Nott

A Magazine for Alumni and Friends


SpringNott Memorial 2012

My place in the world

Bill Ackerbauer ’96 meets Richard Russo
I

could not possibly have been anywhere other than Memorial Chapel on the afternoon of Feb. 23, when novelist Richard Russo gave the keynote address at Union’s Founders Day convocation. Here was the Pulitzer Prize-winner speaking at my alma mater in Schenectady, just a short drive down Route 5 from the place where he grew up—the place that inspires the tragicomic grit and pluck of his fictional characters. Russo’s hometown, Gloversville, borders mine (Johnstown), and the two communities, known as the Glove Cities, are served by the newspaper where I work as an editor and the community college where I teach writing.


For me, hearing Russo speak at Union was indeed a convocation—a powerful calling together of people, places and ideas that have contributed to my worldview.

His audience was rapt as Russo read a passage from Bridge of Sighs about cancer deaths and other postindustrial traumas in a town clearly based on the Gloversville of his youth. One could have heard a pin drop in the chapel as he read from his forthcoming memoir about the afflictions and putrid conditions associated with the leather-tanning industry, which was the Glove Cities’ bread and butter until most of the mills shut down. By the early 1970s, when I was born and Russo had just fled for greener pastures, the local leather-and-glove industry had faded, along with the community’s pride.

The dissonance between the content of the author’s remarks and the setting was palpable. He spoke of his family’s blue-collar roots before an audience mostly comprising people unlikely to ever see the inside of a leather mill—people spared harsh manual labor by virtue of their education, talents and other privileges.

A liberal-arts education from a fine school like Union doesn’t entitle me to an easy life, but it has given me the tools to earn a living with my mind. With it, perhaps I might contribute something to my community more valuable than the finest pair of gloves ever made here.

Russo often is described as a writer whose emphasis is on place, yet he himself has said his main subject is not geography but class. His characters struggle with their places in society more than their places on the map.

It was at Union that I became aware of the role of class in my own life. Back home in blue-collar Johnstown, as the son of a Union-schooled engineer and a teacher, I had advantages that many of my high school classmates did not. But a scholarship and student loans carried me at Union, where it seemed to me most of the student body had arrived from Scarsdale with trunks full of cash in their BMWs. An exaggeration, to be sure, but this was my perception at the time, and this class-culture shock taught me as much about hubris and humility as my professors in the humanities did. I wore my humble upstate identity like a badge of honor, though, so that I took it as a compliment when one wisecracking professor dubbed me his student most likely to be seen smoking cigars outside the Off-Track Betting parlor.

Speaking at Memorial Chapel, Russo compared his ties to Gloversville with those of Joyce and Dublin, a comment that tickled me. Some of my favorite undergraduate recollections include reading Dubliners and puzzling over Finnegan’s Wake on the porch at Sigma Phi. I recall rich conversations with Schenectady native Antonio Viva ’95, when we compared notes while reading Ulysses and determined that, as Joyce did, we should distance ourselves from our roots to gain some critical perspective on our hometowns, where—to paraphrase Russo—the deepest truths that we know reside.

After graduating from Union, I moved around, living in New Hampshire’s Seacoast and in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.—places that enjoy prosperity not seen in Mohawk Valley mill towns for generations. But those places didn’t feel like home, so my wife and I returned to Johnstown to raise our children. It hasn’t been easy, considering the area’s long economic depression and my choice of not one but two notoriously undercompensated professions. It’s a good thing I love both journalism and teaching, because without both jobs I wouldn’t be able to make my mortgage payments.

I don’t need a Russo novel or a visit to my alma mater to make me wonder how my life might have been different if I’d grown up elsewhere or pursued a different career— being a navel-gazing English major, I frequently indulge in such fits of speculation. But hearing Russo speak, and having the opportunity to shake his hand afterward made me realize something about my place in the world: A liberal-arts education from a fine school like Union doesn’t entitle me to an easy life, but it has given me the tools to earn a living with my mind. With it, perhaps I might contribute something to my community more valuable than the finest pair of gloves ever made here.

Bill Ackerbauer earned a B.A. in English literature from Union in 1996 and later earned a master’s degree in English from the University at Albany. He is an editor of the Leader- Herald of Gloversville and an adjunct instructor of English at Fulton- Montgomery Community College. He lives in Johnstown.




 Spring  2012 table of contents