Bill Larkin, senator

Former state senator Bill Larkin, 91, died on Saturday, almost a year after he announced he would not seek a 14th term in office.  Some say he should have retired sooner and Larkin may have agreed, but they kept drawing him back in for just one more term.

“I go to sleep every night praying that Billy Larkin doesn’t have a heart attack,” former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said of one of the senior senators that enabled Republicans to maintain their razor-thin majority.

Few public officials relished their jobs more than Larkin. The ultimate go-to guy, it didn’t matter who sat in the governor’s office, Larkin knew everybody that counted.

Constituents told familiar stories of Larkin’s reach. He’d listen carefully to the problem, ask a few questions and then tell his secretary to get so-and-so on the phone. State bureaucrats do not dodge phone calls from senators, especially Bill Larkin. The conversation would be brief and to the point. Larkin would inquire of the person’s family by name, detail the problem and suggest a solution. It would end with the senator offering to help out “any time” the department head needed it. Case closed.

Larkin wasn’t much of a public speaker. He tended to ramble, contradict himself and then get testy when challenged. Wags sometimes called him Billy Liar, but it was only that he forgot what he had just said. And that was in his prime. Joe Biden may have studied at Larkin’s knee.

Larkin was inordinately proud to be an elected official, beginning with a few terms as town of New Windsor supervisor. He then won several terms in the assembly from Orange County before being elected to the senate in 1991. Larkin’s election was no small thing for Republicans. Having lost the seat two years earlier, they needed an electable, credible candidate to stop what appeared to be a rising Democratic tide. Larkin was that stopper.

I remember a story about Larkin shortly after his election to the assembly. It was one of those gatherings where everybody wears a name on their lapels. A business type came up to Larkin and asked him what he did for a living. (Larkin ran a successful dry-cleaning business in New Windsor.)

“I’m the state assemblyman from this district,” Larkin proudly told the stranger, pointing to his chest.

“I can read,” the guy said. “I asked you what you did for a living.”   

A combat veteran of two wars, Larkin served in the army for some 23 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. West Point was in his district and he was a frequent visitor, a fixture at Army football games.  

One of his pet projects was the establishment of the Purple Heart Museum in New Windsor. It was personal: Larkin wore his purple heart medal at veterans’ events for most of his life. My newspaper, the Daily Freeman, played a small part in advancing that project.

It was one of those slow news days and I was casting about for an editorial topic when Larkin’s press release about launching the museum project crossed my desk. We endorsed it in glowing terms. Larkin called the next day with profuse thanks. “Nobody else even printed the press release,” he said, “and you guys did an editorial. This is going to make a big, big difference.” He would always mention the paper’s part at local appearances. 

What followed was a personal tour of the revitalized Newburgh waterfront one sunny summer afternoon.  Everybody, it seemed, knew him. “Bill!” “Billy!” “Colonel!” “Lark!” “Senator!” People would turn around just to shake his hand. And Larkin seemed to know everybody in return, on a first-name basis.

Larkin had his warts, of course. They all do. He was probably too conservative for his increasingly liberal district and maybe he stayed a few terms too long, if only out of political loyalty.

But he will be remembered as a most effective state legislator, a man who walked with the powerful, but never lost the common touch.

RIP.