April 2013

Local Conviction

Why is a jailed felon still celebrated on Lake Placid's Hall of Fame?

The Lake Placid Hall of Fame occupies a newly reconstructed corridor that links the Lake Placid Conference Center to the Olympic Center, operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA). Covering its wall are more than 100 framed photographs, each with text describing the recipient’s good works. Since 1983 a sel­ection committee of volunteers has picked these honorees “based on their significant contribution to the betterment and promotion of the Olympic Region, either through sports or civic and cultural contribution,” according to its bylaws. Among the notables are legendary skaters Dick Button and Scott Hamilton, hotelier Apollos “Paul” Smith, sing­er Kate Smith, ski jumper Art Devlin, tuberculosis pioneer Dr. Edward Livingston Tru­deau, bobsledder Forrest “Dew Drop” Morgan, pitcher Johnny Podres, composer Victor Herbert and Santa’s Workshop found­er Julian Reiss. And hanging just to the right of the rink’s doors is the plaque for George Christian “Chris” Ortloff, chief of ceremonies and awards for the XIII Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid and, as of 2010, a convicted felon who is serving his 12-and-a-half-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

At the time of his arrest in 2008, Ortloff was a former 10-term Plat­­tsburgh-based Republican As­sem­blyman em­ployed as a member of the state parole board and a Lake Placid real-estate firm. He was nabbed in an elaborate un­dercover police sting for trying to arrange sex with 11- and 12-year-old sisters in a downstate motel room. (The lurid details surrounding his case need not be repeated here, but can easily be found online.) Ortloff’s fall rocked his tight-knit North Country community. Born and raised in Placid, he’d married into a prominent local family and forged deep ties with the village’s movers and shakers.

In his career Ortloff worked as a journalist, with National Public Radio and as a broadcaster for Plattsburgh’s WPTZ, bringing the news into homes across northern New York and Vermont. He wrote A Lady in the Lake: The True Account of Death and Discovery in Lake Placid, about the case of Mabel Smith Douglass, whose body was found 30 years after her disappearance in 1933, and co-authored Lake Placid, the Olympic Years, 1932–1980: A Portrait of America’s Premier Winter Resort. He served as a Lake Placid village trustee and on boards of directors, including for the Adirondack Mu­seum, in Blue Mountain Lake, and the Adirondack Council of Boy Scouts of America.

But much of the ink on his Hall of Fame plaque celebrates his work in helping pull off what was, really, the last small-town Olympics—mom-and-pop in comparison to today’s slick, corporate productions. (Ortloff’s department handled the torch relay, the flame tower, medals and some 40 ceremo­nies.) Because of the venue and vibe, as well as extraordinary performances by USA athletes, the legacy endures: think Miracle on Ice and speed-skater Eric Heiden’s cache of gold.

Just what would Lake Placid have become without those two weeks in Feb­ruary 33 years ago? Some cred might have carried over from the village’s 1932 Winter Olympics, but the infrastructure and spirit from the ’80 Games propelled this place into what it is today—a charming, globally recognized year-round destination with soph­isticated shops and amenities and top-notch sports facilities that attract and nurture world-class athletes.

Perhaps that’s why a now-former ORDA employee says he was ignored after he contacted the agency’s CEO over his concern for displaying Ortloff’s plaque on the wall of fame. (Adirondack Life contacted ORDA’s CEO, but he de­clined to comment.) And re­cently a photographer, shooting the wall as young Can-Am hockey players bounced by, was stopped by an ORDA employee who took down his name. She said members of the media needed permission from the agency’s press office to take pictures here, though the hall is a public space subsidized by New Yorkers’ tax dollars. “We want to make sure the photographs are used in a favorable way,” the photographer says she told him.

Last summer, decision-makers at Penn State had a different approach when news broke that their football coach Joe Paterno failed to disclose his knowledge of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of nu­merous children: they removed a statue of Paterno from the front of on-campus Beaver Stadium. Appropriate, justified response or clunky, emotional reaction to behavior we can’t stomach? (Lake Placid Club founder and Dewey Decimal System inventor Mel­vil Dewey is also a Lake Placid Hall of Fame in­ductee. Dewey’s club, established in the 1890s, excluded “victims of contagious diseases, cripples, and Jews,” though such rules weren’t a crime back then.)

As with any tragedy that befalls a small town, Ortloff’s actions leave be­hind family—including a sister who is chairperson of the Lake Placid Hall of Fame committee—friends, and the community at large to cope with what are still raw, complicated emotions. Not at all what Hall of Fame visitors might experience as they browse the wall, acknowledging the heroes of our Olympic region.

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