A View From the Top

When I think back on my summer vacations as a kid, I remember that last day of school seeming like I’d just been sprung from jail. Ahead were months of long days when I could do whatever I wanted (as long as Mom said it was okay). I grew up outside Fulton, on the Chase Road, so there were plenty of woods to explore or I could have hung out with the Richardson boys on their farm across the way. But when I got old enough, my favorite summer activity was riding my bicycle to the West Side Pool in Fulton.

A trip to the pool at Recreation Park was an all-day event. My brother and I packed a few PB & J sandwiches, a towel, and a T-shirt for the evening ride home. Slipped into the tiny pocket in our swimsuits was one dime: the cost of admission to the pool. Not a bad price for a day of fun.

As soon as those summer mornings started heating up, my brother and I hopped on our bikes, getting an easy start on the gradual downhill slope that took us to the end of Chase Road and onto Hannibal Street. We really didn’t have to start pumping until we turned onto Broadway (now known as Route 3), which took us to the park. By the time we’d finish pedaling, we’d worked up a sweat.

After stuffing our lunch and gear into a locker in the always-chilly changing room, we headed into the pool area, which to ten-year-old me seemed like an entire amusement park. I looked for my friends, hoping to find some deck space near them to claim as my own. The pool itself had two sections: a shallow end for toddlers and non-swimmers, and the deep end for everyone else. It was a good day when I passed the swim test and slipped under the buoy rope that put me in the deep end. I was an official swimmer!

There was actually a third section to the West Side Pool, the diving area, and entering it was another rite of passage. As soon as I became a confident swimmer I spent lots of time on the low diving boards. They were fun and just enough of a challenge to make me feel like I was no longer a little kid. My brother and I had already ventured onto the diving boards at Fair Haven Beach’s channel, so I already knew the routine of waiting in line to step onto the board, walking to its end, jumping or—if I felt really brave—diving in, swimming to the ladder and getting back in line for the tenth, twentieth or fiftieth time.  

As happy as I was with my low-diving fun, something towered above me, a constant reminder that I still had mountains to climb and fears to overcome. It was the high dive board. As an adult, I know that board was probably fifteen or so feet above the water, but when I was a kid it looked like the top of the Empire State Building. I got dizzy just looking up at it. 

For years, I watched the older kids casually climb rung after rung of the high dive ladder, then confidently walk to its edge to launch themselves into the air—all as if were a walk in the park. From the safety of my place on the deck, I watched person after self-assured person, trying to imagine myself as one of them. Thinking about high diving didn’t end when I headed home on my bike. Lying in bed after a day at the pool, I’d fall asleep thinking about those brave divers, which often led to a recurring nightmare: me on the West Side Pool high dive, petrified. 

I was twelve years old when I finally convinced myself it was time to overcome my high altitude fears. Of course, I had a lot of help (if you want to call it help) from my friends who’d called me every name in the book for being afraid. One by one, they’d all taken their first plunge and if I didn’t want to be left behind, I’d need to take mine.

One sunny day, I decided it was time. I waited until there was a long line at the bottom of the ladder, which would give me plenty of wiggle room if I talked myself out of taking the plunge. When my turn came to ascend, I mimicked what I’d seen, assuredly grabbing each rung one at a time, pulling myself up. From down below, nobody could see that I was gripping those rungs so tight because my sweaty palms could have caused a fall to my death.

At the top, I stepped onto the board, trying to get a feel for what looked like too thin of a walkway. One step at a time, each followed by a pause to breathe, I inched my way to the end of the board. And froze. Guys on the ladder got impatient and yelled “C’mon! Whataya waiting for?” Finally, the catcalls became worse than my fears of a painful belly flop and I jumped. In the two seconds it took me to hit water, I saw my twelve-year-old life tragically end and my never-to-be future vanish.

But, amazingly, I rose to the water’s surface, all in one piece. I’d survived! As I swam to the ladder and stepped onto solid concrete, I felt some pride. But I also knew that once was enough. Accomplishing a daring feat was one thing; experiencing that queasy fear over and over again was another. I never set foot on the high dive again.

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Fulton's Future History Makers

This column has always focused on people who’ve made history in our city, but, for today, I’m writing about those who will create our future: children. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Fultonian Carlton Barrett, a soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his World War II service. I learned about Carlton’s valor by speaking with teacher Bill Cahill, whose sixth grade class project introduces the soldier to his students. The class was then given an assignment to write an essay about Barrett by answering this question: Why are you proud of Carlton Barrett’s actions and what character traits would be needed to do what he did? Here are some examples of what Cahill’s students wrote:

Audrey White focused on Barrett’s bravery. “I know it might seem as if he was fearless,” Audrey wrote, “but being brave and being fearless aren’t the same thing. Being fearless means not to be scared at all and it can lead to irrational choices. Being brave, however, means doing something despite of the fear and pain that you are facing.”

Cassie Clarke named her essay “You Don't Need A Superpower To Be A Superhero,” explaining that “Carlton got shot four times and still was swimming people back to the ship, where it was safe, instead of going on the ship himself. He risked his life so other people could be safe; he could have lost so much blood and died. I wish I could have as much bravery and loyalty to people as he did because we don't have many people in this world that would do things like that.”

Super heroic behavior was also important to Ava Pelky’s essay, in which she named four of Barrett’s superhero qualities: “gallantry, valor, intrepidity, and coolness. While risking his life and getting shot at and bombed, with shrapnel flying in all directions, he had to have all of these character traits….Having those skills is like having a superpower. For example, where would your favorites superheroes be if they weren’t brave, bold, and fearless?”

Examples of Barrett’s bravery, courage, and heroism were part of Kaleb Wise’s essay. “He showed courage because he was swimming nonstop to bring others to safety. He also showed bravery because he went back while getting shot at to save more people. He showed heroism because while wounded he cared more for others than himself.”

As Gianna Tucker sees it, Carlton Barrett was also altruistic. “[He was someone] who put other people's lives before their own. I wish I could be more like him. If everyone, including me, had a little drop of his bravery, this world would be amazing.”

 Aidan Bowman called Barrett “selfless,” explaining that “he was determined to save as many people as he could, that's why he is such a good man. I would like to have some of these character traits because it represents what a good man is.”  

 “It would be great if he was still alive,” wrote Cadence Schneider, “so he could visit schools [and] teach them what he went though, and tell them how horrible the events he went to were.…I feel like there should be a day in Fulton honoring him.”

Some people’s traits may not immediately seem to belong together. For Ava Ditton, Carlton had both kindness and strength. “We all want to treat people kind and we all want people to treat us kind. Another character trait he has is strength because he still decided to remain in the Army for many more years. He could have left and been done, but he stayed and choose to risk his life.”

Madeline Ligoci focused on Carlton’s physical ability to continue rescuing soldiers even after he’d been wounded. “Barrett was a determined person and showed great valor as a soldier….Could you imagine swimming back and forth in the ocean without being taught how to swim before war AND being shot three times? I would look up to him because he is so determined and he is authentic. He is as real as you could get.”

Like many of her classmates, Gracie Parry wants to possess the same trait as Barrett. “I would love to have the bravery Carlton W. Barrett had…. I bet none of us have that type of bravery to save others and keep going until you get four wounds. If one of us got one wound, we would have probably saved ourselves! He just kept saving fellow soldiers.”

Kyle Stuber had his eye on the future when he selected Barrett’s greatest character trait. “The reason I am so proud of his actions is because he was able to save people so they could possibly have kids, and those kids will have kids, and so on, and one of them could have developed a cure for cancer or something like that.”

Finally, Calie Shepard makes an important suggestion as to why we should all remember Carlton Barrett, but not just during World War II memorial services and not just once a year: “He should be more known because he saved a lot of people who lived and went home to their families and most likely had kids. If he didn’t save them then they would…not have been able to be in such a good and amazing world today.”

As I read these students’ essays, I was reminded of this quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It was Spanish philosopher George Santayana who pointed out the importance of keeping our history alive and it’s teachers like Bill Cahill who are doing just that, making sure his students never forget—not just to preserve history, but to suggest to our children how to create a better future.

Students from Bill Cahill’s Volney Elementary School sixth-grade classroom recently wrote essays about Fulton’s Medal of Honor recipient Carlton Barrett.

Students from Bill Cahill’s Volney Elementary School sixth-grade classroom recently wrote essays about Fulton’s Medal of Honor recipient Carlton Barrett.

Fulton's Founder of Camp Hollis

I’m currently working on a book that will cover the history of Camp Hollis, the children’s residential camp located on Lake Ontario, in the town of Oswego. My personal history is intimately woven with the camp’s, stretching all the way back to the 1930s, when my dad attended the Health Camp located there. By the 1960s, I was a camper at Hollis and then worked my way through college as one of its counselors in the 1970s. Most of my adult career was with the county of Oswego’s Youth Bureau, which owns and operates the camp. Writing Camp Hollis’s history will not only be an honor, but also personally fulfilling.

I’m researching the camp back to its earliest years, including details about Dr. LeRoy Hollis, of Sandy Creek, who oversaw the Health Camp from 1928 until it closed in 1943. But today I want to tell you how, three years later, one man put forth great effort to reopen the camp for children in Oswego County. That man was Judge Eugene Sullivan.

Born in New York City in 1899, Eugene made occasional visits to Fulton because his father, Richard Sullivan, ran our city’s Hotel Fulton. By the time Eugene had graduated from Albany Law School, he and his wife Ruth had settled in Fulton. Here he practiced law, became active in politics and in several community organizations.

A new job Sullivan began in 1944 set the stage for the founding of Camp Hollis. Appointed to be Oswego County’s Children’s Court Judge, Sullivan met many youngsters who’d already endured great struggles in their life. “My father oversaw cases involving families who didn’t even have the basic necessities,” Eugene’s son, Mike, told me. “Things like running water for bathing or fresh milk for meals. Dad thought those children needed something special in their lives. ‘If they could receive some kind of reward, we might not see them back in the courts,’ he’d say.”

What the Judge imagined for children came true a thousand times over throughout Camp Hollis’s nearly 75-year history. When the camp officially opened in 1946, some of the first children to attend were those whose family lives were so troubled that they ended up in an Oswego County orphanage. A few years before I retired, one of those former orphans, Frank Fisher, stopped by to visit the camp that had given him many fond memories.

“I was nine years old when my brothers, sister and I were sent to the Oswego Children’s Orphanage,” Frank explained. “But two weeks each year, the college-age counselors at Camp Hollis won our hearts. They noticed when a child was having difficulty and would throw an arm around a shoulder, give a hug or an encouraging word. The counselors had no special training, but they cared and we children knew it without being told it was so.”

Judge’s son Mike was one of those Camp Hollis counselors and he told me a little about what working there in its earliest years was like:

“I started off as a handyman to the cook. Later, Dad sent me to a Red Cross Aquatic School and we lifeguards had the important job of making sure the children swimming in the sometimes rough Lake Ontario waters were safe. We taught a lot of kids how to swim who’d never been near water.”

As I research Camp Hollis’s history I’ve learned how the Judge struggled to financially support the camp. Sullivan spoke at Oswego County Legislative meetings, convincing them in the camp’s first year of the need for healthy recreational activities for children. He spoke to the orphanages’ staff, school nurses, police departments—anyone who might support his idea of creating a camp for children in need.

Convincing those influential people wasn’t easy, as Mike explained. “I’m still not sure how my father managed in those early years to supply the camp with food, needed supplies and pay for the staff. The camp started when I was nine years old and I often rode out to Hollis with my father so he could check on how it was running. My job was to make sure he did not fall asleep on the way home. I also remember attending dinners where he gave the Camp Hollis pitch for funding.  Money ran out the last two weeks of that first summer and Dad covered the paychecks for everyone.”

Sullivan didn’t just look for support at the local level; he also sought it from state officials. He’d learned that Governor Thomas Dewey had started a committee to study juvenile delinquency that became known as the New York State Youth Commission. Judge pitched them the idea that a summer camp for needy children could be a method of curtailing a youngster’s wrongdoing and the newly-formed committee agreed. In the camp’s inaugural year, New York State agreed to provide funding, making Camp Hollis the first such recreational program to receive support from the state.

Sullivan put state and local money to good use. The camp’s original building was repaired, playground equipment was installed and a staff was hired to prepare meals, provide medical care and supervise children. In July of 1946, 27 boys and 27 girls from local orphanages and all over Oswego County climbed off a school bus onto the campgrounds, ready for three weeks of fun, food and friendship. Over the years, Camp Hollis would evolve into a camp that’s open to all Oswego County children. This summer, hundreds of boys and girls will step foot on the campgrounds for the first time, looking to enjoy the life-changing experience of going away to camp.

What a joy it will be to write Camp Hollis’ full history, with stories from former staff and campers like Mike and Frank  helping me preserve the memory of Judge Eugene Sullivan, who saw children in great need and found a way to make their lives a little happier.

Judge Eugene Sullivan, founder of Camp Hollis, and his wife, Ruth, shown enjoying the festivities at the camp in the summer  of 1958.

Judge Eugene Sullivan, founder of Camp Hollis, and his wife, Ruth, shown enjoying the festivities at the camp in the summer of 1958.