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Former U.S. Representative Lester Wolff dies at 102

North Shore environmental ‘hero’ stopped the bridge

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Story updated at 4:10 p.m. 

Lester L. Wolff, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1964 and served in Congress for 16 years, died on Tuesday at age 102. He had lived for the past 21 years in East Norwich, where he remained active until his death.

Wolff’s wife, Blanche, died in 2000. In his later years, he spent as much time as he could with his remaining family, including his son Bruce and daughter Diane, which he said was impossible to do while serving in Congress.

Locally, residents remember the Democratic congressman for leading the charge in the 1960s to nix the building of a bridge planned by then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and developer Robert Moses. The bridge approach was to go from the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway terminus at Jericho Turnpike in Syosset, northwest through Oyster Bay Cove and cross Route 106 at the southern edge of Oyster Bay hamlet. Then it was to continue along West Shore Road and pass on either side of the Bayville drawbridge, either on the west side across Mill Neck Creek or across Bayville east of the bridge, and then across the Sound. 

Wolff contacted the Department of the Interior to survey the area, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the 3,204 acres of bay bottom, salt marsh and small freshwater wetland the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge, crushing the bridge plan.

“That was a big move by Lester because Rockefeller and Moses were very powerful people,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who currently holds the congressional seat once occupied by Wolff. “Lester was very clever, intelligent, passionate and courageous, that he would stand up to such powerful people. In those days, to successfully block people with such power was rare.”

Everyone thought the subject of a bridge was closed, but it resurfaced when Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a feasibility study in 2018 to consider the viability of building a bridge to Westchester over the Long Island Sound. Wolff, who was in his 90s, attended all of the meetings to formulate a plan to defeat the bridge, speaking at each. People referred to him as a “hero.” Cuomo’s study was abandoned, which Wolff said was a relief.

The Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge was renamed the Congressman Lester Wolff Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge in January 2020. 

“He lived a full life,” Suozzi said. “He was posting and tweeting until the end. Lester was a practical politician and had a good sense of history. He’d call me and tell me that I should call this person or do a press release on this or that.” 

Wolff was an expert in Asian affairs. The chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, he led a Congressional delegation to meet with Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping on July 9, 1978. Wolff’s goal was to normalize relations with China.

“After my meeting with Hsiao-ping, the United States shifted the policy with Taiwan to the One China policy, which states that Taiwan and China are parts of a single China,” Wolff explained in a 2016 Oyster Bay Herald interview. “Teddy Kennedy and I wrote the Taiwan Relations Act [which authorized the continuation of commercial, cultural and other relations between the U.S. and Taiwan] in April 1979, which President Carter signed.”

Wolff, a devout Jew, was proud that he was able to assist Israel. His introduction of amendments to the White House sponsored Foreign Assistance Act of 1969 restored peace talks between Israel and the Arab states. These amendments ended up providing Israel with the F4 Phantom jets that later gave them what they needed to win the 1967 war. 

Matthew Meng, the president of the East Norwich Civic Association, knew Wolff well. “He called me last Thursday and asked where I had been,” Meng recalled. “We had both had our shots, and I was going to see him this week. Lester liked to talk.”

He used a wheelchair, Meng said, so he was unable to leave the house as he once had, which Wolff missed. Meng was close with the former congressman, not only as a friend, but also as a “go-to source.” Meng said he would help Wolff by servicing his Mercedes or recommend a plumber or air-conditioner repair company. 

“I will miss the in-depth conversations we always had,” Meng said. “He would tell me stories about how Congress used to work, and he never forgot a name, even from 45 years ago. He always thought that in order for Congress to work, they needed to cross party lines.”

State Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, a Democrat, remembered Wolff as a friend too. “Lester’s contributions to our community, our state and our nation were truly extraordinary,” Lavine said. “All of us who worked with him were fortunate to have learned from him.”    

The early days 

Wolff’s childhood in Washington Heights included sitting in the dugout at Yankee Stadium when the team practiced. His father worked for Rupert Brewery, who owned the Yankees. So, Wolff was able to see many games, too. 

“I met Babe Ruth, who was very congenial,” Wolff said in 2016. He added that the Babe patted him on the head on his way to the ballfield. “I met Lou Gehrig too, but he was very different than Babe Ruth. Gehrig was quiet and very reserved.”

One of the best gifts Wolff said he ever received was a signed Yankee baseball from his father for his bar mitzvah. It has all of the signatures from the 1932 Yankees, including Ruth and Gehrig.  

Education and family were incredibly important in the Wolff household. His parents taught him that it was important to receive a solid education.

When Wolff was 10, he began to appear on the radio show “The Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour,” where he said the microphones were so high, he could barely reach them. 

And then in high school he won a scholarship to the Juilliard School for voice. Wolff entered the private conservatory at 16, remaining until he graduated at 18.  But he didn’t just study voice.

“I thought I was going to be a singer, and I learned to tap dance,” Wolff said. “I became a song-and-dance man and performed at clubs. I was young to do that, only 16, but it was unique for someone my age to do both.”

He continued to perform for four years. “It helped me in later life to be confident before an audience and prepared me for politics,” Wolff said.

After he graduated from New York University, Wolff taught marketing there for two years. Although he enjoyed working as an adjunct professor, he quit once the U.S. entered World War II. He was unable to serve, however, because he was deemed a 4F because of his asthma, but that did not stop him from being involved in the war. 

“The Civil Air Patrol was started by a group of rejects that were either too old to serve or 4F,” said Wolff, adding that he was proud to have been involved in its creation. “We were a rag-tag group that wanted to volunteer for our country.”

Wolff received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014, the highest civilian award in the U.S., for his service on the Civil Air Patrol as a sub chaser.

Political life

Wolff had known seven presidents. He first met John F. Kennedy when he was a candidate for president, appearing on NBC’s political affairs program, “Between the Lines.” Wolff was the host of the Emmy-nominated program. After the interview, Kennedy leaned in and quietly told Wolff he should run for Congress.

Wolff interviewed many elected leaders on the TV show, which eventually fueled an interest in his own involvement in politics. But he credited Kennedy with his decision to run for office.  

“He was brilliant,” Wolff said.  “There really wasn’t anything that you could ask Jack that he didn’t know about. He was affable, a good listener and laidback.”

There will be a memorial for Wolff at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck on Sunday at 11:30 a.m.