I was recently in Brooklyn on business when I met Renee Baucom Salmieri, 65, of Harlem. She asked me where I was from and so I gave my standard answer for downstaters who likely think Albany is the boondocks: “Up near Syracuse.” But for some reason I added, “It’s a little place called Watertown.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re from Watertown?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “You actually know where Watertown is?”
“Yes! I was a Fresh Air kid! Watertown changed my life!”
For the uninitiated, the purpose of the Fresh Air Fund, as noted in its 1888 articles of incorporation, is “to give children living in the City of New York the benefit and enjoyment of fresh air in the country.” More than 130 years later, the organization has sent more than 1 million inner-city children on trains and buses to stay for several weeks in the summer with host families in “friendly cities” across 10 states. Thousands of those host families were in northern New York.
“73 Tired by Happy Fresh Air Children Arrive for Summer” reported the Watertown Daily Times on July 19, 1962. That group included Ms. Salmieri, then 8, who came back the next several years and was eventually joined by her younger siblings, Lester and Barbara.
“Our family never went on vacations so packing for our trip was so exciting,” said Ms. Salmieri. “My mother would iron all of our clothes and pack our things into our own pillowcase and we’d sling it over our back.”
Her first summer visit was with a family in Watertown. But the next several years she and her siblings stayed with the Fletcher family in Canton. They had daughters named Wendy and Melody. Ms. Salmieri remembers a “Mr. Oliver,” the swim coach at a nearby lake, who held a hockey stick while he barked out instructions. She remembers joining Melody to sneak into a neighbor’s raspberry farm and grabbing fistfuls of raspberries.
“My memories of Canton are of playing, laughing and dancing. We also slept in tents in the backyard sometimes. I remember all of us singing at the top of our lungs ‘What’s New Pussycat’ and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.’ When I hear those songs today, I am instantly zapped back to those happy memories.”
Ms. Salmieri said her Fresh Air experience gave her the courage to apply to a high school that emphasized art. She eventually produced graphics for HBO. In retirement she now works as a “background” actor in movies and also helps take care of her grandchild for her working daughter and son-in-law.
“I don’t believe I would be who I am today had it not been for my experience with the Fresh Air Fund,” she said. “My eyes were opened to a larger world. The Fletchers had no money, but what they did have was a lot of love, creativity and fresh air.”
Today, Ms. Salmieri wishes she knew how the story of the Fletcher family played out. She would love to see sisters Wendy and Melody again, but time, distance, etc., are a roadblock.
“I tried to find them on Facebook but have had no luck,” she said.
She is not alone.
Dennis Byron, of Stone Mountain, Ga., has been looking for his north country Fresh Air family as well. He has a picture from circa 1959 standing with his host, Ronald Toothaker, and his nephew, Steven.
“I want to thank them for their hospitality and their positive impact on me in my development years.”
That impact led the then Bronx resident to an undergraduate degree from Ithaca College and a master’s from Cornell University. After working in fundraising and development for Cornell, he became a vice president of Emory University in Atlanta. He now owns his own consulting firm and is working on his dissertation for a doctorate from Cornell.
Other north country Fresh Air kids have been able to find their host families, including Mr. Byron’s older brother. In 2012, Vernon Byron traveled to Belleville to meet with the descendants of Julia Grandjean, who Vernon Byron only knew as “Ma Grandjean.”
Vernon Byron went on to earn degrees at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma and New York University to prepare or his career in teaching and educational administration. He told the Watertown Daily Times in a 2012 award-winning article that his time at the Grandjean residence “was a defining moment for me” because Ma Grandjean treated him as if he were her own son.
Stephen Hargrove has visited his extended host family, the Docteurs of Cape Vincent, the last four years, along with his wife, Lorretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General for President Barack Obama.
Staffers at The Fresh Air Fund office in New York City say a fire years ago destroyed many of its records and so it has no way of helping Fresh Air Kids, most of whom are black, from the 1960s and 1970s find their host families, most of whom are white. That leaves Ms. Salmieri and Mr. Byron to occasionally Google names and search Facebook, looking for a hint.
So far, they have come up empty, although Mr. Byron’s hope was renewed when he recently discovered that the odd-sounding name “Toothaker” is not so odd at all; there is a state forest and creek in St. Lawrence County by that name. And the name Toothaker was also common at one time around the nearby town of Pitcairn.
It’s unlikely that Ms. Salmieri and Mr. Bryon are the only Fresh Air kids in the autumn of their years still wondering how they can reconnect with the summer hosts who helped shape their future.
But for now, it’s also unlikely that America will ever appreciate that, in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he dreamed of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” this very dream was being played out every summer in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties and hundreds of other friendly Fresh Air communities throughout the Northeast.
Editor’s note: Mr. Gorman is the former managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at email@example.com.