Former New York Gov Hugh Carey in 2009.

Former New York Gov Hugh Carey in 2009. Credit: AP Photo/Mike Groll

Hugh Leo Carey saved the greatest city in the world from falling into bankruptcy, but he didn't stop there.

Carey's legacy as governor of New York for eight years is large and complex: Bricks- and-mortar structures like the Javits Center and Battery Park City got built on his watch; he managed a statewide prison guard strike without loss of life; and he played a role in events as global as fostering peace in Northern Ireland and as local as ending tolls on the Southern Parkway.

Carey was a renaissance man, with a quick wit, wide knowledge and a love of song. He could make you laugh, and if you worked for him, his focus on detail could almost make you cry.

He suffered great tragedy: the loss of his much-loved wife, the death of two sons in a crash on Shelter Island, where his family summered and he died Sunday, and the loss of another son to cancer.

Carey learned leadership on the battlefields of Europe during World War II and politics in the halls of Congress. As a public official, he was always best in a crisis. So he was well suited to rescue the city in its darkest hour.

He proclaimed the end of the days of wine and roses, then backed his words by acting as a budget tightwad. But he was sensitive to the needs of groups such as the developmentally disabled. His quick wit sometimes got him into trouble. His aborted effort to use state power to take a Shelter Island neighbor's land, likely to preserve Carey's view, was not his finest moment.

But there is no doubt that Carey was a great governor, unafraid to meet great challenges with bold, skillful leadership. New York was blessed to have him. hN