After reading Donald Sayles obituary in the Gazette earlier this week, I came to the conclusion that he just had to be a great guy. Then I looked a little bit closer, chatted with a few people, and found out I was right.
Of course, I already knew something of the man, a long-time assistant superintendent in the Schenectady City School District who died earlier this month at the age of 97. I had lunch with his son, Doug, a few times, and interviewed his other son, filmmaker John Sayles, on two occasions. I knew his wife, and while Mary Sayles wasn’t one of my teachers at Pashley Elementary School in the BH-BL district, I remember she was very popular among many of my friends who were in her class. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, a classmate of mine, had Mrs. Sayles for the fifth grade and told me earlier this week, “I loved her. My favorite teacher ever.” Mary passed away in 2011.
So, when I chatted with two long-time Schenectady City School District officials and asked them about Sayles, they confirmed what I thought I knew. Sayles was something special.
But before I share what Jesse Robinson and Ray Colucciello said about Sayles, let me tell you a little something more about the man.
He was born in Oneida in central New York, grew up in the Woodlawn area of Schenectady and graduated from Mont Pleasant High School in 1941. Before he could finish up his college education at the University at Albany, Sayles spent more than two years as a member of the U.S. Army Military Police in Italy and North Africa.
When he returned to the U.S. after the war, Sayles finished up at UAlbany and went on to get his masters there and a doctorate in education from Columbia University. He taught at Willsboro near Lake Champlain for two years and then returned home in 1950 and began teaching math and science at Nott Terrace High School.
Within four years he was named assistant principal at Mont Pleasant High School and eventually became principal. For the final 16 years of a 30-year career in education he was the assistant superintendent, working closely with Chuck Abba to make sure children in the city got the best education possible.
“He and Chuck Abba hired me away from Scotia to open up Woodlawn [Elementary School] in 1972,” said Colucciello, who also went on to a long career in school administration, including serving as interim superintendent for nine different districts in the Capital Region. “Don loved being involved in new ideas, and he brought a lot of them to our school district. He was a forward-looking guy, a really intelligent guy and a writer par excellence. He wrote and wrote and wrote. We used to joke that two months after he retired, his secretary was still typing in his material.”
Colucciello said Sayles could have sent his two boys to a suburban school, but opted to keep them in the Schenectady district.
“They were both good athletes, and they could have gone to a suburban school but he wanted them to be a part of an urban setting,” said Colucciello. “Diversity was something he always embraced. Don’s blood ran through the city school district, and he wanted all of the children to get the best opportunities and the best education possible. He wanted our kids to have every opportunity that the suburban kids had.”
Sayles’ desire for diversity was something Jesse Robinson learned first hand when Sayles hired him in 1966 to teach at Lincoln Elementary School.
“I had my first job interview with him, he hired me and we ended up becoming good friends, going skiing and snowmobiling,” said Robinson, one of the first black teachers in the city school district. “He was a real down-to-earth kind of guy, and didn’t do anything for political reasons. He made decisions for the right reasons. He never felt pressure from the outside. He was a super guy.”
Don Sayles will be buried at the Solomon National Cemetery in a private ceremony. I never met him, but I read some of his writings – his letters to the editor and a few history columns he put together for former county historian and Gazette newsman Larry Hart – and I can say strongly that I felt like I knew him, and liked him, very much.
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