JOHNSTOWN – Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Gloversville native Richard Russo stopped in Fulton County on Saturday night to talk about the importance of funding education.
Russo was the keynote speaker at the Friends of Leo & Virginia Hallenbeck Memorial Dinner and Benefit at the Johnstown Holiday Inn. About 100 people came out to listen to Russo and enjoy a dinner in honor of two local educators.
Leo Hallenbeck taught at Estees Junior High School in Gloversville and also worked as a guidance counselor and coach at Gloversville High School. Virginia Hallenbeck was a kindergarten teacher at Pleasant Avenue Elementary School. Both died last year.
The benefit raised money for the Langworthy Scholarship Fund at Gloversville High School, which awards money to teaching students in their fourth and fifth years of college to ensure they can receive the master’s degree necessary to be a New York state teacher. Tickets for the benefit cost $40, and organizers hoped the event would raise $10,000, according to a news release.
Russo won the Pulitzer in 2001 for his novel “Empire Falls.” He is also the author of “Nobody’s Fool,” “Bridge of Sighs” and the memoir “Elsewhere.”
He currently lives in Portland, Maine, but as a child he lived on Helwig Street in Gloversville with his mother and grandparents.
Russo talked about the last time he was in Fulton County, to give a speech at Fulton-Montgomery Community College last year. He said the day before, he had been at Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Conn.
“Being a student at Gloversville High or at Bishop Burke, were I was, is a profoundly different experience from going to a high school like Greenwich,” Russo said. “There are lots of reasons why, but it’s hardly exaggerating the fact that in America we fund our education mostly through property tax.”
He said that the system of funding schools through property taxes ensures the children of the rich have a leg up, while poor families, cities and counties will continue to struggle.
Russo also talked about a school he and his wife visited in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He told the audience this school, the Seed School, was located in a poorer area of the city and was created by frustrated educators. The school chooses students through a lottery, and the student body is African American and Latino, Russo said.
The Seed School is a boarding school, with students living on campus, wearing school uniforms and being taught by young, well-educated teachers – just like the rich boarding school kids from New York City and Connecticut, Russo said. Students were also given five years to graduate instead of four. The result was students going to colleges such as Harvard, Penn State, Rutgers and Princeton, Russo said.
Russo concluded his speech by saying teaching is the most important job around, and teachers should receive help.
“When we come together today to honor Leo and Virginia as genuine heroes, when we donate to the scholarships, we may in some small way level the economic playing field,” Russo said. “We continue their work, we validate their efforts, we tell them that we, their neighbors, share their vision of America.”
After his speech, Russo answered questions from the audience about everything from his next novel, to his thoughts on what direction he would take Gloversville in if he were mayor.
Jim Marshall, who is one of 12 members of the organizing committee, said Russo got involved with the event after he was emailed about attending. He said Russo accepted the invitation without hesitation.
“He does these things all the time to support education,” Marshall said.
Marshall said that a third to a quarter of the people who were coming to the event were interested in what Russo would say. He said everyone there tonight as there to support the local school district.
“The next Leo and Virginia may be just four miles down the road,” Marshall said.
Marshall said that the day began with a golf tournament at the Nick Stoner Golf Course in Caroga Lake. He said the turnout was wonderful for the event, which helped raise extra money for the scholarship foundation.