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New Book: When Schenectady elected a Socialist mayor

New Book: When Schenectady elected a Socialist mayor

George Lunn, the subject of a new book, went from the pulpit to politics
New Book: When Schenectady elected a Socialist mayor
Photographer: FDR Presidential Library and Musuem

In photos above: George  Lunn, left, was lieutenant governor and Al Smith, far right, was the governor of  New York when the two men met with two other powerful Democrats, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and West Virginia’s John W. Davis, at FDR’s home in Hyde Park in August of 1924. Davis was the Democratic candidate for president that November, losing to incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Inset: Author Bill Buell and his new book, “George Lunn: The 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady."
 

The thousands of people who walk around Schenectady’s Central Park in the chill of fall, with the firey leaves swirling around, or in the heat of the summer, cooling off in the shade of the trees, have George Lunn to thank in-part for the experience. 

Lunn was first elected mayor of Schenectady in 1912 and was the only Socialist mayor the city has had to date. Among his many accomplishments, Lunn created the first free garbage pick up and instituted a health clinic. He also worked with General Electric engineer Charles Steinmetz to founded Central Park and worked to improve the local school system. 

In his latest book, “George Lunn: The 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady,” Bill Buell details Lunn’s journey, from his beginnings as a pastor at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady to his years running a newspaper known as The Citizen to his four terms as mayor and his years serving as a U.S. Congressman. Buell also weaves in vignettes on historical figures who advocated for improved working conditions for those employed by factories or who advocated for other causes. Some names, like Helen Keller, may sound familiar to readers, while others, like Bertha Sanford, might not. 

Buell, the Schenectady County historian, recently published “George Lunn” with The Troy Book Makers after years of researching Lunn’s life. A Burnt Hills native and Schenectady resident, Buell worked as a sports and features reporter for The Daily Gazette for more than 40 years. He also published “Historic Schenectady County: A Bicentennial History,” and is a longtime volunteer with the Schenectady County Historical Society. 

In the next few weeks, he’ll be discussing “George Lunn: The 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady” and signing copies at the First Reformed Church (7 p.m. Tue.),  Open Door Bookstore (noon - 1:30 p.m. Sun. Nov. 10) and the Schenectady County Historical Society (2 p.m. Sat. Nov. 16).

Here, Buell talks with the Gazette about the impetus behind the book, the challenges of putting it all together and why Lunn’s life story was meant to be written about: 
 
Q: Why George Lunn? What made you want to write a book on him?
A: I came across a photo of him in an old Larry Hart book and he just looked like an interesting individual. The more I looked into him, the more fascinating and more likable he became. I was amazed at how I had never heard of this guy before, and how he had been sort of forgotten in Schenectady history. I thought someone should write a book about him, so why not me.
 
Q: When did you first start working on "George Lunn: The 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady"?
A: This is embarrassing. I started back in 2010 after I got done with my book on Schenectady County. I would spend some time working on it, then not do anything for three or four months. It took way to long, but I enjoyed casually doing the research and writing and then getting away from it for a while.
 
Q: Where did Lunn's progressive beliefs stem from?
A: I think most of us are predisposed to feel a certain way, and Lunn certainly had a liberal bent to his thinking. You could say he was influenced by going to Union Theological Seminary, a very liberal place, but he was already well on that path before he got there.
 
Q: Why did he switch to the Democratic party in 1916?
A: He found the Socialist local in Schenectady too rigid and dogmatic, and he felt the same way about the State Socialist Party. He wanted to appoint the best people possible to work in his administration, not just Socialists. That was the key issue that got him into trouble with the party, so becoming a Democrat seemed a natural fit for him because that party seemed to embrace the liberal label at that time more than the Republicans.

Q: Can you tell me about why Lunn started The Citizen and what he often reported on? 
A: Newspapers were clearly partisan during that time period and used as propaganda tools for political parties. He often wrote about what he saw as political corruption in the city and throughout New York.

Q: Throughout the book, you include vignettes about people who were in some ways tangentially involved in Lunn's life, but had some incredible stories of their own, like Bertha Sanford. What made you want to include historical figures like Sanford? 
A: One of the enjoyable things about researching this book was discovering all these wonderful characters that crossed Lunn's path. They were very important in his life, and the Bertha Sanford story is just one fascinating tangent in Lunn's life. There are many others, such as Walter Lippman and Helen Keller.

Q: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
A: The writing. Heading off to a library or the internet to do research was always a lot of fun, but just sitting down and finding the emotional energy to sit there and do the actual work of writing - which was what I was already doing five days a week at the Gazette - was hard. 
 
Q: Do you see Lunn's character or perspectives echoed in any politician or activist today?
A: Tough question. I'm sure there are activists and a few politicians that are just as passionate about improving the quality of life as Lunn was 100 years ago. But this is not a political book. It's a history of what happened in Schenectady and the Mohawk Valley in 1912. However, if someone reads it and maybe concludes that socialism isn't necessarily an evil word, that would be okay.
 
Q: What are some of Lunn's accomplishments that impressed you the most?
A: He tried to improve the quality of life for the thousands of immigrants that were flooding to the area to work at places like General Electric and the American Locomotive Company. Toward that end, he created Central Park, new schools, free garbage pickup, health clinics, municipal grocery stores. 

For more information about the book visit shoptbmbooks.com

‘George Lunn: The 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady’

WHAT: A presentation and book signing by BIll Buell
WHERE: First Reformed Church, 8 North Church St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: Visit www.1streformed.com

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