game operator, does a year in jail and the houses of prostitution, its denizens and Hudson’s colorful past fade into history.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hudson's WPA art project

It was 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Hudson’s post office, located at Union Street and South Fourth Street, was expanding. It was also getting a new wall full of sculptures depicting the evolution of transportation.
Built between 1909 and 1911, the post office saw an expansion project that was first authorized in 1931 under an amendment to the federal “Public Buildings Act of 1926” that helped fund the construction of more than 100 federal buildings across the United States, including Federal Triangle in Washington D.C.
The project was reauthorized in 1934 and construction finally began in 1938 after the purchase of adjoining land.
The Hudson Daily Star of Feb. 2, 1938 makes mention of the deal struck between Catherine Tracy and the federal government for the purchase of her property for $12,500. The house was torn down in order to make room for the expansion to the east side of the post office building.
Catherine Tracy, née Cadman, was the widow of Dr. Aurelius Tracy, who had died a few years prior to the sale. He was a graduate of Cornell University and the Homeopathic Medical College in New York City. He had a practice in Hudson from 1887 until his death.
Among the 1938 additions to the post office was an art project funded by the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. While the WPA provided the grant, the sculptures that grace the inside of the post office were actually created under the auspices of the Treasury Department Art Program. Created in 1935 through a $530,000 grant from the WPA, the project’s mission was to employ out of work artists to decorate federal buildings that had no money in their construction budget for art. The total project costs were $771,521, close to $12,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Headed by Olin Dows, himself a painter, TRAP was the smallest and most competitive of the New Deal programs, becoming known among artists as “the Ritz,” making reference to the famed New York hotel.
The program was allowed to hire 450 artists, but 75 percent were required to come from relief rolls. The requirement was initially overlooked in order to maintain the quality of the work, in the administrators’ opinions, and only 356 artists were hired during its existence.
While Dows was TRAP’s head, the program was supervised by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, which had been established the year before, also under the auspices of the WPA. The Section, as it was known was administered by Edward Bruce, who was also an artist, but had made his name as a lawyer, newspaper owner and banker. Both Bruce and Dows were born in the Hudson Valley, Bruce in Dover Plains and Dows in Irvington-On-Hudson, in Westchester County.
It was Bruce who felt relying strictly on out of work artists would reduce the caliber of the work being made for the federal buildings and it wasn’t until several artists’ unions protested that the number of artists in the program went from around 250 to a little more than 350.
The program, which lasted until the end of 1938, helped create 85 murals, 39 sculptures and 10, 215 easel works.
Among the lucky artists to be employed by TRAP were, according to Jacob Baal-Teshuva in his 2003 book “Rothko,” a laundry list of now famous American artists, including Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, among others.
Another artist who was hired by TRAP, was the Russian-born sculptor Vincent Glinsky who, with the assistance of Leo Schulemowitz, created the Hudson Post Office piece.
The wall of sculpture, located on the north end of the building, depicts a Native American and Henry Hudson, among other figures. The piece also includes a number of smaller panels that illustrate various modes of transportation, from sailing ships to an airplane.
The sculptures were created using the cast stone process, a technique dating back to at least the 1100s, in which crushed stone or cement is poured into molds and, as the name suggests, cast. It resembles sculpted stone and is often more durable.
Glinsky was born in 1895, emigrated from Russia as a young man and attended school in Syracuse before moving to New York City where he studies at a number of institutions, including Columbia University, City College and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and went abroad to Italy and France. When he came back to the United States it was the height of the Depression, but was able to get a job as a TRAP artist.
Known for his directly carved stone sculptures, mostly of the female nude, he also worked in wood, terra cotta, watercolor and lithography. After completing his piece in Hudson he began teaching at his alma mater , the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, and would become a sought after instructor, working at both Brooklyn College and in Columbia University's Adult Education Division during the summers. His work was shown at a number of prestigious galleries and museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, all in New York. He died in 1975.
Glinsky’s work, although sometimes straying into abstraction, was of an older tradition. His assistant on the Hudson project, Schulemowitz, who was 16 years Glinsky’s junior and once remarked that “art Is the highest form Of play,” was of a more experimental vein, working in a non-objective style for much of his career. Even so, while working for TRAP and later for the WPA, he worked in a figurative style. After completing the post office commission in Hudson, Schulemowitz was given his own projects, including a piece, “Indian and Trader,”—created in 1942—that hangs in another post office, this one in Miamisburg, Ohio.