Tributes poured in this week for former New York State Assemblyman John L. Behan, who died of a heart attack at his home in Montauk on Thursday, January 28, at the age of 76.
Mr. Behan, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1978, stepped down in 1995 to become the director of the State Division of Veterans Affairs during the administration of Governor George L. Pataki.
A disabled veteran himself, Mr. Behan lost both of his legs to a land mine in 1966 while serving with the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam. But he refused to be limited by that handicap and later represented the United States in the Wheelchair Olympics, the precursor to the Paralympics, in Peru in 1972 and Canada in 1976, winning a gold medal in the javelin and medaling in the shotput, discus, and as a member of the basketball team.
“At a time when these terms are thrown about far too carelessly, John was a true American hero and patriot,” said his successor in the Assembly, Fred W. Thiele Jr. “His life was dedicated to serving his country, state, and community.”
“From my perspective, John was just an American hero, a gentleman, and a community-first advocate for Montauk and the East End,” said Paul Monte, the president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “He was just a stellar example of what a good human being should be.”
“When I found out he had died, I lost my breath,” said Henry Uihlein, owner of Uihlein’s Marina. “I just couldn’t believe that such an icon from Montauk was gone. A million memories flashed in my mind about John and all the good he did for the community. And he was respected and loved by his community.”
Former State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, who served for many years with Mr. Behan in Albany, said he was “the go-to guy for the East End. When it came to East Hampton, I didn’t do anything unless John initiated it or signed off on it.”
He described his former colleague as “a good guy to work with, who had great personality and a very hearty laugh.”
Mr. Thiele, who went to work for Mr. Behan as an aide shortly after graduating from law school in 1979, said Mr. Behan had a profound influence on his decision to enter politics. “We worked closely together for almost three years on bills relating to justice for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, helping our local police, protecting our fishermen, and even Peconic County,” Mr. Thiele said. “More important than any issue, was the example he set as a person. He was inspiring to all whom he touched. Working for John was not just a job, you became part of his family in the process.”
Mr. Behan got his start in politics when he was elected an East Hampton Town assessor in the 1970s. When Montauk’s Perry Duryea ran for governor in 1978, Mr. Behan was elected to fill his seat.
Mr. Thiele said Mr. Behan “came within an eyelash” of being named the Secretary of the Veterans Administration in 1981 in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, but politics intervened. He continued to work on behalf of veterans in the Assembly, leading the effort to create the Assembly Committee on Veterans Affairs. In 1985, Mr. Behan led a New York State delegation to Vietnam and that same year was chosen to lead, with then-Mayor Ed Koch, New York City’s welcome home parade for veterans of the Vietnam War.
Mr. Behan was born on November 11, 1944 — fittingly, Veterans Day — to Lester and Marie Behan in College Point, Queens. The family moved to Hampton Bays and later Montauk after the drowning death of Mr. Behan’s brother, Joshua. In Montauk, Mr. Behan’s father ran the Peconic Queen and later the Joshua B., two popular charter boats that docked next to his family’s marina, Mr. Uihlein said.
Mr. Behan attended East Hampton High School, where he lettered in several sports. He was elected class president his senior year and graduated in 1963.
After high school, Mr. Behan joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam in 1965. On May 23, 1966, while on patrol, he stepped on a mine and was gravely wounded, losing both of his legs. After a lengthy rehabilitation, he returned to Montauk in 1968 to rebuild his life.
Mr. Behan and the former Marilyn Sullivan were married on October 19, 1968 at St. Fidelis Catholic Church in College Point. “We first met when we were 14,” she said, “but we didn’t reconnect until he came home from the war.”
She noted of his disability, “he just never let that get him down.”
Instead, he trained for the Wheelchair Olympics and learning how to get along with two artificial legs.
“Physically, he was a powerhouse of a man,” said Mr. Monte. “If you ever saw him moving around on his boat, just by using his arms and his torso, you’d know he was just a shining example of how a person can rise above adversity — an adversity that most of us can’t even imagine.”
Mr. Behan became involved with the Montauk Friends of Erin, and in 1979, he was named the grand marshal of the Montauk St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He served for many years as the master of ceremonies at the annual parade, and he and his wife organized the grand marshal’s luncheons that were held annually at Gurney’s Inn for many years.
In 2017, East Hampton Town honored Mr. Behan by naming a new port security boat after him during a ceremony that took place at the Montauk Coast Guard station.
Besides wife, Mr. Behan is survived by three children, Jason, John, and Bridget, as well as five grandchildren.
He is also survived by three sisters, Joan Fitzgerald of Southampton and Florida; Janice Marinov of Southampton; and Marles Behan of Aquebogue, as well as a brother, James Behan of Westhampton.
Visitation will be at Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in East Hampton from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, February 7. He will be buried at Calverton National Cemetery at noon the following day.
In lieu of flowers, the Behan family has asked that donations be made to Operation Heal Our Heroes (operationhoh.com), which works with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or the Montauk Boatmen and Captains Association (montaukcaptains.org), an advocacy group for the Montauk sportfishing industry.