Cordell Reaves, November 20, 2020


Cordell Reaves, November 20, 2020


Brooklyn, New York
The Cooperstown Graduate Program
Cooperstown, New York
The Farmers’ Museum
Gretchen Sorin
Group Work
Heritage New York
New York City
Rural Life


Cordell Reaves was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. From 1999 to 2001, Mr. Reaves attended the Cooperstown Graduate Program (CGP) in Cooperstown, New York. In 2002, Mr. Reaves accepted a job as the Underground Railroad Coordinator for Heritage New York, a new program formed under the New York State Parks, Recreation, & Historic Preservation department. Cordell has continued to work for the New York State Parks, Recreation, & Historic Preservation department to the present.

This interview occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in the interview being conducted remotely over Zoom during a video chat. Mr. Reaves had recently completed a drive from Brooklyn, New York to his office in Waterford, New York, where he took the video call.


David Rush


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




Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY


1131x1699 pixel








Upstate New York
Cooperstown, NY


David Rush


Cordell Reaves


Virtual (Zoom)
Interviewer in Cooperstown, New York
Interviewee in Waterford, New York


CR = Cordell Reaves
DR = David Rush

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

This is the November 20th, 2020 interview of Cordell Reaves by David Rush for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Research and Fieldwork course, recorded virtually over Zoom. Good morning, Cordell.

Good morning.

Why don’t you first tell me about where you grew up?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so it was a big change leaving Brooklyn to come to Cooperstown. You’re going from a place where it’s millions of people and things are open 24 hours a day and lots of activity and density to, in some ways, not even a small-town environment, I considered it a very rural environment. Of course, moving from one of the most diverse cities in the country to a city that wasn’t diverse in any way, shape, or form, it was a big change also.

So where did you go for undergrad?

Long Island University, on their Brooklyn campus. I actually did a stint out at Penn State and then I had some family issues, one of my family members got sick, and I wound up moving back locally to help with that situation. After that I wound up doing some short research fellowships. I did one at the Schomburg Center [for Research in Black Culture]. I did one at Columbia [University], that was a summer research fellows program to sort of help people get geared up for further academic work because at that point I thought that I might become a historian. That was my thinking, and I was dissuaded from that path by going through that Columbia experience and thinking okay I don’t want to do this for, I think the average at that point for a PhD was eleven to twelve years. I wanted to do history, but I wanted to do history in a different way. Thankfully, a friend exposed me to museum studies and the Cooperstown program.

So, is that why you decided to go to the Cooperstown program or was there something else that drove you specifically to this program?

Well, a friend exposed me to the idea because I’d never even thought about museum studies. Once I started looking at the programs, I wound up having a conversation with Gretchen [Sorin] and she encouraged me to come and visit, which I did. And it was a combination of factors. I’m not a decorative arts person. I like the philosophy there. I like the fact that you can be a generalist and get an overview of the entire field, and the people there seemed really interesting and basically good in a lot of ways. They were concerned about the students’ well-being and concerned about their career path and very involved in helping to get them on track. The fact that they had three museums in town that seemed to have really good relationships where students could float in and float out and learn new skills, it just seemed to be a really good situation when I compared it to some other programs that seemed at least to me to be highly specialized in one area or another.

Do you remember where you lived in Cooperstown while you were attending CGP?

One year I lived on Pioneer Street over what was a bagel shop, I don’t know if it’s still there or not. Then [the] second year I lived on Chestnut [Street] in the big house at the fork in the road where there was like four or five student apartments in there. Because that Chestnut house was all students, a mix of first and second years, it was a very social environment. If we had a gathering or something it was all over the place, everyone opened their doors and everyone would float around for our Halloween parties or stuff like that. It was a nice house environment just being with students the entire time, everyone was already a part of each other’s social circle and knew what the others were going through.

What kind of stuff would you and the other students do for entertainment outside of classes?

We had dinner with each other sometimes. The basic stuff—dinner, watching TV. Once in a blue moon we [would] caravan up and go to Oneonta. I remember us going us to Oneonta as a large group to see Almost Famous in the movie theater and there being a number of students there hanging out and having that shared experience. I think a lot of times we just tried to enjoy each other’s company even if it wasn’t something special going on. I was not, and I’m still not, a big winter sports fan so I didn’t participate in a lot of the snow tubing and all this stuff which some of my classmates did. I think we generally hung out, it was a lot of spontaneous stuff, it wasn’t necessarily large, planned events. It was a lot of dinners, a lot of TV and movie watching, occasionally going to Oneonta or, heaven forfend, Albany, to have some other type of either mall or shopping experience or something like that. A couple of us went to Albany a couple of times. I would say when classmates had friends visit them that was always a big social thing. They wouldn’t just have their friend come into town and not hang out with the rest of us. The friend [would] become part of the group.

Did you ever have any friends or family come visit you while you were in Cooperstown?

I only had one friend visit me during the time that I was there and it was actually during a time when no other students were there because I came to Cooperstown the summer before the fall when I started classes and I worked at the Fenimore [Art Museum] and The Farmers’ Museum that summer. I stayed in the farmer’s cottage on the farm grounds, so I pretty much lived there along with any other guests who were there at the time because a number of guests came in and out. Everything from about 25 13-year-olds with some special program that stayed there for two weeks to visiting scholars and faculty and stuff like that. That was really interesting. I kind of got acclimated in an environment where there were no other students at all. The faculty and the staff at The Farmers’ Museum, especially the alums, went out of their way to try to check in on me because I didn’t have a car. I was carless in the middle of this town and trying to adjust from leaving Brooklyn and trying to adjust to the cultural environment there, and the professional environment. It was a bit of an adjustment, but I think that the staff and the alums in town were all very welcoming and all very good about checking in on me. At the time Gib Vincent was the director, so everyone from Gib all the way down the chain were good about making sure that “Oh, do you need a lift somewhere, do you need to do this, do you need to do that,” and making sure that I was as comfortable as I could be while I adjusted to the situation. It was a great opportunity to sort of get to know the institutions, get to know the town, who the major players were, how things worked. It was a really interesting summer. I’d never lived around farm animals before, so I was in the cottage and I was sleeping and I hear this godawful noise. It was sheep. Having only heard sheep on television, sheep on television do not sound like sheep in real life. I couldn’t figure out what the hell the noise was, or where it was coming from, and it was the sheep. [I remember] seeing one of the oxen outside my kitchen window for the first time and realizing that television doesn’t give you a sense of scale for how big said animals are. I compare it to a TV show called “Northern Exposure.” It was a CBS sitcom, and it was about a New York City doctor, who, for some reason I don’t remember why, chose to move to a small town in Alaska to practice. I kept going back to that show thinking there are lessons to be learned here.

What other interactions did you have with people or groups in Cooperstown while you were staying here?

I can’t say that I had a whole lot. Obviously, some of the local businesses that I would frequent, the guy that owned the laundromat, some of the local restaurants and shops and stuff, but I was very focused on why I was there. I can’t say that I made the same effort that a lot of my other classmates made to spend a great deal of time volunteering in the town or getting deeply involved in civic matters. I definitely didn’t do that, I was very focused on just “I’m here for this purpose and that’s where all my attention and energy is going.” Socially it was really just me and my classmates. I mean I interacted with other people, I met a few people from the Biological Field Station which was downstairs when I was there, and a few people from the local shops, some of the other extended staff at the museums in town, but I can’t say that I was extremely close to people who weren’t students or staff at one of the museums that was really in my social circle.

Prior to attending to CGP, what were you most looking forward to about the experience?

I think that I had the impression that the degree meant something, that there were a lot of successful people that had that degree that were working in the field, and that the experience would be a good foundation for setting up a career in this field. And it has been, I think it definitely paid off in a lot of ways, not just having the training but having access to the network because I know early on there were definitely a couple of alums, Mary Case, Claudia Nicholson, a few others, who had graduated in the eighties or nineties who I called upon for advice when I was beginning to set up my consulting end of things, when I was figuring out how to handle a major crisis at work, and now I’ve had new graduates contact me for the same reason [needing] career advice or figuring out what to do in a particular situation or how to navigate something that’s happened. I guess as shallow as it sounds, I was really looking forward to getting my career [started], this was going to be the catapult for me. I was also looking toward a change of pace, I hadn’t spent time any place like Cooperstown, especially not living there, in my life so there was a little bit of apprehension about how well I’d be received, how will it go, but it was also like this is going to be a really different experience, it is going to be a life changing type of experience, so that was something I think I was looking forward to.

Do you think you could tell me how your racial identity impacted your time at CGP?

I mean it is definitely something that [was] in my mind, it [was] definitely something that I discussed with Gretchen. I knew who all the Black people in town were, right. There was the family of the cardiologist at the hospital, there was Gretchen, I think there was maybe one other person who worked at the school, at the high school, there’s one of my classmates who’s biracial, and there’s me. Moving from a predominantly African American community into a community where I knew I was going to stand out like a sore thumb [was] definitely a thought in the back of my mind. I don’t feel that there was any overt issue. I think that people did wonder, people that I encountered at local businesses and stuff and saw that I lived there, they did have wonder or assumptions about why I was in town, especially over the winter when tourists are all gone. Some assumed that I was associated with Glimmerglass, the opera house, which is a wonderful assumption for someone to make, not true, but wonderful assumption for someone to make. I know the guy at the laundry he was like, “Oh well you’re up at the opera house, right?” “No, I’m at the graduate program.” But it’s something that I was constantly aware of, I’ll put it that way. I can’t say that I had several or any real overt incidents, but sort of [a] subtle awareness, subtle idea in people’s looks or interactions, an oddity in some ways being in town and not something or someone that they’re used to seeing. For the most part I would say that I was warmly received by the greater majority of people in town. Most of them treated me well and with kindness. Regardless of whatever political differences we may have had or whatever bias may have existed, it was not overt towards me while I was there. I would say it was occasionally subtle but definitely not overt.

[TRACK 1, 22:18]

Tell me about maybe a particular class that you recall at CGP.

There’s Gretchen’s infamous Intro class year one, intro to museums or something like that [Introduction to Museums], which was interesting because she used to take whatever you were least interested in and match you with that as a special project, which worked out well for me because I was very exhibits focused. That’s what I thought I’d wind up doing, and before I got there I really associated museum education with school groups, developing children’s programs, and I had zero interest in doing that. So, of course, I got museum education and now I would say in my actual career developing programing for adults it’s been a huge part of my job that I enjoy, that I’m good at. There’s her class, there’s also Material Culture. Robin Campbell was the instructor when I was there and I had very little interest in material culture in the sense that again [I had] the mistaken association of distilling it down to decorative arts and connoisseurship and not looking at all the many layers of object analysis and cultural significance and maker-user paradigms that you can really come up with. That was really getting deep into analysis and has really served me well and really opened my eyes to a lot of things. Lanny’s [Langdon Wright] class, he did an advanced once a week class for second years, [he was] the former historian who passed away unfortunately. He did a class on, I forget the name of it, I think it was Race Gender and Equality perhaps I’m not sure, but it was a once-a-week senior study and we had some great conversations in that class, some amazing conversations in that class about racism and discrimination, really delving deep into several books and he was just great. He was a curmudgeon openly to many people and he would always say that he was wretched if you asked him how he was doing, but he had a wonderful heart and he was a great guy and sometimes after those classes he would hang out with us and he taught us to play Texas Hold ‘Em, which I did not know certainly before I went to Cooperstown so yes, I have a lot of fond memories of him.

What are some other experiences you had with professors outside of class?

They’re very few and far between. Lanny was probably the main one who would indulge stuff like that because he would stay there so late at night, he would be there in his office so late like last person out of the building a lot of times. I remember Gretchen would have a Christmas party, or holiday party, at her place which we went to a few years and I would say outside of that, outside of school events, potlucks and things of that sort, I can’t say that I hung out one-on-one or even in a group with a lot of the faculty outside of school-based stuff. It was interesting that when I took this job with my current agency Robin Campbell who taught material culture when I was in school who had since left the program, she was working here for the same agency so she wound up becoming a colleague so that was an interesting transition going from teacher-student to colleague at the same place. I would say outside of hanging out a little bit with Lanny some late nights, and it’s not like that was a regular thing it wasn’t a once-a-week thing but we definitely did have a couple of poker nights and I have retained my knowledge of Texas Hold ‘Em at least enough to get myself in trouble. That was probably about it.

You mentioned potlucks, do you remember anything from those at all?

Potlucks. Yeah. I remember making really bad food, I was still getting my footing as far as being a cook goes and I think I overestimated my abilities in some areas. I remember making a pie which wasn’t completely done but I’d run out of time and I remember a really mushy, disgusting vegetarian stew that I made for one. I remember supplying bad food, and I remember supplying bad food and expecting people to consume it for some reason and not wanting to just toss it and be done with it because at that point it’s not like there were a lot of food options in town that you could access without driving. When I was there you had the bagel shop, you had a gourmet market that did sandwiches, and you had two higher-end restaurants a little more fine dining. Was there a pizza place? I can’t remember if there was a pizza place. There was a Chinese food restaurant, which wasn’t great Chinese food at all by any stretch of the imagination, so being a bad cook, which I definitely was back then, didn’t help matters at all. I’ve gotten a lot better since then, people rave about my food now but, man, back then it was terrible. It was really an excuse to get together, an excuse to hang around and chit-chat, relax and just hang out for a bit and sort of lounge around in the program building or in the trailer. You have this bright, shiny, well-designed building now. I was in the old building which had a trailer on the side of it which was sort of our quasi-lounge space where I also lived for a week while my apartment was getting ready when I had to move out of the farmer’s cottage and classes were starting and my apartment wasn’t going to be available for a week so I lived in there and showered down in the Biological Field Station, so that was an interesting week. I didn’t mind any of it, I was young, I was trying to move towards something that I felt was really going to be great for my life, and I didn’t care, as long as I had a soft place to lay my head it really didn’t matter to me.

Getting back more to the schoolwork, what kind of skills did CGP emphasize while you were attending?

Tolerance of others while working on a team. If you want to build tolerance with others then work on a couple of group projects and you will have your patience greatly increased as a result. Teamwork really is an important part of the field, and it’s an important part of coursework at CGP or at least a lot of it was during the time I was there. I had spent a lot of time working alone, I worked as an independent researcher, I worked on different projects, or even with my fellowships where I’m answering to a sole individual, a sole historian faculty person. Having to work in a team environment was something that I hadn’t done a whole lot of and I realized I have to gauge, I have to adjust my expectations, I have to assess what my teammates’ talents and weakness are and adapt to that, which is a tremendous skill to learn. I think having a real overview of what everyone in a museum does, an understanding even if I don’t have the expertise, an appreciation, so when I’m talking to the conservators on staff or when I’m talking to curatorial, or when I’m talking to any of the collections people or even upper-level management I always know the big picture, I know how things fit together, I know how things are ideally supposed to work and then it becomes the realism gap between what you learn in the classroom or what you learn while you’re a student and how things tend to function in the real work at institutions where you have all sorts of other outside pressures influencing decisions that are being made. I think the generalist piece, the teamwork piece, and lastly just how heavy, how serious the responsibility is in this field to the public and to serving the public trust and the ethics that go into serving the public trust and how that has to be maintained at all costs and how there are just some things you can’t compromise on.

Do you think you could tell me about a specific group project that you did while you were at CGP?

There was the lobby exhibit project, I don’t know if you guys still do that or not, where we were responsible for setting up a full-scale exhibition in the lobby so you need to do fabrication, design, content, everything, and that was stressful. It was a good indicator, it’s like okay this is how exhibit processes go where you’re winnowing down content and where you’re facing deadlines and you have to get it up and you have to get things painted. I remember painting the walls in the lobby and I remember sitting in front of a computer. I didn’t come in with a lot of, or with any I should say, graphic design experience at all. I had never done graphic design, I didn’t know Photoshop or any other design programs and it was on that project where I kind of learned those programs. Part of the exhibit I was responsible for was creating this giant Scrabble board, so taking this scan of part of a Scrabble board and trying to piece it together and up the resolution and quality of it to create this massive piece that would fit on the wall. I just remember sitting there square after square piecing together six or seven squares at a time until I got what I needed and learning how to do all this on the fly, learning about filters and different commands, and having people show me different tricks and shortcuts in our computer lab and just picking up so many skills throughout that process and being frustrated by the number of things I didn’t know but having my classmates help me out because they did know these things. I think it was during that project that I learned what a valuable resource my other classmates were because they had skills I hadn’t picked up and they were willing to share those skills with me so I wound up learning as much from my classmates as I did from the instructors during that process with the lobby exhibit.

Do you think you could tell me about a museum you visited while you were at CGP?

We did several field trips and some of them were pleasant, some of them were a bit of a death march, just because of the amount of content being packed in in a small period of time. I remember in Boston, when we went to Boston we were pretty much set loose, it was one of the rare moments where we didn’t have to stay all together as a group and me and one of my classmates we went to the Boston MFA [Museum of Fine Arts] and wound up staying there for a couple of hours and exploring that museum and we had a wonderful time, absolutely wonderful time. The [Washington] D.C. leg was with the architecture instructor Barb Bartlett, and I remember going to the National Building Museum which was super interesting but I also remember on that trip being exhausted and getting to another museum, it’s one of the naval museums in D.C., or something having to do with the Navy, and having one of the staff talking to us in this meeting room, this conference room with these very comfy chairs and I’m sitting there and I’m exhausted and I’m fighting it, he’s talking to you, he’s an officer, you really cannot fall-, I’m biting my tongue, I’m trying, and three times I’m out cold, like snoring out cold, so embarrassed, so terribly embarrassed about it. That was just absolutely terrible on my part. There was one more time we went to Rhode Island and we were touring Gilded Age mansions in Newport and that’s just not my thing. I mean it’s just the gold leaf and the high-empire furniture and it just comes across as gaudy to me at some point and it’s the same thing, it was very late, it was the last tour of the day, the last stop of the day, and we were at the Elms and we’re walking through with the tour guide and the tour guide just doesn’t want to be there. He’s tired too, it’s his last tour of the day, he just wants to get it over with, and [it was] easily one of the absolute worst tours I’ve ever had in my life. I would say the best trip by far was Toronto, that was a wonderful trip. I had never been to Toronto before, I absolutely loved the city, I loved the museums we went to, we went to the Bata Shoe Museum which I had zero interest in, would never have gone to on my own, but it wound up being a fabulous museum experience because their interpretive approach really looking at what does the shoe and what does the sole of the foot mean culturally to people and how they carried that out across so many different cultures and analyzed that and turned it over on its head, it was a great museum experience and it was some place that I would have never ever have walked into on my own but they did an amazing job. The Royal Ontario Museum, going there seeing one of the great museums of Canada. Overall, it was just a wonderful, wonderful trip. We just had a great time, we enjoyed ourselves and I wound up going back to Toronto years later because of that trip because I had such a good time during that trip in that city.

What was the traveling portion of these trips like? The drive itself?

Oh, you know what that’s like. You stick a bunch of people in a van, it was a SUNY Oneonta van, it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant mode of travel especially when you’re dealing with drives that are sometimes seven, eight hours depending on where we were going but-

[CR disconnects from call]

[TRACK 1, 45:58]

[TRACK 1, 46:43]

Sorry about that I don’t know what happened, the window just shut on me for a second, I apologize. Just crammed in, no legroom, sometimes I got shotgun seat because I’m 6’4” and it’s hard being in the back sometimes. It was definitely interesting, the late-night stops at random gas stations in the middle of god knows where to use the restroom which was questionable at best. I think we tried generally to make the most of it but after several days of being in close quarters with each other, after a few days of that we also started to get on each other’s nerves a bit and being crammed into the van with no opportunity for having your own space or privacy or anything else could definitely wear on one’s nerves

What experiences at CGP influenced your career to go in the direction it did?

I think it was the advice, the preparation, the training, it definitely influenced things. My very first job out of school I’d applied for a couple of jobs and gotten a few interviews. I applied for one job at [an institution in Chicago] and at the time that I applied [a major museum leader] was there and I really wanted to work under him so I was like well hell, I’ll move to Chicago to work under him, to have that experience. There were just a lot of hoops to jump through during the interview process so I had the phone interview and then they invited me to come out and interview in person but I had to pay my own way which definitely was a hit as an unemployed newly graduated student. But I said okay this is an investment in my future, I’m going to go and do this and see what happens. I went out there, I did like three presentations out there plus two interviews with two different groups of staff and they wanted entryway treatments and it was an exhibits related job and they wanted me to submit some more writing and to do some label writing for them and all this other stuff and I just felt that it was a lot, they were asking for a lot. I get to the end of the process, I kind of feel that the process has gone well, I’m feeling very confident about it and I leave, I get back to New York and they call me to make me an offer but the offer is for the junior position to the position that I interviewed for. I was livid. I felt like I had spent all this money and done all these things for them and they did not disclose that I was never actually interviewing for the job that I actually applied for, that I was always just interviewing for the junior position that they never even considered me for the main position that I actually applied for and I felt they should have made me aware of that. I think coming out of the program I had a certain confidence in myself and in my professional ability to say I am worth more than what you are offering me. I felt I had a certain sense that as a professional I am pretty damn great and if you don’t see that, and that is definitely the program, because here where I work when I first got here there were so many Cooperstown people, it’s no longer the case now they’ve all moved on or retired but when I first arrived there were so many Cooperstown people here they called it the Cooperstown Mafia. This was widely said, people were a part of the Cooperstown Mafia because when I first got here it was the director of the division, his assistant, chief curator, all these different upper-level people. So, the program I think at least for me it gave me this certain sense of yeah, we’re one of the top professional institutions in the country and we’re coming out with top training and that’s worth something, don’t shortchange me as a professional. Much to their surprise I turned down the position and I questioned it at the time I was like okay, did I just screw myself? Chicago is an expensive city and the person who offered me the job, she said well we have attic space and you could rent from us and I’m like I’m not living with my boss, I don’t see that as a good thing to do. I’m not moving to an expensive city without a way to sustain myself. I turned that down, I interviewed two other places, and then Gretchen saw a posting which she forwarded on to me for underground railroad coordinator with a new program called Heritage New York which was under the Governor [George] Pataki. I applied, I wrote what I thought was a stellar cover letter which read like the opening to an amazing novel. Based more so on my cover letter I think they offered me an interview, so there was a phone interview, the in-person interview was actually held in Grand Central Station in New York City because the director of the program was traveling and he was going to be in New York and I was in the city at the time. We met up there at a restaurant and had the interview and I was made the offer. They made me an offer in November and I wound up moving and starting in January of that next year. The next year after I graduated, by that January I had a job and was actively working and all of that good stuff.

Looking at the time I think that probably is about as much as we’re going to have time for in this part of the interview, so thank you so much for that.

[TRACK 1, 56:09]


56:09 - Track 1

Bit Rate/Frequency

106 kbps

Time Summary

Track 1, 22:18 - Classes at CGP
Track 1, 40:05 - CGP Field trips




David Rush, “Cordell Reaves, November 20, 2020,” CGP Community Stories, accessed November 29, 2021,