A Catskill Catalog: March 18, 2009
I got to thinking about Abe Savetman the other day when the President of the United States was talking about the importance of setting high educational standards for our young people. Abe did not live in the Catskills for very long, but, in one mountain public school, he went a long way toward establishing a standard of excellence that young people have pursued, now, for over 20 years.
Abe Savetman was already an older guy when, in 1982, he bought the former Mountain Star House up on Turkey Ridge in Greene County’s Town of Halcott. Abe retired to the mountains with the love of his life, Mia Steiner, after what one local friend describes as “quite an adventurous life.”
Abe had been an avocado farmer in California and a chicken farmer in Tennessee. He had lived in Israel for a while. An accomplished baker, Abe had tried to start a bakery in New Jersey, but problems with a partner or with financing or with government regulation had squelched that plan. Besides, the 70-something lifelong bachelor had fallen in love.
Mia Steiner, a holocaust survivor, was the widow of Abe’s best friend. She was a smart cultured lady, an artist who painted in an impressionistic style, with a palette and technique inspired by the great French painter Claude Monet. Abe pursued Mia vigorously in her widowhood, and, finally, she relented, agreeing to accompany him to the Catskills where they would marry. When they discovered that the New Jersey marriage license they packed in their luggage would not be accepted for a New York wedding ceremony, well, they decided to leave well enough alone.
Abe brought Mia to their new home, the old Mountain Star House, a 30- or 36-room former boarding house that had once been owned by the grandparents of Don Bouton, lifelong Halcott resident and author of a wonderful, and beautifully written, book of reminiscence By the Light of the Kerosene Lamp (privately published, 2001). Later, that big house was owned by Myron Morse.
The Mountain Star was quite a house, a three-story, flat-topped, mansard-roofed Victorian with a tower that contained all the house’s bathrooms. Abe and Mia filled the Mountain Star with books and music and art, and with the smell of bread baking.
Abe Savatman was “quite the character,” in the words of one of his friends and neighbors, the mother of several small children whom Abe “harassed” with bits of song and poetry and with quotations from Mark Twain. Abe was devoted to Twain, frequently quoting the great American author of Huckleberry Finn, the book that writer Ernest Hemingway credited as being the beginning of modern American literature.
He was also devoted to classical music, believing it was the only music worth listening to. Abe had a good singing voice, although untrained, and he regularly sang operatic arias, whether his friends wanted to listen or not.
Abe was equally devoted to natural foods and whole grains. He set up his commercial baking equipment in the house, and baked his dark, coarse loaves late into the night. He would give a loaf of bread to whomever he might visit or see the next day. More than one of his country neighbors found his bread unpalatable, “like cow feed,” in the words of one.
Tragically, Mia Steiner died a few years into their Catskill idyll, and, soon thereafter, Abe’s beloved retriever, Goldie, died, and then Abe himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Knowing his own demise was near, Abe Savetman brought a loaf of bread to a local attorney and asked him to draw up his will.
It was that will that had a profound effect on the education of a generation of Catskill Mountain kids.
After disposing of his tools and baking equipment, his books – including many first editions – and his real estate, after making a modest bequest to a loyal and true neighbor and friend, Abe Savetman left the residue of his estate, some $84,000, to Margaretville Central School to establish a scholarship fund and, more importantly, a series of prizes to be awarded to students for outstanding scholarly or creative work. These prizes were to be awarded in honor and memory of his love, Mia Steiner.
The will was specific about the kind of work for which Abe wanted to reward students. Faculty members at the school refined those wishes to create a series of prizes and awards to which students might legitimately aspire. The Mia Steiner Prizes and Mia Steiner Childhood Awards were first given in the late 1980s, and have been an annual fixture of student achievement at Margaretville Central ever since.
Secondary students compete for Mia Steiner Prizes; elementary pupils for Mia Steiner Childhood Awards. There are Mia Steiner Prizes and Childhood Awards in Science, Math and Technology; in Social Studies and Community Life; in Visual Arts; in Creative Writing; in Performing Arts; and in Poetry. Kind of like an in-school mini Nobel Prize program, with cash and savings bonds along with the prestige of the prize. Winners of Mia Steiner prizes and awards are justly proud.
Abe Savetman died in 1987. Soon after, his house burned to the ground, taking with it his library and Mia Steiner’s paintings. But his legacy and hers live on in the poetry and paintings, the piano and flute pieces, the short stories and songs, the dioramas and dramatic readings of countless children and teens every spring at one little Catskill Mountain school.