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Sen. Patrick Moynihan is presented a ceremonial white physician's coat at the Senate Caucus Room in Washington, D.C., in March 2000. Columbia and the Association of American Medical Colleges honored Sen. Moynihan for his support of medical education. Pictured, from left, are Dr. Eugene Feigelson, dean of the College of Medicine at the SUNY Health Science Center; Dr. Ralph Snyderman (behind the senator), chairman of Project Medical Education's executive board; Sen. Moynihan; and Dr. George Rupp, then-president of Columbia University.
In March, the nation, the state, and this region lost a great leader—and I lost a mentor and friend—when former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan passed away at age 76. The loss of Pat Moynihan is important to the Columbia University community because he was a great friend to higher education and academic medical centers. While others have written or will write of his extraordinary accomplishments as a scholar, adviser to presidents, ambassador, and, of course, U.S. senator, I want to give a bit more personal account of the man I was privileged to know. And what a great man he was.

I had the honor of working for Sen. Moynihan for five years—two and a half as the regional director of the Oneonta office and two and a half as state director in the New York City office. He was a fantastic boss. Being a member of the Moynihan staff was not necessarily the easiest of jobs, but I cannot imagine a job where one could learn more and do such important, interesting, and meaningful work.

First and foremost, he was brilliant. Many people have personal collections of this or that item—matchbooks, hats, baseball caps, etc. Sen. Moynihan had a collection of hoods from the many honorary degrees he received, including one from Columbia. He was a teacher, and he loved to share his knowledge. I learned so much from him about politics, Social Security, national security, finance, constitutional issues, transportation, and, of course, the topic we probably spent the most time talking about, the geography and history of New York state. One of the things that always amazed me was that as we drove through a small village in upstate New York, he could tell the denomination of a church simply by looking at the architecture of the building. There was no need to look at the sign.

Being around Sen. Moynihan, one could not help but learn. I refer to it as learning by osmosis. Just being near him made you smarter. Even if he was doing something else at the time, when I was with him, I was learning. Some of the most interesting times I spent with him were in the car on the road between his farm and the Albany airport or moving about New York City. He might be talking to someone else or speaking on the cell phone, but just by listening to his conversations, or even just half of a conversation in the case of a cell phone call, you learned something.

Although the senator was a great teacher, he also loved to learn. As regional director of the Oneonta office, I was responsible for covering 33 counties in upstate New York. I spent a lot of time traveling around the region meeting with local elected officials and other leaders and attending events on his behalf. He was always interested in what I had to report. He always wanted to know what was going on in the state. What were people concerned about? What was on their minds? He cared deeply not only about New York City, but also the Hudson Valley, the Mohawk Valley, the North Country… the entire state.

In what may have been the last time a survey was taken of his approval rating before announcing his retirement, the senator enjoyed an equally high approval rating in New York City, the suburbs, and upstate. He was very proud of this, as he was proud of the fact that in 1994, when Democrats did not fare well, he won the city vote, the suburban vote, and the upstate vote. Of course, this was not as strong as his performance in 1988, when he won 61 of the 62 counties. He lost Hamilton County, the least populous. He often joked that if he were to run again, he would make sure to locate his campaign office there.

There is no doubt that Sen. Moynihan could be demanding, but no boss has ever cared for his employees as much as he did. He was there for us in the good times and in the tough times, but even more importantly, he was truly interested in his staff's success and professional development. Upon learning that one of his employees was looking for another job, the senator's first reaction was, "What can I do to help?" He didn't think in terms of betrayal or how that employee's departure would affect the office.

I remember a dinner with the senator and a colleague in Ithaca one evening. I had been regional director for about two years. My colleague had been with him longer. In the middle of dinner the senator told us that he did not expect either of us to be on staff in six months. After dinner, I asked my colleague if we had just been fired; he responded, "Yes, but in a good way." We had both served the senator well, but it was time to move on to bigger and better challenges. Fortunately for me, the state director position opened up shortly thereafter so I was able to take on these new challenges while still remaining on staff. Of course, six weeks after he promoted me, he announced his retirement. I do not believe the two events are related.

It is no surprise that many of the senator's former staffers have gone on to do great things. He hired top-notch people and he did what he could to help them succeed. After he announced his retirement, he worked tirelessly to see that his staff found new jobs. I definitely benefited from his assistance.

Those of us who work at academic medical centers will long benefit from his legacy to preserve and strengthen teaching hospitals. Sen. Moynihan fought to have the bond cap removed and worked to ensure the health and viability of New York's teaching hospitals—"New York's jewels," as he called them. Ken Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association and a friend of the senator's, says, "Pat was a national gem whose support for the state's—and the country's—health care system never wavered for a second. He fought to keep America's teaching hospitals second to none, for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude."

A final note about another very special person, Elizabeth B. Moynihan, the senator's wife of almost 50 years. A highly respected archaeologist and author, she was also a great political strategist who managed the senator's first three campaigns. It was often said that by working for the senator, you became part of the Moynihan family. It was Liz who made that happen. When I moved to Oneonta, I had never lived upstate and had never worked in a district office. Both she and the senator placed a tremendous amount of professional and personal trust in me. Liz went the extra mile to ensure that the job was working out and that I was happy. Much of whatever success I had with the senator, I owe to Liz.

The U.S. Senate has seen its share of great statesmen, but I believe the country will never have another Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Other first-rate public servants have been and will be elected to the senate from New York, but to me, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and only he, will always be "The Senator."

Ross Frommer, who joined Columbia in 2001, is deputy vice president for government and community affairs for the Health Sciences.


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