Alice Cathleen Begley

Alice Cathleen Begley

Alice Cathleen Begley

GUILDERLAND — The wallpaper in Alice Begley’s bedroom — in the house on Patricia Lane in Westmere where she lived for 63 years — had the poems of Emily Dickinson:

A WORD is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

Mrs. Begley, who wrote her college thesis on Miss Dickinson, believed, like the poet, that speaking and writing words made them alive.

Alice Cathleen Begley died on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at  Hospice Inn at St. Peter’s Hospital, after celebrating her 95th birthday at home on July 2.

Her work and the love of history she inspired live on. Mrs. Begley made history accessible to Guilderland residents — through written words, plays, social events, school lessons, refurbished historical markers, and the restoration of the Schoolcraft House.

As the village of Altamont and later the town of Guilderland historian, Mrs. Begley wrote regular columns for The Altamont Enterprise about local history. She wrote four books and plays, too. Her passion for history was contagious as she took those who were interested tromping through graveyards and rummaging through dusty files to piece together the past.

During Guilderland’s bicentennial year, Mrs. Begley organized a service at Prospect Hill Cemetery that replicated one from the century before. She helped to organize a tour to Gelderland in the Netherlands, the province for which Guilderland was named, and wrote about the trip and the visit to the town’s sister city, Nijkerk.

“We went to the mayor’s office. It was lovely. He received us with tea and cakes,” she said at the time.

Mrs. Begley was the third registered historian for New York State. She notes that lots of dedicated volunteers serve as municipal historians but the certification process requires more rigor and published writing.

“Everybody thinks my job is to find Grandma or Uncle Willie in the cemetery,” Mrs. Begley said when she was certified. “The job of an historian is to interpret, to inform, to write public pieces, and interact with schools.”

Mrs. Begley taught school children about their history and told of one time when she taught a class about one-room schoolhouses. The students became so enthused about what they had learned, they decided to pretend that they were in a one-room schoolhouse for a day, bringing in their lunches in sacks.

Mrs. Begley served as town historian under five different Guilderland supervisors — Republican Anne Tucker Rose, Democrat William Aylward, Republican Jerry Yerbury — “But just for two days,” said Mrs. Begley. “He fired me and 12 other people” — Democrat Kenneth Runion, and finally Democrat Peter Barber. She retired from the post at the end of 2016 and went to live just out of town at The Lodge, run by Avila.

Her signature project was the restoration of the Schoolcraft House. The Gothic-revival mansion on Western Avenue was built in the 1840s by John L. Schoolcraft, who later became a Congressman and one of the original presidents for the bank now known as KeyBank.

The mansion was slated to be torn down to make way for a parking lot when Mrs. Begley intervened. “Every town needs a few symbols to remind them of what was,” she said as she undertook the project.

Her own history

 Mrs. Begley, the second of four siblings, was born on July 2, 1925, to Mason and Elizabeth O’Hare Parker. She grew up in North Albany where, she said, “Everyone was Irish Catholic and a Democrat.”

Her mother, who was born in Scotland to an Irish family came to America on a ship, traveling with a cousin, when she was 12 years old. Her father, who drove a bakery truck and then worked for the state, had been born in Albany’s Arbor Hill.

“It was a great family community,” Mrs. Begley said of North Albany in the 1920s and ’30s. “We were a typical family.”

Mrs. Begley went to Public School 20 and then to high school at Cathedral Academy. She met the man who would become her husband, James Begley, at a North Albany drugstore. “He was the only fellow with a car,” she recalled. “He lived over two blocks and down one from me. When I was getting ready for a date, my mother would call out when she heard him starting up his car.”

The day after James Begley graduated from Siena College, he went to enlist for service in World War II. “They wouldn’t take Jim because he didn’t weigh enough,” Mrs. Begley recalled. He consumed bananas to bulk up, returned the next day, and was enlisted.

Before he went to war, Mr. Begley was stationed in Alaska.

On his first five-day leave, Lieutenant Begley came home. “He said, ‘Let’s get married,’” Mrs. Begley recalled. “We told my parents and my mother rushed to the attic and got my sister’s wedding gown. She had been married the year before to a Navy man.”

Although there was no time to send out invitations, Sacred Heart Church was “packed full” for the wedding, Mrs. Begley recalled, with all the neighborhood friends that were close as family.

After a two-day honeymoon, James Begley returned to the West Coast, soon to be joined by his new bride. “I went to Oregon where Jim’s ship was on the Columbia River,” she said. “We had three wonderful months there when they got the orders to go to war.”

She and another Navy wife drove to San Francisco where, from Telegraph Hill, they watched their husbands’ ship leave San Francisco Harbor.

Alice Begley returned to Albany by train. There, she gave birth to the first of her three children, Alice. The baby was 10 months old when Mr. Begley returned to Albany.

The Begley family grew up along with the town of Guilderland.

After the war, Mrs. Begley said, “Hundreds of young men were looking for a green spot to buy a house and grow their families up. A friend told us, ‘They’re building out in Guilderland.’”

Three days after Mr. Begley came home from his service, he had landed a job with General Electric. He worked there, as an engineer, for his entire career.

In 1953, the Begleys found a ranch house on Patricia Lane and bought it. They raised their three children there and lived together there until Mr. Begley died in 1999. The Begleys were married for 59 years.

“I could watch Jim coming home on Western Avenue,” said Begley.

She also watched the town grow. Her oldest child, Alice, went to the little red schoolhouse, since torn down, that gave Schoolhouse Road its name. Her middle child, James, started school in the basement of a Methodist church, rented by the Guilderland School district. Her youngest child, Paul, started in one of the big modern schools, Westmere Elementary, built when the district centralized.

In 1956, Mrs. Begley was one of three women to start a weekly newspaper, The Turnpike Record, to document life in the growing community. Mrs. Begley ultimately became the sole owner of the paper, running it from 1965 to 1972 when she sold it to the printer who didn’t keep it going for long after that.

When the Begleys’ three children were grown and gone to college, Mrs. Begley said, “It was my turn.” She followed her daughter Alice to The College of Saint Rose and earned a degree in English and communication.

All along, she wrote articles for various publications on subjects that interested her. Energetic in pursuit of her subjects, she recalled jumping on the running board of Mickey Spillane’s truck to secure an interview with the crime novelist.

It was 1989 and he had just lost to Hurricane Hugo 50 years of first editions and his latest, nearly finished manuscript.

“You get a flat tire, you fix it,” he told Mrs. Begley. “This ain’t no big thing. I can make good out of bad.”

Mrs. Begley had that kind of grit, too. She continued to submit history columns to The Enterprise even as she battled breast cancer.

Her visits to the newsroom often became social occasions as she regaled reporters with her words. Once, as she brought in a column on Theodosia Burr Alton, daughter of a vice president and wife of a governor, Mrs. Begley re-enacted a scene from a play she had written about Theodosia. (Mrs. Begley had a personal relationship with Theodosia and always called her by her first name.)

 She took Theodosia’s long-forgotten words, penned in letters to her beloved father, Aaron Burr, and brought them to life. “I could hear her voice as I read those papers,” Mrs. Begley said.

There, in the Enterprise newsroom, Mrs. Begley described the one-woman show as Suellen Yates had performed it at the Fort Orange Club. Theodosia had been born in a mansion at that site in 1783.

“The theater is dark, dark, dark — and all of a sudden, down the aisle comes this figure in filmy white clothes. The lights come up and the audience sees her,” said Mrs. Begley. “She sees the chair where her Papa sat. His slippers are there. She puts her hand on the chair and says, ‘Papa, Papa, Papa….’”

Mrs. Begley, who was dressed fashionably as always, in a turquoise coat with a scarf knit in complementary hues, unwrapped the scarf from her neck to describe the theatrics that allowed Theodosia to give birth on a darkened stage — just a scream beneath the scarf — and then, when the lights come on, Theodosia is cradling the scarf in her arms, cuddling it and cooing to it. It is her baby.

After the play was over, a man in the audience told Mrs. Begley, referring to the chair at the start of the play, “I knew Aaron Burr wasn’t in that chair. By the time the play was finished, I knew he was.”

“That play,” concluded Mrs. Begley, “was the love of my life.”

****

Alice Cathleen Begley is survived by her sons, James A. Begley and his wife, Paula Cotazino Begley, of Guilderland, and Paul M. Begley and his wife, Carol Meier Begley, of Denver, North Carolina; by her five grandchildren: Tracey Rendall Taleff and her husband, Greg, of Cincinnati, Ohio, James Joseph Begley and his wife, Brooke, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Paul Brian Begley of Jacksonville, Florida, Jennifer Rendall Zins of Cincinnati, Ohio, and John Thomas Begley, of Asheville, North Carolina; by her 13 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

James F. Begley, her beloved husband of 56 years, died in 1999. Her daughter Alice Louise Rendall died in 2017. Her three siblings — Betty Wiest, Richard Parker, and Marjorie VanDeusen — died before her as did her dear friend Edward Dillon.

A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Monday, Aug. 3, in Christ the King Catholic Church in Guilderland. Interment followed in the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Guilderland.

Memorial messages may be left at www.altamontenterprise.com/milestones.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Community Hospice Foundation, 301 S. Manning Blvd, Albany, NY, 12208.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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