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Moses Koch: How Could We Forget?


My best friend from college years, Holly McLean Narowanskie, was kind enough to send me the Sun obituary relating the life and contributions of Moses S. Koch, the first president of Essex Community College, who died in October.

I went to Essex with Holly and her husband Steve and a whole lot of other wonderful, memorable characters from 1962-1964, when the college was located a block or so off Eastern Avenue in Essex, with administrative offices at Kenwood High School a few miles away.

What a place it was! More than a "place," it was a total experience, incomparable and marvelous for those fortunate enough to have chosen it. We were quite a lot, to be sure. There was a whopping enrollment then of just over 100 day students, and a total of 4 classrooms, a tiny library and some trailers flanking a muddy parking lot. We had to pile into cars to get to phys. ed. classes at nearby gyms and athletic fields, and we were forced to use local elementary school "multi-purpose rooms" for dramatic productions and student meetings. For lunch we had to walk to Rikki Berger's mom's sub shop a block away, or pile into decrepit Studebakers and old Chevys and race down to Gibson's Golden Point or the competing Gino's next door.

I have never enjoyed anything in my life, child or adult, as much as my ECC experience.

Some of us were high school ne'er-do-wells who were given our chance to gain what one Essex kid called "an academic foothold" before transferring to 4-year schools. Others were there because of the money factor, plain and simple. Still others were homemakers or other older adults taking advantage of the convenience and low price of a worthwhile educational experience. For many, a combination of these and other factors made Essex a logical and viable choice.

That was my first experience with "diversity," and it stuck. Rich and poor kids went there; old and young. Handicapped, black, dumb, smart, reckless, prudish, studious and wild -- there was room for everyone, and we learned how to enjoy each other. The instructors were top-notch, and with the average class size at about 15 or 20, we all got to know each other. Faculty offices were right there on the premises, and we all trooped into and out of the two aqua trailers (expanded to three during my sophomore year) where students and faculty alike goofed off, studied, played pinochle by the hour, and sang folk music till they threw us out every evening.

Behind all this stood Moses Koch. A diminutive man, Dr. Koch looked less like a dean than a Fuller Brush salesman, I thought when I first saw him. As the years whizzed by, however, this man's leadership abilities, combined with intellect, wit and natural charm, impressed me mightily.

Here's how I see him, even today:

I am on my knees in front of an ancient and recalcitrant Pepsi machine in the student lounge, trying desperately to extricate a bottle of Pepsi stuck high up inside. We are all pretty poor, and every dime is important. I want that soda, and I mean to get it.

Dr. Koch enters the lounge on one of his countless impromptu visits, and stands in the trailer's open doorway, frowning.

"I'm um, just, ah -- " I stammer. "I mean, I know what it must look like, but see, I really paid for the soda, and now it won't come out, and . . ."

"A breech delivery?" he asked. "Good luck, my dear," he said, and left the trailer.

On another occasion several of us were playing a little poker for pennies, nickels and dimes in that same lounge. Dr. Koch entered and again, frowned.

"You're aware, I'm sure, that gambling is illegal on county property," he said. Our friend Ken Hofstetter, always a quick thinker, grinned at him and said, "Oh, sure, Dr. Koch. We know that. But we just happened to run out of paper clips."

"Ah," Dr. Koch said. He beamed down at us. "Just as I suspected. Carry on, then."

The thing is, he was there, among us, caring about what we thought, how we felt, what we were up to. He wanted to know how we liked things, what improvements we thought could be made, what we wanted in our college. Then he took careful note of what we said and invited us to be a part of certain decision-making policies. He respected us. We weren't used to that, and it felt good.

At the end of my sophomore (and final) year at old "ECC Tech," I became quite ill and was hospitalized for over a month at St. Agnes Hospital. Mike Virden, my English teacher for two years, visited me several times each week, and Dr. Koch sent greetings and a letter urging me to get well. It could have been curtains for me academically, but Mike Virden went to the academic committee and asked the college to consider using my mid-semester grades as final grades and to waive final exams in light of my consistently excellent academic record. Thus I was able to enter Towson State without a hitch in September. I was so touched and relieved I cried, and Mike laughed.

"Dr. Koch said he only regretted he hadn't thought of it himself," he said.

Not to be outdone, Dr. Koch then arranged for me to graduate from that hospital bed in cap and grown. He, the dean of students, Mike Virden, my mother, some friends and various media crews were all there. Standing on the beds, hanging from the curtain rods, teetering on the window sills, the camera men recorded for TV and the newspapers one young woman's graduation.

Many years later, after I had taught school for nine years, married, had two children and even moved far away from my home and all those memories, I ran into Moses Koch again in Rochester, New York. He was then president of Monroe Community College, and as always, was involved in controversy regarding his views and his vision. My husband Bill and I were eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant when suddenly my fork stopped midair.

"Look!" I whispered to Bill. "Over there. It's Dr. Koch and his wife."

"Dr. Who?" Bill asked. He didn't know the man, of course.

"Dr. Koch," I said. "He was our president at Essex Community College."

"Well, don't stare at him," Bill said. "You'll make him nervous. He won't know why this strange woman is ogling him. He'll worry."

I figured Bill was right, and tried to go back to my dinner and forget about it. A while later, however, as we exited the restaurant, we had to go right by their table. I couldn't help it. I paused to greet this gentleman I'd always idolized.

"Dr. Koch," I began. "It's so great to see you. I'm -- " "Why, Barbara Wernecke!" he exclaimed. "Ann, look who it is -- it's Barbara Wernecke! How wonderful to see you again! How are you?"

"How on earth can you remember me after all these years?" I asked, dumbfounded.

He flashed that smile of his. "How could I forget?"

Moses Koch was a beacon and a hero to the thousands of businesspersons, teachers, engineers, pharmacists and other people enriched by his upholding of the community college concept. Many of us have cried to realize that he will no longer walk among us.

Barbara W. Durkin is a writer in Webster, New York.

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