A Tribute to Adirondack Giants: George Canon and John Collins

June 26, 2017

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By Mark Behan
President, Behan Communications Inc.

The Adirondacks lost two giants last week.

When George Canon and John Collins died just days apart, I was reminded of the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Jefferson and Adams died within five hours of each other on, incredibly, July 4, 1826. Adams’ last words were reputed to be: “Thomas Jefferson still survives. 

Adams and Jefferson were among the original Colonial leaders committed to overthrowing the British. They believed in individual freedom and democratic government, but their views diverged sharply on where control should lie: Adams preferred centralized federal power. Jefferson believed strongly in states’ rights. Once allies, Jefferson and Adams fought bitterly during their respective presidencies, but resumed their friendship through letters in their retirement.

George Canon and John Collins would scoff at the comparison to Jefferson and Adams.  They were authentic Adirondackers, products of Indian Lake, humanists and environmentalists both, who had sharply different views on how to protect people, communities and the environment. Both served their communities and the region with courage and distinction. 

As an old friend used to say: “Where you stand depends an awful lot on where you sit.”

George grew up in poverty, was the valedictorian of his 1957 high school class at Newcomb, and went to work at National Lead’s titanium dioxide mine in Tahawus. He trained himself to program computers in the 1970s, eventually becoming NL’s chief programmer.  When the mine, no longer economically sustainable, closed in 1989, George turned out the lights. At 49, he started a new career in local government.  He won election as town supervisor and served for 25 years.

John was born in Blue Mountain Lake and, though life could have taken him anywhere, he invested it there. His family owned The Hedges, the iconic Adirondack resort, and he began working there as a young man. He was educated at Manhattan College and taught fifth grade to the fortunate students of Long Lake for 26 years. John has been accurately described as a cultural leader: He was deeply devoted to the Adirondack Museum (now the Adirondack Experience) at Blue Mountain Lake. He served on the board for many years and for a time as executive director. He was a member of both the Indian Lake Planning Board and the Indian Lake School Board.

George was smart, independent and practical. He had the gritty ambition and work ethic of a kid who had grown up with next to nothing.  He was comfortable in his own skin, with a ready store of good jokes. John was blessed with a leprechaun’s smile and the wit to match, a sunny disposition and the courtly manners and kindness of another age. Both loved people and were widely loved and admired.

Both had the courage to fight, paired with the wisdom not to let political differences become personal.

John Collins was a very unusual Adirondacker in the 1990s – a native who ardently advocated for greater environmental regulation in the Adirondacks. He believed the Adirondack Park, the state Forest Preserve and local communities were in peril.  He was chosen to serve as chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency and was a founder of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, roles in which he suffered the scorn of many neighbors.  Even the many who disagreed with John recognized he came to his views honestly, and unlike a lot of environmental advocates at the time, he lived in the Adirondacks every day with the consequences, good and bad, of his own policies. 

Almost as soon as he was elected, George Canon recognized that the needs of permanent Adirondack residents were not being heard in Albany. Committed to getting his constituents and neighbors a seat at the table, he put up with the sneering dismissal of the environmental lobbyists and state officials who had long steered Adirondack policy and dominated the conversation. He persevered, winning many over with his authentic charm. He helped found the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and, along with several colleagues in local government, became an influential power broker.   He befriended governors and powerful legislators and lived Kipling’s line: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.” 

Both men came to prominence in the 1990s when a commission appointed by former Gov. Mario Cuomo recommended what amounted to a state takeover of the Adirondack region – state acquisition of an additional 1 million acres of private property and imposition on the remaining private land of perhaps the strictest zoning in the country until that, too, could be acquired.  The environmental community launched a political campaign in support; local governments reacted in outrage, fear and anger and, with private landowners, launched a campaign of their own. I represented the local governments, citizens’ groups and some major landowners and had occasion to observe both men in action.  

Both sides succeeded in part – more private land was acquired over time, and local governments won the right to veto acquisitions and secured appointments to the Adirondack Park Agency. Nearly 30 years hence, the fight goes on, in big and small ways.  Adirondack communities are aging quickly and populations are shrinking; there is real and rising concern about their economic sustainability. To their credit, Adirondack environmental groups and local governments are closer than they have ever been, much more directly engaged in trying to save small communities and the essential services they provide to permanent residents and visitors. While neither side has abandoned its philosophical convictions, there has been something of a rapprochement that Adams and Jefferson, Collins and Canon might understand. It will be tested by the difficult choices ahead.

For more, check out the excellent coverage of both men’s lives on North Country Public Radio and in the Sun Community News and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

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