Suffolk County's elected officials, Town of Smithtown staffers and private citizens gathered Wednesday at a Kings Park funeral home to mourn Patrick Vecchio and share memories of the man who was Smithtown supervisor for 40 years, a Long Island record.
Stanley Weisz, a Smithtown accountant, said he was a Vecchio voter who first met him 35 years ago when Vecchio was on the stump. The town in those days was "rustic, very few stores, a lot of unpaved streets," Weisz, 93, said outside the Clayton Funeral Home. Vecchio, he said, "caused" the modern suburbia that has grown since. "He was special," Weisz said.
Vecchio died Saturday at 88.
He was a political neophyte, and a Democrat, in 1977 when he upset entrenched Republican town leadership in his first race. He switched his party affiliation to Republican and kept winning elections until a 2017 GOP primary loss to Councilman Edward Wehrheim, the current supervisor.
Inside the funeral home Wednesday were Vecchio's widow, Bernadine Kinder, and other family members as hundreds of guests visited. Outside, town flags were at half-staff; the Smithtown Democratic Committee released a statement saying, in part, "all of our current and future leaders stand on his shoulders."
Steve Bellone, Suffolk County Executive and a Democrat, recalled Vecchio the colleague; a man who, he said, acted independently of party. "I never regarded Pat as an ideologue. He was about wanting to get things done."
Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer and former Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone arrived early and reminisced.
Petrone had negotiated with Vecchio decades ago over a resource recovery plant their towns share, he said. Taxpayer money was at stake, and Petrone remembered the dealmaking as tough and unrelenting, but never acrimonious. “It did work because we wanted it to work,” he said.
Also in the crowd were Gregory Hild, the former Smithtown assessor who drove Vecchio to many engagements after the supervisor fell in 2016, and Russell Barnett, the town's long-serving Department of Environment and Waterways director.
"I'd get calls from him Sunday afternoon, Wednesday night" with questions and ideas about policy, Barnett said, slipping into an impression of his old boss: "Have you looked at that? Why don't you look at that? Why don't you bring me a proposal?"
Vecchio was especially open to money-saving ideas, Barnett said, and took a risk in 2006 by supporting a town initiative to require garbage collecters and recyclers to use compressed natural gas, instead of diesel, to power their trucks. Failure would have been "embarrassing and very expensive, with a huge tax increase," Barnett said. But the plan worked. Success meant cheaper, cleaner fuel, and a number of other municipalities have followed the town's lead, Barnett said.
Before Vecchio was a politician, he was an observer, an NYPD cop who guarded presidents, kings and popes on their visits to New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, he was Mayor John Lindsay's bodyguard.
Maggie Martinez Malito, 70, of Westbury, a public events and protocol specialist for Lindsay's office, remembered Vecchio from those days. He understood “the seriousness of governance,” she said. “He’s going to leave a legacy for his time in public service.”
Vecchio had learned politics by immersion, Sid Davidoff, a Lindsay aide turned lawyer and lobbyist, said in a phone interview Wednesday: "Being around it that much, you get a sense for it." Back then, Davidoff said, he didn't see Vecchio as a campaigner who'd spend the rest of his life in public service. "Obviously I was wrong, because he kept that job for I don't know how many years."
Final visiting is scheduled Thursday at 9:30 a.m., followed by a closing prayer at 10 a.m.
Vecchio, a U.S. Army veteran, will be buried in Calverton National Cemetery.
On Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, outgoing Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio held his last town board meeting before leaving office after 40 years. Vecchio talked about all the memories and pictures he has hanging in his office.