Updated: Feb 13, 2021
I’ve been told that in some faith traditions, the act of remembering a person keeps them truly present in one’s life.
The word "remember" (translated from the Hebrew word zakar) appears roughly 160 times in the Bible, most memorably in references to the Passover and the Last Supper (which was itself a Passover seder). The Passover celebration is a memorial (in Hebrew, ziccaron, making present in the here and now what took place in the past) in which Jews of each generation regard themselves as having been personally brought out of Egypt, and in the annual festival of Shavuot, they imagine themselves at Mount Sinai personally receiving the Torah from God. This personalization often leads to actualization, the process of leveraging memories to drive action, hopefully action that does some good in a world sorely in need of goodness.
My father, James A. (Jim) FitzPatrick, died thirty years ago this Tuesday after a short but valiant fight with leukemia, four months shy of his 72nd birthday. He had a good, full life and left a big hole in many lives upon his passing. I would like to share some stories as a zicarron to his memory.
Jim FitzPatrick was born at home at 39 Hamilton Street in Plattsburgh, New York on June 29, 1916. The youngest of four children (a sister, Mary, died in infancy), he was known to family and friends as Jimmy. He and his two older brothers, Francis and Phillip, grew up literally right next door to their first cousins, John and Martin.
The two families were especially close; they shared a driveway, a single car and a doubly-common genealogy: their fathers, Frank and Simon, had married sisters, Mary and Clara, whom they met while on a construction job in Delaware. He had by all accounts an idyllic childhood.
Education was very important in the FitzPatrick household, and the family sent Francis to Williams College and Philip to Dartmouth. By the time Jimmy was ready for college, the Great Depression was in full swing, and the family construction business was struggling.
A high school coach helped arrange a football scholarship to Villanova University, where Jimmy, at 6’2” and about 190 pounds, served as “practice fodder” (his words) for the varsity team. His mother, concerned for his safety, reached out to a priest friend, who very kindly arranged a scholarship at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1938.
His brother Francis, now a successful New York lawyer, supported his application to and enrollment in Columbia Law School, from which he graduated with an LL.B degree (equivalent to today’s J.D.) in 1941.
While in law school, Jimmy (now Jim, except to family and others of a particular generation) accompanied a priest friend on a trip to England.
On September 3, 1939, he was standing on the sidewalk across from 10 Downing Street (you could do that in those days) when England declared war on Germany. As he would recount it later, it wasn’t long before the air raid sirens began wailing, and everyone scurried to safety in the Underground. That moment was indelibly seared in his memory.
Shortly after graduation from law school, and likely aware that the European conflict would ultimately involve the United States, Jim decided to join the US Navy, which by virtue of his graduate degree he could join as a commissioned officer. He desperately wanted to join the submarine service, but a serious overbite prevented his qualification (apparently, in an emergency, a submariner might need to use his teeth to operate an emergency lifevest). He joined the Navy with the rank of Ensign.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor, and the next day the United States declared war on Japan. Jim was assigned to the USS Tuscaloosa (CA-47), a New Orleans class heavy cruiser, as a Naval Intelligence Officer. The Tuscaloosa engaged in anti-submarine warfare in the Caribbean until early 1945, when she transferred to the Pacific and participated in the pivotal battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, earning seven battle stars for her war service. Despite being subjected to heavy kamikaze attack, she was never damaged in battle. Incredibly, we have war footage of one attack aimed directly at the Tuscaloosa’s superstructure (where Jim would have been stationed) which is miraculously shot down by a deck gun. It is an amazing and sobering sight; if things had turned out differently, I wouldn’t be around now to write about it.
Two stories from Jim’s wartime experiences bear repeating.
In the summer of 1945, shortly after the battle of Okinawa, American forces were contemplating the daunting prospect of invading the Japanese islands directly. The experiences of Iwo Jima and Okinawa showed how fiercely the Japanese fought to retain territory; how much fiercer would they then be to defend their homeland? Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines all knew the enormity of the challenge before them, and President Truman – barely three months in office – was being warned by his advisors that American casualties in such an invasion would be “horrific.” The Tuscaloosa clearly would have been an integral part of that invasion. Then, in early August, the United States brought a new weapon to the fight that harnessed the elemental power of the atom to create the most destructive force known to man. Two “atomic” bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese government surrendered. The war in the Pacific was over.
While we with the benefit of hindsight justly recoil at the very thought of these weapons, think for a moment what they meant for the men (and there were only men in those days) on the decks of those ships. More than simply victory, they meant an end to the senseless carnage and sacrifice. For reasons I will explain later, I have always wished to have been able to be present at my father’s side at the very moment he heard the news.
After the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the Tuscaloosa spent three months operating along the coasts of China and Korea. The Chinese Civil War had broken out earlier that year, and portions of the mainland had come under control of Mao Zedong’s communist forces, including a major portion of the coastline the Tuscaloosa was patrolling. The US fleet admiral decided to send an envoy to the communists to negotiate safe passage and harboring for his ships. For this task he sent the newly promoted Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Jim FitzPatrick.
Needless to say, Jim did not speak Chinese. The Navy, ever resourceful, provided him with an English-Chinese translating dictionary, which he referred to as his “point-talky.” Not a very promising start to an exercise in international diplomacy!
The assignment was actually pretty dangerous. The local communist leaders had no reason to trust the Americans with their great armada hulking off the Chinese coast. The Tuscaloosa sent Jim and a single seaman off in an open boat with orders that Jim be left on the beach alone to negotiate with the locals. If he did not reappear on the beach the next morning, the fleet was to depart without him.
As they motored into the harbor, Jim saw men with rifles on the banks and in the hills. The rifles were pointed at him. Not knowing what else to do, he stood up in the middle of the boat, with hands open and arms outstretched to show he was unarmed. I don’t think he was trying to be heroic, just practical. In any event, it worked. Jim met with the local leaders, and by using his trusty pointy-talky, he successfully negotiated safe passage and harboring for the fleet. The next morning, he was at the beach to be picked up. Whether he knew it or not, that evening he was the only American on mainland China.
Post-War & Politics
In total, Jim spent 42 months overseas, retiring from the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He returned home, where he led Plattsburgh’s first post-war Veteran’s Day parade, joined a local judge in the practice of law and set out to become involved in state politics. He ran successfully for the New York State Assembly, where he served from 1947 to 1956. In his first year, he was seated next to Malcolm Wilson, who would become a good friend and ultimately the 50th Governor of New York State. Jim served as chairman of the Republican Party in Clinton County and was a delegate to the 1952 Republican National Convention.
In 1954, Assemblyman FitzPatrick introduced the bill that established the Adirondack Northway, and approved the funds necessary for its construction. He is credited as the author of its name -- a combined reference to the New York Thruway to which it is connected, and the direction one would travel to reach the Adirondacks -- and was present with Governor Rockefeller at its dedication in 1961. Jim was often referred to as "the father of the Northway."
Two quick stories about Jim FitzPatrick the politician. One day he was campaigning for reelection in the hamlet of Altona, New York (population about 700). He gave what must have been a pretty compelling speech, because immediately afterward an elderly woman came up to him and said “Young man, that was a good speech. I like you and I’m going to vote for you, because the guy we have in there now isn’t doing anything!”
I once asked him whether he ever “ran scared” in an election. He said, yes, always. He said he never took a single election for granted. In later years I came to question this, as on at least one occasion (1952) he ran unopposed and endorsed by both the Republican and Democrat parties!
On June 16, 1948, Jim married Joan Frances Manning, the beautiful eldest daughter of Will and Marguerite Manning, close family friends. The wedding took place at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on Broad Street in Plattsburgh.
The couple had five children in ten years: James Anthony, Jr. (Tony), Joan Maureen (Maureen), Cynthia (Tia), Daniel (Dan) and Susan Anne (Suzy).
They lived at 88 Beekman Street in Plattsburgh until Suzy arrived, whereupon quarters became too tight and they moved literally down the street to 62 Beekman Street. There the family remained for more than 25 years until ultimately relocating to the “place on the lake” they built at Bluff Point, with views of Valcour Island, the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Joan lives there to this day.
Lake Champlain had long been a favorite spot for both Mannings and FitzPatricks to enjoy. In honor of the birth of his first grandchild, Will Manning built a small rowboat and named it the “Tony” boat. Later, in honor of the family’s completion, the next boat was named the “Suzy Too.”
Jim’s law practice flourished and he set up his own law firm in the second floor of a brick office building on Clinton Street, installing a newfangled electric stair lift for use by elderly clients (and the occasional amusement of his children). He later moved the firm to a former funeral home on the corner of Oak and Court Streets, the basement of which was used as a field hospital by the British Army during their occupation of Plattsburgh in the War of 1812. On Jim’s death, the building was leased for many years to the Clinton County Historical Association at an annual cost of $1 for use as a museum, until the Association’s move to its current location on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
In 1958, Pope Pius XII made Jim a Knight of St. Gregory for his service to the Church, a papal honor that moved him very deeply. For the rest of his life, he wore the rosette of the order on his suit lapel.
Rockefeller & The Power Authority
In 1957, Jim met Nelson Rockefeller on the latter’s visit to Clinton County as part of his campaign to be Governor of New York State. The two hit it off quickly and remained friends until Rockefeller’s death twenty years later. Rockefeller easily recognized the value of having the support of a fiscally conservative but socially moderate Roman Catholic Irish Republican from upstate New York on his team. It was FitzPatrick who introduced Rocky to Malcolm Wilson, who became his Lieutenant Governor, and ultimately his successor. And it was FitzPatrick who Rocky chose to chair his election platform committee for at least his first two gubernatorial campaigns.
In 1963, Rockefeller asked FitzPatrick to succeed the famous “Master Builder” and urban planner Robert Moses as chairman of the New York State Power Authority, a quasi-governmental agency established in 1932 by then Governor Franklin to generate hydroelectric power in support of the prudent economic development of the state and its natural resources. Jim always stated that he “followed rather than succeeded” Moses in that role. He and Moses remained lifelong friends.
Under Jim’s leadership, the Power Authority more than doubled its generating capabilities. He oversaw the acquisition and constructions of almost $2 billion in new facilities and held the post of chairman longer than anyone in the Authority’s history.
He was a courageous and outspoken advocate for the development of multiple means to meet the state’s energy needs, particularly during the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. He promoted innovative solutions to meet peak demand, and oversaw the building of the Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project, which operates much like a water-powered rechargeable battery, using cheaper, low demand time power to pump water uphill, then using that stored water to generate power at times of peak demand.
Under Jim’s watch, the Power Authority built its first nuclear power plant, which the Authority trustees named after him. The James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned in July 1975 and operates safely to this day.
The Power Authority chairman is appointed by the Governor. One of the things Jim was most proud of, was his reappointment to that position by Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat. When I asked dad why Carey did not replace him with someone from his own party, he said ”We’re just two Irish guys who understand and get along with each other, and put the interests of the people of New York first.”
I mentioned earlier that I wish I could have been standing by my father’s side when he first heard the news that a strange new weapon which split the atom had most likely saved his life. I would like to have told him that a scant three decades in the future a power plant would be built to harness this awesome power to deliver electricity to the entire State of New York, and that that plant would bear his name. I can just imagine his response:
“That’s not possible. I’m a lawyer, not a scientist or engineer. The closest I’ve come to major construction projects was bringing water to the masons building Plattsburgh’s Bridge Street bridge in 1930. What you are talking about requires scientific genius. I’m not even that handy around the house.” I would smile at the truth in that last line.
The lesson here is that nothing is impossible. I’m reminded of one of my favorite sayings: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
Jim retired as Power Authority chairman in 1977, and though he remained active and supportive of local, state and national Republican candidates, he held no further political office. One interesting story, though born of a sad beginning: upon the 1968 assassination of Robert F Kennedy, Governor Rockefeller had the responsibility of naming a successor to serve out the remainder of Kennedy’s term as US Senator. A number of government officials urged Rocky to select Jim; however, once Joan caught wind of the discussions, she put her foot down: under no circumstances would the family be moving to Washington. In our house, mom was the “Law of the Land,” and she had spoken. Rocky would just have to find someone else!
The Last Decade
Jim worked to the very end, representing local individuals and businesses and serving as chairman of the board of trustees of the William H. Miner Foundation and the Miner Institute in Chazy, New York. The Miner Institute was one of his real loves. An agricultural research organization founded by a local philanthropist and headquartered on his family’s Hearts Delight Farm property, the Institute hosts the Applied Environmental Science Program established by the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. It is also a working farm, and for many years was home to Jim’s favorite horse, Star, a retired New York City police horse. I remember how happy he was astride that (very tall) horse.
He also enjoyed his time “on the lake” and the start of a new generation of family.
Jim continued his involvement in civic and charitable activities. He served as attorney and a member of the board of directors of The Lake Placid Club, Inc. Sadly, the Club closed soon after the 1980 Winter Olympics, during which it had served as International Olympic Committee headquarters.
Jim also served for many years on the board of the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital. After his death, the hospital built a new state-of-the-art cancer treatment center, which it named the FitzPatrick Cancer Center.
I have been to too many funerals recently, for nonagenarians to teenagers. Each is a story, each a heartbreaking reminder of mortality. But there is in each story a reason to remember, to celebrate what was rather than mourn what might have been. We need to tell each other these stories, if for no other reason than to reassert our common humanity. But there are greater reasons. For if we share our memories, we bring those moments, and those people, to life again, if only in our imaginations. And with those memories to inspire, guide and motivate us, perhaps we will be moved to take action, to do some good in a world that sorely needs it.
Thanks for the memories, dad!