YOUNGSTOWN – Gretchen A. Duling could be described as Youngstown’s biggest cheerleader and community activist.
She seems to always be percolating a new idea with a packed résumé that includes an impressive educational background, work history and then busy involvement in her community after retirement.
Duling has a Ph.D. in elementary education from the University at Buffalo; three master’s degrees – in educational administration from Canisius College; creative studies from SUNY Buffalo State; and both a master’s and bachelor’s degree in music education from the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University.
She grew up in Gallipolis, Ohio, but has made Western New York her home. She had been a music and choral teacher and then worked in the Williamsville Central School District as a gifted and talented programming specialist until her retirement in October 2003.
In retirement, she has taken her considerable energies in a new direction when she moved permanently into Youngstown with her husband of almost 54 years, Dennis Duling, a New Testament scholar and retired professor in Canisius College’s religious studies department. They are the parents of two adult children, a daughter age 45 and son age 42 of Vietnamese descent who became the topic of her first book, “Adopting Joe,” which chronicles what they learned and how to help other adoptive parents who adopt children from foreign countries.
The Dulings currently live along the Niagara River in the shadow of Old Fort Niagara.
She wrote a Niagara River Greenway grant and coordinated a binational publication, “From the Mouth of the Lower Niagara River, Commemorating 200 Years of Peace on Our Border with Canada,” which was released in October 2012. It tells the combined historic stories of Lewiston and Youngstown on this side of the border and Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston in Canada from a collection of authors in the area.
She recently headed a committee that organized hundreds of people, including re-enactors and hundreds of students, this past Dec. 19 for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Old Fort Niagara.
“A lot more has happened here than people realize,” Duling said of her involvement in organizing a number of historic events and tourism programs.
She was also an advocate for fellow lower Niagara River residents in the fight to curb lights and loud speakers on the Whirlpool Jet Boats.
Duling was named 2008 Citizen of the Year by the late village mayor, Neil Riordan.
“When they told me, I thought it was a joke. I told Mayor Riordan, I’ve caused you a lot of trouble,” Duling said of her reaction in 2008, but she said Riordan told her: “I could use a lot more like you.”
How did you happen to move to Youngstown?
I grew up in Ohio, but all my life I heard my mother talking about how similar Youngstown was. When we moved out here (to Buffalo) in 1978 – we came because of Denny’s job at Canisius. I said let’s drive up there and see what it’s like. We did, and I said, if there’s an opportunity, I’d like to try and live here.
But you did eventually move to your dream community. When was that?
We did move here (permanently) 13 years ago. It reminded me of where I was from and where I grew up on the Ohio River. We were living in Snyder, and the kids were in Amherst schools.
Have you adopted Youngstown as your hometown?
I hope they have adopted us. We preserved two houses, the first at William and Main (streets). That was a summer and weekend home. That’s how we got here. We bought that house in 1995.
Why are you involved in so many community projects?
I grew up in a small community. My parents were always involved, so I think they set an example.
You have a number of degrees. What did you teach?
I started out in music, but I took a course at Buffalo State in the Center for Studies for Creativity. The professor asked me to apply for a fellowship. I got so interested that I resigned my position (teaching music) and concentrated on filling out the applications. There were six of us that came in, and all of us were teachers.
Did this lead you to another career?
I got my master’s in creative studies, and that broadened what I was able to do. For my master’s project I wrote a number of booklets to take kids through the process (of creative problem solving) and then teach them the process ... It began to be called bibliotherapy booklets. I was surprised at the power of that.
So you started teaching gifted and talented students.
Yes I did. I had a master’s in that, a master’s in creative and gifted studies ... Working with gifted and talented children you want to encourage that and expand that. A really bright child can be a challenge. I helped to design the gifted program in Williamsville.
You’ve authored a number of books. When did you start writing?
I started writing in seventh grade, a teacher encouraged me and had several small things published for me, but they were just small articles. But I’ve always been a storyteller. My siblings and friends would always say, when we went on long bus trips with the band, “Just tell us a story,” and I would say, “What do you want in it?” and I would just go on and on. I think that’s part of my culture in southern Ohio, especially the women. I sat around hearing them talk in groups.
Are you working on something new?
I have a set of short stories I have been working on for a long time that are science fiction and ghost stories. Everywhere I go and visit I look for their ghost folklore, and I am fascinated by it. I think I have 10 or 12. I like the genre of the short story. It’s a real challenge to do something in a short period of time and create a good beginning, middle and end. I just haven’t made those public. Some are based on experiences.
Is that why you moved to Youngstown?
No, but I am drawn to historical places. My father was an antiques collector, and I lived in a big old house. I emulated his values of old things and old people and what they could teach you and what you could learn.
Did you turn more to your writing after you retired?
When you are working with gifted students, you are facilitating their writing, so I never had time to do any more of my own, but this most recent book, “The Journey of the French Coat,” I worked on, off and on, for 15 years. (It was published in March 2013 as historical fiction for youth.) I kept going back and embellishing. It’s the journey from Fort Niagara through the connecting waters to my hometown of Gallipolis, Ohio. The main character ends up being Marquis de Lafayette. I used a lot of historical fiction with my fourth-graders, and I loved it. I became infatuated with Lafayette.
You have continued to write about history.
I’ve always been interested in history. I like to look back. When I did the POW book (“A Legacy of Mutual Trust: The Diary (June 1944 - May 1946) and Letters (1944 -2005) of Otto Herboth, World War II German Prisoner of War Interned at Fort Niagara, New York”), I was the oral history team leader and was interviewing people all over the area, and no one seemed to know much about the camp, which was right here at Fort Niagara, we organized a one-day conference (in 2007.) My last interview was with a farmer, Ron Herkim, who was 16 at the time, who said his dad kept all these letters. (Fort Niagara published the book in 2009.)
How did “From the Mouth of the Lower Niagara River” come about?
Looking out here across the water at Fort George every day, I wanted to know more about my Canadian neighbors, but things have changed since 9/11. Security got so tight that it separated us. I wanted to establish something. So I brought together a binational group. That had never been done. We worked off and on for three years to produce the history as we knew it. This is a group effort – nine principal authors, six contributing authors, and we became very close friends in our discussions. We found we had a lot of common themes like the Underground Railroad. Lewiston calls itself the last stop, but there was no last stop, it was wherever you could cross and there were people to help you.
Besides your short stories, is there anything else coming?
My current research, which is done, is on the Underground Railroad. People always say, “Youngstown had nothing to do with the Underground Railroad. We don’t have any evidence,” but how can you be on the river and not be. But there was never anyone interested and willing to do the research. I love research. And I can document it now. This little village warrants distinction. It is a different culture from Niagara Falls and Lewiston. We lived in the shadow of the fort. People who came here had taverns and inns and were helping to feed the soldiers. There’s some amazing people here.
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