New Year’s morning, 2018. On the radio was a clip of the retirement dinner of a Hudson Valley politician. The words, and the voice saying, “I have always put people over politics” were those of Senator Bill Larkin, and those familiar words sent me on a trip down memory lane.
I first met Bill Larkin 25 years ago. I was starting a new job and a new venture. The goal of the new venture was to create an organization that could recruit and train citizen volunteers to advocate for children in foster care. Children in foster care are in a distressing kind of limbo. They have been removed from homes in which they have been abused and/or neglected, and placed in temporary homes, where they can often linger for many months and even for years. The task of the citizen volunteers was to help these children move through the foster care system into some form of permanent home, be it adoption, or safe return to parents. The name of the organization that we were creating in Ulster County, was CASA (Spanish for home).
My job was to create an initial funding stream for our CASA program. State senators had access to money for worthwhile projects, known at the time as member item grants. Bill Larkin was the state senator for large parts of Orange County and some parts of Ulster County. Though I was new to the world of grants and grant-writing, and knew that there was a lot of competition for these member item grants, I decided to try for one for our start-up CASA program.
Having heard that Senator Larkin was approachable, I made an appointment to see him. As I waited in his outer office, I saw a large contingent of folks finally emerge. I was next. I told the senator the purpose of my visit and explained to him the mission of CASA, emphasizing the plight of the children we wanted to serve. I talked about how important it was for every child to have a secure home, and how psychologically damaging being in the limbo of foster care could be.
Senator Larkin listened attentively, and then seemed to think for a while. Finally he said “I just had a group of constituents in here who were lobbying me for a member item grant for uniforms for their local Little League baseball team. I’d rather have my member item funds be used to help children who are in need of a home, find homes, than help Little League teams buy uniforms.” He continued, saying, “I have always put people over politics.”
Senator Larkin was good for his word. CASA of Ulster County received a substantial member item grant from Senator Larkin, which enabled it to begin recruiting and training citizen volunteers who were then able to advocate for children in foster care. That important advocacy continues today and has resulted in many foster children finding safe, loving, permanent homes.
This was an issue in which I was personally involved, and in which Senator Larkin did indeed “put people over politics.” I was curious. Had he been able to do this throughout his career? I checked his local paper, the Middletown Times Herald-Record, to see if they had reported on Senator Larkin’s retirement dinner. They had indeed. Bill Larkin’s retirement was front-page news!
The newspaper story reported an unusual guest at the retirement dinner in Newburgh. A Democratic state senator, Diane Savino from Staten Island, was a guest speaker. What could have motivated a Democratic senator to travel over a hundred miles to attend the retirement dinner of a Republican senator? Ms. Savino explained that she had been the main sponsor in the Senate for legislation legalizing medical marijuana. Medical marijuana had passed in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, but Republicans, who narrowly controlled the state Senate, were staunchly opposed to it. One Republican vote was needed for passage of a bill legalizing medical marijuana.
Ms. Savino went on to say that though Senator Larkin, a senior Republican senator, was an unlikely candidate to support medical marijuana, he listened to her arguments in favor of passage and realized that this bill would indeed help many people. Senator Larkin cast the deciding vote allowing passage of a medical marijuana bill in New York State.
Medical marijuana now helps tens of thousands of ill and suffering folks in New York. It is officially helpful for many conditions, including easing the discomforts of chemotherapy for cancer patients. One condition that it is incredibly helpful for is epilepsy, and in particular, for pediatric or childhood epilepsy. There are documented reports of young children who, despite taking multiple conventional medications, were having forty to fifty seizures a day. After being given medical marijuana their seizures were reduced to just two or three a month.
Bill Larkin’s brave vote on this issue was a blessing to so many people. One can only imagine what a blessing this is in the lives of New York children with epilepsy, in the lives of their parents, their siblings, and their communities. Reviewing Bill Larkin’s 40-year career in government service, I saw that his accomplishments helping the citizens of his district, and the citizens of this state were truly extraordinary. Former governor George Pataki, commenting on the service of Senator Larkin said, “Having met hundreds and hundreds of state legislators from every corner of the state, not one worked harder or did more for the people he represented than Bill Larkin.”
Before Senator Larkin’s 40-year service in civilian government service, he had a remarkable 23-year service record in the U.S. military. He joined the Army as a private, at the age of 16 in 1944, though the minimum age to enlist was eighteen. He served in the Pacific in World War II, fighting in the Philippines and in New Guinea, and won seven commendation medals.
There are parts of Bill Larkin’s military career read like a compendium of important political and cultural events in U.S. history. In the Korean War, while the U.S. Army was still segregated, Bill Larkin led an all-black unit into battle. Bill Larkin was the Army project officer in charge of protecting President John F. Kennedy during his historic visit to Germany in 1963. He was also the Army project officer tasked with protecting Martin Luther King during his famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Bill retired from the Army in 1967, having achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Bill Larkin was an honest politician who clearly “put people over politics” and who was a military hero. The Hudson Valley, New York State and the country have been graced by both an honest politician, and a local hero, in the person of Bill Larkin.
Mel Sadownick is a freelance journalist residing in West Hurley, and was formerly executive director of CASA of Ulster County.