Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dr. Trudeau and The Third Oldest Profession


Logging and tourism rate permanent exhibits at the Adirondack Museum. But the third-oldest industry in the Adirondacks goes on, uncelebrated, behind closed doors in the administrative offices.

Fundraising. It’s possible that more Adirondackers work in what is now vaguely termed “development” than in the woods. Yet we rarely admit that begging is a pillar of the regional economy.

An early master of the dignified grovel was Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, a pioneer of bacteriology and tuberculosis treatment (phthisiology), and a founder of Saranac Lake itself. His autobiography, published in 1915, should be mandatory reading for every Adirondack fundraiser.

While sailing on Spitfire Lake circa 1882, Dr. Trudeau unintentionally made his first hit-up of a wealthy summer person: “We spoke of the wonderful, bracing character of the air and the beauty of the woods, the mountains and the lakes, and I expressed the wish that some of the poor invalids shut up in cities might have the opportunity for recovery which the climate offered and which had done so much for me. . . . He seemed much struck with the idea, and told me that if I carried out my plan I could call on him for five hundred dollars at any time. This was the first subscription I received.”

It became a pattern. By the end of the book, gifts to his Adirondack Sanitarium were in the $25,000 range (about half a million in today’s dollars). It’s almost a refrain as every chapter about a new friend ends, “And Mr. [name here] became a trustee of the Sanitarium, and served in this capacity until his death.”

Asking friends — and strangers — for money brings millions of dollars to the Adirondack Park each year and employs hundreds of people at museums, hospitals, children’s camps, environmental groups, arts and youth organizations, schools, you name it. We also beg our summer neighbors unprofessionally as volunteers for libraries, fire departments, ski areas, hospice. [A post-posting note: “Begging” was Trudeau’s word of choice; he used it with candor and humor. I intended no offense, though some readers who are philanthropy professionals tell me they prefer other terms for soliciting gifts.]

Why bring this up now?

~ Ambivalence about Wall Street bonuses. (Bonuses of CEOs with lakeside Adirondack camps have built wings for local hospitals and museums and employ nonprofit staffers; taxes on them keep snowmakers working at state-run ski areas.)

~ Layoffs at local nonprofits, including the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. (So far, the successor to Dr. Trudeau’s sanitarium and laboratory, Trudeau Institute, seems unscathed.)

~ Just the charm of Trudeau’s book. Old Adirondack books are comforting in uncertain times; they remind us how little the place changes over the years.

Mary Thill

Mary Thill

Mary Thill is a freelance journalist based in Saranac Lake. She recently began working as a writer and editor at The Nature Conservancy's Adirondack Chapter.

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  5. […] of my life and of my dear ones gone before.” You become as swayed as the city socialites who opened their checkbooks so he could build institutions that are still important to the […]

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