This year marks the centennial of the birth of an international St. Lawrence River political icon---Robert McEwen of Ogdensburg. Embarking upon a career as a country lawyer in St. Lawrence County, he went on to represent it and surrounding counties in the NY State Senate and the US House of Representatives for nearly all his adult life.
Born on January 5, 1920, in Ogdensburg, in later life he enjoyed telling the story of his first try at elected office, that for the chairmanship of the St. Lawrence County Republican Committee---his only election loss.
“That was an education for me,” he recalled many times. “My father was a businessman and banker,” he would say, “both professions in which some competitors might come out on the losing side.” He said that loss led to a piece of advice from his father. “Never inherit your father’s enemies.”
He took a list of anyone whom his father recalled being less than friendly and contacted them individually, he recalled years later. “I told them, whatever differences you have with my father are between you and him. I’d like us to be friends. When I ran for the State Senate, I was supported by each of them.”
In speaking at numerous high school graduation ceremonies during his public service career he drew the immediate interest of surprised students by telling them he was born the same year American women were given the right to vote. “That doesn’t make me old, it simply tells you that equality for women moved slowly in our democracy,” he would tell them.
He spent 11 years in Albany and in 1964, when 25-year-North Country Congressman Clarence Kilburn announced his retirement Bob McEwen threw his hat toward the US Capitol goalpost.
As a State Senator in Albany he introduced legislation that led to the construction of the international bridge linking Ogdensburg to Prescott. Every conversation he ever had with Nelson Rockefeller as New York’s Governor or as Gerald Ford’s Vice President began with “how’s your bridge doing, Bob?”
Rockefeller kidded him privately that the bridge would be a stepchild to the Thousand Islands Bridge. In his law practice he represented the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots Association based in Cape Vincent. He said that sharpened his interest in maritime law, river-specific issues and the need to balance shoreline and the commercial interests of the Seaway. That familiarity served him well when he went to Congress on his birthday in 1965.
Reflecting upon his first campaign he said “I didn’t know a sole in (the Seaway port of) Oswego, so on my first visit there I opened the phone book to see if there were any McEwens. I found one, went to his house and found a man who had no interest in me or government. In deliberate terms he told me to get off his damn porch. So, I did.”
Luckily for McEwen, he made many loyal friends over the years. He formed strong ties to sportsmen, the tourism industry, agriculture, scores of business, civic, ethnic. fraternal and veterans’ groups throughout the region, as well as to benefactors of the Canadian companies establishing footprints in Clinton County.
He made it his business to know the challenges of industry in their free market worlds from aluminum in Massena, mass transit braking systems in Watertown, footwear in Franklin County, paper products and timber or the hospitality and tourism industry throughout the massive geography from the Great Lakes to Lake Champlain. He became expert on the reliance of local farms on foreign workers and border, immigration and customs issues.
With family ties in Ontario and one whose own home was just a single wave away from the Seaway shipping channel he had a strong interest in US-Canadian issues. He became friendly with Americans in the US embassy in Ottawa and his legislative counterparts in Ontario and Quebec. He became an active member of the Great Lakes Conference of Congressmen, a coalition of Seaway-related House members. He sought and received Congressional appointments to the Canada-US Interparliamentary Group which brought its members into formal meetings on international matters.
On the political side of things, he nurtured his relationships in local circles and championed development of Fort Drum, was Lake Placid’s Washington point-man for the 1980 winter Olympics and while he supported St. Lawrence Seaway interests, he opposed calls for winter navigation citing potential damage to US and Canadian shorelines.
His most serious challenge was in his 1974 campaign---the volatile Watergate year when all Republicans were vulnerable and his challenger was the co-publisher of Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Press Secretary to President Truman decades earlier and later a United Nations delegate. McEwen enjoyed a friendly competition with his opponent, Roger Tubby, and believed he might fall victim to Republican Watergate fallout.
For the first time in my dozen years with him, I was instructed to draft a statement of congratulations to Tubby for issuance on election night if it appeared, Tubby would be victorious. Remarkably, it concluded with “I want Roger to know that I will be comfortable and happy with him as my Congressman for I know he will always do right for America.”
Bob McEwen continued to win elections until he returned home to Ogdensburg by not seeking reelection in 1980. A year later was appointed by President Reagan to chair the US membership on the International Joint Commission. Seven years earlier the Ogdensburg Customs House, the oldest continually occupied federal building in the nation, was named in his honor.
Shortly before his death in June 1997 I spoke at the building’s rededication ceremony. He wrote to me after the ceremony “it’s not every man who gets to hear his own eulogy; I hope I will never do anything to disappoint you.” He didn’t and 37 days later I delivered his eulogy at the Ogdensburg Cemetery.
[Note: The McEwen eulogy appeared in the Congressional Record on June 23, 1973 and can be viewed at Pages E1293-1294]
By Cary Brick
Cary Brick, a lifetime Thousand Islander is a frequent contributor to Thousand Islands Life. His earlier article about the Congressman, “Bob McEwen, the St. Lawrence Congressman! “appeared here in January 2015. He joined the Congressman’s staff in 1969 and was his Executive Assistant when the Congressman retired in 1981. He served as Chief of Staff to McEwen successors David Martin of Canton and John McHugh of Pierrepont Manor until his own retirement after 31 years of service in 2000. He is publisher of “From the School House to the Peoples House,” a journal of his three decades with Congress and “People of Peace,” his photographs of 1970’s antiwar turbulence in Washington. He and his wife Janet, an educational consultant and former Clayton Town and Village Justice, are currently in Houston Tx. Their Cary and Janet Brick Riverside Foundation, administered by the NNY Community Foundation, supports programs and projects in the Thousand Islands region.