Remembering Health Commissioner David Axelrod
Having been alive for quite a while, I often find myself looking back on my favorite people. I’ve interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people but only a few have risen to the top of my most favorite people list.
For a long, long period of time, I interviewed Mario Cuomo on the radio every week. There were times that Mario could not or would not show up and while he was pretty good about it, once in a while, I would have to find someone to take his place for one of the programs. Sometimes he would get angry with me for a question that he found to be troublesome. Once he was railing against capital punishment, so I asked him if he opposed all capital punishment. He said yes, so I asked him if that included Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for so many Jewish deaths. Cuomo was trapped and not happy. After all, he had a lot of Jewish constituents. As I recall, he dropped out of the program for a short period after that just like his son, Andrew, dropped out of a weekly interview I was doing with him after he embarrassed himself.
When Mario dropped out, he would often ask my all-time favorite public official, Health Commissioner David Axelrod, to sit in. Mario always called David Axelrod, “My David.” Axelrod was an astounding man and he and I would often sit around, sometimes late into the evening, after taping an interview. He often spoke of driving from Albany to places like Syracuse by himself with no driver. When he got tired, you could hear it in his voice.
We had a lot in common. He grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where the Chartocks have lived for about fifty years. He went to school in Great Barrington and he was among the brightest students in the high school but despite the fact that he was so bright and accomplished, he maintained the same adolescent soul that so many of our contemporary young people have.
I always loved his story about how he and a high school pal rigged an explosive device and used it to explode a giant rock by the side of the road near beautiful Like Mansfield. David told me that the rock split and this serious man seemed very happy with that memory. Don’t get me wrong — David Axelrod is the finest human being I have ever known. As a health commissioner, he was unsurpassed. Considering the fact that Papa Cuomo could rarely make mistakes, few aides could look the man in the eye and tell him something was NOT a good idea. David could. Perhaps that’s because he believed in doing what was right but not necessarily political. He was way out in front on issues like reining in the tobacco companies. Nevertheless, the story of that rock meant a lot to him.
Anyway, I take a walk near the Lake every day, often at 4:15 AM and every time I pass that rock, I think of David Axelrod who I loved and respected.
In the political world we occasionally meet our heroes and they become parts of our life time pantheon. It takes a lot for me to give someone a place that is reserved for extraordinary people. If you knew David Axelrod, it is my guess that he would merit a spot in your pantheon as well.
Many of us have great respect for doctors who have made a difference in our lives. Many of these folks are just human beings with their own set of human problems. But in the case of David Axelrod, we have a doctor who was a hero and who I remember that every time I walk on Lake Mansfield Road.
Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected]