|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.
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.
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.