Let's Give For a Kid

I’ve always believed that in order for a program or project to succeed, it needs a strong leader. I first realized this when I watched my second grade teacher inspire our entire class to learn. I saw it while working for the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, which partnered with many social service programs to help the less fortunate. And I see it today in the volunteer programs I participate in. With the right person leading the way, great things can happen. That was the case when Clarissa Owens offered her charismatic leadership to the city of Fulton.

If you remember Clarissa’s contributions to our city it’s probably because of the program she founded: “Let’s Give For a Kid.” Clarissa started “Let’s Give” in 1958 with a simple goal: To collect used toys, then repair and distribute them at Christmastime to needy children in Fulton. Today, this sort of charitable act may seem commonplace, but 60 years ago the idea of gathering and giving toys a second life to make children happy was rare. But that didn’t stop Owens.

A native of St. Lawrence County, Clarissa moved to Fulton in 1927. Thirty years later, when she got the idea to help Fulton youth, she had already raised her own children and was a widow living on a modest income. Those who got to know her soon realized that she knew the value of a dollar.

“When I first met Clarissa, in the late 1970s, she still did her wash by hand and hung her clothes on the line year round,” said Monica MacKenzie, who helped Owens carry out her “Let’s Give For a Kid” program. “Even without appliances like a washing machine, Clarissa’s house was always spic and span.”

Perhaps it was Clarissa’s humble lifestyle that led her to create her gift-giving program. In the years Monica assisted Owens, she observed the deep concern her friend had for Fulton’s needy. “Clarissa got to know many of our city’s poor families. If they needed something—and not just at Christmas—they went to her house. She gave people groceries. She helped them find a place to live.”

According to newspaper articles about Clarissa’s success, she got the idea to help others after speaking with her pastor, Reverend Harold McGilvray of Fulton’s Congregational Church. Clarissa discussed her ambition to help children with Reverend McGilvray, confiding in him that she had no training and feared she would not know how to properly assist them. McGilvray’s reply was all Clarissa needed to hear.

“You have something worth far more than training,” the Reverend said. “You have a love of children.” He suggested that Clarissa approach the Salvation Army to offer her service.

Once the Salvation Army welcomed her, Clarissa started a Boys’ Club, where she provided youngsters healthy and fun activities. Five boys came the first week. It was a humble beginning, but within a year up to 125 participants were enjoying Clarissa’s projects. As the program grew and she met more families in Fulton, she realized there were many ways she could be of help.

The families of migrant workers who’d settled in the Fulton area benefited from Clarissa’s willingness to help. Along with tutoring them in English, she also found unique activities to offer those new to our city. One year, she organized a trick-or-treat outing for migrant children who had never heard of Halloween. When a Fulton resident learned that the children would be trick-or-treating for the first time, she decided to include a toothbrush along with a treat.

After the group of first-time trick-or-treaters returned to Clarissa’s house, she thought she was missing one little boy, "Where's Joey?" she asked the other children. The group found young Joey in the bathroom, cleaning his teeth. The toothbrush had excited the boy more than all the candy he’d received.

Clarissa’s advocacy for others went beyond fun activities and gift-giving. She sometimes served as a witness in court, speaking on behalf of young people who were in trouble or had been abandoned. But it was through “Let’s Give For a Kid” that she helped the most people. In her 25 years leading the program, from 1958 until her death in 1993, “Lady Santa,” as Clarissa was known, provided hundreds of families some joy during the holidays. Adults and parents received a food basket, and for the children there were reconditioned (and sometimes brand new) toys.

Clarissa made sure “Let’s Give” would continue after her death. After serving several years as her assistant, Monica MacKenzie agreed to lead it. Clarissa also gathered a group of concerned Fultonians to carry on her work. Included in that group was Harold Dowd, who served as the program’s treasurer, and the many volunteers who gathered toys, repaired and distributed them. Some of those dedicated workers were Jean LaClair, Ruby Shoults, Penny Abrams, Billy Kimball, and Naomi Vincent.

Businesses also offered their support for Clarissa’s work.  Major sponsors during the program’s two and a half decades included Millers and Nestlé, and several service organizations, clubs, churches, and individuals. Among those was the Fulton Lions Club. “The Lions supported her program every step of the way,” Monica commented. “She even became a Lady Lion long before they installed women members.”

 In 1993, shortly before her death, Fulton’s mayor, George Valette, declared January 7 as “Clarissa Owens Day.” The city erected a stone bench outside its Municipal Building. A plaque affixed to the bench informed pedestrians who paused there of Clarissa’s mission. For many years, the bench was a solid reminder of her work.

 A quarter-century since that proclamation, with all the changes Fulton and the world have gone through, many may have forgotten Clarissa Owens. But rereading newspaper articles about “Let’s Give For a Kid” keep her legacy strong. A 1979 interview quoted Clarissa’s explanation of her simple philosophy: “Kids are my business and I stick with my business.” During all her years serving Fulton, because of Clarissa Owen’s compassionate leadership, she made our city a better place for children.

  Fulton firefighters contribute to Clarissa Owens’ “Let’s Give For a Kid” program during the 1971 Christmas season.

Fulton firefighters contribute to Clarissa Owens’ “Let’s Give For a Kid” program during the 1971 Christmas season.

Summer Camp Fun For Fulton Kids

I spent much of my career running Camp Hollis, a children’s camp on the shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego. After attending the camp when I was younger, I worked my way through college as a Camp Hollis counselor, and then oversaw the facility while working for the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau. With so many of my summers focused on Hollis, I never knew that, at one time, the city of Fulton had its own camp for children: Camp SuSIE.

Founded in 1966, the camp’s official name, “Operation SuSIE,” stood for “Summer School Innovations in Education.” The program was the brainchild of several Fulton School District administrators, including Superintendent Glenn Clark. Back in 2014, I met Glenn through the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project. Glenn had agreed to write a memoir about his work with Fulton schools and here’s what he said about why Camp SuSIE was created:

“We determined that one important need for our children was an improvement in reading scores at the elementary level.  A city-wide survey was made to select pupils aged eight to eleven who needed help in reading. We surmised that one way to help those students was to have them spend two weeks in a camp setting, where they would work with a staff of teachers and other personnel to provide schooling, especially reading instruction.”

A 1968 Watertown Daily Times newspaper reported how Camp SuSIE succeeded from its very first summer: “Funds [are] from Title I’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act…Youngsters from Fulton Schools learn through the experience of living together, the constructive use of leisure time, the formation of positive health habits, and the study of academic subjects. It is the only summer school of its kind in the state, and has been termed a success by state education officials, school boards, teachers, [the camp’s] director, and especially the youngsters.”

Glenn Clark made special mention of the all-important leader of Camp SuSIE: “[We chose] Physical Education teacher Angelo “Buck” Godici, to direct the camp.  Mr. Godici later became known as ‘Mr. SuSIE’ in the community.”

A much respected Fulton schools faculty member, Buck Godici taught and coached from 1956 through 1981. Recently I asked Buck how the Camp SuSIE program ran. “We served 80 children for each of three two-week sessions,” he explained. “The first session was for the younger kids, nine and ten year olds; the second for 11 and 12; and the third for 13 and 14 year olds. To staff the program we hired two teachers, two college students and two high school students.”

Buck mentioned some of his staff by name and I recognized a few of them, including former Fulton teacher Tom Brown. Tom reminisced about working at SuSIE’s first location, Camp Totem in Harrisville, New York, a remote area near the Canadian border:

“We’d go up to Harrisville a couple weeks ahead of time and clean the camp up to get it ready. It was out in the woods and was really rough. They had a trough that we used for washing up and campers bathed in the Oswegatchie River.”

Over the years, Buck’s children also served on the staff, including his son Mike, who explained more about Camp Totem’s woodland setting: “All the buildings were log cabins or cobblestone. The camp had no electricity, so Dad hooked up a generator—a tractor engine—to run from dinnertime until lights out so the kitchen could clean up and the kids could get ready for bed. A pump provided water and only one building had a toilet.”

One the SuSIE staff’s jobs involved cleaning up after some unwelcome visitors. “One year, a bear broke into one of the camp buildings, ate our food and destroyed a cabin,” Buck recalled. “We had to hire a security guard to stay at the camp on weekends to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

After using Camp Totem from 1966-1968, SuSIE’s program was held at two other New York state locations: from 1969-74 at a YMCA Camp in Pawling, and from 1975-77 at Star Lake. Lots of Fulton teens and college-aged students had their first job experience as a Camp SuSIE staff member, including Alex Grimshaw.

 “I learned to live and work with people in a unique team environment,” Alex said. “I learned a lot about myself, how to work collaboratively with my peers, how to support the camp administrator, and how important it was to be a role model for the students.”

 My talks with other staff indicated that, along with reading help, the campers also learned about health and nutrition and received much needed supplies. “Each camper got a new pair of sneakers and sweatshirts,” Mike Godici noted. “It meant so much to them.”

When most of us think of camp we imagine it taking place in July and August, but as Mike pointed out, “SuSIE wasn’t a six-week program for Dad. He’d spend the entire spring getting kids to sign up by going door to door in Fulton. He’d come home with stories of houses with dirt floors and no toilets. Dad was excited for those kids to attend camp.”

Counselor Tonigail Warner Schurr spoke for many SuSIE staff when she said “Mr. Godici was an excellent camp director. He was kind and fair and had everyone's best interest in mind, especially the children. Camp always seemed to run smoothly with very few major issues. If there were problems, Mr. Godici handled them with his usual quiet reserve. The children had an opportunity that, in most cases, they otherwise may not ever have had. Great fun, great education and the experience of a lifetime. What more could you ask for?”

Among the paperwork I reviewed about Camp SuSIE was a report to the state on the program’s outcomes. It mentioned this goal: “When you strike a spark in a child, you give them a reason to hope.” Thanks to Buck Godici and his staff, hundreds of Fulton youth had the opportunity to spend a few weeks away from home, returning to our city with some of that hope.

 Camp SuSIE campers and staff proudly wear their T-shirts

Camp SuSIE campers and staff proudly wear their T-shirts

The Icemen Cometh

A few months ago, I replaced my refrigerator. It had more than fulfilled its duty, having given my family over 25 years of service. Other than coming up with the money, switching the older model for a new one was about as easy to do as reaching into the fridge for last night’s leftovers. I never really thought about what a luxury it is to have a refrigerator in my home until I learned about the workers who used to deliver ice in our city.

My opportunity to meet the descendants of those “ice men” came as a result of our library’s Memoir Project. For the last five years, the project’s goal has been to find people willing to share local history in the form of a memoir, which we publish as a keepsake book. The Project’s team selects a theme, and in 2014 we chose Fulton businesses.

Shortly after deciding to focus on Fulton commerce we got word from two people who had similar memories to share. Virginia Messerschmidt offered to write about her father, Joseph Growe, who once owned a delivery business known as Growe Brother’s Ice. Shortly after we heard from Virginia, three members of the Cavalier family—Fred Cavalier Jr., Mary DeLong and Pat Hine—came forward, willing to share their story of Fred Cavalier, who had a business known as Gardner’s Ice. Here’s how Virginia began her father’s story:

“Joseph Growe was an ice delivery man in the Fulton area from 1932 to 1948. At the time of his business, homes had no refrigerators and relied on delivery men to fill their iceboxes with 25- to 50-pound ice blocks that keep their perishables cold. My father had a 1934 Ford panel van with two doors in the rear that swung out to facilitate removing the ice for door-to-door delivery. In 1937, he formed a partnership with his brother Earl. It was known as Growe Brothers Dependable Ice and the brothers remained partners until Earl died.”

Virginia researched old newspapers to learn more about the Growe Brothers’ business. One advertisement showed Growe Brothers located near the current Towpath Towers building; another listed it a short distance from there, at 78 South Second Street. Further documents indicate its home at 158, 159 or 162 South Second Street. Virginia’s cousin, Clara Atkinson, remembers the ice house being in an alleyway next to Quirk Theatre. Virginia had an idea why there were so many Growe Brothers addresses: “My brother, Ed Growe, thinks he remembers the ice house being set on skids so it could be moved.”

Shortly after World War II ended, Virginia’s father got out of the ice business. At the time, metal was becoming more available to make refrigerators, so many people retired their iceboxes. Virginia’s uncle, Mert Gardner, took over the ice business in the same address, but with a new name: Gardner’s Ice. Mert’s family continued Fulton’s ice delivery story.

Mary DeLong: “My father had two trucks: a smaller truck, which he used for making his deliveries, and one for picking up ice at the ice house in Oswego, where the Foundry is today. That was a red pickup truck with a tarp over the back, and sometimes Dad would let us ride with him to pick up more ice. That ice house was huge and it was colder than cold in there. It had a chute that we used to slide down, and in the summertime we thought it was the greatest thing to go there.

“Dad would pick up 100-pound blocks of ice, which had a groove down the middle both ways so they could divide the blocks up into 25-pound pieces. He would fill the back of the pickup truck and put the tarp over it. The ice house also sold small ice cubes. They were too big for a glass, but you could hold one right in your hand. We’d always take one and suck on it while he was loading up the truck.”

Pat Hines: “His delivery truck had high sides so he could fill the whole thing and just peddle all day long. He used ice tongs to take the ice off the back of the truck, however much someone wanted.”

Mary: “On Monday morning Dad would take off and start his first route, going from house to house to ask if they needed 25 or 50 pounds. He had different routes, going to certain sections of the city on certain days.  He might have to go on some routes a couple of times a week.”

Virginia explained how customers could put in an order a delivery: “People would put a sign in their window for how much ice they wanted.”

Once orders were placed, ice men filled them, as Mary described: “I remember Dad chopping the ice, which he could do in a matter of a few minutes. Then he’d use his tongs to put the ice on his shoulder and carry it in.”

Virginia mentioned a friend, Anne Bodwich, who once lived on the Growe Brothers’ ice delivery route. “She remembers my father carrying ice on his shoulder up the steps to her second floor apartment. When my Uncle Mert owned the business, his son, Bob Gardner, said he remembered that his mother, Vivien, could find her husband by following the trail of melted ice on the street.”

My thanks to Virginia and the Gardner family for giving us a trail of ice-delivery memories we can follow back to our city’s history.

 Fred Cavalier and his wife in front of the truck he used for years making ice deliveries to residents of Fulton.

Fred Cavalier and his wife in front of the truck he used for years making ice deliveries to residents of Fulton.