PLATTSBURGH — The Plattsburgh City School District Board of Education unanimously voted to rename the Webb Island Footbridge in honor of late teacher and athletic director Thelma I. Douglas during a special meeting Tuesday.
"It (the bridge) encourages movement back and forth across the city and that’s what Thelma was all about," retired Plattsburgh High School teacher Anne Bailey said prior to the vote.
A native of Niagara Falls, Douglas earned her bachelor's degree in health and physical education from Cortland State College before working as a teaching assistant and earning her master's at UCLA, according to her obituary.
She first came to the North Country while working as a counselor at Camp Tanager Lodge on Chateaugay Lake. After starting her teaching career in Auburn, she came to Plattsburgh in 1944 to teach physical education.
During her 32 years with the district, Douglas became the first woman in the state to serve as director of health, physical education and recreation, and received a federal grant to bring a program titled "Movement Education" to Plattsburgh Elementary School.
"She believed very strongly in fostering participation in all sports, but particularly in sports that carried over into adult life," Bailey said.
REMEMBERS 'MISS D'
In making the case for renaming the bridge after Douglas, Bailey drew from a letter written by retired librarian Dan Ladue, who is working on a book about 25 leading women in the North Country that features Douglas.
"He says that when you think of Thelma, think of movement," she said. "She was a great advocate for students to move, and she always built motion into her curriculum whether it was hiking or skiing or biking or swimming, and she did of course teach all the team sports as well."
Douglas encouraged girls to participate in sports by organizing citywide play days for girls to compete against each other, which was unusual in her time, Bailey said.
She was also a founding member of both the Algonquin Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club and Beartown Ski Area.
"She made sure that all the kids had skis," Bailey said. "She went around collecting skis for them and she taught skiing free. She also inspired the Rotary to run a ski bus on Saturdays so that children could get to Beartown."
She added that Ladue was one of the students who learned to ski in 1958, and one of many graduates who still remember "Miss D."
Douglas died in 2015 at the age of 94.
Board member Roderick Sherman read the resolution to adopt the name change into the record.
In addition to the accomplishments Bailey brought up, he noted Douglas' involvement in local committees focused on both physical and mental health, how she bicycled gym class equipment between city schools and her 1988 induction into the Plattsburgh High School Hall of Fame.
Per the resolution, the school district will install appropriate signage noting Douglas' recognition and notify appropriate public authorities to make necessary changes.
Plattsburgh CSD Superintendent of Schools Jay Lebrun said the district will focus on securing the signage once graduation and the annual reorganizational meeting are complete. He anticipates that might occur mid-summer.
When the footbridge — which connects Waterhouse Street and George Angell Drive over the Saranac River — was deemed unsafe and closed in November 2017, a long debate ensued between the district and the City of Plattsburgh over its ownership and who should be responsible for repairs and maintenance.
The district ended up taking the lead, with state funds covering the bulk of the $594,000 project.
At the bridge's dedication last fall, both Lebrun and then City of Plattsburgh Mayor-elect Chris Rosenquest expressed support for the city taking over ownership from the district. Reached Thursday, both said their sentiments remained the same.
"I continue to support the transfer of title of the bridge, and I know that the Board of Education feels similarly and believes that city government is the only logical owner (as was the intent and agreement when it was constructed)," Lebrun said.
Rosenquest described the bridge as a community asset that both supports a safe path to school for students in the south end and feeds into trails and public parks owned and promoted by the city.
"However, the path to resolve this sits with the council," he added. "With the number of growing opportunities to work in partnership with PCSD, this is one of those issues that would be the catalyst to a whole series of shared service initiatives ... that fundamentally help save the same taxpayers money and will show a cohesive and supportive relationship between their elected officials."
Lebrun added that, since the dedication, some informal conversations about transferring ownership have occurred.
"Some more formal outreach from the district to the city may be contemplated, and may be made soon."
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