A Joyful Send-Off for Congressman Otis Pike
When Riverhead lawyer Otis Pike went to Washington to represent the First Congressional District in 1961, he quickly made a name for himself as a quick-witted, straight-talking man, who knew how to use humor to his advantage in overcoming the most solemn occasions.
When Mr. Pike’s family gathered at Riverhead’s First Congregational Church Saturday morning to memorialize the congressman’s life, five months after his death in January, they were determined not to let the solemnity of the occasion overwhelm the fact that their friend, father and countryman had lived his life to the fullest.
Mr. Pike, who flew dive bombers and night fighters as a U.S. Marine pilot during World War II before beginning his career as an attorney and public servant, served the district longer than any other East End Congressman, from 1960 to 1979. During that time, he presided over major investigations into Pentagon spending and oversight of the CIA’s involvement in coups overseas.
But in Riverhead, he was known as much for the ukelele he brought with him on the campaign trail as he was for the shabby clothes he wore to work on his boat in the Peconic River, before stopping into Papa Nick’s for a cup of coffee with his constituents and friends.
His legacy also inspired a whole new generation of East End public servants, who saw him as a mentor.
At the memorial, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele said Abraham Lincoln’s words: ‘I’m proud of a man who likes the place that he is from and that place likes him,'” perhaps best summed up Mr. Pike’s relationship with his hometown.
Mr. Thiele added that, in 1960, the first year Mr. Pike was elected to Congress, Richard Nixon won a higher percentage of the vote in New York’s First Congressional District than in any other district in the country, but Otis Pike won the district as a Democrat.
“In 1964, I got on my bicycle in Sag Harbor, rode down to Democratic headquarters, and got a Bobby Kennedy bumper sticker and an Otis Pike bumper sticker,” he said. “I put the Kennedy sticker on my bike, and the Otis Pike sticker on my binder. Most boys have the name of their girlfriend on their binder. I had Otis Pike.”
Throughout the service, Otis Pike’s young grandson, also named Otis Pike, jumped up to pronounce to all gathered there that he was also Otis Pike, before announcing to the crowd that he was going to take a nap in a corner pew.
Congressman Tim Bishop said when he first ran for Congress, he received a phone call from Otis Pike just before Election Day, even though Mr. Pike had long ago retired and was living in Florida.
“He said, ‘You have run a really, really good campaign. Win or lose, we Democrats are proud of you,'” said Mr. Bishop. “I’m proud to even seek to walk in his footprints.”
“New York 1 has been here since the beginning of Congress, and no one has served the district longer than Otis Pike. It’s a Republican district, a fact of which I have great notice. The Congress he served in was far less polarized and partisan than the Congress I serve in, but the issues remain the same.”
Mr. Bishop shared Mr. Pike’s fiercely witty account of his first and last supper at Jimmy Carter’s White House, just before he retired from Congress, in which Mr. Pike criticized the lack of libation and measured the distance he was seated from the President.
Mr. Pike’s friend, Irene Pendzick, remembered a big piece of advice Mr. Pike gave her when she was first considering running for public office.
“When someone asks who your opponent is, tell them you don’t remember their name,” she said. “He never forgot his hometown and the community he represented…. We’re gonna miss his courage and honesty.”
State Senator Kenneth LaValle agreed.
“From day one, Otis Pike was ten feet tall,” he said. “He would swat away all attacks with wit. I don’t remember an occasion where he was angry. The fact that he was willing to take on the CIA…that says you have a moral compass and you’ve got guts.”
Mr. Pike’s children reminded attendees that their father wasn’t perfect. His son, Douglas Pike, said his father was sure that his son had a pointy head when he was born. His daughter, Lois Eyre Pike, said her father had taught her songs he’d learned in the Marine Corps that “should never be sung in public,” as she later found out when she tried to sing them in school.
But her father’s love of music spurred her to a life of song and laughter.
“As soon as we could speak, he taught us to sing, and we sang together all the time,” she said, adding that her father also took solace in Shakespeare.
But then, of course, her father also taught her such obscure American folk songs as “Please Don’t Burn Our Outhouse Down.”
Journalist Karl Grossman tipped off the gathered crowd that his Polk Award-winning piece on the Levon sand mining operation in Jamesport, approved decades ago by the Riverhead Town Board, wouldn’t have happened if Otis Pike hadn’t tipped him off about it.
“Now it’s a state park,” he said of the site.
But Mr. Pike wasn’t without enemies in the press corps, he said, adding that New York Times columnist Scotty Reston had complained in the 1970s about the Pike Commission’s investigation of the CIA.
“Congress voted 246-124 to not allow the release of their report,” he said. “Fortunately it leaked in the Village Voice.”
Not long after, Mr. Pike hung up his congressional hat and became a syndicated columnist for Newhouse Newspapers.
“He left politics and went into journalism,” said Mr. Grossman. “He had done what needed to be done, and then came the suppression. He was a unique and trusted government institution. The country has lost a great thinker, mover, shaker and patriot.”
Douglas Pike said his father had considered becoming a diplomat before deciding to go back to Riverhead after law school and hang up a shingle as an attorney.
“He hated euphemism and he disliked small talk,” he said. “He went into something he truly loved: helping people.”
He said his father had taught him three big things: “Do what you love to do. Work your butt off. And have fun all the way.”
The crowd sang all the verses of America the Beautiful, and then the Muskrat Jazz Band led Mr. Pike’s family down the aisles of the church to a big, brassy “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and down to the Polish Hall for more memories of Riverhead as a grounded home for a man whose life was lived large on the world’s stage.