Stephen Chantry’s winter mystery of 1973: Who saved my life?

M55 miler Stephen Chantry was a freshman tracko at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York some 41 years ago. In a Facebook posting Friday that ran nearly 2,000 words, Stephen tells an amazing story of being rescued by a “guardian angel” — a woman who allowed him, a freezing lost boy, into her home for the night. He never got her name. Stephen, who writes well, tried to retrace his steps later but could never find the warm lighted house that proved a lifesaver in 1973. By sharing this yarn, he’s hoping to find the woman, probably in her 70s or 80s now, and thank her. Any help would be appreciated. Share this story on social media.

Stephen (in Syracuse orange) took silver at Olathe nationals in the 1500. Photo by Dave Albo. See more here.

Here is Stephen’s story.

It’s been 41 years and it is time to tell this story. Actually, it is way overdue. But for several months now, it has been nagging at me. It’s been on my mind for some reason and I keep re-living the whole series of events. Sometimes even to the extent regarding whether it all really happened as I think it did.

It was late January in 1973. I was a freshman in college attending St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in the small town of Canton. Canton is about an hour north of Watertown and Watertown is about an hour and a half north of Syracuse. Route 81 continues north out of Syracuse toward Watertown before turning into route 11 from Watertown to Canton. In late January it is always snowing and always cold up there.

I had traveled with my track team to Burlington, Vermont for an indoor track meet. From there, I left on my own to go to Boston to visit Elaine, my high school girl friend. I was able to get a ride straight to Boston from Burlington. After visiting Elaine for a few days I took a bus to Albany.

My plan was to hitch rides back to school from there. When I arrived at the bus station in Albany, I encountered Mr. Ross. He was the dad of my best friend in high school –Jeff Ross. He was meeting his son at the bus station to take him back home to Poughkeepsie. I decided to wait around with him until Jeff arrived and then they would give me a ride to the interstate so that I could hitch a ride west on Rt 90 to Syracuse.

When they dropped me off at the interstate it was late in the afternoon. I got a ride pretty quickly, but by the time that I got to Syracuse it was close to 5pm and getting dark. I managed to get to an on ramp for Rt 81 heading north as it began to snow. I was wearing a pair of blue jeans, a thin undershirt, a chamois shirt and a thinly lined dark blue winter coat.

I had mittens and a hat and I was carrying two duffle bags. One bag was white and the other was my red St. Lawrence track bag with the SLU emblem on the side of it. I had a small white paper sign that said CANTON in black letters.

I held it up as cars approached hoping for a ride. I waited a long time and finally a car stopped. They weren’t going far. They offered me a ride to their next exit which was up near Oswego (the college they attended).

I remember that they asked me if I wanted to go with them to Oswego for the night as it was getting late, getting colder and starting to snow much harder –rides were going to get more scarce. I thanked them and said “no, I was just going to keep heading north back to my school.” This is where my memory gets a little murky. I can’t recall whether I got another ride after that one or not. I do know that I lost my sign for CANTON after that ride.

Either I accidentally left it in the car, or I lost it on the side of the road some place.

Regardless, I was now at that exit or another slightly further north and it was very dark, very cold and snowing hard. I was pacing back and forth on the side of the road keeping a channel open as the snow piled up deeply around me.

Every now and then a car would approach and I would hold up my red bag hoping that the occupants might see the St. Lawrence logo and know that I was trying to get a ride back to school. No one stopped. The visibility was poor.

I doubt that they were even seeing me. In my later years traveling that section I will recall “white outs” as the snow fell so hard that you could barely see the hood of your own car. These people were not seeing me waving to them trying to get a ride as they passed by me. I was stuck on a pretty deserted stretch of highway with little hope of going anywhere. And I was getting very cold.

By now it was somewhere around 10:00 at night. There is something about darkness that makes the cold seem to bite even harder. Fewer and fewer cars were coming down the road. Many minutes would go by before I saw any headlights approaching. I started to think that I had to do something. It was very dark and I was absolutely freezing.

I remember walking up off the highway. It seems that I climbed an embankment, but I could be wrong. There was a boxed wire fence parallel with the road that separated the highway from a field.

I remember looking across the field and seeing trees or some dark mass bordering the opposite side of the field. And I saw a light! I assumed this meant there was a house, a service station, something to walk towards. I climbed the fence and waded through the snow covered field and came to a house with a porch light.

I don’t remember whether I scaled a fence on the other side of the field and I do not remember whether I ever came to that dark mass or tree line. I just remember trudging through deep snow crossing a field. I walked up the steps to the porch and knocked on the door.

A woman answered it and with a frozen stutter, I asked if I could use her phone. She said yes or motioned an affirmative and I remember almost falling through the door with my two duffle bags and shivering body as I barged inside. The house was warm and immediately I felt better.

Remember, cell phones didn’t exist back then. I called a few of the room numbers at my college that I could remember but no one answered. This was the January interterm between the fall and spring semesters and students had to take a single course in just two out of the four terms during their college years.

There were not many students on campus during these interterms and the ones who were there tended to go out at night often. I had few options now. I was hoping to find someone up at school who might want to drive down to pick me up. I wonder how clearly I thought about that -asking someone to drive almost two hours each way starting out at 10 or 11 at night and through a snowstorm.
I asked her if I could spend the night. I asked. I had no other options.

I wasn’t going back out in the cold and I wasn’t going to get a ride on that dark highway anyway. I don’t recall this women’s name, but she saved my life. She said “Yes.”

She was my guardian angel perhaps. And this is what has been on my mind. I don’t recall her name. I don’t even remember discussing names. We may have, but I don’t recall. It certainly seems like the normal thing to do. I recall that her husband was a truck driver. He was not at home.

I seem to recall that she had two young children. I remember a den with a couch facing a television set and to the left of that was an upright piano. Her mother or her grandmother gave it to her and she was hoping her children would be able to play it some day.

It was not in tune and I played it for her. She enjoyed hearing someone finally play her old piano and thanked me. We watched the Late Show with Johnny Carson and she made popcorn and gave me a coke. I remember this clearly because I rarely drank sodas and rarely had a soda with popcorn because I thought the acid from the soda mixed with the light food of popcorn tended to give me an upset stomach.

I slept on the couch and the next morning she made me breakfast. It wasn’t a bowl of cereal, it was a cooked breakfast. She took me to a bus station and because I had no money –yes, I had no cash in my pocket! She bought me a bus ticket to Canton.

The peculiar thing about this story is that I never did identify the location of that exit and never did find that field along the highway and where that house with the porch light might be. I stopped at exits along that route off and on for the next few years of my college attendance but could not find it.

Initially, I think I just wanted to show people where I had been, but it also became more and more important to find this woman and say “THANK YOU!” Every time that I told this story, the response was always how lucky I was that I did not freeze to death and how lucky I was that I found someone who would offer me refuge.

(And those responses were also often accompanied by, “you must be an idiot to consider hitchhiking in upper New York at the end of January!”)

As the years went by, I would gradually forget the whole incident as other life experiences took hold of my interest and my memories of things that I had done or witnessed took higher precedence in my mind.

It was only many, many years later when I had opportunities to reflect on things that I had done or that had happened to me, that I once again realized how lucky I was to have encountered this guardian.

When I told the story to my own children, we spent lots of time discussing why I couldn’t find the highway exit location and how hard I had tried. Why could I never find that exit? I remember traversing up and down that highway looking for the right spot, but never with success.

I would even get out of the car and walk around looking for some landscape that would tell me “here is where I was.” There are only so many exits between Syracuse and Watertown. This one was just not there.

So, where is she now?

If she was in her early 30s or even 40 (at my college age 30 or 40 all seemed the same to me), she would now be in her 70s or 80s. Her children would be fully grown and probably have families. Maybe they would remember me stumbling through the door that night.

Or maybe they remember their mom telling the story about some man coming into the house from nowhere freezing and cold. And then, did she actually exist at all? Or, was she in fact, a guardian angel that saved me so that I could accomplish some yet unfulfilled purpose.

Unless I find her, or find that location, I will never know. And as long as it remains a mystery, it would seem that, in fact, this truly was a miracle and I was saved by a guardian angel.

With the abundance of technology today, it seems that there would be a way to find this place, to find this person so that I can thank her for saving my life. If anyone out there lives or is familiar with this area of upstate New York, or knows people from that area, I would appreciate any assistance you could provide.

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February 1, 2014

8 Responses

  1. George Patterson - February 1, 2014

    Oh How I hope you find this wonderful lady and you can tell us about it. Wonderful story

  2. Rich Burns - February 1, 2014

    Wonderful story! Glad you made it home okay and hope you are able to locate her.

  3. Pam Swan - February 1, 2014

    Good luck in the search Steve!

  4. Peter Taylor - February 1, 2014

    Great story. I have announced Steve Chantry for many years and routinely describe him as being out of St. Lawrence University, but I never really knew where the place was. Steve prompted me to pull out my road map — the university town of Canton is so far north as to make Syracuse, NY, seem like a southern resort. I mean, this place is up there!!

    Went to AccuWeather to see how Canton, NY, might fare during a cold snap like the one we had on the 21st through the 24th of last month. The lows (real temperatures, not wind chills) for Jan 21-24 were as follows:

    21st -26
    22nd -30
    23rd -15
    24th -17

    Steve, you must have been a bit headstrong (overly optimistic?) as a young guy. I love how your story combines (a) the optimistic slant of people of that age with (b) the physical cold of the real world and (c) the warmth of the generous woman you met in Canton.

  5. Peter Taylor - February 1, 2014

    On rereading Steve’s story I see that he hadn’t really gotten to Canton, NY, when he desperately knocked on this woman’s door. No matter, it was still stinkin’ cold out.

  6. Dale Campbell - February 2, 2014

    Great story Steve! Many of us have been in a situation where someone has helped us out. The best to honor them is to do something great for someone you meet in need. Bottom line is everyone wins and makes the world a little nicer place!

  7. Maryline Roux - February 12, 2014

    Oh God Steph! … got the same goose bumps through my skin than the day you shared the story on the way to Kamloops with us. Amazing story, I am glag you are sharing it. Although, I do believe in the miracle :)

  8. Ken Stone - February 21, 2014

    Local NY paper picked up Stephen’s story and updates us on his comeback from injury:

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