Dr. Samuel B. Ross Jr. — his friends simply call him, “Rollo” — walked along the gravel pathways of the Green Chimneys campus in rural Brewster, N.Y., and greeted child after child with a handshake and a smile.
“Good morning, Dr. Ross,” the children chimed, each matching the founder’s smile with one of their own.
The 82-year-old Ross, you see, never grows weary of starting his day with the children who come to his school in search of love, hope and understanding.
“It’s what we do,” he said, with words as succinct as they were honest.
The extended version of Ross’ response is called, “The Extraordinary Spirit of Green Chimneys: Connecting Children and Animals to Create Hope.” The 200-page memoir was published last month by Purdue University press.
The book chronicles the evolution of a young man’s 75-acre dream to a world-renowned school dedicated to children with special needs.
For 63 years, Ross and his staff at Green Chimneys have helped thousands of children with emotional, behavioral, social and learning problems.
“Remember this,” Ross kiddingly cautioned the man with the pad on the other side of his desk, “this place is my baby and watch what you say.”
The thing is, there’s not a bad word to say about Green Chimneys. Or its founder.
Ross, the grandson of a button-hole maker, grew up in a suite at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City. He was an only child, a gift to his parents, Barney and Josephine, after 14 years of marriage.
Soon after he graduated from college — and with the help of family — Ross bought the old farm on Oct. 27, 1947 for $37,500. Today, this nonprofit miracle operates with a $30 million annual budget and has more than 500 full-time employees.
This year, Green Chimneys will teach and inspire about 200 students, roughly half of them enrolled in the school’s residential program.
That wasn’t always the case, of course.
Once upon a time, this sprawling campus with barns and dormitories and classrooms was called Green Chimneys Farm for Little Folk. Ross worked with 11 children that first summer in 1948.
As the school’s enrollment has grown, as the scope of its teaching has spread into other states and other countries, Ross helped build a sanctuary in Putnam County.
“For many of these kids, they don’t relate well to other children and they don’t relate well to adults,” Ross said. “But here, the first thing they learn to relate to are the animals.”
At its core, Ross uses a simple, yet profoundly successful model at Green Chimneys. He forms a nurturing triangle by introducing two children — who don’t really know each other — with one of the animals on the farm.
“Eventually, the animal disappears — it’s taken out of the equation — and the kids have learned to become friends and learned how to work together,” Ross said.
There is no shortage of animals to help, after all.
There are stalls to clean and sheep to feed at Green Chimneys. There are guide dogs to train and straw to put down. There are eggs to collect and boots to hose off.
In many ways, Ross is one part Dr. Spock and one part Dr. Dolittle. He understands the symbiotic relationship between children and animals.
To read more about Sam Ross and Green Chimneys, check out my “Take on Life” column Friday.
Exclusively in the print edition of The News-Times.