February 17, 2016

Caring unionists brave the cold for their community

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
Our Students. Our Heroes.


If it wasn’t frozen, well, it just wasn’t any fun. 

That’s because, at 15 degrees below zero, pretty much everything was frozen: eyelashes, eyebrows, cheeks, hands and feet – but all for a good cause. The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival parade – the most visible form of community spirit in the North Country between December and black fly season—included a hearty pack of educators from Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Chateaugay and Northern Adirondack. 

They marched with capes, in honor of the theme of this year’s 119th Winter Carnival: “Superheroes and Villains.” Although they didn’t actually fly, they stomped the streets for more than an hour in the festive parade. Their comrades included Mr. Freeze (Really? In this weather?) from Batman; beloved Wookiee warrior Chewbacca from Star Wars; a giant, colorful Mighty Mouse; storm troopers, also from Star Wars; and some desperate-looking Vikings in frozen chains with moustaches caked in ice.

From the sidewalks, they were cheered by the likes of The Beast from X-Men, Cruella De Vil of Dalmatians fame and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

“We teach superheroes every day,” said Brenden Gotham, president of the Lake Placid Educators Association. “To see everybody decked out – it was a fun time, even if it was bitter cold.”

Indeed, 30 parade registrants cancelled the night before the parade due to the extreme temperatures. By Saturday night, it was 27 below. That’s without the wind chill. But the teachers prevailed. 

They walked the parade route handing out free books and shouting out to students, parents and visitors. Because it was too cold for students to march in the parade, the teachers posted photos of their students on the side of the truck that was hauling the books.

"When extremely cold temps made it impossible for students to participate, our members decided to make sure they were there with us in spirit by decorating the truck we marched behind with their pictures," said Don Carlisto, who serves as Saranac Lake Teachers Association co-president with Melissa DeVit: Superhero. Not to be confused with De Vil: Villain. 

While marching in the parade, teachers raised their body temperatures by running around handing out hundreds and hundreds of First Books to children bundled up warmly on the sidewalks.

First Book is a project that puts books in the hands of students. NYSUT and AFT both participate, and hundreds of NYSUT local unions have signed up and received thousands of books that teachers have given to students. 

Gotham, who teaches 12th-grade AP English, loved handing out the books. “Seeing the kids faces when random teachers came up and handed them books, that was really powerful. We were giving out a lot of books!”

He wore a down-filled coat, his uncle’s warm hunting boots, tucked hand warmers in his boots and gloves, and a sock monkey hat. And a cape, of course. 

Not just any cape, either. His wife, Amy Gotham, is a special education teaching assistant and she was the head costumer behind the scenes. She sewed 20 capes for the members of the Lake Placid EA who walked in the parade.

"For the SLTA, walking in the parade was not only a celebration of pride in our community but also pride in our local union and in NYSUT," said Carlisto, a NYSUT Board member. "The entire experience of marching in the parade was reflective of our ties to the community and our focus on our students."

“I expected a handful of people and a parade with no spectators,” said Martin Messner, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, who marched. He was last seen on Saturday afternoon when his eyelashes and eyebrows were painted with a thick coat of white. Frozen, in other words. 

“People were thrilled to be there and had a great time, regardless of the cold.  Thousands of people lined the parade route.  It was impressive.” Events like these are avenues for members to show the face of the union and to dispel the right-wing myth that unions are self-serving organizations, said Messner.

Sounds like those myths are rather villainous. 

It was no surprise that one of the brave parade walkers was Saranac Lake teacher Maria DeAngelo who, last year, walked 152 miles from Saranac Lake to Albany to urge the governor’s office to “walk in our shoes.” She represented students and teachers making a strong case for less testing, more funding and a fairer APPR.

In the parade, the Faculty Association at North Country Community College also joined the festive group of educators. 

The parade is part of the two-week Winter Carnival, which includes a glorious ice palace lit up each night. It is constructed of blocks of ice cut from nearby Lake Flower, hoisted onward and upward by many volunteers.

The carnival originated to help entertain the hundreds of people living temporarily in Saranac Lake as tuberculosis patients, seeking a cure with the fresh air and treatment at Trudeau Sanatorium

For those who were sick, the winters were particularly long and the carnival provided joy and fun.

This year’s festivities includes coronation of a king and queen, talent shows, dances by the high school carnival court, and outdoor races and games. The carnival button was again designed by world-famous “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, a Saranac Lake native and descendant of Edward Livingston Trudeau, sanatorium founder. 

This year, for the first time, he designed two buttons – Villain or Superhero. You decide.