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March 12, 2012

Battling drug problems reaches 40 years in Oneonta

"I ask that every member of this community join forces with this administration and the school board to combat this ever-growing menace to our children and our citizens."

It was Wednesday night, March 1, 1972, and these words came from then Mayor James Lettis, commenting during a joint meeting of the Common Council and Oneonta Board of Education.

The menace the mayor referred to was a growing drug abuse problem.

During that meeting, held at the Oneonta High School library, police Chief Joseph DeSalvatore painted a grim picture of what his department was dealing with, as reported in The Oneonta Star.

"A 15-year-old Oneonta girl has a 'speed' kit -- complete with spoon and cotton."

"Another has made a hash pipe out of a lipstick case."

"An Oneonta boy uses a strip of rawhide as a tourniquet before shooting drugs."

"A local boy bought a coke downtown. Someone adds an LSD Tablet."

DeSalvatore told those in attendance that drug use in Oneonta had increased by about 47 percent in recent years.

The chief said the city's first drug arrest came in 1968.

In 1971, 25 arrests were made.

DeSalvatore asked for money so that brochures could be distributed to Oneonta residents. "Involvement by the total community is the right step," he said.

Frederick Bardsley, then superintendent of schools, said the key to the problem is getting parents together with their children.

He said parents need to know where their children are and who they are with.

He asked for an enlightened, concerned and responsible public.

DeSalvatore confided there was more of a drug problem in the junior high school than in the senior high.

He added that several burglaries were caused by youths supporting a drug habit.

DeSalvatore added that it was well known that when pushers at the colleges cannot sell on campus, "the goods are brought into the local community and schools."

That first meeting spurred action.

Some 200 parents gathered at the Junior High School cafeteria on Academy Street on Tuesday, March 13, and were essentially told by a staff of school personnel to "be parents."

Another "cross section of concerned citizens" met at St. James' Episcopal Church on Thursday, April 27, to organize an effort to battle drug abuse. Oneonta had already lined up professional assistance to create an educational program.

From May 12 to 14, a weekend of information on drugs with several discussions were held at Oneonta High School and Oneonta Armory, planned by the newly formed Oneonta Drug Task Force Committee.

The initial session had a guest speaker from Broome County, which had a drug abuse program in place.

Proposed during that weekend was a program patterned after the Broome County Narcotic Guidance Council, with a "drop-in" center open to anyone, with any problem and any age level. The program would be completely on a volunteer basis.

The first drop-in center opened the week of July 3 in the Puritan Building, 172 Main St.

It operated on weekends only at that time.

The effort had begun to battle what Lettis had called the "menace."

While this effort to battle drug abuse began, another had begun a bit more quietly in 1970. That was the year "Project 85" opened at the large house at 85 Chestnut St.

Eighty-five was opened, according to the Star, "by a group of concerned clergy, the Campus Ministry Committee."

In the first years it was open, Project 85 addressed the need for drug abuse help, but gradually shifted their counseling to other problems, such as financial aid, shelter, legal referral, abuse, rape, runaways, suicide or depression.

It should be noted that Project 85 helped train the volunteers at the new drop-in center on methods used in answering and handling phone calls.

During its years in Oneonta, Project 85 was funded by a variety of sources. Later known as The Otsego Area Consortium, then found at 259 Chestnut St., the agency closed in late 1987.

This weekend: As our days get closer to spring, we'll explore some local news briefs from the winter of 1912.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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