CGP Community Stories

Donald Fenner, November 16, 2009

Title

Donald Fenner, November 16, 2009

Subject

American Academy of Funeral Services
Bed and Breakfast
Bicentennial
Colgate University
Don Giovanni
Doug Clinton
Duke’s Oak
Fort Herkimer Church
Funeral Director
Funeral Home
Glimmerglass Opera
Herkimer, NY
Metropolitan Opera
Midsummer Night’s Dream
National Wood Carvers Association
Opera Quiz
Springfield, NY
Tom Goodyear

Description

Donald Fenner has lived a life filled with community involvement. Fenner was born in Herkimer, New York in 1930. Until he retired at age fifty-five, Fenner spent his life tied to the funeral business. Fenner worked at his uncle’s funeral home learning about the funeral business, went to the American Academy of Funeral Services, and then took over as director of the funeral home when his uncle died. As a funeral director, Fenner became well-known in the community.
Besides connecting with the community through his job, Fenner became involved in many community associations. He has served as chairman of the board of directors of the Fort Herkimer Church for forty-three years. Fenner led the fundraising effort to refurbish the church during the Bicentennial, which was a time when historic colonial landmarks across the country were being turned into museums, renovated, or opened to the public in displays of American pride. An avid woodcarver, Fenner also served as an early vice-president of the National Woodcarvers Association. He organized some of the association’s first woodcarving shows, holding them in Herkimer, New York. Around his retirement, Fenner also became involved with Glimmerglass Opera and served on the opera’s board of directors. He was chairman of the building and grounds committee when the opera’s building was voted on and then built.
The interview is a general overview of Fenner’s experiences, with occasional references to specific events. About half of the interview focuses on his time spent working at funeral homes and acting as a funeral home director; the other half focuses on the activities he was involved in outside of work. Some of the most interesting material involves the behind the scenes stories of Glimmerglass Opera in its early years and the revitalization process of the Fort Herkimer Church.
In order to facilitate the easy reading and understanding of the transcript I have eliminated false starts from the transcription. I have also eliminated unnecessary conjunctions when their removal aided the flow and understanding of the story without changing the meaning. Brackets have been used to insert words that were either implied or not picked up by the recorder to further improve the flow of the interview. I have chosen to keep some of the grammatical particularities inherent in speech. In the course of writing a transcript it was impossible to record all sounds, such as laughter and tone of voice, so researchers are encouraged to listen to the audio recording better understand the emotions behind the speech and have the fuller context of the conversation.

Creator

Amanda Ziebka

Publisher

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

Date

2009-11-16

Rights

New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
17mB
image/jpeg
4.23mB
image/jpeg
4.08mB
image/jpeg
4.03mB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

10-099

Coverage

Upstate New York
1930-2009

Online Submission

No

Interviewer

Amanda Ziebka

Interviewee

Donald Fenner

Location

Springfield, NY

Transcription

Interview:

Interview:

DF: Donald Fenner
AZ: Amanda Ziebka

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

AZ:
This the November 26, 2009 interview of Donald Fenner by Amanda Ziebka at Mr. Fenner’s Residence in Springfield, New York. So Mr. Fenner can you please state your full name?
DF:
My name is Donald, Do you want a middle name?
AZ:
Sure
DF:
Moore--M.O.O.R.E--Fenner--F.E.N.N.E.R.
AZ:
Where and when were you born?
DF:
I was born May 31, 1930, in Herkimer, at home.
AZ:
At home in your house, not in a hospital?
DF:
Not in the hospital, though like Victor Borge says, “When my mother saw me they took her to the hospital.” Just kidding.
AZ:
Who else was in your family?
DF:
I had an older sister, who is now passed away, and I have a younger brother. We were all two years apart. My sister was two years older, my brother two years younger.
AZ:
Where did you go to school when you were young?
DF:
I only went to one school and that’s Herkimer Schools, grade school and high school. The grades were one to eight, and the high school was eight to twelve.
AZ:
What kind of classes did you take in high school?
DF:
Just all the usual classes: math, social studies, Latin –yuck— and reading, writing, and English. That’s about it, just the ordinary classes. Everybody took it in those days.
AZ:
Was everybody required to take Latin?
DF:
No. I don’t know why I did. I had a terrible with Latin. I have a terrible time with language, always have. Miss Whitney, who was my Latin teacher, said that if the Latin regents the year I took it hadn’t been the easiest regents that she had ever seen in [the] whole history of her teaching, which was a lot of years, she said I would never have been able to have gotten a 67. So I just passed it and that was it. Language and I, we do not get along.
AZ:
Did you have a particular subject you were fond of then?
DF:
Back in school it was math. I really enjoyed that. I liked it. I did well in it. I got to college and took a math course and had a miserable time with it and never went any farther.
AZ:
Where did you go to college?
DF:
Colgate University
AZ:
What year did you graduate in?
DF:
1951
AZ:
What did you do as a subject or plan of study?
DF:
Oh, I was a botany major, and I enjoyed that. Haven’t done anything with it since, except we’ve kidded about it –of course I ended up a funeral director— and I said, “Well, I took planting in college and I guess I just continued to do it.”
AZ:
Why did you choose botany when you first got to college?
DF:
I liked the professor and I felt that it was something I could handle, math I couldn’t. I had a terrible time with Spanish in college. I received a dispensation so I didn’t have to take it, because I just could not learn language, just as I have said, or a foreign language. I think I know English fairly well, I’m not sure. But I just enjoyed the professors and I enjoyed the courses. It just seemed to be a good mix.
AZ:
So how did you go from botany to working at a funeral home?
[Track 1, 04:17]
DF:
My uncle was a funeral director. He started his business in Herkimer in 1934. [A] funeral director, I will tell you, especially in a small town where he is alone, always needs help, and especially at night. He asked me if I would help him, in the summer when I was home or [on] vacations. I said sure, so whenever he had a call at night and needed an extra hand he would call me, and I would help him make removals, and that type of thing. He kept saying to me all the time, “Boy this business is 24 hours a day 365 days a year, you can’t get away from it. I’m a slave to the telephone; you wait till the telephone rings. You can’t be there. You can’t be anywhere and not be available.” Of course, in those days you didn’t have cell phone or anything like that. When he left his funeral home he had to have someone sitting there by the phones, either his wife or a hired lady who came in, or me, or somebody. I was used to the funeral business with him, except I kept hearing “you don’t want to get into this, you don’t ever want to be a funeral director, it’s terrible, you are a slave to the phone…blah…blah…” all the time. I liked my uncle a lot; he was a great man, just a kind, generous person. He was so good to the people he served; he was a special type of guy. The story is when I graduated from college I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would have to go in the army, and so I did that and got that at out of the way. When I came back, my aunt was friendly with a lady who was in the botany department at the University of Vermont. [The women in the botany department] told me she would hire me at the University of Vermont as an assistant to her and I could get my master’s in botany while I was doing the same thing. And I said, “Yeah this sounds alright, might as well do that, haven’t got anything else to do.” I went over that day and talked to my uncle and said, “Well, I’m going to be leaving. I’m going to go to the University of Vermont, and I have a teaching fellowship there.” He says, “Well you know, I would sure be interested if you wanted to be a funeral director.” And I couldn’t believe it, because he always told me it was such an awful thing to have to be such a slave to the phone. Immediately I said to him, “Where’s the phone, I’ll call [the] University of Vermont right now and tell them that I’m not coming.” I just knew instantly, the minute he said he wanted me, I wanted to be there with him. I went to funeral school, did wonderfully, had a great time. [I] went to [the] American Academy of Funeral Services in New York City. [It] was a wonderful year, a great learning experience, a great experience to be in that city. [I] graduated top of my class and came back and a year later got my license. I was with him right up until he died. He died at a funeral, in his own church, on the shoulder of his minister. He just leaned over and breathed his last. Boom, right out of the blue, no one had any idea. I took over the business from that time on and ran it, I hope successfully, for the next 31 years and then I retired. A long answer to a simple question.
AZ:
Going back to the funeral academy, what kind of classes were involved and what did you learn?
DF:
Oh everything: funeral law, of course, biology, anatomy and all that kind of thing. Pathology, we had to know diseases, and things like that, and funeral directing itself. There is a course in how to run a funeral home and how to handle people; you know that type of thing. We also had a course in public speaking, which was fun. Then we of course had practical experience. Our last semester was spent, most of it, in Belleview Morgue. That was a pretty fascinating experience. We also went to some of the big city funeral homes and talked to the managers of the funeral homes, for instance [those] doing a thousand funerals a year, [to] see how they ran it and their ideas about the funeral profession and so forth. It was [a] very interesting and enlightening experience.
AZ:
Now what do you think drew you to funeral business, besides your uncle?
DF:
I have always liked people, and I have always like old people. I don’t know why. As a kid I had a lot of friends who were older people. And I’m not talking about thirty or forty years old, I’m talking about people fifty and sixty years old. We lived in a neighborhood that had a lot of that. It was a nice neighborhood, but there were mostly older people there, and I just got to be friendly with all of them. They’d kid with me a lot and I’d kid with them. I was their newspaper boy–at a time I delivered newspapers. It just was a general thing. I guess I got born likening older people and people in general. I loved to people watch, it’s a great thing to do, that’s it. I grew into the funeral business probably more after I was with my uncle, so that I could see what it was like. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of how he ran his business at all. I just was helping him in removals and parking cars at funerals and that type of thing. I just enjoyed being around them and doing it. It just seemed to be the natural thing to do once he said, “I wouldn’t mind if you became a funeral director. I’ll put you through school.” No question about it.
AZ:
Was [there] one part of the business that was tougher than any other part?
DF:
I guess I am going to be really honest. A lot of funeral directors say, “Oh doing a baby is the worst thing.” I didn’t find that, not that I’m cold hearted. I found I felt the same way in treating a body whether it was a day old or a hundred-and-one years old. It’s not to say that there weren’t tears in the embalming room, there were plenty of tears. My uncle was a sentimental guy, but he could hold himself better than I could, but there were a couple times when his close, close friends died, especially when they died just like that. There was no way to prepare, just there they were. With me there were several cases where I would just say to my uncle, “I can’t do this.” I said, “I just can’t.” For instance, Charlie Fey (phonetic spelling), it’s a name no one knows, but Charlie was just an unbelievable guy. I wish somebody could have written a novel about him. I think it would be a great one. Anyway he died very suddenly, boom and gone, I couldn’t handle it, I just couldn’t handle it. I told my uncle, “I am out of here; I can’t stand this idea, that he’s gone. He is such a good friend and such a good person.” But outside of those few that were just so close and family, of course, I didn’t ever, I couldn’t do that… Though, I had a man work for me once that said, “I’m certainly going to embalm my sister or my mother or whomever.” He says, “Nobody else in the world could do the job that I could do, because I know exactly how they should look and I’m going to have them look that way, and I can do that.” Wow. I said, “Well if that’s the way you feel when that happens you can do it.” And he did. I couldn’t of. Have I answered your question?
AZ:
You definitely have.
DF:
Okay
AZ:
Did the funeral home just take care of people who were in the Herkimer area or did you really work outside of that region?
[Track 1, 15:18]
DF:
We handled funerals of anybody that called us. We didn’t turn anyone away ever that I can remember, even ones that I wanted to turn away. I knew the families and I knew I was in for a hard time. There was one time that I had to tell a family that I couldn’t serve them because I had six calls at that time and they had just called that their child had died, it was one-year-old. It’s a tough thing to deal with that, and I wanted to give them the services I could or should and to help them through that, because they were really devastated by this. With the other six calls I had, I knew I just couldn’t spend any time with them at all. And I told them that. I said, “I am going to call a friend of mine, another funeral director in another town, who is a really, really nice person, and he’ll take care of you. He’s not busy at the moment, and I will do my best to be around and to come to the hours and do what I can, but you really should let him do it, because he will do a nice thing for you,” which he did. In fact he was so good that I never had another call in that family.
AZ:
So did you have close associations with other funeral directors in the area then?
DF:
Pretty much. Not all of them. There are some places where you can be friendly and helpful with your competition, it wasn’t necessarily so in Herkimer. It was with certain funeral homes. There were two other funeral homes in Herkimer when I was involved, turned out there were two more besides that over the period of time. See Herkimer was an interesting place back then. Funeral homes served a specific demographic, which isn’t that way so much today. For instance, the Roman Catholic people called the Roman Catholic funeral director. The Polish, Ukrainian, and Italian funeral home served that group, and our funeral home basically served the Protestants. The funeral home in Herkimer that served the so called foreign population of the town, he did not have a hearse and we were friends. He did not have an embalming room, so he had a deal with my uncle he used our embalming room and our hearse. He would have our hearse driver drive for his funerals. When I was involved and he asked me, “Do you want to do my embalming?” I said, “Sure Eddy, I don’t care, I’ll do that.” There were some times after I had been out all night and wanted to get at least a couple hours of sleep and then the phone would ring and that would be him and I’d have to be up, go help him make a removal, and then do the embalming. That shot my day, but basically we got along fine and had a good time, you know a professional time, and were friends. That sort of changed in Herkimer, he’s gone, he died. The Roman Catholic funeral director died, and was taken over by a guy who was not friendly; he was not the kind of person you could just be associated with, we weren’t. Now, it’s interesting. Now people are changing. Rather than take the funeral director that has been there, for instance, the Catholic funeral director doing nothing but Catholic funerals, and me doing nothing but Protestant, and Eddy doing nothing but foreign, it’s changed. People aren’t looking to see, “Well I’ve got to have one of my own.” Now they say, “We’ve got to have somebody who will take care of us for the best price, and do the work we want, and do it well, and do it reasonably. And if he isn’t the Catholic guy, then it’s going to be us or the other one, and that’s what it is, pretty much. I can’t say now that my funeral home is the Protestant funeral home of Herkimer, it’s not. It does every kind, and we do a lot of Catholic work, a lot, which my Uncle couldn’t believe that if he were alive today. I’ll tell you what happened. For some reason, some people in the Catholic Church in Herkimer got upset with the Catholic funeral director and my uncle had six Catholic funerals in a row, which was unheard of. We had a man working for us who was a member of the Catholic Church in Herkimer, and he came to us and he said, “Well you are done doing funerals with us.” And my uncle said, “Why is that?” He says, “Because our priest got up this Sunday and said alright people it’s time we took care of our own.” That ended that. We didn’t do another Catholic funeral for two years, but that’s all changed today. I don’t know if that was the answer to your question or not.
AZ:
So you talked a lot about how it’s a lot of late hours, how did you balance working so many hours and kind of having a life outside of work?
DF:
[I] didn’t have a life outside of work, very much. When I was doing it, after my uncle’s death, I handled the funeral business for two or three years alone. [I] just would have the regular help that we had, men whose regular work schedules were late afternoon to early morning, so [the] four to twelve shift. They would be able to sleep until early in the morning. We had a lot of morning funerals, and then they would be able to help and then go and do their own work. I was able to get away often because these guys were around to help someone else, another funeral director who I was friends with usually. It was either the one in Little Falls or one in Ilion, which are towns close to Herkimer. Then, after I think it was three years there, I got an apprentice, a young man I knew. He thought he’d like to be a funeral director, so he went to school and then he apprenticed with me. Then he became a licensed funeral director, so I could go and leave him, but before that I was pretty much stuck to the place. There were times when he just didn’t want to be in charge. He could do it alright, but he didn’t like to do it, he didn’t want to have that responsibility, so I pretty much stuck around. Mary Ellen, when we had kids, said well we are going to take a vacation and she would rent a camp on a lake and [say], “We’re going to do it.” And I’d say, “I can’t go.” [She’d say], “Oh yes you can.” So we made sure there was a phone, if there wasn’t one at the camp, one nearby. So we went to camp, but I got called all the time and had to go back. Still she made sure the kids got some vacation time, even if I didn’t. That’s ok I didn’t mind that. I just did what I did. I was tied to the funeral home, I really was. I understood exactly what my uncle meant. Mary Ellen will tell you, “Don kept saying to me, ‘I just want to be free, I just want to be free.’” Now I am.
AZ:
Who’s in charge of the funeral home now?
[Track 1, 25:50]
DF:
I sold my funeral home in 1955; no I’m sorry that’s when I became licensed. 1985. You see my uncle, after having said all those years, “I want to be free, I want to be free, I am a slave to this,” he dropped dead at a funeral at fifty-seven, having said, “I am going to be out of here at 55.” He couldn’t do it; he couldn’t leave. He bought a lot, was ready to build a house, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it, and he sold the lot, when he was 56, and at 57 he dropped dead at a funeral. And I can remember as vividly as if it was happening right now. We were in his church, the Baptist Church in Herkimer, he was sitting next to the minister, I was sitting in the pew right near, and he had just gotten up and moved the casket, he said, “It just doesn’t look right to me I am going to move it just a little bit.” He moved it, came back, sat down, and died. I remember I ran to the fire department [and] said, “Get the pull motor and call the hospital, get an ambulance,” which they did. They came right over, and right away there were two doctors. Once they heard that Alton Fenner was down, was in big trouble, they just came, because everyone liked this guy. I can remember Doctor Dennis kneeling by my uncle, having worked on him and so forth, and he looked up at me and he shook his head. At the minute, I said to myself, “If God lets me live until I am 55 I am out of here,” and I was. I let the word out-- this was about when I was 54—that I wanted to sell the funeral home. A friend of mine who sold caskets and knew funeral directors all over the state said to himself, “I have just the guy.” He went to a fellow named Ron Hess, and he said to Ron, “I know you have wanted to buy a funeral home. I have just the place for you.” And he says, “You go up and see Fenner.” Hess came to the door with his wife, he called ahead of course, and I looked at him and he looked at me, and I knew right then and he knew this was going to be it. We talked about it. He had been to other funeral homes all over the state and he said these guys wanted astronomical amounts of money, they wanted to be tied to the deal some way or the other, and he said, and “I wanted a straight deal.” I said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it, when I’m done, I’m done. I’ll help you anyway I can, but that’s it.” He just couldn’t believe that he found [me], and I couldn’t believe I found this guy either, and we sealed the deal.
[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]
He took over in the year I was 55 in 1985. I’ve had almost 25 years of retirement, it’s been wonderful. Just wonderful. I worked for him of course after he took over; it’s been till the last couple of years. I worked a funeral last month, but a couple of years ago, I said, “Look don’t bother to call me.” He’s well known now in Herkimer. He has been there 20 years or more. People know him; they know he is a terrific funeral director. His wife is a funeral director and his son is a funeral director, but his son is useless. Not nice of me to say, but it’s true. He’s just terrific. I am so proud that my funeral home—and my uncle would be proud of him—is run by a person like he is. [I’m] just blessedly lucky to have gotten him. [It] doesn’t always work that way.
AZ:
So when you worked for him after you stepped down as director what did you go back and do?
DF:
Anything he wanted me to. I would embalm. I tried not to counsel families. He had his own way of doing things and while they were fine, they were different than me. He would say, “Well why did you tell them to do that and that.” I said, “This is the way I do it.” And he said, “Well, I do it a little differently than that.” But he said, “That’s ok, I need to have you do it.” His wife was a registered nurse, and then she decided to become a funeral director, and she took courses and so forth and did it. Once she was in there pretty much all the dealing with the families was between those two. If a family, and many of them did, would say, “Where is Mr. Fenner? He’s been in our family. All the Fenners have been in our family for, you know, four generations and we just would just feel so comfortable.” He would call me, “Will you come down.” All I would have to do is sit like you are and listen to them talk. They would look over at me as if to say, “Is this ok.” Every now and then I just would nod or say, “You are doing great,” and this type of thing. I would embalm. I would help him set up funerals, to dress and casket bodies, and then worked the funeral. I generally parked cars. That sounds menial, but it’s a great tool because I’m out there glad-handing and all that kind of stuff. The people, most of whom I’d dealt with before, they’d just feel at home right away. In a small town funeral home that’s what happens, you feel quite at home with the man who is serving you, especially after you have been through some really tough times with these people. That’s what I did, and do for him. I don’t any more; it’s pretty much I have retired from that too.
AZ:
So did you move to Springfield after you initially retired? When did you move to Springfield?
[TRACK 2, 4:04]
DF:
What happened there, to us it’s interesting. I had said to Mary Ellen, “I want to be free, but what on earth are we going to do.” [She said], “What?” [I said], “How can get away from here, how can I do it. I have a funeral home I have to sell, and then once I sell the funeral home, that’s our home, we have no place to go. So how is this going to work out? I don’t see how it can work out.” Well its funny, things work out. Mary Ellen and I always liked the opera. Norman, that’s the fellow who worked for me, would take over when we were gone. We would drive to New York and go to the Opera, stay overnight, and then drive back. It wasn’t even a twenty-four hour period. We would leave in the afternoon, get to the city, have supper, go to the opera, drive back to Spring Valley, stay overnight, and drive home and be there by eleven o’clock in the morning. We really enjoyed the opera, and that was a way to get away from the funeral business, get a little vacation. We did that a lot, and at the same time, of course, Glimmerglass Opera started, so we got involved in Glimmerglass. One of the big people in the Glimmerglass Opera, one of the main people—he gave the land for the Opera house—is Tom Goodyear. Anyone who was interested in the Opera, like Mary Ellen and I were, eventually had to get to know Tom, which we did. We liked him a lot, and he liked us. I said to him one day, “You know Tom I got to sell the funeral home. I am going to do that. I got a guy who is really interested, and I think I will probably sell to him. Our son is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and we’re going to go there to get involved in the Santa Fe Opera. We’ll buy a house out there.” Tom said, “Well, I got a house that I’ll give you a bargain on, and you can buy that and fix it up and stay here and be involved with Glimmerglass Opera.” Wow. I said, “Okay that sound’s good, what it is?” He said, “It’s the old Duke’s Oak Theater.” I said, “Oh yeah, I used to go to Duke’s Oak, but it burned.” He said, “Yeah but the house didn’t burn, the theater burned. I bought the house, you ought to take a look at it.” “And if you don’t like that,” he said, “I’ll sell you the house, but I will give you 15 acres of land right across from the Opera House, and you can build a house there.” I said, “Holy Moley.” Boom, there you are. Hess was going to buy the funeral home and I had some money so I could build the house. Everything is taken care of. He showed me the land where he would give me the land. Beautiful, beautiful, overlooking the lake, [It was] gorgeous, except you’d have to have about an eighth of a mile driveway up the hill, and I got thinking if there was ever a fire here, the fire trucks couldn’t get up, especially if it was winter, and we’d sure have a problem with the snow plow. As much as I loved that piece of land, we looked at Duke’s Oak. Duke’s Oak was a wreck. There was a hole in the roof and a tree growing up through it. This place had been abandoned for 12 or 14 years, something like that, and kids had been in there. The place was a disaster, but God what a house. I brought a cousin of mine over, who was a great gal, gone now. Peg came in and she and I and Mary Ellen walked through the house. And she kept saying, “This is fantastic, this is wonderful, this is the greatest house, I can’t believe it. Grab this, get it, fix it up.” Boy she had a vision; she was right. I got a contractor, and I said, “What can you do with this place.” He said, “This place is a disaster.” He says, “It’s the worst house I have ever seen in my life, but it’s a great house. Basically its sound, but everything else has got to go.” So I bought it from Tom, and we just cleared that house out. We took down all the plaster walls. We took out all the plumbing, what little there was. Electric, got rid of it. Really the house was just the frame, and we rebuilt it. It is gorgeous. I love that house. We lived there for ten years; and then our daughter took it over and made it a B&B. The years Mary Ellen and I lived there –a big house, a huge house—we had six [or] seven opera kids with us all summer long. Each one had their own room; not all of them had their own bathroom, but most did. We had the best time; we loved it. We loved doing it for the opera. Parties, and fun, and laughter, and hugging, it was just unbelievable. We made so many friends. So anyway, that’s what happened, and [then] our daughter came. We were getting tired now, that’s hard work to do that. We housed them, and fed them, and partied with them. Such great kids. Some would come back every year, and still come back every year, come here to see us. Anyway, Cindy was out in New Mexico, she and her husband. First they were in Alaska. He was the head of the archeology department at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Then the university just abandoned that whole department, so David was out. He went to work for an archeological company in Albuquerque and they were there for several years. Then they just downsized, so David was out again. Cindy, our daughter who had a graduate degree in restaurant and hotel management, had a proposal about turning Duke’s Oak into a B&B and [said] that they could do this. She had a whole plan about how to do it, it really sounded good, and they said, “And we would be there to take care of you two.” We said, “Yeah, come on ahead, that’s fine.” The first year was a pretty good year for them, but we realized that they needed our space if they were going to make any money or make a go of it. They needed the rooms we had. We had a pretty good size lot with Duke’s Oak anyway, but we were able to get the lot that this house is on. We bought the lot and then built this house. Then moved over here, and they ran the B&B for the next ten years. Then David got a job as an archeologist with the New York State Museum in Albany, and he has just gone up the ladder there, because he is a magnificent archeologist. God does he know the stuff. Cindy in the off time—around here in the winter everything dies—she went to school and became a librarian, so she worked full-time as a school librarian and David is full-time in Albany. They gave up the B&B. They live there yet, and they watch over us, which is nice, they are wonderful, wonderful people. They have a terrific son who is now at Colgate, and that’s that. That’s where we are today.
AZ:
Can you just clarify where Duke’s Oak is?
DF:
Right next door practically.
AZ:
So just right across, kind of diagonal towards the road.
DF:
I just walk through the back, through the lot and there it is. If you come out here, there’s the corner house, and then there is what’s called Spruce Haven, it’s a former opera property, which is owned by someone else. Then the next house is Duke’s Oak. Just a great house, just a great house. I love that place. I told everybody you are not taking me out of here unless you take me out feet first. When we were ready to move out here they had planned to take me out feet first, but they didn’t; I walked out. I think I would have forced them to carry me out feet first if I didn’t have a place this close to it.
AZ:
So you talked a lot about how being involved in the Opera, what kind of involvement do you have with the Opera?
[TRACK 2, 16:04]
DF:
Right now I am treasurer of the guild. In the beginning, in the early ‘80s –the opera started ‘84/’85, it was in the high school in Cooperstown—we got involved with it. They asked me to be on the board, so I was on the board. Then I became chairman of the building and grounds committee, so I was in charge of all the buildings. I was on the board when they voted to build the opera house up here. What an act of faith, for a whole bunch of people. At Tom Goodyear’s house, we’re all meeting there, and they said, “Well we got to vote, are we going to build the Opera House or not?” We said, “Well we think we ought to build an opera house.” I think we committed at first to three million dollars. Here is just a bunch of people; I don’t think one of use ever had a million dollars, or even thought of being able to have it. We just went on an act of faith, and we said yes we’ll build it, and look what’s happened, just fantastic. I am very proud that I was able to cast a vote for that. I stayed on as chairman of the building and grounds committee for a couple more years, and then Glimmerglass got so big; they needed professional people. Then in order to be on the board you had to commit to $10,000 a year. That’s beyond anything I could even think about. I got off the board, but people got on, which is important, that could give that kind of support. We give the support by volunteering. Mary Ellen was treasurer first, and then I took over from her, and I’ve been it ever since. They haven’t had anybody but me for... They now call me treasurer for life. I go over there to the office and I do all their recycling; I am a great recycler. Once a week I go over there and take care of that for them. If they need someone to pick up someone at Albany airport or Syracuse airport they will call me and I’ll go do it, whatever they want. Now we are volunteers. Mary Ellen cooks for them when they have a dinner and they need someone to make deserts and stuff. We just keep active in it.
AZ:
How did you go about raising three million dollars for an Opera house in Upstate New York?
DF:
….In a turkey field…First of all, you have someone on the board who will say, “Okay, if you raise a million dollars I’ll give you a million dollars.” That’s nice, and that’s what we had. We had one guy who said that exactly. Then you just go out and you raise it. There are people then on the board, or friends of people, who run a corporation, who say, “Oh yeah, we’ll give you $10,000 to help your match.” One fellow came to a board meeting, and someone said, “We need someone to give us $100,000, and we’re pretty sure that Mr. X, will do that.” There was a guy sitting there and he said, “What, that cheap skate, give a $100,000. If he can give 100,000, I can give 150,000.” Boom, we had a quarter of a million dollars just like that. It’s amazing, it’s just amazing. That’s really what happened. People were really interested in that place, and people who knew people went to people and said, “Hey, do you want to help us build this.” Glimmerglass already had a good reputation from the high school, a great reputation. They did wonderful opera down there, reviewed by the New York Times, in Cooperstown High School, wow, amazing. So people knew that this was something that they could give money to, that there would be something to show for it, and that’s what happened. The big money people around here gave, like Ms. Alice Busch Grownowall (phonetic spelling) decided she wanted the Alice Busch theater and paid half million dollars to do it. You know it builds up.
AZ:
So have you gone to all the plays since it’s opened?
DF:
Oh, absolutely. Sometimes I’ve been to everyone that they put on all season. I used to go to every one. I don’t now, but I did.
AZ:
How did you first become interested in Opera?
DF:
I don’t know. I am not musical. I can’t read a note in music. My wife, Mary Ellen, is a wonderful musician, and my mother was a musician, her whole family were musicians. I just liked music. I can remember as a kid, I’m not saying an eight-year-old, but a teenager, on Saturday afternoon, for some strange reason, I would listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. I especially enjoyed the intermission features, the opera quiz. They would have people on the Opera quiz answer them correctly, but in a funny way, and it was hilarious to listen to these people. Clifton Fadiman was one. He was funny, and there was a movie actor, whose father was a famous opera singer–sorry I can’t think of his name right now—but he was on it, and he would just make you roar. I enjoyed this, and if you enjoy something, you listen to it so you can get to the intermission. Pretty soon you are saying, “Hey, what I am listening to is pretty good.” That’s all I know, I listened to it and enjoyed it, and when I could afford it, I would buy an opera record and listen to it. There you are. I have always seemed to like it.
AZ:
Do you have a particular one that was your favorite?
DF:
Oh yeah. The Der Rosenkavalier—Strauss, I loved that one, and Mozart’s of course. Really, when you come down to it, there are so many good ones. Verdi of course is one of the greatest opera composers there is and Rossini is another one. To have to be without any of those would be a terrible thing, but I think if I had to pick one, I’d pick the Der Rosenkavalier. I just love that kind of music. I’d feel bad that I couldn’t hear any others.
AZ:
Was there a particular show at Glimmerglass that you liked?
[TRACK 2, 24:29]
DF:
Oh yeah, the first one. The first one they did, the first year at the big opera house, was Midsummer Night’s Dream. [Goes to shelves and grabs an object]. This is Oberon’s candle from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon is one of the main personalities, and he held this candle lit, of course, through a good portion of the opera. After everything was broken down, I asked one of the people, I said, “What are you going to do with all the effects and things.” [He said], “Oh we will just thrown them away.” I said, “Well I’d like something.” [He said], “Well here’s Oberon’s candle, want that?” I said, “Certainly do.” That belongs in a museum as far as I am concerned. That was a wonderful, wonderful opera. The fairies were flying and Puck was flying and the music was…ahh… They had a revolving stage. It was just an amazing thing to put on for the first opera. Wonderful. The other one that they did that was great was the first Don Giovanni, the first one they did here. At the end of the opera, Don Giovanni will not be repentant. They want him to repent because he is an evil, evil man, and he will not repent. So he is dragged down to hell. The words go “REPENT”. He says “NO,” Then the stage begins to open up and you can see fire and smoke coming up, and he says, “REPENT.” “NO.” These ghouls come up from the floor through the smoke and fire and they grab him and take him down to hell screaming. It was so great. The whole opera was terrific, but that ending, they have never done anything as good as that since.
AZ:
Do they have that much special effects in most operas?
DF:
Yeah, they do. Glimmerglass is world-class, it really is. All the operas they’ve put on are just unique and really terrific. Some not as good as others, but basically they’re all great. Of course, I am a little prejudice.
AZ:
So besides being involved with the Glimmerglass Opera, how else do you keep yourself busy in retirement?
[TRACK 2, 27:52]
DF:
I have two other things that I do. I was in Korea, in the army, and I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what to do to pass the time. There were sometimes where we just didn’t have anything to do except sit there and let time go by. I had done some clay modeling when I was at home after college, because I like dinosaurs, and you couldn’t buy a dinosaur anywhere. My aunt who was an art teacher said, “Well why don’t you make a dinosaur.” So I made a dinosaur out of clay. I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Make it out of clay.” Clay is fun to work with. You wait until it’s what they call leathery, when it’s leathery then you can carve it. You take a scalpel and you carve it and whatever, or you take a pick. I did some really crude stuff, but I had done this. When I was sitting in the tent in Korea, I thought, “Hey, I could carve something out of soap, because that’s like clay.” So I got a Japanese letter opener and a bar of soap and I carved a little mask or something, just some silly thing, which I packed away long ago and mice ate it. They thought it was something good, but it wasn’t, still was soap. When I got home from Korea, I decided to see if I could carve wood, and it turned out I could and I did. Then I didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing, and I couldn’t find anyone.
[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00]
There were a couple of books on woodcarving that’s all there were. I was able to get them to see if what I was doing was right. Apparently it turned out it was, because I began to carve a lot of stuff. No training, just like they say, you take a block of wood, and if you want to make an elephant, you just peel off everything that doesn’t look like an elephant, and there you go. Before long I found that there was a fledgling woodcarving association, so I joined it. There were only two hundred or three hundred of us then, and now there are probably like 25,000 or 30,000 members. I got involved in that and eventually I got to be vice-president. They wanted me to run for president, and I said, “No, I can’t do it, because I’ve got business and family.” I’m still involved in the National Woodcarvers Association. I am a director. Mary Ellen and I put on I think three woodcarving conventions in Herkimer. It was great. We got the school, they said, “Yeah you can put tables here and have people display their things.” We had a terrific group. We had people come from Texas, California, just woodcarvers just wanting to meet with woodcarvers. We did that and I am still involved in that.
[TRACK 3, 1:52]
The other thing is in 1966, walking down the street in Herkimer, the local Bank president stopped me on the street, a nice summer day, [he said], “Donald, congratulations.” I said, “Congratulations for what?” He says, “You are now the chairman of the board of trustees of the Fort Herkimer church.” I says, “Well, isn’t that nice. What’s that about?” Of course, I knew the Fort Herkimer church. It’s a historic 1753 stone church in the town of German Flats, just across the river from Herkimer. He said, “Well, you are just in charge of it. There is no minister there; there is no congregation. It’s just a historic building.” I said, “Okay.” I went over and checked it out, and he told me stuff. They turned over the books and stuff to me that he had. The first thing I realized was that it needed a new roof. I asked him, “How much money do you have?” [He said], “We don’t have any money.” I said, “Okay we got to raise the money for the roof.” $6000, that was the estimate. We raised [$6000] bucks. That was the first thing I had to do, along with everything else. We put a new roof on it. As the chairman, I had to arrange for different things that went on there. Even though it’s a church that doesn’t have a resident minister, it was sort of cared for by the ministers of the two reform churches closer by. It’s owned by the Reform Church of America, the classis of Montgomery. The Reform church in Mohawk and Herkimer would sort of semi take care of this place. The ministers in those two churches would have summer services there, vesper services. I didn’t have to arrange those, but I had to be around.
[TRACK 3, 4:31]
Then every Thanksgiving they had an interreligious Thanksgiving service. Ten o’clock Thanksgiving morning, snow, sleet, hail, it doesn’t matter they have it. Doesn’t matter, three hundred to four hundred people will show up for that thing. Protestants, Catholics, Jews. The first ones no Catholics would come. Then Pope John came in and he said, “You got to be more outgoing.” Then that’s when we had Protestants, and Catholics, and Jews. Now we have anybody. I’ve had Mormons in there. I am in charge of that one. I have to do that one. They don’t have vespers any more in there. We have all different kinds of services, but mainly we do weddings. Great place to get married. Haven’t had a funeral there, but when I go down, that’s where I’m going to have my funeral. I’m hoping I won’t be the first one to have a funeral there, but it could happen. It’s been an interesting association I’ve had with that. This is my forty-third year. See that picture on the wall? That’s me in the pulpit of the Fort Herkimer church. I dress up every Thanksgiving as General Herkimer in a uniform that Mary Ellen had made for me. It has a high pulpit. That’s taken at a Thanksgiving service. There’s a fellow that did these things for me. That’s a wood burning plaque. This friend wood burned them and then gave them to me. The place had no money; the classis of Montgomery is not really in the system of taking care of and restoring historic churches. The classis of the Reform Church of America runs Reform churches, and here’s a church that is sort of falling down, or was. They don’t want to put their money in that. They want to put their money in an ongoing church, or help an ongoing church. In 1974, they realized— you can see in these pictures, these are columns, that are holding up the balcony—those columns were rotting at the base – a lot of weight on those six columns, and that weights is bearing down on them—and they are rotting out on the bottom, because there is not basement in the church, it’s just a crawl space. The stone foundation is just set-up dry, there is not concrete or anything. So the water comes downhill and goes right through the church and then down. So the water lays up against the posts that are on the ground. They were rotting and they were starting to come down, and as they were coming down they were coming out like this. The balcony was pulling away, ready to collapse. They didn’t want anybody in the balcony. They said, “We don’t even want a hundred pounds of weight up there.” This was 1974, and 1976 was coming, which is the bicentennial, and here’s this church that had been really important in the Revolution and the French and Indian War. We wanted, the commissioners, it opened for this big event. We started another fund drive. We had to save the church. This old church became the bicentennial project of the Mohawk valley pretty much. We raised it in drips and drabs. We had a goal to get this thing so that the columns were supported and it wasn’t going to collapse. We just said, “Okay, go ahead and do it, and we’ll do our best to see you get the money.” We had a guy, Doug Clinton, who said, “Okay I’ll do it.” Great guy, he’s dead now, he died this year. He’d done a lot of historic preservation; he was the best historic preservation guy in the state. He lived in Cooperstown, believe it or not, and he said, “I can’t do it.” I says, “Come to the church and tell us what to do then. How we should do this thing? The first thing we should do? What do we do?” He came to the church and just he said, “I can’t not do this job.” He quit his other job and came here for this one. That church does that to you. I’ve said to Mary Ellen a couple of times, “I’m going over there and getting my stuff, get it out of there, and going to quit. I’ve had enough of this.” And you walk into that church and you look and you just feel the history that’s there, and “I can’t do this, I can’t leave this.” So I have been there now for forty-three years. Anyway, Doug garnered his forces and by golly… Those columns now are on concrete foundations like this, big and then they go small. Amazing job. The belfry was ready to collapse, that’s been repaired and jacked up. We got the church basically sound. We didn’t have the pews in there; we had to take the pews and everything out so we could get …Well the floor was rotted too; we had to put a new floor in. By Thanksgiving ‘76 the new floor was down, the columns were right. We couldn’t get the pews back in, we didn’t have time, so we borrowed chairs from all the funeral homes around. Everybody was sitting in a funeral home chair, and the place was jammed to the roof. It was great. We have a great one every year. I am still putting it together. I have got to get three more ministers. We are all set for the service though. The people come, as I said, it doesn’t matter what the weather is, they come, it’s amazing. Had one guy, he got in an accident on the way; he skidded because there was ice all over. The police came, and he said he told the cop, “I’m going to Fort Herkimer service. I don’t care what you say, I’m going. I can drive, this car is a little damaged, but it’s not bad. I’ve got to get to the service.” He said, “I’ll stop back and give you the accident report, when I come back.” And they let him do it. Right now we have been restoring that church for all the time I’ve been there. We’ve spent probably at least a half-a-million dollars there, because we have people that are so interested in that place, and so in love with that place that they will give us. They will just say, “What do you need this year?” I’ll say, “We got to do the west wall, it has to be re-pointed.” [They will say], “How much?” [I’ll say], “$46,000.” [They will say], “Oh, ok take care of it.” This is ten years ago now, the roof that I had put on has been on for thirty years, and this lady came to see. She said, “You know that roof doesn’t look right.” I said, “No and its leaking too.” I said, “I put one on 1966, but now it’s time, we have to put a new roof on there.” [She said], “Well get me an estimate and send me the bill, I’ll put it on for you.” It was $5,000 for the belfry and $6,000 for the roof itself. She paid for it all, just like that, just wrote me a check. Beautiful. That’s what people do with that place. They love it; they don’t want it to be lost. They want it to be perfect, if it can be. We have done a wonderful job there. It’s all been repainted. Inside the plaster work has been done. It’s not done yet. See that’s a white pulpit up there. Two years ago, we said well the pulpit looks a little gungy. We’ll paint it again. We thought it was always white. Well, we knew that it wasn’t, but we didn’t know what was under the white, because nobody had ever seen it. We’d seen some pictures that showed some ovals. You know, so far back. We decided that we have to rough it up a little so the new paint will stick better. As they roughed it up they found underneath it was painted. It was like finding a German-Dutch painted chest. Beautiful. I’ll get a card and show you. We got to have it fixed. It’s amazing. There’s the pulpit now. Beautiful thing. We are going to have to have that redone, and it’s a little rough, but we are going to get it redone the way it was, that will be about $40,000. I haven’t gotten anyone to do that, but I’m looking. I think I’ll find someone.
AZ:
Well, we are right about at the hour and a half point. Is there anything you’d kind of like to wrap up with?
DF:
Okay. Just in case you’re interested. Mary Ellen and I got that award from Opera Guild’s International, Partners in Excellence award. I am very proud of this one. The New York State Preservation League gave me their Excellence in Historic Preservation Award, for “individual excellence and for demonstrating an outstanding commitment to the protection of New York States historic resources.” I am really pleased with that. And these are things I got at funeral school. Awards. I used to run and I would win a race every now and then believe it or not. No that’s it, unless there is something else there is something you want to say to me.
AZ:
Very interesting stories, thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
DF:
You’re welcome.

Duration

30:00-Track 1
30:00-Track 2
18:37-Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps
128 kbps
128 kbps

Files

Citation

Amanda Ziebka, “Donald Fenner, November 16, 2009 ,” CGP Community Stories, accessed December 12, 2018, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/36.