From the editor: Pauline Williman has passed on, but not before passing on her blessings

Sometimes a single person can embody a place and time. Pauline Williman was like that for me.

She died on the last day of July at the age of 93.

I met her when I was in my thirties — a young mother and Hilltown reporter — and she was in her sixties — an established business woman and Hilltown native.

She regularly attended the meetings I covered like the Knox Town Board or the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board. She had pointed questions and offered practical advice; she was never nasty.

Once, at a Knox Town Board meeting, an angry resident was upset with members of a religious group visiting his home and was looking for retribution; he said his house used to be protected by an ill-tempered horse who “bit the wife twice.” Ms. Williman quietly offered this advice: “I quote scriptures.”

In her 60s, Ms. Williman twice ran for a seat on the school board. She said the three employees she had who were BKW graduates were the best she’d had. “I’d like to see more emphasis on that basic training,” she said. “I’d like to see a foundation so these students could fly as high as their ambition permits them to go.”

Ms. Williman was a Republican in a Democratic town. Nevertheless, when she was in her 70s, she twice ran for supervisor. “It’s not a negative thing,” she said of her running against the long-time incumbent. “I feel the town board has done a pretty good job.”

She wanted to do more to encourage businesses in town; she wanted to post meeting agendas so citizens would know what was coming; she wanted to improve record-keeping so that, for example, the building inspector’s citations of violations would be immediately accessible.

“Computers make it easier,” she said.

Where had this woman come from? Aged yet modern. Forceful yet kind.

I found out the day I visited her farm — the farm on Ketchum Road where she was born and raised. I visited her farm in September 2001 because Ms. Williman was in the midst of a splendid project. She was growing food to feed the poor.

My story about her project began:

“In the deep of winter, Pauline Williman sat at her kitchen table and planned the crops she hoped to harvest to feed the hungry.

“‘Lord, if you want this to work,’ she prayed, ‘give me the weather to make the corn and squash grow.’

“Saturday, Williman, her skin browned by the sun and glowing with the sweat that comes from hard work, surveyed her ‘ocean of corn’ with a look of satisfaction.

“The undulating waves of green, rippling in the breeze, stretched as far as the eye could see. Instead of the cry of seagulls, the thrum of insects filled the air.

“‘This is the best season we’ve had in 30 years,’ Williman said. ‘We’ve had fresh morning dew and hot, dry days. I think there’s been a divine hand in it.’”

That story ran in our Sept. 13, 2001 edition, two days after the terrorists’ attacks. I kept the picture of Ms. Williman’s cornfield on the front page. I did not want the terrorists to win.

After her mother’s death, once the estate was settled, Ms. Williman had set up a trust called the Patroon Land Foundation. The farmland was once part of the original Van Rensselaer patroonship under Dutch colonial rule. She worked with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York to grow fresh wholesome food for people who needed it. 

Her mission was rooted in her family’s past. “My parents had so little when I was a kid,” she said. “We ate what we raised on the farm. If people came to the house, no one went away hungry. People were welcomed and offered the best we had.”

She recalled fondly not just sharing scanty goods but sharing work, too. “People worked cooperatively. People would get together to bring in the hay or to grind the oats … We moved from farm to farm.” Her foundation embraces that aspect of Hilltown rural life, too, as volunteers work at the Ketchum Road farm to help with planting and harvesting.

Pauline Williman and her siblings attended the one-room schoolhouse in Knox. She finished at Knox District 5 in 1936 when she was 10 and went on to Altamont High School, graduating in 1940 at the age of 14. Then she had to wait two years until she was old enough to get into business school. In the meantime, she became a certified shorthand reporter, recording her first hearing when she was just 15 years old. 

In 1949, she began and successfully ran her own business as a court reporter, retiring in 2006 at the age of 80. Her family wrote in her obituary about her “blazing a professional trail and breaking the glass ceiling for today’s businesswomen … with her company providing initial opportunities to many successful court reporters throughout New York State and the country today.”

Ms. Williman would recount tales of her days in the one-room schoolhouse for modern-day school children who visited the restored Knox District 5 schoolhouse, and she also told Daniel Driscoll of her days there for a book he wrote on the history of the school.

One year, Ms. Williman said, their father bought Pauline and her brother, Bill, sheepskin coats to wear when they walked to school. When the temperature dropped to 12 degrees below zero, they asked their father if they could stay home. He replied, that is why he bought the coats. They walked to school but no one else was there, so they walked home. Their father said, at least they tried.

Ms. Williman said she got a good education at the school. When she went to high school in Altamont, the students of the more well-to-do families there ignored her except to ridicule the way she dressed, Ms. Williman reported. “Their children dressed differently than a poor farm girl from the Hill,” says Daniel Driscoll’s book.

Perhaps part of her courage to pursue a successful business career, which was rare for women in that era, came from lessons she learned at the one-room schoolhouse in Knox — lessons that taught her to at least try when others stayed home.

She also perhaps learned lessons in both humility and generosity. Clothes don’t matter when you have a richness of intellect and the generosity to share. A “poor farm girl from the Hill” has shared the wealth of her land to help feed the poor for generations to come.

She told me when I visited her farm, “I could never imagine in those days that I could do half of what I’ve been able to do. If anyone ever told me I’d work with a couple of governors on a fairly regular basis or that I’d shake hands with a president, I’d have old them, ‘You have rocks in your head.’

“I’ve been privileged to do a lot of things,” she said. “This is paying back … the Lord told us to feed his people. I’ve had many blessings; I’ll try to feed people in return.”

I hope her Patroon Land Foundation, which has grown every year, will continue to feed people in need for generations to come. In that way, her generosity will live on.

The picture of her cornfield on our front page the week of the terrorists’ attacks, with a neighbor boy helping to harvest, for me symbolized what matters most in these United States of America: People willing to help one another for the common good.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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