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Edwin Schwenk, influential ex-Suffolk GOP leader, dies

Respected GOP figureSchwenk, who often exhorted the party with the phrase "One more time," was GOP chairman when the local party delivered a 100,000-vote winning margin for President Richard M. Nixon in 1968 - the largest of any county in the nation. As a reward he was offered the job of undersecretary of agriculture, a post he turned down. As a sign of respect, both Nixon and his successor, President Gerald R. Ford, flew into Suffolk for rallies that drew thousands of party faithful just prior to Election Day.

John Galla, a former Schwenk aide, recalled Ford's White House chief of staff, Dick Cheney called Schwenk in 1976 when the county had not committed to either Ford or Ronald Reagan and the party leader pressed for continued funding for Grumman jets and a Ford visit. "It was like watching two great knights in armor jousting," he said, "Buzz was concerned about Long Island and never said 'What's in it for me?' "

A lifelong Southampton resident, Schwenk attended Colgate University, interrupting his studies to join the Navy in World War II where he became a lieutenant aboard the carrier USS Kearsarge in the Pacific. He graduated from Colgate in 1947 and joined the family dairy business, which processed and delivered milk. He met his wife, Diana, whose family summered in Water Mill, while making deliveries. They wed in 1948.

Schwenk became Suffolk GOP leader in 1967 at the request of boyhood friend Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea in the wake of Brookhaven and Islip land scandals. "He put a fresh face on the rough edges," of the party said Paul Sabatino, former Suffolk legislative counsel.

Prior to taking the helm, Schwenk was a vice president of Tinker National Bank, and ran the family dairy and a chain of 14 Katrinka's dairy stores. But he was steeped in politics - his mother, Rosalind, was Southampton GOP leader, and she stepped down when he became leader.

Highs, conviction and tragedyAt his height as leader, the party had every seat in both the county Legislature and the Suffolk Albany delegation, along with all countywide offices when John Klein became county executive in 1971.

In 1972, he also made a deal with Democrats to ban minor party cross endorsements to curb their influence. However, that deal broke down after losses over Watergate and Duryea's interest in having the Conservative line to run for governor.

Schwenk stepped down as leader in 1977 following GOP losses in a backlash from Watergate. He was convicted in 1981 of federal tax evasion charges of commingling personal and party funds, and spent 60 days in jail. Schwenk also suffered tragedy when his son, Christopher, drowned mysteriously in South America in 1979.

A new beginningBut Schwenk rebounded. He started a public relations firm and later ran the Long Island Builders Institute. In that job, Schwenk helped forge state legislation that ended a lawsuit with environmentalists and created Long Island's pine barrens preserve.

Schwenk in 1996 left the builders group in protest when he supported a real estate transfer tax to save land, which builders opposed.

His daughter Diana Urban, a Democratic state representative in Connecticut, said her father worked to win approval of the tax after Gov. George Pataki initially vetoed it. "It took someone who knows how to make things happen to get it done," said the North Stonington lawmaker.

Other survivors include his sister, Beverly Wagner of Boynton Beach, Fla.; another daughter, Kathryn Root of Brandon, Vt.; and three grandchildren.

A wake will be held at Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton on Monday from 7 to 9 p.m., and Tuesday from 1 to 5 and 7 to 9 p.m. A private burial is planned at Southampton Cemetery. A memorial service will be planned for early next summer.

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