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Insight: Anastasia Pratt

By Michelle St. Onge Photo by Jessica McCafferty

Hometown: Plattsburgh

Education: B.A. in History from SUNY Plattsburgh; M.A. and Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan

Occupation: Associate Professor at SUNY Empire State University and Clinton County Historian.

Community Involvement: Commissioner for New York State’s Thousand Islands Parks Commission (Division of Historic Sites, Parks and Preservation); board member for The Straw Hatters concert band organization; historian and ex-officio member of numerous historical groups

Humble, passionate and grateful are some of the best words to describe Anastasia Pratt, who sat down with Strictly Business recently to reflect on her education, career and life experiences. Pratt has lived, studied and worked in the Plattsburgh area for most of her life. Her family home was steeped in a love of history and storytelling. “My mother had a passion for family tree research and my father was the de facto family historian with a fascination for old buildings,” she shared. It’s no surprise that in high school, Pratt was most inspired by the topics covered in her social studies and history classes. Her gratitude for the exceptional teachers who inspired her love of history, literature and the arts at Peru Central School and SUNY Plattsburgh is evident in her actions and her words, but it doesn’t stop there. She is currently paying it forward, serving as an award-winning college professor at SUNY Empire State, inspiring the next generation.

Pratt has served as the County Historian since 2008. She is also a well-known musician in the community. She can be found playing bass for the folk band Towne Meeting and teaches string instrument classes as an adjunct professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. In her spare time, she joins many vocal and instrumental performance groups at the university and in the community.

Following are excerpts from my recent interview with Dr. Anastasia Pratt.

SB: What inspired you to pursue a career in history?

AP: I was one of those kids who grew up curious about the experiences of people from different generations. I remember asking several members of my family where they were when they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Then, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during my own childhood, I recognized that was one of those moments. In school I had so many good teachers who inspired my curiosity. When I got to college, Jim Lindgren’s historic preservation course was a game changer for me. We learned about historic buildings and did house histories which involved researching the families who lived in them. That semester over Thanksgiving dinner, I realized that for the first time I could have an in-depth conversation with my uncle and my cousin who are contractors, and with my parents who were always interested in history. That is the moment when it clicked for me that that was what I was meant to do.

SB: What are your favorite courses to teach?

AP: I love history, and I love literature, so the best courses combine a little of both. I am fortunate that at Empire that I get to teach an array of things. Most of what I teach has an historical bent, but my favorites are public history and museum studies. They are less narrow than history courses, where I get to ask students to think about things that are really important to them, and then translate those into exhibits or into a plan for a museum.

SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?

AP: To appreciate the people you’re working with and respect their stories. This is particularly important for a school like SUNY Empire which is focused on adult learners. These are people who are coming back to school after some kind of break. That break could have been a peaceful break of their own choosing, but it could also have been something relatively traumatic. Not everybody has had the same amazing school experience I did. I learned how important it is to learn about the person sitting in front of you by listening to them.

SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life?

AP: I have two quotes that I love. The first is based on Micah 6:8 from The Bible. ”Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly.” The second is an Aesop quote: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” I think that kindness is often misunderstood as weakness, especially in the world of academia. To me, kindness is an action that is related to respecting people and wanting justice for them.

SB: As a historian, what aspect of Clinton County history do you think Strictly Business readers would be most surprised to learn?

AP: A lot of the questions we get from people are related to genealogy searches. I think people would be surprised to know that New York State did not require centralized record keeping until the 1880’s. That means any records before the that time are not likely to be complete. We may have a birth certificate, but we probably don’t. It is a bizarre thing, because the State was so forward-thinking in so many other areas back then.

The other thing that I would like people to know about Clinton County is there were influential women here. So much of the history that was kept only includes the names of men, because that’s what generations of scholars and historians did. The good news is that this doesn’t mean that women are lost to history. It means that we have to work a little harder to uncover their histories. Sometimes it feels like there’s a brick wall between us and the version of history that includes the stories of women, children, and people of color.

SB: What are you most proud of professionally?

AP: I am proud to have received some honors, including being named to the Peru Central School Hall of Fame, a Girl Scout Woman of Distinction, and receiving the Chancellor’s Award for University Service. What I am most proud of is when I get a message from one of my students, telling me about their successes and how I have played a part in that. They show me that who I am, and the work that I have done, has made a difference. My heart swells, and it is truly the best feeling.

SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person living or dead, who would it be and why?

AP: I’d really love to sit down and talk to Louisa May Alcott. I’d like to find out just how much of Little Women was autobiographical and how much was fictional. I would ask her what it was like to be a woman pushing the boundaries of her time, while not always being able to share that with the people closest to her.

SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?

AP: I think that the Clinton County community needs to carefully consider the balance of the old and the new. I have an opinion that might sound very unhistorian-like. I agree that we need to preserve the past, and I think we need to tell the stories of the past. But I don’t think that everything old needs to be preserved in the built environment. All old buildings do not need to be saved. We can also preserve their stories through photographs, artwork and written form.

AP: I aspire to leave the world a better place than I found it. I’m not a billionaire, so I won’t accomplish that by spending lots of money. I strive to make a difference in whatever ways I can. If I ever win the lottery, the first thing I would do is set up a foundation to help people. Since I haven’t won the lottery yet, I try to help in small ways every single day. I believe that nothing I do will be wasted; every act of kindness will bring something good to the world, and every act of listening or offering respect will bring some justice into the world for people who deserve justice.

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