Andrew Patrick O'Rourke

O'Rourke, Andrew Patrick

Andrew Patrick O'Rourke, Westchester County Executive (1983-1997), passed away peacefully on January 3rd at Calvary Hospital after a long illness.

O'Rourke's accomplishments in the private and public sectors were many, as were the fields in which he achieved them. He was a child actor, social worker, military officer and historian, attorney, author, judge, philanthropist, public servant for 44 years and husband, father and grandfather.

Born in 1933 in Plainfield, New Jersey, to an Army doctor and nurse, O'Rourke's father died from tuberculosis when he was two. O'Rourke's mother, a member of the Great Sioux Nation, moved the family to Hells' Kitchen and was legally blind by the time O'Rourke was 10. The family relied on Catholic Charities and O'Rourke's work, which he began at the age of 11 delivering fish. Often holding more than one job while attending school, he appeared in summer stock, on Broadway, in early television and as a "Whiz Kid," and worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Radio City Music Hall and the Paramount Theater.

O'Rourke changed the face of Westchester County with his many and lasting signature leadership and civic accomplishments as County Executive. His formative experiences, congenial manner and intelligence were his strong suits to transcend partisanship in service of his vision for the County's future or, in many cases, simply to achieve a just result. His fiscal acumen allowed O'Rourke to maintain Westchester County's coveted triple-A rating. With a quick and kind wit, O'Rourke was a masterful extemporaneous speaker who eschewed written texts, which he credited to overcoming dyslexia.

Shortly after his appointment as County Executive, adulterated bottles of "Tylenol" appeared in Westchester pharmacies. O'Rourke's decisive action to protect public safety was part of what is still considered a gold standard of successful crisis management. Unstintingly compassionate, he prized responsibility above dependence. The experience of relying on welfare as a child inspired his Pride-in-Work program, which offered Westchester recipients an alternative to dependency. One of O'Rourke's many welfare reform initiatives is enshrined in New York State law - the Front End Detection System (FEDS).

O'Rourke applied lessons learned in the military about diversity and the chain of command to his administration of county government. He dedicated Westchester County land for a Holocaust Memorial in White Plains. He preached the story of Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones at the Westchester Leadership Prayer Breakfast. He appointed the County's first African-American and Latino Commissioners and the first women to head the General Services and Law Departments.

O'Rourke was unafraid to use his political capital and good will for difficult causes. When the AIDS crisis hit, O'Rourke insisted the Westchester County Medical Center become an AIDS treatment center. He won approval of referenda to update the Westchester County Center and the County Airport. He resurrected Croton Point Park, returning it to parkland after decades of use as a dump. When a dramatic spike in homelessness threatened, he teamed with Andrew Cuomo and local officials, to build transitional housing for Westchester families.

O'Rourke's life-long love of things military began at 16 as a member of the Civil Air Patrol. His subsequent enlistment in the 69th Regiment, home of the famous "Fighting Sixty-Ninth," an Irish heritage unit, ended honorably when his minority was discovered. He returned when he was of age and, coming full circle, the Secretary of the Army formally recognized former Private O'Rourke as a Distinguished Member of the 69th Regiment in 1998.

O'Rourke attended Fordham College on a Hayden Science Award scholarship, where he thrived through his involvement in the ROTC program. After his graduation in 1954, he worked as a social worker for the City of New York. He then enlisted in the Air Force, where, with poor uncorrected vision, his dream to fly was achieved by serving as a navigator. Rising to Captain, O'Rourke was on a response team throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis and flew missions around the world during his eight years of active duty. He attended Fordham Law School's night program, travelling from McGuire Air Force Base several days a week.

Upon admission to the bar in 1962, O'Rourke moved to the City of Yonkers and joined the leading aviation law firm of Kreindler & Kreindler. He and other former aviators helped overturn limits on financial liability, which had become outdated as the industry matured.

In 1965 he was elected to the first of four terms as a Yonkers City Councilman representing the Crestwood area. He won four terms on the Board of Legislators, representing northeast Yonkers, five years as Board Chair. Voted County Executive by his Board colleagues, he went on to win election four times, serving 15 years before accepting an appointment as a Judge of the U. S. Court of Claims. In 2000 he was elected a Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. He stepped down from the bench at the mandatory retirement age of 76. In his long career in elected office, he was defeated only once, in 1986 when he was the Republican candidate for Governor against Mario Cuomo. The underdog campaign gained national attention when O'Rourke carried around a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Cuomo his opponent, who had refused to debate.

Before entering politics full time, O'Rourke completed a Masters of Law from New York University and was a member of two private law practices in Westchester.

O'Rourke continued his military career as a member of the Naval Reserve. He rose to the rank of Captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps, where among other roles he served on Pentagon policy boards. He was an honor graduate of the Naval War College. O'Rourke was Naval Adjutant in the New York Naval Militia to two New York State Governors, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, with the rank of Rear Admiral and then Vice Admiral. With other military officers in the Hudson Valley, he founded the Priority of Saint Patrick at West Point of the Knights Templar, an organization that supports charitable works for persecuted Christians, going on to serve as Grand Prior of the United States.

He authored two adventure novels: "Red Banner Mutiny" (1985) and "Hawkwood" (1989). His knowledge of the military history of World War II and ancient Greece and Rome was encyclopedic. Possessed with intense intellectual curiosity, O'Rourke readily acquired a working knowledge of the many subjects that fascinated him. His was the recipient of numerous military and civic awards. His enduring enjoyment of opera began when he was forced to accompany his sisters who, unable to pay, would sneak in with the crowd after intermission or stand in the back for entire performances.

O'Rourke is survived by his wife Flora; three children from his first marriage to Alice McKenna who predeceased him - Alice Rodd O'Rourke, an attorney, Andrew P. O'Rourke, a public affairs officer with New York State, and Aileen O'Rourke, a Registered Nurse and attorney ; and six grandchildren - Christopher Caracciolo, Catherine Caracciolo, Loughlin Rodd, Andrew J. O'Rourke Aiden Rodd and William Caracciolo,. He is also survived by his sister, Hazel Shea; his sister Delores predeceased him.

The viewing will be held at Clark's Funeral Home, 2104 Saw Mill River Road, Yorktown Heights, NY this Monday 7-9 and Tuesday 3-5 and 7-9 PM. The funeral will be held at St. Patrick's Church, 137 Moseman Road, Yorktown Heights on Wednesday at 10 AM.

Published in the The Journal News from Jan. 6 to Jan. 7, 2013