Carl Gambitta has been “the voice of Groton” for more than 50 years — announcing every home football game and beyond since 1972. That legacy was justifiably and heartily acknowledged when Groton Central School’s (GCS) new press box at Ross Field was named in his honor during halftime at the homecoming varsity football game on Oct. 6.
The story of that press box dedication may be found in the Oct. 18 edition of this column, but Gambitta also spent 50 years answering his first calling — teaching — which turned out to be almost as much a surprise to him as the press box naming.
“I graduated from Oneida High School in 1959,” Gambitta said, “and I had no idea what I wanted to do from there. I was a dedicated student, but not a stellar one. My good friend, Joe Valesky, was heading to SUNY Cortland for an interview, so I went along with him. They gave me a spot in the class, and it changed my life completely.”
Gambitta met his wife, Mary Ann, there. They dated all through college and were married Aug. 29, 1964.
“The best thing that ever happened in my life was meeting Mary Ann,” Carl said. “The first time she walked by in the student union, I thought to myself, ‘That’s the kind of person you’d want to marry’ — and I did.”
Carl earned his bachelor’s degree in early secondary education in 1963 and officially began his teaching career that fall at GCS, but a profound moment while teaching at Seymour Street School in Auburn for his college internship was one that Carl will never forget.
“There were children in that school who didn’t have much,” Carl said. “One day, a little girl came up to me and gave me an Oreo cookie, which I gladly took and ate. When I walked by her desk, she had two more Oreos sitting there and was about to eat them. I kiddingly asked her if she was eating her dessert before her lunch.”
Before he could finish his story, Carl needed to take a moment to dry his tears and recompose himself as he said, “That little girl looked up at me and said, ‘This is my lunch.’ That little girl with the Oreos changed my life,” Carl said.
While teaching at GCS, Carl earned his master’s degree in secondary history education in 1966. In 1972, he not only earned his Certificate of Advanced Study, he was the first person ever to earn it at SUNY Cortland. He still has the letter to prove it!
“I just loved my time at SUNY Cortland,” Carl said. “I loved being in an education program, loved going to class, loved the professors. I owe them everything! I could never repay it, but I stay connected to it. I have served on their alumni board since 1975. I guess I’m their longest-serving member.”
At various points throughout his 50-year career at GCS, Carl coached basketball, was a senior class advisor, directed the adult education program and more. But above all, he became one of the students’ favorite teachers.
Aside from teaching his students American history, New York state history, world geography and economics, Carl did his best to also teach them what he could about life.
“One of the things I did to help keep them focused was a bean bag I had in my classes,” Carl said. “Instead of having them raise their hands to answer questions, I would randomly toss the bean bag to the person I wanted to answer them. I enjoyed it, and so did they!”
When the school year began in September 1996, Carl was moved to a brand-new classroom, which was his until he retired in 2013. That classroom was in a hallway with a blank wall that was 25 to 30 feet long, which became known as Carl’s “Wall of Fame.”
“It started out with me giving kids a sheet to write down things about someone else in the class that was good,” Carl said. “At certain times, I would read all the nice things on a sheet first, and then say who it was at the end.”
That exercise in positivity evolved into Carl’s taking pictures of students and students bringing in newspaper articles that were written about them. Carl had them all laminated and attached to paper on the Wall of Fame. By the end of each school year, that long wall would be covered with them.
“At the end of every year — and the kids would have to help me,” Carl said, “I would roll up that 25 to 30 feet of paper and give it to the senior class president to bring to their future reunions.”
As senior class advisor for many years, one of Carl’s fondest memories is of collecting gifts at Christmas time that the classes would then give to younger children who were in need.
“Sometimes we would have as many as 500 gifts,” Carl said. “The kids would come into my room during their free time to wrap them. The gifts would come from them or other teachers. The kids were so involved and so kind, and it gave me a chance to be more involved with my students.”
Amid Carl’s career, Mary Ann spent a portion of it raising their three children, Deanne, Bob and Jeff. Once they were old enough, Mary Ann returned to teaching, and she taught at GCS from 1981 to 2007.
“On Mary Ann’s first day, we rode in together, but she changed the radio station, and that was the end of that,” Carl said. “I’d been riding in alone for 15 years at that point, and I wanted to listen to my own station.”
It turned out that Mary Ann would go in very early and Carl would arrive just on time, but he usually stayed late, so separate vehicles worked best.
Carl is an avid fisherman and hunter, so naturally, some opportunities for relationship-building while learning were born from that.
“I started holding a fishing contest every year,” Carl said, “and every kid who fished would get a prize whether they caught one or not. Kids would have a week or so to go fishing on their own and bring in a picture of it. It became so successful because so many other teachers got involved promoting it and donating prizes. It was phenomenal because of their help.”
Carl was concerned that some kids never had the opportunity to go fishing or hunting or to eat wild game, so he started cooking game dinners for them in the home economics room. Mary Ann or other teachers would help during the day by going in to stir and check on things, and the students would eat lunch in that room with Carl, who took great delight when they were willing to try what he’d cooked.
One day Carl was approached by the home economics teacher, Sue Patterson, who had a dilemma. She had assigned pairs of students to cook a meal on their own, and one pair, Gary Fernur and Rick LaFrance, had brought in two woodchucks to cook for their main dish. Patterson asked Carl for his help.
“Many of the other kids, especially the girls, thought it was disgusting,” Carl said. “But I explained what clean eaters woodchucks are and got Gary and Rick going. We made a thin sauce with vegetables, and it cooked all day. The next day, when it was to be served in the class, we got it heated up and those same girls came in saying, ‘What smells so good?’ Not one bit of that meal was left — it was all eaten by that class. Those are the kinds of things we did that were incredibly enjoyable.”
Carl and Mary Ann now enjoy their 10 grandchildren: Max, Jaxson, Trey, Nora, Valerosa, Brooklyn, Kyle, Nick, Ryan and Marissa. They spend a great deal of time attending their grandchildren’s school functions and sporting events.
Carl still hunts and fishes and trains his hunting dogs, Annie and Abbey. He remembers his time at GCS with great fondness.
“In all those years, I never had a thought about going to another school,” Carl said with conviction. “I could never see myself anywhere else but Groton.”
Groton on the Inside appears every week in Tompkins Weekly. Submit story ideas to email@example.com or text or call Linda at 607-227-4922.
Fall Harvest Bazaar
The McLean Fire Department Auxiliary Fall Harvest Bazaar will take place at the McLean fire station from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28. There will be over 17 vendors, and the auxiliary will also have food available for purchase. A collection bin for Toys for Tots will also be on site for those wishing to donate new toys to help brighten Christmas for children who may not otherwise receive them.
Groton Youth Basketball
Groton Youth Basketball registration is open for 3rd- through 6th-grade travel teams. Registration and further details may be found at tshq.bluesombrero.com/grotonrecreation. If you would like to coach, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Water hydrant flushing
The Village of Groton Department of Public Works will be flushing water hydrants throughout the village from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 23 through Friday, Oct. 27.
It is important to know that this project could discolor the water in homes, which may stain white clothing, but is completely safe for all other uses. For questions or concerns, call the Village Office at 607-898-3345.