Kent County Philanthropist Judy Kohl has Passed

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With profound sadness, the Chestertown Spy learned this morning that Kent County philanthropist, friend of the arts, and educator Judy Kohl has passed away.
The former college professor was the wife of Benjamin Kohl of Betterton.

Since their retirement from Poughkeepsie, New York more than fifteen years ago, the couple created the Hedgelawn Foundation to provide philanthropic support to many of Kent County’s most worthy cultural, educational and arts programs and organizations. Judy was particularly devoted to performance art and music, and was a major force in the Prince Theatre’s transformation into the Garfield Center for the Arts on High Street, as well as the needs of the Miller Library at Washington College, and her beloved Mainstay working closely with her friend Tom McHugh. The Kohls were also the benefactors of the Kohl Gallery at WC.

Judy Kohl was also one of the original sponsors of the Chestertown Spy project and served on its Board of Advisors since 2010.

The Spy will have more to share about Judy’s life and contributions over the course of the next few days.

William Smith’s Washington College with Colin Dickson

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It is a common mistake to assume that George Washington was the founder of Washington College in 1782. That was not the case, but the future first president of the United States did agree to allow the use his name for an entirely new liberal arts college in Chestertown as well as hard cash as a donation, which was hard to come by after the Revolution.

No, that honor goes to William Smith, a brilliant academic who had helped start the College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania) with Ben Franklin and became its first leader. Forced to leave Philly due to his loyalist politics, he came to Chestertown at the request of the town, to start a revolutionary new form of undergraduate education.

In the fall of each year, as Washington College starts its new semester, we like to share an interview with former WC professor Colin Dickson in 2012 about William Smith and how extraordinarily lucky Chestertown was to have such a visionary and innovator in American education start their new school.

This video is approximately ten minutes in length. For more information about Washington College please go here.

Editorial: There Can Never Be Enough Purple on the Mid-Shore in September

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In the field of advertising, the old saying goes that it takes at least seven uniquely different exposures to a product before the consumer actually decides to purchase it. In the marketing of awareness and prevention of the opioid crisis, one should apply a multiplier effect of a 1,000 when the aim is to reach out to young people of the fatal consequences of a drug epidemic that killed 70,000 Americans last year.

Like other public health campaigns that have came before it, including such great successes as with the war against tobacco and AIDS, the strategy for drug awareness is simple; pound on the table as much as you can for as long as you can.

And that is the power and magic of the Purple project for the Mid-Shore this September.

Started last year in Talbot County by the Sheriff’s Office and the Tidewater Rotary with modest expectations, it turned out to be remarkably successful for reasons large and small as the community responded dramatically to “Talbot Goes Purple” through rallies, games, high school programs, and most importantly, the profoundly moving sight of entire towns lite up purple on almost every porch, storefront, street lamp, or dozens of other creative ways to show solidarity with oppied prevention.

As a result of this overwhelming response, Talbot Goes Purple became a model for other Mid-Shore counties to replicate, and it is profoundly moving that Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, and Queen Anne’s counties have formed community partnerships with their schools, businesses, and neighborhoods to join “Mid-Shore Goes Purple,” including the Spy, which will become, we hope, a portal for news and stories from the five different purple campaigns.

But how do we know all this purple in September is working? Is this the most effective way to reach potential users of opioids?

The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” at least from the perspective of someone who is on the battlefield; Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble. In his Spy interview to be broadcast today, Gamble points to data where deaths by overdoses have been reduced, and the number of those receiving police-administered Narcan treatment (and therefore should be counted as lives saved) has increased.

Statistics like these remain the final test for how a county on the Shore is succeeding or failing on a drug epidemic, but one can not overlook the collateral benefits that have come with Talbot Goes Purple. From the creation of group homes for recovering drug users, the widespread training in the use of the life-saving Narcan, or the creation of student awareness groups at local schools, these examples demonstrate that Talbot’s collective response to the crisis is serious and sustained.

Our region has a long way to go before we are out of harm’s way with this horrific danger. The opioid crisis will take years, perhaps more than a decade, to be totally defeated. In the meantime, there can never been enough purple in September on the Mid-Shore and the Spy is proud to turn that color.

For information on how to help, volunteer, or just where one can pick up a purple light bulb for their home, please go here

Editorial: The First Congressional District and Election 2018

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When thinking about the Eastern Shore’s historical relationship with the 1st Congressional District of Maryland, it’s important to keep one thing in perspective. The Shore, until recently, had mostly been served by one of their own residents for more than 150 years. From the election of James Stewart from “Tobacco Stick” in Dorchester County in 1854 to the defeat of Frank Kratovil from Stevensville in 2010, the 1st was always considered to be an Eastern Shore seat.

And, for the most part, the Shore had taken that responsibility seriously by electing men (no woman has yet to serve) of strong moral fiber and, at times, real political courage.

From Cecil County’s abolitionist John Creswell in 1862 to Easton’s Harry Covington, the founder of Covington & Burling, former Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton, and more recently, Kennedyville’s thoughtful and independent Republican Wayne Gilchrest, the Shore has a record of sending some of their very best and brightest to Washington.

But that all ended in 2010.

The moderate Democrat Kratovil could not survive the anti-Obama wave that election year. While Kratovil did not vote for the Affordable Care Act, a key issue in that election, GOP conservative Andy Harris was able to attract enough new voters from the far right, many of whom were motivated by such grassroots movements as the Tea Party, to win with 54% of the vote.

The 2010 loss was a big deal for the Eastern Shore beyond the loss of Queen Anne’s Frank Kratovil. It was also the year that a decennial census took place which would make up the data used to help Maryland draw new Congressional districts for the 2012 election year.

With Democrats holding both legislative houses and the Governor’s office in Annapolis, senior party leaders drew up new boundaries in Maryland that many critics felt were designed to secure more congressional seats in Congress for Democrats. By moving high concentrations of predictably Republican voters from Carroll, Baltimore, and Harford Counties into just one district, the theory went, the odds improve for the Democrats in the other districts.

And that one district happened to be the 1st Congressional District.

Now separated from the Shore’s historically-linked sister counties of St. Mary and Anne Arundel, the new 1st arches across the top of the Chesapeake and moves west while cutting into Carroll, Baltimore, and Harford Counties to guarantee this super-safe Republican seat.

While the courts are now reviewing the constitutionality of that new districting plan, by November 2012 the results were clear. Congressman Harris beat his Democratic opponent with now 70% of the vote, which eventually placed it on the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index as the 86th most reliable Republican district in the United States.

With that kind of outcome, Maryland GOP leaders would normally not worry too much about an upcoming mid-term election, but then Donald Trump became president.

The political maverick had accomplished what experts said was impossible in 2016 by defeating more than a dozen Republicans in GOP primaries and ultimately Hillary Clinton in the general election. With majorities of both the House, and now the Senate, the Trump mandate, however modest it was, based on an electoral college victory rather than the popular vote, was seen by the winners as a rallying cry for significant social and economic change in Washington.

Some of that change has now taken place. The Trump administration has wasted little time in the dismantling of the EPA, cut thousands of regulations, provided significant corporate tax relief, introduced an “America First” foreign policy, and dozens of other actions, large and small, that cumulatively may add up to be the largest deconstruction of the federal government in our history.

If those changes turn out to be what the voters truly wanted, the Republicans would have much to crow about as they enter into the 2018 midterms, and that would include Congressman Harris.

But these policy victories have come with unprecedented collateral damage. Since taking office, the new president has used his bully pulpit to literally bully his opponents, foreign leaders, ethnic groups, a national war hero, and even celebrities through his Tweeter feed and in public appearances. He is also considered to be by most Americans, including members of his own party, highly capricious in judgment and lacking moral authority, while at the same time is the primary story of a federal investigation of 2018 campaign collusion and obstruction of justice. The fact that he is also being sued by two women he may have had affairs with would make even the most objective onlooker believe the President is a major liability in the fall election.

For Congressman Harris, this is especially problematic since he has not only been a steadfast defender of the President, his own moral compass was thrown into question when he endorsed Alabama’s Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate well after credible reports showed the former judge’s history of having intimate relationships with underaged girls.

With all that in mind, the Spy now believes that, despite the remarkable political engineering it took to guarantee a safe Republican 1st District, the projected outcome in November is hardly certain.

That is why the Spy will be taking a special interest in the 1st District throughout the rest of the year. Over the next six months, we will be profiling Democrats and Republicans from most of the counties that make up the 1st to understand these very different communities and the people that live in those communities.

We start today with our profile of Carroll County through the lens of the member of the Democratic Central Committee there. The following month will be an active Republican in another county. Our stakeholder interviews will alternate between the two parties until the election takes place.

While the Eastern Shore may never return to a time when their U.S. Congressperson is from the Eastern Shore, and we hope that is not the case, that will not limit the Shore’s real interest in the 2018 election. We can only hope that our Spy coverage will only help further a thoughtful and civil conversation about how it will be represented in the future.

 

The Spy Holiday Poem: Heron & Harp by Meredith Davies Hadaway

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The Spy continues our tradition in sharing the best of local poetry as our way to celebrate this holiday season. Once again, we turn to Chestertown’s very gifted Meredith Davies Hadaway for this special poem entitled Heron & Harp  which includes her performance on harp and photographs.

The Chestertown Spy editors, writers, and volunteers send our best Seasons Greetings and best wishes for a wonderful new year.

This video is approximately one minute in length

HERON & HARP

I drag my harp across the gapped

terrain of pier—a hundred feet with nothing

underfoot but slats of air and swirling tide—

 

and place the harp in front of me to play

“The Water Is Wide,” a sort of joke here,

where the channel is so narrow.

 

A few notes into the song: a squawk.

Flying low, a heron glides across

the river’s edge to land beside me.

 

Head tucked so he can stare me down

from his perch on a piling—

 

summoned by the strange cascade of frequencies—

or did he mistake the arching frame for another

large and gawky bird?

 

I keep the tune going, a slow air

we would call it, as the oscillations rise,

and then retreat, leaving

 

song and bird, the harp and me suspended

in a pulse, a wave, a measure

where the water is wide enough

to hold us all.

 

—from At the Narrows © Word Poetry, 2015

Meredith Davies Hadaway is the author of three poetry collections, including At the Narrows, winner of the 2015 Delmarva Book Prize for Creative Writing.

Editorial: Rest in Peace, but Not in Spirit, Colchester Farm

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The Chestertown Spy has, regrettably, had to write a fair number of obituaries of local businesses who have decided to shut their doors since we started this publication. From beloved bookstores to favorite restaurants, we have grieved along with our readers over the loss of not only local commerce but local culture.

While some of these endings were the result of an unanticipated economic recession, there were ample examples of proprietors deciding in the later years of their lives to quietly retire. Nonetheless, the consequences of these lost businesses correspond with the experience of grief; a sense of loss, a sense of anger, a sense of losing what we feel is so vital for our identity and our community.

With all that in mind, it was extraordinarily painful the other day to make note here that the Colchester Farm CSA would be closing their operation by the end of the year.

From the earliest moments of the Spy, we have celebrated and continuously endorsed the importance of community supported agriculture. And while there remains a number of great CSAs on the Delmarva, the local personal loss of Colchester is a particularly painful one for the Spy.

Starting with our early partnership with the CSA in bringing to Chestertown the transformational documentary, Food Inc in 2009,  and shortly followed by one of our first videos on its operation, there has always been the greatest respect for its staff, volunteers and board members as well as very special affection for farm owner and visionary Charlotte Staelin, who started this grand experiment in 2003.

Our community is particularly indebted to the long-term tenure of Colchester’s agricultural master and farm manager Theresa Mycek who has been faithful to the Farm’s distinctive mission. A familiar face at the Chestertown Farmers Market whose unassuming ways masked an extraordinary work ethic and passion for locally produced food. It is of some small comfort that she will continue her farming practice on the Mid-Shore.

Unlike other startups, a CSA must depend on a certain amount of sheer human horsepower to ensure that the mission of the organization is successful. That meant in most cases that Teresa and her crew were in the fields in the early morning and would eventually retire at sundown for the vast majority of days of any given year. They did this not because there was a career track, a good health insurance, or pension program, but to prove that a CSA can provide an alternative model of farming that strengthens the relationship between farmers, community members, food, and the land.

And they were so right about that.

Even with the end of the Colchester Farm CSA experiment, the Spy remains optimistic that aspiring local farmers can find a sustainable business model in providing essential fresh and healthy produce to its immediate community. If they succeed, they might want to give Colchester some credit as being the first in Kent County to try and find that pathway.

Editorial: A Few Suggestions for Washington College’s New President

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Sometime this week, perhaps through a board memorandum or a campus-wide email, Washington College will install Kurt Landgraf as its new president. For a small college, and this tiny town, that is a big deal since it has only happened twenty-nine times since 1782.

And since it is such a rare occurrence, the Chestertown Spy has made it a habit of welcoming WC’s leaders on our editorial page since the first Spy began publication in the 1790s. That tradition continues here.

As an observer of Washington College and its presidents, the Spy has always had a high degree of respect, admiration, and more than a little sympathy for those that take on this line of work. It is no secret that being a president of a small college in today’s world is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs one can have, not only in higher education but any profession. Budgets are tight, expenses are high, student recruitment competitive, and fundraising goals aspirational, while trustees, faculty members, and alumni continue to have their own enormous expectations. This list goes on.

Given all that, it is truly remarkable there is so little done in the way of training for those rising to this level of academic leadership. In fact, except for some crash courses offered by places like Harvard, and perfunctory meetings with board members and senior administrators, new college presidents are responsible for their own orientation.

Given these limitations, the Spy, fondly devoted to Washington College, wants to help the new president climb the learning curve with a few suggestions beyond the standard, and often repeated, mantra that every president needs a “vision.” Here are some points, some ideas, for any new president to keep in mind, and – since it’s a college – some suggested supplementary reading from both the Spy and other sources.

1) Honor institutional memory: Washington College’s revolutionary position in higher education always seems to get lost in the College’s public relations push to promote the role George Washington played in the College’s creation. The Washington connection is a great story to tell, and all of WC’s presidents have fully embraced this narrative, even to the point where one president had been so limited in his knowledge  that he spent the first six months of his tenure incorrectly telling audiences that Washington had been the “founder” of the institution. That kind of fake history helps neither the school or its students.

But more importantly, the other story, the one in which Washington College’s creation fundamentally changed the role of higher education when it opened its doors in 1782, gets lost in all the hype. The Spy’s interview with WC’s retired professor Colin Dickson for a delightful discussion of William Smith and the College’s early years.

2) The Town and the College are intertwined: There has always been an active, if the not particularly valuable, debate in Chestertown on whether it is a “town with a college” or a “college town.” It doesn’t matter. It is only important for a new college president to know that this community and Washington College are irretrievably intertwined economically, intellectually, culturally, and physically. Rather than face an uncertain future separately, WC and Chestertown must work together in a serious and strategically meaningful way to remain relevant. The Spy most recently addressed this special relationship in an editorial a few months ago.

3) Choose scholarships over campus amenities: One of the most unforgivable sins in higher education these days is that a college’s endowment does not determine its commitment to economic diversity among its students. Case in point, Bowdoin College in Maine, with an endowment of almost $1.4 billion, only provides scholarship support to 45% of its students, but consistently wins the “best dormitory food” category in higher education by investing loads of money into that area. Washington College, on the other hand, supports about 60% of its students using its relatively modest endowment of $200 million. While there is always the temptation to keep up with the “Joneses” to improve recruitment of students who can pay $60,000 a year for that high end buffet at Bowdoin,  President Landgarf and others would profit from  journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s work last year that documents this moral conundrum.

4) Manage expectations: The dream of every college president is to have a “transformational” gift during their tenure which can catapult their school to a much higher orbit in ranking and prestige through the generosity of a $100 million-plus donation. The good news is that these gifts do sometimes happen (WC alum Betty Casey are you listening?) but not often. It is more often the case that a college president has to devote a decade or more to better position their school. Be realistic in your goals until that rare transformational moment takes place.

5) It’s ok to preach: At the end of the day, colleges need leaders, not administrators. While some may now consider the job as the “fundraiser in chief,” in reality the students and most faculty want a college president to use their bully pulpit to connect the dots between the issues of the day and the importance of critical thinking, moral judgment, and citizenship. While this suggestion might have seemed redundant a few decades ago, nowadays college presidents are taking on a corporate CEO model where commentary from on top might jeopardize the value of the “brand.”

6) Find your inner poet to lead: While it is true that students and parents demand higher “returns on investment” for their $100,000 plus tuition fees, in reality, they need and want a liberal arts experience. The fusion of the humanities with such things as “business management” is the essential differential between vocational education and the limitless capacity for knowledge and experience that comes with a small residential college.

Joseph McLain, an internationally recognized chemist before he became WC’s president in the 1970s, insisted on holding weekly poetry recitals with students to drive home his conviction that science and the humanities must learn from each other. President Landgraf must find his own way to demonstrate his commitment to this ideal.

7). Enjoy the job and the town: As the Spy has noted before, surveys of new college presidents have found an overwhelming percentage either disliked or hated their jobs after their first year in office. There might be good reasons for that, given the enormous pressure placed upon these individuals, but the odds are that those who hate their job, regardless of their station in life, rarely perform well. One way to do that is to follow the first six points outlined here, but also fall in love with Chestertown and its people.

Editorial: The Death of the Chester 5 and the Birth of a New Cinema?

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At last count, approximately 22,000 readers have read our Chestertown Spy’s “breaking news” story that the Chester 5 Theatres had closed their doors. While the Spy has had similarly high readership for other top stories, this particular article, and the size of its audience, clearly hit a nerve.

Undoubtedly, one of the major reasons for interest is the obvious and rather depressing fact that when a town loses its movie theater it’s a really big deal. While it may not rise to the level of losing a hospital, it is the kind of simple amenity in a rural setting that demonstrates a certain quality of life. But it also is one that offers the community considerable cost savings and the hassle of driving an hour or more to see a movie.

And with this kind of news, there is no significant consolation that it’s not anyone’s fault; that Chestertown has just experienced a trend found throughout the country, that small house movie theaters failing as the result of internet competition and the invention of the binge-watching miniseries format. All that seems reasonable until that trend hits your town.

But with every disappointment comes a new opportunity, as they say in the movies.

The absence of the Chester 5 may be regrettable, but it does not mean the end of cinema in Kent County. In fact, it opens the door for perhaps a much more creative and sustainable concept that could more accurately reflect the community’s more diverse tastes in film.

With the student audience at Washington College nine months out of the year, a retirement population that grew up watching the movies, and no competing film outlet closer than Middletown, there would appear to be an opening for someone willing to take the plunge. The economic benefits go well beyond the price of tickets and popcorn; movie-goers are likely to grab a slice of pizza or a sandwich at a local shop before or after the movie. And of course the theater’s employees will spend their salaries in local businesses. Like any successful business, it helps the whole community.

Could it not be possible for  Washington College, RiverArts, the Garfield, and other individuals and entities who share a passion and need for film programming to cooperatively find some permanent venue that could be transformed into a state-of-the-art cinematic experience?  And might that venue be strategically placed to have a high economic impact with lowest overhead?

Perhaps not too wild a dream?

 

 

 

 

Editorial: The Departures of College Presidents Sheila Bair and Barbara Viniar

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Just as with friends getting divorced, when colleges separate from their presidents there is that familiar feeling of sadness as well as the usually unanswered question as to why it had to come to “this.”

“They seemed like the perfect couple, or “what a terrific team,” or, better yet, “they were made for each other, what happened?” The phrases that come to mind when everyone’s favorite couple announces they are getting a divorce seem no different than when a school’s board of directors sends out press releases that their current CEO has abruptly resigned.

And that seems to have been the case with the recent announcements by the Boards of Chesapeake College and Washington College that their current presidents, Barbara Viniar and Sheila Bair, both of whom had records of significant accomplishments, would be leaving their posts under less than clear circumstances.

The general public, just like friends of divorcing couples, is not in a position to seek clarification for these quick changes. Just like in observing a marriage from afar, they are not privy to the kind of private conflicts, misunderstandings, or simple incompatibility that college presidents may or may not have had with their governing boards. The community at large is left to mind their own “beeswax” having neither the authority, nor the position, to press for better answers.

The Spy finds itself in a similar position. We are not in the business to speculate or second-guess volunteer boards on managing these local institutions of higher education unless there is evidence of malfeasance which, to our knowledge, does not seem to be the case with in these two cases.

But that does not preclude us from saying that both of these women demonstrated a love of their institutions that achieved great and significant improvements in how their schools pursued their mission.

Barbara Viniar’s ten years at Chesapeake College almost perfectly paralleled the remarkable sea change in community college education throughout the country. And during that time, Dr. Viniar held firm in her conviction that through innovation and curriculum reform, Chesapeake College could navigate through the pitfalls of funding shortages and political conflicts to become all the more useful and relevant to the communities it serves. She should take pride that she has left the community college in Wye Mills stronger and more vibrant as a result of her leadership.

And while Sheila Bair at Washington College did not enjoy the same lengthy tenure as Dr. Viniar had, it was stunning for many observers, including the media, how quickly she was able to define the mission of the College to include an intensely public campaign to reduce student debt. She also instantaneously became the primary national advocate in shedding light on the precarious subprime educational loan market, earning her well-deserved coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

It is these records of accomplishment that make these transitions painful to hear. But it also a reminder of how extremely difficult being a college president is these days. Beyond the usual tensions that come with faculty demands, alumni grievances, and high board expectations, college leaders must operate will fewer resources, tighter regulations, and new performance metrics based on “return on investment” calculations. In short, these are really hard jobs.

As the Mid-Shore awaits news of their successors for both schools, it behooves us all to acknowledge the personal leadership offered by these impressive women. They both should feel a sense of accomplishment as they move on to their next role.

We wish them well and with our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

 

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