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Dr. Frank J. Cavaioli Recaps Century of FSC History: What Change!

Dr. Frank J. Cavaioli, retired professor of history and political science at Farmingdale State College (FSC), delighted and informed an audience of historiophiles recently at the Farmingdale Village Hall.

Farmingdale-Bethpage Historical Society president Mildred Johnston introduced Cavaioli, who let the news roll. He discussed 100 years of history, from FSC’s upcoming 100th anniversary next spring to details of how the college traded its agriculture programs for two- and four-year programs in high-tech, liberal arts, and health sciences. A century has resulted in Cavaioli’s favorite word for FSC: Change!

On April 15, 1912, FSC was chartered and in 1916 began instructing local men and women in agricultural techniques. For a while, said Cavaioli, “it was pretty much a glorified agricultural high school.”

According to the census of 1910, the Farmingdale area had a mostly farm-related population of 180,000. By 2006, there were more than 2, 875,000 — mostly farm-detached citizens.

Cavaioli said, “People were buying land you couldn’t have given away in 1910. In those days,” he said, “if you were close to the soil, you were considered close to God.”

Today FSC is a thriving four-year college with approximately 7,000 students. The big changes started right after World War II, according to Cavaioli, but small changes occurred from day one.

In 1912, FSC called its heads “directors,” not presidents. FSC’s first, in 1913, was Albert Johnson, and there is a plaque dedicated to him in the wheel garden of FSC’s renowned horticultural teaching gardens. But there is more of Johnson there: when he died in 1962, the ashes of his wife, his cat, and his own body were scattered about the campus: the things he loved in the place he loved.

FSC is Long Island’s oldest public college. From the start, it offered equal opportunity; its first valedictorian, in 1919, was a woman. There was even an all-women land army that trained on campus, as FSC offered many types of military training. Commemorating World War I, an FSC educator, Mrs. Waters, organized contributions of soil, to be screened and cleaned, from all of the allied nations of the United States as well as from the individual states themselves. In that soil, staff planted a white oak tree. It stands there today above its inscribed plaque. In a raised, stone-encircled bed just outside Whitman Hall, it faces Thompson Hall. Hicks Nursery, the same Hicks as Hicks Hall, donated the oak.

Landscaping is not the only beauty on the FSC campus. Johnson worked with New York state architects to design the 380-acre campus, which is considered one of the prettiest in the SUNY system.

In 1923, Halsey B. Knapp, name-provider for Knapp Hall, came to FSC after having served on Cornell’s Agriculture Board. According to Cavaioli, Knapp proclaimed, “I want total control of the campus.” And he got it. His vision and energy saved FSC from atrophy as Long Island moved toward technology and away from agriculture.

New York Governor Al Smith had divulged plans to spread the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center onto FSC territory, making the campus an extension of it. Although college buildings are not supposed to be named after living people, the clever (and tough) Knapp circumvented the problem of his good health by having Knapp Hall named for his deceased wife. It opened in 1938.

Another old and majestic building on campus is Thompson Hall, which once served as the administration building. For $37 a month, from 1946 to 1956, it served as Campus Village and was home to faculty. The faculty lived there and raised their families. Their food came from the campus’s farm.

Cavaioli said that Knapp would walk the grounds, and if he noticed a piece of litter, he would notify administration. Cavaioli continued, “And you had better not be caught walking on the grass. You’d get a pink note, which meant trouble.” (Blue ones, bearing praise or other good news, were preferred.)

The first director to be called “president” was Charlie Laffin (Laffin Hall), who took over in 1961. A proud Rotarian, he served Rotary International, a service organization, for more than 50 years. He received his education from Colgate and NYU and served in World War II. It was he who advanced the college by hiring professors who had advanced degrees, according to Cavaioli, who said, “Laffin put the campus on a professional basis.”

Under the authoritative Knapp, educators had to be in their offices every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., students or no students. Laffin, however, told them to come to campus to teach their classes, then to go home and write. “You publish,” Laffin would tell them. “You don’t do eight to five.”

Laffin also believed that to keep up with Long Island’s technical growth the college had better do the same. FSC’s technical division began, and Laffin’s dream of “Change, Change, Change!” became real. He dreamed, also, of FSC’s becoming a four-year college. However, in 1976, he died suddenly of heart failure.

Frank Cipriani, having served 14 years in administration, interviewed for the position. He received the offer that day. The year was 1978. He left in 2000, but before he retired he witnessed the official end of FSC’s agriculture program, in 1987. Other programs went the same way, as results of Cipriani’s cuts, among them FSC’s mortuary science and child development programs.

FSC is one of SUNY’s 64 campuses and is its oldest. Cavaioli’s latest book, delineating FSC’s official history, is scheduled to be released in 2012.

Cavaioli has received many awards, including the National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship. He has written several books, including his earlier one about FSC, The State University of New York at Farmingdale. In addition, he has written many scholarly articles and has written for the Long Island Forum and the Long Island Historical Journal. He retired from FSC in 1990 after 22 years of service. He lives in Florida.