Former Congressman Lester Wolff dies at 102

Former Congressman Lester Wolff dies at 102
Former Congressman Lester Wolff died last week at 102. (Photo by Teri West)

After a long public career in which he helped push through iconic social programs for the nation, former Congressman Lester Wolff has died at 102.

He represented the North Shore from 1965 to 1981.

Wolff, a Democrat who was the oldest living person to have served in Congress, died on May 11, according to multiple reports. Wolff’s son, Bruce, confirmed his father’s death to various news outlets but did not provide a cause of death. He died at a Syosset Hospital, according to reports.

Efforts to reach a member of Wolff’s family for comment were unavailing.

When he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was creating his Great Society and was tangled up with the Vietnam War. Wolff voted for the bill creating Medicare, the health insurance plan for those 65 and older, and later for the bill creating Medicaid, which covered the poor.

Wolff voted for legislation against the Vietnam War and marched with civil rights activist Medgar Evers. He attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

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During his time as a congressman, Wolff helped preserve natural resources in battles against such opponents as famed planner Robert Moses and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Wolff was born in Manhattan and attended college at New York University, where he majored in business but did not complete his education. He married his wife, Blanche Silvers, in 1940. The two were married for more than 50 years before her death in 1997.

Wolff represented New York’s 3rd Congressional District from 1965 to 1973, and the 6th Congressional District from 1973 to 1980.

Wolff’s congressional career ended in a loss to 27-year-old Republican John LeBoutillier in 1980.

Wolff was part of the Civil Air Patrol in World War II and served as chairman of the Asian and Pacific Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.

In a 2019 interview with Blank Slate Media, Wolff said some of his proudest achievements were on the international stage. He met with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at a time when the United States did not formally recognize China. Wolff delivered to Deng a message from then President Jimmy Carter, which ultimately led to the diplomatic recognition of China and exposing of a large heroin supply destined for the U.S. and its troops stationed in Vietnam located in the “Golden Triangle” of Southeast Asia.

The two discussed Taiwan, and Deng was hoping American ties with Taiwan wouldn’t hinder the potential for diplomacy with China, Wolff said.

Wolff, whose family practices Reform Judaism, was a founding trustee and board member of Temple Emanuel in Great Neck. Wolff lived in Great Neck for more than 50 years before moving to Muttontown. The congregation held a funeral service for its longstanding member on Sunday.

Robert Zimmerman, a founding partner at Z.E. Communications, said he and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli were on Wolff’s political youth committees growing up. Both Zimmerman and DiNapoli thanked Wolff for being a mentor and a friend for them, along with expanding their horizons and instilling values they still carry to this day.

“What Lester was able to accomplish and the people whose lives he touched and the eyes he opened and inspired was truly special,” Zimmerman said. “He expanded my horizons in my world, and he did that in so many ways with so many other people too.”

“Lester led a distinguished career in public service, dedicated to serving the Long Islanders he represented,” DiNapoli said. “He was both a mentor and friend to me and will be dearly missed.”

Temple Emanuel Senior Rabbi Robert S. Widom reflected on Wolff’s accomplishments in a statement to Blank Slate Media.

“We mourn the loss of Congressman Lester L. Wolff, who was a founding member of Temple Emanuel of Great Neck,” Widom said. “He served our nation with distinction, believing in the positive role that America was destined to play in the world. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to represent our country at the United Nations as Deputy Chief of Mission with the rank of ambassador. He also received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, which was a source of great satisfaction.

“Lester was a Reform Jew, and he took his Judaism seriously, believing that it was the embodiment of his finest aspirations and ethical ideas, principles to be practiced and not merely preached. He will be missed, leaving everyone who knew him a treasure of memories that will deepen and mellow as the years go by.  May his memory be a benediction.”

Wolff was also an environmentalist, fighting against a proposed 8.5 mile-long Oyster Bay-Rye bridge. U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) led a bipartisan effort to change the name of the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge in honor of Wolff last year.

The refuge is the largest one in the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, covering 3,209 acres.  It is home to a variety of animal life such as waterfowl, northern diamondback terrapin and harbor seals. It also includes a freshwater pond, salt marsh and subtidal habitats.

Suozzi, in a Facebook statement, thanked Wolff for his service on the North Shore and spearheading efforts to preserve natural resources in the 3rd Congressional District.

“Congressman Lester Wolff was a statesman, a champion of civil rights, a formidable proponent of our environment, a mentor, and my friend,” Suozzi said. “Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.”

Despite his advanced age, Wolff continued to write books, was active on Twitter and was in talks with Netflix about creating a movie based on an “assassination attempt” Wolff experienced while in a helicopter of the “Golden Triangle”.

In addition to his son, Wolff is survived by a daughter, Diane Yorg, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

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