A Bit of the Past: Plattsburgh’s Champlain College

  • By Gordie Little

Chances are you’ve never heard the following college Alma Mater: “Sing to Champlain by the waters deep and blue. Dear Alma Mater, glorious and new. Midst winter’s snow and the summer’s sun so bright, proudly flies her banner blue and white.”

It hasn’t been performed in a commencement since 1953, but it certainly has not been forgotten.

For the former Champlain College with its campus circling what we now call the Old Base Oval in Plattsburgh, its whirlwind seven-year existence here had a considerable impact.

Alumni are passionate about their school and still harbor some regrets that it was supplanted by Plattsburgh Air Force Base after the last graduation ceremonies in 1953.

In a college handbook from that time, students are told, “Champlain College has a history which, however recent, is dynamic in itself and which is intertwined with some of the dramatic developments in the history of education in New York State.”

It all started in the spring of 1946 as an emergency college at the home of the old 26th Infantry and was designed to offer WWII veterans a place to obtain a good education under the GI bill. It was at first scheduled to close two years later, but was given not one, but two reprieves.

At first, Champlain College (not to be confused with a similarly-named school in Vermont or others in this country and in Cana-da) was part of ACUNY, the Associated Colleges of Upper New York.

The large number of veterans would have overwhelmed the existing colleges in New York had not the state legislature voted to incorporate ACUNY after the war. The new plan included Champlain College, along with Mohawk and Sampson Colleges and the Middletown Collegiate Center.

In a few years, ACUNY ceased to exist and Champlain College was assimilated into the SUNY system.

It began as a two-year college, training students in pre-engineering, business administration and liberal arts. Armed with their two-year certificates, students could then transfer to other institutions in order to finish their college degrees.

It was what many described as a “perfect” location for a college campus and, in time, began to offer four-year degrees in many disciplines.

There were many clubs, societies and musical groups on the campus, along with a variety of intercollegiate and intramural sports. Athletic teams were known as the “Blue Jays.” The newspaper was called The Champlainer, and the campus radio station was WRWS.

Alumni have had several reunions in various locations over the years. The reunions culminated when scores of former students converged on the Old Base Oval and at the Barracks Golf Course in 2000. By then, Plattsburgh Air Force Base had closed, just as Champlain College had done all those years before. The irony was not lost on those who returned for the gathering.

Many alumni are now in their 80s and no reunions have been scheduled since 2000. However, memories linger and they are al-ways willing to share their Plattsburgh experiences.

Sam Berliner III didn’t graduate from Champlain, but he has worked for many years to create and enhance a web site with photos, information and personal anecdotes before the word “blog” was even invented.

His site is called S. Berliner III’s Champlain College Page and may be accessed at http://home.att.net/~Berliner-Ultrasonics/champcol.html. It is jam-packed with fun memories for alumni and anyone interested in Champlain College trivia.

His home page says, “This school

is defunct! Do NOT apply for admission. Save yourself a lot of embarrassment.

Don’t even think of it, especially if you don’t even know the meaning of the word defunct.”

Napoleon “Nap” Light is a local music icon. One of ten Light children, he started a band while attending high school at the former MAI and has played with his own band and many others for the past 70 years. The trim, fit and talented octogenarian was scheduled to play a gig at an area nightspot just one day after we finished our SB interview.

He is also an avid golfer and shot his age when he was 83. Not to be outdone, he shot another 83 just a few days after his 85th birthday celebration. He was riding high when he came in from the golf course, sat down at his kitchen table and spread out his Champlain College memorabilia.

The house where he and his wife Theresa reside in Peru was built in 1955 and he moved in four years later.

He began by mentioning the names of a dozen or so area residents who attended Champlain College. Many former students went on to distinguish themselves in a variety of arenas. Just to drop one name, famous actor, director and author John Cassavetes transferred here from Mohawk in 1949.

After high school graduation in 1940, Nap worked for a time with his dad as an apprentice carpenter. He then attended Albany Business College for one year, returning to Plattsburgh to work in the county Sheriff’s Department.

“Lo and behold,” he says, “I was drafted into the United States Army in

the fall of 1942.” He was part of the

30th Infantry Division known as

“Old Hickory” and served in five campaigns during the European theater of

operation. Discharged in 1945, he was

offered a job in the Clinton County Department of Motor Vehicles where he

worked for three years.

He observed that many of his family members and friends had gone to college, some under the GI bill, and he decided to give it a whirl. He matriculated at Champlain College in the fall of 1949 vowing to “spend as much time at classes and studying as I had spent on my day job.”

$105 a month from the government plus the money his band made playing twice a week was adequate and Nap thrived. He de-cided to accelerate his college experience by taking classes two summers in a row and graduated in three years.

His du Lac yearbook from 1952 is full of great photographs and proves Light’s contention that this school was for him, and many others — a complete and first-class institution. He majored in accounting and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. Nap and 274 other students graduated in that June class.

The dedication in the 1952 du Lac reads: “Champlain College has no ivy-covered walls, no century-old traditions. The spirit of Champlain cannot be felt by looking backward. It is a spirit which is growing, which is slowly gaining momentum. We do not look to the past, but to the future.”

However, by then there had already been rumblings. Later in the yearbook was written: “Champlain’s future is in jeopardy. There is a possibility that the Air Corps will take over the former Plattsburgh Barracks and thus end a dream—a dream of low-cost education, a dream of an education available to those who desire it, regardless of race, religion or financial status…We pray that Champlain College will live.”

But the handwriting was on the wall and the rest, as they say, is history.

When Champlain finally closed, the records, some students and faculty were transferred to Harpur College in Binghamton. Harpur also received 16,000 non-duplicate volumes and the complete contents of the Champlain College library.

Students on the local campus held protest demonstrations. Several dramatic photographs survive which depict a huge bonfire in the center of the Oval. What looks like burning buildings, are in reality stage sets from the drama department.

The Berliner web site contains great student stories. One involved students taking the college’s garbage truck and driving it across the lake ice to Vermont and back. The wheels broke through just as they got back to the New York shore.

Other tales include those of students who arrived by train from downstate and slept through the Plattsburgh stop. They were then forced to hitchhike back here from the station in Rouses Point.

After college, Light worked for 27 years for the Internal Revenue service out of the federal building here in Plattsburgh.

When asked if, in retrospect, quitting his job and going to Champlain College was a good idea, he replied instantly and emphati-cally, “It worked out fine and I consider it the best move I ever made. My former boss later agreed that it was a good decision for me. He said it was hard to see me go, but he was also happy the way it worked out for me.”

Quiz questions: What was “Kilroy’s Castle?”

Answer: A large silo located at the Champlain College site and used to store coal for the furnaces.

What was the favorite off-campus fast food? You guessed right—michigans. What else?

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  • Thomas Metzner says:

    Don’t know if you got my comments,since I forgot to press the post comment in the red box.
    If you didn’t get the information I sent, here it is again.

    I graduated from Champlain College in Plattsburgh in June 1952. It was a great school and we all were very sad when i closed. I have many great memories of it. While the Alumni Association was operating, I was Executive Secretary of it.

    Thank you for the article.

  • Thomas Metzner says:

    I am unable to get the web site that you gave in your article on Champlain College.

  • My old website, , is long gone; please use . Also, MY favorite fast food was Texas Red Hots from Clare & Carl’s! Regards, Sam, III

  • The URLs vanished from my post – try this – the old site WAS “”home.att.net/~Berliner-Ultrasonics/champcol.html” and the new one IS “http://sbiii.com/champcol.html”.

  • Debra Kimok says:

    Special Collections at SUNY Plattsburgh has a small and growing collection of materials about Champlain College. Anyone wishing to donate materials to this research collection, please contact the Special Collections Librarian, Debra Kimok.
    debra.kimok@plattsburgh.edu
    phone: (518) 564-5206
    website–http://www.plattsburgh.edu/library/specialcollections

  • Constance Bell Hein says:

    My father, George Alfred Bell, was on the faculty of Champlain College beginning in the fall of 1946. I have many wonderful memories of good friends, their parents, and Corky, my favorite baby sitter! I was less than a year old when we moved to Plattsburgh, and we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in the summer after I completed first grade. It would be truly a gift to hear from anyone who remembers me or my family. My mother’s name was Marian, my sister was Nancy Louise, and my brother, who was born in Plattsburgh, was named after my father. My e-mail address is HCHein@aol.com. Thanks for your website!
    Connie (Constance Elaine Bell) Hein

  • Hey, Gordie! I stumbled back onto your page after hearing from Strat(is) Simon and saw that you STILL link my old (“defunct”) URL. Even though you have my 24 Jan 2012 post with the new site, I sure wish you’d correct the main link to . Kilroy’s Castle was a triple silo. You may have liked “Michigan” (really Coney Island) Hot Dogs from Nitzy’s but I still love Clare and Carl’s “Texas Red Hots”; they are still going strong (I had two only a few years ago, served by a C&C grandchild)! Regards, Sam, III

  • Hank Kehlenbeck says:

    I graduated from Champlain College in June of 1952. I have many fond memories of my times there. Thanks for the article.

  • Thomas Metzner says:

    Last night I found a video of the 2000 reunion of Champlain College held on the old campus. I noticed tha many of those interviewed graduation in 1952, the same year that I did. It certainly brought back memories of how great the school was.