Daughter of Gov. Malcolm Wilson hopes his name stays on Tappan Zee Bridge

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Katharine Wilson Conroy has heard all about New York State's plans for knocking down the Tappan Zee Bridge and replacing it with a new one, and she can't help but think.

Will the name of her late father -- former Gov. Malcolm Wilson -- now enshrined on a plaque on the existing bridge, remain in a place of honor once the new one is built?

"The thought has crossed my mind, and it has crossed the minds of other people," said Conroy, a Westchester County lawyer who lives in New Rochelle. "I hope that it will stay there."

State officials wouldn't say whether the issue of a name change has come up in discussions about building a new $3.9 billion bridge. They're still trying to secure federal financing for the bridge, following December's selection of Tappan Zee Constructors as the dual span's designer and builder.

"We are focused solely on building a new bridge," said New York State Thruway Authority spokesman Dan Weiller.

Newsday asked former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, one of the few living statesmen with a bridge named after him -- the Queensboro, linking Manhattan to Queens -- what he thought.

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"Malcolm Wilson was an extraordinary gentleman and very well-liked irrespective of what party you were in," Koch said. "It's there already. The bridge should have his name."

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo -- whose son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is leading the charge to build a new bridge -- decided to honor the Republican in 1994 by placing his name on a bridge that stands just miles from the Yonkers home where he and his wife, Katherine, raised their two daughters.

The former governor could not be reached for comment.

Conroy still recalls the day when she stood beside her father as a new sign was unveiled identifying the bridge as the Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge. How could she forget?

The sign's painters had forgotten the second "l" in her father's name. To this day, she keeps at home a cartoonist's take on the gaffe. In it, confused painters are wondering what went wrong. The tag on one painter's back explains the mistake. "Sine Painters," it read.

Her father, by then addled by illness, had retired following a 36-year run as an assemblyman representing Yonkers, 15 additional years as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's lieutenant governor and finally 13 months as governor, following Rockefeller's resignation to run a think tank and prepare for a presidential run in 1973.

Wilson lost to Democrat Hugh Carey in the fall of 1974, during a difficult period for Republicans tainted by the Watergate scandal in Washington. He died in 2000.

If the decision had been up to him, Wilson -- known as a fiscal conservative -- would have nixed the bridge idea, his daughter said.

"My father is not someone who would have ever wanted this," she said. "When it was done, he was facing the significant effect of his illness. If anyone had come to him, he would have said, 'That's ridiculous. It's a waste of taxpayer money.' "

Yet the naming of the bridge for her father was fitting, Conroy said. She recalled how, soon after the State Thruway (or, as Conroy calls it, the Thomas E. Dewey New York State Thruway) was opened, her father took the family on a two-week vacation, exploring stops along the new highway.

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"For my father, this was the last piece that opened up New York State," she said. "He loved the fact that you could go from New York City to Buffalo."

The naming idea came from Mario Cuomo himself, according to veteran radio host Bill O'Shaughnessy, a longtime Wilson friend and confidant.

O'Shaughnessy said Mario Cuomo called him to tell him that he was looking to name something after Wilson and asked whether O'Shaughnessy had any thoughts. They discussed a scholarship fund and kicked around a few other ideas, O'Shaughnessy said.

Then O'Shaughnessy's wife came up with the idea of naming something lasting, like a bridge. And so the Tappan Zee, which takes Tappan from an American Indian tribe and Zee from the Dutch word for sea, officially was renamed.

"Malcolm Wilson was a great, great man," O'Shaughnessy recalled.

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He's confident that Andrew Cuomo will respect the wishes of his own father and leave Wilson's name on the bridge.

"His father is the one who named it for him," O'Shaughnessy said. "Andrew admires his father greatly, and he greatly respects his father. I think that it would be a very gracious and great gesture to keep the name."

Conroy is kicking around the idea of penning a letter to Andrew Cuomo to let him know how her family thinks. She says she doesn't mind that few people refer to the bridge by its full name, especially during the early-morning radio reports about traffic on the bridge. Even she forgets sometimes.

"If I just say the Tappan Zee Bridge," she muses, "my friends will look at me and say, 'Oh, you mean the Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge?' "

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