A Little Help
Alf Evers, who died last December, just missed reaching his 100th birthday. But the revered historian of the Catskills achieved something even more extraordinary- completing his last book at age 99 with the aid of some staunch friends.
A Little Help
Thanks to some staunch friends, Alf Evers ¡ª the great historian of the Catskills ¡ª remained focused on his work right up to the end
by Thomas Staudter
Photographs by Dion Ogust
Historian and author Alf Evers, who died on December 29, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on February 2. Although he missed that milestone, he achieved something even more extraordinary: after 15 years of labor he had just completed the meticulously researched book, Kingston-on-Hudson: An American Historical City.
Nearly blind and deaf, Evers had battled colon cancer, diabetes, and heart problems since the mid-1980s, and it was only with extensive help from his kindhearted and devoted friends that he was able to reach the finishing line with this book.
Right up until the end, a sense of finality was missing from the small wooden frame home in Shady, the hamlet west of Woodstock where Evers had lived since 1960. Encouraged and satisfied by the efforts of his ¡°team,¡± he had already begun work on his next book, a biography of Hervey White, founder of the nearby Maverick art colony. ¡°While I¡¯m able, I¡¯d like to continue writing,¡± he said during a visit with him in early December.
¡°Alf is going to go out in a blaze of ink,¡± remarked Ed Sanders, the renowned poet-musician who served as Evers¡¯s typist for the past seven years (after first learning to decipher the historian¡¯s spidery script). His pace was slow, but by early afternoon Evers was still up at his desk each day, peering through a big magnifying glass at his research materials and books, steadily working. Sanders stopped in daily; his most recent tasks included organizing all of the footnotes and assembling the bibliography for the Kingston book. ¡°It¡¯s an antique tradition for one writer to help another,¡± says Sanders. ¡°I was his amanuensis.¡±
It has taken more than a secretary to get Evers into print one last time. Even though he was ¡°impassioned and determined against his infirmities to finish the projects before him,¡± as Sanders puts it, the plain fact was that, until recently, the acclaimed historian of the Catskills was living alone and physically beginning to fail.
In 1990, at about the time an unchecked diabetic condition was causing Evers¡¯s eyesight to deteriorate rapidly, he became friends with Fred Steuding. The young landscape architecture student from Hurley was writing a master¡¯s thesis on mountainside development. ¡°I wanted to talk to someone who really knew the territory around the Catskills, and that led me to Alf,¡± says Steuding. With Evers¡¯s guidance, Steuding completed a study of Overlook Mountain in 1994 and earned his degree. Returning home from school, he found that Evers could barely read the thousands of notecards that he¡¯d compiled while researching Kingston.
¡°Alf put the subject of his research on the top line of the card, and when he wrote he gathered the cards he needed by subject,¡± explains Steuding. ¡°But the cards had to be alphabetized by subject, and they weren¡¯t. With six or seven thousand cards in use, any that were out of order were gone forever with his eyesight.¡± Steuding took on the daunting task. Organizing all of Evers¡¯s old maps, newspaper articles, poems, photographs, drawings, letters, and countless ephemera into hanging files, again by subject, was the next chore Steuding undertook to help Evers along. After that, he traveled to libraries around New York to finish some of the research.
¡°Of all the people I¡¯ve ever known, Alf knew best how to dig into the terrain,¡± says Steuding. ¡°He knew the old-timers and lived with people who spoke words no longer in use. In a sense, they became a part of Alf.
¡°Some people looked at Alf¡¯s house [built in the 1800s], and they saw some dusty, old place,¡± Steuding continues. ¡°Inside, though, the heater was crackling, there was rippled glass in the windows, and the place oozed with atmosphere. There were artifacts all around: beautifully turned walking sticks hanging from the ceiling, an old carpet on the floor. You felt like you were in the heart of the Catskills when you were there in that house, and you were, because you were there with Alf.¡±
The seeds of a historian were planted in Evers during his youth, but it was an avocation that took him several decades to embrace. He grew up in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx; when he was nine, his parents moved to a 54-acre farm in Tillson, Ulster County. ¡°One of the local farmhands, Charlie Wood, believed in witches and told us stories about the area,¡± Evers recalled. ¡°It seemed people lived more in the past then and had a greater knowledge of local history.¡± At about the age of 11, Evers said he fell under the spell of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a 1789 work by English naturalist Gilbert White. ¡°I read the book, and it fascinated me tremendously and stayed with me throughout my adulthood. From then on, I was always collecting information with the thought that I¡¯d write about wherever I lived, just like White had.¡±
The region¡¯s Native American tribes also captured Evers¡¯s young imagination. He remembered his freshman year at New Paltz High School, when he would tag along after teacher Byron J. Terwilliger and learn how to search for arrowheads in the surrounding fields. ¡°I absorbed a lot from him,¡± said Evers. ¡°He showed me that the best time to look for Indian artifacts was after it rained.¡±
By his mid-20s, Evers had graduated from Hamilton College and attended the Art Students League in New York, where he met his wife, Helen Baker, an illustrator. Together, they created greeting cards and authored more than 50 children¡¯s books while parenting their three children. Eventually, as Evers¡¯s plain prose style and moralistic fables about barnyard animals earned him the sobriquet ¡°America¡¯s Aesop,¡± they bought a home in tony Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1950, the couple divorced ¡ª Evers¡¯s greatest regret in life. (On the other hand, he added, if it hadn¡¯t been for the divorce, ¡°I would have been satisfied writing just children¡¯s books.¡±)
He returned to Ulster County, settling in Woodstock, where his rising prominence as a serious historian and preservationist was duly recognized. In time, he served as vice president of the New York State Folklore Society and president of the Woodstock Historical Society. Industrious and enterprising as ever, his tenure as town historian resulted in the 1987 publication of Woodstock: History of an American Town.
His accumulation of historical materials, many of which were purchased for a few cents, are treasured links to the past. Carla T. Smith, executive director of the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen, recalls meeting Evers at a dinner party in the mid-1990s. The guild was taking inventory of its collection of items related to the famous Byrdcliffe art colony. ¡°When we realized Alf had a Byrdcliffe collection and saw the breadth of it, we made him an offer,¡± Smith says. ¡°But money didn¡¯t mean much to Alf. What mattered more to him was that the collection would go to an institution that understood and appreciated its importance.¡± Evers¡¯s materials, in fact, make up the bulk of a traveling exhibition celebrating the centennial of Byrdcliffe¡¯s founding in 1903. (It is currently on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art.) More recently, Evers had decided that he wanted his entire library and collection of historical materials to end up at the guild ¡ª which had already catalogued it, out of pocket ¡ª so future researchers would have access to it all. ¡°Keeping his library intact as an entity made Alf very happy,¡± Smith notes. The guild¡¯s recompense for the collection helped tide Evers over financially during his work on the Kingston book.
It may seem improbable that a 99-year-old man with dimming eyesight could write a detailed book. Evers, however, was blessed with an astounding capacity to remember the endless minutiae that comes with a lifetime of reading and social interactions. ¡°On a good day, his memory was flawless, and he had been able to train himself to write large portions of text in his head that he could recall and dictate later on,¡± says Sanders. ¡°His wonderful writing style, which developed from this combined ¡®talking and writing,¡¯ was a result of not being able to see much in his 90s. But the Kingston book is entirely his: he wrote it. The sentence structures, everything, is his.¡±
¡°I hope the people of Kingston will be pleased by the book when it comes out,¡± said Evers modestly, and chances are that many of the denizens of the Ulster County seat will read it with interest. Evers¡¯s research indicates that a mix of ethnic cultures, not just the Dutch, helped distinguish the early settlement from others on the river.
¡°All in all, Alf is very sympathetic to the human creativity and good will that exists in different times,¡± says Sanders, speaking about the book. ¡°He was able to chart the human passions and drama that shed light on all the significant aspects of Kingston life.¡± (The book will be published this spring by Overlook Press, which also reissued Evers¡¯s 1972 magnum opus, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock.)
February 2, Evers¡¯s birthday, is also Groundhog Day and the birthday of James Joyce, whose Ulysses is deemed the top novel of the 20th century. ¡°There was a lot of groundhog and Joyce in Alf,¡± laughs Tom O¡¯Brien. After all, Evers ¡ª a steady chronicler of the passage of time ¡ª had been in a hibernating mode for quite a while. And coincidentally or not, it took Joyce 15 years to finish his last book, Finnegan¡¯s Wake, because of failing eyesight.
O¡¯Brien, more than anyone, was responsible for Evers completing the book. After meeting Evers¡¯s son, Christopher, in 1997, it was decided that O¡¯Brien ¡ª who had worked for 30 years as the general manager of the Village Gate, the legendary Manhattan nightspot ¡ª would move in and take care of the historian, serving as his nurse, chef de cuisine, executive secretary, publicist, domestic engineer, man Friday, and chauffeur.
¡°Alf was in bad shape,¡± says Steuding. ¡°He never could have survived if it wasn¡¯t for Tom. And they became best friends. They shared interests in music, art, history. More than anything, Alf got a lot of spiritual support from Tom.¡± Indeed, O¡¯Brien¡¯s ebullient demeanor and cultured wit served as a balance to Evers¡¯s frail physical condition.
Evers turned his walker into a portable desk, which Sanders jokingly said should be patented. Near the end of a recent visit, he brought the contraption over to his real desk and began to set up for an afternoon of work. He¡¯d have been happy to regale his company with a few more hours of stories and cogent explanations, but everyone knew that time was precious inside the simple, white-clapboard house a stone¡¯s throw from the burbling Sawkill. The minute Evers adjusted his magnifying glass over some pages in a book he wanted to read, he was back in a familiar world. ¡ö