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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009

Donald Ruthford Otterness, a farmer and intuitive teacher

GUILDERLAND — A farmer and a teacher, Donald Ruthford Otterness linked generations of local kids to farm life.

“He was a patient person,” said Clare Mertz of Voorheesville, whose children were in the Country Tigers 4-H Club led by Mr. Otterness. “He loved the children and gave 100 percent up till the very end....His life was one of devout service.”

“His teaching was very intuitive, very experiential,” said his son, Dr. Richard Otterness, the oldest of his four children. “That’s how he was as a father, too. He was not much for reading and concepts and theories. He had you get out and do it.”

Mr. Otterness died on Friday, March 20, 2009, at his farmhouse off of Dunnsville Road, on the outskirts of Altamont, surrounded by people he loved. He was 77.

“He was really, truly an idea man,” said his wife, Sonja Otterness. “He was a Gemini, two people…He was always starting something then working out how to do it.”

She gave as an example the United States-Russian Farm Exchange that Mr. Otterness initiated. Mr. Otterness wrote directly to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Lo and behold,” said his wife, “he got a call from an agency in Russia.” Mr. Otterness had bacon on the stove in the farmhouse kitchen when he answered the phone and was talking through a translator when he saw the bacon was burning. He picked up the flaming pan, said his wife, and swiftly threw it out the door as the translator continued.

“He got back on the phone and they never knew what happened,” she concluded.

The program moved forward. “That summer, we had eight Russians and an interpreter come to the farm,” said Mrs. Otterness. It was the summer of 1991. “They were here when the coup happened in Russia,” she recalled. Mikhail Gorbachev spent three days under house arrest that August before being restored to power as support swung to Boris Yeltsin.

“The following year, we went to Russia,” said Mrs. Otterness. And more Russians then came to visit Altamont. “We met a wonderful young man who stayed with us and is now an American citizen,” said Mrs. Otterness.

Dr. Otterness said that the exchange with Russia was motivated by his father’s desire to honor the memory of his older brother, William, who was active in an international peacemaking network.

At a time when the Soviet Union was an oppressive force, “it was about relationships between average citizens,” said Dr. Otterness.

Farming was central to Mr. Otterness his whole life. He was born in Leon Township, Minnesota, the son of the late Benjamin and Randie (Ramstad) Otterness. He grew up on a farm, one of nine children — two boys and seven girls.

He kept in touch with his Norwegian roots as a member of the Sons of Norway, Freehold — a fraternal benefit society, based in Minneapolis, that promotes and preserves Norwegian culture and heritage.

Drafted at the age of 21, Mr. Otterness served for two years in the United States Army. He received his basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and then fought in the Korean War, stationed for 13 months in a bunker just below the 38th parallel, close to Puson.

Mr. Otterness graduated from South Dakota State with a degree in animal husbandry, his son said. “His first job was working as a herdsman for one of Carnation Dairy’s two show herds,” he said. “There’s a picture of him leading a cow into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Chicago.”

Mr. Otterness came east to work as a herdsman of a large dairy farm downstate. “The owner’s wife said, ‘You’re really good with children. You should go into education.’ So he left to become a teacher,” said his son.

He taught fifth grade at Voorheesville Elementary School for many years and later became the school’s science coordinator, a position created for him, said his son.

He took his students on field trips to his farm, and built a covered bridge over the Vly Creek, creatively connecting the parking lot to the school.

He also taught at the Helderberg Workshop in the summers where the hands-on approach to learning fit with his teaching style.

In Dr. Otterness’s boyhood, his father raised cattle. “He took great pride in his farm,” he said. “He gave us the freedom to buy and sell and develop our own herds to make money for college.”

Richard Otterness went on to earn a doctorate degree in theology and is a minister with the Reformed Church in America, serving now in Hungary. “My wife and I are ecumenical mission partners, working with the Roma people, commonly called gypsies,” he said, describing them as the most oppressed ethnic group in Europe.

His current work, Dr. Otterness said, is a legacy of his father. He explained, “His philosophy was: If a door opens, take it.”

In his later years, Mr. Otterness focused on raising sheep and was active in the Eastern Wool Growers Association, the Shepherds Association, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and 4-H. He was superintendent of livestock at the Altamont Fair for many years.

He also kept border collies, trained to herd his sheep, and gave demonstrations of their herding capabilities.

Mr. Otterness was a member of the Albany Men’s Garden Club and the National Men’s Garden Club.

“He loved flowers,” said his wife. “He was in charge of the Guilderland Cemetery for years. He would take bouquets that were left there and make arrangements out of them for nursing homes.”

Mr. Otterness met his wife, Sonja, when he brought hay for her horses on Meadowdale Road, she said. “We met in a hayloft,” she quipped. “We were two black sheep….I’m hard to harness but I’m worse to drive.”

Throughout their marriage, the pair loved to dance, she said. “He was a wonderful dancer,” she said. Recalling a vacation they took to Jamaica, she went on, “He was a reggae king in Jamaica.” And, she said, the couple won a dance contest doing the twist on a boat on Lake George. “We usually had an audience,” she said.

Her husband loved children, Mrs. Otterness said. “We would take our miniature horse to St. Peter’s to cheer up patients there,” she said.

“His specialty was taking children who didn’t live on farms and giving them farm opportunities,” said Ms. Mertz.

She also said, “He was a fixture at the sheep barn at the fair. Everybody coming through knew him. He would chat from sunrise to sunset...He was a champion showman and won a lot of ribbons, which was a source of tremendous pride for him. The farm was his life. He loved it….

“Don was a born teacher, had a wonderful sense of humor, possessed the gift of gab, and true love for children and animals,” Ms. Mertz concluded. “Husband, grandfather, teacher, and friend, the world has lost one of the most kind-hearted and generous people we were all fortunate to know.”


Donald Ruthford Otterness is survived by his loving wife of 15 years, Sonja Otterness; by his children, Richard, Paul, and Randi Otterness, and Lisa Coons; by several grandchildren; by many nieces and nephews; and by his first wife, Helen.

His two sisters, Myrtle and Edith, also survive him. His brother and five sisters died before him.

A memorial service was held on Tuesday, March 24, at the Altamont Reformed Church. Arrangements were by New Comer-Cannon Funeral Home of Colonie.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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