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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009

Remembering Don Otterness
A shepherd who built bridges to make the mundane marvelous

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Don Otterness built a bridge — an old-fashioned covered bridge — over the Vly Creek so that kids walking from the parking lot to Voorheesville Elementary would have a magic passage to their school. He made a mundane crossing special.

A patient, unassuming man, Mr. Otterness built many bridges in his lifetime. He died last Friday at his farmhouse off of Dunnsville Road, surrounded by people he loved. He was 77.

This week, as we looked through decades of news clips we had written over the years — some of them brittle and yellowed, others printed out crisply from our website — we could see the many parts of the community to which Mr. Otterness lent his support. We could see the many bridges he built that made the mundane marvelous.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, recently retired from a quarter century of teaching science at the elementary school, Mr. Otterness held clinics at his farm on the outskirts of Altamont to help others learn about shepherding. At that point, he had raised sheep for over 15 years. He raised border collies, too, to herd the sheep. City folk who came to the Altamont fairgrounds were amazed to see his dogs respond to his commands as they darted hither and yon, herding the sheep.

Mr. Otterness said he held the clinics for the new shepherds because “sheep people are helpful, and positive.” He might have been describing himself. “You get a call in the middle of the night: ‘I’m having trouble lambing, can you help me?’ ....They expect  you to come, and you do. They’d do the same for me. Sheep people like to help each other.”

Mr. Otterness was proud of his flocks, most recently raising Cotswolds. He switched to that breed at the turn of the new century because of the fine, long wool they produce.

The crimp in the fleece from Cotswolds is more a curl, he told my younger daughter, a dedicated knitter. She was writing about the forms of wool from green pastures to the Golden Fleece as she covered the Altamont Fair. The crimp in the wool fibers, like curly hair, is what makes a wool sweater stretch and spring back to its original shape, unlike an acrylic sweater, he told her.

He also told her of the history of sheep’s fleece. Centuries ago, when the Greeks were looking for gold, they would put fleece in a stream and, if it picked up enough gold flecks, they would start mining in that area, Otterness said. This practice is likely what led to the mythic tale of the Golden Fleece, sought by Jason and the Argonauts.

Mr. Otterness knew more than the history of sheep, though, and he tended to more than his flocks.

In 2000, he organized a reunion for the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Thirty men, some with their families, came to Altamont to mark the occasion. They had served with Mr. Otterness in Korea after receiving their basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Like Mr. Otterness, they had come from the Midwest, from Minnesota down to Texas.

“We were in a bunker together for 13 months,” Mr. Otterness said of the dozen soldiers he was closest to. He described the bunker — “all sandbags, with a door, built into the side of a mountain.” It was located just below the 38th parallel, close to Puson.

“In the middle of the night, we’d make ammo runs,” he said. “You’d take your turn. One time, it would be guard duty, then an ammo run...I don’t remember getting on each other’s nerves,” he said when I asked about the close quarters. “We were very close. It will be good to see each other again.”

Mr. Otterness organized the reunion, he said, because he was tired of hearing that Korea was the forgotten war. He remembered, and did something about it.

Towards the end of the Cold War, Mr. Otterness wrote to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and started a farm exchange with Russia. He opened his Altamont farm to Russian visitors and visited Russia in return. He wanted to teach whoever wanted to learn. He cared for the world at large.

In 2001, on Earth Day, Mr. Otterness showed up at the Guilderland Cemetery at Osborne Corners to help with cleanup there. He said then he had helped care for the cemetery for 37 years. None of his family is buried there; he just liked the place. “People come here for walking,” he said. “It’s beautiful. The deer come in.”

Mr. Otterness had a keen appreciation of beauty.  When he was a middle-aged man, he saw a slide show of New Zealand and promised himself that, one day, he would go there. Twenty years later, at age 74, he fulfilled that promise. He felt so filled up with beauty on his first day in New Zealand that he said to himself, “I can go home now.”

He went on, “One tree was so beautiful, I couldn’t bear to look at it.” He described it as a pine tree in a perfect triangular shape with all its needles pointing up.”

Mr. Otterness was there to shear sheep and worked with an international crew, getting paid a dollar for each sheep he sheared. The oldest in his crew, he sheared about 80 a day, while others sheared 200 or 250 sheep each day. He got better at shearing, and he also made bridges with New Zealand people.

He spent that Christmas with a family of Maori, native New Zealand people of Polynesian descent. “I felt right at home with them,” he said, describing their modest home where the meat for the Christmas feast was cooked over stone.

Mr. Otterness made up felt balls of wool to give to the children. “They played with those balls all day,” he said. “The dog and the puppies, too, they all played with them...There were no other gifts. It’s not commercial like here...The oldest person gave a prayer.”

Mr. Otterness had embraced the Biblical meaning of shepherding one Christmas at home when he hosted a living Nativity at his farm, complete with live animals.

He connected with people on the other side of the world — in Russia and New Zealand — and close to home, too, with farming as a common bond. He had grown up on a farm in Minnesota, with seven sisters and a brother, and he loved teaching kids about the joys of farming. He shepherded the kids in his 4-H group, the Country Tigers, from doing chores at his farm to showing their animals each year at the Altamont Fair.

Many of the kids he taught were raised in suburbia and learned about animals only by visiting his farm. One of those kids is 13-year-old Rachel Lee. She and her Cotswold ewe, Isabelle, traveled with Mr. Otterness to the State Fair in Syracuse. “Isabelle got reserve champion her first try,” said Rachel proudly. Mr. Otterness, she said, taught her “everything” — from bottle-feeding a lamb to shearing a sheep. “I just love animals,” she said.

“We live in Weatherfield,” said Rebecca’s mother, Clare Mertz. “You can hardly have a dog here. If it weren’t for Don, she wouldn’t have learned any of this...Now she’s going with the 4-H program to explore careers in animal science.”

She said of Mr. Otterness, “Most 12- and 13-year-olds don’t like to hang out with adults. But they loved him. He was like a grandfather to all the kids...His life was one of devout service.”

My own elder daughter had Mr. Otterness as a science teacher at the elementary school, where she struggled in her early years. She always looked forward to Mr. Otterness’s classroom visits and still fondly remembers the class trips to his farm. Science became her passion and, in third grade, she wrote a booklet, saying she would be a vet when she grew up. This spring, she will graduate from Cornell University with a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine.

Mr. Otterness linked generations of suburban kids to the land and farm life. On one trip to Mr. Otterness’s farm, the students in my daughter’s class made plaster casts of footprints near his pond; we still hang the brightly painted ornaments made from those plaster casts on our Christmas tree each year.

On another trip, Mr. Otterness gave a piece of sheep’s wool to each visiting child. My guess, as a mother, was that he talked about the healing properties of lanolin. But my daughter thought the piece of white fluff had magical powers to heal. I never disabused her of this notion.  

For years, my daughter kept the wool as a talisman in a box of treasures on top of her dresser, a reminder of the unassuming man who had unusual ways of seeing the world and connecting to people.  Who’s to say that’s not magic?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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