In the passing of Al DelBello, Westchester lost a true statesman and native son. The loss of an individual of his stature is particularly difficult to accept because for so long he has been an omnipresent figure in the county.
While many people knew Al in his later years for his sage advice and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Westchester, he first came into the public eye as a young man some 50 years ago when he began his lengthy career in government and politics. Al was something of a boy wonder when he burst upon the scene in his hometown of Yonkers. He became the city’s youngest mayor and brought a youthful spirit and wisdom beyond his years.
But it was when he was elected County Executive in the 1970s that he hit his stride, the first Democrat to be elected to the post. It was often observed at the time that Al and his attractive wife, Dee, were Westchester’s Jack and Jackie. It was not an inaccurate characterization. As a young reporter working at the Westchester Rockland Newspapers (predecessor to today’s Journal News/lohud) I along with the entire newsroom quickly realized that the stodgy County Office Building in White Plains had taken on a feeling of Camelot as the dynamic duo put a focus on the arts, the parks and so much more. Their presence was felt in social as well as political and business circles. With the DelBellos there was a palpable feeling of liveliness and fun that was new to the county. We hadn’t had a “first couple” before.
Al, however, was no empty suit. He thought big and he thought creatively. Two prime examples of this were the creation of a unified bus service in the county, today’s Bee-line System, and construction of the garbage-to-energy facility at Peekskill, which some 40 years later remains a state-of-the-art solution to a vexing problem. And not to be forgotten is that the opening of that plant enabled the closing of the Croton Point landfill which was threatening to become Westchester’s Matterhorn. Al had the vision and the can-do attitude that took these projects from ideas to reality and today we all continue to reap the benefits.
I first met Al at the dedication of Muscoot Park on Route 100 in Somers. He was sitting at a picnic bench, wearing a pair of aviator sun glasses and chatting amiably with a group of reporters who pretty much followed everything he did. I was immediately struck by how at ease he was and how easily he mixed with everyone, young and old, wealthy and not so. He talked proudly about his ideas for the future of the beautiful Victorian era dairy farm with its extensive barn complex that today is one of the gems of the county’s expansive park system. At a Friends of Westchester County Parks event about a year ago, Al and I were chatting and I mentioned that long ago first meeting with him at Muscoot. As was often the case with Al, my remark prompted a question: “Do you know why we have Muscoot Farm today?”
I guessed that it had been bequeathed by the owner’s family but would have been too easy an answer. Al explained that the county had acquired the property and that the Parks Department had put forth a plan to create an ice skating center there, a Playland Ice Casino for the northern part of Westchester, as he put it. Obviously that never came to be and Al explained why.
“One afternoon I decided to drive up and look at the property myself and Dee was with me. When we got there she took one look and said: ‘This needs to remain a farm.’ She fell in love with the beauty and felt it should become an interpretive farm where children and people of all ages can learn not only about Westchester’s agricultural past but how our food is grown and raised. Dee gets the credit for saving Muscoot Farm and it all began with that one chance visit.”
Dee was ahead of her time in thinking about food sources and healthy eating, but then that was the kind of thing that typified Al and his first lady in those days. The county government that few people ever gave a thought to, suddenly become an epicenter of creative thinking and new ideas. It was indeed a spirited and heady time.
As the years went by, Al moved on to be elected lieutenant governor and subsequently to the private sector eventually joining with Al Donnellan and Mark Weingarten in forming the prestigious and influential law firm that carries his name. I left the newspaper to form Thompson & Bender at about the same time and it was then that I become friends with Al and Dee. And, of course, Dee and Al went on to buy the Westchester/Fairfield Business Journals and Westfair Inc. which Dee so ably oversees.
While I have enjoyed numerous business relationships with Al over the past 30 years, it was, however, another aspect of his life that I came to greatly admire in addition to his business and political acumen. Al not only liked visiting a farm like Muscoot, he created his own. Working in tandem with Dee, they took a wooded patch of ledge rock in a corner of northeast Westchester and created a remarkably tasteful and magnificent home and working farm. The first time I saw it, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty, style, décor and ambiance of their home. But that was only a precursor. What totally floored me was Al’s direct involvement in every aspect of the farm operation.
Turns out he loved operating a backhoe. He personally built the henhouse. He worked with the alpacas. And Al being Al, he understood their behavior. At the farm he was, quite simply, totally hands on. He was also handy and had the cleanest, best organized, most complete workshop I have ever set eyes on. That made me envious! Now I knew why Al would be the first to show up at evening events, and about the first to leave. He had farm chores to attend to.
So Al was a genuine renaissance man. But beyond that he was a good soul. My fondest memory of him was when my wife, Liz, and I had the pleasure of being invited to a dinner at the DelBellos’ home several years ago. As to be expected, this was a lovely affair with an intelligent and diverse group of guests. And, again nothing unusual, there was an added attraction. They had invited a husband and wife, she an opera singer and he her accompanist on an accordion, no less.
After dinner, we all settled into comfortable chairs in the large living room to listen to a performance. Four or five dogs of varying breeds and sizes were also a part of the evening, free to wander among the guests or lie in the middle of the floor as they wished. You see the DelBellos not only love dogs but they have rescued many from a wide range of often highly unpleasant and deeply sad situations. And they are full-fledged members of the household.
With the performance underway, I glanced around the room. And there was Al sitting at one end of a couch. One dog lay at his feet, one lay on the sofa next to him and the smallest was sitting on his lap – licking his Al’s cheek. Al was smiling. He was surrounded by friends.
In losing Al DelBello, all of Westchester has lost a friend.
May 17, 2015