Owen Begley was a man who loved politics, and like all good politicians he was almost always capable of deftly talking his way out of uncomfortable situations. However, the 1958 election season in Schenectady was a particularly difficult campaign, even for a likable guy like Begley.
He had little to worry about himself. The former mayor of Schenectady and then the state senator for the Schenectady/Schoharie District, Begley had his own race pretty well locked up. The problem was that his own local Democratic Party was experiencing some serious in-fighting, and Begley couldn’t help but be caught right in the middle.
The precise issue causing the trouble was that Democratic Mayor Sam Stratton was finishing up his first term as mayor and was deliberating over running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Always considered something of a maverick politically, Stratton wasn’t making up his mind quickly enough for local Democratic officials as to whether he should take a shot at moving to Washington, D.C. or remain in Schenectady as mayor. As a result, the county Democrats endorsed another popular politician, long-time county clerk Carroll “Pinky” Gardner, to run for Congress.
Begley went along with the party and endorsed Gardner, but then told reporters, “I do not mean I am against Sam Stratton.” As we know, Stratton went on to run for Congress, won an August primary against Gardner and then the general election in November to earn his ticket to Washington, D.C., where he would remain for another three decades. What I didn’t know was that, according to Begley’s daughter, Nancy Begley Pennell, all was eventually forgiven between the three men, at least between Begley and Stratton and Begley and Gardner. Some friction between Gardner and Stratton must have lingered, but we don’t know that for sure. Perhaps that’s a history blog for another day.
“I don’t remember the details about the Stratton-Gardner dispute, but I know that they both remained close friends with my father,” said Begley Pennell, who was a young teenager in 1958 and the only child of Owen and Helen Begley. “He was always friends with Stratton and always friends with Pinky and that never changed. My father loved politics, he loved Schenectady and he loved people. He was an outgoing person who wanted to do some good for Schenectady and I think the people appreciated that.”
Owen Begley was born in 1905 and grew up at 910 Albany Street in Schenectady, one of ten children belonging to John and Mary Begley.
“My grandfather was a stonecutter who came from Ireland, as did my grandmother on my father’s side, but they both passed away before I had a chance to know them,” said Begley Pennell. “They both believed in education, and I think most of their children, like my father, got a college education. That was important to them, as was politics. I believe my grandfather was an alderman, and my father’s older brother Leo was also involved in local politics. It ran in the family.”
Begley graduated from Schenectady High School at the age of 16, headed off to Union College, graduated from there in 1926, and then Albany Law School in 1930.
“My father was very smart and they skipped grades in those days, so he entered Union when he was only 16,” said Begley Pennell. “He was still quite young when he got out of Albany Law School.”
Begley spent nearly 50 years practicing law in Schenectady. He was also a World War II veteran, serving three years in the Army Corp of Engineers, the final two in the China/Burma/India theater. He was a recipient of the Bronze Star and the New York State Distinguished Service Medal.
H entered the political realm when he ran for mayor in 1948 and won, defeating two-term incumbent Mills Ten Eyck. In 1952 he lost to Republican Archibald Wemple, and took the defeat gracefully according to his daughter.
“He knew that politics had its ups and downs, and when he lost the election to Wemple he was fine,” she said. “He didn’t get mad or anything like that. He just concentrated on his law practice.”
In 1957 he was appointed to the state legislature to fill a vacancy and won election as state senator three more times before declining to run again in 1965.
In the last two decades of his life, Begley played a key role in a number of Schenectady charities and also was an important factor in the creation of Schenectady County Community College in 1969. He died in 1981 at the age of 75.
“My father was fighting colon cancer for many years, but he still practiced law to the best of his ability and was one of the founders of SCCC,” said Begley Pennell, who grew up on Stanley Street in the city before the family moved to Niskayuna when she was in high school. “The cancer forced him to take some time off, but he loved to speak out, he loved to litigate. He was a people person. He really was a good man.”
While her father was always a staunch Democrat, Begley Pennell said he wouldn’t have enjoyed today’s dynamics in the political arena.
“He would have felt like the parties have swung too far away from each other,” she said. “He was a bit more conservative than some of today’s Democrats, so he wouldn’t have attracted the far left, but he would have wanted us all to start working together more.”