ALBANY, N.Y. – Bill Larkin spent 23 years in the U.S. Army before starting a second career in politics as a state lawmaker in the New York Legislature, arriving in 1979.
Looking back, the 90-year-old Republican credits his successes in both endeavours to adhering to the U.S. Military Academy’s motto of “Duty, Honor, Country” — plus a fourth personal byword: respect.
“If I don’t respect you, how do I expect you to respect me?” Larkin said from the state capitol, where earlier this week he cast what are likely his final Senate votes — barring a special session later this year — as the Legislature wrapped up its 2018 session.
He’s now one of the last WWII veterans still serving in a state legislature.
Larkin has spent nearly four decades representing a stretch of the Hudson Valley, first as an assemblyman from 1979-90, then as a senator for the past 27 years. West Point is in his district, but he didn’t attend the academy. He rose through the ranks, starting as a private during World War II and retiring 23 years later as a lieutenant colonel.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Larkin and Wisconsin state Sen. Fred Risser, 91, are believed to be the last WWII veterans still serving in a state legislature. Risser, a Democrat from Madison, joined the Navy just before his 18th birthday in May 1945.
Larkin, who’s retiring at the end of the year, forged bipartisan friendships during nearly four decades in Albany.
“He’s the perfect person to be in the Legislature: he’s inclusive, honest, bright and a perfect gentleman,” said Neil Breslin, an Albany Democrat and longtime Larkin friend who has served in the Senate since 1997.
William J. “Bill” Larkin Jr. was born in Troy, New York, near Albany. Raised by his aunt and uncle, he thought he was 18 when he enlisted in the Army in 1944 while still in high school. He didn’t discover until years later that he was born in 1928, not 1926 as he had always thought.
“I wasn’t upset,” he said about discovering his actual birth year. “I was in the armed forces. I met with people who cared about our country and I was very proud.”
Larkin served in the Pacific, where he saw combat in the Philippines. Back home in 1946, he re-enlisted when he couldn’t get into a local college because its classes were full. He was assigned to Japan and later returned to the U.S. to attend officer candidate school. Then it was back to Japan, where he led an all-black unit at a time when the military was still segregated.
The unit was rated the worst in Japan, said Larkin, who attributed its poor reputation to the racism rife in the U.S. military at that time. That’s where his philosophy of giving respect to earn respect was put to practical use.
“These soldiers were good,” Larkin said, his voice rising in anger as he recalled the racial slurs aimed at black troops. “We turned it around.”
Larkin’s unit fought in the Korean War. He had to be evacuated in early 1951 after suffering severe frostbite to his feet, an injury that still causes him problems. After retiring from the Army in 1967, Larkin entered politics by getting elected supervisor of the town of New Windsor, near West Point.
Larkin points to legislation advancing veterans’ causes and health care for infants as among the highlights of his lawmaker career. His critics say despite his longevity in office, he didn’t do enough for Newburgh, a Hudson River city plagued for decades by drug gangs and high crime and poverty rates.
“He could’ve done so much to bring some hope to that city,” said Virginia Scott, a member of the executive committee of the local Democratic Party.
Yet Newburgh is starting to see changes for the better, thanks in large part to Larkin’s efforts to steer state aid to the city, according to Mayor Torrance Harvey, a Democrat.
“It’s a bittersweet feeing in the sense that we’re going to lose a great, great advocate for the city of Newburgh,” Torrance said. “It’s really sad to see him go.”