The first that Margaret S. “Pokey” Crocker knew of her nomination for the Broome County Arts Council’s Heart of the Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement was when she got the phone call saying that the 2010 award was hers.
“This thing blew me away,” said the executive director of The Discovery Center of the Southern Tier. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Me? Why?’
“And then I started to cry.”
More than a week later, sitting in her office above the children’s museum, Crocker still marveled at being an arts community honoree. “I don’t perform, I don’t play the cymbals, I don’t sing opera. I DID take tambourine lessons in 1942,” she said.
And, growing up in Binghamton, she was exposed to art from an early age. Her parents encouraged her to take lessons and brought her to concerts and plays, even on Broadway, where she saw “Oklahoma” and “Harvey” and “Hellzapoppin.’”
“The arts have always been a part of my life,” she said, adding that now her family “is oozing with arts.” Crocker occasionally acts; her husband sings. One daughter is an artist, another a photographer and the third an actress. Her son is an executive whose avocation is carpentry. “He has a great design sense,” his mother said proudly.
Although Crocker’s name is now synonymous with The Discovery Center, she cut her museum teeth at another local institution, the Roberson Museum and Science Center. From 1958 to 1986, she served as a volunteer and later as an employee in various capacities. Then, in 1986, she accepted the position of executive director of the Tioga County Council on the Arts.
“I needed to know who I was and what I could do,” she said, recalling that she came to the TCCA just as the “spirit of the arts was beginning to grow” in Owego and environs. While there, she started programs that last to this day, such as a concert series and the En Plein Air outdoor art show. “We poured the arts down people’s throats and … they caught on!”
Then, in January 1989, she got a call from the board of The Discovery Center, the basic gist of which was “our director is leaving in half an hour. Don’t you think a Binghamton born-and-bred girl should bring her talents back to her hometown?”
Crocker’s intention was to provide temporary assistance to the hands-on museum by writing a five-year plan and assisting in the search for a permanent executive director. Nearly 22 years later, she still can’t think about leaving.
When Crocker began at The Discovery Center, her job was to “redesign this whole place.” The museum, which had begun in the former Columbus School in Binghamton and then moved to its current location in Ross Park, was thought of, she said, as a one-time destination – “fun, but you wouldn’t want to go back.” Her goal became to incorporate humor with learning, offering things to think about and things to do.
Most children’s museums at the time were copies of other children’s museums; “we needed community-specific reminders that were fun,” she explained.
The Discovery Center brought in an immensely popular robotic dinosaur exhibit from October 1989 through Jan. 1, 1990, then closed for renovation. The grand opening on April 1, 1990, debuted the concept that remains to this day of a large variety of small exhibits entertainingly focused on various aspects of local life: a Giant Market, WBNG’s TV studio, the airport, a fire station. Other areas were devoted to science, art, music and literature.
Building additions in 2001 and 2002 included a theater to house Children’s Theater: Encore at 4 and Showtime Sundays. More recently, the grounds were enhanced by a playground constructed by BU management students, a solar cottage and a “Story Garden.”
“It never ends,” said Crocker, citing an ever-expanding schedule of summer and afterschool camps, pre-school classes for 3- and 4-year-olds, a universal pre-K and mobile units bringing programs on such topics as water, fossils and early history to schoolchildren in many counties of New York and Pennsylvania.
“Play is a great tool for learning,” she said, adding that the museum also should be a place for civic engagement. “A lot of good things funnel back to ‘what is good for your family’.”
Although many exhibits at The Discovery Center have a scientific bent and recent grants will help bolster displays about fitness and nutrition, the arts are never out of the equation, from the designing of exhibits to the sponsorship of the Galumpha Gang acrobatics/dance camp that recently completed its third summer.
Arts organizations that thrive under The Discovery Center’s umbrella include Arts Partners, a grant program — funded by the New York State Council on the Arts — that once was part of Southern Tier Institute for Arts in Education, and the award-winning Parlor City Boys Chorus.
“Everything we do on a weekend has an art component,” Crocker said, adding that the center always has had a resident artist on staff as well as guest artists, some as illustrious as Maya Angelou, who visited in 1995 in conjunction of an exhibit on black women who wrote and illustrated children’s books.
And it sometimes seems that everything that Crocker does has an art component, too
She has served on the board of the Cider Mill Playhouse and currently is secretary of the board of Chenango River Theater. She is a member of a 100-year-old Shakespeare Club that meets twice a month and reads two plays a year
“Great group of dowagers!,” she commented. “Last year, at 74 years of age, I was Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Not bad for an old girl with wrinkles.”
Reflecting again on her surprise and delight over receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, Crocker said, “This community has been marvelous to me. I have a lifetime of love for this community.”
Things you might not know about “Pokey” Crocker
- If you thought little Margaret Smith got her nickname from not being able to keep up with the other kids, you thought wrong. Because famed colonist Capt. John Smith occupied one branch of her father’s family tree, he began referring to his in utero child as Pocahontas. On the day that Margaret was born, family friends remarked that “little Pokey” had arrived.
- According to Crocker, her best local acting role was in “Love Letters,” opposite 2009 Lifetime Achievement winner Bill Gorman.
- If you know Pokey and you like to play the “six degrees of separation” game, here’s a beaut you can lay claim to: She was in a Kenyon College cast directed by perhaps the school’s most famous graduate, Paul Newman.
About the Heart of the Arts Awards and the ceremony
The BCAC created the annual Heart of the Arts Awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2004, inviting the community to select and celebrate individuals who have made significant contributions to the arts in Broome County. The 2010 awards ceremony, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, in the recital hall of The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton, with STAR 105.7’s Joshua B as host.