Then and now: A personal journey into Rockland County's past

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Photo from Scott Webber's book, "Camp Shanks and Shanks Village: A Scrapbook," courtesy of the Orangetown Historical Society.

As a publisher, teacher and lifelong Rocklander, Richard Connolly has a rare perspective on the county’s history over the past seven decades.

He was raised in the converted barracks of a former army base in Orangeburg, watched semi-pro ballgames on the sprawling campus of a state hospital in Orangeburg, and lives in West Nyack — around the corner from the former schoolhouse where his parents first met.

Connolly will be leading audiences on a journey through the past that connects it with Rockland’s present during a trio of programs at local libraries this fall. The one-hour programs and Q&As will be presented in storytelling fashion, without images or video, encouraging audience members to actively engage their imaginations and memories, he said.

“It’s an experience of how people lived and communicated and remembered before we became addicted to digital technology,” said Connolly, who has been teaching at Rockland Community College for more than 50 years. “You remember differently without these tools than if you rely upon them.”

‘Like two realities’

Between 1947 and 1954, Connolly’s family lived in Shanks Village in Orangeburg, a cooperative community located on the grounds of the former Camp Shanks — the largest U.S. Army embarkation camp during World War II.

At his first program, on Oct. 7 at the Pearl River Library, he’ll be telling stories about life in Shanks Village, where a diverse group of people lived together as neighbors.

“When I attended elementary school in what’s now part of the Orangeburg Library, which was Shanks Village’s elementary school, in those classrooms I walked into rooms where there was no racial division,” Connolly said. “There were Black and white faces, boys and girls, people of different religions, and that’s how I saw reality. For seven of the first nine years of my life, that’s how we lived, and it was reinforced by my mother, who said, ‘We’re all the same, Rich.’"

“We moved to West Nyack in July 1954,” he continued. “All of the stuff I saw happen afterward in West Nyack, in Clarkstown, is that there were no Blacks. There was one African-American girl in my high school graduating class. I moved into a reality five miles away that was like two realities. I didn’t know why until I got older.”

At Connolly’s second program, on Oct. 27 at the West Nyack Library, he’ll reflect on growing up around the time of the Tappan Zee Bridge’s opening in December 1955. He recalled riding his bicycle down to the places where the Thruway and bridge were rising, paving the way for momentous changes in his hometown.

A Nov. 4 talk at the Pearl River Library will trace the history of Rockland State Hospital, where thousands of people were treated for mental illnesses beginning around 1931. Parts of the original campus now hold Rockland Psychiatric Center and the JP Morgan Chase Data Center, as well as abandoned buildings from its past. “It’s like the past, the present and the future are all in one place there,” Connolly noted.

A Nyack Library program on Dec. 15 asks the question: What do the history of baseball and basketball, the New York Knickerbockers, the YMCA, the Elysian Fields, Cooperstown, N.Y., Springfield, Mass., Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, St. Nicholas, Coca-Cola, and Christmas have to do with our local history?

Historical perspectives at RCC

Connolly also will be teaching a course at Rockland Community College titled, “Local History: Multicultural Perspectives,” which will combine storytelling and oral history with academic research. It will include visits to local libraries and museums.

The course asks the question, “Is Rockland County a microcosm of America?” from several perspectives — historical, cultural, political, religious, and secular. Registration is online now.

Connolly's Circumstantial Productions, founded in 1982, has published numerous volumes of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, produced video documentaries, and produced albums and performances by a wide range of musical artists.

He has used his connections among artists in various disciplines to produce a series of collaborative projects. Those projects have included the Dalai Lama, Bob Dorough, Dr. John, Libby Titus, Luther Allison, Robert Pinsky, Doc Pomus and Big Joe Turner.

A trip through Rockland history

Here We Are: Shanks Village Stories (1947-1954)

Here We are: Growing up in West Nyack before and after the Tappan Zee Bridge

  • When: Wednesday, Oct. 27, 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
  • Where: West Nyack Library, 65 Strawtown Road

Here We Are: Rockland State Hospital Stories

Here We Are:  Synchronicity and Local History

  • When: Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 7 p.m.
  • Where: Nyack Library, 59 S. Broadway
Richard Connolly in 1954 in Shanks Village, imitating Jackie Robinson, his favorite ballplayer.
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