Remembering a Favorite Teacher

One of the joys of working on the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project is learning I have a lot in common with other Fultonians. By collecting memories from others who’ve grown up in our city, I’ve found  out that the favorite stores of my childhood were special to others, and those towering factories I once walked by were  also monumental for many. The fun I had at our city’s parks has been echoed time and again. But what a surprise to meet someone who had the same favorite teacher as me.

The teacher was Mrs. Robarge. When she made my second grade school year so special, back in 1962, Mrs. Robarge taught at the Phillips Street School. She later moved over to Volney School, where she taught until her retirement. Her first name is Mary, but even 56 years after being in her classroom, she’s still Mrs. Robarge to me.

I’ve never been able to put into words why I considered her such a special teacher. I have vague images of her in the classroom and only remember a few highlights from that second grade year, such as a field trip to Fort Ontario. But that didn’t seem like enough to make Mrs. Robarge stand out from my other teachers. Then I met Sue Martin.

In 2014, Sue showed up for a Memoir Project meeting at the library. She explained she had already written her memoir for that year’s theme: Fulton’s Businesses and Schools. Offering to read aloud what she called her “rough draft,” Sue explained that her memoir was about her favorite teacher. Without revealing the teacher’s name, she began to read, starting with her kindergarten and first grade experiences and then explaining what was called “Moving Up Day,” when first grade classes met their new second grade teacher.

“I was completely swept away by the teacher, Mrs. Mary Robarge,” Sue wrote.  “My first glance told me she was a kind woman because she didn’t just smile at her pupils, she ‘smized,’ – that is, she smiled with her eyes.  Just the way she looked at us let me know that here was a teacher who was going to give me the keys to the kingdom of knowledge.  It was as if the world was now seen in Technicolor, instead of mere pale shades.” 

As Sue read that section, something clicked for me: It was Mrs. Robarge’s smile that had made all the difference in my second grade class and, in fact, my whole elementary school experience. Sue had felt the same care from her teacher that I did.  She even titled her memoir “The Teacher Who Smized,” to emphasize how important a smile can be to a child. Here’s more of what Sue wanted us to know about Mrs. Robarge:

“Her room was always a safe haven for us, where never a cross word was spoken by her.  I never recall anyone being reprimanded for ill behavior, as Mrs. Robarge brought out the best in each of us.  Encouragement and respect were what we received on a daily basis, along with our assigned classwork.

“That year, Mrs. Robarge exposed us to people who were less fortunate.  This came in the form of very tall, heavy-duty brown paper sacks; large enough that any second-grader could have easily fit inside.  We were asked to bring in clothing for the less fortunate in the world.  Whatever we brought in was collected in those sacks and shipped overseas. 

“Of course, everyone wanted to participate in adding to the pile of goods, and multiple brown bags were filled.  Quite a satisfying feeling for a child to know she had helped someone else, and all she had to do was outgrow her own clothing.  We learned that, even as a seven-year-old, we could make a difference.

“One lesson Mrs. Robarge taught us was that the word “if” was the smallest word with the biggest meaning. It made sense to me, and I recall relaying that information to my parents.  If Mrs. Robarge said it was so, it had to be true!  Today, I contemplate what would have happened to me “if” I had not been challenged by Mrs. Robarge with advanced work.

"The 'smizing' of her eyes, her loving kindness and encouraging words were not the only attributes I loved. She was the only teacher I ever telephoned and talked to at her home. She was the only teacher who came to visit me at my home. If a teacher could be like a second mother, then Mrs. Robarge fir the bill for me.

“I have always looked back with many fond memories of the 1959-1960 school year, and I always knew how blessed I was to have had Mrs. Robarge as a teacher.  I believe she was truly the one who made me excel at school and to want to further my education.  Almost every experience in my life can lead back to her classroom and the belief she had in me.  I would go on to college, travel the world and, likewise, become a teacher, thanks in part to her encouragement.”  

Sue Martin taught English for over 20 years at the Fulton Junior High School. She also was quite a history buff, especially interested in the Civil War, visiting Gettysburg numerous times.  Unfortunately, I learned all this by reading Sue’s obituary after she passed away in January 2017. Though I only got to meet and work with her once, what a memorable meeting it was, where two people got to share their admiration for one special teacher.

Sue Martin, a former Fulton teacher who wrote a touching memoir about her favorite teacher...and mine.

Sue Martin, a former Fulton teacher who wrote a touching memoir about her favorite teacher...and mine.

The Competition for Our Snowiest Winter

When I was writing my book about the Blizzard of ’66, I interviewed over two hundred people who either fondly or regrettably remembered the storm. Many of them agreed with me that for Central New York I was writing about the storm of the century. But there were a few people who told me flat out I was wrong; the 1958 snowstorm was the big one. I made a note to find out more about that storm and I’ve finally gotten around to it.

The December 1958 “big snow” in the Fulton/Oswego area was certainly not a blizzard, which the National Weather Service (NWS) defines as “a major weather event that features cold temperatures, sustained winds of 35 miles per hour or greater, and falling or blowing snow.” A severe blizzard raises the fear factor, with its winds “over 45 mph, snowfall producing near-zero visibility and temperatures plunging to 10°F or lower.”

 

Without a doubt, the ’66 blizzard was severe. There were reports of 60+ mph winds, frigid temperatures and, of course, upwards to 100 inches of snow. To find out why some people would consider 1958 worse, I logged onto the NWS’s handy historical log of weather. I checked the 1958 reports for both Fulton and Oswego and found out that during a few days in early December both cities did get a bundle of snow. Here are a few statistics:

 

The snow began falling on Saturday, December 6, with Fulton reporting four inches of snow and Oswego 3.6. Small stuff. But over the next five days things got worse and the numbers added up. Not ’66 snowstorm totals, but significant amounts: The NWS observer for Oswego reported 40 inches on December 8 and had a five-day total of 66 inches. Fulton’s National Weather Service observer recorded a total of 39 inches spread over five days.

 

Though those numbers were significant, in my mind they weren’t enough to make 1958 a memorable winter. But I’ve learned that when writing about our region’s snowy history, recorded numbers don’t always tell the full story. For example, with the 1958 statistics, both cities’ observers put a note next to their daily numbers, with Oswego simply stating, “It snowed,” and Fulton admitting to filing a “Late report.” Those phrases are “meteorology slang” for weather conditions so bad that observers had trouble getting into the station to properly measure snow.

 

December 1958 temperatures certainly felt blizzard-like, with numbers never rising above freezing through the entire storm; most days the thermometer was stuck between 10 and 20 degrees. But it was the third characteristic of a blizzard, significant wind, that proved 1958 didn’t qualify as one. Neither the weather observers nor Oswego’s Palladium-Times mentioned any problems associated with wind. No, 1958 wasn’t a blizzard, but reports in The Pal-Times helped me see why some people might have considered it one.

 

Newspaper stories show the brunt of this storm centering in the Oswego, Fulton and Mexico area. In fact, a few of our county’s other towns, such as Pulaski, reported sunshine on the snowiest days of the storm. That’s another good indication that the ’58 storm was not a blizzard but a more common lake-effect storm, which can bury one area and barely snow a few miles down the road.

 

There’s another way to gauge how bad a storm is and that’s by hearing from people who lived through it. Local newspapers did their job by reporting what people endured: The mayor of Oswego was only able to get out and survey his city in a sled pulled by Alaskan huskies. Children in Fulton and Oswego had no school for the entire week, which rivals the ’66 blizzard for kids’ unplanned vacation days. Even the Oswego State Teachers College, which we now know as SUNY Oswego, closed for a few days.

 

A woman who grew up outside Mexico told me the ’58 snowfall was so big that her younger brother didn’t enjoy the winter weather. “And he never got tired of playing in snow,” she explained. “At one point the snow was up to my knees. The next thing I knew, it was over my head. Long after the storm passed, my dog loved to climb from the tallest snowbank up to the roof of our barn to watch the school bus come by.”

 

One of the big stories in The Palladium-Times was how heavy snow collapsed a barn roof in the Mexico area. Fifty head of cattle were trapped and the farm owner was understandably worried. Thankfully, he didn’t lose one cow buried in that avalanche of snow and rooftop debris, but it did take the sheriff and volunteers to rescue them.

 

Retail stores were concerned how the storm would affect holiday shoppers. With Christmas Day a little over two weeks away, store managers were concerned. They figured they’d lost between 30 and 80 percent of their usual holiday business during the storm and its aftermath. People would have to do a quick dig out to get those gifts bought and wrapped by holiday time.

 

Lou Woods was sixteen in 1958 and working at a bowling alley in Oswego when the snow started getting heavy. “I had a lot of trouble walking home. There was so much snow people started getting worried that their roofs would crash in. I ended up making more money than I would have at the bowling alley by shoveling roofs, including the one at the high school.”

In 1958, Oswego’s NWS observer was Elmer Loveridge and he had been keeping weather records for 34 years when the December storm hit. Through his work in meteorology, Elmer had travelled around the world, witnessing hurricanes and tropical storms, and he’d racked up 14 years of tracking Oswego weather. After the 1958 storm was properly logged in his record book, he stated that he’d never seen anything like it. My guess is that eight years later, when the Blizzard of ’66 came barreling through, Mr. Loveridge would change his mind.

 

 

Photo: A 1958 Life magazine photo taken in the city of Oswego after Central New York was hit with an early December snowstorm.

Photo: A 1958 Life magazine photo taken in the city of Oswego after Central New York was hit with an early December snowstorm.

The Holidays Were Really Special at Woolworth's

Christmastime is so rich with memories. It seems to get truer with each passing year. Family traditions, TV shows that capture the joy of the season, and a winter sky’s promise of a December snowfall add to the nostalgia. One of my favorite Christmas pasts was found in downtown Fulton.

For years, my family’s holiday shopping tradition took place on Christmas Eve, when Dad loaded us kids in the old Ford. (There were four kids in our family and that meant at least one of us was going to be denied a window seat.) While Mom stayed back at home to finish up last minute decorating, wrapping and cooking, Dad was in charge of our shopping and he knew just where to take us.

Back when I grew up, in the 1960s, going to Woolworth’s was a lot like today’s children going to the Destiny Mall. We lived on Chase Road, a couple miles outside Fulton’s city limits, and going to its downtown was a big deal. Dad would park the car on Cayuga Street, as close to the main doors of Woolworth’s as he could. Looking out our car windows, I saw the whole street decorated for the holidays.

Music was playing outside on what was known as The Dizzy Block and I first heard many of my favorite Christmas songs standing on the street as we prepared to start shopping. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Frosty, the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and some guy named Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” were all first heard on those shopping trips.

After enjoying a carol or two, it was time to get down to business. Before we walked through the double doors of Woolworth’s, Dad handed each of us a ten dollar bill. For a moment, I felt so rich, but that didn’t last long. I had to make that ten dollars cover presents for our family and grandparents. Finally, I had a reason to be glad I paid attention during math class.

There was no reason to worry about Dad’s allotment of ten dollars covering my many purchases. Woolworth’s was a “You can find anything” store, each aisle like its own department. Wooden bins were lined up in long rows, each one featuring a different item: clothes, school essentials, arts & crafts supplies, sporting goods, and so on. They even had a pet department with aquariums full of exotic fish. When I got a little tired of shopping, I’d stare into those aquariums for hours, watching the tropical fish and imagining myself on a Pacific island.

Woolworth’s also had its own little restaurant. Well, it was actually a lunch counter, but to a kid it sure felt like a full-service dining establishment. I loved hopping onto one of their swivel seats at the counter and watching the cook grill hamburgers and hotdogs right in front of me. The waitress even made our sodas from scratch: she filled a tall glass with ice, added a squirt of special Coca Cola syrup and topped it off with bubbly water. It was magic!

If Dad was in a good mood – and he always was at Christmas – he’d buy us lunch, and if things were extra special, he’d let us top it off with a banana split. Dad might even have been able to save some money if it was his lucky day. If memory serves me right, banana splits cost 59 cents back in the 1960s, but Woolworth’s often had a contest going where you could significantly lower that price. Rising above the lunch counter was a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. If you ordered a banana split, you’d choose a balloon, pop it, and if there was a penny inside, you got the yummy dessert for just one cent.

Once lunch was over, each of us grabbed a shopping basket and spread out. There was no reason to worry that a brother or sister might spy on me as I shopped for them. The store was big enough that we could avoid each other, and if I ran into a sibling, I could dodge down another aisle and keep my secret gifts a secret.

I learned a lot about how to choose a present at Woolworth’s. The store had nifty reminders of which part of the store featured “Dad gifts” and which were better for Mom. A display of brightly-colored neckties gave me the idea  that Dad would love a new tie since he wore one to work every day. For Mom, I headed to the kitchen department, where a newfangled cooking gadget might make meal prep a little easier.

When it was time to concentrate on my siblings, I finally let myself head to the toy department. I’d avoided it as long as I could, knowing how easy it was for all those fun games to distract me. Shopping was serious business, after all. In my youngest years, Santa Claus, who was waiting to hear a child’s Christmas list, added to the excitement. Even after I finally outgrew his secret, just seeing him sitting in a corner of Woolworth’s really made my spirits bright.

Greeting cards were near Santa and I always made sure to use some of my ten dollars to buy one for Mom. She was the sentimental one in the family – I think I inherited that from her – and I knew that just the right Christmas message was as important to her as any gift I might find. After she passed away, packed among Mom’s most prized possessions were some of those Christmas cards purchased at Woolworth’s.

Today, I start my Christmas shopping in the weeks before the big holiday. I know which stores will have just the right present on my list and I can even shop while sitting at my computer. But once those famous Christmas songs start showing up on the radio, if I close my eyes and sing along, I feel like I’m still standing on a snowy Cayuga Street, ready to walk the aisles of Woolworth’s, determined to turn ten dollars into a Merry Christmas.

Woolworth's, in downtown Fulton, offered many rich Christmas memories.

Woolworth's, in downtown Fulton, offered many rich Christmas memories.