A gift of friendship: The life of Cummington native Bill Streeter is captured in a new book

Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

He tells it in jest, but there is a slightly serious undertone when William “Bill” Streeter, 85, tells you that he is the reincarnation of one of Napoleon’s foot soldiers who was beaten and kicked and then left to freeze to death on the Grand Army’s retreat from Moscow in 1812. Whatever the case, the farmer-turned-historian and bookman rather looks the part of the “old soldier” on this cold and wet late autumn day.

He’s sitting in the lobby of the Rockridge Retirement Community in Northampton where he and his wife, Elaine, have been residents since 2012; he’s dressed in an olive-drab wool jacket and matching gabardine hat sparkling with raindrops. He’s clutching his cane and looking somewhat pale and — if it weren’t for the signature Bill Streeter sparkle in the eye and the gleam from the buckteeth when he howls with laughter — you’d want to say weary from a full morning spent up at the Kingman Tavern Museum in Cummington, of which he was a principle founder, with his friend, bookseller and documentary filmmaker John Riley.

Now he is waiting for another event that will prove to be full of emotion. Reina Schratter is due to come by with a posthumous gift from her late father, Paul Schratter. Streeter has heard it will be a piece of “pottery” but he’s not sure.

Streeter and Schratter met in 2011 at Rockridge at ages 81 and 89, respectively, and immediately recognized in the other a kindred spirit and a remarkable life story. They soon developed what wise geriatricians will tell you is quite a rare thing in a retirement home, a lively “intellectual friendship,” as Reina Schratter describes it. Shortly before his death Sept. 23, Schratter, a prolific though never-published writer, completed his biography of Streeter, “My Friend Bill: The Life of a Restless Yankee.” The book is published by Levellers Press in Amherst. There will be a book signing Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., at Rockridge.

Up and at ’em

Schratter, Austrian born and a Holocaust survivor, was a retired corporate executive, voracious reader (had been reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince” the day he died, his daughter says), amateur poet, furniture maker, sculptor and — with his late wife, Marlis, an accomplished potter — an avid traveler. His extensive travel writing reflected the couple’s shared passion for anthropology.

His biography of Streeter is full of finely observed detail warmed by a keen intelligence and sincere, unsentimental admiration for the life of someone who, perhaps, like no other contemporary, so richly represents history both lived and studied, the culture both high and low, and the flinty character that is the hallmark of the rough but bucolic Berkshire hills.

And the thing about Streeter, as much as he is steeped in history, his view remains forward, which explains his being “up and at ’em” at the crack of dawn this morning to go with Riley, who is in the process of filming a documentary on the material history of Cummington. Streeter, who spearheaded the founding of Kingman Tavern Museum and assembled most of the collection, has happily agreed to offer on-camera capsule explanations of some of the collection’s 5,000 items. Many of the accessions belonged to the Streeter family, of whom Bill is the sixth generation in Cummington (10th generation in America), and many of them bear Bill’s handprints.

An epic life

It is a bit of a joke among family and friends that Streeter has been on death’s door for at least a decade, and he is quite open about it. He is very seriously ill. But the joke is on death. Streeter says he has every intention of reviewing each and every one of the 5,000 archived items in the museum before he is done. He’s had his funeral notice designed and — but for the date — had it set in print, but he has no immediate plans for its being needed.

If not exactly Napoleonic in scope, still there is an epic sweep to the life of Bill Streeter, beginning with the congenital dyslexia that led to his early acting out as a “screwball,” a “hellion” and a drop-out from Smith Vocational High School in Northampton at 15. He went back to work on the family’s dairy — he calls it “dirt” — farm.

He would scratch out a living running the Cummington General Store, as a psychiatric aide followed by cook at the VA Medical Center in Leeds, and as owner for 10 years of Harlow Luggage in Northampton before segueing into his last, long chapter as proprietor of the Silver Maple Bindery on Masonic Street, also in Northampton, teacher of bookbinding, local historian and author or co-author of four very substantial books. These include (with Helen Foster) the two-volume history of his hometown, “Only One Cummington”; (with Daphne H. Morris) “Cummington Vital Records,” complete with essays, engravings and poetry; and (with Barbara J. Rhodes) a groundbreaking, gorgeously illustrated tome, “Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying 1780-1938,” considered by the Smithsonian Institution a groundbreaking work on the topic.

One moral of his life story might be never to underestimate how powerful is the energy and aspiration that may be generated from starting your conscious waking life with an attitude summed up, as Streeter puts it in his characteristic Hilltown drawl, as “I’ll show them bastards.”

A meeting of the minds

Streeter says he and Schratter came from “planets apart,” but it was, as Reina Schratter puts it, a “meeting of the minds” from the moment the two became acquainted at a history course Streeter was leading at Rockridge.

Schratter was born in Vienna, Austria, and was 16 in 1938, at the time of the Anschluss, when the Nazi’s invaded his country. His father, Emil, a widower, managed to get his only child on the list for the immigration to the United States. The lad was taken in by a sponsor family in Baltimore. The older Schratter never made it out and died in a concentration camp, as did many of the extended family, some branches of which (although not her father’s, notes Reina) were prominent in textiles enterprises confiscated by the Nazis.

He served in the U.S. Army and was deployed in various places, including Normandy, serving as a translator in interviews with German POWs. He went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, majoring in textile design, then to the Maryland College of Art. He pursued further studies later at Suffolk University in Boston. He had a successful, half-century-long career in marketing, first at General Electric’s fuel cell division, then at a company called Amicon, since bought by W.R. Graves and specializing in medical filtration devices.

Schratter reports in his life story of Streeter that the Cummington man will have “AUTODIDACT” chiseled on his gravestone. Perhaps it took one to know one.

“To liven the class up, I got to calling on Paul,” Streeter said. “We became closer friends. We stayed after class. One thing led to another. We had a common interest in history, including old history, the Greeks, the Romans, Dante, the Divine Comedy, all the way up,” up to an including their own packed histories, and philosophies.

“[Schratter] saw I had an intellectual side, and he nurtured it and brought it out. He made it glow,” Streeter says. “We also had the same instincts ... to better society, leave it better than we found it. He said I had a liberal leaning.”

Their conversations occasionally would “go deep” into religion. Schratter was a proclaimed atheist, Streeter said. “But I think I got him hedging.”

The bond that grew between the two men “is a pretty rare thing around here,” according to Julie Wysk, the director of programs at Rockridge, who also happens to be Bill and Elaine Streeter’s daughter. “As people age, it gets harder and harder to make close connections. They can’t hear, they can’t see, they’re tired, they don’t feel well. It’s hard to become friends here. It’s the most challenging part of my job to facilitate the making of friendships.

No facilitation was needed in the case of her father and Schratter, she says. The latter had a remarkable gift for it.

“Everybody loved Paul,” Wysk said. “You would think they would be intimidated by him, he was so knowledgeable on every conceivable topic. But the minute they started a conversation with him, it all diminished. He was such a humble man, and easy to talk to, with no airs.”

Reina Schratter has now arrived carrying a parcel which Streeter unwraps right there in the Rockridge lobby even while some of the other residents are looking a little glazed-eyed up at “Judge Judy” on the TV screen. .

Streeter carefully unwraps the heavy parcel while Reina and her husband, Rufus Zogbaum, look on. Not a piece of pottery, but an abstract sculpture emerges, and Streeter throws himself back, speechless. The sparkle in his eye is now a tear.

The piece has been chiseled from a block of luminous alabaster. Darkish pink veins worming in the glowing depths suggest to Streeter Michelangelo’s “David” in the Vatican. Polished curves suggest a wave, or ancient scroll of writing. In the hollows, Schratter has chipped out rough textured triangles. A rounded bottom allows you to turn the piece 360 degrees with the touch of a finger.

“So many facets,” Streeter says, spinning it. “I will call it ‘Friendship.’ ”

There will be a book launch reception for “My Friend Bill: The Life of a Restless Yankee” Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., at Rockridge Retirement Community at 25-37 Coles Meadow Road in Northampton. For information, call 586-2902.


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