Cortlandville Town Attorney John Folmer could have had a different life. If he hadn’t been a lawyer — maybe a symphony orchestra conductor.
“Well, I’m a trombone player, or I was,” he said.
Folmer, 81, played trombone through high school and his four years at Dartmouth College. By his senior year of college nearly 60 years ago, he was the student conductor of the band. Eventually, he went on to play for the Cortland Old Timers Band.
“I just — would like to do that,” he said.
The interest in music came from his mother, Elizabeth, who was a pianist. “My mother grew up in Newark Valley and she was an accomplished pianist,” he said. She played piano as long as she was able to do so.
At the end of the year Folmer will retire as Cortlandville’s town attorney. It’s a position he has had since 1994.
Folmer announced his plans to retire in September after a 55-year career. Folmer said it’s just time.Folmer grew up in Cortland County and has spent all but a decade here. After graduating Homer High School and Dartmouth, he spent another three years at the College of Law at Syracuse University, then the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1964.
“I found out that I passed the bar exam while I was in officer’s basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia,” he said.
After the Army, life took a turn and Folmer’s law career began with a year and a half at a litigation firm on Wall Street. One client was the American Broadcasting Co. A fellow co-worker was Louis Auchincloss — a Wall Street lawyer, American novelist, short-story writer and critic.
“I think that I always knew in the back of my head that I was going to come back and practice law with my father,” he said.
In 1966, Folmer joined the practice of his father, Louis Folmer. He worked alongside high-profile lawyers — John T. Ryan Sr., Theodore Fenstermacher, Paul Yesawich, Jr. and John T. Ryan, Jr.
Fenstermacher was an attorney at the Nuremberg trials; Yesawich was a judge with the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court.
“It was a pretty big firm for Cortland’s standards,” Folmer said.
The general practice firm dealt with real estate cases, both criminal and civil trials and commercial work.
His father was a big influence on his career, Folmer said. “Oh sure,” he said. “Of course.”
And if he could, Folmer would spend one more day with his father. “I just wish I could spend one more day,” he said.
Later in his career there came a vacancy in the office for Cortlandville town attorney. Folmer couldn’t recall the exact details why. “Somebody suggested my name,” he said. “I was interviewed by the board and another candidate was as well, and I was selected.”
Folmer still chuckles whenever he thinks about it. “When I was being interviewed for the position, there was a second candidate and Mr. (Ted) Testa, who is on the board and was then and is a very good friend of the candidate,” he said. “He supported that candidate and a majority of the board chose me. And Mr. Testa came to me and said, ‘I want you to know that I did not vote for you or did not support you.’”
However, over the years, Folmer and Testa have become
Testa said he is going to miss sitting next to his friend at the town board meetings. “He and I have bonded very well over the years,” he said.
The two men have also made it routine to get coffee together after meetings. Testa plans to continue that tradition.
“I can’t say enough nice things about him,” he said.
Cortland County Judge David Alexander, a former Cortlandville town judge, recalled years of working with Folmer. “He likes to come across as a gruff kind of guy, but he likes to tell stories,” Alexander said.
They were on opposite sides of the courtroom — Folmer an assistant district attorney and Alexander as an assistant public defender — and worked together in Cortlandville. “He was very kind to me,” Alexander said. “He was always very good to work with in Cortlandville. He always had an open door.”
One piece of advice Alexander remembers receiving from Folmer is do everything Folmer told him to do and everything would be all right.
Adapting to change is a big part of the town job, but sometimes the change doesn’t go well. “I think the biggest change since I began was the adoption of the State Environmental Quality Review act, SEQR,” Folmer said. “Which quite frankly it’s intended to protect the environment, which is no doubt worth doing.”
The problem with SEQR, Folmer said, is it has become technical and litigious. It was to be a shield for the environment, but has become a sword which has been used to slow or stop development. As Folmer retires, the town is in the midst of generating a comprehensive plan to guide land use and land use policies.
Folmer hopes the plan establishes a balance. “I think it’s important we retain the heritage-type things we have in the town; I think it’s important we maintain our recreation and our park areas and Lime Hollow Nature Center,” he said, agriculture, too.
Yet the town needs to develop a system where growth continues. “That’s not an easy job to find that balance, but I think that’s what the committee should be undertaking to do,” he said. “And I’m sure they are.”
One thing he’ll look back on. “As far as my career here is concerned, I think what I’d look back on is the wonderful people I have learned from and become friends with,” he said.