Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Schenectady Sluggers, Part I: Abe Feldman

Abe Feldman dressed to the nines. Courtesy of
the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection. You can
find this photo, as well as photos of other boxers in
the Sports and Recreation Collection of
New York Heritage.  
As uploading photos to our Sports and Recreation in Schenectady collection on New York Heritage, I noticed that there were quite a few unlabeled photos of boxers, baseball players, and musicians in these collections. The unlabeled photos in this collection led me to post a photo of an unknown boxer to Schenectady County Historical Society’s Facebook page to see if the collective wisdom of our followers on Facebook would be able to identify him. Sure enough, they were able to! We will be posting unlabeled and unidentified photos to an album on our Facebook page periodically for assistance in identifying people, stores, locations, buildings, and pretty much any other info that can be provided. Any information you all can provide would be greatly appreciated. You can find the album at this link.

This leads to our current series of blog posts. While digging up some information on some of the photos of boxers in that collection we noticed some photos of two Schenectady boxers Abe Feldman and Marty Servo. Servo was a champion welterweight who fought two matches against Sugar Ray Robinson. Feldman was a local pug who had quite a career and fought the likes of Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock, Maxie Rosenbloom, John Henry Lewis, and other boxing greats of the 1930s. This post will focus on the life of Abe Feldman.

Abe Feldman was born in 1912 in Salt Lake City, Utah but moved to Schenectady at the age of six with his parents, sister and three brothers. Both Abe and his brother Jack liked to fight, and would often fight in the streets of Schenectady while people would throw pennies at them. In addition to boxing, Abe played running back for Schenectady High School’s football team. His skill in boxing and football was rewarded with an athletic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Abe turned the scholarship down and decided to go pro. According to a 2005 Schenectady Gazette article by Jeff Wilkin, Feldman said that “I probably wouldn’t have learned much at college anyway and look at the fun I’ve had as a professional pug.”

Article from the Albany Times Union about Abe Feldman's discovery. Abe's
Schenectady origins were often downplayed. Courtesy of Fulton History.
Feldman started his pro boxing career as a light-heavyweight in 1932 with his first match against Julius Vigh in Brooklyn. “Honest Abe” as Feldman was sometimes called soundly beat Vigh and his next 15 opponents, going undefeated until his match against Charley Massera in 1933. Feldman would fight Jim Braddock a few months afterwards. This fight was depicted in the 2005 film Cinderella Man. Braddock broke his hand in three places on Feldman’s jaw and the fight was called off. This fight almost ended Braddock’s boxing career as it was the third time he broke it. Later on, Abe mentioned that he knew that Braddock was injured and went easy on him till the ref called the match off.

Abe’s biggest match was against John Henry Lewis in 1935. Lewis was coming off of a loss from Maxie Rosenbloom and he didn’t have much luck against Feldman either. The fight went ten rounds and Feldman won on points. The win made Abe the second ranking light heavyweight which was the highest ranking he would achieve. Unfortunately, he was never given a title shot.  During the fight, Abe injured Lewis’ eye. Lewis was able to hide this injury for four years when it was determined that the vision in his left eye was “almost nil.” Despite being blind in one eye Lewis would go on to defeat Bob Olin later on in 1935 for the World Light Heavyweight Championship.

"Two-Ton" Tony Galento was rarely seen without
his cigar. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Feldman wasn’t afraid of punching above his weight class and often took on heavyweights like “Two Ton” Tony Galento. Galento’s nickname didn’t come from his weight (although he usually weighed around 235-240 lbs.) but from an excuse that he gave to his manager as to why he was late for a match. “I had two tons of ice to deliver on my way here.” Galento was a larger than life figure in boxing who notoriously wrestled an octopus, and boxed a kangaroo and a bear on separate occasions to draw attention. A typical meal for Galento was six chickens, spaghetti and a half gallon of red wine, or beer, or sometimes both. According to Galento all other fighters were bums and what did Galento promise to do to bums? “Moider dem."
 The fight occurred towards the end of Feldman’s career and reporters wrote that Feldman looked like he had been exhumed from the grave. Feldman took quite a beating from Galento, who despite his antics, could actually fight and had a wicked left hook.  Feldman was knocked down 3 times by the second round and after 30 seconds in the third, Galento delivered a wicked body blow that sank Feldman to his knees. The ref called the fight and Galento went on to challenge Joe Louis for the Heavyweight Championship. Later on, Abe would describe Galento as “the hardest puncher I ever faced.”

Feldman decided to end his career shortly after his match with Galento 1939 when he “started to duck a little too late.” His professional record was 35 wins, 14 losses, and 5 draws. He had 14 knockouts and was only KO’d twice. Feldman retired to live at his house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Schenectady with his wife Sadie and son Howard. He joined his brothers Jack, Leo and Dave in the coal business and worked as a coal salesman. Abe Feldman died at the age of 67 on June 20, 1980 and is buried in the Congregation Agudat Achim cemetery. He was honored in Schenectady throughout his life and often spoke at dinners and other sporting events where he was almost as entertaining as he was in the ring.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dirty Business: Campaigns and Elections in Schenectady

This post was written by SCHS curator Mary Zawacki.

How do we tell the story of politics in Schenectady?
We asked ourselves this question last year, as we began putting together the grant proposal for our “Vote Here! Vote Now!” project. How do we tell the story of politics in Schenectady, especially during such a major year in national politics? How can we take the enormous, complex, and sometimes controversial political history of Schenectady, and make it an engaging, vibrant narrative?
We thought about this, and came up with a list (you wouldn’t believe how long) of possibilities. Exhibits, speakers, events, games, and more. Many of these we flushed out, and developed into programs you’ll see this year at 32 Washington and Mabee Farm. But then we realized something that changed our approach to the project. The story of politics – in Schenectady and beyond – isn’t one, linear, objective story. It is instead a tale formed by opinions, ideals, and the voices of thousands of Schenectadians. And the best way to dig into this history is to go to the source – the primary sources, let them speak for themselves, and then encourage our visitors speak to each other about their own political opinions.

Though we have excellent primary political sources in the library and archives, as we began this project, our tangible collections in the museum were lacking. Sure, we could examine scrapbooks from socialist mayors (looking at you, George Lunn), pour over the records of the Dialogue Café (donuts with your discourse, anyone?), and discover the insecurities of Governor Joseph A. Yates in his letters from friends. Yet, something tangible to hold, display, and to inspire dialogue was missing. And then, serendipity struck!
As we were developing this project, Donald Ackerman, the longtime leader of the Schenectady County Democratic Party and a former county legislator, reached out to us. He had a large collection of political memorabilia, and wondered if we interested in acquiring it. Hundreds of buttons, bumper stickers, signs, and more needed a new home. Ackerman’s collection was unparalleled, made up of everything from matching Roosevelt and Hoover license plates to a Mayor Stratton bobblehead.  Here was our story, we realized. Centuries of political history documented in our archives, and then brought to life through our new Ackerman political collection. The perfect collaboration between our sites.

So we displayed our story. It’s on view now at the Schenectady History Museum at 32 Washington Ave. We selected a variety of pieces from Ackerman’s collection and on loan from the Schoharie County Historical Society to help us visually narrate politics, campaigns, and democracy in Schenectady and beyond. The artifacts are colorful and vibrant. They make you think about the tactics politicians use to shape our opinions of them, and the way campaigns play out. And, hopefully, they encourage you to consider your own opinions and those of your community members, as we move through another messy campaign season!

Included on display are artifacts that document just how complicated politics and campaigns can be. Take, for example, the election of 1840, one of the first truly messy ones in American history.
President Martin Van Buren narrowly defeated by William Henry Harrison, running on the Democratic and Whig Party lines, respectively. Van Buren’s first term had been plagued by an economic depression, and the campaign of 1840 saw him branded as a wealthy, out-of-touch snob. Meanwhile, this was the first time that the Whig Party had coalesced its full support behind a single candidate. Harrison was also wealthy and well-educated, but he was a war hero and enjoyed wide popularity as a result.

Harrison was also the oldest President up to that time, and Democrats mocked him for this; one newspaper quipped that if given a barrel of hard cider and a pension, he would “sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin”. The Whigs co-opted this detraction, however, declaring Harrison the “log cabin and hard cider candidate”, a moniker that swept the nation and gave him an image as a man of the common people. Log cabin dances were held in support of his campaign, miniature log cabins were built, and even jewelry was designed around the theme. Harrison was able to ride this image to victory, along with disapproval of Van Buren due to the poor economy.

How politicians speak to us through their campaigns is just as relevant today as it was in the 1840s. Consider what words politicians say -- or don't say -- to swing our votes in their favor. Do they use simple language, or are they verbose? What about rhyme and repetition? Are politicians vague or specific? At times, politicians use a bit of all of these. Carefully crafted campaigns strategize and determine which voice to use, and when.

It’s our hope that, as we move toward November, that participants in the “Vote Here! Vote Now!” project will be inspired to engage in political discourse, consider campaign tactics, and voice their opinions. And, if our participants elect to elect, that they consider the options. It’s important to speak out, to make your voice heard, and to vote. But it’s also important to understand, completely, what the issues are

Fortunately, there are many nonpartisan organizations and websites that can help determine which candidate represents your voice best. Locally, the Schenectady League of Women Voters runs, which publishes voting guides to candidates. Other sites, such as can help you determine which candidate is most closely aligned with your ideology.

Your vote is your voice. This election season we’re choosing state and national leaders, whose decisions and policy will have great effect on our lives as Americans. Why not take a stand voice your opinion?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 2: Walking from Schenectady to San Francisco

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

If doctors told you that outdoor life could help your children who are having health issues, would you take that to mean walking from Schenectady to San Francisco?  That is what the Fenton Family of Schenectady set out to do.  Physicians told Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Fenton that their son Gilbert, 18, and two of their other children considered to be in failing health would benefit from spending time outside.  The family decided that the warm air of the Pacific Coast would be the best place for their children and began to plan their trip.

The Fenton Family as they set off on their trip to San Francisco. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
The nine members of the family left city life behind and set off on their cross country adventure to follow the Sunset Trail to San Francisco on May 1st, 1913.  They planned to walk across the state to Buffalo and follow the southern shore of Lake Erie to Chicago.  From there they would head south on the Sunset, or Santa Fe route.  They expected to reach Kansas City by fall and spend the winter there.  In the spring, they would set off again to La Junta Colorado then south to Las Vegas and Phoenix before heading west to Los Angeles and finally north to San Francisco.  Mr. Fenton estimated that they would average 15 to 20 miles a day and the trip could take up to two years.

The trip would be made in a typical Prairie Schooner or “Watson Wagon” pulled by a single horse until reaching Buffalo. There, they would supplant the horse with a team.  The schooner was six feet wide and ten feet long.  Under the wagon was a suspended wooden box containing the tools needed for the trip.  They carried two tents for sleeping, a cooking stove and provisions enough to carry them from one city to the next.  The family dressed in the western ranch style of the day.  The Fentons had postcards made of themselves with their wagon and depended on the sale of the cards for their livelihood along the way. One of these postcards can be found in the Wayne Tucker postcard collection.  On both sides of the wagon were signs reading “The Fenton Family. Walking from Schenectady NY to San Francisco California May 1st, 1913. We are dependent on the sale of post cards and books for our living.”

Article/advertisement of Taniac, a cure-all.
Gilbert Fenton Is quoted in the article saying
"Off and on for eight years I have been
bothered with rheumatism...Taniac gave
me very good relief." Courtesy of Old
Fulton NY Postcards.

The family consisted of Reuben and Lottie Fenton and their children: Henry, 23; Edgar, 20; Gilbert, 18; Ruth, 15; Helen, 8; Sidney, 7 and Marguerite, 5. They also had a dog that went along for the journey.  According to the rules of the family, the menfolk would walk all the way but Mrs. Fenton and the children could ride “according to their pleasure”.  At night, Mr. and Mrs. Fenton and they four youngest children would sleep in the wagon and the older boys would tent alongside. 

Did the family reach San Francisco?  We don’t know for sure but assume not.  There is a newspaper article from the Geneva Daily Times dated June 5, 1913 reporting the family reached Waterloo NY and were still traveling.  No other documentation can be found of them reaching another destination.  However, an article from the May 24, 1917 Schenectady Gazette has a still ailing Gilbert working at GE and promoting a product that helped his rheumatism and stomach.  Another article has family members attending Edgar’s 31st birthday party in Schenectady in 1924. Reuben, Lottie and their children Sidney and Margaret were living in Albany at the time of the 1920 census and he was working as a machinist at General Electric, a job he also held in 1910 according to that census.  Two members of the family did eventually move west.  The 1930 census finds Edgar and his wife, Irma, living in Detroit.  Gilbert and his wife, Tressa, lived with them as boarders and the two brothers both worked as machinists in an auto parts factory. 

Similar to the Fenton family were three young men who named themselves the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da Hiking Trio. They set out on a trip from Schenectady to Chicago on September 18, 1911. Much less is known about the trio than the Fenton family, but we do have a postcard of them taken before they set out on their journey.

Postcard of the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da hiking trio before they left from
Schenectady's City Hall on September 18, 1911. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 1: Canoeing to Oklahoma and Beyond

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Richard Strevell and Raymond Borden liked to paddle.  In the winter of 1907, they paddled 900 miles through the lake country of Florida in a 16 foot canoe.  In 1908 they decided to go big.  They set their sights on an 18 month voyage in the same canoe leaving from Schenectady. Strevell, 28, was a machinist at General Electric, living on Congress Street.  Borden, 23, was a painter living on South Ferry Street.  They were described as “hardy young men all ready for the occasion” which they would have to be for what they had planned.

Richard Strevell and Raymond Borden getting ready for their trip. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
At 3pm on Monday, August 3rd, 1908, over 1000 people witnessed their departure by way of the Erie Canal.  To help finance their trip, they sold “postals” of themselves with their canoe, one of which made its way into the Wayne Tucker postcard collection. Their canoe was 16 feet long and made of cedar and canvas.  It had a 33 inch beam and weighed 600 pounds loaded, including Strevell and Borden, 51 pounds unloaded.  In the space between the beams was a watertight compartment for groceries and provisions.  They filled every available nook and cranny with items needed for the trip including complete camping and cooking outfits. From either end of the canoe, pennants of the Old Fort Club waved in the breeze.

Their itinerary was ambitious.  They would start off for Buffalo by way of the Erie Canal.  From there, they would paddle inside the breakwaters of Lake Erie to the St. Clair River to Lake Michigan.  Then they would travel up the lakes as far as Green Bay Wisconsin, taking the Fox River then the Wisconsin River inland, eventually reaching Oklahoma by December where they would winter on a ranch in Oatka.  This leg of the journey would be 4000 miles.
The Union Street bridge over the Erie Canal where you could have lined up
to watch our ambitious paddlers row their way towards Oklahoma.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection
Once navigation opened again, they planned another 6000 mile odyssey.  They would take the Arkansas River and drainage canals to the Mississippi and then head south to New Orleans.  From there they would paddle to Key West through the Gulf of Mexico and then cruise up the Atlantic just inside the breakwater to New York.  They would then go up the Hudson River to Albany returning to Schenectady by way of the Erie Canal in early 1910. They said the trip was for “pleasure and recreation”.

Did they make it?  We don’t know.  Newspaper reports have them arriving in Buffalo on August 21st.  In Buffalo, they hooked up with William Adams who had canoed there from Boston with a friend who abandoned the journey at that point.   They were also intent on reaching New Orleans. The next mention of the trio is from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, not part of their original itinerary.  They must have rethought their route and taken waterways south, most likely the Alleghany River, from Lake Erie.  While in Pittsburgh, they were seeking advice from local river pilots on streams to be traversed and general conditions of various routes.  They told a local reporter that they camped along river ways at night and by hunting and fishing for food were able to hold their expenses down to 25 cents a day for each man.  They secured money through sales of their postcards and “by any means offered en route”.  They planned to travel west on the Ohio River from Pennsylvania and a fourth man was expected to join their party further down the river. 
The Junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a possible route of the Strevell and Borden.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (
From there, the trail goes cold.  No other articles have been found to ascertain whether they completed their journey.  A small notice in the Schenectady Gazette finds Richard Strevell visiting his cousin in Schenectady in 1913 from his home in Iowa.  Did he paddle there?  His 1918 World War I draft card has him living in Seminole, Florida with fishing listed as his profession.  He stayed in Florida for the rest of his life. He was a school bus driver according to the 1930 census and a store merchant at age 60 on the 1940 census.  Sometime between 1930 and 1940 he married Florence who worked with him in their store.  He died in Florida in 1964 at age 84.  I haven’t been able to locate any information as to what became of Raymond Borden but we will keep looking! 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Strongmen of Schenectady

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff

Advertisement for the King Bros. at Proctor's theater
from 1913. Courtesy of Fulton History.
The family of Wayne Tucker recently donated a vast postcard collection to the Grems-Doolittle Library.  Mr. Tucker's collection consists mainly of postcards related to the city of Schenectady and Schenectady County.  There are cards of familiar landmarks as well as of those of places which no longer exist. As one of the volunteers who has been indexing the collection, I can only begin to imagine the time, effort and expense involved for Mr. Tucker to amass this collection.  My work has often been slowed as I've read a message from someone or pondered an image on a card.  In the early 1900's postcards were not only a way to get a message to a loved one, but were used to chronicle blizzards, floods, accidents, fires and events of the day.  People could go to local photography studios to have portraits taken and made into postcards to send to friends and family far away.  They were used in advertising, to announce events as well as to showcase the sights of the city.  I hope to use this space to share some of the interesting and odd postcards that I have come across in this collection. 
Postcard of the King Brothers from the Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the
Grems-Doolittle Library.
First up is a postcard advertising The King Brothers, Herculean Comedy Athletes.  These two young men were neither brothers nor named King.  They were both from Schenectady and ran off to join the Ringling Brothers Circus early in the 1900's.  They later found fame and hopefully fortune on the vaudeville circuit of the teens and 1920's. Their real names were Thomas Traver and Robert Shank and they performed hand and head balancing feats, contortion work and “tumbling with a sensational finish”. Their shows also contained a generous dose of comedy.  Newspapers of the day have them performing on Hippodrome stages from Spokane Washington to Atlanta Georgia where they shared the stage with Will Rogers.  They combined feats of strength with playful fun and reportedly were featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not.  An advertisement from October 1913 finds them closer to home performing at the Proctor's theater in Mechanicville.  I'm sure many of their local family and friends were there in the audience to cheer them on. Unfortunately, there isn't much information to be found about what became of Thomas and Robert. On the back of this postcard, someone noted that they served and died in the first World War.  Since the Sacramento Union advertised their upcoming performance at the Sacramento Hippodrome in February of 1921, and the Troy Times had them at Proctors's Theatre in Troy in November of 1922, rumors of their demise were a bit premature!

Advertisement for the King Bros. at Proctor's theater from 1922.
Courtesy of Fulton History.
Thanks to The Oldtime Strongman Blog and Fulton History for information.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Family Treasure

This blog post is by Schenectady County Historical Society member Phyllis Zych Budka. Phyllis, along with Bernice Izzo, publishes the Project to Discover Schenectady County's Eastern European Roots newsletter which can be found at
Fig. 1 Honor Roll of St. Adalbert's
from unknown newspaper.

Opening a large plastic box from the attic, I steeled myself for the memories and emotions that would inevitably emerge.  I sat in the January sunshine and went page by page through my husband, Al’s St. Adalbert’s elementary school scrapbook and realized that it was both a family treasure and an historical document.

 As a scrapbook, it is amazingly complete.  Alfred John Budka (1936 – 1992) aka Freddie by family and Al by those who met him “after 7th grade,” was an only child.  His Mother, Henrietta, kept a record of Al’s kindergarten through 8th grade years at St. Adalbert’s elementary school in Schenectady, New York.  On Henrietta’s death in 1965, this scrapbook and many other family items, were boxed and stored.

 Al and I grew up in the same Mont Pleasant community, about a mile apart.  Al was more than 5 years older than I and 6 years ahead of me in St. Adalbert’s school.  I was surprised to find myself in his scrapbook in a few places: first, a newspaper article from ~1948 (Fig. 1) “Honor Roll Listed at St. Adalbert’s,” has the name Alfred Budka, grade 7, and me, with my surname misspelled, grade 1.  The picture in Figure 2 was taken about 1949, when Al was in 8th grade and I was in 2nd grade.  Also in the picture are my twin cousins, Gerard and Geraldine Zych, who were 2 years behind me in school.  Surrounding the children are the Sisters of the Resurrection, our teachers.  The picture was taken on the 3rd floor of the school building, the room which served as gym, theater, and the place of our wedding reception in 1964.

Fig 2. All grads of St. Adalbert's School from 1948.
As an historical document, this scrapbook describes the life not only of one person, Alfred John Budka, but also captures the life of the community in which Al and I grew up, a community which no longer exists.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Speaker of the Assembly, Ozzie Heck

This post was written by library volunteer Hannah Yetwin.

Photo of O.D. Heck in the January
3, 1945 issue of the Union-Star
Oswald D. Heck, a native of Schenectady, was a lawyer and politician and perhaps New York State’s most influential legislator of the 20th century. The name “O.D. Heck” may be familiar to area residents as the name of the now closed center for developmental disabilities on Balltown Road in Niskayuna, a target of tragic controversy in recent years, but its namesake, Oswald D. Heck, had a longstanding career as an assemblyman filled with positive social impact throughout New York State. As a liberal Republican, he served as Speaker of the House under four governors. Heck’s actions throughout his tenure redefined Republicans as moderate liberals and progressives, in line with Republican governors Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. He described his philosophy as a conservative attitude in economics and a gentle, understanding attitude in human relations, and had an impressive ability to build support for controversial measures. He is also the longest-tenured Assembly speaker in New York State history; the only other speaker who came close to surpassing his tenure was Sheldon Silver, who was found guilty of federal corruption charges and was forced to forfeit his Assembly seat in 2015. Heck served as Assembly speaker until his death in 1959.

Heck was born in 1902 in Schenectady, NY, to Magdalena Wurster Heck and Oswald E. Heck. His father was the editor of Schenectady’s German language newspaper as well as a poet who published Leben und Weben, or Life and its Weavings, in the early 1920’s which was a collection of poetry on moral, religious and philosophical problems (Check out previous post Newspapers of Schenectady's Immigrants for more on Oswald E. Heck). Oswald Jr. was a graduate of Union College and attended Albany Law School but left in a dispute with a school official who considered him to be too liberal. He completed his legal education by educating himself, and was admitted to the state bar in 1928.
Heck and his wife Beulah studying the results of the 1950 Assembly race.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library clippings file. 
Heck began his unprecedented tenure as speaker in 1937. No one had held the post for more than 10 years at that point, and at the time of his election in office, he was only 34 – the youngest to hold the position in 30 years. During his inaugural year as Speaker, he rallied fellow Assembly Republicans to overthrow the incumbent speaker who blocked the necessary legislation to qualify the state for federal funding of programs passed through Social Security. From 1937 to 1941, he led a successful battle against Democratic governor Herbert Lehman to achieve legislative control over the state budget. In 1942, he worked towards state financial assistance for education in Schenectady County, increasing from $1,220,000 in 1942 to an estimated $5,495,000 in 1958-59. In addition, he created 30,000 scholarships and a student loan fund which broadened the opportunity for higher education for students of Schenectady. During World War II, Heck headed the state’s childcare program that provided childcare for mothers employed in defense plants, and at its height in 1945, more than 10,800 children were enrolled throughout New York State.
Closing of Ettore Mancuso's speech on his radio program "The Italian Hour".
Mancuso was very influential with Schenectady's Italian-American community and was
heavily in favor of Heck over Samuel Stratton in the 1950 Speaker of the Assembly race.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection
In 1944, a bill to replace a supervisor’s board with a single superintendent of education in New York City appeared near the end of the last day of that year’s session. Governor Thomas Dewey insisted on passage, but the teachers union opposed it. Republican assemblymen tried to duck out of the chamber to avoid going on record, but Heck ordered the sergeant at arms to round up the missing legislators, closed the door, and called for a vote. The bill was passed after one assemblyman was discovered hiding under his desk and reluctantly voted for the bill after Heck discovered him.
Left to right: Sheriff Ernest Blanchard, Lieutenant Governor
Thomas W. Wallace, and Speaker of the Assembly Oswald Heck.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.  
He was also instrumental in making New York the first state to enact an important civil rights legislation; in 1945, when the Assembly debated Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination Bill instituted by Thomas Dewey to ban employment discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color and ethnicity, Heck left the speaker’s podium and went to the floor to make a powerful appeal for passage. New York became the first state to enact this legislation, and it also became the first state to establish permanent agency to enforce such legislation, now known as the State Commission against Discrimination. In 1968, the Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination Law was renamed the Human Rights Law, and the State Commission Against Discrimination was renamed the New York State Division of Human Rights. The Law has been expanded over the years to stay current with changing American culture and the evolving needs of New Yorkers.

In 1958, Heck made a drive for his party’s gubernatorial nomination. Heck dreamed of running for governor himself, was driven by the less-than-noble partisan moves of Averell Harriman and Herbert Lehmen, and was mentioned frequently as a potential nominee to oppose Harriman’s bid for re-election. However, he was disabled by a circulatory ailment in his feet, and he threw his support to Nelson Rockefeller who was nominated and elected.  
Photo of Nelson Rockefeller and Thomas E. Dewey as they enter Heck's funeral. Courtesy of a May 26, 1959 Daily Gazette article found at Fulton New York Postcards.
Oswald D. Heck served as Speaker of the New York State Assembly until his untimely death by heart attack in 1959, and was buried at Vale Cemetery. His funeral took place at the Nott Memorial at Union College, and was attended by Nelson Rockefeller and Thomas Dewey, as well as hundreds of the top legislators and leaders of the state and local citizens. Based on his history of willingness to compromise and reach across party lines to come up with solutions to problems, the state Legislature could learn a lot from Heck’s leadership style. Citizens tend to judge the legislature by what they read or hear about its leaders; the legal, ethical and moral standards exhibited by legislative leaders set the tone for how legislators approach their public responsibilities. During Heck’s tenure, scandals were rare and public confidence was high. The principles he supported – cost efficient but responsible government, avoiding impasse and moving legislation along, and partisanship aligned behind public good – are valid and timely today.