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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, November 29, 2007

Robert Briggs Whipple, a farmer and a gentleman, dies at 77

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

KNOX — Robert Briggs Whipple — a farmer devoted to his land, his family, and his town — died on Friday, Nov. 23, 2007, at Albany Medical Center of complications following surgery. He was 77.

Mr. Whipple was a determined man with a gravelly voice but a courtly manner. He is described as a "gentleman" by a political adversary, Alexander Gordon, who says Mr. Whipple always put the good of the public first.

"He had a broad presence in the community," said the longtime Knox Supervisor, Michael Hammond. "He was a hard-working individual. He really applied himself to reach his goals."

"Farming was his avocation," said his daughter, Deborah Degan.

"We were partners on the farm for the last seven years," said his son, Brian. "We were best friends also."

Mr. Whipple was always expanding and improving his Knox farm. "He just recently achieved one of his dreams, a 50-year-long dream, building a vegetable shed," said Brian Whipple of the Malachi Farms vegetable stand. "We hope to keep that going as well as the maple syrup and everything that he did. We’ll try to keep it going the way he would have liked it."

"That’s all he ever wanted to do...He spent much of his boyhood helping out on the farm," said Ms. Degan.

Robert Whipple was born in Albany on May 22, 1930, the son of the late Alfred A. and Grace Briggs Whipple. His father was the chief of police in Altamont for many years. Robert Whipple lived on Maple Avenue until he was 8 years old, Ms. Degan said, when his family moved to the Whipple farm at the top of the Altamont Hill.

"He farmed with his grandfather and his Uncle Bob. They used horses back then," said Ms. Degan.

Sixteen years ago, while walking the land at High Point on top of the Helderbergs that he had farmed all his life, Mr. Whipple pointed to a ridge called Flat Rock, running the length of his property, remembering how he played there as a boy.

"I’d play cowboy," he said, "and pretend to ride my horse as fast as I could across these ridges — sometimes as far as Thacher Park."

He pointed to a place where he and his father had made haystacks with a stationary bailer and, near another field, he recalled, "I used my grandfather’s team thrashing oats there."

From an open place along the cliff’s edge, he pointed out the old Whipple homestead, far below but clearly visible along Route 156, where his grandfather used to live. Striding through a field, he picked up piles of dry hay, throwing them aside, to let the new hay grow underneath.

In the meadows, he pointed out shiny myrtle and berry-laden honeysuckle, and plucked a sweet wild raspberry to eat as he passed its brambly cane. "It’s a joy to even be here," he said. "Nature was so generous to this place."

"Daddy loved farming," his daughter said on Tuesday, the day of his funeral. "He loved being out on the land and having things grow. He was a very good farmer."

She went on, "Every single summer, when we came home, he would say, ‘Let me take you on a farm tour.’ " This year, the land he farmed, 260 acres, ran from Gallupville to Altamont, she said. "He grew the best-looking corn in the state of New York," she said.

Ms. Degan also said her father enjoyed hunting close to home and all across the country and into Canada. He was the proprietor of the Beaver Creek Lodge on Tug Hill.

Ms. Degan recounted how her father’s domain as a farmer grew. "He started on his own with a little Ford tractor," she said. "He plowed every victory garden in Altamont." Then, in 1952, he bought his own farm on the Knox-Gallupville Road.

"He loved what he did and he never stopped doing it," said Ms. Degan. Mr. Whipple farmed right up until he was hospitalized. "He was very good at it."

Ms. Degan recalled, when she was applying to the Ag School at Cornell, the interviewer, inquiring about her family’s dairy farm, asked what the farm’s herd average was, and she replied, 15,000 pounds. He said that would be "pretty unusual for a small herd," doubting her assertion. "We had only 33 cows," she said. The skeptical interviewer looked up the Whipples’ farm on the spot. "By golly, it was 15,300," Ms. Degan said. "Daddy had a gift."

She went on, "He had incredible enthusiasm. He was almost visionary, always looking ahead to the next thing."

Ms. Degan’s sister, Martha Durand, wrote a poem when she was in junior high school about picking sweet corn in the morning, not a job that his three children relished.

"Daddy would go at it like it was a party," said Ms. Degan. "The ground was muddy; the leaves were wet, you’d get sopping wet. And he’d say, ‘C’mon in, kids; the water’s fine.’ He had a joie de vivre."

At the urging of his children, Mr. Whipple, in his later years, wrote down vignettes from his boyhood in a book called A Gift of Heritage.

"He was a great story teller and we had been after him for years to write them down. So much has changed since he was a boy. He grew up in a house that didn’t have electricity or running water. I can even remember when the central heat went in. His grandfather farmed with a team of horses," said Ms. Degan. "The last thing he said to me — he couldn’t talk when he was in the hospital — was, ‘Make sure you get my book done.’"

The family will publish the memoir, she said.

Community service

Always active in town affairs, Mr. Whipple, a staunch Republican, was elected town judge in Knox, serving on the bench from 1968 to 1974.

Hammond, Knox’s long-time Democratic supervisor, said that Mr. Whipple, in his capacity as town judge, also served on the Knox Town Board. "Back then," Mr. Hammond said, having checked the town-board minutes for 1974, "town justices served as councilmen."

"It meant a lot to him to be elected, that people would entrust him," said Ms. Degan.

Mr. Whipple also served on a board that set up town zoning and, at the time of his death, he was on the Knox Board of Assessment Review.

"He provided the Board of Assessment Review with a wide spectrum of knowledge on agriculture and property evaluation," said Mr. Hammond.

In a town with nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans, Mr. Whipple ran two solid races for the Albany County Legislature, going door-to-door to most the houses in the district.

"He was convinced the only way to campaign was to meet every voter in the district," said his daughter. Although those campaigns were unsuccessful, she said, "He liked meeting people. He enjoyed politics."

Mr. Whipple used his skills with people, selling insurance for Farm Family. Robert Giebitz wrote this week that, when he was recruiting agents to sell life insurance, he was impressed with Mr. Whipple’s enthusiasm but concerned his farming would conflict with selling. "It turned out that he sold more life insurance part-time than most of my agents did working full-time," said Mr. Giebitz.

Mr. Whipple combined his love of the land and his sales skills to become a real-estate broker and appraiser. Mr. Giebitz wrote this week of his friend, "When I moved to New Mexico, Bob sold my home in Berne. Bob knew I had financial problems and, when the sale was completed, he refused his commission."

Ms. Degan also said of her father, "He was very patriotic. He loved his country and his town. He wanted to see the town do better. He did that by getting involved.

"He worked hard for the Republican Party for many years. Daddy was friends with a lot of people on the other side of the ticket, too. He cared about making things better."

Gordon, the incumbent Democratic Albany County Legislator who bested Mr. Whipple in his two campaigns to represent the Hilltowns, said yesterday, "Bob was a very well-respected gentleman, known to be a leader in both agriculture and the Republican Party in the town of Knox and in the Hilltowns. Bob’s loss is a terrible loss...It’s a sad day for all of us."

Mr. Gordon went on about their closely-contested races for the legislature, "Bob was a gentleman to run against...Bob and I disagreed on a lot of issues; we saw things from different sides of the fence. But we respected each other’s opinions. He cared about the good of the people."

Mr. Whipple was also fond of going to alumni functions for Berne-Knox-Westerlo. He graduated from Berne-Knox High School in 1949. "He didn’t go to college," said Ms. Degan, although he later took courses in real estate and while serving as town judge. "He always went to Berne-Knox reunions and had many fond memories of going to school there."

The Whipple family is asking that memorial contributions be made to a BKW scholarship fund. "We wanted to leave a legacy that would make a difference in the community," said Ms. Degan. "The money will be used for kids going into vo-tec."

Mr. Whipple’s favorite high-school classes were shop and ag, she said. "That’s what he wanted to do. He was a rabid member of Future Farmers of America." His favorite teacher was his shop teacher and his best high-school event was the trip he took to the FFA convention in Kansas City, she said.

"Kids like that need support, too," said Ms. Degan. "They don’t get as much help as the kids who want to be teachers or doctors or lawyers."

Strong father

Mr. Whipple "was not the kind of father our husbands are now — changing diapers and giving bottles," said Ms. Degan. "He was a father who always seemed so strong to me. You felt safe knowing he was there."

She went on, "We spent a lot of time with him because he was a farmer. My mother’s favorite phrase was, ‘Go help your father.’"

And they did.

"From a very young age, we’d be on the tractor with him...I remember peddling sweet corn on the streets of Altamont when I was 6 years old," said Ms. Degan. Her father would drive his pickup, loaded with corn, through the village and she would run from porch to porch, delivering ears of corn.

"We learned by example, being with him," said Ms. Degan. Her brother, she said, was especially close to their father, working with him on the farm.

"He had a lot, lot, lot of good friends," Ms. Degan said of her father. "He worked hard and played hard. My husband calls him one of the last true romantics — he dreams big and makes it happen."


Mr. Whipple was a member of the Farm Bureau, the New York State Outdoor Guides Association, the National Association of Real Estate Appraisers, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the New York State Maple Producers Association. He was a charter member of the Albany-Schoharie Plank Road Association, and a past member of the Knox Reformed Church and the Altamont Reformed Church. He was the president of the High Point Cemetery Association.

He is survived by his son, Brian A. Whipple and his wife, Kathy, of East Berne; two daughters, Deborah Degan and her husband, Mike, of Wilton, N.H. and Martha Durand and her husband, John, of Howell, N.J.; three stepsons, Charles Stewart, of Altamont, Daniel Stewart, of Delanson, and Thomas Stewart, of California; his fiancée, Frances Cornwell, of Gallupville; his brother, Henry Whipple and his wife, Pat, of Knox; 16 grandchildren; several great-grandchildren; numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins; and his business partner, Gillen Heitzman.

His wife, Anne M. (Coogan) Whipple, died before him as did his second wife, Theresa (Stewart) Whipple, and his sister, Ann Fullerton, of South Woodstock, Vt.

Funeral services were held on Tuesday at the Altamont Reformed Church. Arrangements are by the Fredendall Funeral Home of Altamont. Interment was at High Point Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Alumni Association for its scholarship fund, Post Office Box 4, Berne, NY 12023, or to the Helderberg Ambulance Squad, Post Office Box 54, East Berne, NY 12059.

Coons family looks to rise from the ashes

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Rick Coons said the community is doing an outstanding job of coming together to take care of his younger daughter’s basic needs. But he worries about her psyche; he wants her to be free of guilt.

A fire Sunday burned the Cobleskill house where she lived with her mother and grandmother. Fire investigators suspect the blaze started by unattended candles, Rick Coons said. But, he said, he thinks it may have been started by old wiring.

The day before the fire, on Saturday morning, Chelsea Coons wanted to celebrate her 17th birthday by having breakfast at an Albany diner with her family.

On Wednesday, Rick Coons said, his daughter had read an account of the fire in the media "that made her hysterical."

After the fire, Chelsea Coons and her mother were housed by the American Red Cross at the Best Western Motel in Cobleskill, he said.

The fire started in a room of the house that Chelsea was decorating downstairs from her own room, he said, so that she could be closer to her grandmother, Madelyn Wright. His daughter, he said, was giving up her young life to care for her grandmother, who had cancer. She had brought a refrigerator to the spare room as well as a Christmas tree and Christmas lights.

For years, Chelsea Coons and her mother, JoAnne Coons, who is divorced from Rick Coons, had cared for Wright. Wright, who was 78, succumbed to the burns that covered most of her body and died Monday morning, Rick Coons said.

He lives in Berne and works as a mechanic in a shop he owns, Quality Auto Service in Rotterdam.

While describing the circumstances around and leading up to the fire, Rick Coons was at times beside himself, crying. At other times, he was optimistic, saying, "We can’t change the past. We have to move on."

And he was also uncertain, searching for answers for how the fire started and questioning the initial investigation and wondering whether he wants another investigation or if he wants to know the truth.

While, over the course of his life, he has lost many friends and family members, he said, "This hit me harder than anything I’ve ever dealt with. I just can’t make any sense of it."

Chelsea started her schooling in the Knox nursing school. She is currently in her final year of high school at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School. She has been considering colleges, such as the state schools at Potsdam and New Paltz, and wants to pursue a degree in either music or nutrition, her father said. She plays the viola and the electric and acoustic guitars and is a gifted musician, he said.

Rick Coons described his daughter as selfless and not materialistic.

"There’s a good chance her grandmother wasn’t going to make it much longer," he said, adding that if Wright had died after his daughter had gone away to college, it would have been easier for her.

Chelsea, he said, had begun caring for her grandmother as her condition worsened about three years ago when Chelsea was "at a point where she can have a social life."

"She has an excellent work ethic," he said of his daughter, who works at a Cobleskill diner.

"Kicked in the teeth"

Chelsea Coons lost pets and new running shoes in the fire, her father said.

"She lost a lot," he said, "but she didn’t lose everything."

The family is awaiting insurance money, and Chelsea Coons and her mother plan to live in an apartment building in Cobleskill.

Beyond the fire loss, the next day Chelsea suffered what otherwise would have seemed a minor theft.

The morning after the fire, after her grandmother had died, Chelsea Coons hadn’t slept, and, her father said, she was "a little disoriented" and "absent-minded because she hadn’t slept."

She went shopping at a supermarket. At the check-out counter, she discovered she didn’t have her purse; she checked in the bathroom, in her car, and watched the store’s surveillance cameras, Rick Coons said. The cameras showed she didn’t have the purse with her as she entered the store, and, he said, he thinks she left it on her seat in the car and someone stole it. There was between $300 and $400 in her purse, as well as a cell phone, her debit and library cards, and her driver’s license, he said.

Rick Coons called the incident, "another kick in the teeth."

"She was so tired," he said.


This week, Brian Brusgul, a friend of the Coons family, established a trust fund in Chelsea Coons’s name. Donations may be made at any Trustco Bank branch, Brusgul said, where donors need only mention the Chelsea Coons benefit fund.

Liddle discontent after close clerks race

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — After being narrowly defeated in the November election, Deborah Liddle, Democratic candidate for Knox town clerk, says the letter she circulated during her campaign was "not of a malicious nature."

Her opponent, Republican incumbent Kimberly Swain, ran an ad the week of the election in The Altamont Enterprise, that said Liddle was circulating "a negative campaign letter."

Swain and Liddle have been neck-in-neck in the last two elections. Swain won the two-year term in 2005 by just 50 votes, ousting Liddle, and this year kept her post by just 13 votes. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Knox, 5 to 3. The part-time clerk’s post pays $11,978.

In her campaign letter, Liddle said, "nothing was even said" of Swain. The letter doesn’t name Swain or refer to Swain directly. Liddle wrote, "The Knox Town Clerk should be someone who has the knowledge, ability, and skills to perform all the critical functions and responsibilities of being the town clerk." She wrote the letter, she said, to explain the duties of the office, and to say that, while in office, she had successfully performed the duties and that she would continue to perform them if elected.

Swain also says she didn’t mention her opponent in her ad the week of the election.

"I didn’t write anything negative about her. I didn’t mention her name," she said. "I simply stated that if I win or lose, at least I know I ran a clean and fair campaign."

Liddle has been the town’s court clerk, an appointed position, since 1996. She was a deputy town clerk, also appointed, from 1983 to 2000. She was Knox’s town clerk for three two-year terms, from 2000 to 2006, until she was defeated by Swain two years ago.

While Liddle’s campaign letter makes no outright accusations, it can be read as alluding to a situation where Swain came under fire.

Earlier this year, resident Edward Ackroyd filed a Freedom Of Information Law request with the town for an updated zoning ordinance. Upon returning to Town Hall for his request, Swain gave Ackroyd an e-mail from Robert Price, the long-time chairman of the planning board, to long-time Democratic Supervisor Michael Hammond. The e-mail says, "Mr. Ackroyd has raised his pain-in-the-whazoo head yet again."

The state’s Freedom Of Information Law says a governmental agency may withhold information; it doesn’t say it must, said Robert Freeman, the director of the state’s Committee on Open Government.

In her campaign letter, Liddle states, "I will ensure the prevention of serious loss or compromise of the town’s critical and sensitive information" and "I will uphold the confidentiality entrusted to me regarding delicate information."

This week, in a letter to The Enterprise editor, Liddle writes that Swain’s comments in the ad couldn’t be refuted until now and that some residents may have believed Swain and it cost Liddle the election.

"I don’t think my letter had any affect on the people’s voting," Swain said of her ad. "Obviously, it was clear that, two years ago, that’s what the people wanted...and that’s what they continued this year."

Swain said she simply stated that, if she won or lost, she had a good two years and that she hoped she would be elected to serve another two years.

"So I don’t think it was directed at her," Swain said of her ad. "Entirely, no."

As well as attributing the election’s outcome to Swain’s ad, Liddle said, Swain received more votes because she also ran on small-party lines.

In 2005 and again in this year’s election, Liddle said, she received more votes from Democrats than Swain received from Republicans.

Two years ago

Two years ago, after Swain was elected, the town board voted unanimously in December of 2005 to send her to the Training School for Newly-Elected Town Officials, a three-day conference in January of 2006. The cost of the class, Swain said, was $150, and she returned after the class to attend the clerk’s hours on a Tuesday night.

"The training class was just a little stepping stone," she said, "There’s a lot of things that they didn’t cover that the town clerk does...in their daily and monthly duties."

Liddle said the town spent a total of $900 to train Swain and to buy a new software program for Swain to pay the town’s bills.

Liddle referred to her time in office and the political change two years ago.

"All of a sudden, you have a mix now," Liddle said of the Democratic supervisor working with a Republican town clerk.

Liddle said Democratic Supervisor Michael Hammond trusts her and that, while she was the town’s clerk, he gave her a key to his office, where she used a computer to enter bills. "So," said Liddle of when Swain became the town’s clerk, "the accounting program had to be secured."

Asked if the town bought the program because of a shift in political affiliation in the town clerk’s office, Hammond said, "No."

Two years ago, the town bought a bookkeeping system specifically designed for town clerks that creates abstracts, Hammond said.

"There’s no loyalty between the town clerk and the supervisor," Liddle said of Swain and Hammond. "That’s something you have to gain over time." Hammond would not comment on Liddle’s statement.

Swain said this week she is in office for the right reasons.

"I’m here to help everybody. I’m a lifelong resident," she said. "I want to do the best that I can for myself and for everybody else that lives in the town."

Fight is on to save clinic

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — A group of citizens is fighting to keep the Perkins Clinic in Westerlo open.

The number of patients at the Main Street clinic, run by St. Peter’s Hospital, has dropped drastically in recent years and is losing money, a hospital spokesman told The Enterprise last month.

A questionnaire was recently sent to area residents from St. Peter’s Hospital to gauge the community’s use of the facility. After the questionnaire was sent out, a score of concerned residents formed to keep the facility open.

Dr. Anna Perkins, who served the Hilltowns for decades, died in 1993, leaving her medical office to continue serving the community.

Some area residents question where elderly residents will go to receive medical attention and whether they will continue to seek attention if the facility is closed.

Cathy Rudzinski, the Friends of the Perkins Clinic’s spokesperson, questioned the validity of the survey’s results. She said only a small number of people received the questionnaire, that the survey didn’t ask "a whole lot of questions," and that people received the questionnaire in locations where the future of the facility is not of as much concern.

"The majority should have hit Westerlo," Rudzinski said. "It could have been done better."

Rudzinski said she would like a chance to see the facility stay open, but, even if it can no longer remain in the same building, another location could be found. Rudzinski said a fund-raiser could be held.

While the facility is run by St. Peter’s, the building is owned by the not-for-profit Helderberg Medical Building Association, Inc, the corporation Perkins signed the property over to in 1986. The town’s supervisor, Richard Rapp, is a member of the corporation’s board of directors, which is primarily comprised of local residents. St. Peter’s has been in charge of the facility since 1994.

In the deed, Perkins stipulated that she be permitted during her life to use her office, the two adjoining rooms, and a one-car garage on the property. Nothing on the deed restricts the use or sale of the property by the corporation.

"That seems to be the problem," Rudzinski said of the facility being run by St. Peter’s and the building being owned by a corporation. "If the two of them don’t work together, we’re going to have problems, I think."

At Westerlo’s town board meeting this month, concerned citizens packed Town Hall. "As soon as the meeting was over, people signed up to see if they could help," said Rudzinski.

After the questionnaire, she said, the facility started to close on Thursdays "instead of extending the hours later into the night and earlier in the morning."

St. Peter’s leaders maintain the facility is losing $160,000 each year, Rudzinski claimed, adding that the figure "may be on the clinic proper."

Elmer Streeter, spokesman for St. Peter’s Hospital, said one month ago that, in 2005, the Anna Perkins center had 4,401 active patients, and, one year later, the number declined to 3,456. This year, based on the 3,000 visits so far, Streeter estimated the facility now has just 800 to 1,000 active patients. Streeter did not return calls to The Enterprise this week.

Peg Duncan, a member of the citizens’ group, attributed the declining number of patients to the facility’s cutting its hours.

Recently, Rudzinski said, she has had tests performed at the clinic that "have run up in the thousands [of dollars]." With the facility no longer running, she said, St. Peter’s would no longer be receiving that money.

Duncan said elderly residents won’t go "off the Hill" for their medical needs.

"A real vicious cycle"

The citizens’ group held its third meeting on Monday night at the Westerlo Rescue Squad building in the hamlet.

The group has scheduled another meeting for Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at the same location. Shortly after the group meets, they will move to Town Hall, where the town board will be holding its regular meeting, said Rudzinski.

A public meeting with the town board and representatives of St. Peter’s is also scheduled for Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

Rudzinski lauded the staff of the Perkins center. "I think they run it very professionally," she said. The facility employs a practical nurse, a receptionist, and a physician, Dr. Edwin Windle.

"Without them, where would the older people go"" Rudzinski asked. Her mother, she said, is bed-ridden, and Dr. Windle makes visits to her house.

"To get her to a doctor," Rudzinski said, "we would have to call an ambulance."

She said that, if the center closed, it would result in "a real vicious cycle." Ambulance costs would be "astronomical," and Westerlo, which she called "a depressed area," would see higher taxes.

Leonard Laub, Westerlo’s planning board chairman, and his wife are patients of the clinic. Laub, a member of the citizens’ group, said he is involved "not as a planning board person," but as a citizen and patient. Laub called the Perkins Center "very much a fixture of the community."

Windle, who practices internal medicine and pediatrics at the facility and has been employed there since 1996, has "quite a following from high school sports teams," said Laub. The clinic still has an employee, Laub said, who worked under Perkins.

Laub said patients come to the center because they know its staff.

Westerlo town council members and members of the citizens’ group have sent letters to Steven Boyle, the president of St. Peter’s Hospital’s and its chief executive officer.

In his letter to Boyle, Councilman R. Gregory Zeh cites "two key components" from St. Peter’s mission: "We advocate for accessible health care and quality of life for all, especially the poor," and "We respond with courage and integrity to needs for services in a rapidly changing health care environment."

Both, Zeh wrote, support the continuation of health-care services at the Anna Perkins Center.

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