KINDERHOOK–“There was no pettiness. He was a man of action, a man of grace. You knew you were dealing with a man who would be straight with you.”
That’s how John Dunne, who served more than two decades in the state Senate, described Nelson A. Rockefeller during Columbia County Historical Society’s recent event dedicated to the four-term governor who was later appointed vice president in Gerald Ford’s administration.
Columbia County Memories was the brainchild of Diane Shewchuk, the historical society’s executive director and curator. She got the idea last year while reading one of several recent books on the governor, in which connections to Columbia County by his inner circle came up again and again.
The result was billed as “an evening with the governor’s former associates,” and it didn’t disappoint the capacity crowd of more than 100 who turned out at the McNary Center in the Village of Kinderhook. Five men with current or former county ties who worked closely with the governor shared anecdotes and analysis of his 16 years at the helm of New York State.
“I’m 100% a fan, but there were some problems, some chinks” said former Sen. Dunne. “I chaired the Senate Prison Committee during the Attica uprising, and I invited him to come support the negotiating team.” But the request was rebuffed, he said, adding, “He should have come.”
The struggle to regain control of the prison cost the lives of 10 hostages and 29 inmates. Later it was determined that it was gunshots fired by guards and police that led to the death of all the hostages.
On other occasions, Mr. Rockefeller was quick to hop in his private plane when the occasion demanded. Alexander “Sam” Aldrich, a former commissioner of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation told of when “the City of Rochester went sky high on a Friday night,” as racial tensions boiled over into a riot in July 1964.
Mr. Aldrich, the governor’s cousin, said he served as Gov. Rockefeller’s “special assistant on race relations” at the time and was on the ground coordinating the response of state troopers and National Guard after the local police at first responded with dogs, prompting angry marches on City Hall.
“The next day, I said the governor should go to Rochester to thank several thousand guardsmen for putting themselves in harm’s way. All the governor’s aides said no, but he came anyway,” said Mr. Aldrich.
Another travel story came from Charles Holcomb, who long covered the statehouse for Gannett newspapers and is co-author of the 2012 book that inspired Ms. Shewchuk. It was Labor Day at the Columbia County fairgrounds. A chopper lands, and out bounds Nelson A. Rockefeller in shirtsleeves, immediately wading into the crowd of “down home folks, farmers. The governor shook hands and discussed their problems knowledgeably. He was comfortable with people, and could field questions on any topic,” said Mr. Holcomb.
Gov. Rockefeller’s name is often associated with stiff sentencing for narcotics convictions, and the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws have only recently been softened. It took an audience member to raise the issue near the end of the program, and the answer fell to Dr. Alan D. Miller, who was appointed by Rockefeller as commissioner of mental hygiene.
“Late in his administration he proposed changing from remedial” approaches, Dr. Miller said. “I know his commitment to solving the problem. He held town meetings in April 1966 and established the Narcotic Addiction Control Commission,” which recommended treatment, education and research. The harsh sentences, some for minor offenses, came later, “when he didn’t think the successes were sufficient. I don’t want to say he capitulated,” Dr. Miller said.
Dr. Miller’s portfolio also included state mental hospitals. He said that the governor was actively and sincerely involved in seeking solutions for the problem-ridden system. After only two weeks on the job, Dr. Miller was called to governor’s office.
U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had exposed abuses of disabled people housed at the Willowbrook School on Staten Island after a visit in 1965 highlighting the deplorable conditions there. The governor told Dr. Miller he wanted the two of them to meet with Senator Kennedy. “We talked to Kennedy for three hours, then he asked what I wanted to do.” When Dr. Miller described his proposed approach, he said Sen. Kennedy told them, “Good. I will support you all the way.”
In 1972 TV reporter Geraldo Rivera exposed continuing abuses at Willowbrook.
Dr. Miller said Gov. Rockefeller was “the best boss” one could have, adding that for the governor, holding office “was filled with a purpose. He was aware of everything that was happening in and out of state … You could argue with him, he listened,” a characteristic Dr. Miller said is often “not a characteristic at his level.”
Multiple audience and panel members also praised the governor for developing the State University of New York. Dr. Miller said Gov. Rockefeller felt the system he found when taking office “was not at the level it should be” and that the improvements he made were another example of the governor’s “striving for excellence.”
Columbia County Republicans were first in state to endorse Nelson Rockefeller’s initial run for governor in 1958, but Dr. Miller said that party line “was of little consequence” to the governor. At the time of Dr. Miller’s appointment there was no discussion of his party affiliation: “He never asked me. I was a registered Democrat;” Mr. Aldrich said the same.
Senator Dunne, a Republican who represented a district in Long Island, said the governor told him he was a Republican because he thought he could more easily bring them to “his center.”
Ms. Shewchuk appears prescient in her scheduling of the event, as it followed by only a few weeks the publication of the latest and possibly most definitive of a dozen or so books about Gov. Rockefeller, two of which were authored by panelists at the event. Historian Richard Norton Smith’s On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller came out in October. And Mr. Holcomb, the reporter, who co-authored Oreos and Dubonnet: Remembering Nelson A. Rockefeller, told the audience, “This is not a bad time to look at [Rockefeller’s] legacy in today’s circumstances. A lot of things have stood the test of time, or not.”
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