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Civil War talk to focus on role of church members

Civil War talk to focus on role of church members

After selling cars for 26 years, Rob Dickson has moved on to selling history. A former salesman for
Civil War talk to focus on role of church members
Civil War historian Rob Dickson sits in a pew at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. Dickson will give a talk on Sunday about the role of church members in the Civil War.
Photographer: Bill Buell

After selling cars for 26 years, Rob Dickson has moved on to selling history.

A former salesman for Morris Ford in Burnt Hills, Dickson will be speaking on the Civil War next Sunday at 11:10 a.m. at Poling Chapel inside the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. The talk is part of a series of presentations celebrating the church’s history in Schenectady.

Dickson, who lives in Clifton Park, has long been interested in history and only recently has his focus shifted to the Civil War. His talk, titled “It Touched Every Hearth,” will address the role played by Schenectady’s First Reformed Church and some of its members during the tragic years of 1861-1865.

Dickson was born in Boston and spent much of his youth in eastern Massachusetts. He first came to the Capital Region when he began attending Union College in the mid 1960s. He met his wife, Karen, in the area, but soon after getting married the couple moved to Connecticut, where Dickson worked in the automobile parts business.

In 1985, with two sons in tow, the family moved back to the area, to Glenville, where Dickson began his career as a car salesman.

‘It Touched Every Hearth’

WHAT: A Heritage Day presentation on the Civil War by Rob Dickson

WHEN: 11:10 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 2

WHERE: Poling Chapel, First Reformed Church, 8 N. Church St., Schenectady


MORE INFO: 377-2201, www.1streformed.com

Dickson, who still works part time at Morris Ford, and his wife became members of the First Reformed Church in 1999. His talk is the third in a series of lectures there, which include a presentation by Robert W. Arnold III, an adjunct history professor at The College of Saint Rose, at 11:10 this morning, titled “Let Loose the Dogs of War: New York’s Civil War at Home.”

Q: When did you get interested in the Civil War?

A: I’ve always been interested in history, but it’s almost like I avoided the Civil War because so many people seemed consumed by it. Recently, though, I’ve begun to understand why, so I’m no longer avoiding it.

My wife and I went to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg last summer and it was a wonderful zoo. It was utter chaos, so many people, but it was surprising how well-organized the chaos was. It was an astounding experience. My wife and I first went there back in the 1980s, and we were struck then by the true ghosts that are there. It’s like you can see the soldiers coming out of the woods for Pickett’s charge, you can feel the sharpshooters at Devil’s Den. It’s an amazing place.

Q: What is “It Touched Every Hearth” going to focus on?

A: Bob Arnold is going to talk about New York State and Schenectady’s role in the Civil War, and I’m going to try to tighten the focus to the First Reformed itself. I want to bring across this sense of what an extraordinary time it was.

Roughly 660,000 soldiers died, so everybody knew somebody, and it was during this time that our church building burned to the ground. You have to wonder how these people carried on. I’m going to talk about three specific people that were members of our church at that time, stories that people now don’t generally know, and I’m going to talk about a few events and people that have been written about and people are familiar with.

Q: How are you researching your topics?

A: We have these comprehensive church records from our 200th, 250th and 300th anniversaries. We’re very lucky. We have those, and we have all this other church history, contiguous records dating back to the late 17th century, that I’ve been looking over with the help of [church archivist] Laura Linder. I’ve also gone to the public library, which has fabulous records about the Civil War regiments that came from Schenectady County.

Q: When did you and your wife become members of the First Reformed Church?

A: In February of 1999 I sold a car to John Bosman, a minister at the church, and he said, ‘hey, you gotta come to the church,’ and so we did. My wife and I had been looking around, half-heartedly I’m ashamed to say, and it took us six weeks to get to the First Reformed that first time. Once we got there we knew, and there were three reasons why. Number one, the place itself and the history associated with it.

Another thing was the church’s extraordinary commitment and dedication to serving the community. I think that’s the proper function of a church, and much of the time churches today are struggling and are doing all they can to keep their head above water. And number three, which is really the first reason, is the people there. Oh, my goodness, everyone was so warm and friendly. Everybody talks to everybody.

Q: What do you do when you’re not working or at church?

A: I’ve done four or five book reports for Books Sandwiched In at the county library and I’m quite an incessant Union Hockey fan. My wife and I got to quite a few games, even some on the road, so during the winter that takes up a lot of time. When Union got to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2012 down in Tampa Bay, my wife and I went. We haven’t been to every rink in the ECAC yet, but we’re working on it.

Q: Do you have another area of history you’re going to dig into?

A: My first interest was actually Colonial history, but I find any kind of history interesting. I mean people say, ‘you can’t make this stuff up,’ and that’s how I feel about it.

There are so many wonderful stories out there that are just not generally well-known. People have heard about Lewis and Clark, but there was a companion voyage on the high seas by America which didn’t really get going until the 1830s and didn’t end well. That would make a heck of a movie. I just got done reading a book about the Franco-Prussian War and the occupation of Paris. There are so many wonderful stories out there that people don’t spend that much time with. My taste is eclectic. I find almost any period in history astounding.

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