In a community of active volunteers, those who contribute quietly behind the scenes are sometimes overlooked. Such a one is Phil "Bunk" Griffin who, since 1994, has made an immense contribution to the preservation of village history.
Many people, newer residents especially, are unaware of just who Bunk is and what he has accomplished. An Adirondack native, he has worked as a cook at Adirondack Medical Center for the last 39 years while, at the same time, working at home to put together an historical treasure trove of area stories and photos.
Bunk grew up in Saranac Lake, attending local schools where, to his teachers' dismay, he devoted a considerable portion of class time doodling on his lesson books. Though sketching was his favorite pastime, he nevertheless managed to get thrown out of the only art class he ever took. He had refused to draw as instructed.
Phil ‘Bunk’ Griffin
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)
After graduating, he worked as a cook for MarMac's (the bowling alley), Mt. Pisgah's snack bar and Dew Drop Inn. He was just 20 years old when first introduced to bobsledding by Dew Drop Morgan and his colleagues. Bunk loved it, became a certified, officially trained bobsledder and called it a "fun sport with good guys."
In 1973, as a joke, Bunk slid a cartoon under the door at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, signing it "Bunky." It was immediately published and received such reader enthusiasm that he was hired to sketch a cartoon a day for the paper. The plump, somewhat abstract figures his cartoons have featured, among others, "Mountain Al," based on the hermit Noah Rondeau, and "Scoop Wryley," a gentle characterization of former Enterprise reporter, Howard Riley.
Bunk used to put his head together with columnist Bill McLaughin. Together they came up with local issues as subjects for Bunk's s satiric sketches.
When Bunk's approach became too controversial for the editor at the time, Bill Doolittle (but not advertisers who boycotted the paper in support of Bunk), he moved on to the Enterprise's sister paper, the Lake Placid News, where he provided weekly cartoons up through the 1980 Olympics.
Weary of the routine, he retired from the paper shortly thereafter. He still draws his insightful cartoons, occasionally submitting them to the paper as he did recently to illustrate the plight of curator Mike Delahant threatened with eviction from the Stevenson Cottage.
"My cartoons are seasoned with a touch of Bunk," he says, by way of warning the reader not to take them too seriously.
In 1993, with the advent of the World Wide Web, Bunk had the idea of developing a Web site where Saranac Lakers who had moved away could reconnect with their hometown. Knowing little about computers, but with self-discipline and determination, Bunk bought scores of books and settled down to teach himself the complex system of hyper-text mark-up lines. He learned the skills needed to program and after many long hours of study, became an accomplished Webmaster.
When he first set up www.Bunksplace.com some 15 years ago, he found a lot of old friends who had since moved away and contacted him via his Web site. They sent so many photographs that he added a category called "The Way We Were."
More and more former residents began writing to him, recalling their times together in the good old days. This inspired Bunk to set up a section called "Your Memories of Saranac Lake" for their recollections.
As his interest in history developed, so did his collection of historic postcards, which he also shares on his Web site.
No description of the Web site can do justice to his creation. It has won awards from Schnibco's List of Best Websites and Nik's Nooks. It is a sophisticated source of information, which includes, among other things, updated local weather reports, news links, live area Web cams, event announcements and 85 pages, bursting with unusual local stories and more than 2,000 historical photos.
Bunk said his purpose is to save the history that does not make it into official documents; the history that is the fabric of our community, the oral and written recollections of the "plumbers, carpenters, loggers, waiters, waitresses and everyday workers" who make up the backbone of the community.
Many, recognizing the value of his project, have sent photo and story contributions. The better part of Bunk's days are spent gathering together this material; researching, editing and scanning it into a well-organized format. He pays all the costs of Web site hosting, is constantly reaching out to find more history, frequently bids on eBay for any relevant material, and helps other researchers with information.
"I try to save things nobody has ever heard of," he explained, "like the Wildman of Rainbow Lake." Stay tuned for that upcoming story. "Research is like detective work; you take little clues and use those to go on searching." He spends hours tracking tidbits of information, piecing them together to discover never before told stories. One of the most intriguing is that of the Saranac Lake bootlegger Pete Tanzini. Bunk was equally fascinated by the accounts he received via his Web site and e-mail, of former Saranac Lakers who had moved to New Orleans and struggled to survive Katrina.
Now semi-retired, Bunk works two days a week, spending most of the remaining time salvaging what would otherwise be lost history. He and his wife Paula, married in 1969, have two grown daughters, Karry and Kelly, and one 17-year old grandson, Chris.
Bunk said he is delighted that Chris is following in his "bobsled footsteps," actively pursuing not only this sport, but luge and skeleton as well.
When it comes to travel, Bunk says "Where would I go? I like it right here." Referring to his avocation, he says, "I'll never be through."
He said he does hope to find someone to carry on his work when he no longer can. He also hopes to find the funds to create a hard copy of the Web site, which he would donate to the Saranac Lake Free Library.
For all his diligence and enthusiastic research, there are days when he suddenly feels swamped by all the material, tosses it in the air and yells "OK, I'm out of here" (as demonstrated in the photo above). Then he heads to the Waterhole for a brew and some company before returning home once more to archive more historical treasures.
Based on an interview with Phil "Bunk" Griffin. Caperton Tissot can be reached at Tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.