Delain, passionate advocate for poor, Vale Cemetery, dies at 65
SCHENECTADY The woman who nearly single-handedly got Vale Cemetery onto the National Register of Historic Places has died.
Katherine Olney Delain, 65, died Sunday night at Ellis Hospital after an illness. Her funeral is today at noon at Daly Funeral Home.
She was an outspoken woman who stood up for many who did not have voices of their own. She championed historic buildings and places as well as the poor and homeless. Having once been homeless, she described at length her escape through the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority and her ongoing fears of someday becoming homeless again.
She did not shun the limelight. She spoke regularly at City Council meetings. She was also a strong writer who wrote op-eds for The Daily Gazette every month for years, even though she was never hired as a regular writer. She ran a public access television show as well, interviewing hundreds of locals.
With her husband, Gary Delain, she became an advocate for public access as a way for residents to express their views.
Yet for all of her advocacy, she apparently died alone, without anyone to even pay for her funeral. Bernie McEvoy, the vice president of the Vale board of trustees, wrote her obituary. The municipal housing authority is paying to bury her at Vale.
Her work there began in 2002, when the Vale board proposed bulldozing the vacant caretaker’s building at the entrance to the cemetery. The space was to be used for a health center.
Delain waded in, fighting first for the historic building and then for the entire cemetery.
In an op-ed piece, she made her opinion of the matter crystal clear.
“For many years, the State Street entrance to Vale Cemetery has stood a proud, majestic gateway to one of the oldest cemeteries in the area and a tribute to the saner minds of city planners from past generations,” she wrote, clearly criticizing current city planners.
“Now, as developers make demands to demolish that entryway for a new health center, Vale faces the loss of much of its beauty and character and the city faces the loss of a historic marvel that can never be replaced.”
She won that battle, and the caretaker’s building was saved. The Friends of Vale, which she organized, renovated it and then offered it to police officers as a residence on the theory that a police officer’s presence would deter crime.
She also organized the effort to raise money for security cameras. Since then, the camera system has been greatly expanded and vandalism of old gravestones has fallen significantly, McEvoy said.
But the biggest victory came on Aug. 19, 2004: The state listed the cemetery on the New York Register of Historic Places.
On Dec. 1, the cemetery made the national register.
The Vale Cemetary Board honored her as “the person who saved the Vale.”
“She was instrumental,” McEvoy said.
Schenectady Heritage Foundation Chairwoman Gloria Kishton agreed that Delain should be credited with that success.
“She was a courageous woman who was not deterred from pursuing what she believed was right. And she was persistent,” Kishton said. “She dedicated enormous amounts of time to preserving and enhancing Vale Cemetery.”
Others knew her from her years of hosting a talk show on SACC-TV.
“What a host she was!” said Anneke Bull. “Well-informed on the subject. Asking the questions that should be asked. And concentrating on the programs that made sense for the community. She was such a good host on a variety of subjects.”
One of the people she interviewed, Schenectady High School global studies teacher Neil Yetwin, said he was always impressed by her.
“The thing that struck me about her interviews was she had really done her homework,” he said.
He acknowledged her in his book, which was just published, and thanked her for her interviews. They gave his research the authenticity he needed to get sources to lend him private papers and other documents, he said.
Gazette Opinion Editor Art Clayman said Delain’s research led him to publish her op-ed pieces almost monthly for years.
Other than the regulars paid to provide monthly columns, he ran more op-eds from her than anyone else, he said.
“To her credit, she managed to get stuff in on a wide range of topics,” he said. “She could make a good argument. And she had a point of view.”
But behind the scenes, things were not easy for Delain.
She lived hand-to-mouth, and the minimal pay she received for Gazette op-eds was critical income for her. On the rare occasions that Clayman didn’t turn in paperwork to pay her on time, he said she would call him desperately.
“She needed the money,” he said.
She lived in public housing and was afraid, up through the last months of her life, of living homeless again.
Her forceful attitude led to big changes in Schenectady’s historic preservation, but it got her in trouble, too. She argued vehemently with almost everyone at some point.
Clayman recalled that she wrote angry letters to the general manager when he rejected an op-ed.
“She had a chip on her shoulder,” he said. “We had a kind of testy relationship.”
That was true with many people in her life. McEvoy has numerous emails he saved because of their relevance to the preservation of Vale. As he looked through them, he chuckled at email after email in which she went to war against one prominent city official after another, generally over small differences of opinion.
One offered a look at her difficult personal life.
“I am terribly afraid of being homeless, of losing my cats,” she wrote.
She named them Ice Cream and Butterscotch. And despite her fears, she was able to keep them, and to keep her apartment, until the day she died.