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Catching Up with Docents Joe and Carole Valesky

The Oneida Community Mansion House has about 15 volunteers who give tours, presentations, and help with the ongoing work of keeping a historic house museum vital to our community. Since we are currently closed because of the pandemic, our docents are not at the Mansion House, giving tours and greeting visitors.

We wanted to know how our docents are faring during this challenging time. Board Member and Docent Susan Belasco recently sat down with Carole and Joe Valesky for a video chat about their recent activities.

Carole and Joe are longtime docents at the Mansion House, and Joe also served a term on the Board of Trustees. Both are graduates of Cortland where they met when Joe was assigned to observe the student teacher (Carole) in the Campus School. For 36 years, Joe taught history and arts and humanities classes at Fayetteville-Manlius High School while Carole taught the 5th and 6th grades in the Oneida School District for 26 years. Together they taught countless students in this region, including, for Joe, the Director of the OCMH, Christine O’Neil. Their considerable educational experiences prepared Carole and Joe to serve as docents at the Mansion House. Both consider taking visitors on tours as an extension of the work they have always done as teachers.

SB: How long have the two of you been volunteering as docents at the Mansion House?

CV and JV: We have been volunteering at the Mansion House since 2001. After we graduated—well, actually, we mean retired--in 1999 we knew we wanted to continue to travel having been bitten by the “travel bug” as long time chaperones for F-M students on worldwide trips ( e.g. Soviet Union, China, Japan, South Africa, Australia .) But we also wanted to pursue activities in our local area as well. Volunteering at OCMH seemed a good fit for us.

SB: Why did you initially volunteer as tour guides?

CV: At first thought I might like to train as a docent at Munson Williams Proctor Art Museum because I worked with them on a program for fifth graders while I was teaching. But a call from Kerry Linden, who was the Education Director at OCMH at the time, invited me to attend an information meeting on becoming a docent here. Joe decided to attend also and “the rest is history.” Nineteen years later we are still here.

JV: I had an interest in the OCMH because two of my aunts worked for Oneida Limited, one of whom was an executive secretary for Lang Hatcher. In retirement, this aunt, Marie Magliocca, was acknowledged by Lang for her assistance in publishing his 2018 book, Oneida (Community) Limited, A Goodly Heritage Gone Wrong. I felt a strong connection to the company because of my family. I will never forget an incident from my childhood when my other aunt, after having to work late one night, was driven home in a company limousine, and I was there to see it. As a small boy, I was deeply impressed! In some ways, the company is a part of my family history.

SB: What specific experiences have you had in your lives that prepared you to be tour guides?

JV and CV: Of course, our teaching experiences in the schools have been the most useful—how to engage people and how to respond to questions. But beginning in the late 1980s, we had the opportunity to take student groups to the Soviet Union. Those travel experiences were very important in understanding how we learn about the world, and especially about life experiences different from our own. Previously, Syracuse University had a group of students come from the Soviet Union to visit, and we were asked to help with their visit. Mainly we provided large quantities of vodka on a social occasion with the leader, but there were more serious parts as well. Joe, a member of the Oneida City Common Council at the time, arranged to take our student guest on a tour of the local area in an Oneida fire truck (!), which included Kenwood and the Mansion House. We also thought a tour of the Mansion House, home of a communal society would be appropriate for someone from a Communist country. A descendant gave us all a tour, which was literally our first tour of the Mansion House.

SB: The Mansion House has a very unusual history in that it extends through three centuries—the 19th century utopian community, the center of a highly successful 20th century American business, and in the 21st century as an historic house museum, hotel, and residence. Which period interests you most?

JV: The early period. The 19th century was such an important period in the history of the U.S. and really changed the direction of the country in so many ways. The utopian movement is endlessly fascinating to me. And here is where my interest in history intersects with my interest in the arts and humanities. In the late 1960s, I began to teach a course called “Man in Society,” which had the purpose of focusing on art and ideas and how these contribute to our understanding of history and our world. I wanted my students to understand the lives of their parents and grandparents, but I also wanted them to understand earlier periods as well. Talking to visitors about the early history of the OCMH enables me to talk about history, of course, but also about the art and culture of the 19th century.

CV: I find it very interesting to talk about the transition from the communal society to an industrial company - how the ideas of Noyes and the Oneida Community were reflected in the philosophy of the company they founded, Oneida Community Limited. Tony Wonderley, a former curator, referred to the company as the “second Utopia.”

SB: What is the most unusual experience you have had in giving a tour?

CV: At the beginning of every tour I give, I always ask the guests to tell me about their interests and why they came to the Mansion House. One day two middle-aged women arrived late and consequently I didn’t have an opportunity to ask them about themselves. At one point in the tour, I made the statement that if it were not for the company, we probably would not be taking this tour. They disagreed strongly with that statement. At the end of the tour, I asked them why they felt this way and it turned out that they had been long-time members of a California communal society and were in the area to visit Hamilton College and Christian Goodwillie, the archivist and specialist in utopian communities. In the bookshop, I picked up a copy of Ellen Wayland-Smith’s book, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-set Table, and I put my hand under Free Love . . . . . . and they said, “absolutely.” I would have loved to have learned more about their communal experiences.

JV: I have found that my teaching career and my Mansion House career blend very well, and one of my experiences on a tour illustrates that. One of my former high school students, Russell Fox, first visited the Mansion House when he and his junior prom date drove over to Sherrill after the prom and walked around the grounds. Russell became intrigued by the house and the history of the community. The experience literally changed his life. Although he became a lawyer, he remained fascinated by the story of the OCMH, and later published a history play, The Noyes Plays: The True History of the Oneida Community (2010) which he dedicated to me—among the most memorable experiences of my life.

SB: I know that both of you are accustomed to attending numerous concerts, dramatic performances, museum and art openings, and programs at cultural institutions in our area. Since these have all been cancelled or postponed, what are you doing with your free time these days?

CV: We are most fortunate in that we are well, and our family is well. But we certainly miss all of our usual activities! Consequently, we have been taking short trips to explore the outside areas of central New York. We take short drives to places like the Colgate University campus and enjoy walking around Taylor Lake. We go to Mount Hope in Oneida. We drive to Cazenovia and walk in the neighborhoods to look at the historic homes and on the beautiful walking trail at Carpenter’s Pond. We enjoy Root Glen at Hamilton College. The state parks at Verona Beach, Chittenango Falls, and Green Lakes are special places to enjoy the water. We very much appreciate the beauty of the place where we live, and this has been a special time of rediscovery for us.

JV: Since I sold my last sailboat and am no longer sailing, reading is one of my lifetime hobbies. One of the aspects I’ve always enjoyed about being a docent is how giving the tours has shaped my reading. Our guests ask questions, and I want to find the answers. I’ve read and reread dozens of books about the Oneida Community and have a collection of some 35 titles. This collection includes books that my aunt left to me, and many of them are inscribed by their authors, such as Constance Noyes Robertson. During these past months, I’ve especially enjoyed reading recently published non-fiction books. Four books I especially appreciated are the terrific biography Grant by Ron Chernow; Nigel Hamilton’s The Mantle of Command about Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941-42; Eric Larson’s book on Churchill, The Splendid and the Vile; and Robert Metzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which tells the story of Stewart’s remarkable military career during World War II.

CV: And a remarkable thing to know about Joe’s reading is that in February, while we were in South Carolina, Joe picked up a book to read from the local Barnes and Noble: Alfred Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. As he finished it, we began to hear bits and pieces of information about an illness in China.

SB: What are you most looking forward to when the OCMH reopens and tours resume?

CV and JV: The most rewarding part of being docents is the chance to meet new people, including international visitors to the Mansion House. We still think of ourselves as teachers in this guiding role, and we miss that. We certainly miss our schedule of tours! We look forward to greeting guests again and responding to their questions and queries. We also miss our friends at the OCMH—the wonderful staff members and fellow docents whose camaraderie we so enjoy. We also relish the challenges of responding to challenging questions from our guests and understanding the different perspectives that visitors bring. Those opportunities keep our teaching skills alive! Although none of us knows how museums will manage tours and visitors in the future, we look forward to our interactions with guests and staff members again. The OCMH is a welcoming place and we so appreciate that atmosphere. We wonder how will we recapture that when we reopen?

SB: Thank you, Carole and Joe, for sharing your thoughts with us. I so look forward to seeing you both in person again!

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