Andrew P. O'Rourke used to call Westchester the Athens of counties. He believed that Westchester, much like the ancient Greek city, was a special place -- a suburb so culturally, socially and intellectually diverse and aesthetically beautiful that it was a model for others across the country.
O'Rourke, who died last week at age 79, was the second-longest serving executive in the county and left an enduring legacy. During his 14-year tenure in the 1980s and '90s, the Republican preserved thousands of acres of open space and put in place social programs that became national models.
He led efforts to modernize and expand Westchester County Airport even though he faced fierce opposition. He expanded the county jail, helped privatize the Westchester County Medical Center, renovated a decrepit county center and turned what was a dump into Croton Point Park, a jewel in the county parks system. O'Rourke also acquired the John Jay property in Rye, the historic home of the nation's first chief justice, and acquired land along an old rail line that became the North and South County Trailways last year -- a linear park that spans the length of the county and beyond.
O'Rourke tore down the fences at Playland in Rye after a failed effort to privatize the amusement park, and was instrumental in building temporary housing for the county's homeless population. And, notably, he started a welfare-to-work program that required aid recipients to work up to 20 hours a week -- which was replicated elsehwhere in the country.
A lawyer, O'Rourke got involved in politics in the 1960s when he joined a Yonkers Republican club. It wasn't long before he was elected to the Yonkers City Council, where he served from 1966 to 1973. He then joined the County Board of Legislators, serving as chairman in the last four years of his nine-year tenure. Liked and respected, he was appointed county executive in 1982 when then-County Executive Alfred DelBello, a Democrat, became lieutenant governor under Gov. Mario Cuomo.
He was so respected, Republicans tapped O'Rourke to run against Cuomo in 1986, who at the time was unbeatable.
Andrew O'Rourke was a visionary who wasn't easily deterred and did right by constituents. He believed in public service and left his mark on a metropolis that he faithfully served.