The mood was bittersweet at the Village Center in Port Jefferson on Friday morning as New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle’s friends, family and colleagues — from both sides of the aisle — honored him as he made an official announcement that he will not seek reelection to another term in the State Senate in Albany next year.
Raucous applause exploded numerous times as those gathered rose to their feet in the room overlooking the Long Island Sound in the senator’s hometown, capping impassioned testimonials filled with joyous remembrances and heartfelt — and even tearful — tributes.
“Today is your day, Ken LaValle,” New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said, his voice hitching and eyes welling. “You’ve made history, and it’s a great history. I love Ken LaValle and I thank him for his service.”
Mr. LaValle, 80, will end his 44-year career in the Senate when his term expires at the end of the year. Reluctant to call it a retirement, Mr. LaValle said on Friday that his future plans are unclear, but he intends to stay active, perhaps at the academic level.
He and his wife, Penny, who retired this year from a decades-long position in the Suffolk County Real Property Tax Service Agency — a forced retirement that the senator took issue with from the podium on Friday — have even discussed writing a book about their experiences.
The news that Mr. LaValle, the Senate’s longest-serving current member, would not seek reelection to another term broke quietly earlier in the week, prompting statements of reluctant congratulations from lawmakers and environmentalists from all over Long Island with whom the senator had worked over the years.
Mr. LaValle was a staunch environmentalist and counted the creation of the Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1995 — protecting nearly 100,000 acres of critical forest sitting on top of the region’s sole-source aquifer — as one of the, if not the, greatest of his achievements.
“Ken LaValle was a key player in the protection of the Pine Barrens,” Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said on Thursday. “He stood up against nay-sayers and partnered with Assemblymen [Thomas] DiNapoli and [Steve] Englebright to see the project through. As a result, we’ve seen a quarter-century of land and water protection, which has been a model for the nation. The Pine Barrens Protection Act was Senator LaValle’s single greatest achievement and led to many other successful environmental initiatives.”
The legislation to protect the Pine Barrens, which brought together lawmakers, business leaders and environmentalists to gain approval, was indicative of all that Mr. LaValle accomplished throughout his more than four decades of service, according to Kevin McDonald, a policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy, who, along with others, fought for the bill’s passage.
“The actions he took 20 years ago are still being fulfilled as a legacy for the region,” he said. “When a person looks at their life and can say that the things they were working on are still coming to fruition, that must be extremely gratifying. Ken is a historian. He thinks in historical terms. Ken viewed his role in a historical context. That’s an awesome legacy.”
First elected from District 1, which includes the East End, in 1976, Mr. LaValle’s tenure in Albany has encompassed the creation of the Long Island Pine Barrens Act, the Community Preservation Fund Act, the growth of Stony Brook University — for which the university honored him by naming its sports stadium after him — and Stony Brook University Hospital’s recent merger with the former Southampton Hospital. He also was instrumental in the creation of the state’s School Tax Relief, or STAR, program.
He was active in higher education throughout his career in the Senate and a proponent of local school district consolidation.
Speakers offering congratulations to the senator on Friday — including Senate Minority Leader John J. Flanagan, Mr. Thiele, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Senator Phil Boyle, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, Assemblyman Anthony H. Palumbo, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine and Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman Jesse Garcia — all described Mr. LaValle as a friend, a teacher and a mentor.
Mr. Thiele described a 45-year friendship with Mr. LaValle that began before either had been elected to public office. Mr. Thiele was a college junior working as an Assembly intern in Albany, and Mr. LaValle was working for then-Senator Leon Giuffreda.
“Right off the bat, Ken LaValle was a teacher first. He’s always a teacher,” Mr. Thiele said. “He couldn’t have been more helpful to me.”
Mr. Romaine described first meeting the senator in 1976, beginning a long-lasting friendship.
“I never imagined that for the next 44 years he was going to be someone who I would not only admire but who would teach me, as he would teach everyone in this room, all the people he came into contact with, what it meant to be a leader, what it meant to get things done,” the supervisor said.
“This man has led. But in leading, he has taught us. It’s not the barbs, criticism. It’s not the tweets. It’s reaching out to people, regardless of party, and solving problems. It’s forming coalitions and getting things done. He has been, as he always will be, a teacher. And he has taught us a great deal.”
It was a sentiment echoed by all of Friday’s speakers.
“We have a lot of people here who Senator LaValle has been a pivotal part of their lives,” Mr. Flanagan said.
“He’s an icon,” Mr. Garcia said. “He’s an icon in this community, in this region and in this state. This is a time when the state could use more icons like Ken LaValle.”
They all hailed the great work that Mr. LaValle has accomplished over the past four decades, work and projects that will have a lasting effect on the community.
“He’s choosing to leave the Senate at a time when so much of the work that he set out to do has been achieved,” Mr. DiNapoli said. “The opportunity to close out this chapter of his life of over four decades of service with the list of accomplishments and achievements that he has is really something most of us in public life won’t have the opportunity to reflect on when we decide to leave elected office — and to still have the respect and admiration and affection of colleagues in government, the people of this district, and all the folks he’s gotten to know over four decades of being in Albany ”
“You’ve all read about Ken’s accomplishments, and they are many — too many to list all of them,” Mr. Thiele noted. “What’s special about them is that these aren’t transient accomplishments. These are not superficial. These are generational changes, things that are going to make a difference in people’s lives for decades to come.
“And that’s why when you talk about Ken LaValle, it’s not a politician — it’s a statesman. Because he did think about the next generation and not just the next election.”
While his legacy included great works, the speakers noted, perhaps Mr. LaValle should be best remembered for his dedication to the 300,000 residents of the 1st Senate District, a district that Mr. LaValle never lost sight of in Albany — evidenced by his longtime motto: “First District First.”
“Your love for the people, not just the things of this community, is worth mentioning,” Mr. Englebright said.
“Those accomplishments, the things that are written about in the newspaper or are on TV, that’s still not the thing that’s most important to him. Those are not the things he thinks defines his career. That’s not the measure of success. To him, I think the most important thing was the work that he did for each individual he came into contact with, the constituents that he represented. It’s that work that truly defines him as a representative.”
Following a standing ovation, Mr. LaValle thanked everyone for the praise, but noted that the most fulfilling aspect of his role as senator has been working with constituents in his district.
“The greatest part of this job is people coming in to the office and sitting down with them,” he said. “What a thrill to be able to help people like that.”