Schenectady

Bill Buell’s Electric City Archives: A look at the Wemple family’s Schenectady history

Clark Wemple, left, and Archibald Wemple, right
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Clark Wemple, left, and Archibald Wemple, right

My guess is that Archibald Wemple and his nephew, Clark, were reluctant politicians.

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As civic-minded attorneys, maybe entering politics is the natural thing to do. But while these two Wemples, both Republicans and both descended from one of Schenectady’s original founders more than three and a half centuries ago, were both immersed into electoral politics, no one ever accused them of being a life-long politician. They were both much more than that.

With the passing last month of former Schenectady police sergeant Ray Wemple, their distant cousin, I decided to look into some of the family’s history, and the trip back was well worth the visit. Here are the facts.

Archibald Wemple was born in the city and graduated from Schenectady High School and Union College before getting his law degree from Albany Law School in 1931. A local attorney for two decades, he ran for mayor against incumbent Owen Begley and won in 1951, serving one four-year term from 1952-1956. He declined to run for a second term and instead was elected County Court Judge and served in that position for another 20 years. He passed away in July of 1982 at the age of 77.

Clark Wemple, also a Schenectady native, graduated from Albany Academy in 1945, Yale University in 1950 and Albany Law School in 1953.

Along with developing his own law practice and serving on the Niskayuna Town Board, Clark was a New York State Assemblyman from 1966-1982. After 16 years he left Albany to concentrate on being an attorney, but remained in politics, serving as GOP county chairman from 1982-85. He died in February of 1993 at the age of 65.

There were earlier Wemples who also served in the state legislature, such as William Wemple (1903-1906) and William Wemple Jr. (1930-1931), from Duanesburg, and Edward Wemple (1886-87) from Fultonville. All are descended from Jan Barentse Wemp, who came from the Netherlands to Albany in 1643 and then to Schenectady in 1662.

But let’s get back to more recent history.

Why did Archibald only run for mayor once? I suspect he saw the steam locomotive coming at him from down the tracks in the person of city councilman Sam Stratton, arguably the most successful politician in Schenectady history who would become Schenectady’s mayor in 1956, and I also suspect he had a weighty respect for the legal system and felt nothing could be more important than fairly administering the law.

During a city council meeting in 1955, Wemple joked following a medical procedure that he was operated on due to a “Stratton ulcer.”

Clark also had a sense of humor, telling Gazette reporter R.W. Groneman in 1983, upon his retirement from the state assembly, “I didn’t even ask for a no-show job.”

Both guys were seen as being above party politics, said Dick Arthur, whose mother, Ruth Wemple, was Archibald’s sister and Clark’s aunt. They were both considered mavericks by several of their colleagues in the Republican Party.

“Of course, the Republican Party then wasn’t what it is now, but they certainly wouldn’t be Trumpers,” said Arthur, who taught in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District. “They were both good guys. Clark was my cousin so we were much closer in age. He was a real maverick and he did things differently. People would send him money for his campaign and he would send it back to them.”

When Clark Wemple died in 1993, his law partner Vito C. Caruso told two Gazette reporters, Cathy Woodruff and Janine Kava, about Wemple’s strong independent streak.

“He told me you have to go with your own feelings,” said Caruso. “He said, ‘don’t be afraid to go against the grain. If you feel that’s the correct way to, then that’s the way to go.’ He told me that time and time again.’”

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Since Archibald passed away nearly 40 years ago now, there are few of his contemporaries left. Clark, however, who died less than 30 years ago, is remembered quite well by some of those still involved in state government today. James N. Tedisco, now a state senator, was Wemple’s successor back in 1983 and was often referred to by the Gazette as Wemple’s protege. Tedisco told me this week that he doesn’t mind the tag one bit.

“Clark Wemple was a mentor, friend and outstanding straight-talking public servant who realized that the most important voices in our democracy are not the so-called powerful people in the halls of government, but the people in our communities who those of us in elected office are fortunate enough to represent,” said Tedisco, who served in the State Assembly from 1983-2016 before being elected to the State Senate.

“He was one of my heroes, and I was proud and honored to have his endorsement when he retired and I ran for his Assembly seat,” added Tedisco. “One of the things I fondly recall is of Assemblyman Wemple challenging Governor Rockefeller for using a state airplane which he believed was costly to taxpayers to travel across the state. Clark used to joke that maybe he should take a bus.”

In Groneman’s 1983 Gazette story about Wemple, he suggested that another Wemple might soon be entering the political arena. Erik Wemple, Clark’s son , was a student at Hamilton College and showing some interest in politics. Erik, however, I would argue, heard a higher calling. He became a journalist and now writes for the Washington Post.

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