Daniel A. Driscoll, planner who shaped the Helderbergs, mourned

Daniel A. Driscoll relaxes with a glass of beer. As a long-time member of the Knox Historical Society, he became interested in the hops industry, which boomed in the Helderbergs in the 19th  Century. He sought out original hops plants, cultivating them himself and sharing them with others, including Dietrich Gehring of New Scotland who named Dan Driscoll Pale ale after him, described as “floral with a hint of pineapple named for a local historian and hops preservationist.”

KNOX — A bright man, quiet and capable, Daniel A. Driscoll devoted his life to public service.

When he was young, he served his country. He was in the Ohio Air National Guard while a student at the University of Cincinnati. In 1961, just after he graduated, his squadron was activated for the Berlin Crisis; he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, using radar to direct aircraft for close air support.

Mr. Driscoll’s career centered on protecting people from health problems caused by sound and electromagnetic fields — side effects of modern life that are easily ignored.

He served the town of Knox as drafter of its zoning ordinance, the first chairman of its planning board, and the driving force behind its comprehensive plan. He also helped lead a regional study for informed planning, and he helped create a land trust to preserve open space in the Mohawk and Hudson valleys.

His talents were varied, and his interests were as wide as the world. A religious man, he built the stained-glass window at St. Bernadette’s Church in Berne that still graces the library housed now in the building. A musical man, he founded a fife and drum corps to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. An historian, he collected and shared rhizomes of the hops once so prolific in the Hilltowns and eventually had an ale named for him.

Mr. Driscoll was diagnosed with leukemia seven years ago at the age of 70.

“He wasn’t upset about dying,” said  his wife, Maureen Driscoll. In their 45 years of marriage, she said, he never lost his calm.

On Monday, Mr. Driscoll had to decide whether to do another round of chemotherapy or to go home. “He decided, if I can’t do community service projects, if I can’t fulfill my purpose, I’m OK with letting go,” said his younger daughter, Erica Penny.

Mr. Driscoll cut the heavy, sad moment of making that decision with humor. His daughter said he got a twinkle in his eye — the one his wife knew meant mischief, “like a kid sneaking a brownie,” said Ms. Penny — and he said he’d like to go home as he had several meetings to attend in Knox.

Over the last six years, his daughters said, their mother has been the “unsung hero” as he continued his community service.  “She drove him to every meeting for the past six years,” said Ms. Penny. “She played the support role.”

“We had a great marriage,” said Mrs. Driscoll. “He also supported me….He was a kind person. I’ll miss him.”

Mr. Driscoll was home only for a few hours; there, he could see the view he loved and the fossil rocks in his fireplace, his daughter said.

“Off he went on Tuesday, with a comic strip in his hand,” said Ms. Penny. He was 77.

Family

Mr. Driscoll was born on Oct. 4, 1938 in Brooklyn to John E. and Mary E. Driscoll. His father was a civil engineer, building New York City bridges, and his mother was a visiting nurse in Brooklyn.

The family followed his father’s jobs, first to Virginia and then to Idaho. After Mr. Driscoll graduated in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati, and was released from military service, he earned a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and then a Ph.D. from the University of Vermont; all of his degrees were in electrical engineering.

After graduating, he became an assistant professor at Union College in Schenectady. Two weeks after Maureen Hourigan of Troy, who was working in Schenectady at General Electric, met Mr. Driscoll,  he asked her to marry him. She said yes but was afraid to tell her parents, she recalled, because it had happened so fast. “It was love at first sight,” she said. “It just clicked.”

Their union ended only with his death. In that time, she can’t recall having a single argument.

“He was very logical,” said Ms. Penny.

“He’ll think of a way to get around a problem.,” said Mrs. Driscoll. “He’d get thrilled if I broke something difficult. He liked to fix it.”

“He wanted to see things function and get to a goal,” said his elder daughter, Deborah Driscoll.

“Every action he had, there was a purpose,” said Ms. Driscoll. He was an introvert, his family said. His talk, for example, wasn’t to be social. “He had a conversation when there was a purpose,” said Ms. Driscoll.

“When he got awards, he’s say, ‘Don’t say it’s just me,’” said his wife.

Most recently, he researched and wrote about lime kilns for The Altamont Enterprise. “He gave me an assignment to digitize recordings about lime kilns,” said his elder daughter, Deborah Driscoll through tears.

“He always wanted us to learn something new; he was always teaching us something,” said Ms. Penny.

The family made many trips abroad — to France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg, and Liechtenstein. “We wound up with a love of travel,” said Ms. Driscoll.

Ms. Penny recalled, as a teenager, reading an Enterprise article about a foreign exchange student. “Dad said, ‘Maybe you should do that,’” she recalled. “I was an exchange student in France for a year.” She became a teacher of music and French.

“He really wanted us to learn how to make good decisions and choices,” said Ms. Driscoll, who became an electrical engineer. “I would call him through my twenties and thirties and talk through a decision. He would offer logical advice.”

Ms. Driscoll said, in her youth, she was a tomboy. “He trained me in pothole-filling and ditch-digging,” she said. “We’d practice archery and knife-throwing.”

When she visited her parents a month ago, he was concerned about the high branches of a chestnut tree that might fall on their house. He had taught her how to use a chainsaw.

He got out a napkin and sketched the notches she would make to be sure the branches fell the right way. “He’d read books on it. He knew the physics of it,” Ms. Driscoll said.

She climbed the tall ladder and cut as the diagram instructed. The branches fell where they should.

The Driscoll family went to church every Sunday, without fail. “He believed in the Catholic Church as a whole. He liked the structure,” said Ms. Penny.

“He raised theological questions, deep questions, that he was trying to process,” said Ms. Driscoll.

His best friend, K. Balasubramanian, an engineer from India whom he had sponsored, is a Hindu. The two enjoyed having deep discussion about religion, his family said.

They relayed this thought from his sister, Mary Hricko: “When Dan is silent, you know he’s thinking. My parents always thought that he spoke when he needed to and you better listen because it was important and he had probably thought about it for a while to get it right.”

“He didn’t just chitchat,” said Ms. Penny.

Mr. Driscoll loved spending time with his three grandchildren and doing projects with them that they enjoyed.

“My two boys are into nature,” said Ms. Penny of her sons. “The three of them worked together, building a fort,” she said.

“At Christmastime, we went to Hilton Head,” said Mrs. Driscoll. “He taught the children how to play tiddlywinks. He always planned something different.”

His grandchildren enjoyed going with Mr. Driscoll to the Knox transfer station where they would unearth treasures, like an old fishing pole, some of them found earlier by Mr. Driscoll and left for their discovery.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
In June, Daniel Driscoll was honored with a surprise party hosted by the Kiwanis Club of the Helderbergs of which he had been a member for 42 years, serving as its treasurer, secretary, and president. He considered his most important project the restoration of Knox School 5, which he wrote a book about.

 

Career of caring

Starting in 1964, Mr. Driscoll taught electrical engineering at Union College, doing research on on the application of electric and magnetic field theory to problems concerning current flow in the human body.

In 1973, he joined the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation Noise Bureau, analyzing noises from construction and from the generation and transmission of electrical power. He also examined the possible health effects of exposure to power-line electric and magnetic fields (EMF).

From 1977 until he retired in 1999, he worked for the state’s Department of Public Service, Office of Energy Efficiency and Environment, supervising the licensing of power plants. He also analysed the effects of environmental noise produced by power plants and transmission facilities to develop policy on health effects of exposure to electric and magnetic fields.

In an autobiographical sketch, Mr. Driscoll wrote that he was “particularly proud” that the state made “significant strides in quieting power plants and transmission facilities” because of his work standardizing the methods for determining acceptable sound levels for communities.

He also wrote a computer program, NoiseCalc, that was used extensively around the world to calculate noise propagation.

“Most satisfying has been the many cases in which I was able to help individuals aggravated by noise from utility facilities, achieve quiet and healthful environments,” he wrote.

Through Driscoll’s work, New York State became a leader in the international effort to understand the health effects of power frequency EMF. In 1976, he testified before the state’s Public Service Commission, leading to the Power Line Project, a research program focusing attention on the matter. He headed the staff committee that developed state policy for dealing with powerline EMF, ultimately leading to a federal research program to understand health effects of EMF.

In 1993, Driscoll was appointed to a National Academy of Science committee to review the possible effects of EMF on biological systems, which published a book on the subject four years later.

Community service

Probably more than any other single person, Mr. Driscoll was responsible for shaping the future of Knox. He did his work quietly, without fanfare or confrontation.

“He never, ever wasted time,” said his wife. “It was exhausting to watch him. He was never tired.”

“Even when he was tired from the chemo, he was doing something,” said Ms. Penny.

“He could barely breathe and still went to meetings,” said Ms. Driscoll. “He just never stopped caring.”

In 1974, Mr. Driscoll wrote a summary of the first zoning to be proposed for Knox, distributing it to his neighbors to foster understanding. He was invited to serve on the planning board that was formed in 1975 to interpret the ordinance and became its chairman in 1978. Mr. Driscoll was a member of the planning board at the time of his death.

Mr. Driscoll then drafted subdivision regulations so the board’s work would proceed smoothly. And he saw the need to have the board’s decisions based on an understanding of the town’s natural resources.

He requested that the town board create a conservation advisory council, which it did, to inventory Knox resources.

Mr. Driscoll then understood the need to have an underlying guide for Knox’s future and, at the end of 1989, stepped down as the chairman of the planning board to start developing a comprehensive plan. The plan was completed in 1994 and changes were then adopted to the zoning ordinance.

At the same time, in the 1990s, Mr. Driscoll organized the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Committee, serving as the committee’s chairman. He understood the value of the escarpment and the need to protect it from development pressures. Under his guidance, a regional planning guide was published, defining resources and recommending means of preserving them

The award-winning work helped inspire the Open Space Institute to acquire several large parcels in the Helderbergs, which later became part of John Boyd Thacher State Park.

The comprehensive plan for Knox, which Mr. Driscoll oversaw, recommended conservation easements to preserve important farmland and protect scenic vistas. This led Mr. Driscoll to help found a land conservancy, now known as the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, which has been instrumental in preserving open space.

Mr. Driscoll had served as president of the conservancy, although his family said, as an introvert, he had to develop the skills that would lead to land acquisition.

“He didn’t want attention for himself,” said his wife.

Music

Mr. Driscoll built a bridge at the Wolf Creek Falls Preserve in Knox with planks made of black locust. He told the Enterprise at the time, “As I dropped one of the boards, it just went, ‘bong’ — very resonant. So I took eight of the boards home and carved out the underside of them to tune them to an octave.” A mallet by the bridge allows passers-by to play tunes on its planks.

Later, he built other bridges with pipes, his wife said. “He got an idea and it would grow.”

She told another story about his goal-setting. “As a young boy, he wanted to play the French horn. His father said, ‘If you learn to do that, I’ll stand on my head in Cincinnati Square.’”

After Driscoll gave a concert with his horn, his father did as he had promised.

Daniel Driscoll was an expert at the recorder, too, studying with some of the best players in the world. Mr. Driscoll was the first musical director of the Northeastern New York Chapter of the American Recorder Society.

He made and collected instruments, housing hundreds, most of them primitive or historical. He shared his collection, giving talks locally.“There was not an instrument he couldn’t play,” said Ms. Penny. “He built a French horn out of a garden hose and funnel, a flute out of PVC. He would pick up a straw at McDonald’s and make it into a fife.”

He also rescued a bass from a trash pile, his family said, and learned to play it because St. Matthew’s Church in Voorheesville, which he attended weekly, needed a bassist,

In 1976, for the nation’s bicentennial, he formed the Hellebergh Fife and Drum Corps, sponsored by the Knox fire company, teaching others to play the fife and drum. The corps also played music from the Anti-Rent Wars.

Mr. Driscoll directed the Holiday Choristers when he worked at the Department of Public Service, singing Christmas and Hanukkah songs for fellow workers. He played with the Knox Town Band and the Traditional Strings.

“He taught me about music,” said Ms. Penny.  The two of the performed together at family weddings and funerals.

A family friend, Lake Herman, a franciscan brother, sent the Driscoll family this message on learning of Daniel Driscoll’s death: “I’m sure he has a few projects for his fellow saints to start working on.”

His body is being donated to the anatomical gifts program at Albany Medical Center. So “the doctors can learn more about leukemia to help someone else,” said Ms. Penny.

****
Daniel A. Driscoll is survived by his wife, Maureen Hourigan Driscoll; his daughters, Deborah Driscoll and Erica Penny; his grandchildren, Simone Hall, Andrew Penny and Matthew Penny; his sister, Mary Hricko; and his brother, Joseph Driscoll.

A Memorial Mass will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 2, at St. Matthew’s Church at 25 Mountainview Street in Voorheesville with a reception to follow.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, 425 Kenwood Ave., Delmar, NY  12064, or online at mohawkhudson.org.

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