Global hospitality: Let’s keep it up

Local residents made somewhat of a big deal of Australian Army Capt. Paul McKay: searching for him for two weeks after he went missing, mourning him when he was found dead of apparent suicide, seeing his body off with honors, and doing an excellent job Friday of celebrating Anzac Day, Australia’s day to recognize those who fought and died in war. He was considered as one of our own, linked with American warriors who, like him, have been scarred by trauma we asked them to endure in the name of our safety.

It was absolutely right and fitting that local people should do so – and it wasn’t all that surprising considering that our part of the Adirondack backwoods has a long history of welcoming people from all over the world.

The most obvious example is Lake Placid hosting the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980. The row of flags beside the Olympic Center bears witness that this still is a village with global sensibilities; so does the continuation of top-tier international sports competition here.

But there are countless other, less famous examples of our area’s international hospitality.

Some are small and personal, such as a family taking in a foreign exchange student. Perhaps, as in the case of the Dwyer family of Saranac Lake and a Spanish student they welcomed in 1985, the relationship blossoms so well it continues to subsequent generations. Our reporter Chris Knight wrote about that in August 2012.

Other examples have been larger-scale and therefore more noticeable.

In summer 1981, not long after locals hosted people from all over the world for the Olympics, they realized that dozens of men from Haiti were being hosted here in less hospitable circumstances. At the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook, a prison that was the former Olympic athletes’ village, were political refugees forced out by the dictatorial regimes of Haitian leaders Francois “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. These refugees, eventually numbering about 160, were incarcerated while the U.S. government figured out what to do with them. It was lousy treatment, and a bunch of local people set out to make it better. They visited these men, brought them sweaters to help them adjust to the cold climate, and taught them English. These men had largely been sailors, fishermen or tradesmen back home, and most couldn’t read. They had done nothing wrong in this country – rather, they had sought out its goodness in the same way as 18th- and 19th-century Europeans – and they needed help adjusting. Local people made up for what their government lacked.

Four decades earlier, when the German Nazis invaded Norway at the beginning of World War II, Norwegian sailors at sea sought safe harbor in the U.S. Hundreds of them – local historians say as many as 500 – were diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to Saranac Lake to cure. They were warmly received, and many Saranac Lakers still keep fond memories of the international bond. Sixteen of them – 15 sailors and one sea captain’s daughter – left their bodies here with us, buried in Pine Ridge Cemetery.

Going back further in time, our towns have welcomed all kinds of immigrants who came for logging jobs, for vacations, for sports, to cure from tuberculosis, to start businesses or to heal from the wounds of war. Tupper Lake, in the heyday of its timber industry, drew an especially diverse mix of French-Canadians, Lebanese, Jews and eastern Europeans. They, too, are buried here, and their descendants are part of the fabric of the community.

The remains of Capt. McKay will also become part of our Adirondack terrain, albeit in a different form, when his parents visit this summer to sprinkle his ashes at the spot on Scarface Mountain where he died. (Now they’re leaning more toward June or July than May, as was previously stated.) He chose this place, although none of us knows why. We wish he had chosen to talk more to local people, gotten to know them, maybe realized they’re his kind of folks, that this was his kind of community. We want to believe he could have found respite and settled here, the way some of the Norwegian sailors did, but instead, he’s one of the ones who died. As much as we may wish it were otherwise, that outcome has established a deep emotional bond between people of Australia and the Adirondacks. Now he, as dust, will be part of the earth here. We hope that mingled soil bears rich fruit in the future.

A final reminder: None of this hospitality just happens; it must be undertaken by people who care and do something about it. People here don’t always open their doors and hearts to strangers, but there is a solid local track record to live up to. Let’s keep it going.