Remembered as a friend to veterans and loyal servant to all constituents
BY KATHY KAHN
Dutchess County native Ben Gilman served his country and the Hudson Valley his entire life, a full life which ended on Saturday morning, December 17. A former lawyer, New York Assemblyman and 30-year Republican veteran of Congress, . Gilman was born in Poughkeepsie in on December 6, 1922 and remained a lifelong Hudson Valley native.
Gilman, a World War II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who fought in the Pacific theatre, came home to study law, then started his foray into the world of politics. Elected to the New York State Assembly in 1966, he served three terms before being elected to the 26th U.S. Congressional District in 1972. He represented the Hudson Valley for the next three decades.
After the 2000 Census, his district was eliminated, woven into the 17, 18, 19 and 22 Congressional Districts. Although many urged him to continue his career and run for office again, Gilman retired to his Middletown home with wife, Georgia. He did run a political consulting firm in DC and the Hudson Valley for a number of years after his public service.
Gilman was a champion of veterans and had a special candle burning for those who served during the Vietnam “conflict.” He was only one of two representatives in Congress who refused to shut the door on Southeast Asia POW/MIA initiatives when the war was ended. He remained a stalwart supporter of the military and its veterans till the end of his life.
Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland County Veterans’ Office in New City, was one of Gilman’s pallbearers Tuesday. “Ben was the kind of person who could make you feel like you were the only person in the room—he would concentrate on what you were saying, not be thinking about what he’d be saying to the next person…he was truly a good soul.
“Because he was a veteran himself, he had a consciousness about them that an ordinary layman would not truly understand,” said Donnellan. “He was always out in front of veterans’ issues.” Gilman helped bring home the remains of Air Force Lt. Colonel Bernard Conklin, 41, of Stony Point, as well as those of U.S. Marine Heinz Ahlmeyer of Pearl River, 24.
Gilman’s services were held Tuesday, December 19 in Orange County’s Temple Sinai of Middletown. A lifelong Mason, he received its rites of passage from Middletown’s Masonic Temple during the funeral.
Gilman was buried at the U.S. Military Academy’s cemetery in West Point, where he no doubt cheered on Army when it played against Navy. “His spirit will live on in many organizations which he contributed his time and wealth of knowledge to,” said Donnelan.
“He is a great loss to us and it was a great loss when they changed his district,” former Rockland GOP Chairman Vincent Reda said. “A hard act to follow. He was extremely helpful to Rockland County in many ways. He responded to every letter, every request,”
Reda recalled that Rocklanders and GOP officials were outraged over the deletion of Gilman’s district. Governor George Pataki took heat for not protecting his seat, Reda said.
Redistricting officials felt Gilman’s district was a fair choice to eliminate because he had served for 15 terms and was 80-years-old. Nonetheless, Reda believes “He would have won if he ran against Eliot Engel, but he was disappointed.”
Alas, he redistricting decision deflated Gilman’s political ambitions and he left for retirement. Following the departure of Gilman, Rockland County suffered a decade of second class status, as tiny portions of three different Congressional districts were contained within the county.
Since 2011, Rockland has again been within one district, but it may be a long time before another Republican ever represents the county in Congress. The current district is 58 percent within Westchester County and leans heavily Democratic.
Other reactions to the death of US Rep. Ben Gilman:
“This morning we lost a pillar of our community, a war veteran, a public servant who’s record is unmatched and for many of us a good friend. I will be keeping the Gilman family in my thoughts and prayers and I ask you to do the same. Congressman Ben Gilman’s life is one that will be remembered and celebrated for generations to come. Rest In Peace my friend.”
– NY Senator Bill Larkin (R)
“Ben Gilman is an American hero who flew 35 missions over Japan during World War II, became a warrior for his neighbors in Congress, and still earned the nickname ‘Gentle Ben’ for his remarkable humility. He set the gold standard for effectiveness over his long and distinguished service in Congress. His example reminds us of what we once admired in our government – smart, dedicated men like Ben Gilman seeking to make a difference. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t say to me, “Try to be like Ben Gilman; he was one of the good ones.”
“I am honored that Ben’s wife Georgia and his children asked me to participate in celebrating the life of such a remarkable man. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and our Hudson Valley community during this time.”
– US Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-18th Congressional District)
“Congressman Gilman was a tireless advocate for the many residents of our region for over four decades. As our state assemblyman and, later, as our favorite congressman for 30 years, he made a tremendous impact on our region, our state, our nation, and the world. Congressman Gilman traveled to all parts of the world and met with many famous leaders of all backgrounds, and even with that busy schedule, you could always count on him to take care of the needs of his home district, know your name when he approached you, know your personal situation, and help you in any way he could. Congressman Gilman gave me my first opportunity to learn so many great things about politics and most importantly public service. I have never forgotten the lessons he taught me and I apply them each and everyday as a public official. It was an honor to serve as an intern in his local office during my summer vacations in high school and to help him on his later campaigns for Congress. He will be missed by all of us but will always be remembered for greatness!”
– NY Assemblyman Karl Brabenec (R-98th District)
“No one ever did it better; no one will ever do it like that again…Politicians just don’t do that today, but I don’t call him a politician. I call him a friend and a public servant.”
– Former Orange County Executive Edward Diana (R)
““He was just a magnificent man, the type of politics that seems to be lost in Washington nowadays. He was a gracious winner and a great public servant.”
– Middletown Mayor Joseph DeStefano