A first-time visitor to Schenectady today would find a bustling downtown buoyed by the arts, fine restaurants and shops, world-class entertainment, neat streetscapes.
It wasn’t always this way.
The rebirth of Schenectady, and Union’s part in it, were the themes of Founders Day on Feb. 24, 2022, which commemorated the 227th anniversary of the granting of Union’s charter.
In his keynote address, William Patrick, author of “Metrofix: The Combative Comeback of a Company Town,” traced the trajectory of Schenectady starting from perhaps its lowest point in the late 1980s.
A fire at Peggy’s, a downtown restaurant, and the bankruptcy of Canal Square, a shopping mall, punctuated a decline that had been decades in the making.
The collapse of the American Locomotive Company in 1969 and the continued downsizing of General Electric caused a population loss of 30,000 over 30 years, Patrick said. With that came urban blight: empty houses, vacant storefronts, crime, drugs and corruption.
In 1990, Union was facing challenges of its own: a budget deficit, an enrollment shortfall and a campus in need of repair, most visibly the Nott Memorial, the campus centerpiece.
Patrick said Union’s then-new president, Roger Hull, while mindful of Union’s needs, also understood that working to improve the city around the College was “a matter of enlightened self-interest.”
Hull joined Neil Golub, then CEO of Golub Corp. and Price Chopper supermarkets, in launching Schenectady 2000, a volunteer organization that raised funds and volunteers to clean up the city and attract investors. Hull enlisted the first-year students for a day of service, painting railroad bridges, sweeping sidewalks, planting trees. This tradition continues as John Calvin Toll Day.
In the late 1990s, Union purchased homes along Seward Place and the former Ramada Inn on Nott Street. Another College Park property, the former Alps Grill, became the Kenney Community Center. Patrick called Kenney “a concrete expression of the commitment to community service at Union College, and a crucial lesson for Schenectady. Who said a college couldn’t help save a city?”
Patrick said Union’s investments helped paved the way for the construction of the Golub Corp. headquarters on lower Nott Street and, more recently, the Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino on the former ALCO site.
Patrick cited the service of several students. Rachel Graham ’98 founded COCOA House, an afterschool program. Jeff Gower ’92 started a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity to rebuild homes on Hamilton Hill. Hockey captain Josh Kosack ’22 raised $45,000 for COCOA House and launched his own initiative, Kozi’s Kids. These students and others “would discover that acting with compassion isn’t necessarily doing good deeds because we feel obliged to do them,” Patrick said. “It’s being drawn to action by heartfelt passion.”
Patrick said that President David Harris, like his predecessor, Hull, “realizes the vital importance of Union College and the City of Schenectady working together. As an inveterate builder, he loves a place that has tons of potential, a place already on the path but where what we all can do together will affect its upward trajectory.”
Patrick concluded, “The city wouldn’t be the same without its college. And Union College is lucky to have a revitalized and improving Schenectady. If one thrives, so does the other.”
Patrick, a Schenectady resident, is an award-winning writer whose works have been published or produced in a number of genres: creative nonfiction, fiction, screenwriting, poetry and drama.
President David R. Harris, introducing Patrick, called his book “a case study in urban revitalization that could be a blueprint for the reinvention of any post-industrial American town.” Patrick’s book cites Schenectady 2000 along with the development of lower State Street around Proctors Theatre and the formation of Metroplex, a funding authority, as drivers of Schenectady’s rebound.
Harris concluded, “We can be proud of the many members of the Union community who have played a part in Schenectady’s rebirth, those who continue to venture beyond our gates to find opportunities to make a difference for others and themselves. This city and this college are linked by more than history. We have a shared interest in one another’s success.”
Also at Founders Day, Pablo Garcia, a mathematics and computer science teacher at the Schechter School of Long Island, received the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award, which recognizes a high school teacher who has had a continuing influence on a Union College student. He was nominated by Mayah Teplitskiy ’25, an English and mathematics double major from Queens, N.Y.
The Founders Day program also included music from the past, present and future.
Dianne McMullen, college organist and John Howard Payne Professor of Music, performed a processional; “Allegro Maestoso” from “Water Music” by Georg Frideric Händel (1685-1759); and a recessional “Fanfare in Bb Major” by Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
Chloe Metcalfe ’23, Helen Smith ’22 and Paige Kent ’23 sang “A Million Dreams” from the 2017 musical film “The Greatest Showman,” arranged and accompanied by Professor Tim Olsen.
Henry Bush ’22 presented a musical reflection, “Human nature wants peace, but indulgence and desires ... etc.” The three-minute piece is a combination of produced, recorded and processed sounds that concludes with a soundscape from Van Vranken Avenue.
The celebration opened with remarks from Kathleen LoGiudice, College marshal and professor of biological sciences; Robert Bertagna ’85, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees; Stephen Schmidt, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and Kenneth B. Sharpe Professor of Economics; and Hayley Balogh ’22, president of Student Forum.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by McMullen.