In Memorium: Roger Sipher
By Charles Coon
Roger Sipher, Professor Emeritus at SUNY College at Cortland and Lifetime Member of the Board of Directors of the Central New York Council for the Social Studies, died Saturday, January 14, 2012 after a long illness. Dr. Sipher was 81 and he will be sorely missed by a large number of friends, colleagues, and former students. His wit and wisdom were always apparent in equal measures. In the fall of 2010, the History Club and the History Department embarked on the Emeriti Voices Project to tell the history of SUNY Cortland's History Department. Professor Sipher and his colleague Don Wright were interviewed by the Cortland History Club last spring. The video of those interviews can be found at http://www2.cortland.edu/departments/history/oral-history.dot.
Dr Sipher’s life story began with his birth in McComb, NY in St. Lawrence County. His first twelve years were spent on a 256 acre dairy farm that had neither electricity nor running water. In grades K-6 he went to a one-room school house and there were never more than a dozen kids in the school. He had two older brothers, Elon and Erton. The family moved from the farm when Roger was twelve. Up until then his life was that of a typical rural boy, and in addition to the cows, his family had about 1,000 maple trees and in the spring they made maple syrup and sugar. In the unpublished autobiography that Roger wrote primarily for his children he said that “even at a young age I was expected to work, either working in the barn with the cattle, including milking some of the time or splitting wood for the two stoves we had, including keeping the wood basket full. And I also worked in the fields, helping with the haying in a day and age when we did not have modern agricultural implements. Also, I usually tended the chickens. When threshing time came for our oat, or when corn had to be cut and blown into the silo my mother would prepare a huge meal for the farmers who came from the area to assist us. We had three meals a day, breakfast, dinner at noon and supper.” Roger moved to Governeur when he was twelve.
Of course everyone who knew Roger knew how important Education was to him. One paragraph where he talked about an experience he had in 11th grade illustrates his faith in quality teaching: “In my junior year I was in a study hall supervised by Miss Herring and we had a falling out--all my fault--which resulted in my having to stay after school for a month in her room. During that time I listened to her work with her senior American history students and I thoroughly enjoyed the things she talked about. Sometime late in that school year she asked me if I wanted to be in her Regents American history class the next fall--my senior year. She stopped me in the hall to ask, which took me by surprise. She asked me if I wanted to be in the course and then she said: "you're a smart young man but I'm not going to put up with any of your nonsense." I was shocked, not by the no-nonsense part but by the smart young man remark. I immediately responded that I wanted to be in her class.”
After high school Mr. Sipher didn’t know what he wanted to do: but there was one thing he knew he did not want to be, and that was a farmer. So he went to Central City Business Institute in Syracuse – primarily to play basketball. He then attended Brockport State for a year before transferring to Potsdam. He graduated from Potsdam State with a degree in Education in 1954. He then volunteered for the Draft and spent much of his two-year military career in Germany. After the Army he was hired for a teaching job at Williamson Central School for a position teaching junior high math and coaching JV basketball and varsity tennis. He was not yet certified to teach high school, but had a goal of teaching high school social studies. In 1958 he started a Master’s program at the University of Rochester using the GI Bill. The U of R experience was really Roger’s “ah ha!” moment. He discovered he could be an extremely good student. In 1959 he took a job teaching social studies at Liverpool High School. In 1961 he was hired to supervise student teachers at Cortland State. While at Cortland he also started his PhD program at Syracuse University, going to classes in the late afternoon and evening. Roger was fond of telling a story of how he was hired to teach history at Cortland and expected to have the summer to prepare his classes. As he recalled: “Imagine my surprise when the chair of the history department called and asked if I would teach a six week summer course. I said I would, mainly because I needed the money. The result was that I lectured in every class session and prayed that the students would never ask a question. How I got through it I’ll never know.”
In 1967 Sipher and a few others developed Cortland’s Professional Semester. It was broken into three parts: a pre-student teaching segment of five weeks in which students would be in class five weeks for six hours a day learning how to teach, an eight week student teaching assignment (supervised by a qualified history department member), and a post student teaching segment (five days a week, six hours a day) during which time they would evaluate their experience and prepare a short portfolio for a prospective employer. Students were graded on a satisfactory-unsatisfactory basis. Failure in student teaching ended the semester for that particular student. It was the model for decades to come.
In 1976 Professor Sipher received the Chancellors Award for Excellence in Teaching and in 1995 he was named a Distinguished Service Professor. In 2004 the SUNY Potsdam College of Education honored him with its prestigious Saint Lawrence Academy Medal for exemplary Service.
In the 1970s Dr Sipher became one of those rare people among college professors to work extensively with public school teachers. (John Langdon from LeMoyne is the other who comes to mind). He started working with the Central New York Council for the Social Studies and urged the Council Board to expand its activities. The result was that the Board became very successful in organizing day long workshops for educators that are now attended by hundreds of CNY teachers each fall. In addition, he wrote a grant request to the National Geographic Society which culminated in the Society creating a New York chapter to better educate elementary and secondary social studies teachers about geography and its classroom uses. And for a time he served on the board of the NY Alliance. For several summers he coordinated numerous workshops around the state for teachers as the major activity of the NYS Council for the Social Studies Professional Development Committee. Sipher was the recipient of numerous awards from both the CNYCSS and the NYSCSS, and each spring a young, beginning teacher is rewarded with an award named after him by the CNY council.
In a note to the Cortland community, Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum said “Roger had an incredible dedication to students, a unique sense of humor, a love of history, and was a community builder in the department, across the campus and through his profession, one former colleague recalls. ‘There are hundreds of teachers and public school administrators who owe their careers to that man,’ notes Randi Storch, Chair of the Department of History.’”
Dr. Sipher is survived by his two children, Kate and John, both of whom he was extraordinarily proud, three grandsons, and his good friend Karen Pierce and her family.
If you would like to make a contribution in Roger’s memory you can send a check to “Cortland College Foundation- History Department”. In the memo line, people should write "in Roger Sipher's memory." Mail to: Cortland College Foundation, Brockway Hall, SUNY Cortland, Cortland, NY 13045.
If you would like an unedited version of the autobiography Roger wrote for his children, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.