They are rarely in the spotlight, but Chautauquans Bob and Carole Reeder have made significant contributions to the Institution and the Chautauqua community for more than two decades. Still spry in their 80s, the Reeders are the ones in most groups whose hands shoot up when volunteers are requested. We talked in their porch/family room at their home in the Highlands district of the Institution.
How many summer student kids are living in your house now?
Carole: There are two. Lorenzo is our opera son. He’s not really living with us, but the dorms are so hot that he just kind of arrived two or three weeks ago. His boyfriend came from New Jersey, and Lorenzo asked if the boyfriend, Joseph, could stay. I [asked if] they both want to stay, and so they did. Now Joseph has gone back, but Lorenzo has his own bedroom with us. We leave the door unlocked and he comes in when he comes in at night. He has breakfast and leaves. He does his laundry here.
Chiara was the CLSC writing scholarship winner last year. She’s from Jamestown High School, won the award and was on the grounds for a week in 2015. Now her mother says Bob and I have opened up the world to her. She never had a cellphone, may have never left home without her parents; seriously overprotected. She was going to attend Jamestown Community College next year, but now she will attend Niagara University. She has attended everything this year. She’s also working as a junior hostess at the [Chautauqua] Women’s Club this summer.
That’s it for the moment. Our grandson and his friend have visited on and off. In the basement, we have a two-bedroom apartment and it is rented by someone who works in the Colonnade. Her family members may stay with us if they visit.
Carole, tell me about yourself.
Carole: I come from Syracuse. We both did. We were high school sweethearts. In fact, the week in January when I started in high school, one of my friends fixed us up. We knew each other, were part of a group of kids that hung around together. I was 13 and he was 15 when we started going out together. We’ve been pretty much together ever since. I went to Bob’s 16th birthday party, and that was the first time he kissed me. We were pretty slow in those days, what can I tell you?
Bob: We got married when we were in college. I went to Cornell, started out in 1951. After three years, I left Cornell to go to [Syracuse University College of Law]. Carole was at Cornell, but we found a way that she could continue her teaching studies at Syracuse so we could be together. When I was at Cornell and she was still in Syracuse, I would hitchhike home almost every weekend to see her.
Carole: We’d give my brother a quarter so we could be alone.
Bob: I washed dishes and waited on tables to pay my way through Cornell. I picked up rocks on the golf course for 50 cents an hour. I got scholarships to make up the rest. We got married in 1955, in my second year of law school.
Carole: You couldn’t live together in those days. You had to get married. His grades went up right away.
Bob: I did do well, made law review. I got a good job at a Binghamton [New York] law firm. We moved to Binghamton in 1957.
Carole, you were done by this time with your teaching degree?
Carole: Yeah. The last six months he was in law school, I got a teaching job. We were on easy street. We put half of every other salary in the bank. Our rent was $50 per month.
Bob: As a lawyer, I made $60 per week, and she made a good salary. We felt like we were set. Binghamton was a nice place to live, laid back, nobody locked their doors. People were friendly. Practicing law was friendly. Judges were on a first-name basis with lawyers off the bench. It was very polite.
Carole: You were on a first-name basis with everybody.
Bob: Everyone else in the firm was ‘Mr. this, Mr. that.’ I’d walk in and the girls would say, ‘Bob…’
Were the judges elected?
Bob: They were elected. They were fine judges. In those days, the deal was that New York City’s dockets were so crowded that every upstate judge had to serve for a month each year in the New York City courts to help clear the backlog. The judges would come back from the city and they were accustomed to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In New York City, they were told that the judges there only worked from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Our judges from upstate would help clear the backlogs.
OK, now you were set financially in Binghamton. Did you start thinking about a family?
Carole: We did. We couldn’t have kids. There was no in vitro [fertilization] or anything like that. We consulted specialists. Nothing happened. So we adopted our first son. When he was about 18 months old, we conceived our second son. Later, we wanted a daughter so we adopted a baby girl. Adoption was much easier in those days.
Tell me about the three kids.
Bob: Raising our kids, we emphasized that they should be kind, compassionate, warm and understanding. Nonetheless, two of the three turned out to be straight.
Carole: Our oldest boy, John, is gay. It seems like most of the couples in our respective families had a gay child; I say we had to adopt one to keep up. When Bob had heart bypass surgery at age 45, our son got curious about his own health history. He found that his mother, who gave birth to him in college, had passed away. His dad later died of a brain tumor. He is close now to relatives from his birth family, which has many unhappy health histories among those relatives.
Bob: Our son John lives in Amsterdam. He is a musician, plays the bassoon. He picks up gigs where and when they come up. He was first bassoon with the Hong Kong symphony, but got fired when the British ceded control to the Chinese nearly 20 years ago. In Amsterdam, John also translates books from Dutch to English.
Carole: Our second son is a landscape architect. He always loved the outdoors. He lives in Syracuse, married to another landscape architect. They have four sons. They have all grown up in Chautauqua in the summers. He is a passionate advocate for the environment and is deeply involved in and engaged with his local community. He has redone our lawn a couple of times.
Bob: He only put in perennials. All I have to do is water them.
Carole: Our daughter, also adopted, lives in Atlanta. She went to the University of Georgia and kind of stayed there where her friends are. Bob suggested that she try to be a court reporter, and she is one now, part-time. While in court reporter school, she worked at Crate and Barrel, and now is a full-time employee there, with benefits. She works seven days a week most weeks, it seems. She was married [but her husband died] six years ago. She has close friends and her dog. That seems to be enough for now.
You were a schoolteacher.
Carole: I taught special [education]. I didn’t teach for the years when our kids were growing up. I had done all the volunteer things, president of all the organizations, you know, PTA and so forth, so when my daughter turned 6, I looked around. We heard they were going to start a master’s program in special [education]. I was already teaching some in a program for emotionally disturbed kids, so I took my master’s in one year.
Bob: She taught during the day, took the master’s at night and we took care of the house.
Carole: My classes were at 4 or 7 [p.m.] If they were at 4 [p.m.], we’d eat after class. If they were at 7 [p.m.], I’d have everything prepared and we’d eat after I got home.
Bob, your law career?
Bob: I started in 1958, after I did a six-month stint in the Army. I got into trial work and I loved it. I was a trial lawyer for my entire career, civil litigation. This was at a time when civil litigation was civil. I loved it, though it was very demanding and I was on the road a lot at times. I drove all around central New York state trying cases until 1979, when I had a double bypass. I decided to retire as soon as I could because of my health. I did finally retire in 1991 and had a second bypass in 1995, to tune up the first one. Now my arteries are open.
Carole: He takes rapeseed, to keep them open.
Bob: In my legal career, I never did plaintiffs work. I would represent insurance companies, and IBM and lots of corporations with wrongful death cases, building failures. I learned a lot about engineering so we could help the jury understand what the issues were. I handled about 4,000 cases, tried about 300 in front of a jury. We just got things done in the law business. It was civil and collegial. It’s cutthroat now. But I’ll tell you this: When I retired after the bypass concerns, I was the first one in the firm doing my kind of work who walked out alive.
We moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and had a home there for 20 years. But we came here to Chautauqua for a week or two before I retired. We started to stay for longer periods, renting a house on Pratt. In 1994, when they opened this Highlands area, we bought a lot. We found a Westfield builder who built this modular house the next year.
You have fostered many children.
Bob: Yes, Carole has always loved children. In the 1960s we began adopting.
Bob: Right, fostering, makes no difference to me. When our kids were young, we fostered older kids. When our kids grew up more, we fostered younger kids. We didn’t want any age-related rivalries. We have fostered [more than] 40 kids, altogether. We were the go-to foster parents when there was abuse or neglect or we were needed.
Carole: We had a couple of kids stay for a couple of years, but mostly it was short-term. We’d get calls on a Friday. ‘Can you take so and so?’ If we could, we’d accommodate them. I have tried to get fostering started at Chautauqua. I think middle-class families and above should give these foster kids a chance to see a different life than what they are accustomed to. I remember one girl came to us and said, ‘Wow, you have carpets on your stairs. My mom would really like that.’
We’d buy clothes for some who needed them. The girls always wanted a dress and Mary Jane shoes. And the kids all wanted a lunchbox. They wanted to appear like they could bring their lunch and not have to get the free lunch offered by the school. Now the schools have worked this out, so nobody is different.
Where did this spirit in you come from?
Bob: Well, we were camp counselors when we were younger. We love kids. I guess it just kind of happened. When I was 13, we went to what used to be called the Community Chest, the Red Feather. Remember that? We went to this camp outside Syracuse. The director there was the most profound influence on my life. He was a school principal from New York City. He taught me generosity and giving back.
Tell me some highlights of your volunteer service at Chautauqua.
Bob: We started PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) here [more than] 20 years ago. I had been on the national board of PFLAG. Carole had worked for them regionally. Carole had been secretary of the Chautauqua Women’s Club, and I used to power-wash the exterior of their clubhouse every spring.
Carole: I met so many of my friends at the Women’s Club. With greater acceptance now there isn’t so much need for PFLAG, but we met a lot of people through that activity, too. We have been involved in the fight against autism, arising from issues involving some of our foster children over the years.
When we got here, we joined the volunteer organization. We had a kiosk at the top of the brick walk, to help visitors. The group languished, but we revived the organization about five years ago. … Remember the ticket lines along the brick walk on Bestor Plaza, when people would queue up for ticket lines for the 4 [p.m.] performances? We had volunteers who walked up and down, answering questions for newcomers.
We have helped out with Road Scholar; Bob has been a guide on the tour guide buses around the grounds. We worked in the new Visitors Center. I help organize the monthly offseason community dinners.
Bob: About eight years ago, we started a program that now has about 30 volunteers. We are available to drive people back to Chautauqua after they have been hospitalized in Westfield or Jamestown while they are visiting here. We discovered this was a real need and we’re still doing it today.
What was the last selfish thing you did?
Carole: I don’t know. That’s a tough one.
Bob: We don’t think much about what we can do for ourselves. We make a living by what we receive. We make a life by what we give.