By Mark Simonson
The Daily Star
---- — To some, it was inevitable. For others it was a time to choke back tears. Overall, it was a major punch in the gut to the local economy, as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller called for the closure of Oneonta’s Homer Folks Hospital with the release of his state budget in January 1973. We know this former tuberculosis hospital to be today’s Job Corps Academy on upper West Street.
The closing was the front page headline of The Oneonta Star of Wednesday, Jan. 17, 1973. Homer Folks Hospital had been a landmark in the Oneonta area since its opening in 1935, and it was the only remaining tuberculosis inpatient treatment center in the state. Capable of handling 200 patients, the hospital had only 66 at the time of the announcement. Those in good enough health returned to their homes, while others were transferred to area hospitals for continued treatment.
“The state has not closed down Homer Folks Hospital — medical science has,” read a Star article that day.
“Advances in the care of tuberculosis and earlier detection of the disease have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, making the long-term hospital care at Homer Folks Hospital unnecessary.”
“We’ve got the disease down to where it is not a great problem,” Homer Folks administrator Dr. James Monroe said.
While this was good news from a medical perspective, the hospital’s closure meant a loss of jobs for 177 employees, mostly before July 1 of that year.
The announcement came Tuesday night, Jan. 16, at a dinner meeting of the Civil Service Employees Association.
Irene Carr, a 15-year employee of the hospital and president of the Oneonta CSEA Chapter, had learned of the closing that morning by a phone call from the CSEA offices in Albany. Choking back tears, Carr told employees, “I just don’t know what to tell you.”
The Star reported: “Although there has been talk for several years about the institution closing, employes (sic) had heard the story so many times they refused to believe the hospital would close until they saw the sincerity of Mrs. Carr.
“The overall first reaction was one of shock, and then excited chatter about what could be done to prevent the move. Members of the CSEA will contact legislators in a move to keep the hospital open.”
The employees weren’t alone in their efforts to keep Homer Folks open. Oneonta Mayor James Lettis sent a letter to Rockefeller, stating his views.
“We want the governor to leave Homer Folks open. The unemployment rate is already high…we can’t stand to have the hospital close. It’s New York state’s duty to create jobs, not take them away,” Lettis said.
Other uses for the hospital were suggested almost immediately after the announcement. Dr. Clifford Craven, president of the State University College at Oneonta, launched a campus campaign to acquire the Homer Folks Hospital as an addition to the college campus. Rockefeller had indicated when the closing announcement was made, the hospital would be offered to other state agencies.
Additionally, the state Veterans’ Home at Oxford showed interest in Oneonta as an extension site to its Chenango County facility. A drug rehabilitation center was also suggested, but received strong opposition.
It was reported Monday, Feb. 5, that Lettis had spoken with Assemblyman Harold Luther, and had gotten assurances from the governor that “some state agency would occupy the buildings.”
The hospital did close by July 1, but the district office of the state Department of Health remained on the site for a short time.
Homer Folks Hospital, named after the secretary of the State Charities Aid Association, opened Dec. 18, 1935, and served as a tuberculosis hospital for almost 38 years. Its eventual successor, the Oneonta Job Corps Academy, opened in September 1980, and is now approaching its 33rd year of service.
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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 email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.