The Floods of 1955 and Governor Ribicoff

Edward C. Sullivan served in the New York State Assembly from 1977 to 2002.
Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Former New York State Assemblyman Edward C Sullivan grew up in New England before migrating to New York City in 1957. Two years earlier he was in Hartford, Connecticut with family when a natural disaster struck. In the following weeks he was able to witness the response of a dedicated government official which helped instill in him the desire to serve the public and emulate the compassionate leadership he saw during that period.


 

Watching Governors Christie, Cuomo and Malloy, and Mayor Bloomberg, struggle with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy recalls for me a time 57 years ago, 1955, when twin hurricanes hit the northeastern United States, especially Connecticut, and Governor Abraham Ribicoff was the man of the moment.

Ribicoff had been elected Governor only the year before. He had come into the gubernatorial race from Congress as the protégé of John Bailey, leader of the Democratic Party in Connecticut. Ribicoff was a bright, liberal Jewish lawyer, who had run unsuccessfully against Prescott Bush for the United States Senate in 1952. Looking over the precinct returns from that race, John Bailey thought, in 1954, that he had a potential winner in Ribicoff.

Bailey was right. Ribicoff did win in a very close contest against John Davis Lodge, brother of Henry Cabot Lodge. So close was the election that the Hartford Times, where I was working as a young man, erroneously declared Lodge the winner at first. But Ribiocoff won and was sworn in as Governor in January, 1955.

And so, when hurricanes Connie and Diane struck, bang-bang, one a week after the other, in August, 1955, Abraham Ribicoff had been Governor for less than a year.

The devastating effects of Connie and Diane that year were even more severe than that of Sandy, this year. Many rivers spilled over their banks and tore apart the centers of towns that had been built up on the rivers’ banks for over two hundred years. Downtown Winsted and Putnam were destroyed. Thousands of homes were inundated and bridges were torn down, making transportation impossible without amphibious military vehicles. Over two hundred people were killed.

I was 22 years old living with my mother, brother and sister in a garden apartment in Hartford, not near any bodies of water – except that little brook a quarter mile away, the one that you could jump over. That little brook backed up, flooded our community, and deposited two feet of water into our apartment.

Governor Ribicoff was everywhere, visiting emergency shelters, comforting bereaved families, coordinating rescue efforts and sleeping in army trucks, curled up in the back seat. He was the symbol of the state’s determination to survive. The people of the state never forgot his effort.

Since he had helped John Bailey help Jack Kennedy get the Democratic nomination for President and get elected to the White House, he was offered positions in the Kennedy Administration. Reportedly, he turned down the offer to serve as Attorney General because he felt that his being Jewish would distract attention from the forthcoming battle for civil rights for African Americans. Bobby Kennedy took that post instead.

Abraham Ribicoff was appointed Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, but soon became frustrated with administrative duties. In 1962, he returned to Connecticut to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Prescott Bush. The people of Connecticut remembered him. They elected him to the Senate and reelected him twice. He retired to practice law in 1981.

In 1968, he spoke at the raucous Democratic Convention in Chicago. He departed from his prepared speech to denounce the “Gestapo tactics” of the Chicago police on the streets outside the Convention Hall. The police were beating people who did not follow their instructions. The Chicago delegation, led by Richard Daley, responded with a barrage of anti-Semitic invective from the floor of the convention. But Abraham Ribicioff stood his ground. “The truth hurts, doesn’t it,” he answered from the podium, staring down his challengers.

In 1988, he and I were both delegates to the Democratic Convention in Atlanta. I met him in the corridor one evening, introduced myself and told him how much I admired him and his career. He accepted the praise graciously. I then told him that as a young man I had worked for the Hartford Times, the newspaper that had mistakenly called his opponent the winner in the 1954 election for Governor. “We muffed the call,” I said.

His face reddened. “You certainly did,” he said. He maintained his composure, but it was plain that the wound had not completely healed – after 34 years!

I believe that Abraham Ribicoff is one of the most admirable public servants of our time. In these days of assault by the natural forces, an image returns to me – the photo of an exhausted  young Governor, asleep in an army truck by the side of a flooded Connecticut river.

 

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