Alvin Ruskin came from one of those families that had lived in New Rochelle for generations.
“He just had a very fine manner about him,” said Rabbi Amiel Wohl, retired spiritual leader of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, who knew Ruskin for decades. “He was just able to relate to anybody and anybody was able to relate to him.”
Ruskin had been a member of Temple Israel, where Wohl served as senior rabbi from 1973 to 2000.
The former mayor died quietly at his Stamford, Conn. home Thursday night at the age of 95.
“He died very peacefully in his bed,” said his son, William Ruskin. “He was basically very comfortable.”
William Ruskin was at his father’s side for his last breath’s. So was the elder Ruskin’s daughter, Nancy Ruskin, and William’s wife, Catherine Barker.
William Ruskin said his father seemed relaxed and pleased to be aware that family was with him at the end.
A service for Ruskin will be held at Temple Israel, 1000 Pinebrook Boulevard in New Rochelle at 1 p.m. Sunday.
His family had come to New Rochelle in the 1880s, and Ruskin stayed there until the late 1990s, when he and his wife had difficulty keeping up their two-story house in the Wykagyl neighborhood. They moved to an independent living facility in Stamford.
He was first elected mayor in 1963. New Rochelle was enjoying a bit of fame as the pretend home of fictional characters Rob and Laura Petrie, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. (It ran from 1961 to 1966.)
In the real world, things were more turbulent. The Vietnam War was going on. Ruskin was elected the year that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
He was New Rochelle’s first Jewish mayor, city historian Barbara Davis said. And Wohl remembered how proud the Temple Israel congregation was to have a mayor – who later was a state judge – among them.
While he was mayor, from 1964 to 1970, major things happened, some of them still reverberating today.
Here’s a big one: The city bought Davids Island, a former army base in Long Island Sound.
The 78-acre island in Long Island Sound has become little more than a frustration. Despite decades of plans to fill the island with major developments or convert it to a Westchester County park, it remains undeveloped.
But when Ruskin was mayor, he turned it into a profitable deal. As he recalled to my colleague Phil Reisman in 1998, the federal government had wanted to sell the island to the city in 1968 for $1 million. Ruskin said he negotiated a price of $475,000, and a year later, the city sold it to Con Edison for $3 million. The utility wanted to create a nuclear power plant on the island. And when that fell through, a clause that New Rochelle had included in the contract allowed the city to buy it back for $1.
In other developments:
Albert Leonard Junior High School was converted into the City Hall still in use today at 515 North Ave., where Ruskin’s portrait hangs with those of all the other mayors. Ruskin co-sponsored the plan, according to campaign literature from the time.
His son said that Mayor Ruskin lured Macy’s to the city, where the department store anchored the New Rochelle Mall downtown. In the early 1990s, Macy’s closed, dealing a death blow to the mall, which close and later was replaced by the New Roc City entertainment complex.
But when the mall first opened, it was a success, William Ruskin said.
“At the time, it was a real boost in the arm for the downtown which had been struggling for a long time to keep up with developments in other parts of the county,” he said.
In 1970, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tapped Mayor Ruskin to become a family court judge.
In his last meeting presiding over the City Council, in April of that year, he grew emotional, according to a newspaper report from the time.
“I especially wish to thank the people of the City of New Rochelle, who twice elected me councilman and then bestowed upon me the highest honor they can give: the office of Mayor of the City of New Rochelle,” he said then.
He would later become a state Supreme Court judge.
But his impact on New Rochelle still echoes. The city’s current mayor, Noam Bramson, said he hears frequently about his predecessor.
“Mayor Ruskin’s strength of character and deep dedication to service are still revered by countless residents of our city as the very model of civic leadership,” Bramson said.
Vincent Rippa, a Democrat who served as New Rochelle’s mayor in the late 1970s, said Ruskin was popular.
“He had a very strong following in the city,” Rippa said. “He was a good guy. He really was. He was very approachable.”
Ruskin may have belonged to the rival party, but William Ruskin said his father was “a very liberal Republican,” in the vein of Jacob Javitz and Nelson Rockefeller.
“He got a lot of flak from his party when he refused to support Barry Goldwater,” William Ruskin said.
William O’Shaughnessy, the owner of WVOX radio station in New Rochelle, was another fan of Mayor Ruskin. When Ruskin was leaving the mayor’s office for a judge’s chambers, O’Shaughnessy wrote an editorial titled, “Alvin R. Ruskin: We’ll Never See Another Like Him,” calling the mayor “one of the most sincere, decent and endearing politicians I ever encountered in public life.”
Top photo shows Alvin Ruskin from the era when he served as councilman and mayor, courtesy of the Ruskin family. Lower photo shows a 1959 campaign ad for his re-election to council, courtesy of the New Rochelle Public Library.