Photo caption: Bob Gokey and his roommates in their apartment at 76 Broadway, currently home to Bitters and Bones. Bob Gokey is in the front row, with George Burgey in the middle. At back, left to right, are Dave Giloni from Ausable, Larry Cooney from Port Henry and Steve Weiss from Rouses Point.
By Bob Gokey, NCCC Class of 1973
Saranac Lake – “So, what are you doing next year?”
That’s the question that brought me to NCCC in the fall of 1971. One of my friends came home from college in April of that year. Gary asked me what I was going to do with my life and, like many of us in the North Country, I hadn’t given college a consideration either way, and had not really given any real thought to a career, a job, or a plan of action following my graduation from high school in Champlain, NY.
My parents, like those in the Depression era who grew up poor but never knew it, both came from large families. They had job options in the small, upstate villages in a factory, on a farm or at the border in customs or immigration. My father graduated from St. Mary’s after eighth grade and went into World War II for two years. He came home and went to work in the local factory and moonlighted on a farm job. My mother stayed home and worked in a restaurant after graduating from high school, but unlike her six brothers and sisters who all left for the service, she was the youngest and someone had to stay and take care of my grandmother. So Phyllis’s fate was cast. This was a very common and familiar story in upstate New York. Our parents were the greatest generation. They hard upbringings and better options than their parents did, but most were content in what they knew, and many were not driven to conquer the world beyond Clinton, Essex and St. Lawrence counties.
I, along with many of my classmates just found myself there, in an era like no other, with the opportunity to knock on so many different doors. I could partake of that exciting and fast-changing world, or I could “carbon copy” what I came before me. Like so many, I wasn’t coached or encouraged to set goals, further my education and make the next generation a brighter, more enlightened, economically empowered, better version of the one that I had come from. This was the North Country — no lack of dreamers, just not a lot of fuel in the dream engine at my local “shop.”
But Gary said to me, “Hey, I’m up in Saranac Lake at NCCC and it’s a great place, a good school, and a lot of fun. They have an open house in two weekends. You should come up and visit, check it out.” I did, and I loved it, and the wheels started to turn, the compass stopped spinning. I was actually going to go to college. Like many of my friends, I would be the first in my immediate family to do so. That quirky conversation on a Saturday afternoon turned out to be the impetus that pushed me to pursue a college education, while also offering an opportunity to get out of that small town.
I had not really liked high school — not for any particular reason, but any deep-seated passion for learning wasn’t there and the connection between four years of preparation for a job and higher education, or career steps, was on my radar screen. No one discussed it with me and I just didn’t think about it on my own. I milked cows before school started, completed the chores, went to school, then went back to the farm for round two, then did homework, visited the extended family in the two neighboring houses, walked downtown to hang out, and then repeated the next day.
Fast forward from April to September of 1971 and I was living at 76 Broadway, just above the pizza parlor where Route 3 (Bloomingdale Avenue) meets Broadway. The old Alpine Hotel on this corner would be demolished in the next year. Just up Bloomingdale Avenue “The Store” beer barn would open for mega-partying, big crowds and cheap beer, and the band McKendrie Spring would play at our freshman orientation. Our house had eight guys from Rouses Point, Ausable, Moira, Port Henry, Massena, and one from Islip, Long Island. After orientation we would trek to school every day, stay all day as most of us had no “wheels” for transportation, drink coffee in Hodson Hall or at a satellite building, then walk home the same way – we hoofed it! I hitchhiked to tennis classes in Lake Placid, and the “old gym” literally overlooked Lake Flower. It was a crusty wood and historic old building that is long gone. We passed the bookstore each day at the top of the hill on Winona Avenue, just past the art building.
Photo caption: This is a view from Bob and his roommates’ apartment at 76 Broadway looking at the intersection of Bloomingdale Avenue and Broadway.
It was beautiful in spring and fall. It was sparkling, frosted, frigid beauty on any given day in January when shimmering, frozen branches reached for you everywhere and that special crunch of snow had an amazing, indelible sound you never forget. It seemed to count aloud your progress in walking to school, step by step. Conversely, it was a brutal and omnipresent chill, relentless, but we all knew this numbing nuisance from our own frigid hamlets in the nearby towns. Weather aside, the environment at NCCC and in Saranac Lake was simply magical and warm. It was a pretty big town for those of us from small villages in the quiet corners of upstate. There were shops, stores, a larger school district than the ones we had come from, a state college, and main roads; state and county! Sounds odd, but that was big for me. There was more than the proverbial one traffic light!
NCCC opened my eyes in many ways. I loved the dedicated, mission-driven and professional guidance that Gail Rice provided in her class. In no time I made up for skill deficits, and she guided and nurtured many of us to realize our own potential. I learned how to learn. It wasn’t about reading and study skills — it was about comprehending, experiencing and getting a push into academia and the world of knowledge by caring professionals who were dedicated to giving something to those of us from the North Country who just needed to door to be cracked open so we could see some other possibilities. The environment at NCCC was like being in our own little “age of enlightenment.” It wasn’t the world stage, but it was a bigger stage than most of us had been on. We were watering the dry seeds of curiosity that seldom sprouted, but then they did, at least they did for me!
Photo caption: A more recent photo of Bob Gokey.
The real secret of NCCC was the fabulous, caring staff, something the statistics don’t necessarily address. Dr. Borzilleri was always in the main building, working and mingling. He was just a terrific leader. If memory serves me, Mr. Taylor taught a class in debate, not argument. We learned how to wage logical discussions with facts, details and conviction, supporting our claims and defending our positions. These seemingly little things helped to prepare me for a not-so-distant life in the developing world of information overflow, cell phones, instant communications, the Internet, Google searches, and confrontations from the left and the right like the CNN–FOX divide. Wow, it seemed quiet and tame back in 1971 compared to today. Remember that we grew up with leaded gasoline, party lines, vacuum tubes in our TVs, the dawn of instant foods, freeze-dried coffee crystals, and Kool-Aid to make our own fruity drinks. We blew past 8-track tapes and on to cassettes eventually. Fast food was a TV tray in the oven, and putting your thumb out to catch a ride was pretty standard fare. We have had to learn how to navigate and filter the oceans of confusing information that surround us now from known and unknown sources. We accepted it readily back in the day!
I actually learned some interesting math at NCCC and it essentially became my career as I sold mathematics textbooks for one of the largest educational publishers of that discipline early in my career. Science became the wonder that it truly is but never was for me in high school. Mr. Glick taught Biology 101 in a fascinating course where select students who completed the course mentored new students just beginning in the next semester. It was a terrific learning model, PSI out of AZ, and we got paid to be mentors. I loved it, and it sparked my love of biology. Then, Mr. Robertson taught the 200-level courses with his world of labs, petri dish specials, detailed lab procedures and probing conversations. He was a seasoned professor — the kind you would come to expect at NCCC. Mr. Schrader taught art in the little house down the hill. He was always upbeat and he had the greatest personality, and a smile. Even if you didn’t like drawing or art he was fun to be around. There were many new experiences, and they broadened our skills and our world view. There were other great teachers in their respective disciplines as well. I actually remember a most interesting U.S. History course, and Mr. Moomey’s Criminal Justice course was taught by a former FBI agent. It was all good and it was better than I could have expected. It really prepared me for the work to come at Potsdam where I would study and earn two more degrees.
The next fall at SUNY Potsdam I continued my studies in education, psychology, more science and then eventually completed my MS degree in Reading. The master’s degree took four summers along with completing courses at SUNY Plattsburgh and Univ. of Buffalo, but persistence was my hallmark. After about three years of teaching reading/math in Champlain, the world of publishing knocked on my door and I moved to Buffalo to sell educational materials to schools. Within two years I was in Connecticut with Addison-Wesley, one of the great education publishing companies of the era and the first company to be acquired by Pearson as it began to build the largest educational publishing company in the world (AW, Prentice Hall, Penguin, Financial Times, Economist, and numerous imprints from across the decades), including Dick and Jane from the old Scott-Foresman and Company. During my thirty year career there it became a $17 billion company and an education powerhouse. No college student ever escaped buying books from Pearson. Along the way I would get married, have a terrific son and daughter, and move five times.
Photo caption: Bob Gokey, second from right, and his father talk with NCCC President Dr. Steve Tyrell, left, and NCCC Foundation President John Dowd.
The strong, deep and well-developed foundation that I built at NCCC served me well as I moved from teacher, to sales representative, to district manager in New England and the northeast and then in Florida; to regional manager and then to Vice President at Addison-Wesley and then Pearson/Prentice Hall. It would be a thirty-year career that enabled me to work with brilliant business people, educational leaders, creative individuals, some of the greatest academic authors in the country, and quality individuals across the board. My career in education would take me to Houghton Mifflin, and then to several smaller companies like VP at the Rowland Reading Foundation working for the founder of American Girl. Each company had its financial goals integrally bound to their respective underlying missions to help enable a next generation of learners. I was fortunate to be able to navigate the halls of corporate America so skillfully with the foundation that NCCC helped build.
But this isn’t about my career. It’s about the wonderful place that I stumbled upon decades ago in that conversation on that Saturday in April of 1971. I remember it so clearly. That conversation brought me to Saranac Lake and to the college. So, what are you going to do next year? I’m glad that I actually thought seriously about it. It’s a good thing that I took that weekend trip to Saranac Lake and discovered NCCC, but it’s an even better thing that I took the step, made the commitment and actually enrolled. I, like many others, took advantage of a good thing and set myself on a course that, in retrospect, I simply would not change in any way.
Photo captions: A photo of Bob Gokey’s showing the 1971 Ice Palace.
In the next few months I’ll look forward to a trip to Saranac Lake to re-visit NCCC, to see the newly restored Hotel Saranac, and to just remember what is important in one’s life. Early life decisions have consequences. Good ones multiply the benefits. My decision to attend NCCC long ago was both consequential, and personally and professionally a significant crossroad for me. And it was fun!
Editor’s note: Bob recently retired after his long career in the publishing world. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He visited his old stomping grounds in Saranac Lake on Feb. 10, when he and his father attended the NCCC-Paul Smith’s College Alumni reception at the Hotel Saranac.