It was 40 years ago when I met Geraldo Rivera, a cub reporter for Eyewitness News on ABC. He snuck into the Willowbrook State School, a residential center on Staten Island for people with developmental dissabilities, after learning of the abuses, and he was shocked at what he saw. He brought his reports into the living room of millions of people.
My daughter Lara was a resident there and I became the spokesperson for the parents and advocates marching and demanding the restoration of massive budget cuts at the facility where 5,400 people lived.
Fast forward from 1971 to 1983. My four children were in school and after working for a short time as a reporter/photographer/salesperson for a former Daily News reporter who started a weekly newspaper, I became then- Assemblymember Alan Hevesi’s press secretary and director of his foundation to restore the historic Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, the largest place of worship in Europe. It was a great experience that led me to my next career starting The Queens Courier.
Fast forward to the present.
Geraldo, who has a TV show, has begun a second career as an anchor on ABC Radio (770 am) from 10 a.m. to noon every day. This past Friday was the 40th anniversary of his Willowbrook coverage and devoted part of the show to the subject. His staff reached out to me and asked me to stand by during the first half hour. So I waited at my phone for their call. I could hear Geraldo speaking to his other guests. When he introduced me I knew we would talk about the time we met 40 years ago and the wonderful fundraising efforts he got involved with after we won our court order. He reminded us of a concert led by John Lennon to benefit the people living there, and he played the tape of Yoko Ono talking about Willowbrook. In fact, that money helped my organization, now called Life’s WORC, to buy a house in Little Neck that would become the first group home for children from Willowbrook in New York State.
What a high it was after the painful years of struggling to get better services for my daughter Lara and the other 5,400 people residing at Willowbrook.
Our conversation quickly turned to the present. I sharply remarked that there are potentially terible times ahead with the revamping of health services. I do believe that anyone caring about people with disabilities must be on alert and raise their voices to challenge the changes being proposed by the state.
Sadly, 40 years ago was also a time of economic strife and a terrible time for people with special needs. Fortunately, the power of the press can once again have an effect on what the coming changes will mean to the neediest of our community.
Stay tuned and call in to Geraldo’ s new show at 800-848-9222 between 10 a.m. and noon on 770 am.
It’s time to
parole Alan Hevesi
I never forget kindnesses done to me and Alan Hevesi was a person who did make a difference in my life by giving me a chance to work for him.
Then I accompanied Alan with my “WOW” girlfriends to Israel when he headed the Bnai Zion Foundation. It is a memory I cherish to this day. And then there was the time when my son Josh was in business school and needed a summer internship. Alan was then the city comptroller and found a place for him. Then as state comptroller, sadly Alan’s actions were found to be illegal and he was sent to jail for his role in a state pension fund pay-to-play scandal.
So there were many reasons why my husband Stu and I decided to make the trip to Midstate Correctional Facility in Utica. It was a five-hour drive and we stayed overnight in the stately old classic Hotel Utica that has survived its glamour days. There were still remnants of those days with massive crystal chandeliers, marble floors in the lobby and now-updated rooms.
In the morning we made our way to the prison grounds, first going to the wrong facility and finally finding it. We entered a trailer for visitors and were on the list so we were asked to put all our belongings in a locker. I had brought some books, magazines and photos of our trip to Budapest and the Dohany Synagogue. We were told his food was controlled so we brought none.
We were directed through a barbed wire fence to a walkway and door. We were buzzed in and went through a metal detector after taking off our shoes. The prison staff was polite and friendly and finally directed us through yet another door into a large day room filled with many bridge tables each surrounded by four chairs and many vending machines against one long wall. We went and checked in with the two officers sitting at a raised desk. With a smile they said Alan would be right with us and told us to take a seat. Within seconds there was Alan looking fit and walking tall with his shaved head and slim figure after a 30-pound weight loss. He looked handsome wearing green prison pants with his last name and number on them and a long-sleeved cranberry shirt.
We hugged and with a wide smile we sat together for about an hour-and-a-half and reminisced.
He seemed comfortable and resigned to his new world. He is serving a four-year term and sadly was denied his first request for parole. Hopefully the parole board will stop wasting our money by keeping Alan in prison. His wife, children and grandchildren await him. Everyone who knew him as an assemblymember, city comptroller and state comptroller should write to the parole board and say he’s had his punishment, it’s time to let him go!
The number for the parole board is 518-473-9400.