The unkindest cuts

“THE LEANING PINE — A landmark in hotel days, and now the symbol of Paul Smith’s College,” reads the original caption for this photo in the college’s St. Regian yearbook, dated Jan. 1, 1961.

In mid-November 1971 I was in the Navy, doing what I did most of the time — taking Morse code — when my friend Frank walked over.

“Hey,” he said, “you went to Paul Smith’s College, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”

“‘Cause there’s something about it in today’s Stars and Stripes.”

“Something in the Stars and Stripes about Paul Smith’s?” I asked, incredulous. “What was it?”

“This photo of the Leaning Pine was taken the morning the tree was cut down,” reads the original caption for this photo in the college’s Alumni News, dated March 1, 1972.

“A kid cut down a tree,” he said.

Since three-fourths of PSC students were stumpies, cutting down trees was nothing newsworthy. But if there was one tree whose felling WAS newsworthy, it was The Leaning Pine.

And sure enough, that was it. Some jackass had chopped it down. Or more exactly, some jackass had FINALLY chopped it down, since over the years other jackasses had tried and failed. In fact, in an effort to keep it propped up, the trunk contained more cement than wood.

The Leaning Pine was a 300-year-old, 125-foot-high pine that leaned over the college’s entrance road at a 45 degree angle. It was a freak of nature and an area landmark. It was also PSC’s logo, which was perfect since PSC’s students and employees were as much freaks of nature as the tree.

For all the years I taught there, rumors persisted that the kid who dropped the LP went to prison for it. But I knew that wasn’t true for one good reason — Dr. Chester L. Buxton.

Dr. Buxton was PSC’s first president, and he held the office for 30 years. The term “powers that be” describes the people who control an organization. But it wouldn’t have applied to Paul Smith’s because back then there was only ONE power, The Good Doctor himself.

When he ruled the roost, there were no other administrators to speak of, and he controlled everything, from how money was invested, to who got hired in any position, from cafeteria workers and maintenance people, all the way down to faculty.

He was a fine figure of a man. He was tall and dignified looking, with a full head of white hair and sleepy blue eyes that didn’t miss a damned thing. His clothes were outer manifestations of his inner formality — he wore only suits, and they as understated as they were expensive. Rumor had it that one of the teachers from before my time called Dr. B. by his first name. It that was true, it was also unique, since I never knew anyone else, on campus or off, who addressed him as anything BUT Doctor.

The Big Three

Dr. B. had three distinct sides to his personality. He was one part Santa Claus, one part Don Corleone and one part Judge Roy Bean.

First, he was generous to a fault. He kept the tuition on par with state schools’, making up the difference in his investments, because he said no person should be deprived a college education due to lack of money. Beyond that, if kids showed up and couldn’t pay their full bill, Dr. B. had them sign an IOU of sorts (which I’m sure wasn’t legally binding) and then found jobs for them on campus.

He also put on an X-mas party for all the area schoolchildren, and he did it in perfect form. A teacher took handwritten invitations to each classroom, read off each child’s name and then handed them the invite. The soiree was held in the school cafeteria, and every kid got a really fine gift — separate ones for the girls and boys. Santa (always the tallest, fattest forester) arrived at the party in style, in a horse-drawn sleigh driven by Gould Hoyt.

Dr. B. could also be as strict as any capo de tutti capi. To him, loyalty was everything: If you did for him, he’d do for you. We had no tenure, or even written contracts, since business was conducted with a handshake, but everyone was fine with it since his word was bond. He also insisted on a code of silence that made Omerta look like a yenta’s delight. The college’s dysfunctions and deviations stayed in the college. Period.

Finally, there was his dispensing of Buxtonian Justice, which was always swift, harsh and non-negotiable. Any sentence he imposed was as final an act as the crossing of the Rubicon, the only difference being Caesar probably gave more favorable truce terms to his vanquished.

There was a longtime field instructor who was a longer-time boozer. He did his job well and the students liked him, so while his tippling was no secret, it also wasn’t an issue. At least not till one registration day. He showed up nursing one king hell of a hangover, and in a lousy mood.

He was working with Creighton Fee and was grumbling up a storm. He didn’t like this, he didn’t like that, the whole registration was a mess (which it wasn’t), and he was just fed up with it. Finally, his anger overpowered his common sense.

“I’ve had it,” he said to Creighton. “I’m gonna tell The Old Man just what he can do with his registration.”

Creighton tried to reason with him, but it was futile. Finally, he gave up, and the guy stormed off to the admin building to give Dr. B. a piece of his mind, which he did.

His meeting had mixed results. On the positive side, he didn’t have to suffer through that registration anymore. On the negative side, his job was now as long gone as the Battle of Kadesh.

No poetry, but lots of justice

And now let’s loop back to the rumor about the guy who cut down the Leaning Pine going to prison. As wonderful a bit of karma and poetic justice that would’ve been, it never happened.

Not that Dr. B. wasn’t furious — of course he was. He wasn’t only the president of PSC — in his mind, he was PSC. So to him, putting an ax to the LP was the same as going all Lizzy Borden on him, PERSONALLY!

But remember how I said campus craziness did not get broadcasted to the outside world (the outside world beginning right where Route 86 ended)? The unstated but ironclad rule was, while the college minded its business, everyone else could mind theirs, and never the twain should meet.

Beyond that, there’d be no arrest because Dr. B. hated the state. As Lord of the Manor and Master of All He Surveyed, he welcomed neither advice nor interference, and woe betide any fool who indulged in either. Ultimately, it was a simple matter of rendering unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, and unto Buxton that which was Buxton’s.

So meting out the punishment was a simple matter.

The miscreant had dropped the tree at 0230 on Nov. 11, and by noon he’d been ratted out by legions of his peers. Then in the early afternoon, he was called into Dr. B’s office, told he was expelled and that he had an hour to pack up, head out and never darken Paul Smith’s doorstep again.

And as simple as the expulsion was, the appeal was even easier — there was none.

We all know the lovely concept of Forgive and Forget. That said, given Dr. Buxton’s private nature, I know very little about the inner workings of his mind. But I do know this much: When it came to the kid who dropped the Leaning Pine, Dr. B did neither.

Editor’s note: There actually was an arrest in the chopping of the Leaning Pine. James R. Woods’ history of the college, published in 1980, quotes the notarized confession of 18-year-old James M. Bouton to state police in March 1972 — that he and another student, David Salmond, chopped down the tree because Bouton was disappointed in a grade forestry professor Gould Hoyt had given him on how well he maintained his equipment, specifically on the sharpness of his ax. Bouton was charged with third-degree criminal mischief, a felony, although his name was withheld from the press pending youthful offender eligibility. In July 1972, Bouton and Salmond settled with the college to pay $2,500, which Woods says was less than a quarter of the tree’s market lumber value in 1971. More about the Leaning Pine can be read in an article the Enterprise published in July 2001:



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