Lenox may put 'Millionaires' mascot debate to town voters

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LENOX — Let the town's voters have the final say.

That's the proposal by the Lenox School Committee on the hot potato issue of whether to keep the controversial Millionaires nickname and mascot for the high school's athletic teams or consign it to the historical dustbin.

A student survey last spring showed a 2-1 majority in favor of scrapping the mascot because of what some students described as teasing and even occasional bullying by out-of-town high school athletes and spectators unaware of the nickname's special place in the town's history.

Many longtime residents revere the nickname as a reflection of the town's Gilded Age millionaire cottagers' contributions to the local economy through employment and funding of school buildings.

The plan to place the issue on the annual town election ballot next May 7 as a binding referendum, pending approval by Town Hall, emerged during the School Committee's annual retreat last Friday, Chairman Robert Vaughan told The Eagle on Monday night following a televised committee meeting.

A student vote also will be held, probably in March, he said.

"Whatever result we get will be advisory, so people going into the election will know that this is how the students voted," Vaughan said. "We felt this is really an opportunity for the town to express its feelings."

One or two forum events or panel discussions will be scheduled "for people to come in and actively share their views on the topic throughout the course of the year," said schools Superintendent Timothy Lee.

Setting the scene for what's likely to be months of animated discussion and debate, a 40-minute, nonpartisan documentary, "Millionaire," produced by two class of 2016 Lenox Memorial High graduates, will be screened at 7 p.m. Friday at the school's Duffin Theatre. The event is free and open to the public.

"They did a good job, it's really well done," Lee said, noting the film does not represent a particular viewpoint.

"The purpose is to present the issue and to represent the different perspectives that people in the town and students have," the superintendent pointed out. "They did that in a way that was equitable and unbiased."

Tyler Coon, 19, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, came up with the idea of creating the documentary and enlisted his friend, Patrick Colvin, 19, a sophomore at Lasell College in Newton, as co-producer.

"I was in a filmmaking mood this summer," Coon told The Eagle. "I was trying to come up with ideas, and saw [Berkshire Eagle] letters to the editor on Facebook, people were arguing about it. The night I saw it at 11, a month ago, I immediately texted Patrick, he was on board with the idea, so I drew up a rough outline and started interviewing the next day."

The lineup of interviews includes Superintendent Lee, School Committee member Francie Sorrentino, Lenox Dale native Tom Bosworth, Stockbridge-based historian Carole Owens, and two students, Julie Monteleone and Jimmy Jay Chassi. The Student Council members appeared at a committee meeting last June, calling for another look at whether to phase out the Millionaires nickname.

"We want to get all the facts out there so people without an opinion can use this to form one," Colvin said. "We thought it wouldn't be right to approach it from one side."

Coon acknowledged that while he had no previous movie-making experience, he had created a few YouTube videos and was inspired by watching filmmakers discuss their craft.

"We did everything possible to stay completely unbiased, and I'd like to think we got both sides of the argument equally," he said. "I'm honored that people will be looking to us for guidance on this. But a lot of pressure comes with that, and I hope we did a good job putting forth both sides."

A trailer of the documentary can be seen on Tyler Coon's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/tyler.coon.58.) "I like how we took students' opinions and the community's to get the most opinions you can on the issue," said Colvin. The complete film will be available on the Facebook site and on Coon's YouTube channel after Friday's screening.

The controversy took center stage at the June 19 School Committee meeting, when Monteleone, Chassi and Josie Usow unveiled the results of a 27-question poll completed by 78 percent of the middle and high school students. Two-thirds favored dropping the Millionaires mascot, while one-third wanted to keep it.

After consulting with Sorrentino, "we learned how the millionaires who owned `Cottages' in Lenox helped build the school, pay for uniforms and overall supported our residents," Usow said. "They were central to the survival of Lenox while many citizens left to fight in wars. The `Memorial' in the school's name honors the people who did not return from war, and the `Millionaires' mascot commemorates the wealthier citizens who helped our community."

But Monteleone, now a 10th-grader, acknowledged "while the name beautifully memorializes the millionaires who supported our school and town during a difficult time, the majority of our student body feels no longer represented by the name. Instead, it divides us within our community, especially because we rarely have a chance to actually explain the meaning behind the name."

She cited instances of bullying and teasing by players and spectators at out-of-town basketball games.

"In today's polarizing political climate, the term `Millionaires' has become associated with the top 1 percent of our country, which excludes and burdens a very large majority of the population and currently plays a large role in the division of the United States," Monteleone said.

In a followup interview, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a third-generation resident, said while he is not personally offended by the nickname, "I find it somewhat embarrassing; it's a running joke here in the Statehouse."

He applauded the Lenox students for "being engaged, and I'd like to think we could come up with a better name. To use that phrase when people young and old are struggling is a poor reflection of what Lenox is all about."

But Sorrentino, also a third-generation resident, urged a townwide vote. She contended that "the `Millionaires' name is not a status, rather it is an achievement, many of the `Cottage' owners kept our little town afloat while our townspeople went off to war. The name does not represent money in any way. I am a Lenox Millionaire, I am proud to be a Lenox Millionaire and I will do my best to get the people out to remain a Lenox Millionaire."

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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