Sen. Ken LaValle with his wife Penny and daughter Lisa at yesterday's event in Port Jefferson. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The people who gathered in the third floor banquet room at the Port Jefferson Village Center yesterday were as much a testament to the man they came to honor as the building itself.

Once a “decrepit, rusting hulk of a building,” the lone survivor of four steel buildings constructed in 1917 on the site of a historic shipyard at Port Jefferson Harbor, was purchased by the village in 1997 and renovated into a vibrant community center. The centerpiece of the the five-acre Harborfront Park, the Village Center offers expansive views of the harbor and Long Island Sound, as well as an art gallery, an ice rink and rooms for meetings and events.

“It’s appropriate that we are in a building that has a bronze likeness of you downstairs,” Assemblyman Steve Englebright of Setauket told Sen. Ken LaValle yesterday before a packed room of family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

“You are a renaissance man,” Englebright told LaValle.

“The love you have for this village and for this community is reflected here in this heartbeat site for the village of Port Jefferson. This was a decrepit rusting hulk of a building,” Englebright said. “Look what you have done. My goodness.”

The people in the banquet room, like the space itself, represented LaValle’s 44-year career as a state senator. It is a career of a man who “transcends politics,” observed New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and former Democratic assemblyman from Nassau County who worked closely with LaValle on many issues.

“People talk about crossing party lines,” DiNapoli said. “Most people in office cross party lines to get things done. Ken LaValle doesn’t cross party lines,” DiNapoli said. “He transcends party politics.”

So, too, did the crowd that gathered to fête New York’s longest-serving state senator. Attending were Republican Party leaders past and present, GOP standard-bearers in town and county government and current and former Democratic elected officials. There were school district officials, hospital officials, business leaders, and former students. They all had one thing in common: respect and admiration for the senator from New York’s First Senatorial District.

“He worked with me no matter what party I was in,” quipped Assemblyman Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor, who over his long political career, has been both a Republican and an Independent who caucuses with Democrats in the State Assembly.

Thiele invoked the words of President Harry Truman to describe his friend and mentor’s success as a state legislator. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

The veteran assemblyman, who previously served as a county legislator and town supervisor, grew emotional as he talked about his relationship with LaValle over 25 years. They worked so closely together on so many things and their staff members worked so closely together, “it often felt like one office,” Thiele said.

“His accomplishments aren’t transient accomplishments. They are things that are going to make a difference in people’s lives for generations to come,” he said. “He is not a politician. He is a statesman.”

Yesterday’s invitation-only event was intended to be occasion of the announcement that LaValle, 80, will not seek re-election this year. But as invitations went out to the community, word spread of LaValle’s decision. By the time Friday rolled around, LaValle’s impending retirement had already been widely reported in local and regional media. See: Sen. Ken LaValle will not seek re-election in 2020: exclusive interview

LaValle sat at the front of the room with his wife Penny, their daughter Lisa, son-in-law Scott, grandson Joshua and LaValle’s sister-in-law Cindy. One by one, the men he had invited to speak took the podium to share their thoughts about the senator and his accomplishments: Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), DiNapoli (D-Great Neck Plaza), Englebright (D-Setauket), Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) and Suffolk County Republican Party Chairman Jesse Garcia.

Some called LaValle “an icon.” Others called him “mentor.” All said they consider him a friend. They spoke of his tireless efforts and long list of accomplishments over four decades in the senate — protecting the pine barrens, preserving farmland and open space, creating parks and recreation areas, preserving historic places and the region’s agricultural heritage.

Englebright spoke of LaValle’s “love for the people, not just the things of this community.” He said he is “profoundly taken with the burn center” at Stony Brook University Hospital.

“You have done so many giant things at the university as the chair of the committee on higher education, but at the burn center, there is a nexus of community and university and state and local needs that is tender and loving and beautiful,” Englebright said. “You did that because you realized there was no place to help care for the men and women in our first responder community, who in many cases were suffering terribly for their service, and you made sure that by putting that burn center into place, that they would be cared for.”

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine told LaValle that he taught everyone in the room “what it means to be a leader.”

“It’s not the barbs, the criticism. It’s not the tweets,” Romaine said. “It’s reaching out to people regardless of party. It’s solving problems. It’s forming coalitions. It’s getting things done,” he said.

Romaine said LaValle, who started out as an elementary school teacher, “today teaches lessons on how to govern, lessons on how to build coalitions, lessons on how criticism and attacks don’t advance agendas.”

LaValle has “left us a legacy that we can be so proud of,” Romaine said.

“Years from now, people will say, ‘How did this get done?’ Well, there once was a man that got things done,” Romaine said. “He was a teacher.”

LaValle, for his part, did not make a long speech and in his remarks he did not dwell on his accomplishments. He spoke more of his love for his family, and broke down when he began to speak about his younger brother Ronald, a longtime administrator at Stony Brook University Hospital who helped found the institution in the late 1970s. Ronald LaValle died of lung cancer at age 67 nine years ago.

The senator spoke of his love for teaching and said he will always be a teacher at heart.

He thanked his staff, past and present — many of whom have been with the senator for decades.

“We’re really a family,” LaValle said in an interview. “We’ve been through so much together in our lives. It creates a very special bond.”

LaValle said while he is proud of his accomplishments in education, health care and the environment, the greatest part of his job has always been helping people. That, he said, has always been the “biggest thrill.”

LaValle will retire from the State Senate at the expiration of his term in December.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti and Peter Blasl

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.