Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Remembering George Duguay

Yesterday, while walking William by the house at the corner of Second and Partition where George Duguay used to live, my attention was drawn by noises coming, I thought, from the part of the house that had been George's apartment. Stopping to study the house, I thought of George, who died there on a bleak winter day very like yesterday. Back home, curious to remember exactly when George had died, I discovered that today is the anniversary of his death. So, in memory of George and in tribute to this exceptional Hudson character, I decided to publish here the obituary I wrote for him four years ago. The photograph of George, in his backyard with one of his beloved cats and some of his favorite "pineys," is by Valerie Shaff.

George Duguay: The Genius of Hudson

George Duguay died in his home on South Second Street on Friday, February 3, 2006. He was 94.

Known throughout Hudson for his thin frame, pleasant smile, distinctive dress (which always included a well-worn overcoat and trilby hat), and love of gardens and cats, George Duguay was born in Hudson on June 15, 1911. His parents were British subjects—his father French-Canadian, his mother Irish—but George was born an American. He was baptized in the “old Italian Church” on Front Street and graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in 1929, one of the outstanding scholars of his class. “He was one of the smartest students there,” recalls Kathryn McDonald. George would later refer to himself jovially as “the genius of Hudson,” and he was that—in all senses of the word. Gail Grandinetti recalls that her late father always spoke of George as a “brilliant, brilliant man.” For those who came to know him in more recent times, George was indeed the genius of Hudson—the prevailing spirit, the distinctive character of our community.

After graduating high school from St. Mary’s, George went to Quebec, his father’s homeland, but returned to Hudson two years later, when his father died unexpectedly. Once back in Hudson, George decided to stay. In 1931, his parents were living on the second floor of 209 Allen Street. It was the Depression, and money was scarce, so George moved back in with his mother and younger brother, and for the rest of his life, he lived in the First Ward—in different buildings and apartments but always in the vicinity of South Second, Allen, and Partition streets.

George’s father had been a chauffeur for Mrs. Isaac Newton Collier, one of the wealthiest women in Hudson. She lived in the grand Greek Revival mansion at Second and Partition, which is now St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, cater-corner across from the house where George lived for the last forty or so years of his life. In Mrs. Collier’s time, the land on Second Street between Partition and Allen, where the Irv Schroder & Sons factory building now stands, was a park that belonged to her, and as a teenager, George worked for Mrs. Collier, mowing the grass in the park in summer and shoveling snow in winter.

Back in Hudson, in the early years of the Depression, George worked at a series of odd jobs. As the Depression deepened, he let the dire economic state of the country dictate the career he would pursue. As he told Dan Region in an interview for The Independent in 1999, “I thought, ‘Go somewhere there’s food. I can’t eat money.’” He started out working at the Park Grill, which was located on Warren Street across from Seventh Street Park. He apprenticed as a cook, learning his art by watching and doing. In the late 1930s, George took a job at the St. Charles Hotel, where he rose from apprentice to full-fledged cook. He left the St. Charles in 1946 to take a job at the elegant General Worth Hotel. He worked as a cook at the General Worth until it closed in 1962. Then he returned to the St. Charles, where he stayed until he retired in 1978.

The sharp mind and intellectual curiosity that distinguished George Duguay in high school continued throughout his life. He was bilingual and, in recent years, would converse in French with his neighbor Steve Careau, who had also lived in Quebec. George was very well read and, during his retirement years, spent part of every day in the Hudson Area Library, reading books and newspapers. According to Norma Hart, who worked at the library, “George was never interested in ‘light reading.’ He went for the hard books, the challenging ones.” He never took the books home. He always read them in the library.

George’s curiosity and appreciation of things of beauty were evident to all who knew him or only just observed him. Kathryn McDonald recalls going on bus trips with George to Boston. “He and Andy Burton, his friend, would take off and ride the subway and see the museums and visit libraries.” Dan Region tells of watching George as he went from window to window on Warren Street, gazing at the displays in the antiques shops, “his eyes filled with wonder as if he were visiting the Met.” Robert Hills remembers that George often came out to Olana to look at the garden. George had the rare capacity to enjoy things without needing to possess them.

George’s life spanned ten decades, and his clear memory of dates, facts, events, and people made him, in the words of Gail Grandinetti, “a walking history of Hudson.” A conversation with George often transported the listener to an earlier time—the heyday of Diamond Street; the construction of Mt. Carmel Church; the glory days of the General Worth Hotel; the cows on Third Street; the forgotten times of the lost neighborhood of Simpsonville. He could tell you who used to live in the houses of his neighborhood, what businesses used to occupy the commercial buildings, what buildings used to stand in now vacant lots. Sam Pratt recounts his memory of George: “From a distance, he always seemed keenly interested in everything going on in Hudson, looking piercingly at the people and buildings, as if seeing both the present and the past, overlapping.”

George Duguay lived gently on the earth. In the summer, he tended a rustic garden on the steep slope at the end of Montgomery Street. In his garden, he transformed unusable land, cuttings and surplus plant material from other people’s gardens, and cast-off objects into a place of unusual beauty. He knew the names of all the flowers and was considered by many to be one of the best gardeners in Hudson. His hellebores were famous, and he had lots and lots of peonies (which he pronounced "pineys"). He always went to Rogerson’s to buy bulbs when they went on sale. In the hot, dry summer of 2002, George, a nonagenarian, could be seen lugging pails of water to his garden from his house on South Second. He was known to rescue pots of mums that had been discarded by neighbors when autumn turned to winter, shelter them in his apartment through the cold months, and plant them in his garden when spring came.

George Duguay is survived by his three cats—-Smoky, Mommy, and Big Boy—-now in the care of Animalkind, and a community that is surely diminished by his death.

2 comments:

  1. Carole,

    Thanks so much for remembering George -- and reprinting your beautiful memorial of him.

    --pm

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  2. During his lifetime, I heard rumors that George had an unusual photography collection of great interest to the history of Hudson; but this may have just been a rumor, since nothing seemed to emerge after his death... Anyway, it was always a fine thing to see George walking around town. He seemed a very amiable guy who truly enjoyed looking at Hudson and no doubt remembering all kinds of past people and places that were invisible to the rest of us.

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