Orange County Historian Ted Sly retires after 24 years

| 22 Feb 2012 | 05:33

Goshen — “He’s irreplaceable.” That’s what Ted Sly’s secretary, Lorraine Hom, had to say about her longtime boss, who is retiring as Orange County historian. Her sentiment is shared by many. “It’s time,” Sly said. “I taught 32 years at Minisink and have been the Orange County historian for 24 years, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” Shock and sadness registered as the news of Sly’s impending retirement spread. Everyone interviewed for this article talked about his love of history, his geniality and hospitality, and his willingness to share his knowledge. When Sly first took over the historian’s office, it possessed only six books on local history. Today, thanks to his efforts, more than 1,000 local history titles, and some 4,000 books on every historical subject of interest to county residents. Members of the public may view any of the office’s 1,000 videos of local events — many of which have been converted to DVD — which can be found there. Local newspapers, including more than 100 years of the Goshen Independent Republican, are on microfilm. Information on historic houses, churches, businesses and industries are available, along with histories on African-American and Native American residents through the years. An abundance of old maps and ephemera complete the collection. These treasures are for everyone’s use: student, teacher, researcher, historian — and anyone else interested in knowing more about the place they call home. He has made the collection more accessible by putting much of in into digital form. His staff — which also includes Linda Vasapoli, Grace Motola, Pat Weber and Charlie Lewis — knew for a couple of weeks but kept it to themselves, considerate of Sly’s reluctance to have any kind of fuss made about him. “When I took that job I didn’t know there was so much history,” said Lorraine Hom, who is also the Village of Chester historian. “He had opened up the whole county. He has involved other historians in being active and sharing information and it’s just wonderful.” Teaching children is one of Sly’s delights. “He visited every fourth-grade class in Orange County in the spring and in the fall with 45-minute programs with slides or a timeline,” Hom said. Sly urged officials in each town and village to establish their own historian. He assisted many local historians with research and helped them get county grants. He inspired his staff with his love of history. “Mr. Sly was aces at his job,” said Grace Motola, one of his researchers. “He’s a very gentle person ... I’m really going to miss him.” Charlie Lewis helps with just about everything, including converting old newspaper articles into digital form. “He was the nicest gentlemen I ever met and I only knew him about three years,” Lewis said. “He was very easygoing. Anybody who came in, he treated them with a smile, gave them a cup of coffee and helped them.” And he likes a strong brew. Researcher Pat Weber said that when Sly comes to the office in the morning, “he puts his slippers on and puts his sweater on. He makes his 'army’ coffee and that starts our day. He always has cookies hidden someplace. You take your life in your hands when you drink his coffee. You have to have an insurance policy to drink his coffee. “I never worked for anybody as nice as him. Going to work every morning was like going home — it was so comfortable.” Oddities and regrets What are some of the more unusual parts of the county’s collection? “There was a fellow in Warwick who had two real cannonballs he found while digging a cesspool,” Sly said. “He kept one and brought the other here. For a while, I was using it as a sort of footrest. I called West Point about it for information and they asked me if it had two or three holes. I told them it had two holes. Sometime later two army fellows from Maryland came up and asked to examine it. They looked at the holes and said if there had been powder in them, I could have gone to my reward sooner rather than later.” Sly’s biggest regret was being unable to better popularize the “Orange County Song,” written by Tim Selear of Pine Bush. He’d love to have schoolchildren learn it. Sly had high praise for his “team” and talked about how much he depended on them. He’s also grateful to all the county executives he has worked with, going back to Lou Heimbach. He said the current executive, Ed Diana, “has not cut the budget for the historian’s office during the last two years, despite difficult economic times.” Some are worried about the historian’s office’s future. Three of the staff members are in jeopardy of losing their time-limited jobs unless they can get extensions from the agency that placed them there. Staff member Linda Vasapoli summed up the staff’s feelings: “I’m going to miss him terribly. He’s a gentle soul and he knows his stuff and that’s the God’s honest truth. I realize how important this office is to historians. It’s a pleasure to work for him. It’s going to be difficult to go in Monday morning and him not being there. “I just wish him happiness and good health.” Tributes to Ted “Ted Sly’s greatest legacy to our county is the creation of an extensive audio-video library of oral history. For many years, Ted videotaped interviews of hundreds of ordinary Orange County citizens who had done extraordinary things in their lives. And with his video camera he also captured for posterity hundreds of important county events including parades, community picnics, dedications, award ceremonies and public lectures. He was Orange County’s oral historian par excellence! As a result, we have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the human dimensions of our rich past. Dr. Richard Hull Warwick Town Historian “Yes, indeed, it was a shock to hear earlier today that Friday will be Ted’s last day as Orange County Historian! “Ted has been such an enthusiastic promoter of Orange County and our storied history; such a wonderfully generous man to work with; such a team builder that his leaving the Orange Historian’s office is a shock to all that have had the privilege knowing him! In the roughly two decades that he has been Orange County historian, he has assembled a great group of people at that County Historian’s office and engendered them with his enthusiasm to do good. He is such a tremendous asset to Orange County.” Clifton Patrick Town of Chester Historian “History is an important thing, because it is what the future is based on. If you don’t have memory of the past then you don’t have a future. Mr. Sly was aces at his job. He’s a very gentle person. He also loved teaching the children. I’m really going to miss him.” Grace Motola Orange County Historian’s Office employee

1841 Courthouse:
A fitting place for history
Ted Sly loves the 1841 Courthouse, where the historian’s office is located. The Greek revival building, designed by architect Thornton Niven, was the scene of many court cases, and even a few hangings. Its high tin-ceilinged rooms and the very history in its walls are conducive to quiet study and research.
Its special place in Civil War history is documented in a display inside.
“You know, the troops [the Orange Blossoms] left for the Civil War from the steps of this courthouse,” Sly said.
Sly’s own great-grandfather, Lt. Norman Sly, fought in that war, in the Battle of the Wilderness.
Movie companies have on three occasions considered using the courthouse in their productions.