Now in 85th year, Burnt Hills women's group still thriving
BURNT HILLS & BALLSTON LAKE The last time the Burnt Hills girls volleyball team lost a Suburban Council match, George Bush — that’s George Bush the elder — was president of the United States.
Not a bad streak by any measure, but when it comes to longevity there’s another currently active group, the Burnt Hills Women’s Recreation Class, that was around when Calvin Coolidge was president. Begun in 1925 by Gertrude Rice, a fourth-grade teacher in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district, the “class” has no charter members left, but, in its 85th year, remains as strong as ever.
“It’s been the same continuous group since Miss Rice started it in 1925,” said Sue Kapusta, who was voted president last year when she just happened to miss a week. “The name’s changed through the years and we don’t really have an official name right now. If anybody asks us, we just say the Burnt Hills Women’s Volleyball Group.”
The women meet each Monday night at 7:30 and are currently using the gym at The Charlton School for Girls, although they have also played at Charlton Heights Elementary School and Stevens Elementary School, where Miss Rice got things started in 1925. The level of play isn’t very high, and the game bears little resemblance to the one produced by their younger counterparts at the high school, but with these women it’s not about winning.
“There are more competitive leagues out there for women to join,” said Kapusta, who is 52 and played on the Schalmont High School varsity team. “We just do it for fun, and we try to keep the teams as even as possible.”
Anywhere between 12 and 16 women show up each Monday and play for about
an hour and a half. Two teams are selected in September, and typically sides are picked again in January to ensure that the competition is as even as possible. Following a tradition that began with Rice in 1925, the losing team buys a cake or ice cream or both and throws a party for the entire group at the end of the season.
“We’ll usually just have a party at someone’s house, but last year we did have a picnic at the town park in Charlton,” said Kapusta. “A long time ago this group also used to get together to play badminton or go tobogganing, and when some of the women got older they just played cards. When we realized this was our 85th year, we did a little research and found out quite a bit of stuff about our group. Miss Rice was quite a lady.”
Dorothy Zube of Burnt Hills can attest to that. While she no longer plays with the group on Monday nights, Zube was an avid participant in the 1960s and took over as head of the group when Rice finally retired as president in 1977.
“When I first showed up in Burnt Hills, I was looking for a volleyball group to play with and she told me that they would take anyone who wanted to play,” remembered Zube. “That’s the way she put it, and it didn’t matter how good you were. Whenever Miss Rice said something people listened, and nobody disputed what she said.”
Zube said she visited Cherry Valley for Rice’s 90th birthday party in 1985, the year before Rice’s death in October 1986. A graduate of Cortland State, Rice joined the faculty at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake in 1923 and organized the school’s first women’s basketball team, serving as head coach until 1932. She retired from teaching in 1960 but remained involved in the recreation class. She lived on Forest Road in Burnt Hills for a time and, according to Zube, also shared a home with longtime friend Helen Neibergall near the intersection of Kingsley and Lake Hill Road.
“She would show up at volleyball and either referee the matches or play cards with some of the other women,” said Zube. “She was too old to play volleyball at that time, but she loved coming to our matches and playing pinochle. She loved being with the group.”
That’s still a pretty good reason to show up on Monday nights, according to Carol Casagrand, who’s been a regular attendee most of the past 25 years.
“Years ago I came for the exercise, but now it’s for the camaraderie,” she said. “A lot of us here have seen each other through having kids, being with the Scouts, getting older, and a few of us have passed away or lost our husbands. It’s about the camaraderie. That’s the important part.”
Sara Niemiec, a BH-BL grad, is one of Casagrand’s two daughters who also show up on a regular basis to play. She played soccer, basketball and softball in high school, but not volleyball.
“I didn’t play in high school but I wish I had,” said Niemiec, 32. “I have played in a few other volleyball leagues a few years ago, but I have an 11-year-old and a 2-year-old now, and I’m lucky to get out one night a week. I started with this group about eight years ago and I love the exercise and the camaraderie. These girls are just too great to give up.”
Doris Cromie and Lila Morelli were both recently toasted by the group for having participated for 35 years.
“I played in high school and this is a fun, good group and it’s great to get out and socialize,” said Cromie, a 1964 BH-BL grad. “Sometimes we even work up a sweat. Sometimes.”
Morelli, at 71, is the oldest of the group.
“I don’t do any aerobics, but I have a yard to clean and mow, and I have a garden,” said Morelli. “The exercise I get here is nice, but it’s just for fun. If you come here and don’t laugh, something’s wrong with you. Sometimes my stomach hurts from laughing so much.”
On occasion, someone brings a friend or a newcomer shows up and their skill level is considerably higher than the rest of the group. Not a problem, says Morelli.
“They just don’t come back,” she said, laughing. “We had a couple of girls show up one night a few years ago. They were tall, thin and terrific, more like professionals. But we never saw them again.”
At one point, when Rice was still running things, the group of women might have been a bit more competitive, occasionally challenging teams from Schenectady or a local YWCA. Also, if the gym was unavailable on a certain Monday, Rice might have her group meet in a classroom and watch a film. And, when Burnt Hills Lanes opened up in 1960, they might also, on rare occasions, skip a volleyball match and go bowling. But for 85 years, throughout the school season, the group would always get together on Monday night.
As far as Kapusta can tell, there was only one time when the class was suspended. A Daily Gazette article of Jan. 4, 1943, stated that due to the fuel shortage caused by World War II, Rice’s group would stop meeting. However, in April that same year, there was another article telling readers that the Burnt Hills Women’s Recreation Class was back in business.
“I got involved in the club because a friend at work, Pat Myers, was the woman who had three generations, her mom, herself and her daughter, all a part of the group,” said Kapusta. “It’s been great fun for me, and it’s been wonderful to look into all the history connected to the group. It makes us feel like we’re part of something special.”
On Dec. 6 at 5:30 p.m., the group is having a special Christmas dinner at the Golden Phoenix Restaurant in Niskayuna to celebrate its 85th season.
“Usually we just have a small get-together at a restaurant or someone’s home, but this year we’re going to open it up to all past members,” said Kapusta. “We’re contacting as many people as we can to let them know about it. Hopefully we’ll get a great turnout.”