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Lester Wolff, longtime LI congressman and expert in Asian affairs, dies at 102

Rep. Lester Wolff in 1969. A longtime Democratic

Rep. Lester Wolff in 1969. A longtime Democratic congressman for Long Island's North Shore, he died Tuesday at age 102. Credit: AP

Lester Wolff, a retired congressman who represented Long Island's North Shore and influenced America’s policy in Asia and helped create social programs like Medicare and Medicaid, has died. At 102, he was the oldest living person to have served in Congress.

His Tuesday death in Syosset was confirmed by his son, Bruce Wolff. The centenarian died while being taken to Syosset Hospital’s emergency room from his home in Muttontown, the son said. Wolff died of natural causes, and he’d had chronic heart and lung conditions over the past decade.

In 1978, he played a pivotal role in helping establish full diplomatic relations between China and the United States by delivering a message to President Jimmy Carter from then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on his conditions for formal ties. "Tell Carter to put the Taiwan question aside," Wolff recalled Deng saying. The United States stopped recognizing Taiwan as independent, and Sino-Chinese relations were established in 1979.

Wolff championed domestic programs, including co-sponsoring legislation that created Medicare, the health insurance for those 65 and older, as well as Medicaid, which extended coverage to the poor.

Wolff served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1965 until 1981. He lost his seat following a bitter campaign against a Republican, John LeBoutillier, who accused Wolff of abusing congressional junkets.

After leaving Congress, Wolff became a lobbyist for corporations and a registered agent for foreign nations seeking to influence policy. "I became part of the revolving door of Congress," he said, according to an article published by AARP in 2019.

His home was filled with photos of presidents and historical figures he'd met over the years — popes, world leaders, Robert F. Kennedy stumping for Wolff, President Lyndon B. Johnson shaking his hand in the White House, Rep. Charles Rangel, New York Mayor Ed Koch and Hillary Clinton, according to The Village Voice.

Lester L. Wolff was born in Manhattan, the only child of Samuel Wolff, a salesman for various companies including Schlitz beer, and Hannah (Bartman) Wolff, a housewife.

Wolff's family practiced Reform Judaism. Lester Wolff would later become a founding trustee and board member of Temple Emanuel in Great Neck.

Raised principally in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, he graduated from George Washington High School and attended, but never finished, New York University.

He married Blanche Silver in 1940; the two had started dating in high school. He served in the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, from 1945 to 1950.

Seeking good schools for their two children, the couple moved to Great Neck from Whitestone, Queens, in 1954. After his wife’s 1997 death, he moved to Muttontown.

As a young man, Wolff worked for a Staten Island newspaper, opened his own ad agency and did marketing in consumer food and other household goods.

He also created and moderated a weekly public affairs program, "Between the Lines," on local television before he was first elected in 1964 to Congress.

He had been a member of U.S. trade missions to the Far East in 1962 and 1963, according to his biography on congress.gov.

It was on a trip to Asia that, he recalled, he got a tip on how to beat the Republican incumbent — from Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who served as ambassador to South Vietnam — "Take a very strong middle-of-the-road position regarding South Vietnam," according to Newsday.

During Donald Trump's presidency, Wolff became a vocal critic on Twitter and beyond.

"He is a fascist. No question in my mind," Wolff told The Village Voice in 2017.

In addition to his son, Wolff is survived by a daughter, Diane Yorg of Bayside, Queens; four grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

The funeral will be held at 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Temple Emanuel, with burial to follow.

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