Libraries are (snow) treasures

Show Treasure II.jpg

In the third grade at John L. Edwards Elementary School we were assigned to find a book to read for a book report. I loved reading and was very picky about choosing a new book. It had to be just right, so I took my time.

Near the end of our library period, I selected Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. Its cover of Norwegian kids sledding down a snowy hill watched by a menacing World War II German soldier was cat-nip for an eight-year-old boy. It looked cool enough to support my tough-guy image.

Little did I know my selection would set off a ruckus.

When I tried to check it out, the librarian told me the book was too advanced for me. Surprised and a little embarrassed, I became angry. I said it was Snow Treasure or nothing and I left the library without a book. When we got back to our classroom, I told my teacher, Mrs. White, what had happened and she called my mother. This was not the first conversation they had about me. I was a bit of discipline problem.

Mom read constantly. My siblings and I inherited our book addictions from her. When her phone call with Mrs. White ended, she told me to go to the library the next day and check out Snow Treasure.

I was shocked. Mom had stuck up for me on the phone with Mrs. White – a miracle! But get this: Mrs. White also was my ally in the book war. I was elated but my sense of victory evaporated when Mom squared me up, looked me in the eye and said: “After all this, you better read that book.”

Fearing her and with Dad the Enforcer looming -- I consumed the book quickly and wrote a decent book report. However, I was motivated by more than fear. Mom had shown confidence in me, maybe for the first time. I did not want to disappoint her.

Mom was not an outwardly emotional person. After I showed her my good grade, she didn’t say much. But I know in my heart she was proud of me.  

I had not remembered this story from more than 50 years ago until a recent Saturday night, when, during the Hudson Area Library’s “Party in the Stacks” fundraiser, the story came back to me. There, among hundreds of books, we celebrated the value that libraries bring to people and communities. Libraries can entertain, educate, and engage. They also can bring a troublesome son closer to his mother.

The Dandelion Thieves

Dandy.jpg

On a bicycle ride recently on a country road I saw a man stealing someone’s lilac blooms. He stopped his red pickup, clipped a few blooms, and drove off.

This wasn’t the first roadside larceny I have witnessed. When I lived in Connecticut, I saw men pull their trucks into wooded areas and steal field stones from historic stone walls. I once yelled “not yours” to the stone thief but wasn’t brave enough to stop.

When I saw Red  Pickup Guy making off with his lilac loot, I thought about standing up for private property. One reason I didn’t — besides that the guy was pretty big — is that I am a hypocrite on this issue. My brother and I had carried out similar capers when I was about 10 years old. My Grandfather Borrelle was the brains of the gang and we were the muscle. Grandpa’s target was dandelions.

We would drive along rural roads and stop the car where he saw a cache. Sometimes it was someone’s lawn. Other times it was just a rural roadside, a highway shoulder, or even a cemetery.

He directed Ken and me to the trunk of the car where we would find a cardboard box and forked weeding tool. Our instructions were to harvest the juiciest dandelions we could find. His only admonition was not to take any that had bloomed into a yellow flower.

We had no idea what we were doing; we just wanted to fill the darn box with something green before one of our friends saw us. When we were finished, Ken and I would put the box of “weeds” in the trunk. Then we quickly hopped in the back seat and slid down low so no one could see us from outside. Grandpa drove the slowest get-away car in history; he always went 10 or 20 miles per hour below the speed limit. It was excruciating.

Dandelions were not the only target for our gang. We would drive to a local gravel business and use a dust pan and a cardboard box (Grandpa had an unending supply for some reason), to take small stones for grandpa’s yard. We’d also head to Keeler’s dairy farm on Spook Rock Road and, with the same dust pan and box, collect dried cow manure for his garden.

It was dandelions he prized most. Grandpa would clean them and season them with oil and vinegar.  He would serve them at lunch or dinner to my parents, who devoured this spring treat. Ken and I turned up our noses at them, largely because we knew where they came from.

An immigrant who ran a billiard shop, Grandpa worked hard for every nickel. He was shrewd and knew how to play the angles, and he seemed to consider anything that was in public view to be his for the taking.

We were always successful – no one ever chased us away from their homes or business. To this day, the Dandelion Thieves have a clean record.

Hudson's Flying Socks Girl

My wife has been asking me what I want for Christmas. I don’t really need anything but when I walked past the Hudson Post Office recently, I thought of a few things.

IMG-0275.JPG

My sister, brother and I grew up almost next door to the post office, which sits on the corner of South Fourth and Union streets. For young kids in the “go-out-and play” era, the post office and the Columbia County Courthouse across the street were our playgrounds.

The Post Office looks exactly the same as it did in the mid-1960s. Its interior still smells of paper and glue. Your footsteps reverberate across the terrazzo and marble floor and your voice echos up to the high ceiling. Outside, the Classic Revival architecture with columns (the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998) gives a stately look.

In other words, it was a perfect place to run through to see if you’d get caught, which we usually did. When we were escorted out, we’d sit on the cool granite steps on the Union Street entrance and watch people come and go. It was there that we learned of great scientific advances from a neighborhood girl.

I won’t name this person because I don’t know if she still lives in the area. She was several years older than my siblings and I (we were five, six and eight). She had a reputation as being tough — and she was. When she saw us on the steps she'd join us, which made us nervous until she began telling amazing lies.

We didn’t know she was lying. To us, she was an oracle opening our eyes to wonders unknown. She declared that there were socks that could make you fly, sneakers that had rockets to make you super fast, and underwear that would make you invisible. She had many more stories of mind-blowing space-age technologies. Every time we asked where her flying socks were, she said she had just checked, and they would arrive at the post office next week.

IMG-0283.JPG

I can’t remember the face of the person telling these tales but man, I remember those flying socks. In my five-year-old mind, I imagined them as having little wings on the ankles, like Mercury. I never questioned our truth teller why someone would make flying socks instead of, say, a flying shirt, which seemed easier to control in flight. I just knew it was going to be very cool to get a pair and fly over Hudson.

We asked our parents to buy us these futuristic devices. I can’t remember their response but it was probably something like “stay away from her.”

What motivated Flying Sock Girl to tell us these stories rather than speaking to us with her fists, as she did with others? Maybe it was the new U.S. space program or that the Jetsons were on prime time TV. Still, this wasn’t your typical neighborhood bully script.

Today, whenever I see those post office steps, I recall her fanciful tales. So I am asking my wife for a pair of flying socks for Christmas. More than 50 years after I first heard of them, they have to be a real thing, right? My size is large. Red would be nice but I'll take them in whatever color they have. 

Communicators: 'bWAR' metrics myopia

Baseball's return every spring has been a source of joy for me since I was a boy. But lately, I feel more disengaged from the game because I no longer understand baseball statistics.

baseball-and-stats2.jpg

Half the fun of baseball was the ability to compare today’s players with those of decades ago based on stats like home runs, runs batted in, batting average, wins, losses, earned run average. In shorthand: HRs, RBIs, BA, W, L, and ERA. Not anymore.

Now we have bWARs, WHIP, TTO, OPS and numbers after players’ names like .432/.519/.727. I have no idea what these mean (help me Joe Sheehan!). They are being used by managers, general managers and fantasy players to drive personnel and in-game decisions.

Data analytics in baseball have led to highly effective defensive innovations but as they have risen, human judgment has receded; watch a game and you’ll see a team manager paging through a binder of stats rather than looking at the field.

The same is true of public relations, where metrics are changing and, in some cases, supplanting the “art” of our work. I remember sitting in meetings on PR/marketing campaigns listening to reports of impressions, web site visitors, reach, email open rates, and other metrics and wondering if we had made a meaningful connection – or any connection -- with anyone.

...we should use these tools to make adjustments, do a better job, and help us to set benchmarks for our goals and objectives.

In marketing, data provides insights into customer preferences and practices. For example, if 60 percent of your online customers end up seeking follow-up help from your call center, you know that something is wrong. 

In public relations, however, many metrics still ladder up to the old reliables of favorability, trust and message receptivity/audience preferences that can be tested quantitatively and qualitatively. At their worst, these metrics drive a strategy to the exclusion of other factors.

Here's what I mean. Say you're a company responding to the loss of customers' personal data. What determines your plan? The number of customers who close accounts? Favorability and key words in social media? Employee feedback?

Any smart company is sure to be looking at these and other metrics. Yet, in many instances, the responses seem to be lacking. 

Perhaps it is first and foremost a clear expression of the values that guided the enterprise in its decision-making. Metrics should inform your strategy but not determine it. Don’t let them get in the way of values-based actions, common sense and good judgment. Get your nose out of the binder and look at the field.

Metrics must be simple, predictive, well-defined and, to borrow a golf phrase -- “dead solid perfect” – meaning they must be as carefully scrutinized as financial numbers. They must be defendable under withering cross-examination in the C-suite.

Our profession is determined to get there. The Institute for Public Relations and its Measurement Commission have done amazing work advancing the definition, validity and value of measurement through research and collaboration. As IPR President Tina McCorkindale smartly says: “Our purpose should not be to try to prove the value of our profession or worth compared to other organizational departments…rather we should use these tools to make adjustments, do a better job, and help us to set benchmarks for our goals and objectives.”

IPR is sponsoring a free webinar on May 22 by two terrific communications leaders, Mark Klein of Dignity Health, and Rob Clark of Medtronic, Inc., From Complex to Concise: Using Data, Research and Measurement to Simplify Healthcare Communications.

Now if IPR can explain to me what is going on with baseball stats. Go Yankees!

The winter of our content

A December snow.

A December snow.

An eastern bluebird flitted from tree to tree behind our house this week. Then a red fox scampered across a field. They were the first flashes of natural color I had seen in about five months.  

This was the first full winter we had spent in Hudson in more than 30 years. My wife Barb and I decided not to do a warm-weather trip to help get through the winter, mainly because I am still recovering from a bike crash in the fall.

We also wanted to see what winter was like at our home in Livingston, just outside Hudson, New York. It wasn’t like we had lived on the equator previously; southern Connecticut has basically the same climate. But we were curious if our 232-year-old home would protect us from an upstate winter.

The house sits on the Taghkanic Creek and was a caretaker’s cottage for the grist mill on the estate of Robert Livingston. It isn’t exactly a hermetically sealed environment. The perimeter of the house is about 10 degrees colder than the interior, even with new windows and doors. One thing I discovered in this first winter was that it takes a lot of courage to get out of bed early on a sub-zero morning.

It was a long and cold winter. The bone-chilling temperatures of late December and early January receded slightly in February but cold persisted right through March. The conga line of March nor’easters was disheartening. The monochrome grayness of everything – sky, roads, landscapes – was the toughest thing to take.

A frozen swirl in the creek.

A frozen swirl in the creek.

We discovered that our dog, Charlie, likes the warmth of a fire more than food. On frosty mornings, he wouldn’t leave the hearth even when we put his breakfast out for him.  He’s a 10-pound dachshund and he shortened our walks because of the cold even when he was wearing his WWII aviator-style jacket. He would just look up at us like he was the only one with common sense, turn, and head back to the house.

We went through more than a face cord of wood and lots of propane to keep the little place warm. Sleep came early, much earlier than when we lived elsewhere. We churned books – me “Jack Reacher” novels and Barb bios of Katherine Graham and "Wild Bill" Donovan. We depleted the supply of watchable movies on Apple TV and Netflix. We binged “Fixer Upper" on HGTV.

So, what was the outcome of our first hibernation here? Well, I put on about 20 pounds because of my own inertia and the need for comfort food. The snow plow cracked our mail box post. We had a frozen pipe that plagued us for most of January. The heavy March snows snapped a few big tree limbs.

The best result was that we now know this is the place we want to be for many more winters. It was harsh and discouraging at times, a bit like the movie “Groundhog Day” as one chilly morning looked like the one before it. I sometimes sang Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” when I got out of bed – Bill Murray's wakeup song in the movie.

But we felt an internal warmth from being in a home that we finally won’t have to pack up and leave. There were new and old friends. Good music at Helsinki. Excellent food. Comfortable bars and breweries. And with technology, the ability to work with clients all over the world without leaving home.

Ice ornaments on branches of a willow tree.  

Ice ornaments on branches of a willow tree.  

Every morning, I looked forward to watching two merganser ducks -- a couple apparently -- land in our creek even when it was nearly covered with ice. They’d dive for food, staying under for what seemed like minutes. When their meal was over, they floated together downstream on the current, energized for the day.

Having said all this, I am happy the sun is higher in the sky and the bluebirds are back.

My boring reading list blog

Most blogs about “what I am reading” are as boring as Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl halftime performance and usually self-indulgent attempts to demonstrate your smarts. I obviously will do that in this blog but along the way I am also going to jazz things up with hilarious cultural and personal references while still making my point.

My point is you have to have a reading list. I am looking at you, communicators. We are in a business that requires eternal learning vs. let’s say, my dog Charlie who dashes to the front door barking every damn time a doorbell rings on TV. No learning.

No.

No.

A reading list should be broad and deep, literally. Mine is stacked a foot high in my office awaiting my next long plane ride or surgery – lately, the latter being more likely. It should address the issues that continue to perplex you and others  – what the hell are blockchain and cryptocurrency, and can I buy artificial intelligence for my personal use, such as figuring out the ending of the movie Interstellar?

Understanding emerging topics – even at a basic level – will make you a better communicator and leader in your organization. When I was at GE, I tried to get a basic grasp of China and India’s increasing importance in the global economy, or how additive manufacturing might disrupt industrial companies, or how changing social values could influence employee attitudes and company policies.

Part of my motivation was fear of being embarrassed. Sometimes I was. In 2008, I presented to the GE Board on the reputation risks associated with GE’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games in Beijing. There were protests against Olympic sponsors by actress Mia Farrow and others related to China’s failure to act on genocide and human rights abuses in Darfur. One protest bumper sticker said, “You Can’t Spell GEnocide Without GE.”

Yes. 

Yes. 

This wasn’t my first Olympic reputation rodeo and I could articulate how best to handle the China issue. But then the board started asking very specific questions about the situation on the ground in Sudan. I was like a stumped spelling bee contestant: “Uhhh….could you use it in a sentence?” Luckily, the GE Foundation leader bailed me out. I was half prepared.

No one in GE was going to give me a course on Darfur. I had to educate myself on the issue and many others that confront a global company. It can be exhausting and sometimes not fun. Instead of watching GE-funded “Must Watch TV” comedy classics such as “Joey” on airplanes, I would try to get through my reading pile.

Reading lists should be diverse in their topics and source and force you out of your comfort bubble.  The usual suspects such as the Wall Street Journal are important but so are Scientific American, Harvard Business Review, The Economist and Foreign Policy.

Sounds like fun, right? Well get a gander at some of the things on my list:

·      “Effects of corporate online communications on attitude and trust: Experimental analysis of Twitter messages,” from the Institute for Public Relations

·      “Report From the Buy Side: The Power of Intangible Factors on Investment Decisions,” by Weber Shandwick

·      “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” from the Harvard Business Review

·      “Five Ways to Spot Fake Research,” by the amazing Sarab Kochhar, Ph.D.

·      “How to Read a Financial Report,” by Merrill Lynch

·      “Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds,” by Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker

·      “Brain. Behavior. Story. Why Public Relations Needs to Return to its Scientific Roots,” by Christopher Graves of Ogilvy Public Relations

·      “Hello, My Name is Jeff,” a New York Times profile of Jeff Bezos

·      “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 presidential campaign,” by three really smart professors from really smart schools

·      “Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble,” by Steven Johnson of the New York Times Magazine

·      “How to Get The Most Out of A Mentoring Relationship,” by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

You’re saying, “Sheffer is a gas bag. He’s not going to read all those things.” You’re right.  Sometimes the topic gets moldy by the time I get to it and I move on, constantly curating the pile to try to stay current.

Nope.

Nope.

Okay, sorry, you’ve had enough of this haughty and pedantic harangue but you haven’t endured anywhere near the hectoring others have suffered. At GE, I often droned on about the necessity of reading and being the most informed person in the room.   

I know, that's not as fun as watching the GE/NBCUniversal comedy classic, “The Land of the Lost?” But hey, what is?

Sheffer Family Best of 2017

 
Cover_bestof2017.jpg
 

Disregard other inferior top 10 lists from the likes of The New Yorker, the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and even Plumbers, Gas and Steam Fitters Journal. The best "best of" list for 2017 is right here. Spokesman asked the six Sheffers to provide their best cultural experience from the year -- best book, movie, travel experience, TV show, or best story that I told (no one went for that). Below is the result, the Second Annual Sheffer Family Best of List. Artwork by Spokesman's talented daughter, Emily.


 

Fargo, Season 3 -- Bleak Minnesota winterscapes plus murder wouldn't seem to make for appealing TV viewing, especially for me. I  prefer happier, upbeat entertainment even going so far as to avoid listening to songs in sad minor keys. But I have so enjoyed watching FX's Fargo series over the years with Gary and I was really looking forward to its third season this past year. I was not disappointed. I was drawn into the story just as I was during the first two seasons and I am hoping they come up with a fourth season. Ewan McGregor playing both Stussy brothers In Season 3 was fun to watch and I found myself rooting for Carrie Coon's police chief character, Gloria Burgle. 

barb.jpg
gary.jpg

Springsteen’s autobio is joyously literate, emotionally wrenching when he writes about his father, and a “virtual reality” experience of the life of a self-proclaimed bar-band “f*#%ing nobody.“
 You smell the sweat, hairspray and stale beer of the Jersey bars where Springsteen learned his craft, you feel the raw power of his will to make it big, and you see his brilliance as a performer and a leader. His instinctive understanding of how to mold an odd collection of ordinary people into a kick-ass band would make a great Harvard Business School case study.
The story from the book that sticks with me most is about Jake Clemons, the nephew of Springsteen’s soul mate, the late great saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Springsteen invited Jake to his house to audition to replace Clarence in the E Street Band. Jake arrived an hour late and when he did, admitted he only “sort of” knew the sax solos his uncle and Springsteen had perfected. Springsteen sent him away with a Jack Welch-like tongue-lashing. “Where…do…you…think…you...are? If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. You don’t dare come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your SHIT DOWN COLD!”
Jake went away, learned the parts, and earned a seat in the band. It is debatable whether Springsteen is rock’s best front man ever, (I say “yes”) but he certainly was the best band “boss” in rock history.

 
sarah.jpg

The best thing I saw in 2017 were New Mexico's national parks and monuments--White Sands National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Tent Rocks National Monument. In early May, Emily and I rented a car, booked a couple of Air Bnbs, and roughly set out to explore this beautiful state whose stunning landscape has been cut and carved by thousands of years of thermal and volcanic activity. My historical consciousness of our home here in the U.S. has started with my grade school education of the founding our our country--but Emily and I walked through pueblos inhabited by tribes far beyond our founders' time here on this continent. A humbling experience. We swam in mineral springs, hiked up ladders through ancient dwellings, spotted cave paintings, looked for elk in a crater, hiked to the dramatic gorge where the Rio Grande meets the Red River, traveled on horseback through Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch, and explored Santa Fe's historic arts district. Seeking out the natural beauty and history of New Mexico was an incredible and expansive experience in an otherwise tough year. 

peter.jpg

My favorite thing this year was visiting my friend in Boulder, Colorado. I haven’t seen the middle of the country much. At that point Green Bay and Las Vegas were the only two places I had been in the US that weren’t in states that touched the Atlantic Ocean.

We were supposed to spend the first half of the trip going to craft breweries and eating burritos, and spend the second half hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. There wound up being five feet of snow in May, just before we left for the park. So instead we wound up going to craft breweries and eating burritos for both halves of the vacation. I did manage to see the garden of the gods and a few other “Rockies” attractions outside of Colorado Springs. Next time I won’t visit during winter, which I now understand runs from September to June.

Tour de France is to Dad, as the New York Art Book Fair is to me. It’s a big deal! The New York Art Book Fair is the gold standard for all things art and book. It’s an annual free event, held at MoMA PS1 in Queens. PS1 is an abandoned public school building-turned art space in the late 70’s; a labyrinth of classroom-sized rooms, hallways and stairwells that will leave you feeling turned around by the end of the day. Seemingly endless numbers of publishers, presses, and independent sellers come from all corners of the world to show off their innovations in book making. Fighting through sweaty crowds in semi-well ventilated spaces sounds stressful, and can be, but feels worth it when you find that one special book. A Korean publisher was even selling a few photography books that I helped produce. Very exciting! If you get tired of books (it happens), make sure you’re with a good friend so you can take walks on the high line, pop in and out of Chelsea galleries, and eat plenty of oysters. 

emily.jpg
mark.jpg

Old Cinemas in New York City. New York City is full of small arthouse cinemas featuring movies by some of films greatest directors. This year, as an NYU student, I had access to many of these theaters. The Russian post-apocalyptic thriller, Stalker by Tarkovsky was my favorite feature.

Good will come from this most mendacious year

From "Public Relations" by photographer, Garry Winogrand.

From "Public Relations" by photographer, Garry Winogrand.

2017 was a good year for communication and the people who practice it. Before you throw something at this blog, please give me a few minutes to explain this highly debatable claim. 

Yes, lies and liars abound. Yes, technology makes it easier for the devious to deceive. And yes, American leadership seemed allergic to the truth this year right from the start. 

Yet, this most mendacious year has and will lead to some good.  Already, effective communication and strong communicators are more valued than ever by smart organizations in this era of pervasive reputation risk. Plus, we’ve had a graduate-level course this year in the art of apologizing publicly, the danger of not knowing your audience, and how and how not to use Twitter as a leader.

More seriously and importantly, the unrelenting and brazen attacks on rational thinking and the truth in 2017 have raised awareness of how essential integrity in public communication is to a successful democracy.

At this point a good blogger would cite a study from Pew Research to back up this claim. I won’t because studies have demonstrated you probably wouldn’t believe the studies anyway. Instead, I'll simply tell you what I believe is happening as a result of these attacks on the truth and how I hope our profession will mobilize to fight back.

First, my beliefs.

If you care about how public policy affects people, especially those who are vulnerable,  I believe you realize it has become more acceptable for people in power to lie to get what they want.

If you care about a free and unfettered press,  I believe you realize that the growth in politically motivated attacks on it are unprecedented and dangerous for journalists and for the sustainability of democracy.

If you care about rational, fact-based discourse, I believe you realize that professional phonies and provocateurs are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet with the sole purpose of deceiving you to further their own interests.

If you care about civility, I believe you realize that it is disappearing, replaced by contempt and insults. 

Next, my hopes for turning these realizations will turn into action.

I hope CEOs will continue to be active on social and economic policy and human rights.  I also hope they will be as publicly visible on difficult reputation issues such as tax reform, trade, and globalization as on values-based issues like immigration and diversity.

I hope the communication and journalism professions will work together on a media literacy campaign to separate real work from propaganda. I hope the technology companies whose platforms are used to spread lies and outrage will continue to help fund this effort. As The Economist wrote recently, “It would be wonderful if such a system helped wisdom and truth rise to the surface.”

I hope the communication profession will continue to lead the way in the fight for integrity in public communications. I am proud to be part of an organization, the Arthur W. Page Society, whose number one principle has long been “Tell the Truth," and the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, which is funding academic research on "fake news" and all its implications. 

OiwcJq6.jpg

I hope we will be pushed to do more by a new generation of communicators who insist on working for “good” companies that have clearly stated and admirable values and that live by them. And by communication students, who feel the same way but want us to move faster and more aggressively.

I hope more companies will adopt strategies based on public good as well as profit, and that communicators will be at the center of determining the "what" and "how."

I hope you will become part of the difficult work ahead, and help turn 2017's mendacity into 2018's honesty. 

Goodbye to Hudson's grand sports ground

Hudson High retired an 80-year-old sports ground this month, a visually striking and distinctive field where I have lost pride, blood and tears. It feels a bit like when they tore down the old Yankee Stadium -- nostalgic for their best days and sad that it is too costly to renovate and maintain these beautiful facilities. 

Unique and beautiful: The football field with the old school in the background.

Unique and beautiful: The football field with the old school in the background.

The John A. Barrett Field at what is now Montgomery C. Smith Intermediate School is a bit spartan but may be one of a kind. It was completed in 1935 by the federal Public Works Administration as part of the construction of Chancellor Livingston High School. The entire project, including the magnificent three-story brick, limestone and slate school building, cost $508,674.

I visited the school last month to talk with the principal, Mark Brenneman, an energetic educator of young people in grades 3 through 5. The hair on my neck stood up when I walked in the building because its looks the same as when I was last there 44 years ago. The marble mosaic floor in the lobby and the terra cotta tiles on the hallway walls have stood up to years of use.

Outside, the grand cupola and its flanking wood railings give the building a stateliness, particularly when viewed across the expansive front lawn. Every time I see this remarkable school, I am proud that my grandfather, Elmer Sheffer, helped build it.

But it is the athletic field that sparks memories for me and my entire family. It is a classic, with overlapping football and baseball fields ringed by an triangular cinder running track with granite curbs. It has an amazing view of the Catskills to the west, which I know well because I once lost a ball in the setting sun while playing right field. The batter circled the bases. Hence the loss of pride. 

Left field is backed by a steep rise of shale topped by pine, cedar and maple trees. We lived a block from the field and spent endless hours climbing the "cliffs," skinning our knees and elbows. Hence the loss of blood. 

Shortly after it opened 80 years ago.

Shortly after it opened 80 years ago.

The football stands are adjacent to this hill, behind the track in dead center field. The stands are the kind of rectangular concrete and wood bench (now aluminum) structure you might see in a crowd shot in a Knute Rockne movie. On the other side of the stands are five well-maintained asphalt tennis courts where players lined up to get a court during the tennis craze of the 1970s and 1980s and when a Hudson High team that included my brother, Ken, dominated all takers. 

Many great athletes have trod these fields and courts, some who have gone on to professional and collegiate renown. I am not one of them. In American Legion ball, I struck out repeatedly against a flame-throwing lefty from Saugerties, NY, who pitched briefly for the Atlanta Braves.

Having the baseball and track fields together seems ridiculously dangerous but it allowed my father to participate in two spring sports: baseball and track. He'd throw the shot put in his baseball uniform when home baseball games and track meets coincided. 

The place was electric for football, particularly night games that seemed to light up the entire city. We used the shadows to try to sneak in without paying. From pickup to Pop Warner to semi-pro, the many games tore up field, denuding it of grass at mid-field. It was fun to play in the mud but I wrecked my knee on a boggy field in my senior year homecoming game and never played football for the Hudson High Bluehawks again. Hence the tears.

The semi-pro football Vikings were a gritty bunch who held their own against teams from bigger cities. The star was Bob Van Ness, a 300-pound linebacker, placekicker and quarterback -- yes quarterback. I can still hear Vikings fans singing a gospel-style cheer before a field goal try: "Big Bob is gonna' kick it now, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, oh yeah."

Also seared in my memory is the night a bunch of local players took on the barnstorming softball troupe, "The King and His Court," featuring pitcher Eddie Feigner. Few could make contact against the King -- even when he pitched blindfolded -- so he only needed three players behind him in the field. I sensed that night that the King and his men were more worried whether any local taverns were open than winning the softball game. 

And then there were non-sporting events. My parents and their friends loved the marching band competitions when a half-dozen corps would perform. On a very hot, humid summer night a trumpet player passed out during a performance and her helmet smacked the granite curb. She was okay but it shook me up.  

One morning, my brother and our friends were playing in the stands when a big white truck pulled on the field. Out of its cab poured about a half-dozen wild-looking men -- the "road crew" for the next night's professional wrestling match. The featured villain was Kurt Von Hess, a German military character. The road crew convinced us to set up folding chairs on the field in exchange for free tickets. Ken remembers helping a wrestler named Lil' Abner with chairs. Von Hess appeared and said without an accent, "let me show you boys how to carry chairs." I guess he wasn't so evil -- or German -- after all.

IMG_0027.JPG

Weeds have invaded the outer lanes of the track and I hear the baseball stands behind home plate will be demolished (much needed). The wood pole holding up the lights in left field curves toward center field, like a sunflower reaching for the sun. The fields will be used for gym class and other student activities and the track will remain open to the public. When I visited recently, what looked like a junior high girls soccer game was being played.

Today's Hudson High Bluehawks are making their own memories at a terrific new athletic facility behind the nearby high school. The new synthetic turf field, rubberized track, and metal stands should be a source of pride for Hudson. If I played on a football field as good as the new one, maybe I wouldn't walk with this limp. 

But there is something about the old field that is special, beyond my memories. It has been a bit worn and down on its luck at times, but it is resilient, idiosyncratic and full of character -- much like Hudson. Recently someone said admiringly of the field, "How perfect is the whole thing?" I'd say pretty damn perfect.