Author Richard Russo helps College celebrate Founders Day

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In Richard Russo’s epic novel Bridge of Sighs, the character Lucy Lynch chooses to spend his life in his hometown of Thomaston. By contrast, Lynch’s childhood friend, Robert Noonan, can’t wait to escape the fictional town in upstate New York and heads to Venice, never to return.


Author Richard Russo

Russo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose novels draw heavily from his experiences growing up in Gloversville, less than an hour from campus, was often asked which character he most identified with, Lucy or Robert. Both, he would reply.

Delivering the keynote address at Founders Day Thursday, Russo admitted his answer was both glib and literary.

“Gloversville and upstate New York run in my veins the way Dublin ran in Joyce’s,” he told the audience that filled Memorial Chapel to commemorate the 217th anniversary of the College’s charter.

“Though I find Joyce’s later work impenetrable, I think about him a lot, his need to exile his physical self from Ireland while allowing his imagination, ever faithful, to remain in Dublin, where the deepest truths he knew were.”

The choice to select Russo as speaker was a logical one. He has written seven novels, including Mohawk, Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His small-town roots run deep in the characters and sense of place in many of his novels.

At Convocation in the fall, President Stephen C. Ainlay focused on the theme of place and urged the campus community to appreciate the College’s location in the Mohawk Valley and the breadth of opportunities that affords.

In introducing Russo, Ainlay said the author “has been a superb guide into some of the intricacies of our culture, and I am thrilled that he joins us today.”

During his 20-minute talk, Russo read a passage from Bridge of Sighs that undoubtedly draws from life in Gloversville. He followed with an entry from his upcoming first memoir, Elsewhere, recounting his daughter’s wedding in London in 2007.

The idea of selecting the two passages, one fictional, the other not, Russo said, was to ponder a question every writer inevitably faces: Where do you get your ideas from?

“I leave it to you to decide where the greater truth lies, which may be another way of asking you to define truth,” he told the audience.

After his talk, Russo joined some 30 faculty, staff and students in Milano Lounge in Hale House, where he reflected on the balance between weighing facts and truth in his memoir, and how to shape the narrative so it has the force of fiction.

Earlier in the day, Russo also pondered this question when he and Ainlay appeared together on WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, a member of National Public Radio.

As he told listeners, “You’re doing all the same things as in fiction – hopefully without the invention. It still has to be a good story. You want your readers to have a great emotional and intellectual response.”

To read a story in the Times Union (with photo gallery), click here.

Also at Founders Day, Therese A. McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, presented Samuel J. Salamone ’00 with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Salamone, a chemistry teacher at Little Falls (N.Y.) High School, was nominated by A. Richard Harris '14, a biology major from Little Falls. The award, named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education, is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.

The ceremony also featured the Camerata Singers, under the direction of John Cox, performing James Erb’s arrangement of Shenandoah.

The celebration to mark the 217th anniversary of the granting of the College’s charter by the state opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and chair of the Theater and Dance Department; Mark Walsh ’76, chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees; Mark Walker, the John Bigelow Professor of History and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; Mital Patel ’12, Student Forum president; Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam; and President Ainlay.

The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen.

Past speakers at Founders Day have included Deborah Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation; Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson; Paul LeClerc, retired president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library and a former professor at Union; and Ira M. Rutkow ’70, a surgeon and author whose writing has focused on the history of American medicine.