Bruce Montgomerie Interview
This is file #53, cycle 3. Today’s date is October 25, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Bruce Montgomerie who is going to talk on the Taconic Learning Center. First we’ll begin with the hard stuff.
JM:What is your name?
JM:How did you come to this area?
BM:Serendipitously a friend of mine had rented a summer cottage out here on Lakeville Lake. I drove up one weekend and spent a short weekend with them. We came to enjoy the area. So I came back a couple of times to just tour around and stayed at the Wake Robin Inn. We bought property here in 1985 from Camp Sloane. The house on the property was a small summer cottage that had not been winterized. We did a little bit over the years. It is on the head of Long Pond off route 112. I worked many years in the city and at one point I got tired of putting in outrageous hours. I decided to hang it up so we came up here in 2003 and brought my kids who were young at the time. I put them in Town Hill at the time which is now the lower campus of Indian Mountain School. My daughter went to Indian Mountain. My son went to UConn and is now in the minor league for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
JM:How did you learn about The Taconic learning Center?
BM:I don’t recall whether I saw something in the Lakeville Journal or heard about it. You can learn about TLC just by going to their website (WWW.Taconic Learning Center.org.) It is not complicated, but it dives all the information needed and is easily accessible. We offer courses in three semesters: fall, winter and spring. The Winter Semester is typically shorter running from February to March or early April. There is no magic to the calendar: it is a function of the teachers and what courses they are teaching and how long they want the course to run. It is pretty fluid within certain parameters. It starts with the fact that our instructors are teaching what they want because they want to. To some extent they are on their own schedule which governs when they are available for teaching. In general the number of sessions run about 4 to 8 sessions. We have had a couple that only ran 2 sessions. We have not had many that have run longer than 8 sessions. It is always driven by what the instructor has in mind to cover. We have been extraordinarily fortunate in having very good dedicated instructors, bearing in mind that these folks do not get paid. They like the teaching process and they enjoy sharing their knowledge with their class. It is totally catch as catch can. It is not like we have a deep roster of teachers waiting in line to teach courses. Every semester is made up as we go. Now as we speak we are trying to put together the winter term which will start sometime after the first of January. People just come out of the wood work and say, “I want to teach a course.”
JM:You don’t recruit then?
BM:We do and we don’t. We don’t make a concerted effort to recruit, but if we hear of someone who might be interested and has a unique interest in a particular field or perhaps has taught elsewhere, we are not the only place in this region giving courses of even one session such as the library or the
Salisbury Historical Society will put on a talk. We learn about the teachers and we approach them and ask if they are interested. Most often they come to us because first of all we are very fortunate that we have a stable of teachers who are now well into their eighth, twelfth or fourteenth course. We have a number of instructors who have taught many courses.
JM:On your website you have a list of maybe 10-12 people that have taught many courses. That is a very nice thing to do to give them credit for their years of dedicated teaching. Not too many people do that.
BM:It is only right. All of our instructors put a lot time into their courses. It is not like they just stand in front of the class for 2 hours and run the lips. They don’t turn the motor on and let it run. A lot of preparation goes into each class. Some instructors spend anywhere from 4 to 15 hours to do one class, one day’s worth of class of a 2 hour session. You want to offer some real analysis and depth of information. You have to do that. There is nobody on the planet that is really so confident that they can just give you a thorough, organized, well annotated complete discussion for 2 hours on some arcane subject. There just are not very many of those people on the planet. We have instructors who will tell you the opposite.
We have a thoracic surgeon in the area for a number of years who has a significant medical background. He was a surgeon: he did not do microbiology or new fancy stuff. What he will do is study up and learns a new field and from the work that he puts in, he will put together a course for people. It is really wonderful way to learn about microbiology or something like that. He always says that he picks topics that he knows nothing about. Why would he do that? It is his way of learning.
JM:He shows intellectual curiosity.
BM:I think most of our instructors kind of are of that philosophy, whether they articulate it or not. We have a fellow who was the CFO of a major oil company before he retired. He knows a lot about business, commercial transactions and economics. For many years he taught courses in the economic field, but they were not the things he did for a living. He would learn about a whole different area and then help us understand it.
We have a guy who retired from IBM. I don’t really understand much about computers myself. I certainly do not understand what he did for a living. He was a technical person. He is very competent with computers. He teaches the industrial history of the northwest corner.
JM:I have taken some courses with him; he is excellent.
BM:Dick Paddock is a fantastic guy. He knows this stuff. He has a genuine interest in this subject matter. It is not like he is force feeding himself: he loves this stuff. He is good at it so he has turned his personal interests in this field into a course and shared his knowledge with the rest of us. This is illustrative of the types of instructors which we have.
We have another guy who was an investment banker and gave a course on the Federal Reserve which was quite informative. We had another fellow who was a professor at Columbia Presbyterian Medical School who taught something fairly close to his professional teaching which was microbiology stuff. Boy was that fascinating. I will tell you that I got maybe one half of it and I couldn’t tell you a thing about it now. It was interesting at the time. When you are in the room with him, you follow him. He keeps it simple and explains thing well. It was way over my head, but it was fascinating to hear him. We are very fortunate to have such good instructors. Sometimes other instructors are taking time off so we recruit other instructors as we have openings. So far we have been very lucky to have such a wonderful collection of people who share their knowledge.
JM:It has been going for 25 years as it started in 1989. I took notes from the website. It actually started in the Methodist Church three times a week for three hours per session. The donation at that time was $50. It is now $60.
BM:The $60 donation is tax deductible. That money is used to defray our costs which are mainly a small amount to the places where we have our classes both Geer and Noble Horizons. We used to be here at the Scoville Library. But with the recent renovation the Sarah Wardell Room is much smaller than before. The lack of space precludes holding classes here. The room before was big enough. We run a pretty tight budget.
We don’t spend much money. We spend it on postage, printing and some on advertising. Both Geer and Noble have nice facilities and convenient. We have people from those facilities who come to class. We draw from the surrounding areas. The only time we can’t hold a class is when Region #1 closes schools. Generally they don’t close unless traveling is really bad.
JM:If you knew the roads that those busses have to travel over, you would close school too.
BM:I am sure. We have a lot of narrow back roads in the area and steep ones such as Smith Hill. WE have older folks as our members and we don’t want people driving in bad conditions. When we are closed, the instructors are flexible enough to either extent their session or compress their lesson a bit to fit the schedule.
JM:What is the area from which you draw people to come to these classes?
BM:It is broader than you might think. We do have some people from Amenia, Torrington, Canaan and Norfolk: those come to mind. Oddly we don’t get many people from Millerton which is just over the line. We don’t get much from Kent. It is a long haul. When you start heading south and east the communities there are small and farther away. I would say on average about a 10 to 15 mile radius. Many come from Salisbury of course.
JM:About how many people in general participate?
BM:It is hard to say because it changes a lot from semester to semester, but about 250 seem right. It also depends on the time of the year. Some people just don’t like to drive in winter and others don’t mind it at all.
JM:Again it is individual differences.
BM:That is the nice thing about TLC. We ask that you join as a member, but the reality is that if you can’t afford it or you just don’t feel comfortable making that donation, you can still come. We hope you do. We would like to have the cash to help to pay the bills to keep the organization running. There is nobody taking tickets at the door or a stamp to prove you are a member. It is a totally a volunteer organization. Our hope is that people come because they want to. It is a good way to socialize and meet people. Over a period of time you make friends so there is that socialization aspect.
JM:This is good for single people that live in the area.
BM:Or not single people, it is just good to meet people at our age. WE don’t get around and socialize a lot.
JM;It is a convenient way to do it and during the day so you don’t have to drive at night. It is educationally stimulating.
BM:It is fun and interesting; you are learning something. It is very safe. If there is a safe area in the world it is here. People are coming because they want to learn a new area or about what they think they know. It is a wonderful organization.
JM:When I have taken TLC course, I am always impressed with how much experience and knowledge other people have.
BM:That is correct. It is an observation that I have come to slowly as you see what people around you and you learn what kind of background they have. This area by that I mean the Northwest corner is just blessed with a high quality of individuals; people who have lots of education and have done interesting things in their profession who are honest hard working pleasant people. We are very fortunate.
JM:When did you go on the board of TLC?
BM:I would say three years ago 2015.
JM:Were you just a board member to begin or were you asked to take a position?
BM:Everybody who joins the board is first just a member. Our board members are drafted or assigned a committee. The committees are the bases for running the organization: the committees are advertising, nominations, and programs. We have a guy Larry Rand who is Program Chairman who has done it for a number of years. He is a former Kent School teacher: he knows his stuff and has lots of
connections in the area. He is pretty good at drawing some of these folks in to run courses. We have another fellow who is our treasurer and who also does the website Harding Bancroft. Our Vice President is Adina Simonson. She picks up the pieces that I miss. They are on site at Geer. She makes sure the rooms are reserves and sets the calendar and make sure the cookies show up! That is so important. Trust me, if we don’t have coffee and cookies on time, they would have their nose out of joint. We have always had good cookie, but I don’t have any clue about how that happens. Somebody is doing a wonderful job.
JM:They surely are, but it is very important to have that break about one hour into the class; you have a cup of coffee and a cookie and chat with people, ones you don’t know. As you say it is very comfortable and intellectually stimulating environment, as much as you chose it to be.
BM:Absolutely and the nice thing is that not only is it friendly, but it is also safe. People here do not have a personal agenda: they are here to learn something. If you have a dentist appointment when otherwise you would have a class, you go to the dentist. Nobody is going to give you a black mark. There are no tests or grades.
JM:Your instructors make learning enjoyable and that is the purpose of it.
BM:When thinking about moving here, you should move here because of TLC. I wish the brokers would talk that aspect up more. Obviously a young mother with a 5 year old child would not do TLC, but that is a different story. At the age when you have some free time, it is perfect.
JM:TLC is similar in a way to the Salisbury Forum. That attracts a lot of people to this area for the interesting and informative speakers that they sponsor. What do you do for outreach?
BM:Not that much. We have tried: we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. We put write-ups of class descriptions in the Lakeville Journal. We have our website. We have Tom Gruenewald, a board member and frequent teacher and Larry Rand have just over the last three or four months taken to having an audio segment of Robin Hood Radio where they give a summary of the semester coming up. I have listened to they and they are really effective. The only problem is you do not know who is listening at that time: they are recorded so the spot is run more than once a day. We have printed brochures. Lyn Westsmith and I are on the advertising committee for a couple of years running took them to various places in the area such as banks, libraries and any place where people might congregate. We distribute about 500 of these things from Kent to Sheffield.
JM:How many people are on the board?
BM:I guess about 8 to 10, I really don’t know.
JM:Who is your secretary?
BM:Sarah Polhemus is our secretary. She is extraordinarily diligent. The minutes are always thorough and on time. There is nothing worse than minutes from a meeting two of three months in the past. It is useless. Nobody can say oh we forgot this or that. We have all forgotten everything. She gets the minutes out pretty promptly and they are always really good.
JM:You have people who know what they are doing.
BM:They know what they are doing and they are interested to do it. You don’t have to prod people.
JM:How often do you meet?
BM:The annual meeting is in June and we meet in September, November and sometimes in early January, sometimes not. It depends on how things are going.
JM:What is your term of office?
BM: A year from June to June.
JM:Do you get any feedback from the annual Meeting?
BM:Some people will come up with ideas which they will put forth. Sometimes they are perfectly useful and we follow them up. Other times they are not helpful. About two years ago somebody said, “Can’t you figure out a way to us pay easier?” Going back some time you would get a request from TLC, you would write a check and mail it. In this day and age that is kind of cumbersome. Harding Bancroft figured a way to do it on line. He fiddled around with the website and did whatever he had to do with the credit card company so now they can pay on the website. It is very easy.
We are thinking of offering a Saturday class. This is at the thinking stage just now. All of our classes in recent years have been Monday through Friday. The reason for the Saturday class is we are getting the impression that some people can’t manage the week day classes because of other obligations or jobs. If they would come to a Saturday morning class at 10, they might like that. We’ll see. That would be shifting to a different population and different age level. We would certainly like to have these people. We don’t know how many in that age group are really interested. The reality is that TLC is not limited in any way, but the truth is that most of our members are retired.
JM:Did you ever teach a course?
BM:Yes I have. I have taught courses individually: I taught one. Then last spring three other fellows and I taught a course in “Equality”. We did this partly because I started to think about equality that had been talked about during the 2016 campaign. I spoke to these other fellows over lunch one day. “What do you guys think about this equality thing?” There is inequality in almost everything you can think of in the real world. We had Dick Paddock for the industrial opportunities, a doctor Lynn Whelchel on the medical side, and Jerry Jamin who is the economic guy. Over lunch we decided that the 4 of us would offer a course on Equality, 3 sessions with different aspects. This was not to be a political discourse. We
wanted to try to have an analytical study of understanding what is equality, what causes it and how is it manifested. What could be done to address this issue? Are there some inequalities that simply can’t be addressed? In our government document it is stated “All men are created equal.” They are all entitled to respect and fair treatment, but they are not all equal in size or talents or position in life. There are individual differences. In our course what we were trying to do was to figure out why are some of these things there in certain areas. What causes inequality? The differences start with biological reality. Even identical twins are different from each other. People come to their position is life by what they were born with and how they used those gifts themselves. How did they apply themselves? Did they decide to work really hard or just play video games all day? These are individual choices. If you get beyond the political slogans and try to understand what inequality is, you realize that it is a hideously complicated subject. There aren’t any easy clear-cut answers.
JM:That is the beauty of our country in that we have a variety of cultures and nationalities which makes the country work as a democracy.
BM:We don’t need that same thing; that would be boring. If you want people to be identical, then make a bunch of robots. This class we were teaching, we tried to be analytical, rational and delve into some of these areas. I don’t know if we educated anybody, but I hope we did.
JM:You opened minds to new ideas.
BM:I think so.
JM:Is there anything you would like to add about TLC that we haven’t covered before we close? You have done a wonderful job.
BM:Sign up and come to class.
JM:I have and I will. Thank you.