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ON THE SCENE: We are a community of storytellers

January 5, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

I grew up in Lake Placid surrounded by people who were good storytellers.

First and foremost was my father, known to many as Happy Jack. He had many stories about growing up in Lake Placid and at the Mirror Lake Inn; time spent with his grandfather, the guide Harv Alford; his experiences with the 10th Mountain Division troops during World War II; and stories about hunting, fishing, people he knew, and events during his life. Both of my grandmothers were good storytellers, Climena who founded and ran the Mirror Lake Inn and Grossmama, my mother's mother who spent her summers with us.

As my father ran a hunting camp, his guides like Trader Al, Abe Fuller, and Andy Rossman were great storytellers, and so were the Porters who often did construction work for us, especially Junior and Francis's dad. Then, of course, there were Mirror Lake Inn chefs Fred Richards and Herbie Rock, head waitress Ethel Bellmore, Deo Colburn and Doctor Swanson, who had their meals at the family table, Grace Shea, who helped my grandmother decorate the Inn, and the artists Avril Conwell, Bob Whitney, Sue Davignon and Slayton Underhill.

Article Photos

Sandra Weber addresses the women’s march crowd at the grave of Inez Milholland in Lewis.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

My mother could tell some good stories, but she tended to be more reserved in comparison with others listed, though her older sister, my Aunt Unc (aka Paula) was terrific. I loved Jack Barry's stories along with those of fellow village board member Harry Fregoe, long-serving mayor Bob Peacock and Bob Allen, who ran the Arena. Few people could top Kitty Scofield; Kitty was full throttle and could be a shock to the senses. She'd have me weeping on the ground. Mary MacKenzie, the town historian, was another. Such a sharp mind.

These names are just the tip of the iceberg. Poke Jim Rogers, and other names will come pouring out. Harry Fife, Warren Witherell, his father Spike, and Ted Wells at Northwood come to mind. Ron Stafford. So, so many.

These people and more taught me that everyone has stories to tell and well worth hearing, stories that can help us look at and enjoy life in all its complexities. One of the great loses of my life is that my father wrote few of his stories down. Then he died young leaving a gap in my life. I wanted to hear more. So too, I wish my mother had told us way more stories than she did. Following her death, I found an old photo album of hers. In one photo, she and her sister were sitting with a small lion draped across their laps, with big smiles on their faces. As a college exchange student, my mother got to attend the Berlin Summer Olympics in 1936 and take pictures of Jesse Owens and other American athletes. Clearly, she was right down on the field. Who knew? How did that happen?

Thus, one of my goals is to use this column to capture some of the moments of our collective life. If I attend a sporting event, I'm not too interested in reporting who won. News Senior Sports Writer Lou Reuter and the other sports writers will capture all that. I'm more interested is what it takes to be an athlete, a parent of an athlete, a coach, a judge or a volunteer and look for the story behind the story.

Another is to help stitch us together as a community. Growing up at the Mirror Lake Inn at a time when many guests would stay there for a month at a time, or come back annually for decades, I had a chance to see people on their good days and not so good days, be they guests or the kitchen, front of house or maintenance staff. I came to learn that all people put their pants on one leg at a time- that we had more in common than those aspects that set us apart.

Life was very fragile when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. People had about 90 days to make their money. After that, the town largely closed down. Some went on welfare, most took on any part-time task or job, and hunting was a vital way of putting meat on the table. From that experience, I learned it's never good to hate anybody, as you never knew when you'd need them, or they need you. That person who at one moment seemed to be such a jerk, might, in turn, be a member of the fire department, a person who will drop whatever they are doing at any time of the day or night and in any weather to help another.

Last week, News Editor Andy Flynn had me review all my columns and pull out about 10 that he could pick through to find three to enter in a contest for weekly newspapers across the state. Going through them reminded me of the story about Dr. Edward Hixson's experience not on Everest, as many already know, but as one of the top canoe racers in North America.

I loved learning that Keene used to be the site of several iron mines as was revealed in the story about the re-opening of the Walton Bridge.

How wonderful it was to discover that famed suffragette Inez Milholland lived in Lewis and was buried there.

Some stories are tough. Dr. Josh Schwartzberg learned that he had pancreatic cancer and of consequence had to inform his loyal patients that he had to close his office and focus on his treatment. Good news is that thus far his aggressive regimen is working and Josh has gone back to work two days a week doing what he loves to do - care for others. He's also made time to indulge in another passion of chasing the wily wild salmon in various locales.

Tough, too, is learning how widespread and brutal solitary confinement is, but the good news is discovering how many people have stepped up to fight for more humane treatment and to start writing letters to those confined.

Where you can help me is through passing on your events and ideas to our editor Andy Flynn or to myself directly. While space and budget limitations leave us a bit over 50 stories to tell each year, we want to hear what story ideas you feel will help flesh out our community. By that I mean the greater Lake Placid, Keene, Jay and Wilmington region. While we can't tell all the stories, certainly not in a year, your ideas will be considered and will help expand my perspective.

I do want to thank you for listening, reading my column and the work of my colleagues, and for encouraging others to check out the stories we try to tell. The paper as a platform for sharing our collective stories cannot survive without your active engagement.

All my best for the holidays, and I look forward to continuing to share more stories with you throughout this coming year. Being your On the Scene reporter is a task I relish. You make it fun.



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