When Oswald D. Heck died in 1959, four New York governors attended his funeral, joining friends, family and fellow politicians who packed Union College’s Memorial Chapel and 1,000 other mourners who gathered silently outside to pay their respects.
“A low murmur, almost a sigh, rippled through the crowd, which jammed the entrance to the chapel as Gov. [Nelson] Rockefeller arrived,” the Schenectady Gazette reported. Later, the Rev. J. Dean Martin, pastor of Second Reformed Church in Schenectady, eulogized Heck as “the rock of good government in New York state.”
Today, Heck and his accomplishments have largely been forgotten, and the facility that bears his name — the O.D. Heck Developmental Center — will be shuttered in 2015 as part of an ongoing effort to reduce the number of people with development disabilities living in institutional settings throughout the state.
Born in Schenectady in 1902, Heck was a Republican member of the New York State Assembly from 1932 until his death from a heart attack at 57. He served as assembly speaker from 1937 until he died, making him the longest-tenured speaker in state history, according to the Schenectady County Historical Society.
“The Encyclopedia of New York State,” a compendium of history and information about the Empire State, describes Heck as “perhaps the state’s most influential legislator of the 20th century.” In the Gazette, Heck was remembered for helping to guide the state through periods of depression and prosperity, war and peace.
“Generally, I have been able to keep the house in pretty good order,” Heck told the newspaper in 1956. He also said “the ability to think and talk on my feet” was probably his greatest asset.
Bruce Dearstyne, of Guilderland, an adjunct professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland who has worked at the New York State Archives, wrote an essay about Heck that ran in the Albany Times Union in 2011. In his essay, Dearstyne suggested that the state Legislature could learn a lot from Heck’s leadership style, particularly his willingness to compromise and reach across party lines to come up with common-sense solutions to problems. But he was also principled.
“Heck had an impressive ability to build support for controversial measures,” Dearstyne wrote. “When the Assembly debated a bill initiated by [former New York Gov. Thomas Dewey] to ban employment discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color and national origin, Heck dramatically left the speaker’s podium and went on the Assembly floor to make a forceful appeal for passage. New York became the first state to enact this civil rights legislation. When Republicans pushed anti-labor legislation in Washington in 1946, Heck reassured a New York labor conference that ‘we’ve done a swell job for labor in this state — and will continue to do so.’
“He was socially progressive and fiscally conservative,” Dearstyne said. “He was inclined to get things done.”
Dearstyne said that no one has ever written a biography of Heck and suggested that he deserved to be better remembered.
“He was in for so long, and he was so powerful and such a determined fellow,” Dearstyne said.
Heck was the son of a German-born couple, Magdalena Wurster Heck and Oswald E. Heck. The elder Heck was editor of a local German-language newspaper, according to the Schenectady County Historical Society.
“Of modest circumstance, Mr. Heck as a boy and youth worked summers and evenings to share the cost of education in local schools and at Union College, from which he was graduated in 1924,” the Gazette reported in 1959. Heck also attended Albany Law School for one year, but he “left in a dispute with a school official who considered him too ‘liberal,’ ” the newspaper wrote.
Heck is buried in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.