As a couple dozen people gathered around a “Safety Tree” planted in front of Ellis Hospital along Nott Street to remember Doris Aiken, those in attendance acknowledged her influence in the community went well beyond those present Monday morning.
She affected policy, she affected organizations and she affected opinions, they said.
“Doris had many achievements in passing laws, but more importantly, she changed attitudes,” said William Aiken, Doris’ son and the vice president of Remove Intoxicated Drivers.
Local officials and community members gathered Monday morning to unveil a plaque crediting Doris with starting Remove Intoxicated Drivers, the nation’s first anti-DWI organization, in 1978. Speakers recalled Doris as a dedicated advocate who impacted countless lives, whether people realized or not.
Doris died in March at age 90. In addition to founding Remove Intoxicated Drivers, she helped pass legislation in New York state strengthening laws against drunk driving, and helped establish the state’s stop-DWI program.
“There are many people who aren’t here [at the event] today, but are alive because of her advocacy,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he first met Doris more than 40 years ago, and recalled her role in the community as a friend, a neighbor and an advocate. He and others credited her with changing attitudes about driving while intoxicated, and bringing the issue to the forefront in the region.
Her passion for helping victims of drunk drivers started in 1977, when she heard about an accident that killed two teenagers, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said. When Doris asked what would happen to the drunken driver responsible, she learned they’d be unlikely to face any criminal punishment.
She set out to make sure drunk drivers were held responsible for their actions, Carney said, and in the process raised awareness of the issue. She also urged him to prioritize prosecuting drunk drivers when he was elected DA in 1990, he said.
“Not only was she a pit bull on these issues, but she was kind, she was compassionate and she was supportive,” he said.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco compared Doris to Christopher Stewart, a standout football player for Shenendehowa High School who was killed in 2012 by a drunk driver. He was 17. Tedisco and the school announced last week plans to construct a new press box named in Stewart’s honor.
Both Doris Aiken and Christopher Stewart are permanent reminders to people of the consequences of drunk driving, Tedisco said, and will hopefully encourage people to decide not to get behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking.
As community members, friends and local officials made their way over to read the plaque, William reflected on his mother’s legacy.
He felt she didn’t get the accolades or recognition she deserved for her work during her lifetime, he said, but it was inspiring to see the way people responded to Monday’s dedication.
William is hopeful his mother leaves a legacy of not just starting an anti-DWI movement, but of changing attitudes on the subject, he said.
“I think she’d be, embarrassed isn’t the right word, but she never wanted to make the issue about her,” William said of the 25 people gathered in front of Ellis Hospital. “It was always about the victims."