Only a year ago, George Pataki ’67, the governor of New York and this year’s Class Day speaker, would have seemed an unlikely candidate to be thrust onto the world stage.
But there he was, forced into the spotlight on Sept. 11, required to lead his state and its largest city through one of the greatest tragedies in its history.
Since then, Pataki has played an important role in helping New York recover from Sept. 11. He has been instrumental in establishing relief funds to aid the families, workers and businesses affected by the attacks, and he has spearheaded the most massive rebuilding effort New York has ever seen.
But back in 1964, no one would have guessed that this would be Pataki’s future role. A postman’s son growing up on a farm in Peekskill, N.Y., Pataki was just a young man about to attend Yale on an academic scholarship. His modest background seemed out of place in the Old Blue setting.
Yale, although in a tumultuous period of transition, was still the college of old, replete with its traditional values, and not yet admitting women.
Pataki was not the typical Yalie of his day, but he managed to take advantage of the opportunities Yale offered him. During his time here, he immersed himself in the college’s political scene. He became an active member of the Yale Political Union and the Conservative Party, eventually becoming the party’s chairman. At Yale, he gained the political experience that would later serve him in running New York.
Ever since his time in New Haven, Pataki has remained involved in the Yale community.
“He is among the most loyal of Yale alumni,” said President Levin. “He comes to Yale events all the time. He’s been very active as a Yale parent. He even attends football games when Yale plays at Columbia and Cornell.”
But surprisingly, after graduating from Yale and Columbia Law School, for a time it did not look like Pataki would ever enter politics, let alone become New York’s governor. After receiving his law degree, Pataki moved back home to Peekskill. It seemed as though he would simply settle down to a quiet, steady life, with no plans to run for public office.
But that relative inactivity did not last long. Pataki became so dissatisfied with the policies of Peekskill’s mayor that he felt compelled to run against him.
Pataki, the perennial underdog, the man who has never started off an election in the lead, eventually won the mayoralty, later moving on to the State Assembly, the state Senate, and finally the Governor’s House.
“He’s one of several very fine governors who went to Yale and obviously that’s something that all alumni can take pleasure in,” Levin said.
Some students have expressed disappointment at having a local governor as this year’s Class Day speaker.
“I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to have a more global or national figure,” said Nicolas Calzada ’02 “But I think it’ll be a good speech.”
Pataki will speak on May 26, the day before Commencement, to honor the graduating seniors of the class of 2002.