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Shirley Seney, politician for Lake Placid's 'little guy,' dies at 83

September 9, 2015
By PETER CROWLEY and CHRIS KNIGHT , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Shirley Seney was the first female mayor of this village and the first female supervisor of the town of North Elba. She also tended to be the first person to speak her mind and the first to crack a joke.

Her niece Carol Hoffman said she cracks up every time she remembers an extended family picnic one July when the conversation turned to famous singer Kate Smith, who lived and is buried in Lake Placid. One cousin from Connecticut asked who Kate Smith was, and "the minute that left her mouth, Aunt Shirley launched into 'God Bless America.' My cousin's face told it all. She just couldn't believe Aunt Shirley was there singing this song."

Seney died Wednesday morning at her home, at age 83. Family members said she died of a lung infection after several months of declining health.

Article Photos

Former Lake Placid Mayor and North Elba Supervisor Shirley Seney, center, is recognized as a New York State Senate Woman of Distinction by Sen. Betty Little, left, on May 13, 2014, at the state Capitol in Albany.
(Photo provided)

Denice Fredericks, who worked under Seney as clerk to the town supervisor for 11 years, said Seney used to tell a story about when she was a student at Lake Placid Middle-High School.

"She'd look across the street and say she was going to work at the town hall," Fredericks said. "And she did."

Seney's political career began, however, not in the North Elba Town Hall but in the school district. She said in a 2013 interview about women in politics that she never thought she would run for office until she was an adult and got worked up about a new school that might be built. She was constantly going on about it at home, and finally her husband suggested she run for the school board.

She lost by four votes but won the next time. Her decade on the board, from 1974 to '84, included a period as president that earned her a spot on the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1980 Winter Games.

As a village trustee in the 1980s, she was known as the board's most outspoken member. In 1991 she challenged fellow Republican Robert Peacock, the state's longest-serving mayor at the time, and lost, but she won in 1993 when Peacock stepped down. She lost re-election in 1995 but the next year was elected North Elba's supervisor and representative on the Essex County board, a job she kept until 2007.

Current North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, who beat Seney in that 2007 race, called her "a trailblazer for women in politics in this region," along with longtime town of St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency, who died in 2012 after a long battle with cancer.

"Shirley was a great lady who broke a lot of glass ceilings in her day," said state Sen. Betty Little, who nominated Seney as a New York State Senate Woman of Distinction last year.

"She came down to Albany with her family for the ceremony," Little said. "It was really nice to recognize her for all her achievements."

Seney championed numerous causes, from adding a new "Adirondack County" and dissolving the Lake Placid village government to boosting Lake Placid's Pee Wee hockey association. Politi called her an advocate for "the little guy.

"She also was tough," Politi said. "She was tough with me, and we were good friends. She didn't like to lose. She was a great competitor and a great leader for this region."

Seney was involved in some fierce political battles, including a successful re-election campaign for supervisor in 2003 against then-Councilwoman Sally Warner. The race was bitter at times, with both sides running attack ads.

Daughter Nancy Cross, who lives in Louisiana, said that during those political battles, "We all used to say, 'Why are you doing this to yourself?' ... And she'd say, 'because I think I can make a difference.'"

Like many hard-nosed politicians, Seney made her share of enemies during her tenure, including one who declined to speak for this report.

Town Justice James Rogers III recalled a dispute she had with the North Elba supervisor at the time when she unsuccessfully tried to do away with his court clerk. After that, "She always greeted me cheerfully," Rogers said. "She lost, and she didn't hang onto it, to the best of my knowledge.

"She was obviously somebody to be reckoned with in this community," Rogers said. "She was a strong personality with a big family, all of whom carried their own weight. She worked hard, and she was a political power."

Rogers had served with Seney on the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Organizing Committee. He said she was one of a small number of women on the committee. She was the only female member who signed agreement with the International Olympic Committee.

"She went on because she was president of the school board," Rogers said. "The (Olympic) Speedskating Oval was put on school land, and she negotiated the business of moving the school athletic fields out to the (North Elba) Show Grounds."

Town Councilman Jay Rand, Seney's deputy supervisor at one point, said Seney was "a figurehead and a legend" who worked hard and made time to hear residents' concerns. He also remembered that board meetings tended to run late under her leadership.

"People run things differently, and there were times we would finish well after 10 o'clock, 12 o'clock," he said.

"I think Shirley would've still been there (as supervisor) if she hadn't have been beaten by Roby," Fredericks said. "She loved it."

Seney continued to speak out on issues after she left office. At a public meeting in May 2013, she criticized Adirondack Health's plan to convert the Lake Placid hospital's emergency room to an urgent care center.

"We've got to have a medical facility here that is going to be able to offer what's needed to the young people and their followers in getting medical treatment when it's needed quickly, not another 12 miles away (in Saranac Lake) in an ambulance or a motor vehicle," she said. "I say, leave us alone. Let us have our emergency room."

Seney was also known for her sense of humor. She loved telling jokes, and former Lake Placid News Editor Ed Forbes recalled how once, after a village police officer pulled him over for speeding, Seney drove by waving her finger and sticking out her tongue at him.

Cross remembered how her mother would dress up for Fourth of July parades in red tights and a blue hat, and one time with a shower cap on her head. It expressed both her patriotism and her sense of fun.

"She loved making people laugh," Cross said.

People who knew Seney universally say she was devoted to her family and her community, and that she was willing to stretch her definition of family. News reporters who didn't have parents living nearby remember her inviting them to her home for Thanksgiving dinner year after year. Fredericks said Seney counted her as kin because she and Fredericks' mother had grown up as neighbors on Cascade Road.

"She would always say, 'I love you. We're family,'" Fredericks said.

Longtime town Councilman Jack Favro felt some of that love, too. He said it was Seney who encouraged him to run for the town board, and he also remembers her cutting his and his brother's hair when they were boys. He grew up around the corner from the Seneys, played with their children and remembers Shirley feeding any hungry neighborhood kids who happened to be around. He thinks she was extra-attentive to him and his brother because their mother had died and their father was raising them by himself.

"Shirley was always looking out for us," he said.

That sense of "looking out for" people around her was a core part of her personality, several people said.

"I think that's the Lake Placid that Shirley grew up in," said Doug Hoffman, Carol Hoffman's husband. "It was a community, and everybody took care of everybody. Unfortunately, some of that's been lost in modern day."

Son Ed Seney, of New Hampshire, was thinking Wednesday of his mother's public remarks in June when Lake Placid High School honored her and two other members of its Class of 1950. She was in a wheelchair and had an oxygen tank with her, but when the microphone was handed to her, her speech was, "If I can be of any help, please feel free to call me."

"It didn't matter how sick she was," Ed said. "She just wanted to help."

"Aunt Shirley was the type of aunt that every family wished they had," Carol Hoffman said. "She would be be your number-one supporter, always there if you needed her."

Seney was a cheerleader for her hometown, too.

"Every place that Aunt Shirley went, she gave out a Lake Placid pin," Carol said. "She carried them in her pocket. ... We could be at any restaurant, and she would hand out Lake Placid pins to tourists."

Favro, who works at the Olympic Training Center here, said Lake Placid's economy would be weaker without the vision shared by Seney and the rest of the Olympic Organizing Committee.

"Part of what I always liked about Shirley is she had her mind set," Favro said. "She always had goals for the community and was willing to go out and achieve them.

"The community lost someone that was a great contributor," he added. "I think a lot of people say they want to give back to the community, but they don't always have time. They don't always do that. She did that."

 
 

 

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