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The Laffins at Farmingdale

March 14, 2019

By Karen Gelles

laffin car

As the 1960s began, Farmingdale, which was then known as the State University Agricultural and Technical College at Farmingdale, L. I., found itself in need of a new leader. Director Halsey Knapp had been at the helm for 33 years, followed for a few short years by the directorship of William Medesy.  Fortunately, a talented higher education leader was already working on Long Island, and Dr. Charles Laffin was recruited to our campus.

In 1961, Dr. Laffin became the first person at Farmingdale with the title President. Dr. Laffin earned a bachelor’s degree at Colgate University in 1935, followed by a master’s from Syracuse. He then served in World War II with the Infantry and Air Corps in North Africa and Italy.  He earned a Doctorate in Education from New York University in 1959; NYU would later name him the Outstanding Alumnus of 1974, alongside sociologist Margaret Mead. 

Dr. Laffin held positions at New York City Community College, and was instrumental in the creation of Nassau Community College. While President at Farmingdale, Laffin oversaw the college’s rapid growth, and began preparations for the transition to a four-year school. Laffin Hall is named in his honor, and today it houses student services such as Admissions, Registrar, Financial Aid, and Student Accounts.

Two of Charles Laffin’s children, Dee and Tim, recently visited Farmingdale and spoke with Library Director Karen Gelles about their father and their time here. They recounted how they and their four other siblings, along with their mother and father, lived in the campus director’s cottage from 1961-1967. Moving to a semi-rural campus from Garden City, they recall how Farmingdale seemed like the end of the world.

The cottage, now vacant but still standing next to Sinclair Hall, may seem small by today’s standards, but it was the biggest home the Laffin children had ever lived in, and they had the campus as their backyard. With six children and other families living on campus, the Laffins never lacked for neighbors.  There was a koi pond behind the cottage, and sometimes the family would look out their window to find horticulture students in the yard, studying the special trees tagged with Latin names.   The campus had large numbers of livestock, such as sheep and pigs, and it was common for the children to be awakened in the middle of the night and brought out in their pajamas to see the birth of a new calf.

With plans underway for the Sinclair residential quad to be constructed next door to the cottage, the Laffins moved to nearby Dix Hills. They were the last presidential family to call the cottage home. But the family’s close connection to the campus didn’t end there. Tim took summer classes in biology here in 1973, while he was a biology major at Oneonta. His sister, Dell, worked in the campus library when it was in a small building next to Thompson Hall, before Whitman Hall was built. Another brother worked grounds part time in the summer, and Tim helped take inventory during the summer.

Dee worked part time in the dining hall for Crotty Brothers food caterers, and remembers once serving James Farmer, an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was on campus at the invitation of Dr. Laffin for a civil rights event in 1964. While this was Dee’s first job in the SUNY system, it wouldn’t be her last; she recently retired as the Executive Dean and CEO of the Eastern Campus of Suffolk Community College.

The Laffins proudly recall their father as a supporter of student athletes and veterans. He also worked to promote diversity both on campus and in his work with Long Island organizations. He had great respect for his faculty. Dr. Laffin started the practice of inviting each 50-year class back as honored guests at each graduation each, including the inaugural Class of 1919. This year, in addition to maintaining the tradition of inviting back 50-year classes, Farmingdale will welcome back children and other family members of those same first graduates of 1919 – many of whom participated in the 1969 celebration of their ancestors’ 100th graduation anniversary.