I met him in 1962 – he must be old.
We have been friends ever since.
Gary Ackerman is the closest thing I have to a brother – unless
you consider my sister.
Since college, our lives have been intertwined – don’t get
the wrong idea.
Neither time nor space permits me to tell our whole story – someday,
if I ever retire, it will be one of the two political profile books
I’ll consider tackling.
It would be a personal observation of one of the most compassionate
people, and indeed the funniest person, I know.
SCHENKLER ON ACKERMAN: Forty years since we met and
some 25 years between the pictures above have not diminished my
ability to laugh at and with one of the funniest people I know –
and looks aren’t everything!
Although I admire Gary’s progressive politics, he has moved a
slight bit to the right while I have fought to retain our ideology of
college youth. As his former campaign chairman, I admire his political
acumen; this kid who originally challenged the Queens Democratic organization
is now second only to Charlie Rangel in Congressional seniority in downstate
As his college buddy who could relate unflattering stories about his
academic performance, I really admire his intelligence; he has grown
and emerged as a true intellect in the area of United States policy
in Asia and the Middle East. As my business partner for years and the
founder of this paper which pioneered the concept of free local publishing,
I truly know him to be a visionary in the field of community journalism.
As his friend, I am captivated by his people skills; Gary can win over
anyone anytime he wants to. His deep compassion for people — especially
the less fortunate — is the core of what makes him a significant
contributor to our world.
But of all his wonderful qualities, none of the above is the one I value
To me, 40 plus years of friendship later, Gary Ackerman is the funniest
person I know. Above and beyond anything else, Gary Ackerman makes me
smile. He even makes me laugh.
I don’t think I could possibly do his presentation justice. I
can’t talk underwater. And although I’d like to think I
am as clever as he, I don’t possess his rare and perfect timing.
Therefore, I am going to limit this offering and relate only one story
in Gary’s endless repertoire.
This story is true.
Gary told me so.
And although I don’t have a time and date, I know the historical
context well both as a Queens political columnist and publisher of the
newspaper that covered both Gary and the Queens homeless shelter.
Part of the Ackerman intrigue is the way Gary approaches issues. Early
as a publisher and then later as a public servant, Ack had and still
has a flair for packaging. It was, I believe way back when Gary served
as a State Senator, probably just after the 1970’s gave way to
1980 that the old Flushing Armory became a homeless shelter for men.
Well, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) was no different then than now and
the locals were up in arms about the homeless being brought to sleep
in their community. There were questions of community safety. Other
more compassionate people explored whether the Armory was a proper site
to serve the homeless and whether or not the City was really providing
the essential service that this long-forgotten underserved population
needed to both survive and perhaps make it back into our society, if
Ackerman, the compassionate guy I told you about, decided to go undercover.
Gary was going to spend the night sleeping in the homeless shelter.
For one cold winter day, Gary was going to be . . . homeless.
The rest of the
story is part of Ackerman legend:
My dapper friend Gary was concerned about what to wear — he had
to keep warm but also be stylishly appropriate for a man who was homeless.
Those who knew his wardrobe were aware he had little to worry about
on the second count.
It didn’t take Gary long to choose a pair of pants and a shirt
that would conceal his real identity from the keen eyes of the homeless
clothing watchers. But the winter was cold and the Senator liked his
warmth. He and Rita – his wife of a zillion years, back then they
had been married some 15 – had recently purchased new very warm
“It was perfect,” Gary thought as he took the shapeless
heavily lined new jacket out of the closet.
“It was perfect, but too new.”
Gary could fix that, he took the new parka outside and threw it down
onto the muddiest area of what he referred to as his front lawn. He
stepped on it. By this time, Rita and a couple of their three kids were
watching from the front door. Gary had an audience. He did the Ackerman
shuffle on the jacket to make sure that the wet dirt would penetrate
deep into the fibers of his once new jacket. Gary was into it. He called
to Rita, “The mustard please.” And Rita, enjoying the absurdity
of it all, brought from the refrigerator a rather full bottle of mustard
– an early version of French’s finest squeeze bottle. Gary
lifted the filthy jacket from the muddy lawn, held it out so as not
to soil the other clothing he was wearing to the shelter, and let loose
a large enough stream of mustard to satisfy a dozen hotdogs —
back onto the ground to grind it all in. Gary was on a mission and Rita
and the kids couldn’t imagine him ever again wearing the object
that was now receiving the final Ack mud shuffle to make sure it could
fool the most discerning eyes at the men’s shelter.
A computer assisted effort by Trib graphic artist Yiu Ly utilizing
some 900 images containing Gary Ackerman to create the front page
image for our 34th Annivesary special salute to the paper’s
As he lifted it up and smiled, Gary announced to his family that he
was satisfied. He was proud of his work and in spite of it being more
than a bit damp and discolored with who-knows-what, Gary was going to
model it for his audience.
It didn’t take long, one arm and then . . .
He quickly discovered the parka he had mutilated belonged to Rita.
The warm and funny
stories are endless.
And so are the touching and meaningful ones:
His trips to Ethiopia, first to feed the hungry children and then to
search for the body of his Congressional colleague killed in a plane
crash while delivering food.
The presentation of and honor bestowed upon him by People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA) that resulted in his daughter Lauren choosing
to become a vegetarian and Gary initiating legislation that would have
banned downed animals from the food stream a decade before the recent
mad cow disease scare did.
Yes, the stories are endless.
On a personal level we’ve been there for each other and always
will be. He is more than my business partner and friend. He is more
than a humanitarian and compassionate public official. Gary Ackerman
is more than all the legends and more than all the stories you are going
to read in this Special Anniversary issue of the Queens Tribune, the
paper he founded in 1970. Gary Ackerman is a person who loves life and
people and teaches others how to do the same.
And if you prop up the glossy front page of this paper and look at it
from a distance, you will see all those little pictures of Gary Ackerman
clearly form one smiling visage of my friend who has spent a quarter
of a century representing and serving the people of Queens.
And the headline on the front asks, “Why Is This Man Smiling?”
He, like I and thousands of others, are all smiling because we’ve
been touched by the very special love, compassion and humor of Gary
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: