Francis Purcell, former Nassau County executive, dead at 95

Former Nassau County Executive Francis Purcell, as seen Former Nassau County Executive Francis Purcell, as seen at a hearing on April 28, 1986. Purcell, who served 40 years in elected office, died early Sunday, May 18, 2014, in Florida. Photo Credit: Newsday / Bob Luckey

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Francis Purcell, the affable former Nassau County executive who, for more than a decade, was the face of the county's Republican Party, died of natural causes Sunday in Florida. He was 95.

Purcell, known for his constituent-oriented approach over a 40-year career in public service, spearheaded the development of Mitchel Field, the former Air Force base, into a business, sports and entertainment complex. He also helped create new downtowns in Long Beach, Freeport and Hempstead.

"His mind was set on the average family living in the average middle-income community in Nassau County. That was his base," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who served as county comptroller when Purcell was county executive. "He really had no airs about him. . . . What you see is what you get."

Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello once described Purcell as "the father of all Republicans in Nassau County."

Purcell, who never suffered a political defeat, was respected even by his critics for his attention to constituents -- whether ensuring that a pothole was filled or making a condolence call to a resident. He was plain-spoken and disliked ceremony.

"He was a very modest man. He was uncomfortable with the fact that he was supposed to have someone driving him," said Owen T. Smith, chief deputy county executive from 1980 to 1987. So, he frequently drove himself, Smith said.

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He earned a reputation for blunt talk. He told a resident who complained about snowclogging the streets that, given enough time, "snow melts."

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said in a statement, "We will remember Fran for his love of our county and I will remember him for his thoughtful advice."

Purcell was born in Brooklyn in 1918, the son of a paper salesman and the oldest of two children. The family moved to Malverne in 1932.

Signed with the Dodgers

At Malverne High School, Purcell was a standout baseball and basketball star. After graduation, he worked as a runner for a Wall Street brokerage house but quit because of the low pay and commute. In 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Purcell, a catcher, and assigned him to their farm team.

But after two years of playing, Purcell enlisted in the Army and World War II was declared nine months later. He served in the Medical Corps, running military hospitals on the West Coast and later Great Britain and France.

He described the most "devastating" scene of his life -- leading a team of doctors to the Buchenwald concentration camp after Allied forces liberated it from the Nazis in 1945.

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"Man's inhumanity to man is almost unbelievable," Purcell said years later.

Purcell rose from the rank of private to a lieutenant and eventually was discharged as a captain in 1945.

Purcell and his wife, Barbara, married while he was on weekend pass home in 1942. They settled in Malverne after the war and had three children. Purcell got a job selling paper for the same company that had once employed his father.

"We have wonderful kids because we had a wonderful leader, and a loving father," Barbara, 93, said Sunday.

In the late 1940s, Purcell caught the attention of Malverne's Republican leaders, who recruited him to run for a seat on the village board. He won and served eight years before being elected mayor.

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After eight years as mayor, Purcell founded a paper products company, saying he wanted to make a good salary and play golf.

But local Republican leaders encouraged him to run for the Assembly -- and he won. Purcell disliked Albany, saying that he resented the long days away from family and the horse-trading he conceded was not his forte.

In 1965, after a year in the Assembly, Purcell was appointed supervisor of the Town of Hempstead to fill a vacancy, then was twice re-elected. He was later appointed to be Hempstead's presiding supervisor, and was later elected and re-elected.

Purcell blocked efforts to build low-income housing in the town, even as the decision cost Hempstead millions in federal funds for housing for the elderly. Purcell later railed against state mandates such as Medicaid and welfare, arguing they depleted the county budget and limited funds for other county programs.

GOP leaders in 1977 encouraged him to challenge Republican County Executive Ralph Caso. Purcell beat him in a raucous primary, then easily won the general election.

Purcell was re-elected in 1981, defeating Democrat John Matthews of Long Beach by a 2 to 1 margin, then easily beat Matthews in a rematch in 1985.

His focus: Deliver servicesDifficult to rattle, even in a crisis, Purcell said his mandate as county executive was to ensure that services such as safe roads and clean parks were delivered. But critics said Purcell failed to address the county's high property tax rate, lack of low-rent housing and questions about garbage disposal and water quality.

"There's not one thing I would have done differently," Purcell said in 2008. "I think I helped people, especially as county executive."

The most significant project of Purcell's tenure was the redevelopment of Mitchel Field. But he cited other major accomplishments, such as a reduction in the number of county welfare recipients and increased financing for Meals on Wheels, senior centers and day care centers.

Purcell declined opportunities to run for higher office, insisting that he could accomplish more on a countywide level.

He abruptly left office in 1987 to take a job with News 12 Long Island as a political commentator until 1997.

Purcell moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, in 1998 where he played golf and painted.

In addition to his wife, Purcell is survived by three children, Kim Purcell of Mooresville, North Carolina, Patricia Harvey of New Bern, North Carolina, and Diane Kohut of Long Beach; a sister, Ruth Lerza of Malverne; 13 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. A viewing will be held Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. and Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Charles J. O'Shea Funeral Homes in Wantagh. A funeral Mass will be celebrated Thursday at 10:45 a.m. at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Malverne.

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