Sally Rhoads: An appreciation

Left to right: Ruth Elwell and Sally Rhoads show off the proceeds from a past library fair, an important source of funds for the Elting Memorial Library.

When someone who’s devoted their life to public service dies, the reverberations of that death usually need time to be recognized. The list of accomplishments is too long, the benefits too abstract, the battles waged long forgotten.

Sometimes, the reverberations aren’t even recognized in their day, let alone decades after their appearance.

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For Sally Rhoads, New Paltz’s premiere public servant, who died after a long illness on August 11, the chief reverberation of her life is easy to recognize, because it touched the lives of tens of thousands of county residents over a span of 35 years: her devotion to and unerring support of Elting Memorial Library.

The library’s annual book fair has been for decades the most anticipated community event of the year, a weekend festival that feeds and re-feeds the bibliophile in all of us, the place where people stroll through aisles and aisles of the paperbacked and the leather-bound. Sally didn’t do it alone, but she wrangled teams of people who made sure the countless details of such a sprawling project got done, and then some.

Sally was an excellent recruiter; she had a talent for putting you on the spot. Though she was barely five feet tall, she could somehow make herself loom over you when she needed or wanted help. Refusing her “suggestion” that you help spend some part of your day or evening hauling boxes of books out of the shed behind the library whose new addition she fund-raised into existence seemed almost criminal, since you knew she was doing a hundred times more than anyone else in town. It’s taken nothing less than a worldwide pandemic to put a (temporary) crimp in the Library Fair’s schedule this year.

But as remarkable as this achievement was — and it was not her only one — I’ll remember Sally Rhoads for something that I’d wager few folks recall.

In 1979, the Marriott Corp. came to Ulster County with what seemed an irresistible offer: In return for being allowed to build a glitzy new 400-room resort and as many as 300 condos at the desolate grounds of the once-glorious Lake Minnewaska mountain houses, the company promised to provide hundreds of much-needed jobs and an avalanche of tourist dollars. Rehabilitating a run-down, fire-stricken property into a world-class tourist destination looked to most local solons like an economic dream come true.

But some folks saw it as a nightmare. Environmental activists — most of them newly hatched — challenged Marriott’s rosy predictions. Months of state-sponsored public hearings ensued. Among the company’s many questionable environmental contentions, a single demand eventually emerged: the company’s need for a 10-year property tax abatement. That demand hit the New Paltz school district the hardest and soon became the central focus of the Marriott-Minnewaska debate.

Sally Rhoads was president of the school board by then. The raging environmental debate suddenly became an economic one. Marriott let it be known that without the tax abatement, the project was dead. There would be no compromising, no smiling assurances of good behavior. And no hundreds of jobs or millions of tourist dollars.

Sally was then in her mid-30s, a political unknown. No one knew where she stood on the issue. She had not attended any of the daily DEC reviews; she kept her counsel and gave no public indication how she felt about the issues. More than any single public figure, the fate of the Marriott-Minnewaska project fell on to her.

We all know what finally happened, though few remember the particulars. The school board, led by Rhoads, rejected Marriott’s demand. Environmentalists rejoiced while most municipal figures were appalled — so many jobs gone, so much revenue lost! Efforts at striking a new deal never got off the ground. Marriott was true to its word; the company picked up stakes and left town. After the usual lawsuits and desperate resuscitative efforts, Minnewaska State Park Preserve was officially born in 1986.

Did Sally Rhoads single-handedly prevent Marriott from taking over Minnewaska? Of course not, no more than she single-handedly created and sustained the book fair. She stood on the shoulders of many others, relied on them and, you can bet, cast a skeptical eye on the claims and arguments she heard from all sides. She brought skepticism to the bargaining table. She didn’t take sides, at least not publicly, on an issue that was as polarizing as any the community had experienced. But, as the Marriott deal-makers discovered, and as most of us have forgotten, Sally Rhoads loomed, and she prevailed.

Related— “Feisty pillar” of New Paltz: Remembering Sally Rhoads