When Rep. Elise Stefanik raised her right hand in Washington this month, to be sworn in as the North Country’s Representative in Washington, she garnered a lot of national media attention as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Exactly a half century earlier, twenty years before she was born, a 45-year-old veteran New York State Republican legislator from Ogdensburg, took the same oath. One of his Congressional friends from the Great Lakes once referred to him as “The St. Lawrence Congressman.”
Robert Cameron McEwen, with strong family roots in New York’s St. Lawrence County , went on to represent the Congressional district, bordered by the Thousand Islands and Lake Ontario on the West and Lake Champlain on the East,from 1965 until his retirement, in 1981.
Living on the U.S. shore of the St. Lawrence River, he said “almost near enough to see the color of the eyes of the passing captains and pilots,” he was the first North Country Congressman with such a strong personal tie to the St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands.
The United States Customs House in Ogdensburg, the oldest continually occupied Federal building in America, bears his name as a tribute to his public service.
I had the privilege of serving on his Congressional staff from 1969 until his retirement in January of 1981---first as his Press Secretary, later as his Special Assistant and finally as his Executive Assistant.
He never missed an opportunity to promote the island region. In fact, one of his Congressional colleagues once told me “When I saw Bob McEwen I knew I was going to hear a pep talk about either the (Thousand Islands) or the Seaway.”
Best Friends Forever
“Bob” McEwen’s Congress was unlike today’s; its members debated the issues of the day with gusto, but at sundown they were friends sharing collegiality, respect and friendship. Two immediate lighthearted instances come to mind.
The first was his hosting of his fellow House member, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, a downstate Democrat (who later was the Vice Presidential candidate on the 1984 Mondale/Ferraro ticket) through what seemed like ocean seas on a small Coast Guard vessel, from Wellesley Island to Morristown. It was a cold, Fall day. All of us onboard were green at the gills and holding our stomachs when we finally docked. The object was to demonstrate to the influential Democrat, the dangers of winter navigation on the river, a red-hot issue at the time. It worked: she joined him in opposition to the idea. On the flight back to Washington she said “OK, Bob, you’ve made your point!”
The two were political opposites in both party and political philosophy, but they were friends forever.
The second was his hosting of a senior Southern State Democrat, whose support he needed for legislation, to benefit the eventual expansion of Fort Drum. After the tour of the installation near Watertown, the influential colleague and his wife settled in for a McEwen-arranged weekend at a cottage in the shadow of the Thousand Islands Bridge.
Over the course of their stay, the guests were treated to a private boat tour of the islands, a traditional shore dinner, a visit to Fort Henry at Kingston and several informal “stop-by” visits from local movers and shakers, from both political parties. If that wasn’t enough, knowing of his interest in antique firearms, a visit to Ozzie Steele’s gun shop in Clayton. resulted in the visitor’s strong interest in an antique handgun on display. They couldn’t agree on a price, however, much to the dismay of Bob McEwen.
That sale eventually took place when unbeknownst to the “good ‘ol boy’ from the South, Bob (quietly) paid Ozzie the difference. Everybody was a winner in that transaction, especially the North Country, when the Southerner became a strong backer of Fort Drum expansion.
That weekend resulted in another “forever” friendship.
A McEwen Fish Story
He proudly wore a belt buckle depicting a St. Lawrence Muskie.
He caught his first Muskie on an Election Day in the 70s; he displayed it in his Washington office. I jokingly named it after his unsuccessful Congressional challenger of the day. He proudly invited his friends to see it and welcomed the opportunity to describe its fight to stay in the river. It now hangs in my home as a remembrance of his sense of humor and his competitive nature---two requisites for success in Congress.
At a White House reception some time later, President Richard Nixon commented on the buckle and told stories of his own fishing trips to the St. Lawrence, in the months following his 1960 defeat by JFK.
That led to six frozen McEwen Muskie steaks being shipped by air, from St. Lawrence County to the Congressional office, for promised delivery to the President.
My delivery of the wrapped-in-dry-ice steaks to the White House, at the Congressman’s behest, certainly caught the attention of the Secret Service, but that’s a story for another time.
A Working Retirement
Bob McEwen returned to his native North Country upon his retirement, in January, 1981. That retirement didn’t last too long. President Reagan called him back to work by naming him as Chair of the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission, a State Department entity dealing with American-Canadian border issues. No stranger to those matters, he had been an active member of the US/Canada Inter-Parliamentary Group, a low-key association of American Congressmen and Canadian Parliamentarians, who met regularly to discuss issues of mutual concern. He had also been a founder of the Great Lakes Conference of Congressmen, which met in the Capitol to share input on maritime, trade, environmental and other matters affecting the Lakes regions.
Bob McEwen died in 1995. In delivering his eulogy in Ogdensburg, I said: “Bob knew that when the time came for his final roll call vote, as a veteran and member of the House of Representatives, he could be interred beside some of our nation’s greatest heroes, statesmen (and) Supreme Court Justices…in Arlington National Cemetery…. He knew he was entitled to an interment with pomp and circumstance. But Bob was a man of the North Country. He wanted it simple. He wanted it here.”
The “St. Lawrence Congressman” is buried in Ogdensburg --- not too far from the shore of the river he called home.
All photos from the author’s files and are reprinted with his permission.
|Author’s Footnote: While these recollections are meant to be lighthearted, I hasten to point-out; Bob McEwen was indeed a serious legislator and a man who stood by his strict Yankee principles, not bowing to political expediency. In doing so he handily defeated some 13 opponents in two primary and eight general Congressional elections. He served during some tumultuous times---debate on the war in Vietnam, a controversial expansion of the federal government, affecting every American taxpayer’s life and wallet, as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, the Watergate fiasco and ultimately the resignation of a President, all of which were major campaign issues in each campaign.
By Cary R. Brick
Cary Brick retired in 2000 after a 31-year career with the House of Representatives, having served as Chief of Staff to Bob McEwen’s successors, David Martin of Canton and John McHugh of Pierrepont Manor. He retired last year from a 12-year term on the US Postmaster General’s 15-member national committee, selecting subjects and designs for US postage stamps. He is a civic volunteer, freelance writer and former village judge, who performs weddings throughout the area. His website is (www.stlawrenceriverweddings.com.) He lives in Clayton with his wife, Clayton Village Judge, Janet Brick.