Carl Foss (1927-2018): Remembrance of a True Community Ideal

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Communities are not defined by mere words and platitudes of the chattering class. Though they endure through the dedication of their residents, communities only attain lasting permanence through tangible structures. These include both physical and philosophical constructs people can rally around. They are forged by the grand ideas from the active minds of singular individuals. Carl Foss was one of those individuals. He thought big, achieved big, and left us all with a better community. He represents an ideal we should all strive for.

The following is a personal remembrance. As such, it reflects only my feelings, limited as they are, on the impact this great man had on his community.

I don’t remember the first time I met Carl Foss. I do remember his reputation preceded our actually meeting. It was the late 1980s. I was just getting involved in the Town of Mendon. Jack Leckie, then Town Supervisor, told me I should get to know Carl Foss. At the time, Carl was the Chairman of the Zoning Board. I had zero interest in Zoning, but I had heard Carl was quite knowledgeable about the subject – and he took it quite seriously.

Again, I don’t remember when I first met him, but I do remember I was immediately impressed, if not slightly intimidated. Not in the sense that I feared him, but more that I was in awe. Carl was a font of ideas. He respected the rules, and he fashioned grand ideas from them.

Our friendship grew in the early 1990s when we both felt it important to provide opportunities for town residents to preserve the bucolic tranquility of Mendon in a manner that would protect it from the frailties of some future government. By that time, I was on the Town Board. That meant I was potentially part of the problem… or the solution.

Carl and I talked about this. He had an idea, and I was in a position to help. Together with Jack, Chuck Meisenzahl, and Lucy Parsons, we crafted a resolution whereby the Town of Mendon authorized the creation of a committee to explore the best way to preserve and protect our precious open spaces for generations to come. That committee was led by Carl, and included Jeanne Loberg and Bill Fletcher. The three of them worked hard, creating what eventually became The Mendon Foundation.

If you knew Carl, you’d know this wasn’t a mere idle idea. Nope, he had a specific objective in mind. He saw the slowly degrading Lehigh Valley right-of-way and saw an opportunity. In particular, he saw the dots that connected the Town of Mendon, the County of Monroe, the burgeoning rails-to-trails movement, and a little paragraph in a federal transportation bill. That little paragraph contained language that offered grant money to local efforts to convert old railroad rights-of-way to trails.

Now, before you think this a rather odd eco-friendly policy to come from a Republican presidential administration, bear in mind there was another reason. The railroad industry was going through convulsions for a generation. The six Class One railroads that had once crossed our region between New York City and Chicago had been reduced to one. All those excess mainlines had gone to weed. Still, they remained valuable. Who knew what future transportation ideas would require them. The federal government wanted those rights-of-way preserved by local government just in case that need would some day materialize.

Carl was always thinking of the future. He had a vision for our community. The Mendon Foundation would serve as the backbone for that vision. He, Dick Dehm, and Warren Wallace, with the help of many others, oversaw the transition of the old railroad bed into a “double tracked” hiking/biking trail with a companion horse trail. If Carl was Captain Kirk, Warren was the Mr. Spock who figured out how to make it happen and Dick was the Doctor McCoy to keep it all real.

“Keeping it real.” That was the great thing about Carl. He never let artificial limits dampen his enthusiasm, his optimism, and, above all, his creativity. He instinctively knew the best path to community success was to bring all elements of the community together. In his mind, this was the real job of the Mendon Foundation. One of the first projects on the new trail was a city Boy Scout Troop working on the truss bridge west of Rochester Junction. Today, many Eagle Scout projects dot the Trail and the various Mendon Foundation properties. Over the years, the Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and other community groups undertook their own projects, too. Carl’s community thinking wasn’t limited to land. He worked with the HF-L School district to create an Earth Day activity, established (with his wife Joan) an art contest, and helped the Robotics team raise money by partnering with the Mendon Foundation.

After I left politics, he brought me in as a director of the Mendon Foundation. He tasked me with helping him to strengthen these community ties. Around that time he and Warren began focusing on the Hamlet. It had long been a dream of Carl to create a park and museum where the old bean mill is and the Lehigh Valley’s Mendon depot was located. Carl got professionals to donate their time and services to make this idea concrete. Carl was good at that.

Carl envisioned a “Mendon Station Park,” complete with pavilions, a kiosk, and a rebuilt replica of the original Mendon station. His concept of the kiosk was inspired by what he saw on the Adirondack Trail. The first one was built in the Hamlet. Several others were built along the trail. We were also able to construct a pavilion in the hamlet and Carl, somehow, managed to get RG&E to put a light by it. To promote “Mendon Station Park,” he came up with the “Mendon Station Park Festival” and worked with the Mendon Business Association to see it become a reality.

Held in early September, The Mendon Station Festival was a “pre-harvest” festival of sorts meant to celebrate the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. The kernel of the idea, though, came from Carl and was funneled through me to the MBA, who agreed to go with it. Carl had a way of getting his ideas accomplished by allowing others to take ownership of them. He was very generous in that way. When the task became too ambitious for the MBA, Carl and Arlene Cluff (and later Warren Wallace) led the Mendon Foundation in working with local businesses, the HF-L School district, Troop 105 and Pack 105, St. Catherine’s, and other groups to insure the event would continue.

The pinnacle of his energies had to be the building of the replica freight house at Rochester Junction. While it was problematic to build a depot in the Hamlet, erecting a building at what was once the hub of the local Lehigh Valley doings proved easier. Carl relied almost exclusively on Warren to see this project through (it turned into my son Peter’s award-winning Eagle Scout project). Indeed, Carl and Warren were the driving force behind all those new structures in Rochester Junction.

Through all these ventures, and many more, I worked closely with Carl. I wasn’t involved as much as others in the day-to-day operations, but he valued my experience when it came to strategic planning. I should tell you, though, that Carl’s ideas went well beyond the Mendon Foundation. He was always thinking about what the Town could do to become a better place. He showed me a lot by his example. He showed us all a lot by his energetic, creative, and optimistic example. He was a true “can-do” community ideal. Would that we could all be at least of fraction of Carl Foss. Our community would be the better for it.

I may not recall the first time I met Carl, but I do remember the last. It was at Joan’s wake. I saw him from a distance. He cordially greeted the many visitors that came to express their condolences. Yet, he had this detached, forlorn look in his eye. I understood, and it made me sad. When it was my turn to share my sympathies with him, he expressed remorse that he outlived so many. All I could offer was that he could take heart knowing that what he built in the Town of Mendon would outlast us all and be appreciated by generations to come. Then something magical happened. His eyes brightened up as if, for a moment, we were back in my old office, sitting around the conference table, he leading the Mendon Foundation Board meeting and me dutifully taking the meeting notes. He smiled that broad, vaguely impish, smile we all remember. He was happy. He was happy I was there. He was happy for all that he accomplished with the Mendon Foundation.

And I was happy to have known him.

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