(Editor’s note — James E. Reagen worked as the managing editor and chief editorial writer for the The Journal and Advance News under Publisher and Editor in Chief Charles W. Kelly for almost 30 years.)
Whenever I try to explain what Chuck Kelly meant to Northern New York, I tell them how Ogdensburg got its second prison.
Chuck and I were walking down a street in Albany in 1986, just down the street from the state capitol when a limousine pulled up alongside us.
The tinted window rolled down and we heard a familiar voice.
It was New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the father of our current governor, sitting in the back seat of the limo, calling Chuck’s name.
“Chuck, Chuck,” the governor shouted out the window. “Did you hear my State of State speech the other day.”
“I announced I wanted to give Ogdensburg an Opportunity Zone to help bring new business to the city,” the governor said.
Kelly looked at the governor.
“I want a second prison,”Kelly said. “We need more jobs.”
“But I got you a prison,” Cuomo said, referring to the opening of Ogdensburg Correctioal Facility in 1982. “This opportunity zone will help bring new jobs to your community.”
“I want a new prison,“ Kelly stressed. “But I’ll take one of those zone things too.”
Two years later, when New York State and New York City were struggling to find a place in New York City to open a new jail, New York State officials announced they would build two new facilities - Riverview Correctional in Ogdensburg and Cape Vincent.
We also got one of those “zone things” which helped a lot of Ogdensburg companies secure tax breaks and incentives to expand.
My point is that Chuck Kelly had that kind of clout. It’s the kind of clout that helped to convince former U.S. Congressman and Secretary of the Army John McHugh to force the U.S. Postal Service to move our post office back into its historic State Street offices, the only time in the agency’s history that it has reversed a decision to move out of a downtown.
It’s the kind of clout that brought 2,000 people to gather out in front of Ogdensburg’s City Hall 12 years ago to send a message to Governor David Patterson to reverse his decision to put Ogdensburg Correctional on the closure list.
For over 50 years Chuck used the relationships he built to help the community he loved by working to help the families of Ogdensburg.
Chuck understood what a lot of people in this community have forgotten. Ogdensburg has never been a group of buildings. Buildings get old, deteriorate and eventually fall down or get torn down for a host of reasons.
Ogdensburg is a group of families. It’s the thousands of families that have come together time and again to stand together to make their community a better place. You see it every day in the people who come together to make our Little League baseball and other children’s programs work, our minor hockey program a success and our high school athletic programs a statewide powerhouse and envy of small towns across New York State.
It’s the reason why a small town like Ogdensburg has such a successful Boys and Girls Club. Few communities across the nation could have made such a program possible but we did by working together to make Expo and other events a success.
When Chuck looked around Ogdensburg and saw empty spaces at Diamond National, Shade Roller and other former industrial sites, he saw future opportunities that we could work together to turn into new business and housing sites to rebuild our economy and bring new jobs to our community.
When he would hear people whine about there not being any jobs, he would point to our cutting edge cancer center, renal center, medical center, psychiatric centers, and point out that today we have far more high paying health care and technical careers than we did when the psychiatric center was at its peak in the 1950s.
When he watched our kids graduate from college and go out into the world, he recognized that over time many of them would eventually realize that someday they would be wanting to come home to raise their families here. And when they came they would be bringing new ideas and their new skills with them because they would realize that Ogdensburg is home.
A lot of us look around Ogdensburg today and we shake our head and wonder what Chuck would think if he were here to see what’s become of the community he loved so dearly. A lot of people say he would be disappointed with the way our community has fractured and so many are fighting among ourselves.
But the Chuck Kelly I worked alongside for almost 30 years, and who I knew for more than 60 years, would have looked at all the commotion in his Maple City and he would have been delighted that so many people are joining a community-wide debate about our future.
And Chuck would have enjoyed taking part in that debate. He would have heard all the naysayers who tell us Ogdensburg is dying, our city is deteriorating, and he would have told them that our community is a place where thousands of families have raised their children and grandchildren by working together and standing together against whatever threats and challenges might beset us.
That’s the Chuck Kelly I knew and remember. That’s the Chuck Kelly who stood with us through good times and bad. That’s the Chuck Kelly who made all of us a little better by helping to bring us together to face and overcome the challenges that communities always face and always need to come together to overcome.