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Funeral for Owen Johnson, former state senator, attended by top politicians

Former state Senator Owen Johnson is shown in

Former state Senator Owen Johnson is shown in his office in Albany in an undated file photo. Johnson, the longest-tenured state senator in Long Island history, will be laid to rest Monday, Dec. 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Dave Oxford

Former state Sen. Owen Johnson was remembered Monday at a funeral attended by more than 200 people as someone who loved his constituents and put his community first.

Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said in a eulogy that "O.J.," as he was known, was "a Suffolk County institution."

Skelos said Johnson held "conservative principles but was also practical. He knew what was needed to deliver for his constituents . . . There's not a stadium large enough to hold all the lives Owen Johnson touched."

Johnson, 85, the longest-serving state senator in Long Island history, was buried at Amityville Cemetery. He died Christmas Eve of natural causes.

The funeral was held at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in Babylon, where Johnson once taught Sunday school and was married to his wife, Christel.

West Babylon High School is on the family farm that Johnson sold. He still tended a backyard vegetable garden -- sometimes in suit and tie, as aides waited -- said his daughter, Chirsten Tymann.

Johnson was part of a powerful Republican core in the State Senate that lasted for decades. He served for 40 years before retiring in 2012. Johnson reveled in helping constituents, particularly in "cutting red tape," said Rory Whelan, his longtime chief of staff.

"The most overriding fact though was that he loved people," Whelan said in a eulogy. "He loved talking to them, laughing and joking."

Johnson assisted with passing legislation in the 1990s to help Babylon Town avoid bankruptcy, despite GOP party leaders' attempts to block the financing.

After the Lindenhurst Fire Department parade in 1999, then-Babylon Supervisor Richard Schaffer, a Democrat, took Johnson to the South Bay Diner in Lindenhurst, where Schaffer laid out his proposal for state help with the town's finances.

After two hours of pointed questions, Johnson committed to carrying the legislation in Albany, Schaffer said.

"He didn't ask for anything in return -- nothing," Schaffer said after the funeral. "That was the beauty of it."

In subsequent years, Schaffer, now Suffolk County Democratic chair, helped block any serious challenge against Johnson, who retired in 2012.

Johnson was succeeded by Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore).

Before the service, Suffolk legislative Minority Leader Kevin McCaffery, (R-Lindenhurst) praised Johnson for setting aside politics when communities needed him.

"He crossed party lines to do things. That's the kind of thing you look at and say, 'I want to be that kind of government official,' " McCaffery said.

Tymann noted her father's quote on the back of the prayer cards -- "Just do what you feel is right and you can't go wrong." It was emblematic of his outlook, said Tymann, of West Babylon.

"He was the most down-to-earth person you'd ever meet," she said.

Other survivors include his wife, of West Babylon; a son, Owen, of Brooklyn; and two granddaughters.

Johnson secured state funding for the Central Islip ballpark where the independent league Long Island Ducks play. He also crafted the legislation to create the 800-acre Oak Bush Plains State Preserve on the grounds of the former Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. Johnson was a former Marine who graduated from Hofstra University and owned an insurance firm.

Johnson sponsored laws to preserve Long Island sea grass habitats, put restrictions on licenses for young drivers, ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors and regulate pet cemeteries and crematoriums after a scandal in Middle Island where the remains of thousands of pets were mishandled.

Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) sat in the Republican conference next to Johnson for his final two years in office. "He obviously had a long-lasting impact on everyone he touched," said Zeldin, who was elected to Congress in November. "He was very principled. When he spoke, every person paid attention."

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