GUESTWORDS: Remembering Mayor Koch

By Debbie Tuma

    When I heard about the death of former Mayor Ed Koch, I thought about the last time I had seen him, last October at the Hamptons International Film Festival. He had made the trip to the East Hampton Cinema for the screening of his new documentary film, “Koch,” about his life as mayor and all the wonderful things he had accomplished during his reign from 1978 through 1989.
    Although he appeared a bit older and frailer, at age 87 he still had that same indomitable energy and passion when he spoke about New York, the 59th Street Bridge, the many housing projects he had brought forth, the equality issues, and the general cleaning up of the city.
    I really enjoyed the film, which captured his spontaneous, open, and upfront personality as he dealt with people in his office, police and firemen, construction workers, and his fellow politicians. He was real and down to earth. He loved staying around afterward to answer questions from the audience, and he didn’t even mind jokes at his own expense. After reviewing movies for so many years, I guess it was fun and a bit surreal for him to star in one about himself.
    People were posing for photos with him, and he was enjoying all the attention. I walked over and chatted with him about those years when he was mayor, as I so well remembered from living near Gracie Mansion, at 88th Street between York and East End Avenue, for his entire 12-year reign.
    During those years, I would see him around the neighborhood, at the local coffee shops and delis, at public meetings, at the parades, at Carl Schurz Park, on the street, and at some events at Gracie Mansion. He always seemed approachable and easy to talk to. He always had a smile on his face.
    In that decade I saw Mayor Koch turn the city from despair, abandoned buildings, graffiti-covered subways, and crime-ridden, filthy streets into a place with hope, new housing developments, less crime, and cleaner streets and subways.
    Once I told him about my great-great-great-grandfather George Opdyke, who was mayor of New York City from 1862 to 1864, during President Lincoln’s term in office. It was a tough time in New York City, during the reign of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. It was a tough time in the country, with the Civil War and slavery. Mayor Koch suggested I go to City Hall to look Opdyke up, which I did. Koch had a keen interest in anything related to New York City and its history. As busy as he was, he always found the time to talk to the people of his city, and he cared about what they thought, what they had to say.
    I thought about all this as I boarded a Hampton Jitney early Monday morning, not sure if I would be able to get in to his funeral but feeling as though I wanted to pay tribute to this man who did so much for New York that he just seemed like, well, New York itself. I couldn’t imagine a New York City without Ed Koch.
    I walked a few blocks to Temple Emanu-El and met up with another longtime New Yorker, Gloria Kins of the United Nations press corps. We arrived close to 11 a.m., when the funeral was due to start, and we were ushered in by some police who stood by a barricade closing off traffic at 65th and 66th Streets.
    I held my breath to see if there was any room in this largest of New York synagogues, which holds 2,500 people. I had heard that it was invitation only, but once there, it seemed as if this funeral was being held in the spirit of Ed Koch — the public was invited.
    The beautiful synagogue was packed, including the balcony in the back, and there was also a room with TV monitors to house the overflow crowd. Senior Rabbi Dr. David Posner was acknowledging all the political friends and colleagues of Mayor Koch sitting in the front, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former President Bill Clinton, the D’Amatos, the Cuomos, and Senator Charles Schumer. There was an honor guard of New York City police and firemen, and people from many city departments of government.
    We somehow walked as close as we could get and found some seats toward the front, where we could see the many speakers scheduled to talk. Koch’s nephews, grandnephew, and grandniece spoke of his devotion to his family, how he would take an interest in their music performances and chess games.
    Mayor Bloomberg said it was fitting Koch had his funeral service near his 59th Street Bridge, and also not far from his favorite 77th Street subway. “There are 8.4 million people grieving today, but Ed loves all the attention,” he said and smiled, adding that Koch embodied the spirit of New York City more than anyone ever could.
    Bill Clinton read from the many notes and letters he and Koch shared over the years, about the crime bill, the Holocaust Memorial, missile research, and about giving kids a second chance when they get in trouble. “He sent me all his columns,” he said. “No other mayor had an impact on real people they way he did.”
    Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, praised Koch for his commitment to the Zionist movement. “He became the voice for Israel — what he did for New York and Israel went far beyond his term of office,” he said. “He was a major catalyst for the branding of New York to the free world.”
    But the most moving moment came following the hourlong service, when the pallbearers lifted up Koch’s plain wooden casket and carried it down the aisle to the tune of “New York, New York.” Moved by emotion, everyone rose and gave a last parting standing ovation to this great man.
    Outside the synagogue, crowds gathered to share stories of the mayor and to chat with the many politicians. Bill Clinton was trying to make his way to his waiting limousine while throngs of people stopped to chat with him. Geraldo Rivera and Ed Cox, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, were in the crowd, as was Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who said she often had lunch with Mayor Koch over the years. “I thought the service was amazing,” she said. “He would have loved it.”
    Mark Green, the New York politician, author, and radio host, noted that all the speakers had the same comments running through their speeches. “What’s really revealing is that they all mentioned Ed’s humor, bluntness, and energy, and especially his big heart, so that says something about him,” he said.
    My friend Gloria and I walked away with a glad feeling we had shared these special moments after witnessing the life of a great leader. Ed Koch was inspiring to the masses, even in his death, and he will surely be missed.
    As I looked around at the tall buildings, the gleaming snow-covered sidewalks, and all the people bustling around on their lunch hours, I thought back to something Mayor Bloomberg had said during the service.
    He said, “It’s not hard to picture Ed asking God, ‘How did I do?’ And God said, ‘Ed, you did great. You did really great.’ ”

    Debbie Tuma is a freelance writer and radio host living in Riverhead.