CGP Community Stories

John Webb, November 12, 2018

Title

John Webb, November 12, 2018

Subject

Cooperstown, NY
Roseboom, NY
Slovenia
Farming
LGBTQ
Bullying
Community
Justice
Teacher
New York City, NY
Princeton, NJ
Miami Beach, FL
Nelson Mondaca
Roseboom Historical Association
Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP)

Description

John Webb is a current resident of Cooperstown, NY. Born in the neighboring town of Roseboom, NY, Webb spent his youth working on the family farm with his father and mother. When he wasn’t tending to the cows or at school, Webb would explore the surrounding woods with his dog, “Yeller,” read, listen to music or practice playing the piano at the local church. Upon high school graduation, Webb pursued higher education, eventually earning his Ed.D in bilingual education with a concentration in Haitian Literature and Culture.

After leaving Roseboom and earning his doctorate, Webb spent his career as the chair of the foreign language department at Pomona Junior High School in Spring Valley, NY, at Hunter College High School in New York City, and finally as director of the Program in Teacher Preparation at Princeton University. Much of his work was focused on social justice and diversity, teaching English to immigrant students and developing programs to enable children from marginalized communities prepare for college. Though Webb occasionally returned to Roseboom to visit family, Webb spent the majority of his time moving between Rockland County, NY, Manhattan, NY Princeton, NJ, and Miami Beach, FL, before finally settling in Cooperstown.

Miami, FL became Webb’s primary home after his retirement from teaching. It’s there that he met his husband, Nelson Mondaca—a military veteran. Webb and Mondaca spent several years together before visiting Cooperstown and Roseboom for the first time in their relationship. After their visit, the two decided Miami was no longer for them and decided to move permanently to Cooperstown. Webb and Mondaca are now married and live in a quiet but friendly neighborhood between Main Street and Bassett Hospital.

This interview was conducted in Webb’s home in Cooperstown, NY. His and his husband’s three dogs; Jersey, Dakota, and Savannah, were present and spent the majority of the interview mildly frustrated because Webb and I were paying attention to each other and not them. Jersey makes a brief appearance.

The primary focus of this interview is community and what various communities have meant to Webb throughout his life. A large portion of the interview revolves around Webb’s life in Roseboom. This is because Webb is on the board of the Roseboom Historical Association and arranged interviews through CGP Community Stories for himself and his fellow Roseboomians specifically to document stories of the rural town.

Webb is a very deliberate speaker. Some edits have been made to the transcript for clarity, but in order to fully grasp the meaning of Webb’s words it is encouraged researchers consult the full audio.

Creator

MK B. Lang

Publisher

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

Date

2018-11-12

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Language

en-US

Type

audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
13.7mB
image/jpeg
72 inches

Coverage

Upstate New York
Cooperstown, NY
1946-2018

Interviewer

MK B. Lang

Interviewee

John Webb

Location

97 Pioneer St
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

JW = John Webb
ML = MK B. Lang

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

ML:
This is the November 12th, 2018 interview of John Webb by MK Lang for the CGP Community Stories Program recorded at 97 Pioneer Street ,Cooperstown, New York. Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me, John. I really appreciate it. So just to start, could you tell me your full name and where were you born?

JW:
John Badgley Webb. I was born at Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown.

ML:
Please describe your parents.

[TRACK 1, 00:35]
JW:
My father was born in Roseboom. His family came here from England in 1823 and had always lived in the Roseboom area. My mother and her family moved to Roseboom from Claridge, Pennsylvania. They were Slovenian, both of them Slovenian immigrants. My grandfather, having been a shepherd in the Alps in Slovenia came when the herd that he was shepherding was bought by a sheep farmer in Newfoundland and he came on the boat. Then he walked to the United States and ended up in Claridge. My grandmother came directly to Claridge from a small town outside of Ljubljana, Slovenia and so my mother was, as I think about it, very Slovenian. English was not her native language although she ended up speaking English completely fluently, no accent or anything like that. But she did always speak Slovenian. They were farmers. Her parents were farmers. My father had a farm also. I don't know that he really wanted to be a farmer, but it was World War II and when he registered for the Armed Services at that time farmers were exempt from the draft. Plus his father had recently died and he was the only male in the family and I believe that also exempted him from the Armed Services, so he ended up staying home on the family farm. I'll be right back [John leaves briefly to tend to something in the kitchen].

My mother was an excellent student in school, in Cherry Valley, and she liked school. She ended up being the valedictorian of her high school class which, interestingly enough, generated a certain amount of tension in Cherry Valley because someone whose native language was not English, a foreigner as they say, had never been valedictorian. My father was bright but didn't like school particularly, so he didn't do that well. My mother had wanted to be a doctor and she was actually accepted to Cornell but her father wouldn't let her go because he was afraid for two reasons. One that being a woman in what was a man's school and a man's profession and a foreigner that she would be discriminated against and he didn't want her to experience that. So he wouldn't let her go and instead she went to Albany Business College to become a secretary. My father, of course, became a farmer. When he married my mother, she didn't pursue her career and just stayed on the family farm because it took everybody to do what had to be done. She was a wonderful cook and a very gentle woman. She was active in the church. And they were both active in the Grange because of course the Grange at that time was a powerful lobbying organization for farmers.

[TRACK 1, 5:22]
My father was very community minded. He was active in farm organizations, like the Grange, but he also started artificial breeding in our area because so many farmers were being killed by their bulls. It wasn't safe to have a bull on the farm and they weren't necessarily improving their milk production because they didn't have a good bull. So, he set up the first branch of the New York State Artificial Breeders Association in the Cherry Valley/Roseboom area. He was active in the Farm Bureau, having held a number of offices in that. Then he ran for town government and subsequently county government. He was the supervisor for the Town of Roseboom. Then he became the chairman of the Otsego County Board of Supervisors. While he was supervisor in the Town of Roseboom, he lobbied and was responsible for the building of New York State [Route] 165 from Roseboom down to Route 10 leading to Cobleskill because before that it was a dirt road from just beyond Pleasant Brook all the way to Route 10. He also brought in what was called "The Irwin Plan" which gave state funding to the town if they built the roads a particular way. “Irwin Roads,” as they were called was a particular way of constructing dirt country roads so they would stand up to adverse weather conditions. Many of those roads are still used today without having to be rebuilt after these many years. He also persuaded the county to build several roads in the town, So, he was really active and he was Master of the Grange and president of this, president of that and when they built The Meadows, which was the first assisted living facility in Otsego County, he was the one who went to New York to sign the bonds so Otsego County would have the money available to build The Meadows, which is right now additional county offices down here by the [Cooperstown Holstein Corporation] which is located on what was once the Otsego County Farm where poor people who had no home were housed. They were very, very active and they were deeply Roseboomian and this was their home. Even after they retired they chose to stay there because that's where they felt most at home.

They were very interested in my going to school. My father offered the farm to me when I was a junior in high school and said if I wanted to stay on the farm that we would buy additional land and we would do it as a partnership. I told him that I didn't want to but there was no pressure for me to stay.

They were lovely people. Very much loved by everyone, I think. A lot of people were afraid of my father. He was very smart. He was very outspoken, very strong when he spoke. He thought he knew what was right for municipalities. Even, Bob Schlather, a lawyer here in town, said to me one time when I was doing some business with him, "You know, your father knew how to run this county and run it right. People had a lot of confidence in what was happening when your father was in charge." It was cute. I thought it was very nice, my father would've been very pleased. He ended up dying at The Manor. It was always a joke when they dedicated The Meadows down there, he always said, "I wonder if I’ll end up dying here." Well, he didn't; he died in the new facility. Is that good?

ML:
Yeah, of course, that's amazing. That's wonderful. You mentioned your grandparents briefly, could you speak a little bit more about them?

JW:
My grandmother and grandfather, the Slovenian ones, she went to Claridge because it was a destination for Slovenians. It was the heart of the Pittsburgh region coal mining area and when my mother took us all down there to see Claridge many years ago she pointed out that in that town there were the English who owned the mines and the Italians and the Slovenians who worked there. My grandmother went there because her sister had already left Slovenia and was running a boarding house in Claridge. Then of course my grandfather walked to Claridge from Canada and ended up living in the rooming house that was run by my grandmother's sister. That's how they met. He developed black lung and decided to leave the mines and get a farm. There were Slovenians up in the Roseboom area so that's where they headed and they bought a farm outside of Roseboom where there were already three other Slovenian families. The blacksmith in Roseboom was also Slovenian. There was this little enclave and then of course in not so nearby, but relatively nearby, Little Falls there was a Slovenian community and there was also a very significant Slovenian community around Fly Creek and south of Cooperstown. The land that [Brewery] Ommegang is on and the big fields south of Ommegang was a Slovenian farm.

[TRACK 1, 12:35]
Like many immigrant groups they gravitated toward where there were other people. My grandfather and grandmother were active at the local lodge and held lodge meetings in their home. I remember after they sold the farm and moved to the village of Roseboom, they would host lodge meetings on Sundays. Of course, my grandfather made hard cider and everyone said it tasted like champagne. They got drinking hard cider and there'd be a lot of dancing and singing and the women would bring all this fabulous Slovenian food. As a kid I really liked it. They spoke broken English. My grandmother always said that if she had been able to live longer she would have taught me Slovenian because at the age of four my mother said I spoke with my grandmother but I don't remember it. She died when I was five, I believe. By then my grandfather worked for a sawmill up in Cherry Valley until he finally retired and then he died in 1954. They always carried on their family traditions.

My father's father was born up on the hill above Roseboom where the Webb family had settled. Then he married my grandmother. How they got together, I'm not really sure, because her family was from Schoharie. Her name was Badgley and Badgley used to be a very prominent name down in Schoharie. She moved up here after she married my grandfather. He was quite a bit older than she, she was 16 when they married. She was the one who insisted that my grandfather sell the farm when their first born daughter was seven and she wanted her to go to school. If they'd stayed up at the farm she would have had to walk across quite a distance to get to the local public school which was up in the middle of a field somewhere because they tried to put the school equidistant from all possible families with children. So, they left the farm and moved to the village where there was a one-room school just up the street from where they lived. Interestingly enough, they came down off the farm in 1907 and bought this house in Roseboom which they ended up selling to my mother's parents.

My grandfather died when my father was 17. They moved from the house in the village over to the farm where I ended up growing up. It was at the time of the Depression. They had lost a lot of resources in the Depression and were forced to live on a farm where the house was in bad condition. Over the years they've worked to fix it up and that's where my grandmother lived with us, my father's mother, until she died when I was 18. She, too, was active in the church.

My grandfather, my father's father, was the driver, he did many things actually, and he was the driver for one of the doctors in town, Dr. Gillette. And when Dr. Gillette would go out to make house calls, my grandfather was his driver. He would keep his horse and carriage for him and then pick him up and take him on his rounds. He also raised strawberries and other fruits on the property in Roseboom and he sold them to the hotels in Sharon Springs, which in those days was a large resort. Talk about farm-to-table, everything that they served in their dining rooms came from local farms and the strawberries in many hotels came from my grandfather's farm. He ended up dying of dementia I believe but I don't know the whole story about that.

My grandmother had a brother who became a prominent dentist in Amsterdam and three sisters. One sister lived here in Cooperstown and the other two sisters lived further away. The one sister, Clara, her husband owned a clothing store which is located now where the gift shop [Riverwood] that's right next to the park [Pioneer Park] is. They owned the building and when my uncle put in the clothing store he had all of the shelves and drawers made of chestnut. He had them built and they're still there. Our roots are all over the place in this area.

ML:
That's really incredible, especially all the community involvement going so far back.

JW:
That was important. That was what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to get involved. To help the community along, to make things better for yourself and others. My father had a small farm, small for a family enterprise, and small for income. It was only 90 acres, 12 acres of which were forest land, but my father had every soil conservation practice that was available at the time. Strip cropping, diversion ditching, pipelines drainage, pipelines under fields, farm pond, trying all the new grasses. The soil conservation people, who are located in the building just this side of The Farmers’ Museum on the Lake Road and also down below town near Ommegang, they were at our place all the time because we had this stuff going on. It was promoted from the Cornell University School of Agriculture. When I was growing up there would be frequent visits to our farm by Cornell University professors and their classes so they could see what farmers were actually doing. All they had to do was look around them and they were all there, my father was doing all of it. There was also government subsidy for these things and I think he liked that too but it made it possible for small farmers who wouldn't have been able to manage otherwise.

We got out of farming just in time. It was before the family farms in this area really went into decline. The young man who bought our farm and who still owns it had dairy cattle there for a while, he was a milk producer for a while and then he went out of milk production and raised beef cattle, sold hay, and then went to get other jobs so that he could keep the farm. It's not really a running farm at this point. In that area, everybody was a farmer. There were farms up and down the valley. That was the principal occupation but the family farm couldn't survive anymore. The lay of the land, in that part of Roseboom was a lot of hills and it didn't lend itself to consolidation with other farmers to make the mega agribusinesses that are needed to survive today. However, there are a few such farms around Roseboom.

[to dog] Jersey you certainly are pushy, aren't you, Miss Jersey?

ML:
They're very, very sweet.

JW:
Oh yes, they just love to be included.

ML:
[to dog] Don't worry, you're going to be on the tape too.

JW:
You need to say something, Jersey. She will eventually, probably.

ML:
Preserved in posterity.
What was it like growing up in a rural community in the [19]50s and 60s?

[TRACK 1, 23:26]
JW:
I'll approach it from two perspectives. In retrospect, I'm very grateful to have grown up in a rural community. At the time, I knew it was but I wasn't too enthusiastic about it for a bunch of reasons. I'll talk about it from my perspective now looking back and what I knew not subconsciously but below the surface at the time.

It was wonderful. It was wholesome. I woke up in the morning to the sound of the blacksmith's hammer on the anvil. It echoed through the community. We lived on the farm just outside of Roseboom, across the Cherry Valley creek, but the sound of that anvil echoed through the valley in the summertime. Jerry Per, the blacksmith, they were Slovenian and had a little farm of their own in the hillside behind the blacksmith shop. We got our eggs there and we also got our kielbasa from them. He had pigs and he butchered pigs and he had roosters and we could hear them crowing too and it was a wonderful sound. We had woods to roam in. My dog and I would go on long walks in the woods. Our friends and I built this cabin in the woods, cut down trees and built log cabins. We swam in the creek and there was a swimming hole further at a bend in the river where it was deep and we would all hang out there in the summer. In the wintertime we could skate. People built ponds and we had five ponds to skate on. We went skating, we went sledding on the hills, and we went tobogganing. We bicycled from one village to the next. We didn't have to be afraid of anything. We were free. Everybody knew us. We knew everybody. There was a sense of safety, well-being, and helpfulness really.

I loved the animals. I loved the cows and from when I was eight my father put me in charge of the calves. I had to get up in the morning, go down to the barn, clean out their stalls, and feed them. Take them into the big pen if it was wintertime where they could exercise. When a new calf was born and we were weaning it from the mother's milk I would teach it to drink from a pail. I took care of them. Lots of times on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon after everything was done and I didn't have anything to do, I would go down to the barn and play with the calves. I watched calves being born. I really did like that. I liked milking the cows too. Friends would come over and we would play there on the farm or we would go off to the woods together.

In school I liked the fact that it was small and that you knew everybody. You knew all of your teachers. I liked the stability of that because teachers lived here, they didn't change jobs often to go to other places so we had the sense that five years from now you were going to have that same teacher. Sometimes you dreaded it, but it didn't matter really because it was the stability of it. We thought that because he or she is there, they must like it and so they're going to stay and that made us feel good about it. The senior class went on a trip each year. We started in seventh grade raising money so nobody had to pay anything for the trip. We went to Washington D.C. and New York City. We had dances, bake sales, paper drives, we put on plays, and all of the proceeds from all of our activities went into our savings account so we would have money enough to pay for our senior trip. That really did bring us all together as a class and as a community. We all knew that everybody was doing this for their class. It was a nice feeling. School was sort of the center of the community. When the band had a concert everybody came. I played in the band and I sang with the choir.

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]
We didn't go to all the basketball games but we certainly went to all the concerts, plays, and dances.

I was active in 4-H too. I had cattle that I showed in The Farmers’ Museum show [Junior Livestock Show] when it was held on The Farmers’ Museum’s property. We slept in the carriage house, tents were set up for the show rings. We would live on The Farmers’ Museum grounds for three days. Back in the days when Ambrose Clark was alive. He was the one who owned the big farm on which the gym is located. He would come in his great big touring car to the grounds of The Farmers’ Museum or he would arrive in one of his grand carriages with his horses to see the show and then to present The Farmers’ Museum Cup. I showed in the school fair and in the artificial breeders fair because of my father. I liked training my cows to show and I won a lot of championships as a showman, which is for the best trained and best presented animals. I enjoyed that. I used to give demonstrations for 4H.

I was active in the church too. There was no organist for a period of time or pianist in the Roseboom churches and I wanted to play the piano in the worst way but my father wouldn't let me play because he said that pianos were for girls. When the pianist left, she said, "John, maybe you could take over. You can teach yourself the hymns each Sunday and play for services." So I did. I taught myself to play the piano for the Methodist church that didn't have an organ. And then the Baptist Church, which is where the Roseboom Historical Association is now and where we held services in the summer, they had one of those old pump organs with the two foot pedals and the swells on each side. I played the organ for church until my mother broke her hip and couldn't work on the farm anymore. Then I had to stay home to help my father with the milking, the chores, and the barn. I had to assume a larger role and some things I had to give up. It was a rich life. It was a good life. You worked hard and sometimes I didn't like that when my friends were off swimming in ponds and I was wrestling with bales. But I was strong and healthy and I liked being outdoors.
[TRACK 2, 3:15]
There was a negative side to my particular growing up experience, that I didn't talk about for a long time but people knew about it. I guess I knew I was gay, but I didn't know what that was and I didn't know that there were any other people like that while growing up. I knew that I was attracted to men and not to women and it troubled me greatly. I was scared to death of it because I knew somehow or other that it was not normal so there must be something the matter with me. I was somewhat effeminate, by comparison to other boys in my class and kids picked up on that. Starting around seventh or eighth grade, more in eighth grade than seventh, they started to pick on me, and they really did pick on me terribly. I talked about that in a testimony that I gave a few months ago at the [First] Presbyterian Church [of Cooperstown].

The thing was that as much as I liked school, all the nice things I said about the school, there was the dark side that kids were picking on me, pushing me around. Life in the school became really unbearable. I didn't want to go to school because for one I was going to have to face them and teachers knew it, I would see them standing there when I was being picked on and nobody said anything. There was this dissonance in my feelings about school—on one hand liking it and on the other hand hating it because I didn't feel safe there. No one protected me. No one. I had a couple of friends I was close with but I was always afraid that ultimately they would turn on me and do what all the other kids were doing. I was always deeply insecure about my friendship with any of them.

I had figured out how to handle it by the time I was in the second semester of my junior year. The teasing still went on but a lot of the people who had teased me had graduated by that time. I was an upperclassman, I had a sense of humor, and I knew how to use that sense of humor to deflect the taunting that I was getting. I think I was successful enough with that so a lot of people sort of forgot about the other part, at least my contemporaries. Although, I remember going to an alumni banquet once, this was quite a number of years ago some 20 years ago or more, 30 years ago, and there was this one guy who was terrible and he was there with a couple of the other people who were terrible and I heard him turn to the guy and say, "Oh my god that John Webb has always been a fag. He still is," and that kind of thing, but by that time I didn't give a shit. I was finished with all of that. I was secure, finally, in who I was. But that [the bullying] had a lasting impact on me, and it resulted in my being in therapy for some 30 years to try to overcome the impact of that experience.

My last therapist, that I had as recently as twelve years ago, said, "You know, John I'm treating you for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] because in fact that's what you have as a result of what occurred those many years ago." Yet, you take a look at it from the vantage point where I am now, having been through therapy, and I realize that I like who I am today and what I became, and I don't know whether I would have been who I am if it hadn't been for that. Experience is the great teacher and with the help of therapy I have been able to become a sensitive person who holds the whole notion of justice and kindness as among the most important attributes that need to be promoted in this world. My last therapist said to me, "John, when there is a question of injustice, you go apeshit." And he's right and I like it! I guess that's the way a person should be. I wouldn't be that way if it weren't for that. It taught me a lot and as hard as it was, I don't regret it. That's what it was like, it was a mixed bag, but overall I would have to say that I think it was wonderful. I never thought I would come back here because of it. Why would I come back here and have to deal with it all over again when I live in a part of the world where these aren't issues, but here I am. So, it must be okay.

I vowed that when I became a teacher, no kid was going to was going to have to go through what I went through, not under my watch. As a teacher educator, I think that I imparted to my students who became teachers the same sense of justice and making sure that children in their care feel safe.

In addition to that, growing up in a bilingual household really was a fascinating thing. People say, "Roseboom?" Oh yeah, it was definitely a bilingual household and I suspect that I became a French major because that was the only choice, it was the only language offered in high school, and because of my mother and her family. I went on to do a lot of work in immigrant communities, and I'm sure that it was because of what I experienced as a child, living in a world where people didn't speak English and they had other customs that I happened to like. As a matter of fact, I liked my mother's family better than I did my father's family. I thought the English people were kind of boring—a whole lot more colorful this other stuff! I would go with my mother to Jerry Per's place, the blacksmith, we would go up to the house up in the back to get our eggs and my mother and Katie would sit and talk Slovenian. I didn't have the foggiest notion of what they were saying but I loved it. I was just fascinated. She made these fabulous deep-fried Slovenian doughnuts, so I had those too.

It was good. I'm very lucky. I consider myself fortunate to have had that kind of thing. The stability of your parents always being there. Having my grandmother in the house provided stability, but there was also a measure of friction because my grandmother thought that my father had married beneath him when he married a foreigner, and that attitude sort of prevailed and created tension but it was OK. My grandmother loved me and she had good intentions. My mother was always there, there was always a snack when I came home from school before I had to go to the barn. A lot of kids don't have that anymore. Everybody has a certain amount of turbulence growing up. Growing up is a turbulent thing. It causes us to be who we are.

ML:
That was really, very incredible, thank you for sharing that. Growing up and dealing with the bullying, did that affect your sense of community?

[TRACK 2, 14:40]
JW:
Yes. Community for a period of time was something I wanted to avoid because I was afraid. I was afraid of what the community would do to me, because it did bad things to me psychologically and physically, they pushed me around and I was afraid to retaliate. I retaliated once, it was September and I was strong from hauling bales and this guy was pushing me around and I said to myself, I've had it, and punched him and down to the floor he went. It was the one time when the teacher’s failure to act was actually appropriate—he didn't do a thing, apparently he was in my corner. I had to be careful, I was always cautious and that had a big impact on me. It made me shy and hesitant to assert myself.

At the same time, I developed a sense of what a community should be. Or I knew what it shouldn't be, let's put it that way. That a community needed to be a place that welcomed, embraced, and included. Where people were considerate. I had a hard time with disagreement because disagreement represented a whole big [inaudible]. Socially, it impacted me heavily. I was afraid of social contact for fear of what it was going to ultimately entail, that it would ultimately lead to ridicule. I think psychologically that it turned me into a workaholic. If I was involved with a particular project that had a focus other than being social, I was comfortable because there were parameters. In college I got involved with theater, theater people were safe for me. People were still very closeted back in the [19]60s at college but people didn't ridicule each other. When I got involved in theater I was involved. Then when I became a teacher I found a group of people who shared the same passion for teaching that I did and we became hard and fast friends and we all were workaholics. We devoted our time to teaching, our conversations were about teaching, we would go to happy hour and we were coming up with programs for children. I was student counselor advisor. I remained a workaholic. It was a form of protection from socializing. It was a set community and I knew what to expect from them and I knew how to behave in that community. I knew I was safe, that I was a good participant. I functioned well.

It's an interesting question that you asked because I think in this period of my life right now as a retiree, that the safe, readymade community I always put myself in is no longer available. I am experiencing myself in community-building endeavors in a way that I never have before in my life. All of those safety walls are really, kind of gone. I'm doing it on my own, with my husband, but I'm doing it on my own in a way that I never dared to do before. How many years later? I love the Broadway show Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's play. There's that song, “Careful of the things you say, children will listen.” They'll see and they'll learn and that's absolutely true. I did. And what they see and learn have an impact for the rest of your life. It's awesome. It's an awesome responsibility working with children. It took me 70 years to work it out. Better late than never, but it's never too late.

ML:
How long was it after you returned to upstate New York before you became active in the Roseboom community again?

JW:
I was in contact with Roseboom peripherally because my mother and father continued to live there and I would come to see them. After my mother died and my father was alone and I was the only child, I was left with the question of how to be helpful to my father. I lived in New York City and then Princeton and he was here. I didn't want him to come live with me and he certainly didn't want to leave Roseboom either, he needed Bob’s Corner Store. So, I would come up and I would just cook and pack frozen dinners for him. By the time I would leave, after a short vacation or a long weekend, his freezer would be filled with all these meals all labeled about what to do to heat them up himself so every day of his life he could have a meal. I was here but I was so busy cooking I didn't do anything else, I would come to Cooperstown but I would only come over the old roads and take the back street over to Price Chopper to buy food and then I would go back home and keep cooking.

Nelson and I came up here in 2011—right about this time of year, a little bit later—to close on our condominium up at Five Mile Point. We were going back and forth to Miami Beach, so, the only thing I got involved in was the condominium association. All the condominiums I've owned I've always wanted to be on the board because that way I get to keep my finger on what’s happening. When we moved up here in February of 2013, we decided to get married and ended up choosing the Presbyterian Church here, it was at that particular point in time when I realized that this was for real and this was going to be for good. Miami Beach is a strange place because it's very transient. There's no real chance to be a member of a community, or I didn't see one at the time I was there. I had friends but not a community and they didn't have community either, it's the nature of things. Then all of a sudden I decided we need to have a community, a place where we know people, people know us, and we are participants in some constructive way. We started with the Presbyterian Church. I liked the church in spite of my issues with the church over being gay. This church here was a welcoming church and while I can't say I'm a serious believer—I'm more of a Unitarian than I am a Presbyterian or a Methodist, but this is the closest thing to a Unitarian Church in the area outside of Oneonta. We started to get involved and Elsie [Armstrong Rhodes], the pastor there, got me more involved than I ended up wanting to be, and I pulled back. That's when the sense of community began to dawn on me, that I needed it. There is a gay community here in Cooperstown and the surrounding area and we have met most and are friends with most of them, so there's that sense of community.

Then one day, when we were over in Roseboom for the Pancake Breakfast that the Historical Association puts on each year, the president, whom I knew, approached me and asked if I would be willing to serve on the Board. I thought that would be a good thing, because the Webbs are Roseboomians. I'm really a product of Roseboom, big time! I played the organ in the Historical Associaion building when it was a church. The cemetery where my mother and father are buried, that I've known all my life, was right out in back of that church. When my father died he left money to the Historical Association, the cemetery and the Methodist church. (I don't go to the Methodist church.) I thought, I really do like this place and it would be nice if I continued in my father and mother's footsteps and became a part of these organizations that mattered to them. So, I joined the Board of the Historical Association. They want me to be president but I don't have time to do that right now.

Then I thought about the Cemetery Association because my father was president of that association for years and years and treasurer for years and years and did fundraising. For my father, the cemetery was really a big thing and I knew that they had an opening on the Board, so I called and volunteered. I told the guy whom I've known all my life, Warren Stannard, that I was willing to serve. I said, "I don't want to be somebody who suddenly comes back to the area and thinks I've got to insert myself in everybody's business, but if you need someone I'm willing." They already had someone at the time but then someone else died and they asked me if I would take his place on the board. Now, I'm on the board and I've been asked if I would be willing to serve as president of the board which I am, because it really does follow in my father's footsteps. His parents are not buried there, they're buried Middlefield, but my mother's family—her mother and father and two of her brothers—are buried in Roseboom and I guess I will be too.

It's from a sense of continuity that I do it. Knowing that Roseboom has a very special place in who I am. I've never really gotten away from here in my mind. I loved living in New York City. I loved living in Princeton. I loved living in Miami Beach, more or less. But somehow or other the hills of Roseboom have always been on my mind. My cousin, my wonderful aunt's son who just died in September ended up being buried in Roseboom, interestingly enough, and now his son has bought a house in Roseboom—so, the story is continuing here and getting stronger actually. I told my cousin that I was moving back to Roseboom and he said, "You know, it doesn't surprise me, John. I always knew that you were going to end up back there." So, that's what got me into it and I like it. It gives me a sense of real grounding to be involved. It was interesting when I was making

[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00]
JW:
the telephone calls to get people from Roseboom to agree to be a part of the oral history project so I could give their names and all the contact information to [CGP Professor] Will [Walker] and then organize this program for all these people. It was wonderful to talk with all these people, I've known them all my life. Especially thinking of my differences from them, the ways in which I am different, and the experiences that I've had that they've never had in the world. They seem to acknowledge who I am and they actually respect who I am now. I don't know whether they respect me because of who I am in particular or because they respected my father and mother, but it doesn't matter. It's that there's a bond. I'm the only member of the Roseboom Historical Association board who was born in Roseboom. This one woman, Pat Mabie said, "It's so good to have you back because you grew up here, you know us." Lucy Proper, the 101-year-old who's going to be interviewed, I've known her all my life for heaven's sakes! And it was just fabulous to see Lucy Proper and know that we go back the way we do. Or, Marion Holmes who's also being interviewed. Marion Holmes was with us when my mother died.

[TRACK 3, 02:19]
There comes a time in your life when you really do want the cycle of life to come around and be completed. It gives you peace. That's what I found being involved in this community and I'm learning things. People who I never thought in my wildest dreams, I would have been afraid of them and now I don't have to be, there's no reason to be afraid. I've grown. They've grown. It really is a wonderful thing. I feel very fortunate to have that kind of experience that I don't think a lot of people end up being able to have. It helps that Nelson loves it here too; he's the one who got me back up here. He said, "Oh my God I love it there. I just love it." Finally, I said to him, after we had been up here for our first summer and got back to Miami Beach, "How would you feel if we sold the place in Miami Beach and moved up to Cooperstown?" He said, "I was just waiting for you to ask." At first I think it was a little strange for him because everything was mine, my territory, my this, my that, and now Nelson is building on that and finding his own little sense of community. In some respects, he's more daring with community than I am because I'm still a little bit standoffish, but not him. He knows everybody. People will wave and I ask, "Who's that?" and he says, "Oh that's so and so who lives down the street." Okay! I guess I'm more focused on the people I knew when I was growing up.

ML:
That's really incredible, everything you've done to build up this life and have all of these communities it's amazing.

JW:
It's an interesting thing that in Princeton I built a community of people, but it was from work. It was a built-in community in the sense that all these kids from Princeton were going to become teachers and that was unusual. They were a community in the sense that they all stayed in touch with each other as students and after they graduated. I think I was able to communicate my love for teaching to them and that has kept a lot of them in touch with each other and in touch with me.

[TRACK 3, 5:34]
Then this whole sense of justice. I realized there are all these really bright kids and most of them are minorities because of where they live, Trenton, a deeply troubled city. I realized that these smart kids weren't getting a fair shake when it came to college admissions because A) their public school wasn't adequate and B) the effects of poverty and discrimination were holding them back. So, a friend of mine who was the chair of the Sociology Department at the University at the time and I approached the president of the University and asked if Princeton would be interested in sponsoring a program where we would take groups of kids from Trenton and for, a three year period, provide them with intensive summer instruction and tutoring during the year. We would take them to cultural experiences like opera, theater, and all kinds of things and have special classes like Princeton Review for them so they would be competitive when they applied to places like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. Princeton agreed, we did it. We organized this program and it ran out of my office. It was a success called the Princeton University Preparatory Program, PUPP, and it's still very much in existence. Our kids, 95 percent of them are completing college in four years when only 11% of students from that same socioeconomic stratum nationwide are completing college in the same amount of time. It’s a huge success. They are being accepted at places like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale and they are also going on to graduate school. The program will start its 19th year in June and major donors are still supporting it. The [inaudible] thing is the community—these kids are tight knit, even though the graduates of PUPP might be 19 years apart, because they all know that they have survived. With some help they have all been able to use their individual talents. We wanted their parents, their siblings, their aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends to all be involved and feel included because you got to have a community. I discovered that these parents, they could be single parents or grandparents who were the principal caregivers in the students’ lives, wanted to be involved. All of a sudden people who were scared of Princeton University found themselves in the Princeton University Chapel and being invited to fabulous receptions with food and being treated like celebrities in a world they never thought they would belong in. A whole community grew up around these kids and propelled them forward. When I retired from Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, the President, spoke at the PUPP graduation that particular year and she said, "PUPP is the most outstanding accomplishment of my entire tenure as president of this University." I'm proud of it. I'm really proud of it. It's one of my great accomplishments in life. When I said earlier I don't know if I would have become the person that I became without my Slovenian grandparents, without having been bullied, and without having come from a house where there wasn't hot and cold running water (Where I grew up, we had a pitcher pump in the kitchen and my mother cooked on a wood stove and the hot water came from the reservoir at the end of the wood stove and we didn't have flush toilets until I was six years old), if I hadn't come from that I never would have done these things. The last night when I spoke to the graduates I told them about that and parents came up to me and said, "Oh my God, Dr. Webb, you're one of us," and I said "Yeah."

It's about community, it really is about making sure that communities can come together and do what communities should do for people. It's a big deal. It's a big deal, community.

ML:
Well, we've reached time. Thank you so much for all of this, it's been really amazing. I didn't know what to expect.

JW:
Well that's got to be part of the fun!

ML:
That's true! Thank you so much for sharing so much and being so open it is amazing, truly.

JW:
It's also nice to come to a point in your life when you can. I don't really have anything to hide, the good or problematic. That's one of the reasons why I love what you said about access to museums. I said to you when we spoke last week, "This is right up my alley, I'm on to this one," because it's true, it's about community.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who got his graduate degree from Princeton, he brought these kids to the [American] Museum of Natural History when he was the head of it in New York. Every year all the PUPP kids were brought to the Museum of Natural History and he, himself, gave them the tour and did the whole planetarium show for them. Kids who would never have gone, and if they had never gone they never would have seen this, and all of a sudden these kids are talking with him [Neil deGrasse Tyson] and they know him from TV. It's wonderful, it's the way it should be. I've been changed by it.

ML:
It's like I said, it's truly amazing the communities that you have fostered and doing it not just for you, but for others. Your commitment to community and diversity is incredibly admirable. Thank you for sharing that with me.

JW:
That's what it should be. We should be working, all of us. To make sure that all of these things are accessible to everybody. That's a better world.

Well, I've loved every minute of talking, it's rare that one has an opportunity to just sit and talk about oneself. What a fabulous ego experience this has been! How could one not love it?
[END OF TRACK 3]

Duration

29:59- Track 1
30:00- Track 2
14:57- Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

Track 1, 00:35- Farming
Track 1, 23:26- Growing up
Track 2, 03:15- Bullying, LGBTQ
Track 2, 14:40- Community
Track 3, 5:34- Teaching, Social Justice

Files

Citation

MK B. Lang, “John Webb, November 12, 2018,” CGP Community Stories, accessed April 25, 2019, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/353.