At the Salvation Army gym, 25 River St., Oneonta, volunteers Joan Hill and Judy Barnum, top photo, yesterday were sorting piles of Christmas presents, enough to help 216 family with a total of 500 children. “This year has been really great.” said Capt. Selah Bender. “A lot of bank lobbies have been closed, so it has been difficult for people to get tags from the Giving Trees, but they went online and shipped us gifts! That’s never happened before! Donors have really gone above and beyond in being generous. Every present is part of their paycheck they are sacrificing.” Inset, from left, are Captain Bender, Hill, Barnum, Kyanna Clark, Darlene Barlow and Kenny Clark. “We have also had lots of parents with children dropping off presents,” said Bender. “The need this year is greater, but we haven’t run out. Every time it looks like we are about to run dry, people come in with more.” Donations will be accepted at 25 River St., 9 a.m.-3 p.m. until Dec. 22. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
Yes, there are more families in need of Christmas cheer. But Salvation Army Capt. Selah Bender can report, there are many more angels to help make
the season merry.
Take the Angel Tree program, where shoppers can pluck a tag off a tree with the name of a child in need of a Christmas present.
“We’ve had entire Angel Trees emptied almost as soon as we put them up,” Bender said. “We’ve had to go out and put more tags on them. We’ve had some really inspirational donors this year.”
The captain and her husband, David, six-year veterans of the Salvation Army, arrived in Oneonta in August from northern Kentucky in the midst of the COVID-19 threat, and had to adjust.
“Kettles have been a challenge since day one,” she said. “We weren’t sure we were going to be able to do them, but finally, the grocery stores all said yes.”
Getting volunteers also proved difficult, so Selah has put the form on www.salvationarmy.org. “You can register for an hour or two, or if you’re a group, sign up for the whole day,” she said.
Volunteers have to wear a mask, have no COVID symptoms and step back when people drop money in the kettle, she said.
Some familiar faces have been recruited, including Nick Whitehead, who mans sites around Oneonta. But for those who looked forward to hearing him sing while he rings, new regulations have shushed him this season.
This year, the local post is hoping to raise $35,000, down from the usual $60,000. “Because we started late, we had people calling up to say they were bringing a check by,” she said.
In addition to throwing in your spare change, each kettle is outfitted with scan-code so you can make a donation directly using Google or Apple Pay. “It looks up your zip code and donates to the local Salvation Army.”
At Walmart, shoppers also have the option of rounding up their spare change at the checkout. “That’s great for people who are doing the curbside pickup,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of help this year.”
And with the abundance from the Angel Tree, families will still be able to collect toys for their children, but instead of in one large gathering, families will sign up for a time to pick up their gifts, and they will be loaded into the car.
Similarly, the annual holiday food baskets are being discontinued. “Our volunteers are so limited, and we don’t have the college students to help sort,” she said. “It was a hard decision to make.”
But the captain sees this as a blessing in disguise. “We’re directing the people who normally get a holiday basket to our food pantry,” she said. “It’s more of a bridge than just seeing them on one day, we can continue having conversations about their needs, and they have access to the food pantry more long-term.”
And they still have both frozen turkeys and store vouchers for turkeys for anyone who might need the centerpiece of their holiday meal.
Families can sign up online, and, like the toy distribution, food distributions are by drive-up only, by appointment.
VIRTUAL FIELD TRIP – 1 p.m. Learn about Cultural Diversity in the ‘National Pastime’ and how the game changes around the world. Includes Q&A session. Free, registration for Zoom meeting required. Presented by The Baseball Hall of Fame. 607-547-7200 or visit baseballhall.org/events/virtual-ask-the-expert-curatorial?date=0
ASK THE EXPERT – 3 p.m. Join the Curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame to discuss how the collections are selected and organized. Includes Q&A session. Free, registration for Zoom meeting required. Presented by The Baseball Hall of Fame. 607-547-7200 or visit baseballhall.org/events/virtual-ask-the-expert-curatorial?date=0
In 2008, Joyce Mason, working as a missionary in Honduras, got an urgent message that she was needed at home in Oneonta.
“Opportunities for Otsego had decided to give the Lord’s Table two weeks’ notice that they would no longer run it,” she said. “And although they tried to limp along, it wasn’t enough.”
After locating a landline phone to talk with the staff at St. James Episcopal Church, Mason came back to Oneonta as director of the nightly feeding ministry and the Loaves & Fishes food pantry.
“I got home on May 31,” she said. “I went into work on June 2, and I’ve been here ever since.”
And at the end of the year, Mason will retire from feeding families, the elderly and the disenfranchised after 22 years of service.
“If people are hungry, you have to feed them,” she said. “That’s important. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor or sideways. Anyone can come.”
A native of Forrest Hills, Mason moved to Sidney with her husband, James. He passed away in 1995, leaving her with their two sons, James and Peter.
“After they graduated high school, I became a missionary,” she said. “And I was sent to Honduras.”
But when she got back, there was much work to be done to get the pantry and the kitchen where they needed to be to serve the city’s hungry.
“When I got here, it was not a happy situation,” she said. “So much of what was in the freezers wasn’t labeled, and I had to throw everything in the dumpster. It made me very sad.”
She immediately set to restocking the fridges. “I ordered food from the Regional Food Bank and, sometimes, from restaurants or catered events, like weddings,” she said. “And I started calling every group I could get to help serve the meals.”
With the First United Methodist Church hosting Saturday’s Bread, and the Salvation Army offering the “Meal With a Message,” a hot meal is offered free of charge seven days a week in the city.
“There is no place else between Albany and Binghamton that does that,” Mason said. “And in a town this size, we’re absolutely blessed to have three meal service programs.”
In 2018, Mason spearheaded the formation of the Otsego County Hunger Coalition, creating a network of all the food pantries, feeding programs and farmers’ markets in the county to make sure everyone has access to food wherever they may be.
But there have been challenges along the way. “After the flood of 2011, we were the Otsego County Disaster Feeding program,” she said. “St. Mary’s was housing people, many of them from
Lantern Hill” – the Southside trailer park – “and we had to feed them three meals a day.’
She was preparing lunch for the flood victims one afternoon when she smelled smoke. “The food pantry was on fire,” she said.
Rather than shut down, the pantry moved into St. James and continued its ministry. “We were closed from Friday to Tuesday,” she said. “We had to keep it going.”
The pantry was rededicated in March 2012, and Mason was lauded by Father Kenneth Hunter for continuing to feed the most needy among them.
And this year, the ministries had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Lord’s Table to go to take-out only.
This year, 3,642 households have received food, the highest number in five years.
“It’s tough for the older people especially,” she said. “They need that socialization of sitting down and having a meal with somebody. It’s not available to us right now, but as soon as we can reopen, we will.”
It has also limited the food available at the pantry. “We’re having a lot of trouble getting beef or pork,” she said. “It’s just not available.”
While Mason is leaving her post at year’s end, she doesn’t expect to stay put for long in her retirement. “I’m a missionary at heart,” she said. “I go where I’m needed.”
LECTURE – 7 – 9 p.m. Dr. Daniel Stitch delivers this years Richard Siegfried Lecture. He will present “Fish, Fishing, Dams, and Climate: What have we lost, and what do we stand to gain?” Craven Lounge, Morris Conference Center, SUNY Oneonta.
ART & MUSIC FESTIVAL – 10 a.m – 4 p.m. Find vintage items, collectibles, art, more and enjoy variety of musical performances at City of the Hills Art & Music Festival. Main St., Oneonta. Visit cityofthehillsartsfestival.com
The River Street birthplace of detective Philo Vance may still be saved.
On Monday, June 10, Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, went through the 31 River St. home where William Huntington Wright – aka S.S. Van Dyne – wrote parts of his debut novel, “A Man of Promise.” Later, while recovering from a cocaine addiction, is believed to have written his first detective novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” a best-seller and the first of a dozen novels featuring dandy detective Philo Vance.
The house, owned by his maiden aunts Bertha and Julia Wright, was sold to the Salvation Army earlier this spring for $90,000. The original intent was to demolish it for a parking lot and, eventually, a new building for expanded programming, including the food pantry.
But when word of the home’s literary history got to Brzozowski, he began researching ways to save it. He arranged a tour with the Salvation Army, who took him around the grounds and through the house.
“Right away, we noticed that the entire house was dry, even though the weekend had been very rainy,” said Brzozowski. “Though obviously, there are other issues.”
At some point, the residence was chopped into apartments, but strangely. “There are two kitchens right beside each other,” said Brzozowski. “There’s one living space on the first floor and two on the second.”
Though no furniture was left, Brzozowski did find some “knick-knacks,” including a 1966 newspaper, a WWII-era canvas pouch in a tin box in the basement and a couple of “really interesting lamps.”
“There could have been stuff there that belonged to the Wright family, but it would be hard to detect,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that the cupola, where legend had it that Wright did all of his writing, wasn’t big enough to accommodate the writer – or anyone.
“It’s maybe three feet from floor to ceiling,” he said. “It’s not like a room. He couldn’t even sit in here.”
There is, however, a garret on the second floor south side of the house. “I could imagine a writer working in there.”
ONEONTA – For a time, S.S. Van Dine was the biggest thing in detective fiction.
“He got famous fast,” said Michael Sharp, a Binghamton University English professor who specializes in American Crime Fiction. “He writes his first book and he immediately becomes a best-seller.”
That first novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” published in 1926, is believed to have been written, at least in part, at 31 River St., where Willard Huntington Wright was staying with his aunts Bertha and Julia Wright, on a two-year bed rest recommended by his doctor to help him recover from a cocaine addiction.
Forgotten for decades, Van Dine/Wright, with the Salvation Army planning to tear down 31 River St. for a parking lot, is back in the news.
According to an essay by Michael Mallory in Mystery Scene Magazine, Wright’s doctor also recommended the writer, who had recently been fired as the editor of The Smart Set for his erratic and temperamental behavior, to dip into detective fiction as “light reading.”
“For someone who had once written, ‘There are few punishments too severe for a popular novel writer,’ it sounded like a dubious proposition, but to Wright’s surprise, he found mystery novels challenging and entertaining,” Mallory wrote.
And thus – on River Street, perhaps – Philo Vance was born.
“Vance is modeled on the Golden Age detective,” said Sharp. “There were a lot of British writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, writing these locked-door, puzzle mysteries. Vance was just the American version of that.”
The puzzle mystery – also known as a “cozy” – is more about the complexity of the puzzle as a whodunit, where the detective is often hired by a wealthy client to solve the crime as a hobby, rather than a profession like a cop or a private eye. They feature less violence than the hardboiled pulps that came later, and are solved by logical deductions made by the detective.
As such a dilettante, Van Dine described Vance as “…unusually good-looking, although his mouth was ascetic and cruel…there was a slightly derisive hauteur in the lift of his eyebrows…His forehead was full and sloping – it was the artist’s, rather than the scholar’s, brow.
“His cold grey eyes were widely spaced,” Vance’s creator continued. “His nose was straight and slender, and his chin narrow but prominent, with an unusually deep cleft…Vance was slightly under 6 feet, graceful, and giving the impression of sinewy strength and nervous endurance.”
He was also well-educated, “…had courses in the history of religions, the Greek classics, biology, civics, and political economy, philosophy, anthropology, literature, theoretical, and experimental psychology, and ancient and modern languages” and was “a man of unusual culture and brilliance.”
“He’s this cut-rate Sherlock Holmes who is so smart and can reason things so well,” said Sharp. “He wears his university degree on his sleeve, he’s a scholar and there’s a sense that it’s intellectually aspirational for the reader.”
In all, 12 Philo Vance novels were published, lifting Wright out of his post-Smart Set firing and into a somewhat wealthy lifestyle.
And Vance’s unusual good looks, as described, set him up for the silver screen, where he was played by top movie stars of the time.
William Powell, who would later find success playing detective Nick Charles in the “Thin Man” series, based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, played Vance in “The Canary Murder Case” (1929), “The Greene Murder Case” (1929), “The Benson Murder Case” (1930) and “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933).
Sherlock Holmes’ most famous portrayer, Basil Rathbone, stepped into Vance’s role in “The Bishop Murder Case” (1930). In all, 15 Philo Vance movies were made.
In addition to Vance, Van Dine also created Inspector Carr and Dr. Crabtree, who investigated crimes in a series of a dozen 20-minute “two-reel” mystery films shown in theaters in 1931-32 before the feature.
But with the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled classic “The Maltese Falcon” in 1929, detective fiction took a new tone, one much grittier and darker. Hardboiled mysteries began appearing in pulp magazines like Black Mask, bringing crime fiction to working-class readers.
“It was a more realistic depiction of how and why people commit crime,” said Sharp. “It used the language of criminals, cops and detectives, so there was no longer a market for that kind of puzzle mystery.”
As such, Philo Vance’s days were numbered.
“Van Dine did not have an afterlife, like Agatha Christie,” said Sharp. “It’s very dated, it satisfied the taste at the time, but tastes changed. And he wasn’t as good a writer as Christie or Sayers.”
“The Big Sleep” author Raymond Chandler mocked Vance at every opportunity, calling him “the most asinine character in detective fiction” in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.”
Part of it, Sharp theorized, is because Van Dine himself was ashamed of the work, but knew that it was what kept him in the wealthy lifestyle to which he became accustomed.
“The fact that he used a pseudonym tells you everything about how the author was regarded and how the books were regarded,” he said. “The notion that they were cheap and easy, so they were never real literature. Authors like Chandler tried to legitimize the genre.”
Van Dine died on April 11, 1939, in New York at age 50, of a heart condition likely brought on by excessive drinking, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript that would become the “The Winter Murder Case.”
Though reprints of his books aren’t difficult to find online – “The Benson Murder Case” was reprinted in “Crime Fiction of the 1920s,” available at The Green Toad Bookstore in Oneonta – Sharp said they are more a curiosity than a good read.
“He’s frozen in amber,” said Sharp. “People who are aficionados know him, maybe even like him, but you can walk into any bookstore and get an Agatha Christie novel, you can’t with Van Dine.”
ONEONTA – The end of the Christmas season will mark the end of an era for a Southside Mall mainstay.
For over two decades, Vera Stewart, aka Mrs. Claus, has been volunteering for the Salvation Army by ringing bells and holding doors at her station outside of JCPenney, spreading cheer to holiday shoppers. Dressed in red velvet with white trim, the Southside Mrs. Claus has become a mainstay of the Christmas season to many visitors young and old.
“When they first asked me to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, I decided to try it.” said Stewart, “I began doing it only on weekends, then I went to five days a week.”
ONEONTA – One single small coin will help to make many people’s Christmas a little merrier this year, thanks to three anonymous benefactors, who donated an 1899 gold coin to Lettis Auctions, which auctioned it off for $510 to once again benefit the Salvation Army.
The 1899 coin is made from 97 percent gold and is considered in extra fine condition.
“The coin itself is not uncommon, it was how people were paid back then,” said one of the donors. “It was week’s salary at the time and is roughly equivalent to $320 today.”