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McKinstry: Andrew O'Rourke's public and private legacies

Andrew O'Rourke, who served as Westchester County executive

Andrew O'Rourke, who served as Westchester County executive from 1983 to 1997, died Jan. 3, 2013. He was 79. (1998) Photo Credit: AP

A month after Rob Astorino won the race for Westchester County executive in 2009, he had dinner with Andrew O'Rourke at the Thornwood Diner.

The two Republicans chatted for hours, and O'Rourke, who was the second-longest serving executive in Westchester's history, offered Astorino a few pieces of sound advice: Forge personal relationships, do what you think is right, and spend time with your family.

The job, as O'Rourke put it to the newly elected Republican on Democratic turf, could easily "eat you up and consume you," Astorino recalled him saying.

During his 14 years as county executive, from 1983 to 1997, and decades of public service, O'Rourke didn't let the job overwhelm him or rob him of his family. Not often anyway, friends and family say.

A progressive Republican, he clearly lived, and governed, by a similar set of principles.

His public accomplishments are many and include adding thousands of acres of parkland, acquiring the historic home of the nation's first chief justice, John Jay, in Rye, as well as land along an old rail line that spans the length of the county that last year was finally completed as the North and South County Trailway.

He was instrumental in building transitional housing for the county's growing homeless population, understanding that people at times could use a helping hand.

Some of his ideas weren't popular at the time -- such as modernizing the Westchester County Airport or repairing a decrepit county center, which some believed should be sold rather than salvaged. But over time, his decisions have often proven to be right. His mark will be forever on the county.

To hear friends and contemporaries describe him, O'Rourke was smart, patient, honest, funny and had his priorities straight -- he was a true gentleman.

And while his public legacy is well documented in buildings, memorials and policies, his family remembers a more personal side. To his children, he was a "giant" who never uttered a bad word about anyone or let out so much as a curse, unless you consider "son of a sea cook" bad language.

He wasn't perfect. But he was good at so many things, particularly fatherhood. He had three children and six grandchildren.

When you consider he grew up the youngest of five in Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan with no father, a blind mother, and on public assistance, that's pretty remarkable. It's clear that his early years, which included working as a child actor, delivering fish and seating people at a Times Square theater to help support his family, shaped his personality, his politics and his policies.

"He considered himself very lucky," Andrew O'Rourke Jr. told me this week. "He always knew he didn't do it alone."

After a long illness, O'Rourke died last week at the age of 79; he was surrounded by family. During his life, he balanced his many public duties -- as politician, judge, pilot, military officer and author -- with being a dad.

Often, politics was a family affair: Whether it was going door to door in his run for Yonkers City Council in the early 1960s or traveling across the state in his long-shot gubernatorial run against Mario Cuomo in 1986 (with the famous cardboard cutout of Cuomo), his family was an integral part.

"We shared our father with all of these people," O'Rourke's son Andrew, said, recalling several of those early campaigns. "He wanted to serve the people."

In fact, the elder O'Rourke believed it to be an honor.

His 58-year-old daughter, Alice O'Rourke, in her eulogy Wednesday at St. Patrick's Church in Yorktown Heights, remembered sitting on her father's shoulders and playing games with him. She said her dad told great tales, could make anything out of a "cardboard box and tissue paper" and subtly passed on sage life lessons.

O'Rourke was indeed a giant -- to his family and to many residents of this county.

When he offered advice, such as those wise words to an incoming county executive, it was genuine. They were no doubt the words he lived by.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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