Going back to Joseph Ellicott, you would be hard pressed to find anybody has had more of a local impact over a sustained period of time than Catherine Roth.
And she's leaving us.
At age 95, Roth is moving from The Manor House in Batavia to an assisted-living facility near Albany, where she will be closer to her son and grandchildren.
"She really, physically worked hard with the organizations she was involved in," said Lucine Kauffman, a former Town of Elba supervisor and currently president of the Landmark Society of Genesee County, which Roth helped found. "Some people just want to throw money around, but she actually got her hands dirty. She worked hard and she was passionate. She was definitely one of my mentors and one of the first friends I made when I moved here."
We will need to write out a long list with numerous bullet points to list out all Roth did in her some 70 years of living in Genesee County, but let's do it anyway:
- Founding member of the Landmark Society in 1964;
- Spearheaded publication of "The Architectural Heritage of Genesee County";
- Started a swimming class for children in what is now known as Genesee ARC;
- She spent decades as a Girl Scout troop leader;
- Served on the Batavia City Council in the 1970s and served on the Master Plan Steering Committee;
- Member of the UMMC Hospital League, and baked and donated hundreds of pies to be sold in the snack shop at the hospital, where she also volunteered her time;
- A trustee with the First Presbyterian Church of Batavia, which she helped get listed on the National Register of Historic Places and took a leadership role in getting the tower restored;
- Planted flowers and weeded in numerous public places, including Dwyer Stadium and the Batavia Cemetery;
- Served on the YMCA Board of Directors;
- Served on the Holland Land Purchase Historical Society Board of Directors;
- Founding member of the Sun Catchers Garden Club;
- Board of Directors, Stafford Historical Society;
- Board member of the Batavia Cemetery Association, where she established the James T. Roth Memorial Arboretum, in memory of her son who was killed by an elderly driver in a car accident;
- Helped get the Batavia Cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places;
- Recipient of numerous local awards;
- With her sisters, a member of the oldest living triplets in the United States;
- Lobbied for years, after her son was killed, to change NYS law on allowing elderly people to retain driver's licenses and gave hers up when she felt she was too old to drive.
Roth was honored -- one of several such gatherings planned around the county before she departs for Albany on Nov. 17 -- yesterday in the Stafford Town Court by the Stafford Historical Society.
She said she was embarrassed by the attention. She never volunteered for anything to get attention, she said. She volunteered because she could.
"I'm embarrassed to say, but I didn't have to work," Roth said. "My husband (Dr. Lawrence Roth) was an obstetrician-gynecologist and I just never had to work, which is very different from what women have to do now."
Roth was born and raised in Long Island and she and her sisters graduated from William Smith College, which they attended on a scholarship. Each of the young ladies met their future husbands while in college, and all three young men were graduates of Hobart College.
Dr. Roth was a decendent of a family, the Tyler family, that settled in Stafford in 1810. The Tyler's roots in the colonies go back to the early 17th Century (one branch of the Tylers, not the branch that came to Le Roy) produced Ernest Hemingway.
When Dr. Roth returned to Batavia to begin his medical career, he brought his bride with him and she got involved early in the life of the community.
She adopted it as her own and cherished the things that made it unique, which made her a staunch opponent of urban renewal, a turn of events in the city's history that she's still bitter about.
"They really ruined Batavia, as far as I'm concerned," she said yesterday.
Her activism in fighting urban renewal paved the way for the creation of the Landmark Society and launched her local political career, prompting her to run for City Council.
"I was the biggest vote-getter," she said.
Her time on council is among her proudest achievements, as well as teaching developmentally disabled children how to swim, saving the Batavia Cemetery and building the arboretum in honor of her departed son.
Laurie Oltramari, currently director of the Batavia Improvement District, and a former president of the Landmark Society, said at yesterday's gathering that Roth gave her confidence to be a leader, even if that meant ruffling feathers along the way.
"Sometimes I was dubbed 'Little Catherine' because I don't like to take no for an answer and I'm not afraid to burn bridges and lose friendships when it means doing the right thing," Oltramari said. "That's really a hard thing to do, but when you have somebody like Catherine saying it's 'OK, you'll be OK,' it really is a life lesson."
Roth's example -- she's thought of by many as somebody who demonstrated equal rights for women long before equal rights for women really became a movement -- has inspired many women, including Rev. Roula Alkhouri, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Batavia.
"I always felt affirmed because you always told me the truth," Rev. Alkhouri told Roth during Wednesday's gathering. "You would share your opinion, but it was never in the spirit of you don't know what you're doing because you're young. It was in the sense that I felt affirmed as a woman being in ministry and welcomed."
"I felt really affirmed," she added, "and I realized that when I met her sisters. They came up one time and they said 'You know what, we haven't heard anything bad about you.' "
Kauffman said she always found Roth kind and kindhearted, and a lot of people did, but she was also always strong willed and had deeply held beliefs. That sometimes rubbed some men the wrong way.
"A lot of men thought she was a loudmouthed broad and a pushy broad and I've always wondered, as a woman myself, if she was a man, would they say 'He's pushy,' or 'He's a loudmouth'? No, they would just say 'He's a leader and he had a vision.' "
Roth said there was no grand vision to her service. She just did it.
"I didn't want to be bored with life," she said.