In Memoriam Crystal Scriber

Deborah Amory, Central New York Center

Nearly 50 people gathered on March 3 at Reed and Jackie Coughlan’s house in Clinton, New York to remember and celebrate Crystal’s life. The event was appropriately elegant, with delicious and plentiful catered food, beer, wine, water and coffee. Nearly all of the long term and many of the newer mentors, professional and support staff from the Central New York Center were able to attend, as were John Spissinger and Darrell Leavitt from Plattsburgh, along with former students, mentors and staff, and a few friends from the area. Joe Moore, passing Utica on the thruway, was able to drop by later in the afternoon to pay his respects. Everyone’s presence was tremendously appreciated, as were the calls and e-mails from those who could not attend. A recurring theme in the days leading up to this gathering was that, given current events in the college, and the general state of the world, Crystal’s passing gave us all pause to stop and think about what really matters. What really does matter is how we lead our lives and how we bury our dead, as Zora Neale Hurston once put it. And as Joanne Corsica admonished me, “we might bicker and fight like hell, but we also know how to come together and support each other in times like these.”

Reed and company set up a collection of Crystal’s photographs, artwork and publications so that we could see and remember Crystal’s work and life. It struck me how vibrant the colors were, how impressive the accomplishments. And after having the chance to view the artwork, greet old friends and colleagues, sample the delicious fare, we gathered in the living room to share thoughts and memories. Peter Perkins, whose career with the college started in Utica, described being very creatively mentored by Crystal. He also read e-mail expressing condolences and sympathy from afar, including that of Alan Mandell, Wayne Ouderkirk and Alice Lai on behalf of the arts area of study mentors. I read some prepared remarks, and over the course of an hour or so others shared their stories of Crystal, Utica, the center and the college. What follows is an eclectic sampling of words and thoughts that hopefully captures some of the spirit of the event.

The woman who owns the stable where Crystal boards her horse recalled the day that Crystal announced she was simply going to ride her horse home. “But Crystal … he hasn’t been saddled recently … it’s a long way … .” Ride her horse home she did. It must have been a sight to see Crystal leisurely trotting her horse along those lovely, winding country roads in Clinton. The horse lady allowed that usually, it’s the trainers who tell the horse owners what to do; with Crystal it was always the other way around.

John Spissinger artfully recounted the assessment-meeting-with-chickens story, years ago at Reed’s house. Crystal was a devoted environmentalist and shared John’s passion for sustainable living. As John had started raising chickens, he offered to share a brood with Crystal, who loved the fresh eggs. Crystal said sure, bring a half dozen, so John showed up for the assessment meeting at Reed’s house with five chickens and a rooster in hand. They put the carefully constructed, ventilated box in Crystal’s car … and somehow by the end of the assessment meeting, the chickens had all escaped. They were happily perched in a row on the back seat of the car, as if in their roost, pooping away. John did note that when Crystal eventually had a fight with the rooster, and ended up in the emergency room, it was the rooster and chickens who met an untimely fate, joining others in the pet cemetery behind Crystal’s house.

A few folks, including Debbie Bonamassa, the Utica Unit secretary, noted that Crystal could turn any event into a party, and for that essential skill she will be sorely missed. Someone mentioned the infamous lobster salad and champagne lunch that Crystal recently organized for Stephanie Cunningham, who has always been unusually happy to drive to Utica to provide tech support. Several people noted that the Utica Unit was like a welcoming family.

Roz Dow recalled watching the Olympics last month, knowing Crystal was sick, and she heard Frank Sinatra sing “My Way.” She thought, immediately, that song was written for Crystal. And Roz’s husband John described the phone calls at home that he would get from Crystal: “John, did you know that today is Valentine’s day?” “Why, yes, Crystal, I did.” “Well … I think Roz would like some flowers.” And given Crystal’s always indirect but solicitous and pointed observations, it only seemed logical to drive post haste to the florist to buy the flowers.

Reed shared the fact that, to the end, Crystal maintained she’d caught the flu when she went to the doctor’s office. Hence her name in recent months: the queen of denial. And the other, single word Reed associates with Crystal, and her life, is “fabulous.” Reed also explained how fearless a new mentor Crystal had been, chairing the Academic Personnel Committee as a quarter-time mentor, against Reed’s well-intentioned advice. She said, simply, “of course I can do that.” When Crystal decided to do something, she just did it.

Tammy, Crystal’s housekeeper for the past six years, described how she was hired by Crystal initially to care for the garden, only after she had proven to Crystal her gardening skills. She recalled planting hundreds of bulbs with Crystal – or Tammy planting while Crystal directed. And there were Tammy and Reed working in the garden, sweating in the hot summer sun, while Crystal disappeared … and then reappeared with tall, cool glasses of delicious drink for them.

A former student of Crystal’s recounted how Crystal had taught her photography, had in fact taught her how to see the world differently, thousands of photographs later. She now notices the dew drops on leaves, and emphasized that Crystal always had a kind and encouraging word about her work, no matter how bad it might be.

John, Reed’s brother, remembered the plentiful feasts that Crystal would cook in exchange for work – and said that the one thing he most admired about Crystal was her absolute refusal to worry about what anyone else thought of her. In many ways, this was a theme throughout the day.

I will end with just a few thoughts about this deeply moving afternoon. What occurs to me is that we are a wild and wacky bunch, us academics, we who live and work in the academy. Someone observed how intense and intimate the lives of mentors are, particularly those who work in small units, over decades of time. This is a fact, and you could see it in the room, and hear it in the stories recounted both privately and collectively. In many ways it’s not surprising that Crystal only retired some 27 days before she died. And I think this gathering of colleagues, students, friends and college administrators was a fitting celebration for Crystal Scriber – an artist and an academic, a lady and a diva, remembered in all her dramatic and occasionally shy glory.

**

These were the words I spoke on March 3.

If I had one wish today, it would be that I had met Crystal 29 years ago, when she first came to work for the college. When Chris Rounds first showed up for work as well. I wish that I could have somehow witnessed MaryNell Morgan’s orientation at the Utica offices, or seen Bob Carey with long hair, cigarette in hand, waxing metaphorical at statewide meetings that – as he wrote in an e-mail to me – always included Crystal and Reed, Reed and Crystal.

That would be my wish, and yet I am thankful that I did get a chance to meet her some two and a half years ago. I will always remember my first visit to Utica, and my first professional interaction with the infamous Crystal Scriber. I had been thoroughly forewarned: she could be difficult, she could be demanding. But I was not prepared for her presence, her self-presentation, the way she could command even an empty room.

When I met her, Crystal was sitting at her desk, working … or pretending to work. After I said hello, she showed me a digital photograph that she was creating on her computer. I admired the vibrant colors, the artful composition, the beauty of it all. And she leaned back in her chair, and turned to smile at me in that way that she had, and I was immediately charmed. I had been prepared for demanding, prepared for difficult, but not prepared in the least for the charm of Crystal Scriber. Two and a half years ago, when I first met her, that charm, that presence, was still a force to be reckoned with.

Our relationship, unfortunately, was not to be an entirely peaceful one. Crystal became ill during the past year, and we all worked to both support her with the compassion and care that she deserved, and to meet the daily requirements of running the office, serving the needs of her students. It was an extraordinary experience for me to witness the ways in which Crystal’s colleagues in Utica tried to help her and even to hold her accountable during the last difficult year of her life. I think we all really had no idea how very ill she was. And as Crystal struggled to maintain her dignity in the face of her illness, Debbie and Roz and Reed struggled alongside her. The compassion, caring, frustration and love they were able to demonstrate to her in these last months was truly extraordinary. Indeed, may we all find in our lifetimes a friend as devoted and caring as Reed has been, particularly as Crystal’s health deteriorated and he was responsible for seeking help from an uncooperative medical system on behalf of an equally uncooperative patient.

In the end, I think Crystal quite disliked me, and in that respect again I wished we’d met in a different time and place. But for what it’s worth, I really liked her, when I wasn’t feeling frustrated. I could only admire Crystal’s courage, her determination to carry on, the spirit that led her to argue with me, with Pat Lefor, and ultimately with Joe Moore over a printer that I had already told her the college simply could not afford to buy. (She disagreed with me, so of course she e-mailed the vice president, and then the president! And she bought the printer anyway.) This charming defiance, this spirited insistence on her own way was one of Crystal’s trademarks.

And perhaps I am all too aware that the world can be a difficult place to live. The world can be particularly difficult for those of us who are different, in one way or another. In Crystal’s case I wonder if she wasn’t a little too smart, a little too gifted, a little too creative? I wonder whether her defiance didn’t perhaps have to do with understanding certain things about the world and refusing to bow to all of its many dictates. For the world can be a difficult place to live. Crystal, I think, knew something of this truth. And while Crystal had her share of difficulties, as we all do, she also had so very much more.

In remembering Crystal, I would highlight her dedication to her students, and particularly the ways in which she supported and encouraged her art students. The annual art show in Utica of student work was simply tremendous. I would also highlight the mutual devotion she shared with her dog Poole, her beloved horse, her dedication to the living spirits of the animal world and her garden, the beautiful house that she built.

Crystal was an inimitable presence in Utica, and in Empire State College, for nearly 30 years. It was her charming defiance, her spirit, her insistence on dignity that most impressed me in these past few years of her life.


Published in All About Mentoring, Issue 31, Summer 2006

Copyright © 2006