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Cudmore: The congressman from Bean Hill

Cudmore: The congressman from Bean Hill

William T. Byrne, who became a state senator and U.S. representative for the Albany area, was born in 1876 on Bean Hill Road near the hamlet of Minaville in the town of Florida.

His parents were Richard Henry Byrne, a carpenter, and Margaret Manifold Byrne, a school teacher.  Both were immigrants from Ireland.  When William was a youngster, the family moved to Albany, where his father operated a tavern on Broadway.

A graduate of Albany High and Albany Law School, Byrne attended the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous Cross of Gold speech opposing the gold standard.  Inspired by the talk, Byrne also became proficient as a public speaker.

Back in Albany, Byrne developed a lucrative law practice.  He ran as a Democrat and was elected to the state Senate in 1922.  He was part of the Democratic Party machine headed by Dan O’Connell.

A liberal and associate of Govs. Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Byrne was co-sponsor of state legislation that created unemployment insurance.

Byrne and his wife, Josephine, lived in Loudonville in a house now on the National Historic Register.  They had a summer home on Bean Hill in the town of Florida, where Byrne enjoyed scenes from his boyhood.  A devotee of exercise, Byrne sometimes walked to Bean Hill from his Loudonville home.

THE HUSTONS

The Byrnes' summer home was adjacent to what was known as the Amsterdam YMCA farm, later called Camp On-A-Nol. One day, YMCA physical director Leon “Prof” Huston’s family was on an outing at the YMCA farm.  One of the five Huston children struck up a conversation with then Sen. Byrne, who was dressed in a disheveled manner. 

Pearl, the child’s mother, did not know Byrne, so in a protective way she marched to where her 8-year-old son, Dick, and Byrne were talking.

The conversation turned to Byrne’s occupation as a state senator and his interest in dogs.  He knew a breeder of black spaniels who could not sell dogs for show that had splotches of other colors.  Would the Hustons like one of the spaniel rejects?

Byrne arranged for a dog to be shipped by train to the Hustons. The family named the dog Senator, “Sen” for short.  The Hustons moved for a YMCA assignment in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1942, where Senator the dog was struck and killed by a car. 

By then Byrne was serving in Congress, first elected in 1936.  When notified of Senator’s death,  Byrne shipped another spaniel by train to the Hustons.  They named the new dog Representative, “Rep” for short.

Byrne’s wife, Josephine Diener Byrne, died in 1948 and was described in the Amsterdam paper as hostess at many gatherings at their summer home.  If the congressman was called to Washington in the summer, she typically stayed at Bean Hill.  She was a published poet, founder of the Albany Poetry Club and wrote a newspaper column.  They were married for 40 years and had no children.

Byrne died of a cerebral hemorrhage after being taken from his Loudonville home to St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy in 1952.  He had served 15 years in Congress and was eulogized as the “genial gentleman from Albany” by then U.S. Rep. and future U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits.

Leo O’Brien succeeded Byrne in Congress and said his constituents sent him scores of letters citing his predecessor’s “countless little acts of goodness and kindness.”

Peter Huston, one of the children who used to romp with “Sen” and “Rep,” provided information for this story.  For many years Huston taught at Scotia-Glenville High School.

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