E. Dent Lackey Obituary

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On February 18, 1977, Mayor E. Dent Lackey passed away.

Lackey is mainly known today as the man on a white horse that fronted the failed urban renewal program in Niagara Falls.

In fact he was three-term mayor of the city, which ties him with current mayor Paul Dyster for second-longest tenured mayor (the longest serving mayor was Lackey’s successor, Michael O’Laughlin, who served four terms).

For such a long serving mayor, there’s very little information on the internet of him. I had to find a copy of his obituary at the public library (thank you so much, NFPL, for having the Niagara Gazette on microfilm!)

So, ready to take a trip back to ’77?


The following was published in the Saturday, February 19, 1977 edition of the Niagara Gazette. The obit was written by Jerauld E. Brydges.

NIAGARA FALLS – Retired Mayor E. Dent Lackey, 76, the son of a Kansas plainsman who rose to become one of this city’s mosst colorful and influential public officials, died Friday (Feb. 18, 1977) in Memorial Medical Center.

A hospital spokesman said the cause of death was heart failure.

Mayor Lackey had been periodically ill since his retirement at the end of 1975. He had suffered a stroke and had been an occasional outpatient at Roswell Park Memorial Institute.

A handsome, robust man, Mayor Lackey still made public appearances despite the setbacks of health.

Most recently he visited the plaza named for him in the south end urban renewal complex. A dedication ceremony at his hospital bedside was cancelled because of his illness.

Mayor Lackey was an outgoing, yet sensitive man who could portray outrage one minute, and disarming charm the next.

His oratory was in the “fire and brimstone” tradition, his voice beginning softly and soothingly, then developing into a booming crescendo.

His last public speech, on New Year’s Day of 1976, was full of emotional expressions of love for his fellow residents of this city. “God bless you all. I love you all,” he said, returning to the side of his late wife, the former Zelda Hillis.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Lackey died, but not before she asked her sister, Ruth, to “take care of Dent.”

Six weeks later, Dent Lackey and Ruth Hillis were married in a City Hall ceremony.

It was perhaps his role as a visionary that made Mayor Lackey a legendary public figure in all of Western New York.

He ranks among the few men in Niagara Frontier history who possessed a keen sense of personal direction and who stubbornly refused to give up on whatever plans he had for his city.

Mayor Lackey was born on Christmas Day, 1900, in Pratt, Kan.

A Niagara Gazette reporter wrote later:

“Mr. Lackey did not deliver a speech on Dec. 25, 1900, unless it was a brief reply of thanks to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Lackey.”

His father was a cattleman and his mother a school teacher. The couple had moved to Kansas in a covered wagon and, like other ranchers, were hard-pressed to find grazing land for their herd.

The Lackeys eventually moved to Stonington, Colo., and young Dent took his place with other ranch hands in tending the cattle and patrolling the range.

The family then moved to Oklahoma, and by this time Dent Lackey was an established “cowpoke.”

The term “rugged individualism” took on a new context, however, when Dent Lackey met an itinerant evangelist who had come to Fowler, Okla. to preach.

The fiery exhortations of the evangelist struck the 19-year-old cowboy like a bolt of lightning.

He made plans, then and there, to become a minister.

Young Dent Lackey’s next years were taken up with study toward that goal. He took a variety of jobs to pay his way through preparatory school, and later enrolled in the University of Oklahoma.

His study paid of and he received a scholarship to Boston University’s School of Theology.

By this time he had married Zelda Hillis, a musician and singer.

After graduation, he returned to Oklahoma and became a pastor of a church in Wheatland.

His next assignment was in Falmouth, Mass., back east, and it was there he organized the first labor union for workers on the cranberry bogs.

“Rev.” Lackey had, at that time, adopted a strong liberal and idealistic philosophy, perhaps prompted by the plight of the poor.

He was transferred to Thompsonville, Conn., where he again became deeply involved in the labor movement, this time centering on a strike in one of the community’s major plants.

His liberal views toward labor-management relations and his unbending willingness to “interfere”, set him at odds with many of his parishioners. At one point, he was asked not to deliver a sermon about the strike.

He refused, and shortly thereafter he to a leave of absence from the parish.

“I’m still on that leave,” he told an interviewer in 1963.

The ministry behind him, Mr. Lackey embarked on a new career in industrial and public relations that would span two decades.

In 1943, he joined the Wright Aeronautical Corp. and was appointed industrial relations manager at the company’s Woodbridge, N.J., plant five years later.

He came to this city in 1948 at the request of Carborundum Co. executives to help settle a strike. He stayed and was named assistant industrial relations director.

He retired from the firm as its director of public relations in 1965.

His first try for public office came in 1952 when he sought the old 40th Congressional District seat as the Democratic candidate.

Although untried as a candidate, Mr. Lackey had earlier cut his political teeth as an active campaigner for the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Robert Hurley, a Democratic candidate for governor of Connecticut.

he tried again, for a Congressional seat in 1962, facing a formidable opponent in Rep. William E. Miller of Lockport, the incumbent who also served as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

But in 1963, his long visibility to the public and his tireless efforts on behalf of civic and political causes paid off.

He was elected mayor with a margin of more than 8,000 votes and became the first Democratic mayor of Niagara Falls since William R. Lupton.

Although a Democrat, Mr. Lackey often took independent positions on issues. he was a consummate individualist and his strong personality and adamant stands on matters her personally favored, oftentimes put him at odds with his own party.

Indeed, he often courted the favor of prominent Republicans and became, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strong supporter of such powerful Republicans as former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and the late Senate Majority Leader Earl. W. Brydges.

Those relationships did not always meet with favor among those in Democratic leadership roles and he found himself in frequent feuds with his own party leaders.

Since he first came to power in 1963, Mr. Lackey’s principal pitch was urban renewal and the re-establishment of the city as a tourist capitol. He also sought the preservation of the city’s large industrial complex and encouraged industrial expansion.

He was also described as the “father” of the International Convention Center, a structure that played a major part in the early dreams of his administration.

During his speech at the dedication of the Convention Center on Jan. 12, 1974, the mayor’s voice broke:

“This building’s beauty is surpassed only by the beautiful people in it tonight. It represents all of our hopes and aspirations.”

And a crowd of 12,000 people stood and cheered him.

His public oratory was filled with fervor and emotion. He was not afraid to cry if the mood struck him.

In private, and sometimes in public, Mayor Lackey often swore unabashedly. He also often used strong language to push a personal point of view or to cut off a critic.

There were few who could successfully “outtalk” the mayor, and more often than not, challengers ended up slinking away with the mayor’s booming voice still ringing in their ears.

In 1972, rumors were widespread that Mr. Lackey might retire while in office. He was having some political trouble within his own party and the skirmishes had left him discouraged. He told a reporter at the time:

“If you had called me earlier this week, you’d have found I was about ready to step down..I can’t take the present condition much longer because this thing is blowing me wide open.”

Such statements made during times of both personal and political turmoil proved time and again just how seriously he took his role.

Mayor Lackey relished his role as the city’s official “greeter”.

A stranger would walk into his office to find an immediate warm handshake and the familiar “my dear boy”.

He would put on the funny hats given him as gifts, or pose for a “gag” picture to the delight of his guests.

Mayor Lackey gained international attention as an advocate for stronger U.S.-Canada relations. He kept close friendships with the mayors of Niagara Falls, Ont. and, on New Year’s Day of 1976, he joined Mayor George Bukator of that Canadian city in a moving exchange of mutually pledged cooperation.

The mayor was unabashedly proud of his family, his grandchildren, and those closest to him. Two days, a friend wondered aloud “how the mayor was doing.”

“There’s nobody else like him,” he added.

He his survived by his wife, Ruth; a son, Lincoln Lackey of this city; and two daughters, Mrs. James (Linda) Sotis of Peekskill, N.Y. and Mrs. Vincent (Zee) Allison of Lakebluff, Ill.

Also surviving area  brother-in-law, Hadley Marshall, 17 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.

Services will be held Tuesday at 2p.m. at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Five clergymen, the Rev. Richard Closson, the Rev. Pierre Tangent, who is also a city councilman; the Rev. Edgar Huff, the Rev. Glen Raybon and the Rev. Michael Cassell, will officiate. The organist will be Mrs. J. Frederick Neff.

Friends may call at the Spallino Funeral Home Monday from 1p.m. to 9p.m. Burial will be in Oakwood Cemetery.

Pall bearers will be Anthony Bax, Mayor Michael O’Laughlin, Angelo Massaro, Nicholas Marchelos, Edward Joseph and Fire Chief Edwin Forsier. Honorary pall bearers include William H. Wendel, Jack Johnson, Ralph Levy, Mario Pirasitru, Morton Abramowitz, Anthony Spallino, Benjamin Gold and William G. Mayne Jr.

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