One of New York’s greatest citizens passed away earlier this week, and for me, it hit home on a personal level.
Basil Paterson was a power in the politics of New York City and State. He was one of “The Four Horsemen“, the men generally credited with ruling Harlem and black New York for several decades — a matter of controversy, even today, amongst media critics.
I have had the pleasure of knowing all these icons, and worked for one them. Yet Basil Paterson was a true inspiration to me throughout my 40 year career in radio.
It was many, many years ago, at an event the fog of memory obscures. I was there covering it, with my trusty tape recorder and microphone with the WLIB-WBLS logo. I was at the time, still a kid, a bit wet behind the ears. At the end of the event, Basil Paterson called me over for a private chat. He said that he’d been following my work for a while, and he liked what I was doing. He urged me to continue to hone my skills, and he predicted great things for me.
I left that room on Cloud Nine. This was, after all, Basil Paterson!
During his life, he served as a New York state senator, deputy mayor of New York City, a labor negotiator, federal mediator, and New York’s secretary of state.
Even these impressive accomplishments don’t tell the whole story of Basil Paterson.
He had, as many might describe it, the common touch. For many years after he first encouraged me to move forward in my career, I would see him at events or press conferences. After a time, our handshakes turned to hugs. More often than not, he would talk to me about issues that were brought up on my talk show, and his insights weren’t just valuable, they were precious. I was among the many who were disappointed when he decided not to run for mayor against Ed Koch in 1985. There was a widespread belief that he could have beaten Koch that year. Four years later, ironically enough, another member of the Four Horsemen, David Dinkins, toppled Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary.
During that same period, I met and became friends with Basil Paterson’s son David. In fact, I was the first person to interview him after he announced he would run for the state senate seat his father held more than a decade earlier. I saw the pride in the elder Paterson’s face when his son became Lieutenant Governor, and later the state’s first black Governor.
David Paterson inherited his father’s concern for the plight of the poor, and his time as Governor spoke to that more than most would admit, even now.
I saw Basil Paterson a few times last year at various events. His warmth toward me was the same as it was decades earlier. His passing is only partly about the four men who dominated Harlem politics for a generation. It’s about a kind, sophisticated, insightful human being who touched the lives of many, many people.
I am only one of them. Rest in Peace, Mr. Paterson.