For those of us who have grown up tucked within the congenial fabric of rural life, that which breeds the kind of familiarity whose beauty is only rivaled by the backdrop of our beloved local landscape, there are those figures who feel as though they can simply never leave us. Those that have been a permanent fixture during our youth and whose visage does not seem to change despite the passage of time. Sometimes it’s the hairdresser or the bartender, many times it’s the educator or volunteer fireman. All are ubiquitous in their presence, as if they are everywhere at once, and will always be there. They are signposts for the communities in which they live and even a source of steady comfort as we struggle with life’s challenges, a sturdy thread that leads back to that familiar fabric of our hometown when we are in desperate need to feel its warmth again.
Each town has its own beacon, usually identifiable for residents by last name: Herrington, Gallup, Avenia, Terni. Each evokes a sense of sentimentality that is only made available through the experience of living within their communal aura. In the farming town of Copake, NY, a place that itself is a living microcosm for rural life in America, many generational names have floated softly over its rolling hills. One name that recalls the culture of the tight-knit community throughout the decades is Proper. Today, each member of the Proper family elicits memories from the community both young and old, but it is the family patriarch Lawrence, affectionately known as Larry, whose life’s work of giving back and getting involved has become a symbol for the town itself.
Upon his death in November, scores of locals from Copake, Hillsdale and further afar descended upon Peck & Peck Funeral Home off of Route 22 to honor the man whose beacon shone throughout the Hudson Valley and whose presence most thought would linger much longer, like the familiar smell of smoke emanating from his homemade smoker, the signal for Proper family or community gatherings. Some came because they had the good fortune of knowing Larry personally, others because their parents or grandparents knew him, most came because, in some way, Larry helped to log a precious memory. In a testament to Larry’s inevitable place in Copake’s history, many came because they belonged to his fire company, attended one of many fundraising events he hosted, or played in the charitable alumni soccer game that he helped to organize.
A community pillar – a beacon
The framework for what would eventually build him into a pillar of the surrounding community began construction while Larry was still a teenager. Thanks to his fervent ambition for volunteerism, Larry became a member of the Craryville Fire Department at just 16 years old, the Community Rescue Squad at 18, and Copake’s Volunteer Fire Department at 23. Larry’s subsequent list of achievements, including time served as Vice President and Treasurer of the Copake Fire Department, do surprisingly little to reveal the man’s hearty congeniality. People were an outgoing passion for Larry and as a result he embodied the resonant character of our area. So it should come as no surprise to know he found love early.
After graduating from Taconic Hills in 1976, Larry married his high school sweetheart, Teri, in April of the following year. Together they would go on to raise three sons Todd, Ryan, and Andrew, and celebrate the birth of their daughter Bridgette later in life. Larry began his eclectic work history immediately taking a job as a bartender at Morandi’s, a local favorite in Hillsdale before transitioning to the insurance business and Mutual of Omaha where he worked until 1979. It wasn’t long before Larry’s penchant for enveloping himself in community life led him back to the Town of Copake and its Highway Department. For the next three decades plus, Larry would serve the community as an equipment operator, Deputy Highway Superintendent, and over a decade as the Town’s Highway Superintendent.
Unsurprisingly, Larry’s momentum would carry him into town government when, in 1985, he was elected to the Office of Copake Town Clerk. Larry would go on to serve multiple terms as the town’s Tax Collector before stepping away in 2020. Perhaps Larry’s most celebrated community contribution came in service of the beloved Copake Memorial Park. As a member of the Copake Parks and Recreation Commission as well as serving as the park’s Superintendent, Larry helped to shape the park into a place many still consider to be their backyard. Memories still linger there due in part to Larry’s support for youth sports programs. Apart from being a little league coach himself, Larry brought his enthusiasm for grilling to the concession stands where the communal smell of barbecue satiated kids and parents during youth soccer games. Larry would go on to make community engagement a family affair as each year the Proper clan would host the annual Burger/Laverack soccer game and barbecue, an event that raised funds for Taconic Hills Dollars for Scholars.
A family man above all else
While Larry’s life accomplishments read like a Hall of Fame checklist for community leadership, the greatest testament to his profound impact can be found in the family he dedicated his life to. For all his time spent making life a bit more comfortable for friends and neighbors, Larry’s generosity has helped to define the lives of his three sons Todd, Andrew, and Ryan and his endless love has shaped his only daughter Bridgette into a beloved teacher and wife. As the four sit down to memorialize their father, it becomes clear that Larry’s beacon of communal light has yet to fade within the hearts of those who loved him most.
Can you describe Larry’s early life? His life as a young man/father? Where did he begin his work in the community and how did his service play into his role as a dedicated father/husband?
Ryan: He was a hard worker from an early age. He would tell stories of driving his uncle’s tractor on the road at age nine, helping out on the farm and trading milk for cookies on his milk delivery run. He became a volunteer fireman while in high school and a member of the rescue squad shortly after. He treated every person like family, even if they were a stranger. It didn’t matter how big or small of a favor they needed, he would make sure it was taken care of and also that it would be done the right way.
Todd: As the oldest of Larry’s four kids, I had the distinct pleasure to be able to spend the most time with him while he graced our presence on this earth. Since he worked long hours to support our family and earn extra money that enabled all of us to live life to the fullest, he always tried to make the most of our time together. Every morning before school, and on weekends too, my dad would get up early to make a hearty breakfast for any of us who would rise early enough to join him. I made sure to do this every day so that I could tell him stories from my previous day, which he would listen to and subtly dole out nuggets of advice about life.
He coached the Copake Little League team for ten years spanning all three of his sons’ participation and was quite successful during his tenure, at one point winning five league championships in a row, all while teaching his team to play the game the right way and develop the character that would help them later in life.
Larry was a pillar of the community in Copake. Can you explain how his impact pervaded throughout the town, how many volunteer services did he lead or participate in?
Ryan: When I would enter a business or establishment pretty much anywhere in eastern Columbia County, I would often be greeted with a comment such as “You must be Larry’s son” or “You are a Proper.” It seemed that every person in town owed our dad a favor or two. When my wife and I purchased our house, about a half dozen of my dad’s friends came with chain saws, tractors, shovels, and whatever else was needed to take down trees and build our dream backyard. They worked all day out of respect for my father, their only payment being a warm meal and good conversation among friends.
My siblings and I once tried to calculate how many chickens have been cooked to perfection during the frequent fundraising chicken BBQs over the decades. I believe 80,000-100,000 chicken halves might not be out of the realm of possibility.
Bridgette: Our father took great pride in living in the Town of Copake. He held jobs as the Copake Town Clerk and Tax Collector, Highway Superintendent, in addition to his somewhat informal role of taking care of the Copake Memorial Park. While working these jobs he made sure everything ran smoothly, the town was well kept, and that the residents of Copake were safe. Our father’s efforts and dedication were recognized by the town when they dedicated the Copake Park building after him.
How would you describe Larry as the leader of the Proper family? Do you feel his personality led you down the paths to where you are now as adults?
Ryan: He seemed to know everything when I was a kid and young adult. Working with him on many home improvement projects at either my house or his I learned that he didn’t always know the answer, but he would figure out a solution to every problem or situation one way or another.
I have always tried to live my life by doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. I am honored to have my last name in our area, as it carries the reputation of being dependable, hardworking, and a person of honor and integrity. That is the legacy that our father left. After his passing, I had a moment of concern over whether I was ready to or going to be able to fill his shoes. A good friend gave me the best advice when he said that I didn’t need to worry about filling my father’s shoes because he was always very proud of how I filled my own shoes.
Bridgette: Our father did not go to college, so he and our mother made sure that all of us had the opportunity to go to college and pursue our dreams. Having such supportive and encouraging parents allowed me to become the teacher I am today. Growing up I always strived to be hardworking, respectful, kind, and giving like my father. He instilled in my siblings and me all of the tools we needed to be successful and yet still allowed us the freedom to pave our own way in the world and to learn from our mistakes.
Todd: When I was growing up, I was very keen on emulating my dad and wanted to be a fireman, an EMT, and do something that would allow me to operate heavy machinery. As I entered high school and thought more about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I shifted toward studying history, economics, and international relations, all subjects that my dad was not an expert in but he encouraged me to pursue what interested me, not to just follow in his footsteps. When I started my professional career in marketing analytics, my dad would attentively listen to me talk about the clients that I worked with and the business problems, showing a particular interest in the spirits and beer clients. He listened with great satisfaction as he knew that I chose a path that I was passionate about and that was all he wanted for each of his children, a goal which he can rest assured that we have all achieved.
Larry dedicated as much time to his home life and family hobbies as he did to the members of the community. What are some fond memories that revolve around him and his love for family?
Ryan: Over the past ten years or so, our father scaled back his workaholic lifestyle through various levels of “retirement,” which resulted in him diving into endless projects that included building a hot tub, a rock climbing wall, bike jumps, multiple meat smokers out of various appliances, increasingly luxurious hunting stands, restoring a pontoon boat, remodeling his home one room at a time (to name a few), and pretty much anything else that our mom or his grandchildren could dream up. He undoubtedly served his community, but he definitely took care of his family to a level that most couldn’t even imagine.
Andrew: He always seemed very excited about our family vacations to Cape Cod. He would talk about the upcoming trip throughout the year and then load up the trailer full of bikes, kayaks, and coolers for the week. He eagerly shuttled everyone back and forth to the crowded beaches making it as convenient as possible for his loved ones without often going to the beach himself. He instead opted to take our grandparents for leisurely drives around the Cape to take in the sights and prepare drinks and food for everyone’s return from their respective fun activity of the day. I think his favorite part of the trip was relaxing on the back porch, dozing off for a nap occasionally, and enjoying meals surrounded by family.
Bridgette: If anyone knew our father, they knew about his love for food. Every family party at our house was filled with my dad’s delicious meals – sautéed, seared, grilled, smoked, or otherwise. Later in his life, he enjoyed smoking meats and cheeses on his homemade smokers. I remember coming home from college and him asking me what meal I wanted when I arrived. He knew how much I missed his cooking while I was away and would always make my favorite meal without question upon my return.
Todd: I like to refer to my dad as an engineer without a degree. As my brother noted, he accomplished so much in the time that he was “semi-retired” and it is no mystery why our brother, Andrew, has multiple Masters degrees in the engineering field and has gone on to achieve all that he has in his professional life.
Dad was always one of the most difficult people to buy gifts for because he never really needed anything or generally coveted material possessions … but one year, I had the idea to start filling out our family genealogy on ancestry.com and sent him an email with a link to the account that I had created on his birthday. He was so thrilled with this gift (which made my day!) and he immediately started filling in additional information on distant ancestors that he knew off the top of his head and eventually ended up purchasing a hardcover family history book that a distant relative had published chronicling our family’s history dating back to the arrival of the Pro(p)per(t)s – over the years, the middle “p” and the “t” were dropped from the family name back in the late 17th century.
Larry’s leadership with the Highway Department is well documented and celebrated. What was it about the Highway Department that drew him into local government?
Ryan: He loved to improve his community, always leaving everything better than he found it. He transformed the Copake Park from a grass pasture to the community hub for all interests that we all enjoy today. He took pride in working along side his employees, never asking them to do something that he wouldn’t himself do. He seemed to always find a way to make his community a better place for his children and grandchildren.
Bridgette: During the winter dad would always stand by the window and just stare outside waiting for the snow to fall. He loved working for the Highway Department and plowing snow. Every summer my dad would bring the snowplows to the Copake Park for the park program to paint and decorate so that way in the winter the kids and everyone in town would see their artwork when the plow trucks came through.
Todd: Dad started his working life as a bartender at Morandi’s, but after I was born he was compelled to find employment that would allow him to keep a more family-friendly schedule and dabbled in insurance sales before finding his niche with the Copake Highway Department. After joining the crew, dad quickly made it clear that Lester Miller should groom him as his eventual successor as Superintendent by tapping him as his Deputy. In addition to his 9-to-5+ duties with the Highway Department, he followed in his father’s footsteps by assuming the role of Town Clerk following a landslide victory in his first election. He served several more terms during two separate stints as Town Clerk and Tax Collector or Deputy alongside his continued service to the local fire company and other local community organizations.
When it comes to local figures like Larry, it might be easy to say that their legacy is well defined. As a family, what do you think the legacy of Larry Proper is and how will he ultimately be remembered?
Ryan: Our father would always refer to his grandfather as the greatest man that ever lived. At a young age his grandfather seemed like an unattainable hero to me, but I definitely learned over the years that our father simply dedicated his life to being an even better man, which he accomplished without question. It has been an honor and privilege to be his son.
Bridgette: We have decided to create a Taconic Hills Dollars for Scholars scholarship in our father’s name and give it out as a family to a deserving student or students who are involved in community service and who embody the qualities of our father. To raise money for this scholarship we plan to hold fundraising events just like our father did to carry on his legacy and to remind the younger generation how important it is to volunteer and give back to the community.
Todd: In retrospect, as I reflect on my father’s life, I realize that he was the best version of himself every day – no matter how tired he was or if he didn’t feel 100%. He treated everyone with kindness and respect, even those who did not afford him the same courtesy. My hope is that everyone that knew my dad, and maybe even some that did not, will follow his example and help to make our local community and the world in general a better place. That, and the Taconic Hills School Dollars for Scholars scholarship fund should also help to ensure that Larry Proper’s spirit lives on in all of us.
If you would like to donate to the Dollars for Scholars, please make checks payable to “Community Scholarship Fund” (or “CSF”) and send to the following address: Community Scholarship Fund c/o Teri Proper
447 County Route 7A, Copake, NY, 12516