Williamstown & environs in times of pandemic

One of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Marquez’s best known novels, apart from 100 Years of Solitude, is El Amor en los tiempos de cólera (Love in the time of cholera). The 1985 novel chronicles the history of a relationship that manages to reach maturity, despite all obstacles, including a cholera epidemic, over the course of a lifetime. While few of us can imagine any obstacle that might interfere with the affection we all feel for Williamstown and Purple Valley, the fact remains we are currently separated from the object of our affection by a pandemic which nobody saw coming.

The quick summary: Berkshire residents are resilient, adaptive, and inventive. They have figured out how to survive and more importantly how to help each other. With General Electric, Sprague Electric, and other larger enterprises now a distant memory in the Berkshires, tourism has stepped in as the economic mainstay, generating an amazing number of parallel efforts in the arts and cuisine. Those entreprises are diplaying a spirited determination and resistance to the challenges posed by the pandemic. More about that at that at the very end. Sad news: as happened in Kirkland WA, a senior care facility in Williamstown became a COVID-19 hotspot early on and brought the majority of fatalities in the area. That situation is now well under control.

We reached out to several members of the community,all of them Williams graduates as it turned out, to learn more.

When classmate Larry Levien arrived in Williamstown on March 15 of this year to set up shop at his house near Hoxsey Street, he was struck by the eerie silence and emptiness of a community he’d always associated with vibrant activity, students, faculty, Williams staff, residents in a rush, Spring Street filled with life. In Larry’s words, it seemed that all humanity had vanished. Welcome to Williams and Williamstown, version COVID-19.

As we know, Larry’s arrival coincided with the (almost) complete shutdown of student life on campus, a mass emigration to home quarters, and the beginning of remote learning for the majority of Williams students. Graduation canceled, reunions canceled.

Larry reports that it took him more than a few days to adjust to this new reality, but he was soon able to get in touch with some old friends of ours, Mark Robertson ’02 (Director of 50th Reunion Programs), and Chris Robare, former Associate director of the 50th Reunion program, Williams parent, and native of North Adams. More about Chris in a moment, also Mark. When we caught up with Larry a week or so ago, restrictions had eased enough to allow golfers to return to the Taconic Golf Club, and he reports a round with Chris (who, if you haven’t already heard, is a terrific golfer).

Mark Robertson filled us in, as did Larry, on campus life during the lockdown. Both alerted us to the quick response of the College to the COVID-19 crisis, the almost immediate formation of two parallel faculty committees, one to study and prepare for the eventuality that the campus would not open again in September of 2020, the other to prepare for return (and arrival) of the student body, under conditions, yet undefined, that might be described as the New Normal.

We learned from Mark that not all students were able to leave Williamstown, given a number of circumstances, among them huge distance to homes located outside the US. Approximately 100 students remain and they are fed at the one dining hall that remains open (Driscoll). The college took full financial responsibility for managing and storing in some case, student belongings and paraphernalia that could not be transported away.

That’s not the only act of generosity from Williams. They’ve played a major role in keeping things going, forgiving rents on Spring Street property that it owns, and avoiding furloughs and layoffs.

We were grateful to learn that there have been no fatalities among Williams students, faculty, or staff as of this writing.

As has just been announced [June 29, 2020] by President Maud Mandel, the fall of 2020 will now see students returning to Williamstown for classes.

How are Williamstown and neighboring communities in Berkshire County coping with COVID-19?

We were also curious to find out about the surrounding areas, and the the Berkshires in general. Long-term Williamstown resident John Storey ’65 (a familiar name to many of us as the publisher of our 25th reunion book) graciously replied to our query on June 3:

“Re COVID-19, Williamstown and the Berkshires have been particularly hard hit, starting with a local nursing home, Williamstown Commons, being ravaged. Current death count is 23 and that is sobering for Williamstown. (As of the June 17 Mass Dept of Health report, the total number is now 24).

The College was one of the first colleges to cancel the spring semester in early March, and the impact of 800 or so staff members and 2400 or so students not being on campus has been profound. The local economy benefits enormously from these consumers who were, suddenly, not there. Spring Street immediately darkened and the new shining light, the Williams Inn, closed a mere 6 months after it got up and going.

Berkshire County benefits enormously from the cultural scene and the curtain came down promptly on the Clark, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, MASSMoCA. Kripalu, the health center and spa in Lenox, laid off 450 workers. Many of the local restaurants made a game effort at staying open with takeout only and curbside pickup but this, I’m sure, did not come close to covering costs.

On the brighter side, local farmers are overbooked with their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) offerings, local seed, plant, nursery stocks were depleted by Memorial Day as everyone is trying their hand at gardening. Food pantries have received additional support from town residents and are serving a wider population. One family began collecting loose change from townspeople and raised thousands of dollars for the food pantry. See “Drive for Change” link below.

Martha [John’s wife] and one of her good friends, Pam Art, hauled out the old Singer Sewing machines and began banging out face masks, supplying these to many of the local businesses that were having trouble finding them at the time. Parents and grandparents discovered the magic of Zoom meetings with friends and family. Many new local networks sprung up or expanded electronically…”Nextdoor Digest,” the College’s  Williams Switchboard among others. And Williamstown Rural Land mapped out a series of self-guided hikes that attracted many and which your classmates might enjoy for a fall outing. Nice job done by Dusty Griffin ’65.

Everyone in town is watching for Maud’s “no later than” July 1st announcement of what Williams will look like in the fall, and hoping that the staff and students will be back on campus. Remote learning, while something you and I couldn’t have dreamed of 50 years ago, has helped but it does not hold a candle to the campus experience we enjoyed.
That’s what comes to mind. hope that it is helpful.”

It certainly was, John, and many thanks.

In a quick followup message, John adds:

“My daughter Jessica Dils, who lives in town, reminds me also of the great work that the Northern Berkshire Coalition is doing, as well as the critically important progressive political work of Greylock Together.
The Lickety Split (ice cream shop on Spring Street) is indeed now open. My grandson’s friend Bella Bote is serving them up.”

From North Adams, we were fortunate to chat with Mayor Tom Bernard ’92, who is a North Adams native. (He notes that, with a population of 12,600, it’s the smallest “legal” city in Massachusetts).

Tom is proud to report that there has been only one COVID-19-related death so far, amid a total of 46 cases (June 8 Mass Dept of Health report). He points out that the city began taking action in February, establishing planning committees to study the various scenarios that might take place. He praised the work of the Regional Response team, which became the driver for coordinated response.

As everywhere else, the economy has taken an unavoidable downturn. MASSMoCa, one of the city’s largest employers, had to shut down (but, according to Tom, is now in the process of reopening as restrictions are being lifted). The Crane Stationery Company, which employees 230, is in the process of moving to Cohoes NY (near Troy). Once an employee-owned facility, it’s now owned by Mohawk Fine Papers, who plans to layoff 85% of its workers. This would have happened anyway, despite all efforts by Bernard and others to keep the factory in North Adams, but the impact of its closure is certainly being felt.

As in Williamstown, the volunteer spirit runs strong. A virtual tip jar campaign helps out those restaurant workers who are supplying takeout meals. The Berkshire Food Project (started by Williams students) offers support to those who need it.

Tom spoke with admiration of the willingness of North Adams as a whole to adapt and change. While the city is still traversing the change away from an industrial lifestyle toward a tourist-oriented service-based economy, not everyone has been happy to see the old way of life vanish, especially with rising unemployment, but it is certainly the case, Tom observed, that there have more offers than requests for help.

With the demise of the North Adams Hospital in 2014, Berkshire Health Systems has stepped in to maintain a satellite care center, Berkshire Medical Center North. We asked how that facility was managing under the current crisis and learned that with the exception of an initial need for protective equipment for the nursing staff, healthcare facilities have been able to handle demand and have not yet been overwhelmed.

That’s important for Chris Robare who needs to be sure care is available for her aging mother, and a father-in-law well into his 90s. Given their vulnerability, it’s especially important to her that all precautions be observed during visits to Berkshire Medical Center North. She observes that not everybody is compliant with health directives, like social distancing and using a mask.

That kind of resistance can be observed in other parts of the country, as we know.

Chris also speaks of the need to break free from a more confining life style and get back to her normal rhythm which includes spending time with children and grandchildren and returning to her life as instructor for spin biking and slide boarding. And of course, golf. But that last problem seems to have been recently solved.

What we did NOT know until recently, and we thank Kate Abbott ’00 for enlightening us, is that the entire Berkshire area has been witnessing a flourishing, a renaissance of the arts, performing and otherwise. Anyone who has not done so should check out her website, btwberkshires.com, as well as the special section she has been maintaining about the Berkshires during COVID-19 to learn more. Her website is a true treasure trove, but so is Kate and when we spoke to her we learned about some of the generous gestures artists have been making to share their creations with others over the Internet. Despite temporary closures of galleries and studios at repurposed factory buildings like the Norad Mill (North Hoosac Road/Massachusetts Avenue), she reports that spirit and determination run high. (We had no idea about the treasures inside the Norad building, in fact nothing about the building itself, having always rushed down Route 2 to MASSMoCA. Eyeopener).

Kate also confirmed the spirit of unity and community sharing she’s witnessed during the COVID-19 crisis. We already knew that the Berkshires and Williams were special, but it’s an affirmation to see how the entire community has risen to the challenges we’ve all faced and to sense the determination to persevere until we reach normality, be it the New Normal or otherwise.

We’d also like to thank, once again, our good friend Kate Krolicki ’95 not only for the amazing work she’s done in revising our website, but also for alerting us to our Eph connection in the North Adams mayor’s office, and for sewing all those masks for people back in March and April. Thanks once more, Kate.

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