Lewis “Lew” Wilson, a titan in Schoharie County and statewide Republican politics -- who counted among his friends several U.S. presidents and was the second longest-serving GOP county chairman in the state -- died Aug. 23. He was 85.
Wilson was elected chairman of the Schoharie County Republican Committee in 1983, a post he held until his death. Along the way, friends and colleagues said, he mentored many individuals who, due in part to his guidance, were able to launch successful political careers of their own.
Republican Assemblyman Peter Lopez, who represents Schoharie County, said he first met Wilson as a 21-year-old political neophyte when he was running for a trustee position in the village of Schoharie.
“I just found Lew to be a very thoughtful, articulate mentor for me and many of the individuals he worked with,” said Lopez, now 56, adding that Wilson was part of his political career through later stints as a county supervisor and county clerk. “Lew worked with me when I ran for state Assembly as well, so he’s been front and center throughout my whole career in public service as an elected official.”
Lopez said Wilson had a way of bridging partisan divides with his calm and soft-spoken demeanor.
“I didn’t find Lew to be brash. He weighed things, he measured things,” said Lopez. “Often his presence was understated. He was soft-spoken as a rule and tended to be low-key. It's a very admirable trait because in this line of work there’s so many things that can set people off, emotionally or otherwise.”
Lopez said outside politics Wilson cared deeply about his community. He recalled seeing a photo of Wilson at the groundbreaking of Cobleskill Regional Hospital, sometime in the 1960s.
“He loved his county, he loved his people,” said Lopez. “He was a good neighbor who cared about his people. It’s impossible to replace him; we’re just very lucky to have known him.”
Wilson was a longtime resident of Cobleskill where he lived with his wife, Barbara “Bobbie” Wilson (nee Kathan), and two daughters, Susan and Joan. Wilson was predeceased by his son, Peter L. Wilson and Bobbie Wilson died last December.
Wilson owned and operated several businesses in Cobleskill, including Fire Mark Insurance Agency and Lewis L. Wilson Insurance, along with the Wilson Telephone Exchange and Wilson Travel. He and Bobbie were also day-to-day managers of Kathan Kamps, a campground on Sacandaga Lake.
According to biographical information supplied by the Langan Funeral Home, Wilson served in the Army Reserve’s 389th Infantry Heavy Motor Unit out of Schenectady for 11 years.
Wilson was involved in several causes and was president and board member of Community Hospital of Schoharie County, where he oversaw the organization’s $1.5 million fundraising drive. He also served as president of the Cobleskill Cemetery Association, and was director of the board for Catskill Area Hospice.
Wilson was very active in state politics and served as an executive in the New York Republican State Committee. He also served stints as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004.
State GOP committee chair Ed Cox said in a statement that Wilson worked tirelessly on behalf of his community and his party since his election to county chair in 1983.
“Lew quickly established a reputation for his successful abilities electing Republican candidates, but his relationships transcended the ballot box and he developed close friendships with countless elected officials from his backyard to the White House,” said Cox.
Schoharie County Sheriff Anthony Desmond said Wilson supported him in stints as supervisor for the town of Sharon as well as during his re-election as sheriff four years ago.
“He was always very helpful,” said Desmond. “He was politically savvy and he told me what needed to be done. I won several elections because he counseled me.”
Earl Van Wormer, chairman of the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors, said Wilson mentored him early on in his political career.
“He was a classy guy, he was a friend and mentor,” said Van Wormer. “He was a great political leader and businessman. I think he’ll be sorely missed, not only in this county but all across the state.”
Van Wormer added that Wilson helped countless would-be town supervisors, county clerks, treasurers and county judges achieve their political goals.
“It brought up their political careers by having a man like Lew Wilson help their campaigns,” he said. “He was someone that if anyone needed counseling or discussion on any issues, he was always there.”
Village of Schoharie Supervisor Chris Tague, who serves as vice chair of the Schoharie County Republican Committee, said Wilson was a father figure to him and a trusted mentor inside and outside politics.
“I spent a lot of time with him, from probably 5 or 6 years old up until the time of his death,” said Tague. “He was a gentle giant, he never raised his voice. He wasn’t a man of many words but he got stuff done.”
Tague said Wilson was one of his father’s best friends, and the two had a relationship that endured a significant political scandal in the Tague family. Tague said Wednesday that his father had a gambling addiction, and was convicted for using money in accounts that were under his control during his time as Schoharie County Treasurer.
The day his father turned himself in, Tague said, he went to Wilson’s office and said he wanted out of politics.
“He looked at me, and told me I’m talented and that one day he wasn’t going to be here anymore,” said Tague. “And he wanted me to continue his legacy and the work that we did together.”
Tague continued that in politics there’s sometimes a tendency to shun those associated with scandal, but Wilson did just the opposite.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for him,” said Tague. “When my father got in trouble it didn’t matter to Lew. He was one of my father’s best friends, he took care of my mother and my brother and I.”
Tague added that Wilson had a significant and powerful group of friends in Washington, and had a personal relationship with Richard Nixon. He was also friends with Gerald Ford, and knew both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He and Bobbie once stayed in the White House as guests of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Tague said.
He never bragged about his Washington connections though, said Tague, and one would never know about them unless they visited Wilson’s office.
“Although we come from a small town, at the state level, they call him the dean of the county chairs,” said Tague. “We’ve had governors at our [Schoharie GOP Committee] dinners before, and the only reason why was Lew Wilson.”
“He hands down got more Republicans elected than any other chair in the state,” Tague added.
Tague said as vice chair of the county GOP committee, he’ll be assuming Wilson’s post.
“He touched a lot of people’s lives and accomplished a lot. He’s going to be missed, and I can tell you I have seriously, seriously big shoes to fill,” he said. “The only thing I have in my corner is I learned everything from him.”
Tague said for the last 18 months Wilson had been bed-ridden. In the last few weeks his health had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t receive phone calls or visitors. Langan Funeral Home said he died in his home on Grandview Drive in Cobleskill under the care of his daughters and hospice workers.
Calling hours will be held on Thursday, Sept. 14, from 6-8 p.m., at the Robert A. Guffin Funeral Home (an affiliate of Langan), 108 Chapel St. in Cobleskill. A memorial service will be held the next day, Friday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m. at the Cobleskill United Methodist Church, 107 Chapel St. in Cobleskill.
Langan Funeral Home said in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made in memory of Wilson to the Catskill Area Hospice, 542 Main St. in Oneonta.