A large contingent of public officials from the Woodstock town supervisor and town clerk to the governor’s office showered holistic pharmacist and Village Apothecary owner Neal Smoller and his COVID-busting volunteer army with praise for their efforts toward administering 36,000 vaccine doses. “In times of hardship, you see really the best of the community. You see people forget any of the divisiveness, forget any of the challenges and come together to support each other and look out for each other,” said state Senator Michelle Hinchey during a July 22 gathering on the Woodstock Village Green. “And while the rest of us were told to stay home and to stay safe, and we were struggling with our jobs and thinking of how we tend to family, all of you really stepped up and made sure the rest of us could live our lives safely. I remember in the beginning of the pandemic, you were out there on Facebook trying to dispel myths, communicating with people about what they should and should not do, making people feel comfortable and making them feel at ease, always being respectful,” Hinchey added. “If you think back to where we were, nobody knew who was getting vaccines when. It was a very small number. Most of them were going to urban centers. Most of them were going to cities, not communities like ours,” she said. “It takes a really strong leader who’s not going to take no for an answer, who was able to do it to start to get us on the path to get those vaccines.
“And it takes incredible volunteers and dedicated community members like all of you to step up and put your lives on the line to make sure the community at large could get the things that we needed.” Hinchey recalled how Smoller and his volunteers had vaccinated 3500 people in just three days and then became an unstoppable force.
The man of the hour was humbled by all the awards and adulation, but often stressed none of it would be possible without the volunteer army. “There’s been a lot of praise for me today but nothing happened without you guys. And I’m not talking just about the volunteer army but I’m talking about all you nerdy politicians and such. So you helped open the door for us,” Smoller said. He thanked Hinchey for organizing what he deemed the “Star Wars award ceremony.”
Smoller called all the volunteers heroes and said it was the honor of his professional career to lead such a group. He thanked the Revs. Modele and Evelyn Clark of Kingston’s New Progressive Baptist Church, who opened the church doors for him. Special thanks went to Van and Daisy Bolle who helped get the ball rolling for the first traveling vaccine roadshow. Smoller and volunteers held clinics as far north as Saratoga and as far south as the Bronx. Smoller had Woodstock town supervisor Bill McKenna stand next to him and said he was the one who helped get the ball rolling.
“It wasn’t Day 1 as he alluded to. It was Day Negative 60. He made sure that I was part of the bigger conversation outside of Woodstock. He’s the one that, sorry for (Deputy County Executive) Marc Rider, but gave me Marc and (County Executive) Pat Ryan’s phone numbers and I use them abusively,” Smoller said. “Without Bill McKenna, there’s no us. Period. He’s the founder of our feast here and everybody should be thankful to him.”
Smoller also expressed gratitude for the help of Saugerties Town Supervisor Fred Costello and Village Mayor Bill Murphy. He acknowledged the help and support he’s received from his hometown of Saugerties, especially Costello and Murphy who “eat, breathe, sleep and bleed Saugerties.”
He thanked the volunteers for fueling the drive that kept the whole operation going and improving each time. “You guys figured it out. I’m an Energizer Bunny type. I’ll go like a lunatic and you just got to crank me up,” he said. “Any it really just started out with the excitement of impossibility and then actually being able to do it. And then the emotion, and that just kept feeding me over and over again. And we just kept one-upping ourselves at every opportunity.”
It started with family
The Volunteer Army started out with Smoller’s in-laws and soon grew to the unstoppable force it is now. “And it was the first roadshow that I attribute to the gasoline being dumped on this fire,” Smoller said. “You guys were like, I guess we’re following Neal into this nonsense. Spending an entire day driving around in the snow as I ate M&Ms and stressed out, and getting the job done, was the accelerant to this whole operation.”
Smoller said the region owes a lot to Anne Hofstatter, a registered nurse, who he called the heart of the operation. “My crazy brain was focused on operational stuff. And I used Anne as a barometer, a measuring tool to determine if we were doing the right thing. If Anne felt good after a clinic, I knew we did the right thing. If Anne didn’t feel good, I got to correct it and we’ve got to come with more love.”
Cavalcade of honors
Hinchey presented Smoller and the volunteer army with the state Senate Commendation Award, which is the highest honor the legislative body can give.
Back in March 2020, as everything was shutting down due to COVID, people were spreading a lot of misinformation, recalls Supervisor McKenna. “And I looked around town and I figured I had to align myself with the smartest guy in town. I walked down to the apothecary I walked in, I said, Neal, you’ve helped me before, Can I count on you? You said absolutely.”
“What a mistake, right,” Smoller joked.
“It was probably sometime in December, we walked over to the community center. We looked around. We had grand plans. We were talking about putting 1000 people a day through there. So January comes and we get 100 vaccinations, but you got 120 shots out of that. The next week I think we did 200 and we got 240. Then the following week I know we did another 10 percent on top of whatever you got, and we were off to the races,” McKenna said. “There was a lot of frustration during that time. There were (fits and) starts, but you never gave up. You never got down. You were always optimistic, positive. You adapted and reinvented things. You were constantly looking at changing.”
Deputy Town Clerk Michelle Sehwerert presented Smoller with a certificate. McKenna, Town Clerk Jackie Earley and Deputy Town Clerk Lynn Sehwerert presented Smoller with the Key to Woodstock, a tradition normally reserved to honor artists. McKenna said an exception was made because of Smoller’s extraordinary service. The award was handmade by craftsman and musician Rene Cantine. It is a guitar carved from wood with a key inlaid in the body and a syringe in the neck.
“During the first clinic he started what I thought was a great tradition. After every stick, he rang a bell and there was applause. Neal, that was music to my ears,’ McKenna said.
“Once we hit 12,000 we had to stop. It was getting on my nerves,” Smoller quipped.
For Smoller’s assistant-exraordinaire, Morgan Edwards, McKenna presented a “Get Out of Jail Free” card signed by Woodstock Police Chief Clayton Keefe.
Edwards was on a well-deserved vacation and was not able to attend.
“Neal and your army are the ones that gave my parents when they were eligible, their vaccines,” Ulster County Legislature Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner said. “As a son, that was the biggest breath of hope I had throughout the pandemic, was the day that walked out of the community center with their second shot. But there was more hope because of Neal and all of you,” he said to the volunteers.
Heppner and Legislator Al Bruno, of Saugerties, presented Smoller with the Pride of Ulster County, which is the highest award that can come from the Legislature. Michael Darcy from Assemblyman Kevin Cahill’s office presented Smoller and the volunteers with a Certificate of Merit for recognition of “your tireless work in the distribution and implementation of the COVID-19 network.” Deputy County Executive John Milgrim said when pharmacies and other providers couldn’t get all the vaccines out, they would call Smoller.
“I was the fixer,” Smoller joked.
“The only reason he could get them out was because he put an army like this together. And I know how hard it is, how amazing it is to get a dedicated group of people who want to help save lives, help bring our society back and help make it possible,” Milgrim said, as he presented Smoller with a proclamation from County Executive Pat Ryan.
“You guys know that in February 2020, Neal was texting and saying ‘How can we get people to recognize how big of a problem this is going to be,’” said Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher, who is also a member of the volunteer army. He began talking to the community leaders and media to get people to realize the dangers of COVID.
Volunteer Tara Ryan spoke of the countless hours at the vaccine clinics when it was so busy you didn’t get to know the person sitting next to you. She recalled Smoller not wanting to waste a single dose of vaccine, so volunteers sprung into action.
“Every one of us was on our phones, on our text messages, on our Facebook messages, contacting every single person, and that’s every volunteer here, to get as many people as to not waste any of this vaccine. And it was so powerful. It was so powerful. I know the world is so proud.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo could not attend, but sent a representative to present Smoller with a certificate.
Kudos to Smoller’s assistant
Morgan Edwards rose to the occasion at Village Apothecary right around the time the vaccination clinics were getting ready to be operational.
“She’s always been a star, exceeding expectations at a very young age,” Smoller said.
“With the vaccinations, I told everyone that if you’re talking to Morgan, you’re talking to me. She picked up that power as a 23-year-old and ran with it. She displayed excellent judgment and operational awareness. She was dedicated beyond dedicated,” Smoller said.
“If I had 10 Morgans, I’ve got a $100 million company and we’re changing the world.”
Thanks to the family for giving up Neal for the cause
Smoller gave a special shoutout to his triplets, Ava, Rowan and Liv and daughter Arya, and wife Erin, who he called the unwilling volunteers. “This family donated their dad and husband time to the community. It was an enormous sacrifice but a worthy one. And they get it. I know they get it.”
He called his wife, also a pharmacist, “the Captain Marvel of our Avengers.”
“She audited every single COVID vaccine paperwork and it needs to be done a second time,” Smoller said. “Thirty-six thousand pieces of paper in my house right now and she’s going through it, all while being a teacher to four remote-learning students during the pandemic, a sister, a daughter, a puppy mom and a wife, and then dealing with a pandemic.”