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2016 in review: Community lost key leaders

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Naturalist and birding enthusiast John Gustafson stands at Lime Hollow Nature Center in this February 2011 file photo. Gustafson was among the local residents who died last year after having a significant influence on the community.

With the change of the year, we can’t help but remember those we lost in 2016 who enriched the community for many years and have helped shaped the world around them. The following are a few whose contributions were highlighted on the pages of the Cortland Standard.

John Gustafson, environmentalist

A living legacy for many people is a passel of heirs and offspring. For John Gustafson, a living legacy is an entire ecosystem — times two.
Gustafson’s legacy is the Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortlandville, preserved in perpetuity thanks in large part to the decades of Gustafson’s work, and SUNY Cortland’s preserve at Hoxie Gorge, just a few miles away.

“It’s nice to be able to go to a piece of property where we have the opportunity to see such a wide range of habitats,” said Steven Broyles, a SUNY Cortland biology professor and Gustafson’s friend.

Gustafson, 91, of Cold Brook Road, Homer, died in June.

Gustafson was a SUNY Cortland biology professor in the 1960s when the Lehigh Valley Railroad ground to a halt and he persuaded Cortland County to buy a 2 1/2-mile-long, 80-foot-wide stretch of the rail line to preserve it and the marl ponds and Chicago Bog along its path. The property sat untended for decades until after 1993, when Gustafson was one of several founders who negotiated a lease agreement with federal Tunison Laboratories for access to 100 acres and founded Lime Hollow Nature Center.

Today, that old rail line is the Cortland County Linear Park, or the Lehigh Valley Trail. And the center has grown to 447 acres and includes 12 miles of trails, an education center, a visitors center and other facilities, including a camp named for Gustafson.

Jim Yaman, developer

When the phone rang at Pita Gourmet, the call usually wasn’t about what’s on the menu or if there’s a table available. The common question often was, “Is Jim Yaman here?” restaurant owner Charbel Karam said in March.

For 20 years, during lunch and dinner, the answer would frequently be, “Yes.” But on March 22 Yaman died at his home on Hickory Lane in Cortland.

“It is a big loss for our community. There is nobody like Jim,” Karam said.

Yaman, 96, was a successful businessman, founding Yaman Real Estate in 1950, but friends, family and business associates predominantly remember Yaman as overwhelmingly generous, oftentimes behind the scenes. That included his contributions to Pita Gourmet.

“He would check on the way in and the way out, if we had a to-go menu on the counter, and if we didn’t he would tell the waitress to put out a to-go menu, or put out a paper, or do this,” Karam said. “This was his home.”

His contributions in Cortland go back nearly 50 years, when in 1967 Yaman donated 16 acres off Clinton Avenue to the city for a manmade lake and park — now known as Yaman Park. He wanted to give the hundreds of local children without a pool in their backyard, somewhere to comfortably enjoy swimming, former city Recreation Director Fran Tokar said in 2007.

As of 2012, Yaman had donated more than $400,000 to the park, plus barbecue grills, playground equipment and landscaping. And in 1996 when the city considered invoking a parking fee at the park, Yaman donated $10,000 so people could park for free.

Marilyn Brown, politician

The conversations around the dinner table in the Brown household always wandered back to politics. It was the 1970s: Vietnam, Watergate, a nation almost coming apart. Marilyn Brown used the news to show how America can act, and should, said her son, Tom.

Marilyn E. Brown, 78, a 10-year Cortland County legislator and former chairwoman, died in March.

“My mother was always one who went by the axiom, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes me,’” Brown said.

That axiom governed her 10-year tenure with the county Legislature, ending in 2007 with a two-year stint as chairwoman. It encouraged her kids to get into public service, too. Tom Brown is a county elections commissioner. Daughter Elizabeth Burns is a city court judge.

In a 2007 interview announcing she was stepping down from the Legislature, Marilyn Brown said her greatest success was creating the job of county administrator.

“I would have liked to have been able to do more to reduce taxes for the taxpayers,” she said then. “But I am proud that we hired a county administrator, and since then the county’s overall financial condition has improved greatly.”

The position was largely eliminated early in 2016.

“I know she was upset that whole policy would be abandoned,” Tom Brown said. “She felt strongly there should be an administrator. With the size of the budget, she felt we need someone with a professional background to help with that.”

For more of 2016’s top stories, check out our year-in-review roundups.