Robert Wertz, who spent 32 years as a Republican assemblyman and commanded respect from both sides of the political aisle in Albany for his expertise on mental health policy, died Tuesday after complications from surgery. He was 76.
Wertz died at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson after he was taken to the hospital on Sunday with abdominal pains and underwent emergency surgery.
Wertz was the third ranking Republican in minority leadership. When he left office at the end of 2002, he was the longest serving Republican in Assembly history.
"In many respects he was larger than life - he had a barrel chest and a barrel laugh," said State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who served with Wertz as a young lawmaker. "Bob always had a soft spot for the people who didn't get the breaks."
Colleagues said Wertz earned deep respect from Democrats, even though all but two of his 32 years were spent as part of the Assembly minority, because of his knowledge of mental health issues.
Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb, said Wertz's influence came from his approach. "You can command a tremendous amount of respect from peers when you really focus on the issue and aren't a grandstander," he said.
Others said that Wertz's biggest asset was his common touch. "He was just a gregarious person who would always come up with a big infectious smile and grab your hand with a big smile, saying, 'How's my guy?' " recalled Bill Ellis, Smithtown GOP chairman.
Patrick Halpin, former Suffolk Democratic county executive who also served with Wertz, recalled the lawmaker asked him to sponsor a bill to ban lead solder from water pipes after a child in his district got lead poisoning. "He said, 'I can't get this bill passed because I'm in the minority,' " said Halpin, "He was always practical."
Born in Kew Gardens, Queens, Wertz graduated from Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park and got a bachelor's degree from upstate Alfred University and a law degree from Albany Law School. He also served in the Marine Reserves from 1958 to 1960.
While in school he met his future wife Dorothy at a party when she was 17 and he was 21.
After college, Wertz worked for State Farm insurance, then as an attorney for an Appellate Division of the state Supreme court. He later became Smithtown town attorney from 1967 to 1970. He was elected to the Assembly in 1970. In 2002, Wertz left office after losing a three-way Senate primary to Flanagan.
Other survivors include daughter Mary Fitzpatrick, daughter Donna Arao of Tokyo, Japan, a son, Robert Wertz II of Nesconset, a sister Caryll Batterman of Southold and 14 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife.
A wake will be held at The Branch Funeral Home in Smithtown today from 7 to 9 p.m. and Thursday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be said at Sts. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in St. James at 10 a.m. Friday. Burial will follow at St. James Episcopal Cemetery in St. James.