New Paltz in the Fifties and early Sixties was a little bit Peyton Place and a lot Bedford Falls for Bruce McKinney.
McKinney grew up in the Village of New Paltz, on Plattekill Avenue. He’s a hometown boy who’s never forgotten – and still relishes – the way things used to be back then. He remembers walking to school, playing in a neighborhood teeming with kids his age, and perhaps most especially he remembers the help and inspiration he received from neighbors whose generosity helped launch him into a life that by his own estimation has been rich beyond all expectation.
And if most people harbor fond memories of halcyon days they wish they could return to, McKinney’s put those memories to work in a unique way. On the recent occasion of his seventieth birthday, he’s reversed the usual gift-giving process. Instead of receiving gifts, he’s providing some: a $150,000 donation to four of the community’s signature institutions.
The McKinney name should be familiar to anyone with the slightest acquaintance of the community or the mid-Hudson region. His parents, Tom and Adelaide, were the owners of five weekly newspapers, including the New Paltz News, in the early 1950s.
It was a time when weeklies and maybe the local grapevine were the principal sources of local news and rumor. Lucrative as that may sound in today’s information-driven economy, the McKinneys could barely scratch up the $5000 needed to buy those five papers. And, once having bought them, they found it equally difficult to make a decent living at operating them.
Just before he gave a more formal speech at Deyo Hall last week, at a gathering sponsored by one of the beneficiary institutions of his gift, Historic Huguenot Street, McKinney spoke candidly and warmly about growing up in what he called “a sleepy little town.”
He recalled a town whose atmosphere was sometimes punctured by controversies that seem as quaint today as a horse-and-buggy would seem in the middle of Main Street. It was Main Street, as a matter of fact, that provided the townspeople with one of those raging controversies back when: whether to install a traffic light at the intersection of Main and North Chestnut streets. McKinney smiled at the memory of the argument that’s since proven true: if you put one of those things in, pretty soon they’ll be all up and down Main Street.
McKinney said the family “just got by” financially throughout the Fifties, particularly in light of his father’s alcoholism. Between 1954 and 1957, McKinney said, his father totaled seven cars.
It was his mother, Adelaide, who held the family together and, in her role as the papers’ chief editorial writer, it was she who took the brunt of the various controversies she wrote about. It was there that the Peyton Place side of town emerged – the backbiting, social rejection and threatening behavior on which small towns sometimes specialize.
When a controversy arose concerning the local Little League, McKinney said his mother was publicly attacked. A bouquet of flowers wrapped in a black ribbon was delivered anonymously to the door. “It was tough for her,” he said.
It was also his mother who saw to it that her middle son got as much educational help as she could find for him. When, for example, he told her at the age of ten that he was interested in “old books,” she arranged to have him meet Bill Heidgerd, a historian and rare-book collector.
“I was dropped off at the Heidgerd stone house just two short blocks [away]. There, in a room paneled floor to ceiling with shelves, Mr. William Heidgerd cast a spell that 60 years later continues to animate my world.”
McKinney is today a world-renowned expert in rare, antiquarian and collectible books. The collection that inspired him is the core of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection, housed in the Elting Memorial Library. The library is another of McKinney’s beneficiaries.
Much as he loved this town, his mother predicted that his life would play out on a larger stage than the one New Paltz could provide, “Make something of yourself,” she told him. McKinney took her advice to heart. He eventually hit the road, Kerouac style, out of college (Colgate, on a basketball scholarship) and after successful forays into newspapering, he found his way to Hong Kong, where he met his wife Jenny. The couple, who have two children, now live in San Francisco, where he runs the Rare Book Hub.
The site documents the various aspects of the trade in books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera at auction. “In other words,” he told the crowd at Deyo Hall, “history.”
McKinney’s gift of $100,000 is to be divided among the Elting Memorial Library, Historic Huguenot Street and the New Paltz Rural Cemetery. The purpose is to create a searchable database for historical records. McKinney said he’ll give $50,000 to Mill Brook Preserve to maintain the park-like environment that runs along the north end of Manheim Boulevard.
So why the gifts?
McKinney said that as his 70th birthday approached, he found himself reflecting on the friends, teachers and neighbors who had so deeply influenced his life. “They helped and counseled me. They answered questions. They made a difference.”
This place was very good to the McKinney family. “As it turns out, I feel the way I always have about this place,” he said. “As a son of New Paltz and the Shawangunks, emotionally, I’ve never left.”
McKinney concluded his remarks at Deyo Hall by urging others to follow his example. “Giving significantly in your lifetime affords the opportunity to help while one’s eyes still have the power to see. “I see. I remember. And I appreciate.”