After saying farewell to their beloved father, brother, cousin, uncle, lover and friend last Friday evening, the family and close friends of New York State District 104 Assemblyman Frank Skartados gathered for a late meal at the Valley Diner in the hamlet of Marlboro. As one of his aides at the end of his life, I was invited to sit among them.
Some time before his untimely death from pancreatic cancer on the morning of April 15, Skartados was scheduled to give a speech at an event honoring immigrants who made notable contributions to Orange County communities. As he could not speak, the task fell to me, so I took the opportunity to ask his family what he might have said about his experience as an immigrant in America.
They talked about the difficulty of the early years. Shortly after leaving the small Greek island of Astypalaia with his mother at age 15, Skartados lived in New York City with his uncle and brothers. His mother believed that he could take care of himself. His brother George described New York as a much more favorable place than their home village, where the only growth that its several hundred inhabitants would see in “three years without rain” was on top of their heads.
Teen Skartados knew no English. He sat in his basement bedroom weeping because he couldn’t understand the lessons in the textbooks splayed across his bed. He cited this experience when we began crafting legislation which, among other things, would make education easier for non-English speakers. Education was among the subjects that were most dear to Skartados; he wanted to make it a truly public institution, available, without impediments, to all.
Skartados’s brother Russo said that Skartados never accepted any money from him. Instead, young Skartados supported himself with odd jobs and restaurant work, which made him and his family proud. But as our conversation went on it became clear that it was not just grit that allowed Frank to succeed; that is, able to graduate from high school and college, to become a teacher and a beloved father, to start businesses, own a farm and serve four-plus terms as a respected member of the New York State Assembly. No, George explained that success came because the brothers looked out for each other. The restaurant owners gave Skartados the employment he needed and, importantly, looked out for him in other ways.
In other words, Frank Skartados was able to become the man who loved and served us because his community cared for and supported him.
I thought that this is what Frank might have talked about in his speech: the importance of caring for each other in the critical basic ways of affection, and respect. Then he might have said that public policy is how citizens care for one another, and that we must support and create institutions that allow us to care for the most vulnerable among us, including immigrants who are struggling to make it, just as Skartados once was.
Someone else said something that deserves mention: During his first term in office, Skartados attended the naturalization ceremony of every new citizen in his district.
The obituaries tell of Skartados’s contributions to his district: millions in state dollars for projects that improved life, including the Walkway Over the Hudson; protecting our places of natural wonder in battles against shipping anchorages and oil pipelines; voting every single time for the full version of the Women’s Equality Act, which would help women contribute to the lives of those they cherish; and ensuring that every constituent who called his office in need received as much time and attention as their predicament required.
Immigrants contribute to our communities in subtle, major and decisive ways, usually without fanfare or notice. Public officials and others in positions of power and privilege must do all they can to support them. After all, as Skartados was reminded in his final days, as doctors and nurses with voices from other lands gave him the care he needed, we all depend upon each other.
Versions of this piece were spoken at the 2018 Orange County Democratic Women Annual Awards Dinner, where Assemblyman Skartados was scheduled to speak, and published in The Hudson Valley News