A Catskill Catalog: November 9, 2011

James Oliver keeps coming to mind. He’s the guy who came down from the state Normal School, up in Albany, to teach in Roxbury’s West Settlement School, back in the late 1840s. Albany had a reputation as the best teacher-training school in the state. I don’t know if the farmer who hired him, president of the valley school board that year, was tipped-off that he was hiring a very talented young man.

We know the teacher by his students. In Mr. Oliver’s one-room schoolhouse, two boys shined: Chauncey and Amy Burroughs’ boy, John – a dreamy, creative lad - and that brilliant young Gould kid, Jay.

Hard to be more different - the literary naturalist, John Burroughs, and the titan of finance, Jay Gould. One lived in a world of simplicity: nature and poetry were at the center of his ambition. The other owned almost all the gold in America; did own many of the nation’s most important railroads; and built a grand, gilded castle in Westchester County. Yet, both these men claimed the influence of James Oliver, their teacher in their last years of grammar school.

That’s the thing about the influence of teachers. We know, through our own experience as students, that teachers’ influence can be great. When we become the teacher, however, like James Oliver did, we can never be sure what that influence will actually be.

I think of James Oliver, patron saint of Catskill Mountain schoolteachers, because of the sudden and untimely death last week of Dan Cohen, longtime Catskill Mountain schoolteacher, and mainstay of the Margaretville Central School faculty.

Dan first came to MCS as a student teacher, in the mid-’70s, out of what-we-then-called Oneonta State. Educational reform was in the air in the ’70s, as it is today. Teachers were encouraged to engage students with a relevant curriculum. Schools were encouraged to experiment with new ways of setting up school.

Middle schools were being carved out of the administrative structures and academic assumptions of long-established programs. School had been organized in traditional blocks - either K-8 elementary, 9-12 high school; or K-6, 7-12. The theory and study of education was moving toward a more child-centered model, with curriculum tailored to the various stages of child development. Established grade-school teachers, like Betty Martin and Jeanne Wilson, embraced the new, making the “middle school concept” a holy mantra around the Margaretville building.

It was in that spirit of making-it-new, that Dan Cohen did his student teaching, and it was that spirit he carried with him to the Fleischmanns building, when he was hired, the following year, to teach fourth grade in the MCS elementary school, located in the old Fleischmanns High.

Dan and his colleague, Wayne Garelick, shook up the place. Helping kids learn to read was at the very center of educational reform, then, as it must be now. Helping kids learn to love to read was never far behind. Dan and Wayne built reading lofts in their classrooms, brought in truckloads of books, developed games and strategies designed to make reading fun.

When the Fleischmanns building closed, Dan Cohen came over to Margaretville, where he taught fifth grade for several decades. Some reading this are his former students. Many of Mr. Cohen’s students, including current fifth-graders, are heartbroken today.

A local businesswoman, one of Mr. Cohen’s former students, was shocked, as I was, by the news of his death - such a young man! – shook her head sadly. “I wanted my kids to have him.”

It’s like that here, in the Catskills. A parent’s former teachers soon become her children’s teachers. Family and school become intertwined. A loss at school becomes a loss in the family.

Dan was a family man. His family is devastated. He was an active and responsible union man. That family, too, suffers.

He was a longtime soccer coach, working for years with the late George Stevens, prime mover in the development of youth soccer in the region. Today’s abundant youth-soccer terrain owes much to George, and to Dan.

But, it was a teacher Mr. Cohen was, always, first. He coached the 2002 Margaretville Girls’ Varsity Soccer Team to the New York State Class D Championship. Won a state title! But Dan never took any particular credit for his girls being state champs. After all, he was more than a state-champion soccer coach. He was a fifth-grade teacher.

Late in life, John Burroughs wrote of his local school: “We all got a real start in that school.” Then he explained how: “For under Mr. Oliver we acquired a genuine love of learning.”
Mr. Oliver, Mr. Cohen. Mr. Cohen, Mr. Oliver.