Remembering Dennis O’Keefe

Gerald Benjamin holds lecture on concept of community.

Gerald Benjamin holds lecture on concept of community.

The fifth annual Dennis O’Keefe lecture shed light on the concept of community on Wednesday, Sept. 21 in the Coykendall Science Building Auditorium at 5 p.m.

The lecture was created to commemorate and celebrate O’Keefe, a staff member at the Sojourner Truth Library, and all the differences he made on campus.  With a variety of interests including architecture, US presidents, weather and New Paltz history, colleagues such as English Professor Tom Olsen thought he truly represented the intellectual values and dedication of the library .

Previous lecturers have been former president Steven Poskanzer, Professor Emeritus Bill Rhoads, Professor Jo Margaret Mano and last year’s speaker, Paul Huth of the Smiley Research Station at Mohonk.

This year, the Friends of the Library Steering Committee chose Dr. Gerald Benjamin, the first director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach and vice president for regional engagement, as he is a well-known expert on New York politics and advocate of town-gown relations.

“O’Keefe was interested in all these areas and many others, so each year the lecture is intended to celebrate his memory and showcase interesting ideas for the campus community,”Olsen said.

Writing the lecture took Benjamin 10 or 12 hours throughout multiple sittings, but the subject was a “natural unfolding,” since he has been involved in community service for a long time and has studied both the local government and community life extensively. Being someone who has served as an administrator at SUNY New Paltz for so long and with an outreach job, the idea of the New Paltz community satisfies Benjamin’s interests in his work.

Benjamin planned to focus on the “essence of community”and the true definition of the word.

“It’s the idea of the unity of the community, we have the divisions between, organizational structure divides us between the college and town and the village and the school district and so on,” Benjamin said prior to the lecture. “And my idea is that we need to think as one community and we may have to clear away some of the structural barriers to do that.”

Some subjects addressed were the issue of having two New Paltz governments, something Benjamin does not feel is necessary, and the campus and the town and village fostering a more supportive relationship, especially with the situations that arise from the presence of the college.

“We are predisposed to think of ‘the college’ and ‘the community’ as apart from each other, not a part of each other. We speak of the college as a separate community, the college community, that is bounded and has membership,” Benjamin said in a press release. “Yet are we not one community, are we not really and fundamentally all in this together, in this place, at this time? And wouldn’t we benefit enormously from consciously embracing this unity? Certainly, Dennis O’Keefe’s life was a testament to this idea.”

Benjamin was unsure about the expected turnout, but the Friends of the Library anticipated a good amount of attendees.

“They’re a better judge than I, my job is to show up and talk, which I’ve been doing for 42 years so I’ll probably be okay,” Benjamin said. “I’ve been working on this subject all my adult life, so this is not a new topic for me.”