Before the sun rises, the balloons loft majestically through an eerie silence that is broken only by the occasional roar of a propane jet.
There is little light, and colors are hard to distinguish among the low-slung clouds. As the sun’s rays tentatively seep into the panorama, everything appears a monochromatic burnished gold.
A big poster in a gilded frame that hangs in my home enhances my memory of the very first Adirondack Hot Air Balloon Festival in 1973, which evolved into an annual rite of autumn in Warren County. The poster is not from the first festival, however, but from more than 20 years later, a memento from the founders and guiding lights of the balloon festival, Walter and Joan Grishkot.
I thought about that scene as we drove north on Saturday to say goodbye to Walter and visit with Joan. Walter died on Wednesday at the age of 85. Joan, who was at his side, said he had been ill only two months.
Along with scores of other friends and neighbors, we stood under umbrellas outside the funeral home as the line of mourners inched its way into the building and past the coffin and then back out.
Just outside the door, a hot air balloon gondola was sitting, and there was another just inside, which we thought was appropriate. Had it not been raining, there might have been an actual hot air balloon inflated and ready to lift off.
As we waited outside, we told stories about Walter’s exploits, which were countless and legendary.
His career began when he was an enterprising kid and he took photos of houses on Long Island, enlarged them and then sold them to the homeowners.
He was a Navy photographer during World War II and later worked as a contributor to United Press International and as a correspondent with camera for Capital Region TV stations. He also worked in tourism promotion for Warren County and for tourist attractions in the Adirondack region.
It was Walt Grishkot, for example, who resurrected the Lake George monster — “George,” a not-very-scary wooden sea serpent whose origins dated to an early 20th century prank between two lakeside residents. It was also he who promoted two separate Warren County firs as the nation’s Christmas trees, he who captured a photo of a big trout jumping upstream and sold it to Outdoor Life in 1962. (The picture in later years was on display in Grand Central Station).
He also took iconic photos of the Kennedys — Bobby and Ethel — when they visited the White Water Derby at North Creek, and promoted the political candidacies of people he liked, like U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell, R-NY.
But, Grishkot will be remembered most for the balloon festival, which draws thousands of visitors and their dollars to Warren County every year. That was the original idea — to find a way to bring in tourists during the off season.
He couldn’t do it alone, though, and relied heavily on Joan for the administrative know-how it takes to run an operation like the balloon festival. Walt summed up Joan’s abilities quite simply. “She’s smart,” he’d say with no small amount of pride.
Joan Grishkot, who is retired, was for many years the director of Warren County’s public health operations. She told us at the funeral home on Saturday that she and Walt had an amazing partnership, and that was evident to all who knew them.
My own memories of Walter won’t center on the balloon festival. I’ll remember him for his great story ideas which he brought to me when I was a reporter, and for his incredible ability to tell jokes, countless jokes, one after the other. I’ll remember him for his generous spirit and his childlike exuberance over causes he supported.
His photography tended to take a back seat to the balloon festival once it became a year-round commitment for him, but he still found time for the occasional promotional shot.
There was, for example, the picture of the balloonist climbing down from his gondola to an outhouse below. Now that was vintage Grishkot.
Irv Dean is the Gazette's city editor. Reach him by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.