Men of Letters
The ABC House and its young scholars mark 40 years as a place where campus
and community come together
By Jorge L. Hernández Caballero ’72
The lasagna can wait.
First, baseball practice makes Andres Garcia and Lenny Oritz late for 6 p.m. dinner. Dametris Osbourne, a member of the track team, and Carlos Espinal, a lacrosse player, return home later still. It’s also George Allen’s 17th birthday, but the sheet cake and ice cream must stay in the fridge a while longer.
It’s suppertime this spring Tuesday at the home of A Better Chance of Clinton & the Mohawk Valley, on Campus Road, and the air is redolent with pepperoni, beef, ricotta and homemade garlic bread. George, Oneill Campbell and Malaquias Canery eventually dig into the steaming, megasized pan of savory pasta, helping to serve others at the table. The seven students share the home and duties with resident directors Alyssa and Tom Hoke, the Hokes’ three children and two dogs.
The extended family and house are part of the national ABC program, which is geared toward helping motivated young men of color pursue diplomas at top high schools. The Clinton chapter celebrates its anniversary this year — 40 years of mentoring high school scholars with the additional goal of nudging them onward to college. And nudge they have. To date, more than 90 students have finished Clinton High School and enrolled in top-tier colleges and universities — Hamilton, Union, Cornell, MIT, Ithaca and the University of Rochester among them.
This anniversary year is no exception. George and Dametris, the seniors of the family, are awaiting more college acceptances to match those already in hand. George will soon choose Providence College and plans to major in accounting; Dametris will accept Emory University to focus on biochemistry. Besides participating in school sports, the boys all chat about the life experiences open to them: George traveling on an ecotour to Costa Rica with his Spanish class during spring break, Lenny and Andres bound for Orlando for a baseball trip with the Clinton team.
The ABC years, George notes, have been life-changing. “It’s prepared me for college,” he says. “And I became a man here.”
About A Better Chance
- ABC is a national, nonprofit, independently financed program organized to place talented young people of color in academic programs at outstanding public and private schools throughout the United States.
- The ABC experience is focused on preparation of its graduates for success in college and in life.
- Since the beginning of the program in 1963 at Dartmouth College, some 11,000 ABC alumni have continued their education, and more than 90 percent have graduated from college.
- With headquarters in New York City, the national ABC program coordinates and provides logistical support for the 165 participating community and independent schools.
- Clinton’s ABC program began in 1972. A large number of dedicated members of the community each pledged $100 to establish the first program in New York State at Clinton High School.
- There are currently two community school programs in New York State: the Clinton program for boys, and a program for girls in Fayetteville-Manlius.
Community support — and resistance
Born in 1963 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, A Better Chance now sponsors 165 programs throughout the United States. The ABC program housed on the Hamilton campus is one of two in New York State; the other program, in Fayetteville, hosts young women. Hamilton’s ties to ABC reach far beyond Campus Road, however. Ron Pressman ’80 is the national chair of ABC, and Steve Sadove ’73 serves on the national board. The ABC mission statement targets nurturing young scholars of color at outstanding high schools across the United States to better prepare them for success in college life.
It works. “The ABC program provides one of the best bridges into HEOP,” says Phyllis Breland ’80, Hamilton’s director of Opportunity Programs, referring to the Higher Education Opportunity Program. “We are sisters in nature and mission, and it is only appropriate that we hold hands as we begin our journey.” The HEOP program supports college-level scholars throughout the state.
Donald B. Potter, professor of geology emeritus, earned his role as founding father of the Clinton ABC program by happenstance. A visiting Dartmouth sociology professor imported the ABC idea to Hamilton, and in spring 1972 then-Dean Winton C. Tolles called Potter to ask if he would consider initiating a similar program in Clinton. Potter organized informational meetings in the village to gauge interest and found substantial support. “It was emerging that people were of one mind, all in one direction, to establish the program without analysis,” Potter says. But while community interest in the idea itself was there — and was especially strong among Hamiltonians — support for an ABC House in the village was much more tepid. “Residents opposed the idea of an unknown group of black kids from undesirable places setting up house,” Potter recalls.
Peggy Cratty also remembers the early days of community resistance. She served as the ABC board’s first president and in 1973 was among those responsible for the first tag sale, for many years the program’s prime fundraiser. Her husband, Leland “Bud” Cratty, professor of chemistry emeritus, served as the board’s first financial chairman. “At a public meeting, Don Potter was booed out of his speech,” Peggy Cratty says. “We know one-third of the community was for the program, one-third was opposed, and we had to work on getting that middle third on board.”
“I felt strongly about the value of the program,” Potter says of that early opposition. “Other things would iron themselves out as we went along.”
Hamilton students are active partners in ABC fundraising efforts. At the end of the academic year, the Student Assembly’s Philanthropy Committee, chaired by Laura Gilson ’12, presented the program with a check for $2,276. This included $1,475 raised during an April dance marathon organized by the Social Traditions Committee. In addition, Gilson says, “Throughout the school year we raised money by collecting loose change in the dining halls and dormitories and hosting a Valentine’s Day-gram sale. The senior class had a raffle during Senior Pub night, with generous donations made by the Little Pub for giveaways.
“Our purpose in picking the ABC House was to raise student awareness about the program, which I think we achieved,” Gilson says. With Jose Vazquez ’15 as chair in 2012-13, the Philanthropy Committee plans to expand its role by assisting the ABC program as well as reaching out to other local programs and charities.
Ultimately, a proposed ABC House on Utica Street was blocked as a zoning issue, Potter recalls. When that site fell through, Hamilton College stepped in, offering to rent the former Tolles residence as the program’s home. Gil Adams ’45 and his wife, Mickey, were selected as the first resident directors, and the first group of scholars arrived in fall 1972 — housed at the start with host families until renovations to the Tolles home were complete. Although the program has never been officially tied to Hamilton, the College has continued its support through the ensuing four decades. “The Clinton ABC has clearly been associated with Hamilton College and benefited from [the association] since the beginning,” Potter says. “We were very fortunate.” He remains committed to ABC, serving for many years on the board and continuing to raise funds for the program he still believes in 40 years later.
“It gives these kids a better chance,” Potter says. “Talk to them and ask them that — are you getting a better chance?”
‘You could really make a difference’
Forty years after his own commitment to ABC, Gil Adams emotionally remembers why he became involved. The Caldwell, N.J., native looks back to the last meeting he had with a high school friend in 1943. Seated at the local soda parlor, they discussed their military assignments. Adams was an aviation cadet studying meteorology with the Army Air Corps; his pal was a newly commissioned lieutenant in the infantry.
“He was one of the most happy-go-lucky individuals I knew, so I was surprised when he became quite serious with me,” Adams recalls. His friend suggested that Adams could have a lot to say about the kind of society he would live in after the war. “You could really make a difference,” the friend told him. “I was surprised that he didn’t say ‘we’ instead of ‘you,’ Adams says. Ten months after that meeting, Adams tearfully recalls, his friend was killed in action in France.
More than a quarter-century later, Adams and his wife, Mickey, who died in 2010, separately attended two informational meetings about ABC. “We each wondered separately if we could get the other one interested in this new program,” he says. The couple completed three years as resident directors and later finished up a partial school year when the directors at the time left the program. Longtime math teachers in the Clinton schools until their retirement, the Adamses also both served on the ABC board of directors, including stints as board president.
For Gil Adams, long active in Hamilton’s alumni community, fundraising continues to be the ABC program’s most challenging task. He remembers that in 1979 when the young scholars went home for spring break, there was no money left to keep the program running for the rest of the school year. Luckily, a frenzied personal plea to established donors brought in $10,000 to finish that year.
“But still, it’s a yearly struggle to raise funds,” says Glynis Asu, Clinton ABC’s board president and a Hamilton reference librarian, of the program’s current $100,000 budget. Fundraisers include a wreath and poinsettia sale in December, luminaries on New Year’s Day night, a bed-and-breakfast program during Family Weekend and graduation, a golf tournament in June and a year-long personal solicitations campaign. The program’s biggest expense is rent for the home. Insurance, food and transportation costs round out the yearly expenses. Only house cook Eva Hoke, Tom’s mother, receives a salary for her part-time work on weekdays.
Leland Cratty says the national office funded the local program’s first two years, and after that the chapter was on its own. He recalls that in 1973 he was asked to raise $22,000 in the first personal solicitations campaign, a daunting task to overcome given that the Clinton United Way campaign that year was for the same amount. Currently, the national ABC office only provides training, guidance, performs background checks and shares donor information, Asu says.
40 years of success stories
If Potter and Adams are founding fathers of the ABC program, then retired Clinton high school Principal Richard D. Hunt is its godfather. Hunt’s involvement dates to 1979. He and his family served as resident directors twice for a total of five years. Wife Lori was board president, and both Hunts served on the board of directors.
“The Clinton ABC program is a program that works,” Hunt says. He believes the teenagers become successful young men because they learn to navigate unfamiliar cultures and become adaptable and open-minded. “They must learn the values associated with rigorous academic work,” he says. “They must set goals and then achieve them.”
Hunt says he is appalled by a recent newspaper article noting that only 4 percent of college students are black males. “Of the 11,000 students who have graduated from the nation’s ABC programs since 1963, 90 percent have graduated from college,” Hunt says. “All 94 graduates of Clinton ABC have gone on to college.” He notes that they are now police officers, doctors, finance executives, lawyers and among the most accomplished young men he’s ever encountered. He’s proud that the 1996 Young Black Scientist of the Year was Clinton ABC graduate Dr. Carlo Williams.
Hunt says three factors have contributed to the success of Clinton ABC. First, the Clinton community has embraced the program. The network involves more than 100 Clintonians each year who volunteer and provide a welcoming environment for the scholars. Second, Hamilton has backed the program since its inception in 1972. The College provided the two ABC residences through the program’s 40 years, and faculty and staff members interact with scholars on a regular basis. Hamilton students visit the ABC House daily as tutors or to play pickup ball games. Third, Clinton Central School is a committed partner. Teachers nurture and encourage the young scholars and serve as academic advisors. Clinton students become lifelong friends. Most important, Clinton Central School establishes high academic expectations for all students, ABC scholars included.
The Crattys echo the dual value of the program. “Given the students in the school and the families of Clinton, there’s a realization that there’s equality for all, and we’re the ones who benefited,” Leland Cratty says. Peggy Cratty agrees, but notes that teaching the community is an ongoing process. She recalls questioning high school administrators following an incident when racial epithets were scrawled on a nearby shopping center wall in the 1990s.
“The principal said we had to keep on teaching,” Peggy Cratty remembers. “We talk about the ABC program to every new group of ninth graders, the principal said,” she says. “But we forget that every year there’s another group of ninth graders who come to the high school.”
‘We are asking more of these young men’
George Allen is the second member of his family to graduate from ABC and Clinton High School. His older brother, Xavier, says anyone who contacts him about the program would be reaching out to a proud ABC alumnus and ambassador. “Even though I had much uncertainty and doubt being five hours away from home at the young age of 14,” Xavier says, “in hindsight it is the best decision I have made thus far in my 23 years of living.”
He agrees the transition period, both socially and academically, was rough for him in 2003. “But once everything began to click, it turned into an amazing experience. I was a three-sport varsity athlete participating in football, basketball, and track and field,” he says. “I graduated in June of 2007 and was the class speaker, as my class of 127 and I journeyed out into the real world.”
“There are struggles along the way, in this ‘foreign’ environment,” Asu agrees. “We are asking more of these young men than is asked of most high school students. But they succeed.”
“In the first couple of years I had to build up on my responsibility as I got older, same as my brother,” George Allen says of his own ABC years. “There weren’t any difficulties getting used to Clinton, since I already knew the surroundings since my brother came here.”
Xavier attended Drexel University in Philadelphia and recently earned a B.S. in business administration with a concentration in finance. This spring he continued his job hunt for full-time employment in management consulting or investment management. “I owe a lot of the man that I have grown into to Clinton Senior High School and the loving people of that community,” Xavier says in retrospect.
Other former ABC scholars also wax poetic about their participation. Vladimir Rodriguez, 27, of Brooklyn works for New York Life as a financial services professional and executive recruiter. An ABC scholar from 1998 to 2002, he credits his success to ABC and his 2006 degree in public policy from Hamilton. Rodriguez says he plans to stay at New York Life and work his way up through corporate management. Meanwhile, though, he has also co-founded, with Hamilton classmates Tom Booth and Ben Preston-Fridman, the Buffet of the World, a company that manufactures sustainable products such as reusable canvas totes and T-shirts.
“The ABC program opened up awareness and areas for a successful career afterward,” he says. “It was gratifying to go from being born and raised in a metropolitan area to experiencing life in a small town like Clinton.”
He says the transition from Clinton High School to Hamilton was easier because he was used to the area and so many Hamilton people were involved in the program. “Going to Clinton I was introduced to so many more experiences, learning all about resources and networking and all that college offers. I have gusto for the future,” Rodriguez says.
Robert McGriff, 50, an ABC alumnus who came to Clinton in 1977 and graduated in 1980, talks with pride about his career with the Camden, N.J., Police Department. “I was put in a situation where the place, people, school setting, living arrangement and a host of other things were totally different from what I was accustomed to,” he says. “Learning to navigate through all of that taught me how to handle a lot of situations that I would encounter later on in life.” McGriff attended Brockport State University and entered the Army National Guard in 1982. He joined the police department in 1988 and rose through the ranks to his present post as a lieutenant. He plans to retire this summer once he reaches the 25-year benchmark.
“The ABC program helped me realize that I could in fact meet … standards with a little effort on my part,” McGriff recalls.
Two-way street for scholars, community
Robin Kinnel, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, has raised funds for ABC since 1973. He served 25 years on the board, took over the personal solicitations campaign in 1988 and was a founding member of the current yearly golf tournament. Also key to Kinnel’s participation in ABC is his wife, retired Clinton High School chemistry teacher Anne Kinnel, who was one of a cadre of volunteers to manage the popular yearly tag sale. Once a major fundraiser, the tag sale lost momentum in 2006 after almost 35 years, Robin Kinnel says. After that, the golf tournament was born in 2007.
Kinnel says it’s difficult to think back on what inspired his commitment. “It’s one of those things that you start doing and it grows on you,” he says. “It’s an important program in our community and in the national sense because it’s one of the ways minority males, mostly African-Americans, become interested in higher education…. The need will always be there.”
Anne Kinnel says that as a teacher who retired in 1996 she got to know many of the ABC scholars better from having them in class. Officially, she served on the board in a variety of positions and now continues to help when she can.
“With a program like this, young men do better here than at home,” she says. “They also may make Clinton a bit of a more aware place — they widen horizons.
“This is a lily-white community,” she says, “and ABC made people think about a lot of things they hadn’t been challenged to think about before.”
This sense that the ABC program is a two-way street — that the program works best when the scholars and those around them understand it as an exchange that both challenges and enriches all of them — is particularly strong for resident directors and their families. “We don’t know the impact we might make on someone’s life,” says Amy Hunt, a development officer at Hamilton who with her husband, Dale, and son, Gabe, lived in the ABC House during the 2009-10 school year. “Our vantage point is so limited.”
For the Hokes, that means an opportunity to learn. “Tom and I thought it would be a great experience for both ourselves and our children and loved the idea of being able to help these boys on their journey at Clinton High School,” Alyssa Hoke says. She notes that the family enjoys attending sporting and musical events and being there for the scholars at different functions. Recently they participated in a meeting with Andres so that he could attend Boys State in June; the week before that, they went to the opening lacrosse meeting at the school with Carlos “These are all great boys, and we are happy to be able to be here and support them,” she says.
ABC, College build relationships
Tutors and host families play crucial roles in the program as well. Tutoring is a rewarding experience for Hamilton student Sarah Andrews ’14, one of the study guides at the ABC House. Some tutors are paid by Hamilton College; a small number are volunteers. While the 2011-12 Hamilton tutors have only known the ABC scholars for a few months, “in that time we’ve been able to develop a great relationship with all of them,” Andrews says.
“I think ABC is an incredible program,” she says. “All the guys at the house are so intelligent and so driven, and ABC gives them the opportunity to express those traits and grow in a way that they otherwise could not have done.” For Andrews, the relationship has gone beyond the role of teacher-scholar. She says all the tutors attend the boys’ basketball and soccer games and school musicals — and with lacrosse and baseball seasons starting up, there are many more games to come.
Host families, in turn, help broaden the ABC experience for the young scholars and provide a respite on Sundays for the resident directors. Their duties primarily involve including the students in family life and fare Sunday afternoon and evenings, carpooling for extracurricular and other activities, and participating in other special events.
LaurieAnn Russell, Hamilton’s associate director of alumni relations and director of affinity programs, says she was first introduced to ABC when she moved back to Clinton in 1974 as a high school sophomore. She recalls that Clinton looked pretty “white” to her at that time, especially since she was coming from a Utica school rich in ethnic diversity. “Although I did notice the faces of color that made up the ABC program, it was a bit like coming home — to something I was more comfortable with,” Russell says.
Two or three ABC scholars soon became pals. Her take on her new friends: “They were hungry to succeed.”
Fast forward 20 years, and Russell and her husband, Ron, became involved with ABC as volunteers, first with the tag sale then as a host family. Since the couple had two children in classes with their ABC son, Alexis, he quickly became part of the family. He celebrated holidays and birthdays with them. Besides Alexis, two other ABC teens bunked at their home and shared their dinner table on a regular basis.
“In 2000 when all the kids graduated, my husband and I found ourselves a bit lost,” Russell recalls. “So when the ABC Board approached me about becoming board member I jumped at the chance.” She eventually became personnel chair, recruited applicants and reviewed applications from future Clinton ABC members.
She ticks off a number of “sweet memories” of the ABC experience: Taking the boys for their first snowmobile ride, having a full house of teenagers, observing the growth of maturity in the boys from freshmen to senior year, learning of their successes, hearing their laughter from the next room — and eventually watching them marry and have children of their own.
‘Time to get to work’
It’s now 7:30 p.m. at the ABC House. The ragged chorus of “Happy Birthday” still echoes in the air; the smoke from the blown-out birthday candles lingers. A Pfaltzgraff dessert plate, Yorktowne pattern, shatters on the floor. “Pick it up,” Alyssa Hokes says to the fumbling teen.
Oneill and Lenny finish playing bouncy on the knee with little sister Brianna Hoke, 2, as she points to each teenager by name.
The latecomers for the birthday celebration for George cut a half-hour into the nightly study time of 7 to 9 p.m. Alyssa Hoke hustles the students into clearing the table, loading the dishwasher and packing up leftovers.
The boys will study on their own this night; the tutors are on spring break. There’s lots of work to finish before 11 p.m. lights-out. The seven students scamper upstairs to their shared rooms to retrieve book bags and materials.
Alyssa Hoke’s admonishing voice rings distinctive through the open windows on this warm night. “Come on, guys,” she hollers upstairs, noting their delay in getting down to business. “Time to get to work.”
She carefully watches over the brood, just like any vigilant, caring mom at home with a houseful of teenagers.
2011-2012 ABC Students
Age: 17; CCS senior
Hometown: Harlem, New York City
Sports: football, basketball, track
Career interest: accounting
College in fall: Providence College
Age: 17; CCS senior
Hometown: Irvington, N.J.
Member: National Honor Society
Sports: football, basketball, track
Career interest: biochemistry
College in fall: Emory University
Age: 16; CCS junior
Hometown: New Haven, Conn.
Sports: soccer, baseball, track
Career interest: film production
Age: 15; CCS sophomore
Hometown: Bronx, New York City
Sports: baseball, basketball, football
Career interest: communications, sports broadcasting
Age: 15, CCS sophomore
Hometown: New York City
Career interest: math or science
Age: 15; CCS freshman
Sports: soccer, lacrosse
Career interest: astronomy, medicine or other science
Age: 15; CCS freshman
Hometown: Lawrence, Mass.
Career interest: uncertain