Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Unsung Adirondack Heroes: Lydia Serrell

In thinking about Adirondack unsung heroes, singer-songwriter Peggy Lynn’s powerfully moving song Lydia about Lydia Smith (wife of Paul Smith) comes to mind. I write about another Lydia who related very strongly to that song, and who did so much for the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (AFPA). Her name was Lydia Serrell. I worked with Lydia for 18 years, and can attest that she was an extraordinary Adirondacker in her own right, and instrumental to the success of the organization.

Lydia Serrell fell in love with the Adirondacks at an early age. The daughter of Hungarian immigrants and carriage makers working in Schenectady, she was “shipped out” after her mother’s death c. 1918 to live with her mother’s sister, her Aunt Anna and Uncle Chris Kohler, at their farm in Gravesville, Town of Ohio in the southwestern Adirondacks. Lydia’s great friend Linda Champagne writes: “Lydia attended a small north country school. Her uncle, a guide in the nearby Adirondack League Club (Uncle Chris), and his wife (Aunt Anna), who had been a cook at the club, created a comfortable life for the city girl. The modest home had only a spring for water. Entertainment meant skating on ponds and reading Zane Grey novels by kerosene lantern in the evenings. When her father remarried, and she returned to Schenectady, she continued a lifelong love of hiking, touring and reading the history of the Adirondacks.”

The years went by. Lydia was about to marry a man from the Adirondacks when he died tragically in a road accident. Later, she married a man who was killed in France during World War II. She became a skilled museum consultant (working at Lansing Manor House and Museum in Blenheim, NY, among other places), ran an antiques business with her son Corky, became a real estate broker and bookkeeper for many organizations.

In 1963, she was asked to handle the membership roles of the nonprofit Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks by the late conservation champion, Paul Schaefer, AFPA’s Vice President. Three years earlier, she had become a partner in one of Paul’s home building and restoration companies, and did everything she knew how to do for Paul, from bookkeeping, to real estate brokering, to the delicate “punch list” negotiations with new home buyers. She was one of the few people who could say “no” to Paul Schaefer.

Paul grudgingly admired her honesty, loyalty and work ethic. Anyway, she also became membership secretary for the protection of the Adirondacks. Meticulous, she kept those membership roles for forty years – on index cards! She managed AFPA accounts “to the penny” all that time. When I became AFPA Executive Director in 1987, I would have been lost without her.

She had never been paid for her AFPA work from 1963-1988. Finally, she began to earn a modest salary to augment what she was paid as museum consultant. She had struggled to make a living for her and her son, but gave 25 years to the protection of the Park for nothing. Of course, so did all of our Trustees, but Lydia kept the group going and “professionalized it” long before Earth Day 1970.

If you have kept with me so far, here’s one more interesting part of her career as told by Linda Champagne: “Lydia served as a consultant for a new commercial show of 30 projectors and a multi-media production in Lake George village, called The Adirondack Adventure” (does any reader remember that production?). Serrell travelled throughout the Adirondacks to small museums and collections to find illustrations in photos and art work for the script produced by colleague Linda Champagne.

Champagne continues: “Several exhibits on the Adirondack artist Rockwell Kent were designed and installed by Serrell in the 1980s, including ones at Union College Library, Albany Public Library, SUNY Albany Library, and another at Schenectady Museum. Kent’s work on display included General Electric’s advertisements, calendars and a large mural Kent executed for the entrance to the GE building at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York City. She had visited that exhibit during the fair and admired both the art work and the word-craft of Kent. That museum exhibition also included a special bus trip to the Kent farm and studio in Ausable Forks, which Serrell so enjoyed.”

In 1983, and again in 1988 and 2002, Lydia returned to the Adirondack League Club as conference registrar for AFPA’s environmental conference series. Over the course of several days in those years, she was given the royal treatment because of her Uncle’s and Aunt’s long tenure there in the early 20th century – private tours of the historic camp architecture included. She was never happier than with her family, or when in residence at the Adirondack League Club, or looking at Kip Taylor’s classic book Loon, or arranging an exhibit or a room full of beautiful things to best effect. Her aesthetic judgments – and her bookkeeping – were unsurpassed.

Her Hungarian temperament could flair from time to time, particularly at any injustice in her world, but she was an unflappable professional with a sense of humor and a storehouse of Adirondack and other stories. She suffered great personal tragedies, “never made much money, but had a lot of fun.”

She steered me and AFPA, and Paul Schaefer’s businesses on a very honest, steady course, and taught me to smell the flowers, appreciate people and history, and admire the details of just about anything. My thanks go to Linda Champagne for writing Lydia’s detailed obituary. After 43 years keeping track of AFPA funds and members, Lydia Serrell retired at age 92. She died two years later on January 10, 2008. At her graveside service, a Bald Eagle soared overhead.

Photo: Lydia Serrell

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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