Sue McLean had to shout over the borrowed tour bus’s roaring air conditioning Sunday afternoon.
The bus rolled slowly along Vale Cemetery’s walking paths, McLean at the front in heavy Victorian garb, about 25 riders in the back and the air conditioning losing its battle with the summer sun.
“When I was in school,” she said, “I had the worst history teacher. I mean, he was the worst. All he talked about was war. It was so boring.”
Each spring McLean — known as the Victorian Lady — leads a tour through the 100-acre cemetery, stopping at about a dozen of the 33,000 headstones to highlight the lives of Schenectady’s pioneering women.
Gripping the bus’s standing-room handles, she explained that her love of history grew from the study of real women who lived real lives and pushed the boundaries of convention with “daily bravery.”
Her tour started off with a woman named Jane Yates, currently residing with a bunch of other Yateses in an overgrown chain-link section of ground in the lower cemetery.
Jane’s husband died, leaving her with four sons and little else. Her brother-in-law wanted to take the kids and put them to work on his farm. “But she had her sights set higher,” McLean said. “She said ‘no,’ which was a very big deal in the 18th century.”
The sons turned out to be professors, mayors and the like, contributing to the growth and culture of Schenectady. Her son Joseph Yates is know today as the only New York governor to come from Schenectady
“Here’s to you, Jane,” she said.
Between stops, the group piled back into the bus, chatting amongst themselves. Most were curious locals, like Arlene DeSiena who lived in the area for most of her life without visiting the cemetery.
“I’ve driven past many times,” she said. “I had no idea it was so big.”
Another local woman, Susan Duchnycz, of Scotia came because she saw Ryan Gosling race through the cemetery on a dirt bike in the movie “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
“Plus it’s just a beautiful day,” she said.
A few others had a pretty good idea of what they were looking to see. Hobby historians Mike Keller and his sister Linda Miller from Gloversville and Johnstown followed an ad to the event.
“We’ve done a lot of reading on Sir William Johnson,” Miller said.
“We heard his son John Johnson’s mistress is buried here,” Keller chimed in, “We’re here to see if he had more than one, or if it’s just Clarissa Putman.”
It was just Putman.
McLean spoke about many local women. Putman ended her days as a seamstress in Schenectady after Johnson married. Another was Amalia Schoppe, an author of German children’s books who supported her four children through the use of clever pen names and emigrated later in life to end up under a tilting headstone well off the Vale path.
As the tour moved from the oldest part of the cemetery, built purposefully around ponds and hills to ease grieving hearts, to the slightly newer, flatter sections, McLean found her way to an unassuming stone.
It read Mary J. Haver, a name attached to no long story.
“I’ve had a hard time finding out much about her,” McLean said, “but she was my great-great-grandmother. I’ll be right here, next to her eventually — hopefully not too soon.”
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