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Harvey Weisenberg's 'love story' recounts life inspired by special needs son

"For the Love of a Child" follows former lawmaker from lifeguard to legislator and describes how he and his wife, Ellen, brought up Ricky, who has cerebral palsy.

Harvey Weisenberg holds a copy of his autobiogrphy.

Harvey Weisenberg holds a copy of his autobiogrphy. It's the story of a life of love for his late wife, his disabled son, his life of public service and his hometown, Long Beach. Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

Harvey Weisenberg, a 6-foot-2 former New York State assemblyman and nearly lifelong Long Beach resident, picked up a copy of his new book gently — as if he were holding his past in his hands. “For the Love of a Child” follows him from lifeguard to legislator and describes how he and his wife, Ellen, brought up their son Ricky, who has cerebral palsy.

It also recounts how he created and helped pass more than 300 laws, many helping the disabled. But at its core, Weisenberg said, the book’s a simple genre.

“A love story,” said Weisenberg, who served in the Assembly from 1989 to 2014. “It’s a love story about how a special child who could never speak or cry can change people’s lives.”

A former cop, teacher, assistant principal — self-described “oldest working lifeguard” — and legislator, Weisenberg, 84, is best known for his work as an Assembly member and advocate for the disabled.

His book, released by Square One Publishers in Garden City Park, tells the private story behind a public life. It’s the story of how he and Ellen cared for a son with a disability who inspired them to work to change the world — often one law at a time.

“Here is a man who was in a small district on Long Island,” Bob Policastro, founder of Angela’s House, which helps children who need round-the-clock care, said of Weisenberg, who represented the 20th Assembly District. “He advocated like a lion, beyond what anybody else does.”

Weisenberg still lives in Long Beach in a condominium filled with signs of Ellen, who died in 2016, her ashes scattered in the ocean nearby. Ricky, 60, lives in an AHRC group home in Plainview.

“I was going in the water every morning and giving her a kiss,” he said. “We’re one person. She’s still with me. When I sign a book, I sign it ‘Harvey and Ellen.’ As long as I’m alive, she lives.”

Weisenberg said his book is Ricky’s and Ellen’s book as well as a Long Beach and Long Island love story.

“So much of Harvey’s agenda in Albany and his motivation for doing what he did was stimulated by Ricky,” said Jerry Kremer, who preceded him in the Assembly. “Maybe Ricky can’t talk. Ricky motivated Harvey to do the things he did.”

Weisenberg introduced Jonathan’s Law, requiring reporting of abuse or neglect of the disabled, and Leandra’s Law, under which drivers accused of being intoxicated or impaired by drugs with a child 15 or younger in the vehicle can be charged with a felony. Weisenberg also sponsored Louis’ Law, which requires defibrillators in schools, and another law that bans texting statewide while driving among others.

“He will bend over backwards for anybody who needs help to try and assist them in any way possible,” said Vicki Laufer, 56, his daughter and a Long Beach resident.

From Bronx to Long Beach

Weisenberg's life in Long Beach began when his family moved there from the Bronx before he was a year old. He was the state quarter-mile champ at Long Beach High School in 1951, got a basketball scholarship to Niagara University in upstate Lewiston and then returned home.

“Long Beach,” he said. “You get sand in your shoes. You never leave. And if you do, you come back.”

He worked from 1956 to 1962 as a police officer in Long Beach. A bit later, in 1964, he met Ellen, a nurse and former lifeguard who was married with three children, including a child with cerebral palsy, at the Coral Reef Beach Club. Eventually, Weisenberg said, disagreements over how to handle Ricky broke up that marriage.

“I saw the love she had for this child. That impressed me,” Weisenberg said. “Besides that, she was extremely beautiful and sweet.”

A friendship and a romance followed. “I had a friend who knew her,” he said. “I bet him 50 cents I would be able to go out with her one night. And we did.”

They dated, married at a local judge’s house and became a family. She had two girls, Julie and Vicki, and Ricky; he had two boys, Russell and Gregg, from a previous marriage that ended in divorce.

Weisenberg went on to get a bachelor’s degree at New York University, a master’s degree in education from Hofstra University, a certificate in special education from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and taught special education in East Meadow before becoming a vice principal.

“When they offered me a principal’s job, I wouldn’t leave,” he said, noting he continued teaching special education. “I was attracted to these kids. They were the most needy.”

Ellen worked as a school nurse at St. Joseph School in Garden City, then at Long Beach Hospital and at Bayview Nursing Home in Island Park.

“Early on, they needed to have a place for their son,” said Rudy Shur, publisher at Square One Publishers. “They went from one place to another, seeing how poorly these places were run.”

Ricky lived in institutions in upstate New York and in Pittsburgh — but Weisenberg said they removed him because the care was substandard.

“I’ve seen Ricky go through so many tragic things in his life,” Laufer said. “It’s hard to put that in a nutshell.”

Weisenberg and Ellen moved him to smaller group homes, bringing him home on occasion as well.

“I have tears coming down my eyes,” Weisenberg said, describing a visit to one group home. “The staff says, ‘What’s the matter, Harvey?’ ” Weisenberg’s distress, he explained, was over the residents’ loneliness. “There’s no family here. Nobody’s here to be with these kids,” he recalled saying.

Fighting for children

Weisenberg became an advocate for children with special needs even before joining the Long Beach City Council and then in the state Assembly.

“He worked across the aisle,” Kremer said. “There was no partisanship relating to people with disabilities.”

Harvey and Ellen Weisenberg stayed in Long Beach, even during superstorm Sandy. “We were the only ones in the building. It was tough,” he said. “But we were together. It was romantic.”

He continued fighting for Long Beach and the disabled. A June 14, 2013, Newsday cover story bears the headline “Deal on state aid for disabled: $90M restored” along with a story titled “LI lawmaker’s plea helps forge pact with Cuomo.” Weisenberg was that lawmaker.

“He said, ‘You can’t do this to the most vulnerable population in our state,’ ” Policastro said. “He got that money restored.”

Weisenberg left the legislature but didn’t leave his cause behind. “He didn’t retire. He recharged,” Shur said. “He continues to do the same thing.”

When Ellen died, Weisenberg said, he lost a partner, best friend, mother of their children and someone he admired and loved immensely.

“I had her in my arms before she took her last breath,” he said. “I told her how much I love her and not to worry about Ricky.”

In 2015, Harvey and Ellen had established the nonprofit Weisenberg Foundation to advocate for people with special needs. Its centerpiece is the Weisenberg Special Needs App, which aims to connect those with disabilities, their families and caregivers with digital information and resources.

Among Weisenberg’s other recent work was the “Be Fair to Direct Care” campaign to get caregivers a cost-of-living increase that was approved last year.

When in 2014 Hofstra University gave Weisenberg an honorary doctorate, he told the crowd success is not measured in money, but “the happiness you have in what you do.”

Weisenberg said he wrote "For the Love of a Child" so that his story might inspire others. “Ricky to me is an angel. Ellen was a saint,” he said. “I had a mission to tell people how Ricky changed people’s lives.”

These days, Weisenberg bikes the Boardwalk daily, riding past benches that bear his, Ellen’s and Ricky’s names. He exercises at Long Beach’s aquatic and fitness center and sometimes visits Long Beach High School’s athletic field — both named for him.

A beautiful garden blooms near the boardwalk that was planted in Ellen’s honor on a street renamed “Ellen’s Way.” Ricky’s room at home remains largely unchanged, the bed always made.

“This is Ricky’s room,” Weisenberg said before an orange sunset bathed the beach. “Ricky changed my life. That’s what this book is all about.”

Book talk, signing

Harvey Weisenberg talks about and signs copies “For the Love of a Child: My Life, My City & My Mission,” at 2 p.m. Nov. 10 at Long Beach Public Library; 516-432-7201, longbeachlibrary.org.

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