CGP Community Stories

Jonathan Collett, November 21, 2016

Title

Jonathan Collett, November 21, 2016

Subject

George Kennan
John Milton
Columbia University
Wesleyan University
State University of New York (SUNY) Old Westbury
Race
Environmentalism
Rainforest Alliance
Island Press
Historic Preservation
Oneonta, New York
Bassett Medical Center
Hanford Mills Museum
O’Connor Foundation
Upland Trading Company
Lou Reed
Interracial marriage
Prejudice
Donald Trump
Quaker
Paris, France

Description

Dr. Jonathan H. Collett is a retired professor of comparative humanities. He was born in Wilmington, Ohio in March 1938. He initially pursued international relations and foreign policy at Haverford College before dedicating his studies to English. Dr. Collett obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University, writing his dissertation on John Milton. He subsequently taught at Columbia University and Wesleyan University, before joining the planning and development team that founded the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury in 1965.

At SUNY Old Westbury, Dr. Collett served as Acting Academic Vice President for two years before returning to the classroom. During the 1960s and 1970s, SUNY Old Westbury and other universities were actively seeking to bring more African American students onto campus, but struggled to help them acclimate and provide them with the resources they needed. Dr. Collett also recognized that there was limited, if any, help for faculty who wished to become better educators. In response, he founded and coordinated the Teaching for Learning Center, which promoted faculty peer evaluation and discussion on various topics to improve classroom learning. Dr. Collett also leveraged the Center to help faculty contend with pressing issues, such as race and how to best reach minority students. Similarly, with the rise of the modern environmental movement, he worked to encourage faculty of various disciplines to incorporate nature and environmentalism into their curriculums. Dr. Collett published on both of these topics and traveled to campuses throughout the SUNY system in order to share his innovative teaching methods. His recollections of this period and his work include difficulties encountered, his motivations, and perceived impacts.

During the interview, Dr. Collett also discussed historic preservation, both in the context of the restoration of his own historic home, as well as in the broader Oneonta community. This lent itself to a larger exploration of the state of Oneonta, trends in the community, university, and municipal and state governance. Additionally, Dr. Collett served as a board trustee for the Hanford Mills Museum during the 1980s and 1990s, and he spoke about that experience, funding challenges, the museum’s impact on the community, and how the museum changed over time.

The interview concluded with the topic of Dr. Collett and his wife, Charlotte, who is African American. He spoke about attitudes toward interracial marriage in the 1970s and today, as well as prejudice that they have encountered as a couple.

Dr. Collett suffered a stroke three years prior to this interview, which has caused partial slurring of his speech and some minor memory impairment. As a result, the transcript has been edited at certain points in an effort to provide clarity and best convey Dr. Collett’s meaning. Factual inaccuracies have also been corrected. Additionally, Dr. Collett had an opportunity to review the transcript and, at his request, a number of alterations were made, including edits to phrasing, slight restructuring of sentences, and both the addition and correction of details that occurred to him after the interview. These edits were largely minor, but could potentially affect tone and/or meaning. Given all of these conditions, researchers are encouraged to consult the audio recordings.

Creator

Sarah Phillips

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2016-11-21

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mp3
28.8MB
audio/mpeg-4
28.7MB
audio/mp3
6.8MB
image/jpeg
3264 × 2448 pixel

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

16-010

Coverage

Upstate New York
Oneonta, NY
1938-2016

Interviewer

Sarah Phillips

Interviewee

Jonathan Collett

Location

58 Elm St.
Oneonta, NY 13820

Transcription

JC = Jonathan H. Collett
SP = Sarah Phillips

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

SP:
This is the November 21, 2016 interview of Dr. Jonathan Howard Collett by Sarah Phillips for the Cooperstown Graduate Program Community Stories Oral History Project recorded at his home in Oneonta, NY. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down today.
JC:
Very good. Glad to be here.
SP:
So, if I can start, I would like to ask where and when were you born?
JC:
I was born in Wilmington, Ohio in 1938 in March.
SP:
Could you talk a little bit about your upbringing?
JC:
I was raised in small apartments first and then finally in a house near Wilmington. Between Wilmington and Cincinnati and Hamilton, Ohio. Then, finally we moved to Cincinnati. My father got a job there with his uncle. So, that was the way we were raised. But, it was a very poor beginning. He was a hardworking man. His father was a county surveyor. Dad was raised as a farm boy, mostly. But, he was an ambitious guy. He was my hero and still is.
SP:
What kind of farm was it?
JC:
It was a hog farm, largely, and it still is. It’s still going. But, they had a bit of everything. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. So, the former slaves were given numbers there were so many [who] came through there. I remember the house of old “98.” It was especially important to a child to go there with my grandfather; he’d take us there. My grandpa knew former slaves more than his brothers. He had four brothers. One was killed in the war, the Second World War. So, anyway, I went there.
SP:
What role, if any, did you play on the farm?
JC:
In those days, nothing much. We went there during the winter, so we were away. I helped my other uncle, on my mother’s side, in the farm they had – a much more up-to-date farm – to the other side of Wilmington, every summer. As soon as school was out, I took a train to Wilmington and he met me there and he said, “As soon as you became useful to me you left.” I was old enough, I got a job in the city of Cincinnati. But, that was a modern farm, and I really learned some things there. We kept the Ohio farm, the Collett farm, years after. When my grandfather died and everybody else was gone, my father and a cousin split the farm. Then when Dad became too old, he gave the farm to his three children, but I was the one that was meant to run it. So, I would go up there every two weeks or so and would meet with the guy who was a farmer. But, we rented out the farm to a guy who knew what he was doing. [sneezing]
SP:
Bless you.
JC:
Thank you. I don’t know if you got that.
SP:
So, you said you got a job in the city. What kind of job was it?
JC:
In my father’s company, I worked different things. I worked washing bottles for a while, worked in the shop for a while. It was a vending machine company. We went out in the summertime to various schools. They had vending machines in schools. The reason they could sell vending machines and the competition couldn’t was we had a smart guy in the shop who put a lock on all the candy machines. [laughter] So, they were locked down tight except for lunchtime.
SP:
Right. Did you ever consider being a full-time farmer?
JC:
No, I was not. My father, must say, if it hadn’t been for the war and other things, he might have stayed in teaching. [sneezing]
SP:
Bless you.
JC:
I’m sorry. Want to put that [the recorder] off?
SP:
Oh, it’s fine.
JC:
But, he almost went in the Army. He almost was called up. But, he finally didn’t because he worked for Procter and Gamble Company in Cincinnati, which was one of those companies where you work for them – they supplied the army and their jobs were not to be called up. So, during that time, anyway, my father pushed me, although I was more than happy to go, into teaching. So, that’s why I went in that direction and knew I would leave Cincinnati and everything else. But, that was it.
SP:
So, yes, that certainly answers why you chose to go into teaching. What led you to become a professor of comparative humanities?
JC:
I was thinking – this is interesting – I was thinking of, my work was all in international relations and foreign policy in college, and I took courses and particularly liked the one guy [who] taught. I went over and babysat his kids and so on. He took us to Princeton Institute to see his teacher, who was George Kennan, and so I was very impressed, and Kennan said what do you want to do, and I explained it, and I said, “I’m a Quaker, and I don’t want to fight in a war, so I’m not sure whether the Foreign Service is the right occupation for me.” He said, “Come here. Let’s go in the other room.” [laughter] George Kennan and I went in the other room. He said, “Let me say to you, and it gives me sadness to do this, but I think you will find, given the current situation, you’ll be lost in the Foreign Service. Better you do something else. You teach some subject or something because you will be shunted off to some backcountry in Africa or Australia or Asia or somewhere.” He said, “It’s too bad because the Foreign Service could have used people like you.” He handled it very well. So, then I shifted to literature, which was my undercurrent anyway. I did all my work in Milton, a major author. You could spend a lifetime doing Milton, and several people I knew [who] were friends of mine [who] had class with me, did spend their lives on Milton. I could never do that. Every five years I had to jump to something new. [laughter] So, I did Milton and I wrote a few things about him and so on, but that was it.
[TRACK 1, 8:19]
SP:
And that was during your undergraduate?
JC:
Undergraduate started…the last two years, I majored in English. And then I went to Columbia [University] in English and got my Ph.D. in Milton. I wrote a dissertation on Milton. I was hired as a Miltonist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And my wife and – let’s see, did I, no, I didn’t have any children at the time – went up there to Connecticut, and we were very happy. I taught a course in Milton, and then I taught black students, among others. Wesleyan was making an effort to bring black students into the campus, which was good, among other high-class private schools to do that back in the 1960s. Anyway, I began to branch out, and the opportunity came to start a new college in the SUNY system. State university like this one here. And so, I jumped at the chance. The guy named to be president was a good friend of mine. I was awfully young, and my wife didn’t like this too much. She wanted to stay at Wesleyan. She was right in a number of ways. But, anyway, we went to Long Island and started the SUNY College at Old Westbury. That was it. I was the Academic Vice President there for two years while the guy was president. So, we hired faculty, began courses, set up, and so on. All the things. But, I hated administration. I didn’t like it. [laughter] So, I got out of that quickly and went straight into teaching. But, we taught everything; it was all very interdisciplinary. I don’t know if you have read about the early ‘70s and everything and all. Interdisciplinary studies were big, big talk, but it’s hard to do right. It’s very difficult. So, anyway, I did that. We had two children while we were at Wesleyan before we moved the children with us to Long Island and bought a house in Westbury.
SP:
So, you said you jumped at the chance to be part of SUNY Old Westbury.
JC:
Yeah, start a new college.
SP:
Can you talk more about that process?
JC:
Well, it was very political because the SUNY campuses I visited, and I did more during the time, were very sort of staid places that were uninteresting to me, especially after first-rate Wesleyan place, which was a good school, no question about it. So, I was eager to bring into the SUNY system something that was exciting. And they were pleased to have us and those schools, like Empire State. I have no idea what things were like here [in Oneonta] at this time in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. But I didn’t know about Oneonta at all. So, anyway, that was that. I taught black literature for a while. I taught Milton, I did a course in Milton. I did interdisciplinary studies and American studies. So, things like that.
SP:
You said you were Academic Vice President at SUNY Old Westbury, but you didn’t like it. What didn’t you like about being an administrator?
JC:
Oh, God. Troublesome faculty who thought they were too good to be disciplined. [laughter] I realized afterwards they had left the college where they were [in order] to be out in the open, be free. So, we had a bunch of people who were smart, and they were good. They were great to teach with, but not to administer. [laughter]
SP:
As I understand it, you founded and coordinated the Teaching for Learning Center at Old Westbury.
JC:
Yes.
SP:
Can you talk about that?
JC:
Well, I was not a very good teacher, and at Columbia and at Wesleyan, there was no help. Nobody thought to come sit in your classroom the way Charlotte [JC’s wife] had when she was teaching in public schools, in high school and down. So, I had to teach myself how to do it. So, I was embarrassed. We had teaching evaluations, and I did not like the fact that my classes were so-called boring and so on. So, I worked on teaching a lot, and I also was interested in helping other people. I knew that people needed – I heard from students – that certain people needed help. I knew it was doable. It was fixable. You could sit in the classroom. And so, that’s why I started. I started going to classes of colleagues and helping them talk about their teaching. I would usually start by saying, “I’m not a good teacher.” Make them relax. So, anyway, we did a teaching center, and we had programs. We had lunch meetings twice a month, I guess, where somebody would prepare a subject and we would discuss it. And so, I found people eager to get this kind of…particularly women, were eager to get help and get confidence. Men were too confident to handle. [laughter] Look who I’m talking to; I bet you know what’s going on here. So, that was that.
[TRACK 1, 15:27]
SP:
What kind of issues did you talk about?
JC:
First thing was racial problems in the classroom. For black teachers, [and for] white teachers, with black students. What to do? What role to take? Should you try to emphasize tension and make the person out to be a special person, or should you treat them like all the other students? Well, it got some good discussions. So, a lot of our early talks were about race. And we got into other things. We got into how much writing should you give; what should you really look for in writing in a paper. And we got some examples of papers and looked at them and different people found different things wrong with it. “Why do you find that wrong? You’re breaking the person’s confidence to say that.” So, I remember those as two particular workshops we had.
SP:
What were race relations like on the campus at the time?
JC:
Well, we were pretty good at Old Westbury. We, first of all, had a large enough proportion of black students on the campus that it was easy enough to do. It was not true if you went to other campuses, such as Wesleyan, which tried that years before, to bring black students to the campus, and then realize they needed a lot of help. They really needed to learn how things work, learn what dormitory life was all about, living with white guys – what that was like – and so on. It wasn’t so difficult at Old Westbury. But, I was working more with faculty, and white faculty for the large part.
SP:
What did you see as the impacts of the Teaching for Learning Center?
JC:
Ideally, and for those who came, or constant attenders of the programs we had, it was good. I think it improved. We were very interested in taking our classrooms, especially in the middle of the year, and looking at the teacher evaluations and talking to them about, “Why do you think you tend to fall down on this point? Why do you do that?” I think, ideally, and the president pushed it. By this time, it was a different president, a woman. I was on the committee to hire her. She was from Delaware, University of Delaware. But anyway, she was very good about teaching, and she said, “I’ll give you all you need,” and I went around the state and talked to various campuses about white teachers and black students, and I got people in tears – they were really upset – and others were looking at them like so surprised that all this was going on. So, I felt it was worth going to the campuses and doing that. I came to this campus, for example, my first time at Old Westbury. No, at…what’s this? After my stroke…
SP:
Oneonta.
JC:
Oneonta. My memory is not so good for short-term things. But, anyway, I was good because I could meet people there who were interested in the general upgrading of teaching on the campus, and making sure everyone had teacher evaluations and so on.
SP:
Why did you feel it was so important to develop these better methods for teaching and educating diverse students?
JC:
Well, it was clearly the time to do it in the society as a whole. At Old Westbury, it was required. There was no question about it. So, as to why I did it, I’m not sure. I’ve asked the question myself. Nothing in my background. The Underground Railroad was a long ways back. My grandfather remembers as a boy. But, anyway, it was the time to do that, and I was very interested in reading about and teaching about black literature. The people going to Europe and coming back and James Baldwin and others. So, I guess that’s it. I don’t really know why. Or, if I’d stayed at Wesleyan, what would I have done.
[TRACK 1, 21:18]
SP:
Were there other things during your teaching career that you were really passionate about?
JC:
Yes, I became very involved in environmental work. So, I wrote a book with another guy – he and I wrote a book together – called Greening the College Curriculum. It was every subject, like humanities, no, not humanities, that’s too big. Literature. Chemistry. What you could do, what you could introduce into your syllabus that would get students thinking about, “Aha, this is related to the environment. What can I do? What can we do? What can we learn in this?” So, it was very good. And, again, I did the circle and conferences and so on. But, I didn’t have much of a background to prepare me for that, but that was okay for a literature person, particularly Milton. But, Milton did a lot of stuff on the environment. Like I’d get nature and so on. We lived on the Ambrose Clark estate. Clark follows me everywhere I go. [laughter] He was there. Old Westbury is built on his estate, and then he’s here, of course, in Cooperstown, or was here. There was nature on the campus. I used to take students on walks around the campus, looking at things, looking at nature and how it goes, trees dying and so on. Most of them, living in the larger New York area and just out on Long Island, had no idea of this at all. So, it was good.
SP:
So, what prompted you to go into that kind of work and to incorporate that into your curriculum with your students?
JC:
Well, I must say it was a good friend of mine, who was in chemistry, got involved in teaching nature and chemistry and he said to me, “I know nothing about the humanities. Would you help me do that?” And so, then I got into it completely. So, there was nothing in my background that suggested that’s where I would go.
SP:
The book you mentioned, Greening the College Curriculum, that was with the Rainforest Alliance, is that correct?
JC:
You know your stuff.
SP:
Can you talk about that organization a little bit and your involvement with them?
JC:
I got involved with the Rainforest Alliance before they sponsored the book. The book got published by Island Press, which is first-rate in nature curriculum across the world, and still going by the way. I get mail from them all the time, they ask for dollars. The Rainforest Alliance was very active in New York for a while, had monthly workshops, and so speakers would come and so on. I have no idea whether it’s going now or not, but I would think so. But it had staff. I got to know them pretty well. Some of them had been in Africa and really, really knew what nature was all about, and the environment and so on.
SP:
Similarly, why did you feel like environmentalism was an important thing? Why was it passionate for you?
JC:
Well, like racism, it was beginning to be something people talked about, and I wondered what the relationship was to teaching. Most people didn’t think at all when they set up a curriculum, or set up a day. I’m teaching a unit now on the Cooperstown area and I’m doing Cooper himself and others, and what can I teach? It’s right in the middle of nature. What is there in the book? Or in any of his books? That he knew about that. So, I began to realize that, just like with racism, there was so much to talk about, and you could develop a whole course. Some people did. A whole course on humanities and the environment. I never got that deep into it. [laughter] I spent about five years. Five years on Milton, five years on race, five years on nature.
SP:
For, again, your environmental work, did you see any impacts of that on the campus or in the network of campuses?
JC:
Oh, I think so. I began to go to conferences nationwide where they were developing programs across campus for doing that. I realized we were a small campus, we hadn’t gotten very far into it yet. But, I carried that on after I retired from Old Westbury, a couple years. It was beginning to be – I have no idea now how important it is across the country – but Island Press, Rainforest Alliance were doing amazing work. That I could know some [of the] people, I forget their names now, but I was so admiring of them. Written books on that and so on.
SP:
Shifting a little bit, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this historic home that is your house?
JC:
I came up here to start the railroad depot. I came up here to visit a colleague of mine at Old Westbury. He was a crazy, amazing guy. He had been in the Army. He had a place up on the mountain near here and he said, “You’ve got to come. I know you’ll love the place.” So, I got my wife or Charlotte? I guess Charlotte by that time. I was separated from her, from my [first] wife, and was going on with my life. So, we came up. We spent the weekend at his place. He said, “Let me show you right where I’m going to open a restaurant. He took me down to the railroad depot. I said, “You’re nuts. How are you going to get people to know there’s a restaurant here.” But, within two weeks, I bought it. So, from there, we stayed there from ’78, and I still own it. ’78 to whatever now is. In 2006, we sold our house in Brooklyn and bought this house. It was a wreck. It was the president’s house, the president of SUNY Oneonta. But before it became a SUNY college it was a teaching college, like so many of the SUNY campuses. And so, when he died, his wife got worried about money and made it into three apartments.
[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]
They did a terrible job. She lived in this side here and the apartments were spread around the house. I didn’t know much. We bought it anyway. We decided we’d buy it. I had all kinds of energy, and I retired from teaching. I spent one year with a group of workers here constructing this house into rooms, but I found that it still had a lot of the old stuff, like the sliding doors and the copper doors, copper things on the windowsills, as well. So, after one year, I moved in here with my…let’s see, by this time, it was my daughter, who’s twenty-six now, and I have a son [who’s] fifty-two, and a daughter [who’s] fifty. So, it was that twenty-six-year-old who was with Charlotte and me together. Charlotte was teaching in New York City, coming up only on weekends. So, the girl and I moved in here, pretty near the end. We had to remove five hundred feet of asbestos [and put] radiant heat in these two floors. There’s no radiators, you see. Except I’ve kept some historic radiators.
[TRACK 2, 1:54]
SP:
So, you’ve described some of the challenges in living in a historic building.
JC:
Yeah.
SP:
Was this something you were always passionate about – historic preservation?
JC:
Well, I guess so. I guess I wanted to see houses around Oneonta. Fantastic group of houses. Brick houses like this one. Some have been redone, others have been made into dormitories and they’re in horrible shape. And that is generally supported by the town fathers. Let’s rip out the buildings behind the carriage houses and make a driveway and a parking lot and so on. So, I wanted to do something different. But, Oneonta is in trouble. It’s a lot of drugs here now. I like the current president of Oneonta [Dr. Nancy Kleniewski]. She’s very good. She comes to meetings and works with the police. But, I had a stroke, and I was here by myself. And so, this hospital here, the local hospital, which I got good treatment at for other things, took twelve hours to decide what to do with me. For a stroke, I understand two hours is critical. It’s in TIME Magazine. I sent the president of the hospital the article in TIME Magazine saying you have two hours with which to act. And then, they sent me to Bassett. Bassett could do nothing. Bassett has gotten bad, I think. They’re like Fox [A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital]. They used to be good. I hope they turn around, I really do. We want to move to Albany because I got such good care at Albany Medical Center. Albany is full downtown of estates, of mansions, as good as this one or better. And so, Charlotte wants to move into a big one. I do not want to redo another one. I’m way past that. [laughter] In fact, we’ve lowered the price here, saying we hope it sells. We want to get on with life.
SP:
And regarding your home and the neighborhood, I understand you won a Properties of Merit Award for your home in 2008.
JC:
Yeah, it’s outside. It’s on the way out.
SP:
Yeah, can you tell me about that a little bit?
JC:
They give one every year to a home that has been fixed up or whatever and has been built. So, that was that year. They have a lunch at FOF. Is it Future of Oneonta? FOF. [laughter] Oneonta’s Future. [Future for Oneonta Foundation (FOF)] I don’t know. Anyway, they give a lunch and hand out the prizes. But, that was it.
SP:
How did you feel to earn that award?
JC:
Not too surprised, but happy we got it.
SP:
Do you feel like historic preservation is important?
JC:
Yes, I think it is important, and I got to know some very good workers. I feel very comfortable around working people who know things. So, electricians, plumbers, radiant heat, how that was all done. I was fascinated with that stuff, and I followed him around all the time he was here. The same with the electrician. I’d say, “Wait. I’ll be right back.” [laughter] I would go. So, I really did both what it takes to make a house work and how things have improved from the old days, but some things have not improved. And so, these houses will last forever. Brick is very important.
SP:
I know you talked about the state of Oneonta. Do you feel like historic preservation plays any kind of role in that?
JC:
Yes, I think Oneonta has at one time had good jobs and lots of money and people like the Wilbers and the bank and the college and so on. I think there’s hope for – this is not just Oneonta, it’s true of small towns all over New England and the country, I must say. So, they’re having a hard time now, but I hope something happens. And, I must say, current government in Albany is good. [Governor Andrew] Cuomo has given ten million dollars to Oneonta. Well, Oneonta won that prize for agreeing to set up a market, which will be downtown on…what’s the street? River Street? I think, runs right by the train station there, which is now Stella Luna Restaurant, and the bus station, but otherwise not used. And Foothills Performing Arts Center is right there. But, to have on the corner a real hops, for example, Cooperstown is involved in, the Ommegang Brewery is involved. It makes good sense that’s the next phase.
SP:
So, on the whole, since you’ve been living in Oneonta, what have you seen as how it’s changed or a trend?
JC:
I wonder about this becoming very public. But, we have tried to support Oneonta and have gone to town council meetings, which are held not far – we can walk down to it. But, they are so involved with issues that, to us, are not as important. For example, all last year was involved trying to decide whether to allow chickens in Oneonta or not. If so, they got to cage [them]. And, if so, what do you do with the cage in winter? We got chickens now. They voted. By the way, they stopped meeting, had a vote, and approved it. And so, we have nothing but skunks now. Skunks and raccoons, and we’ve had deer all along. But, now, I don’t know, it won’t be long until coyotes are coming and others. So, I don’t know. We’re mixed. We don’t go to town meetings anymore.
[TRACK 2, 9:03]
SP:
So, similar on the historic preservation note, I understand you were a trustee for the Hanford Mills Museum.
JC:
Whew. Boy, that’s…yes.
SP:
Can you talk about that experience?
JC:
It was very good, except for the hiring of executive directors. I served for two people. I was president for one year. Then, I said, “No, no, I’m not going to do that.” I was living in downstate, in Brooklyn. This was in the ’80s and early ’90s. I was on the board. I thought it was doing good things for the community, and it was the answer for East Meredith to have a mill there and bring people like Gretchen [Sorin] in. I met her on the board there. We were together on the board. So, it was good, a good experience for me. I liked administering that, for example.
SP:
Why did you get involved?
JC:
Well, I lived many times on sabbaticals I spent at the railroad depot. I built buildings there. We had three buildings, now. The depot building, the annex, which became a second place where we stayed, and the barn over the garage. So, I was there anyway. So, it was natural that I would be drawn into that.
SP:
What was the museum like at the time?
JC:
I think it had not reached out as much as it’s doing now. But, that’s good – to find other museums in the area that they can learn from, the staff can come back and visit, as is happening now. And my railroad depot, by the way, became a central point. I had two directors live there [unintelligible] and several staff people. They rented and lived there and walked to work. It was so good for me because, not only could I have somebody look after the place while I was gone, but I could be drawn into what was happening at the mill.
SP:
What were some of the challenges you encountered at that time?
JC:
Well, I think we always knew we could not exist without the big money in town, the O’Connor Foundation. We could not exist without that. So, that family – he was on the board. I forget the names, I’m sorry. And I would go down. I became a good friend of his. That was one thing: What would our financing base be if they decided they didn’t like what we were doing, or they pulled away. I was trying to stay close to them. They were very good about letting us be local and do things in a way that would be good for the community. So, I think fundraising was the biggest problem.
SP:
What were some of the achievements that you were proud of that you did during that tenure?
JC:
Well, we got some events, like the small engine show. It was a weekend. We got people from all over the state – several states – came here because they could bring the small engine that they had in the basement all year long and run it and look at someone else’s small engine. I kind of laughed at this, but that was one example. That was in the fall. It still goes, I think. And then, now, they have the ice harvest off the mill pond, which is they go out with a saw and cut chunks of ice, and a horse drawn carriage takes it and stores it in an icehouse we had built there on this end, and that becomes the coolant for the ice cream that’s homemade for the Fourth of July weekend. So, it was a connection year-round. We tried to plan those things that would attract the neighborhood, attract beyond.
SP:
Can you talk about how did the museum change over the course that you were involved with it?
JC:
I think it became more professional was the main thing. We tried to hire staff that had worked in a museum someplace else. But, it was hard to do, hard to find people. But nevertheless, that was an important thing to do. So, once we became convinced that O’Connor was going to back what we were going to do, we were freer to go ahead. [Dawn, the Operations Manager] started a monthly newspaper. Once we got that going and other things, I [realized that] it was happening. But, again, I didn’t really like running a place. And I was doing it for a cut. I would have to come up here during the week, and I was trying to retire from the college.
SP:
That’s a good point. So, why did you feel like the site of Hanford Mills was important and worth supporting?
JC:
I could see locally what it meant. Locally, Hanford Mills, West Kortright Center…these were nothing. It [West Kortright Center] was a church way down in the middle of the woods. And the same if Hanford Mills had been allowed to go…it would have been nothing. But, they were made into major attractions for the whole community, and for beyond, for Oneonta [and all of New York]. So, that was important.
SP:
Can you talk more about what kind of effect you saw Hanford Mills have on the community?
JC:
I’m amazed that people know Hanford Mills and are able to come down to particular [events], like the ice cream festival in the midsummer. I guess the largest crowd comes in to watch the ice being harvested in February. [laughter] So, that’s been very important, I think. I think I was aware of that. Also, we began to reach out to find out what farm life was like, beyond mills, specifically. What’s happening in the area around here that meant that people came and brought their lumber here. And the road cars were starting; they came down past my depot, and people got on board [the train] there and rode the train car into Oneonta, or the other way down to – you could go all the way to New York, if you wanted to.
SP:
Did you employ anything from your professional career as a professor – your work on race or environment – into what you were doing with Hanford Mills?
JC:
No. [laughter] I think probably I’d say no. I’d moved on to other careers, like I opened a store in the East Village. I did other things beside that. So, there was very little work between them, very little connection between them.
SP:
You mentioned a store. You opened a store?
JC:
Opened the store Upland Trading Company. Another guy and I. Got him to work there everyday. I retired from teaching and I would take care of the kids and I’d come in pretty much when I could. But anyway, we didn’t sell [any Goretex or Nylon]. It was all original stuff. It was all waxed cotton and wool and so on. So, old stuff. And English stuff, too. In a lot of English stores. When I was in England, I went to a several stores there. And west coast Filson company. Have you ever heard of them? It got very big now. We were there sort of toward the beginning. We were in the East Village. I got to know the Baldwin brothers, for example. Alec Baldwin from the Saturday Night [Live]. He had three brothers. Also, Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground. He has the reputation of being a wild man. We got to know a totally different guy. He would come in, and he loved our luggage. We had Filson luggage. It was canvas wrap, made of waxed canvas. So, it was light and would keep the rain and snow off. And they made coats, too. And he tried those and said, “I don’t know. I think it’s too small. I think it’s too big. I’m not sure.” “Ok, Lou. Take it home. Try it on your mother. See if she likes it. And bring it back if the answer is no.” He was a very quiet guy. It was an important time in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Strange for a farm boy. To get to know the area was good.
[TRACK 2, 20:28]
SP:
If I can shift one more time here, can you talk about how you met your wife?
JC:
Now, let’s see. Charlotte and I have been married for forty-four years. Forty-three years? I can’t remember. Forty-three, I think, it is. Because we were together some years before we got married. That’s important to her – the marriage. To me, it’s important when we got together. I had two children – I have two with my first wife, who I was married to for twelve years. She was at Bryn Mawr, near me at Haverford – they were right together. So, I was very happy with her. But, she didn’t like leaving Wesleyan. We came to Old Westbury. Anyway, we decided we would – she decided – we’d split up, and I was very, very upset about it because I wasn’t ready; I would have stayed right through. So, she finally said no. So, I had three or four years of running, [laughter] not knowing what I was doing. But there were teachers and students. We had a lot of older students at Old Westbury because it’s that kind of place, a very unusual place. So, I dated around. I’d not dated. She and I were first together [and] I married her. So, I was in my mid-30s after we got divorced. [When] I met Charlotte, that was that. I realized that she was somebody special. At the time I first met her, she did modeling and dancing. I knew she sang, but I didn’t know how much she sang. She sang in church mostly. But, around the corner are her albums she’s gotten and she’s sold. She gave a concert in Marseilles, over there. So, anyway, we’ve been married for forty years and have adopted Hazel.
SP:
So, you met on campus, you and Charlotte?
JC:
Yeah. No. Well, we did. We met on the Long Island railroad.
SP:
Ok.
JC:
We purposely didn’t go [together] on campus. She was for the most part finished. She came when Old Westbury was just a start-up college, and they brought us in as a team to develop it. So, she was a part of that start-up team. But, totally different from me. Not only is she black and I’m white, but she’s from Harlem and I’m from Wilmington, Ohio. Turns out, not as big a difference as you might think. So, anyway, it’s worked well.
SP:
Yes. And, obviously, you mentioned race. Can you talk about what was the climate like, or attitudes, regarding interracial marriage at the time of the ‘70s?
JC:
It wasn’t bad. It was mid-‘70s. It should have been. My parents were awfully good about it. I knew they didn’t want it. They did not expect their oldest son to marry a black girl. But, I did. My mother, especially, took it very hard. She had cancer and died, but Charlotte was awfully nice, and they developed to love each other. It was amazing. So, they took us out to some of the finest clubs in the state of Ohio [Cincinnati]. By this time, he was a big shot. His company [was] feeding companies around through vending machines. So, they accepted our marriage and came to Brooklyn and were there for it. Mother knew I liked homemade pork [laughter], and so she brought one cooked, and spent the wedding night. We stayed in our room and they stayed in the guest room [laughter]. And then the next day, [they] took the plane back. So, I realize now what that was to them, what that meant. Really important.
SP:
How did it make you feel that they overcame any kind of pause they had?
JC:
It makes me even now more appreciative. At the time, I was sort of “I see it. Don’t you see it.” The racial problems were not a big deal for us. I mean, we lived [in] Brooklyn. Up here at the Mill [Hanford Mills] – Charlotte wasn’t around. She was only here on weekends, and she didn’t want to be involved too much in the Mill because she was tired. Teaching is rough. She did everything from grade school to high school. I married a teacher, and I realize that’s a lot harder than college teaching.
SP:
Can you tell me about any possible prejudice or discrimination you and Charlotte have encountered?
JC:
Well, I must say, she is first to realize it and tells me about it. But, she has not felt too comfortable in Oneonta. And as lots more black people come into town – and we have friends there now – but, that’s only fairly recent. And so, I think people stay away from us because we are interracial. That’s one reason [laughter]. Maybe politics is another. And I’m a Quaker and a pacifist and I march downtown and carried signs saying, “We’re against the war” and so on. We get outside New York, outside the large cities in the United States, it’s difficult. I think that’s partly why [Donald J.] Trump was elected. There’s a big gap between what happens in the cities and what happens outside. The racial gap and other things. A big part of friends of mine who would not support Trump’s policies – I’m not sure you even know what his policies are yet – the fact that they had had a black president, they want a white and they wanted a male now.
SP:
When you have encountered these instances with Charlotte of attitudes or prejudice, how have you dealt with those?
JC:
Well, we talk between ourselves a lot. I make it clear to people, and I think she does, too, but it’s my job up here in Oneonta to make clear to friends of ours – white friends – that if you’re going to be with me, especially after my stroke three years ago. She brought me to life. She was the reason I’m here now. [She] and Albany Medical [Center]. So, we do that. We don’t see some people as much as we might otherwise see them. But, that seems typical. Both sides of us – the house there [indicates neighbor on one side], he’s head of the waterworks in town, and the house here [indicates neighbor to the other side], he’s an accountant. And we talk to them friendly, but have never been to their house for supper, for example. We’re never over for dinner. And I don’t think they talk to each other. They seem friendlier with us than they are with each other. So, I don’t know. It’s very confusing to me. And the people across the street are nice, but I think our being of two races is a problem for them.
SP:
How do those types of attitudes make you feel?
JC:
I know about that.
[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00]
I went to high school starting with, or grade school, I don’t even remember. But soon I got to high school, the black students there – I learned after I was about to graduate – had their swimming class after the white students were finished for the week. Friday afternoon the black students would go and swim all together. And I told the principal that, who was Harold Howe, who went to Harvard. He was quite a guy.
SP:
Do you feel you’ve always been open-minded, or maybe did your work with race as a professor, do you feel like that contributed to you being so accepting, and so open-minded, and anti-discriminatory?
JC:
I think my parents were very important, my father especially. He was raised a Baptist in a small town and broke out of that and became a Quaker when he married my mother, but took her to a side of Quakerdom she didn’t know. It was very political. He became head of the American Friends Service Committee, the largest Quaker organization, and traveled all over the world. He didn’t pay his taxes. He went ahead of me. He was more political than I am. But, I think that was the main thing. More so than Charlotte. She’s a Catholic, Episcopalian Catholic.
SP:
I know you mentioned your anti-war protesting. Have you ever engaged in any activism for equal rights and for better race relations?
JC:
I guess not. I guess it’s all been more recent these things where that has been. I didn’t have to, luckily. I didn’t have to. I certainly was aware of what was happening in Washington, happening down south, and the bus rides and all that. If I hadn’t had young children and so on, I might have gone to some of those. I don’t know.
SP:
Have you noticed a change or shift in attitudes towards race or interracial couples from [the] 1970s to now?
JC:
Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. It’s common to see interracial couples now, even in Oneonta. Another thing to say about both sides of us and the town is people know we did this house, and they know the money that was involved here. So, I’m not sure whether it’s our race or whether it’s our class. That’s important to say. I think it’s as much they are jealous of what we tend to do. We go off for France. “Oh, France?” [laughter] If we go to Florida, it would be okay. But, to go to there [France], they don’t understand. So, I think, add to that the interracial. I don’t know.
SP:
So, can you talk a little bit more about – I know you said interracial couples have become more common – any other trends you’ve noticed throughout your life towards racial attitudes?
JC:
A lot of them, of course. We’re constantly talking about this and aware of it and so on. Anger with black people as well as white people. Black people not voting, for example. I’m aware that more black people are now political, even older people, and so it’s not just falling on the young males. But, it’s still black people don’t realize – and Charlotte will say this quickly – what’s at stake for the race in this country. What could be if you got together and did things and demanded things. What could be big progress. Because if you just go across the country, go across the water to another country, you quickly learn. To France, the blacks are awful. It’s big discrimination. Maybe not so much in England, but I don’t know, could be. But, I think it’s troubling.
SP:
So, France, are you saying situations are worse in France? Can you talk about that a little bit?
JC:
In Paris, we were in an apartment complex, where I think our being interracial and being American – I don’t know which is more important – and this apartment that we had there and so on. And we didn’t rent. But, I think being multiracial didn’t help. You get outside Paris, and you go down to towns outside Marseilles. In Paris, blacks are in neighborhoods just outside Paris, the walls. There have been some movies about that, good movies. Charlotte’s shown them in her class. I think it’s hard when you get outside. It’ll take time. It’s going to take time.
SP:
Well, you’ve pretty much addressed all of my questions. Was there anything else you would like to say?
JC:
You pulled a lot out of me I haven’t thought about before.
SP:
Well then, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this project and to share your story.
JC:
Well, I’m glad you came.

Duration

29:59 – Track 1
29:29 – Track 2
07:06 – Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

Career trajectory, Founding SUNY Old Westbury - Track 1, 08:19
Teaching for Learning Center - Track 1, 15:27
Environmentalism - Track 1, 21:18
Historic preservation, state of Oneonta, NY - Track 2, 1:54
Hanford Mills Museum - Track 2, 9:03
Interracial marriage, race relations - Track 2, 20:28

Files

Citation

Sarah Phillips, “Jonathan Collett, November 21, 2016,” CGP Community Stories, accessed August 21, 2017, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/277.