Let’s go back two centuries, to the mid-1800’s, and open our imaginations to the Dodge family. They came to the West Bronx, to Riverdale, to an extraordinary setting along the banks of the Hudson River where they began a community. But who were they?
Cleveland Hoadley Dodge was an executive at Phelps Dodge, a leading copper mining corporation co-founded by his grandfather in 1832. His sister, Grace Hoadley Dodge was a sturdy individual, who in today’s terms might be considered a social activist.
At the age of 16, newly arrived at the family’s Greyston estate overlooking the Palisades, she saw beyond her own family and community of friends, to a larger social community and created a small lending library in one of her family’s greenhouses in 1872.
The library grew and became a hub for workers in Riverdale. It outgrew its initial setting, so Grace created — in 1884 — an independent building for her library. This new facility expanded beyond its original charter as a library and began supplying social services to the community, and it became known as Riverdale Neighborhood House.
Cleveland H. Dodge died in 1926, having lived in Riverdale for 63 years and his son Cleveland E. Dodge became the next proprietor of Greyston.
Cleveland E. Dodge and his wife, Pauline Dodge or — as she was known to many — Aunt Polly, were the Dodges that some Riverdalians still remember well.
The recollections of the elders of Riverdale who knew these Dodges provide vivid pictures of this family, their values and the vibrant community they did so much to shape.
Robert Morgenthau Sr. — not long removed from his distinguished career as Manhattan’s District Attorney —succinctly says: “ The Dodges were an extraordinary family.”
With excitement, Frances Dennison remembers how Polly Dodge — a dedicated supporter of the YMCA — approached the Waldorf Astoria as a site for the organization’s benefit dinner in the 1950s.
The Waldorf was delighted to have her business until its managers discovered that there were “black people” on the guest list. The management informed Mrs. Dodge that she would have to eliminate these guests from her list.
Mrs. Dodge’s response to this request was, “all right, we’ll take our benefit somewhere else.” The management couldn’t resist the force of Mrs. Dodge. They quickly capitulated and the benefit for the Y was held at the Waldorf.
Gloria Zambetti recalls Mr. Dodge personally bringing honey to her family from the beehives that were kept on the Greyston property. Other personal kindnesses included Mr. Dodge delivering flowers from the greenhouse at Easter to all the neighbors.
Ms. Zambetti’s memories are flooded with the way in which the Dodges reached out to all neighbors for sleigh rides, for dances in their home, for the use of their tennis court.
Another generation of memories comes from David and Barbara Thacher Plimpton, Jane Genth, Anne Grand and Hunt Howell, a nephew of the Dodges.
Cleveland and Polly Dodge took an active interest in each of them as they were growing up in Riverdale.
At the age of 8, David had constructed a “museum” with treasures found along the Hudson River and in the park. Aunt Polly brought him an old bridle for his museum from the 1800s that she found in a stable that she was dismantling.
Now, 62 years later, he remembers how important and meaningful it was to him to have this treasure along with those he collected.
Barbara remembers picking all the daffodils from Polly Dodge’s garden to give to her mother only to be severely reprimanded when the source of these beauties was revealed.
She was required to apologize to Mrs. Dodge, who was gracious and forgiving.
Jane Genth remembers the Dodges’s acting as a switchboard for the community. She believes Riverdale Neighborhood House continues that tradition.
Anne Grand speaks of how the Dodges embraced change and accepted the new attitudes and values that altered our culture during their long lifetime.
She thinks these changes are reflected in how Riverdale Neighborhood House has grown and embraced new challenges.
Hunt believes that Riverdale Neighborhood House is — and will remain — an important community resource. He remembers being the first person to jump into RNH’s new swimming pool — built with much Dodge generosity — in the early 1950s.
These stories all reflect a combination of personal relationships and kindnesses along with an understanding and acceptance of larger social forces. These values remain a part of our community and are certainly embedded in the mission and work of Riverdale Neighborhood House.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Phelps Dodge provide much-needed copper for the war effort, but Cleveland H. Dodge had no intention of being a profiteer.
He told his Presbyterian pastor, “I will not burn my pockets by keeping a cent of the money coming to me from war profits.”
He created a foundation and stipulated that the profits from his copper company accumulated during the war were to be used by the foundation for “the betterment of mankind.” And so it was. Since its beginning, the Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation has been a strong supporter of many educational and social service organizations, including — for 95 years — Riverdale Neighborhood House.
The Riverdale Neighborhood House, now celebrating its 140th Anniversary, has grown with its community too. What began as a small library on the Dodge property in a family greenhouse created by a 16-year-old girl, has supplied ever changing services to the community as the times have changed and has nurtured other organizations that now operate independently, like The Riverdale Press, Riverdale Senior Services and the local branch of the New York Public Library.
William Dodge Rueckert, the great grandson of Cleveland H. Dodge, now heads the family foundation. The family and the foundation have never wavered in their support for Riverdale Neighborhood House, the organization founded by their precocious ancestor. It is indeed fitting to honor the ongoing legacy of this extraordinary family.
Sarah Gund is the president of Riverdale Neighborhood House. This column is adapted from remarks she intended to make at an RNH benefit dinner in honor of the Dodge family. Superstorm Sandy canceled the dinner, but not — according to one RNH board member — “the gratitude of Riverdale for the unforgettable generosity of generations of Dodges towards this community.” Points of View is a column open to all Riverdalians.