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Local Heroes

Our annual tribute to people who are making a difference in the community

by The Staff on December 27, 2012 · 2 comments

photo by Ann Morrow


Citizens for St. Patrick’s

It began with two teachers who wanted to have a say in their own community. Christine Bulmer, a second-generation parishioner of St. Patrick’s Church, and Eileen Anderson, a parishioner for more than 50 years, joined forces to prevent a proposal to demolish the church and the surrounding area to construct a supermarket, an action they both feel would be detrimental to the neighborhood and to Watervliet. After the announcement last year that the recently closed church was being sold to a developer who was going to raze it for a Price Chopper, they began to speak out.

“This is the first time I’ve felt strongly enough to put myself on the line,” says Bulmer of speaking at public meetings. “I was a nervous wreck,” says Anderson, “but when you have the courage of your convictions, it’s easier.” Soon there were six former parishioners taking a stand. None of them had any experience with activism—or with facing open hostility—yet they voiced their objections to three of the biggest entities in the area: the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, which was selling the church properties, Nigro Companies, the developer buying the properties, and Golub Corporation, the client it would be developed for.

They objected to the Watervliet city government for not fostering revitalization options for the block-long parcel. And along the way their little group expanded to 50 (with a support circle twice that number), from property owners who will bear the brunt of the development’s impact to community-minded people from as far away as Warrensburg. Last week, Citizens for St. Patrick’s filed suit with the State Supreme Court to overturn the court’s approval of the sale.

“It’s an atrocity,” says Anderson. “This is an historical treasure with superb acoustics.”

Bulmer, an art teacher with the Watervliet public school system for 33 years, says, “I taught almost every kid in the district, and in doing so, I saw that a vital part of any neighborhood is pride of place, to be able to appreciate its art and history and the beautiful things in it. St. Patrick’s has the potential to be a cultural centerpiece.”

In addition to advocating for reuse and holding protests, Citizens for St. Patrick’s are making a communal effort to assert their legal rights as citizens.  Longtime Watervliet resident and land-use attorney Rosemary Nichols is representing the group. A preservationist who was fired from the city’s common council last October, Nichols says the hearing next month is centered on the best interest of the petitioners and their community. Among the issues to be raised are violations of non-profit corporate law by the diocese and procedural defects on the part of Nigro Companies.

“They didn’t take us seriously,” says Anderson, “because they weren’t expecting us to fight.”


Claudio Gomez

When Tropical Storm Irene blew into New York state in August 2011, at first Claudio Gomez wasn’t worried—he didn’t think Irene seemed much worse than a long, steady rainfall. But his mother and younger brother live in Middleburgh near the Schoharie Creek, which spilled over its banks with record flooding, forcing thousands to evacuate. Gomez’s stepfather called him that morning from Florida and urged him to help his mother out.

photo by Julia Zave

“So I drove all the way out to Middleburgh,” he says, “but I couldn’t get in contact with her because she had already left the house.” Gomez drove around and tried to find his family, but he had no luck.

“I thought I lost my family,” he says of the feelings that were going through his mind. “It’s a moment I couldn’t describe. I just couldn’t believe this could happen to me.”

His family was safe, but memories of the scare stayed with Gomez, and when superstorm Sandy pounded the New York City area in late October, he wanted to do something. A native of Colombia who also lived in New York City before entering UAlbany as a student, Gomez now works as a senior academic advisor in the university’s Educational Opportunities Program. Because he likes to keep in touch with his students, he has about 2,200 friends on Facebook. On Oct. 30, Gomez posted on his Facebook page that he wanted to drive a truck down to New York to hand out supplies, and the response was “overwhelming.”

Then he posted his e-mail address to see if anyone wanted to follow up with him, “and my e-mail started blowing up.”

Along with several other key organizers, Gomez began meeting with students and organizing committees to plan relief work. Before long, school administrators had welcomed “Project Sandy” as the official university relief effort.

On Nov. 11, Gomez and four others rode a school bus to Far Rockaway to hand out food, flashlights, batteries, etc., and were struck both by the damage and the numbers of people desperately in need of help. They made a second, more organized trip on Dec. 2; this time the Durham bus company gave them a good rate on two buses and donated a third (and the drivers helped hand out supplies). Also, Gomez says, this time they had more of the things people had asked for on the first trip: lighters, toiletries, paper towels and, especially, baby supplies.

“It was a great experience,” Gomez says. “Nobody created a riot or anything. “In all the years I’ve been here as a counselor, this has been my greatest accomplishment.”


Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien has been a reporter for the Albany Times Union since 1988. While we have nothing but praise for his journalistic skills, we’re honoring him for his hard—and successful—work as the head of the Albany Newspaper Guild.

photo by Erin Pihlaja

At a time when union-busting has spread across the country like a pestilence (Scott Walker’s anti-union crusade in Wisconsin, for example, and Michigan recently becoming a right-to-work state), O’Brien, the members of the Guild, and their supporters have stood together against the TU’s corporate parent, the Hearst Corporation.

Here’s some background: Members of the Albany Newspaper Guild have been working at the TU without a contract for four years. What management wants, O’Brien says, is for the union to give up “our right to any say in layoffs and outsourcing.”

The union has been unwilling to give up either, so they’ve been working under the terms of the old contract since 2008.

“I’ve never had a single member say ‘accept’ [Hearst’s proposal],” O’Brien says. “Our members have been resolute.”

In 2009, when talks hit what Hearst considered an impasse, the corporation laid off 11 employees using criteria that were outside those were laid out in the old contract—which remained, as per the law, in effect. (As if to add insult to injury, the 11 were abruptly escorted from the building by security.) So the guild took their complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, and won. In May 2011, the NLRB ruled unanimously that “the Times Union violated federal labor law by laying off the employees . . . without properly bargaining with the Newspaper Guild of Albany.”

In June of this year, after a little more prodding from the NLRB, the TU finally settled with the guild. All of the laid-off 11 were paid financial settlements, and a few of the employees were rehired.

“That was a three-year battle that ended in over $800,000 in settlement funds,” says O’Brien. “Two [employees] are back at work.”

O’Brien also praises other local union members who have firmly supported the Newspaper Guild’s action against Hearst, and adds that “even though we’re living with a wage freeze,” the guild will see it through.

“I know it seems like this will go on forever, but it won’t,” O’Brien says. “In the end, you can win these things.”

The guild and its president have proven that.


Katrin Hecker

It was a one-eyed, three-legged, bob-tailed cat named Lucky that set Katrin Hecker on a very specific course in life—one that she never saw coming. Born in Germany and trained as a pediatric nurse, Hecker came to the United States only to learn English so that she could move on to aid the afflicted in Third World countries. Instead, she ended up in Hudson saving cats.

photo by Erin Pihlaja

After meeting and saving Lucky (a $1,500 endeavor), Hecker began to feed, trap, and get treatment for the excessive population of homeless cats wandering the streets. Some of the animals were abandoned pets, some were feral. She also helped low-income pet owners pay for veterinary bills associated with their cats. But at some point around 12 years ago, she couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Animalkind was born in the basement of the converted church that Hecker and her husband used as a residence. In 2003, the fledgling, but busy, operation was offered a space at 721 Warren St. and the group, led by Hecker, happily took over. For the next 10 years they flourished. Chip Chapin, a long-time volunteer and Animalkind’s director, said that last year Animalkind spayed and neutered 1,780 cats, took in 823 cats, and adopted out 710.

But late one night in May, a fire started in the top floor apartment, the only floor not used by Animalkind. The blaze didn’t spread, but it triggered the building’s sprinkler system, and it soaked everything in the building. “The stainless steel cages, the new heating and ventilation system, the office equipment―it was all destroyed,” says Chapin. “In the vet’s clinic the anesthesia machine, the X-Ray, the refrigerator, and surgical areas were totally damaged.” The ceilings, walls and floors of the structure were beyond repair. The shelter’s 150 rescued cats were homeless again.

Hecker almost quit. Having just recovered from the effects of Hurricane Irene, she wasn’t sure if she could press on. But the community that she had already given so much to, rallied around her. “I realized I owed it to the people who supported us, to the animals, and to the people who work there. I thought, ‘I cannot give up,’ ” she says.

Despite needing $150,000 to repair the old space, Hecker remains positive. “With the old space we really improvised,” she says. “Now we can make it really perfect.”


Chris Mullally

On Aug. 10, 2011, local businessman Chris Mullally was watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and saw a report on war-torn Somalia and that country’s suffering, starving children. Any viewer would have been touched by these children’s plight; Mullally resolved to do something for them.

photo by Julia Zave

In February, Mullally launched the Extraordinary Project, a nonprofit corporation, with the aim to raise a million dollars to ease the suffering of the children of Somalia. What made Mullally’s idea unique is that he’s hoping to raise the $1 million from 1 million donors. If we can spend a dollar a day (or more) on coffee, he reasons, we can spend a dollar to save lives. And he’s determined to see it through: “I’m trying to keep pushing,” Mullally says. “That’s the most important thing: Keep pushing.”

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how far one dollar can go, if you’re willing to give a dollar,” he says. “The whole campaign of one million people giving one million dollars,” he says, “was always designed to be a people project—a ‘we’ project, because, obviously, by myself I could never accomplish this goal.”

“What I just want people to really understand,” Mullally says, “is that these children, no matter where they’re from, or what religion they are, or what race they are, really need help.”

“No matter how you feel or what you believe or what you think,” he says, “it’s a dollar for a child, a child without the hope of any other help like children in America have. . . . These children go to bed starving, wondering if tomorrow is going to be their last day.”

As of this week, the Extraordinary Project (extraordinaryproject.com) has raised more than $50,000.

“That’s what I’m really trying to get people to understand, and to see,” Mullally says, “that there is a big need. Somalia, not being the most favored place in people’s minds, makes it harder.”

“In Somalia,” Mullally says, “not everyone’s a pirate. There really are people, regular people, like you and me. They’re trying to move forward with their lives, and their circumstances are prohibiting them from doing that.”

“People like us, we’ve just been given so much in this world, we just need to always remember to give back,” Mullally says. “How do people who’ve been given so much, forget how to give?”


Judy Grunberg

After a successful life filled with friends, family, and accomplishments, most people are content to spend their golden years quietly. Judy Grunberg is not most people. The Chatham resident is constantly on the go, and gets more done in a day than those half her age (she is in her 70s).

photo by Erin Pihlaja

Johnna Murray, the manager of Rewraps, a resale clothing shop owned by Grunberg, says that those in her life have to fight for her time. The profits from Rewraps help to fund Performance Spaces for the 21st Century (PS/21), a nonprofit venue for music and dance, which just completed its seventh season. Housed in a Saddle Span concert tent, an arched structure that seems to magically float on the landscape, PS/21 regularly hosts the renowned Parsons Dance troupe and is just one of Grunberg’s many projects.

She also bought (and still operates) the locally revered Blue Plate restaurant, got the local food co-op going, and opened the Necessary Lines gallery on Main Street. Most of these projects filled a need in her own life, and she gets very excited to talk about any one of them. But when pressed to talk about what happened with the Crandell movie theater (a village landmark), she tries to change the subject.

“Oh I just helped them,” she says, eager to brush it off. But Grunberg did something that made the already-popular woman a legend.

When the owner of the Crandell movie theater on Main Street died, he had been working on selling the building to the Chatham Film Club. But he died leaving no will. Although his wife wanted to honor her husband’s wishes, she had to sell the theater at a competitive price. Enter Grunberg, who bought the building and then promptly turned the title over to the club.

“She keeps a low profile about that,” explains Susan Davies, the administrative director of PS/21. “She doesn’t want the spotlight to be on her, but on what they’re doing over there instead.”

It’s tough to chase Grunberg down and even harder to get her to sit still for more than a few minutes. She has a million plates spinning and plenty of ideas ready for the future. It doesn’t appear that any of those plans include slowing down.

“Doing the right thing fuels her,” says Murray. “She genuinely cares about what will work for this community.”