The Ghosts of Southampton College

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Our cover story is on haunted campuses in our region, we figured in perfect time for Halloween.

And, I have to say, there still is a lot of interest out there in ghosts. Relatives of mine post on Facebook about someone near and dear — and dead — who they claim to still be visiting them in the creaks and shadows of their homes. There are TV shows devoted to ghost-hunting and psychics who talk to ghosts.

Sure, these shows are as fake as pro wrestling, but a lot of people watch pro wrestling, too. It’s in good fun.

I recently saw “Ghost: The Musical” on stage — actually, it was very good and the special effects were amazing — and the story sure is poignant — a man, who is killed, wanting to communicate with the love of his life; he is stuck between heaven and earth.

And I attended and later worked at the campus featured in the photo on the front cover — Southampton College — which has gone through various ownerships over the years. And it wasn’t just owned by Long Island University and SUNY Stony Brook. It even was an arts academy in the 1800s. Before it was a campus, famed 19th century painter William Merritt Chase captured its landscape on canvas. Most notably, the property was owned by a wealthy family, the Claflins, and most of the campus haunting stories passed on by students — and staff — over the years assume that the ghosts come from that era.

LIU took over the college in 1963. The 110-acre property overlooking the Atlantic had the Claflin mansion and a windmill, which had been relocated to the site by Arthur B. Clafin from the Village of Southampton. It mostly was used for guests, and his kids would play house in it.

Usually, the ghost stories students would tell would have to do with the face of a little girl in the top windows of the windmill. The story is that it is a Claflin kid who perhaps died prematurely.

And the history of the windmill has mostly included bad luck, but I won’t speculate here, as not to offend anyone.

(One can even argue that the Shinnecock Indians owned the Southampton College property longer than the Claflins, but few haunting stories seem to include Indians. Nevertheless, for those who have spent considerable time on campus, it’s hard to deny that there is a strong spiritual feeling on those 110 acres. I have never experienced a place with such a strong presence — and I currently live on a former Revolution battle staging ground along the Hudson!)

I attended Southampton as a writing student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then I stayed in the area, eventually going back there to work in the late 1990s. Image

While the windmill gets most of the press this time of year, the Claflin Estate — which was used by LIU for administration and the radio station — was more so rumored to be haunted by staff. Especially janitorial staff who worked during early morning hours in the old mansion.

One recurring story was of a head with no body that would float through the halls at night. Other people, saying they were working alone at night, would report large thumping sounds at their doors. They did not answer them.

I had a key to the place and, being a communications specialist who also handled PR, would be in there a lot during off hours. The building surely had a serious vibe.

(You ever see photos of people who have passed? Don’t the photos somehow look different than photos of people still living? That vibe.)

ImageWhen Stony Brook took over the property in 2006, the administration decided not to reopen the Claflin mansion, citing asbestos and mold. It remains shuttered. As the university has largely abandoned the residential aspect of the campus and scaled back operations, it is likely that building will never reopen, and will probably be demolished along with another old building called Abney Peak.

It’s too bad, because the Claflin mansion is beautiful inside, and really was the heart and soul of Southampton College when it was owned by LIU. Students even dormed there when the campus first opened in 1963. There was a shooting range in the basement.

Stony Brook still does maintain the windmill, through the blades keep breaking off. The University is trying to drum up interest in a 50th anniversary for the campus, and still does an annual “Lighting of the Windmill” at Christmas time with local politicians. It’s light and fairly superficial.

When the College was about to be shut down — again — in the spring of 2010, Long Island spiritualist Pete Maniscalco held a sunrise ceremony on the campus and many of the students living in the dorms attended. Maniscalco commonly was on campus and has a good heart. Students, faculty and staff all respected him and heard him out. Many participated in his drumming sessions. As the PR person on campus, I would report them as news.

I, personally, have always kept my guard up and not participated in spiritual events. As a writer, I believe it is my responsibility to observe, not to partake, and a part of me fears that if I suspend reality and delve into the spiritual world, there is no coming back. And a writer exists by playing with the borders of reality, but maintaining allegiance to it.

But a part of me does want to believe in ghosts. Because every writer, in his heart, wants to survive after our last breath. We write because, maybe, our books and articles will continue on after us; on library shelves, perhaps. And it will mean that we didn’t live for nothing. That a part of us lives on.

And that feeling one gets from reading the words of writers who have long passed is a feeling similar to what one feels by spending time on the Southampton College property. The main element of the campus that still survives is its Summer Writers Conference, drawing so many famous authors to teach there. So many alumni of the conference describe their time in the program, on that campus, as magical.

When the college was shuttered — twice, by LIU and then Stony Brook — students rebelled with such fervor. Southampton College definitely has that “sense of place” you hear referred to in the humanities. And few other college locations could match that. Thus the loyalty that the students have shown to it when they suddenly feel jilted.

ImageBoth LIU and Stony Brook had hired me. As the PR person for the Stony Brook version of the campus, I got the media calls on my cell phone the night our instructor, Frank McCourt (author of “Angela’s Ashes”), died the summer of 2009. He had seemed to find great tranquility and happiness in the place, as well. He had previously said in a reading at the college that he didn’t want to be Mr. Chips — the venerable teacher of lore who survived at a school for decades — but his presence still lives on in Southampton at the Writers Conference.

And so does the spirit of Lou Spero, the person who spearheaded the beautiful restoration of the windmill, but died soon after it was finished in an accident driving from Southampton to Stony Brook in 2009, as so many of us employees regularly did.

While perhaps not ghosts, if one doesn’t see that some places have more magic than others, they simply choose not to see.

And sharing ghost stories — as so many members of the Southampton College community have over the years — is how we acknowledge that people who had lived before us demand to still matter.

And because they matter, we matter, now. And will matter, after.

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