Donald Ross Interview
This is file #47, cycle 3. Today’s date is July 31, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Donald Ross. Who is going to talk about his background, the Lake Wononscopomuc Association, the Salisbury Forum, and Salisbury Association Trustees, and anything else he wants to talk about. First we’ll start with…
JM:What is your name?
JM:How did you come to buying Holleywood?
DR:I came to it because I was married. I knew I would be divorced if I did not agree.
JM:You came to Salisbury in what year?
DR:I think it was 2012. I should have asked Helen, but she will remember exactly.
JM:Which organization did you join first Salisbury Forum or Salisbury Association?
DR:Salisbury Forum was first. (See file # 46, cycle2, Franck De Chambeau) Actually I think first was the Lake Wononscopomuc Association because we own property on the lake. (See file #34, cycle2, Bill Littaurer)Then the second one was the Salisbury Forum. Then only fairly recently did I join the Salisbury Association.
JM:I didn’t ask you about Lake Wononscopomuc Association but of course you would be a member because you have lake property. How much footage do you have on the lake?
DR:When we bought that house, it was 55 feet; that is all. It was a very narrow, it came from a triangle; it was like the point of the triangle. We bought Dean Meadow next to it; that added something like 400 feet for the property. You would have to do construction to be able to get from the field to the water.
JM:Who invited you to join the Salisbury Forum?
DR:Alex Taylor who I really look up to as a terrific board member of the Forum. He and Bill Littauer (See file #34, cycle 2, William Littauer) and I were three people who played platform tennis regularly. Alex out of the blue asked me if I had every gone to a Salisbury Forum event. “What’s that?” Then I ended up going. One of the early ones I saw was the poet who was the Poet Laureate for Barak Obama’s Inauguration. He drew a very interesting crowd because: not a pure Northwestern Connecticut crowd. It brought people in from New Haven, Hartford, and all sorts of other far-flung destinations. Richard Blanco I think was his name.
JM:Are you still on the board?
DR:I am still on the board. I stepped down at the end of June, 2018 from being the President. I have one year left in my term. I realized that I needed to transition into the Salisbury Association. I wanted to do work on the Land Trust part of the Salisbury Association. It would have been too much to try to do both of them. Mary Close Oppenheimer is now the President and will be while she serves out her term. I am the Vice President of the Salisbury Association and will, if all continues to go well, become the President of the SA in 2019 When Chris Brennan steps down.
JM:Did you make any changes when you were on the board of the Forum?
DR:What we did was we strengthened things that were already underway. We always had a mailing list, but it consisted of a couple of hundred people beginning at the time when I go involved. Now we have about 1,000 names. This was not happenstance; there were three or four of us that every time there was an event we spread out with tablets and let people sign their name, address so on and so forth. We ended up with a substantial number of people by the end of this season. We had a significant increase in donations as a result. It was a win-win. It was also good for the community who attended the events.
JM:Have you been trying to get businesses to support it?
DR:Thanks to Alex Taylor, yes. He convened a meeting in 2013 or 2014 at the Scoville Library on a weekend, probably on a Saturday. One of the ideas that came out was why are we not recruiting businesses because many of the realtors will tell you when they meet their customers coming in from other places who are not aware of Salisbury or Lakeville, they say to them, “One of the real features here is the program free of charge that offers speakers from around the country. There is no other program like it in the Northwest Corner.” There is the Kent Library speakers program, but they charge $40 a ticket which is how they support themselves.” Kent Presents” is s about $1,500 per person to attend a two day event. It is filled with lots of celebrities. We are now a significant magnet to bring people in who care about contemporary affairs, care about poetry, care about literature through these talks.
JM:With not having a charge you are going to get more people.
DR:Yes, definitely, we want to do it; we see it as a service and an enrichment to the community.
JM:When you have a loss in funds, did board members contribute to the short fall?
DR:We had this year 2017-2018 5 board members who stepped up and put $1,000 each. That just sent a message that we are putting in our money: Most people before that were putting in $100 to 250.
JM:Have you gotten any money from the Northwest Connecticut Foundation?
DR:We got money from them and we also got money from Connecticut Humanities Council. I don’t know how much it added up to but it was several thousand dollars.
JM:What is the cost of the speakers?3.
DR:It ranges from zero to an honorarium of $2,500.Several speakers have come and two of them have said that they were not interested in an honorarium as they were connected to the community and that was a donation in effect. That is a big savings, the cost of the event runs up to $3,500 to $3,600 when you include the ads in the Lakeville Journal, and parking. We generally invite newspaper students, newspaper reporters or editors, to come to a dinner if the speaker is going to be there. This year for example we had an amazing speaker, a man named Steve Coll who is the Dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University. His other job is a commentary writer for the New Yorker. He writes the comments at the beginning of the New Yorker magazine. He had a title that was phenomenal “Journalism in the Age of Trump” which drew a huge audience. There were 6 editors there sitting in the front. He said,” I am so embarrassed that this is happening, but I turned in my commentary column. I had to have it in by 7:30, absolute. So all the way up in the car I have been answering questions, and I may get a few calls here. Please bear with me.” Sure enough he had to jump up for two or three calls to say what they should do. So it was a wonderful lesson in journalism. We bring in students from Housy, Salisbury School and Hotchkiss all to meet the speaker in an informal setting. It is another expense to pay for their dinners.
JM:Do all speakers get the same amount?
DR:No some take nothing and other get $2,000, some will take $1,500; it depends on the person and it is also the sense of what we can afford. When we were losing money, we canceled one, because it would have saved $3,000.
JM:Where do you hold these lectures?
DR:We hold them in three locations: Housatonic Valley Regional High School Auditorium which holds over 500, Hotchkiss Walker Auditorium holds 600 and Salisbury School Auditorium which holds about 375. This year when we totaled up roughly the estimate of the crowds, we had 5 speakers: we had a total of about 190 empty seats. There were mostly full houses for each speaker. It is terrific.
JM:You get your speakers through networking?
DR:Networking, people who know people -I had worked with a New York Times reporter up in Albany when she and I were both much younger. I fed her some information about environmental stuff that I was working on and she would write it up. Now she is a well-known author who wrote the book The Sixth Extension about Elizabeth Colvert. She was the first person I called and she said that she would come down. She lives and works in Williamstown, Mass. “I’d be happy to come down. I’d love to be there.” She gave a terrific talk, totally sold out. In fact we had to move people who were sitting on the steps because of fire regulations. It was a great event. It is exciting.
JM:It has been going on for several years, and it presents fascinating topics and people come out to listen. The more it goes on, the more widely known it becomes. How many events do you have a year?
DR: We have two different kinds of events. One is a movie that we have in January on a Sunday at the Millerton Movie House. It is a very good relationship with them. Then in June we have the Civic Life Project. (See file #48, cycle 2, Bill Willis) Those are short films put out by student in various schools on topics of their own interest. They run about 8 minutes. They are shot by students on serious topics. They research, interview, cut and edit to produce short films. Two of the board members have historically gone out and helped them. One had been a TV film maker and an on the air spokesperson, Bill Littauer. Frank Fitzmaurice taught journalism at American University so he had been doing it. Gretchen Barbopich had worked for years as chief aide to Peter Jennings on Channel 7 in New York. She was doing the same thing. The kids are getting great expertize. They all donate their time and travels to the schools.
JM:The kids get a showcase for their projects. They get a wider audience which is wonderful.
DR:Then we have anywhere from 5 to 7 speakers. It is generally five. Unfortunately we had a cancelation for the first talk in September of this year. She is off to cover something in Mexico that she had to do. We have three speakers in the fall and we will probably try to have 4 in the spring. We will have 7 this year.
JM:Please tell me the Ralph Nader story.
DR:I left New York at 3 am to drive up in snow to Winsted to pick up Ralph to speak at the Forum and at the high school auditorium. He had wangled an invitation from Hotchkiss earlier that morning. I drove up, picked him up and got to Hotchkiss. I sat next to him as the Headmaster told us exactly how much time he had to speak. 9 to 9:25 as the students had to go to their classes. I knew there was trouble coming. I sat next to the Headmaster and Ralph was going on 9:15, 9:20, 9:25, 9:30, 9:40 or close to it when he stopped. The Headmaster was having fits. Ralph effortlessly transitioned from that talk to another one that had already been scheduled at 10 with a group of about 50-75 students who had a free period. He spoke to a smaller group after that. Then he had a meeting with the faculty and students combined, lunch. He had kept going then after the lunch we met with the acting Headmaster. By then he had forgotten the morning time overrun; it was just a delightful talk. Ralph came back to our house, made notes, talked about them. Pretty soon a crowd of people came over whom we had invited. He talked until late afternoon then we had a dinner for him. Finally we went to the Salisbury Forum. The Forum itself has very strict rules about time. The talk begins at 7:30: the speech should stop by 8:15 and then there is a Q & A period for about 45 minutes. Ralph s was slowing down at 8:45, by 9:00 he had stopped. The Q&A lasted until about 9:45. I had assumed that there would be a rush of people to get out just because it had been a long time. It never happened. Finally Ralph was in the lobby well after 10 signing books, and giving out his autograph. I drove him back up to Winsted. I was dragging. He was animated. “Do you want to come in and talk?” “Ralph, I was up hours before you, I have got to go to sleep!” It was wonderful and makes for a great story. I have worked with him for 3 years so I have traveled with him. I knew exactly what would happen. I was very close to him. I see him, I go up to his Torte Museum.
JM:Is there anything you would like to add about the Salisbury Forum before we go on to your next organization?
DR:Salisbury Forum is a unique projection in vision from Franck De Chambeau who put tremendous amount of work into designing protocol, how it should be done and recruiting other people. He reached out to Salisbury School who joined a year after Hotchkiss. It has created a terrific institution that continues to work well. There should be no problems in keeping something going, whether it is Forum talks in the fall or three talks in the spring. It is going to be a continuing program: word is out among authors and others who are interested. We have gotten a few calls from people who say, “I have this person who wrote this really interesting book on______. Would you be interested?” There is some solicitation, but the author will get a fee. It is great.
JM:Salisbury Association had been going since 1902, according to their website. Who asked you to join that?
DR:Tom Key (See file # 21, cycle 2, Tom Key) and Dave Heck (See file # 18, cycle 2, Dave Heck) may have asked me. I had known them. Would you be interested in joining? I asked what it involved. We have meetings on Saturday mornings once a month; sometimes we take a two month sabbatical in the summer. We have these three organizations: Salisbury Land Trust which is the major one in terms of the natural resources. There are a number of people who sit on the board of trustees. Then there is the Civic Association which goes out and does things like the 4th of July celebration at the Grove, it also sponsors other kinds of activities like the Fall Festival and the Christmas concert which is always great. The third part of it is the Historical Association which does talks, exhibits and the oral history project, of which I am participating right now. The history part is a fabulous program. Lou Bucceri is such a gifted and inclusive speaker. He is happy taking 10 students on a Saturday morning to go see some historical site, like the Ames Iron Works. It works.
The story that I am fond of is I went to the Land Trust meeting which attracts about 500 people down at Wesleyan College last fall. One of the sessions was to talk about your land trust. I was in a room with about 30 people sitting there. They all said this is our land trust. I said the Salisbury Land Trust is three organizations. It is the Land Trust, but it is also the Historical Association and the Civic Association. One woman said, “I am from Fairfield County. Why would you want to do something like that?” I said, “Maybe not in Fairfield County, but it works in Litchfield County.”
I think it is a really important institution. It will become even stronger. One of the things I am hoping to get a chance to do is to try to reach out to other similar civic groups and try to see if there is something that we all have in common such as the Lake Association, the Salisbury Forum and 6 or 7 other entities and find ways of mutual benefit. I met with one of the senior officials at the Sharon Play House. I am thinking about how they are really trying to revive that, but they are in a sad financial situation which they had to make up. Why can’t some of the other groups help them out? The Salisbury Forum doesn’t have any event during the summer, so why don’t we send out a mailing to the 1,000 people that are on our mailing list. “Hey there is a great play going on at the Sharon Play House. Let’s help them out.”
Maybe they would get a discount of $2 or something. The Lake Association could be helpful too. We could then begin to see cross fertilization among some of the other organizations. I think it is important to do that and also look down the age bracket. The Salisbury Association has a median age of well up into the low 60’s. There are only a handful of people who are younger; there are quite a few that are well past 75.
JM:You have a problem with finding the time to do volunteer organizations. It is very difficult. When did you join the Salisbury Association?
DR:It was last year 2017.
JM:When you joined the board, were you just a board member or did you become an officer?
DR:No, I was just a board member, regular, plain vanilla kind of person sitting there. The Salisbury Association had a policy until last year of no term limits. You joined and you could be there forever. They began to try to work this out: it was a couple of year process.
JM:Yes, the accreditation took a long time (See file #33, cycle 3, George Massey)
DR:The accreditation took a long time, but also it is also sorting out policy, by-laws and other problem of governance. (See file # 21, cycle 2, Tom Key) I got approached by people who said, “Would you be interested in becoming more involved in the Association?” “What does it involve?” “Well to become an officer.” I am already Vice President of the Lake Association which is a really simple task because Bill Littauer does everything. We only have 4 meetings a year. The Salisbury Forum which does take up time. I talked to them, thought about it and said yes. As I got more interested and involved in it, coming into 2018 I realized that I should do for Mary Close Oppenheimer what Leon Graham did for me. Leon stepped aside from being President of the Salisbury Forum to give me an opportunity to have a 2 year term. He had had a 5 year term (See file #49, cycle3, Leon Graham). You have a 6 year term and then you are off the board. That is a good thing; this is now what the Salisbury Association now has.
JM:You have 2 three year terms. Then you have to get off the board.
DR:That is definitely the Forum, I am not sure if it is the same with the Salisbury Association. In any event I ended up suddenly being the Vice President of the Salisbury Association, partly because of the personal dynamics in that change-over where you thought you would always be there; some people have to have term limits. They are being moved off the board. Having somebody is not involved in any of that process became necessary.
JM:Chris Brennan (See file #31, cycle 2, Chris Brennan) will end her term as President on January 1, 2019.
DR: She will step down at the end of 2018 and I will become the President.
JM:You mentioned a new way of donating funds. It is something you want to explore.
DR:There is a government program that is very advantageous for people who want to provide support to a non-profit organization. What it does is if you are over 701/2 of which many people in this region are, and you have a 401Kwith any number of institutions, you can have a qualitied charitable deduction (QCD). What that does is to allow you to write a personal check to a non-profit for $1,000, you then mail it to the institution holding your 401K. You ask them to match the amount with funds from your 401K so that the check going to the non-profit organization becomes $2,000. The check has to come from you and have the grantee’s name on it. This gives the advantage of a tax deduction benefit. The government wants people to help pay for activities that are non-profit activities.
JM:You get the tax exemption on the $2,000.
DR: Yes, on both. They are both tax exempt. There is nothing evasive about it. I have talked now to both the board of the Salisbury Forum and the Salisbury Association. We ought to try to encourage that.
JM:What is TerraCorps?
DR:TerraCorps is another interesting activity that I think is going to bear tremendous benefits, to not just Salisbury Land Trust, but also other land trusts in Connecticut. Terra means earth, so it means the earth corps. It grew out of an AmeriCorps program, the domestic Peace Corps. The Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust of Athol, Mass. got volunteers to work on land trust matters. These were people who were interested in the environment, climate change; most of them were college graduates. Some of them have Mas and others have taken a year off to work on their PhD. to learn more about managing land. We are now actively engaged with the Terracorps group. We are hoping that in 2019 we will be able to have a Connecticut branch of that. Assuming that nothing changes, the Salisbury Association would be able to hire 2 TerraCorps volunteers. The rate you pay them would be $8,500 a year; they get paid by the Federal Government as they are AmeriCorps people as well. They work about 1700 hours a year. $8,500 sounds like a lot of money but 1700 hours of work is a lot also. (It works out to be$5:00 per hour Ed.) They frequently get housing from land trust members who had extra rooms. We are in active conversations with them as to how this may happen. There is now $500,000 pledged from different donors to launch the TerraCorps organization, spinning off from the Mt. Grace Land Trust, because it just got to be too big. There are now 38 volunteers working in Massachusetts. They will have more than that next year in Massachusetts. We are hoping to bring it down to Connecticut and also to Rhode Island. The head of the TerraCorps program came and spoke to the Salisbury Association for over an hour, explaining to all the mechanisms and how it worked. There were people who had questions; there were some skeptics. I think it is just an incredible way to help us. He gave lots of examples. It is not just hoeing the fields, they teach about the environment, climate, and ecology. Some can go into the schools and give talks; they can get students out and take them around to get them involved in doing work on the land. I am actively raising money from foundations to try to help pay for some of their programs.
JM:Is there anything else that you would like to add to the Salisbury Association portion of this interview?
DR:Salisbury Association is a remarkable institution. The people who are involved in it are terrific people. The same is true of the Salisbury Forum. A lot of people think they don’t have the time. When they think they don’t have the time, they don’t have the time. For some people who are still working and living somewhere else, it is a problem. Here we have a terrific group of people; we can then cross fertilize just like I had never known what the Salisbury Association was nor did I know what the Salisbury Forum was when I first moved to town. Both have enlarged my network of people I know and work with; most of them are really class A plus people. They are putting hour and hours of their time and energy.
JM:Thank you so very much.
DR:You are welcome.