When Martin Dawson started working for the Nassau County Department of Health in 1966, he had two small elephant figurines on his desk — treasures he brought back from his Army service in India during World War II.
The figures drew the attention of colleagues, and by the time Dawson retired 21 years later as the department’s deputy commissioner for administration, the collection had grown to some 200 toy elephants.
“People said, ‘Oh, you must like elephants,’” his son, Adam Dawson, said. “So any time they went away on a personal vacation, they brought back elephants.”
Martin Dawson, who was among Nassau’s top health officials during a period of enormous suburban growth and who helped establish the county’s first anti-smoking laws in 1985, died on Tuesday at his Manhasset Hills home. He was 95.
“He was very big and very active in the antismoking initiative,” Adam Dawson, of Santa Monica, California, said. “He was particularly proud of that.”
Martin Dawson was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, his son said. After his World War II service, he worked for his family’s sweater business in Manhattan and moved to Manhasset Hills in 1955.
Dawson and his wife, Renee, who had met in 1940 at a summer camp, celebrated their 75th anniversary last June, their son said.
By the mid-1960s, Martin Dawson had tired of the daily commute to Manhattan and began looking for jobs closer to home, Adam Dawson said. He landed a Civil Service position at the health department in 1966 and worked his way up, eventually serving as deputy commissioner for about a decade before retiring in 1987. As part of that job, he also was a spokesman for the Nassau-Suffolk Health Services Agency.
Dr. Rosemarie Guercia of Huntington, a retired Nassau deputy health commissioner, said Dawson worked closely with late Commissioner John J. Dowling.
“He really was known to all of the staff, very well-liked by the staff. He had a reputation for being a very fair, logical type person,” Guercia said. “He kind of kept the department on an even keel.”
Adam Dawson said his father was a fair-minded man who once went with some friends to provide security for singer and political activist Paul Robeson during a show upstate.
“If you help people,” he recalled his father saying, “good things come to you.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dawson is survived by two daughters, Emily Goldfield, of Bell Canyon, California, and Alice Dawson, of Austin, Texas; four grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
Funeral services are scheduled for noon Sunday at Riverside-Nassau North Chapel in Great Neck. Dawson will be buried Sunday at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing.