Attorney Basil Alexander Paterson, one of the legendary “Gang of Four” from Harlem, was as warm and gregarious as he was astute and generous with his time and praise for those he deemed equals and to Mr. and Mrs. Nobody just wanting a chance to shake his hand.
That hand is no longer available. Paterson, 87, died Wednesday evening, eleven days before his birthday, April 27, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. No cause was given for his death, though it was reported of a lingering illness.
“Basil was well known throughout the community as a man of action, as someone who set his mind to accomplishments and always met those goals,” his son, former Governor David Paterson said in a statement. “He was a selfless leader and he dedicated his life to making sure others’ lives were better. Throughout his life, he was known as a pillar of strength by so many throughout New York. For that, we know he was grateful.”
Paterson was indeed a remarkable personality and his political acumen and influence reached well beyond Harlem and New York City. But it resonated with distinct clarity and passion among his associates and constituents, all of whom have begun forwarding their condolences and precious memories of him.
“The Gang of 4 is no more,” former Mayor David Dinkins stated in an email. “Basil Paterson was not only the smartest among us; he was one of the most decent human beings and sharpest political minds around. As Deputy Mayor, Secretary of State, or labor lawyer, he counseled generations—from Presidents to shop stewards in his dignified and brilliantly incisive manner. He was also one of the greatest friends anyone could hope for. My heart goes out to Portia [his wife], David, Daniel [his son], and his grandchildren.”
Congressman Charles Rangel, who with Dinkins remains of the Gang of Four, (Percy Sutton joined the ancestors in 2009, at 89), said, “I am deeply saddened that my friend and brother, Basil Paterson, has passed away. No one has ever had an unkind thing to say about Basil—he was a man of great integrity, justice, and courage to do what is right. I am honored and grateful to have known and worked with Basil.” Rangel recalled the splendid working relationship he had with all the members of the “gang” and noted that in “everything he did in and out of office, Basil was a pioneer who blazed the trail for a generation of leaders in Harlem….”
Among the current crop of leaders is City Comptroller Scott Stringer who said “New York has lost a true giant and trailblazer with the passing of Basil Paterson. Over decades in public service, Basil was a mentor to many in politics and a tireless fighter for civil rights. He will always be remembered by thousands of New Yorkers as a man who should have been mayor. My thoughts and prayers go out to Governor Paterson and the entire Paterson family.”
As the patriarch of the Paterson family, Basil was a true son of Harlem where he was born in 1926 and matriculated, though he earned his high school diploma from De Witt Clinton in the Bronx in 1942. His mother, Evangeline Rondon, was a secretary for Marcus Garvey, just one of the amazing facts he used to regale reporters and admirers.
Paterson, after working several months, enrolled at St. John’s College where he received his B.S. degree in biology in 1948, having spent two years in the Army. During an interview with the prestigious website HistoryMakers, Paterson related that he entered St. John’s Law School and received his J.D. degree in 1951. He began his professional career as a lawyer in Harlem where he became a law partner with Ivan A. Michael and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Later, he and Dinkins would join forces with former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and Rangel to become the putative Gang of Four.
In 1965, he was elected to the New York State Senate where he would be ensconced until winning the primary to be the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor. He and the ticket headed by Arthur Goldberg were defeated by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. His son, David, would provide some solace for that setback when he became governor in 2008.
Paterson became the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution in 1972; he remained in that position until 1977. He was the first elected African American Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. In 1978, Mayor Ed Koch appointed Paterson to the position of Deputy Mayor of Labor Relations and Personnel. A year later, Governor Hugh Carey appointed him to the position of New York Secretary of State, making him the first African American to hold that rank. In 1989, he became a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a position he held until 1995.
To cite even a portion of his prominence is daunting, but
In 2003, Paterson was appointed to the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections. That same year, Paterson was elected Chairman of the KeySpan Foundation Board of Directors. Paterson served as Co-Chairman of the New York State Governor’s Commission on Determinate Sentencing, and the New York State Commission on Powers of Local Government. Paterson received numerous awards including the Humanitarian Award from Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the St. John’s University’s Medal of Excellence. For many years, Paterson was a member of the Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein law firm where he served as co-chair of the firm’s labor practice.
George Gresham, president of Local 1199 SEIU, devoted his column in the Amsterdam News to Paterson last year, lauding the creation of the Basil Paterson Scholarship Fund for home care workers. “It is fitting that the scholarship bears Paterson’s name,” Gresham wrote, “because he as much as anyone has helped shape the campaigns to elevate the status and conditions of home care and other health care workers. Paterson has done much of the same for teachers, transit workers, civil servants and others. Over the years, he has worked as a trusted advisor and negotiator, often serving as the key link between labor and management during 11th hour talks.”
And Basil Paterson was a vital link to so many vectors of human affairs within his expansive purview. As we go to press funeral and memorial services are pending.