As the sun breaks through the gray, February sky and fills the research library at Roger Tory Peterson Institute, Robert and Patricia Sundell recount the past 60 years together and how it all started with fate.
During the summer of 1955, while on break from the State University of New York Potsdam School of Music, Patricia took a job at Chautauqua Institution as an usher at Norton Hall. “It was the only summer I ever worked at Chautauqua,” Patricia says.
That same summer, Robert was on a field trip with his biology class as part of his course requirements at Allegheny College. His brother, who worked at a hotel at Chautauqua, would often send letters to Robert about his summer and the one girl he had been seeing that he couldn’t wait for Robert to meet.
“He started (writing) about this one specific girl, and ‘I cannot wait for you to get back and meet her because you have an awful lot in common.’ And you won’t believe it,” Robert says, “But she is sitting right here,” he says while pointing to his wife next to him.
“We met on the steps of Norton Hall on August 11, 1955 during one of the show’s intermissions,” Robert explains. “There was my brother, and there was Pat. It has been a great relationship ever since.”
After the summer ended and Robert and Patricia headed back to school, they dated long distance before marrying on June 22, 1957.
“She literally gives new meaning to the expression better half. She is an extraordinary person in many, many ways,” Robert says.
When asked for the secret to a long, happy marriage, both agreed there isn’t one. “I think common interests are really important, that is something (each couple has) to nurture.” Patricia says.
The Sundells certainly have their fair share of common interests. In addition to a classical music background, both Robert and Patricia play the clarinet and are members of various local choir groups, the couple has thrived over their love of nature.
Growing up in Jamestown, Robert attributes his interest in nature to his father. For years, every Sunday morning, his father and a group of his friends would get together and head up to a piece of land that one of the men owned near Gerry, NY.
“These men would get together, bring bacon and eggs, and build a big fire. After breakfast, they would discuss politics and such and I would wander off on my own. I would see birds but didn’t know what they were,” Robert says.
It wasn’t until he was a student at, what was then called Washington Junior High School that a teacher challenged him to report the types of birds he saw. “I got really into it because (the teacher) and some other teachers and students, received a lot of stimulation from him. It was a lot of fun,” Robert says.
Robert went on to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Allegheny College and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Management from Michigan State University. He has traveled the world teaching, learning and bird watching with his wife and family.
For Patricia, growing up in Brooklyn, NY, she would often spend time in Prospect Park near her home until her family moved to Geneva.
“I spent my junior high and high school years in Geneva (NY) and friends and I would bike on Saturday mornings to a wooded area with a creek. We enjoyed nature and hiking and exploring,” Patricia remembers. During this time, she was also a member of the Junior Audubon Society.
In 1965, when a job opened up in the Biology department at Jamestown Community College, it didn’t take long for the Sundells to decide to settle in Jamestown.
“The natural beauty of this area,” Robert says, “is not appreciated by a lot of people who live here and take it for granted. When people take the chance to look around, they can’t believe it!”
“The centerpiece of Chautauqua County is certainly the lake, and the hills are beautiful,” Patricia adds.
As charter members of the Jamestown Audubon Society, Robert and Patricia have become involved in a number of local environmental organizations such as the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy and The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.
In 2004, the couple established The Robert and Patricia Sundell Environmental Fund at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation to provide financial support to the environment, today, and into the future.
“It’s an investment in the future that we can see every year that we are alive,” Patricia says. “And even when we are gone, it will still be around.”
In addition to the Sundell’s fund, the Community Foundation’s Fund for the Region provides financial support to guarantee the natural beauty of the Chautauqua region is available for generations to come. To make an online contribution to the Fund for the Region-Environmental, click here.