Still Speaking His Mind After All These Years
NY Times – June 2 2002
The talk that drew a standing-room-only crowd at a Ronkonkoma hotel on a
recent Friday morning was titled, rather blandly, "Long Island’s
Unexploited Assets." But no one came because of the title.
They came to hear the speaker, Paul Townsend. Now 85, Mr. Townsend, a retired
public-relations executive and the former editor of Long Island Business News,
speaks with considerable effort and now uses a wheelchair. A stroke he suffered
in 1995 has left him with limited control of the muscles on the right side of
his body. In the decades before his stroke, he had been Long Island’s most
indefatigable public speaker and, some would say, the individual who most
influenced the local economy. "Paul can still make himself
understood," said Ernest Fazio, the chairman of Long Island Mid-Suffolk
Business Action, known as Limba, which sponsored Mr. Townsend’s talk. "Pay
attention, and you’ll hear the best of Paul Townsend." It was Mr. Townsend
himself who suggested addressing the group, Mr. Fazio said. "Paul is still
active in Limba, and I called him to discuss which speakers we’d have this year.
He asked, ‘Why don’t you put me on the roster?’ " The reaction to the news
that Mr. Townsend was speaking in public again ranged from curiosity to
admiration. "The word indomitable was invented to describe this man,"
said Howard Blankman, the chairman of the Nassau County Planning Commission. Mr.
Blankman, who is also a public relations executive, said Mr. Townsend was a
competitor but nevertheless welcomed him more than 30 years ago when Mr.
Blankman opened his practice. Mr. Townsend, a Centerport native and
10th-generation Long Islander, became a public speaker in 1952, when he rallied
local support for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first presidential campaign. With his
stentorian voice and tall, athletic build, Mr. Townsend found himself a hit with
groups eager for a speaker willing to take provocative positions on local
His Columbia law degree didn’t hurt, and his law training had taught him
document his opinions with facts. When groups didn’t invite him, Mr. Townsend
created his own and booked himself to speak. In fact, Mr. Townsend founded Limba
more than 30 years ago, and he helped found the Long Island Forum for
Technology, the Fundraising Professionals of Long Island, the Long Island
Convention and Visitors Bureau and United Way of Long Island. In the 1950’s,
Long Island was the nation’s fastest-growing suburb, and Mr. Townsend’s early
clients included developers like the Levitt brothers, William and Alfred, who
intended to carve a huge chunk of Nassau farmland into a planned community known
as Levittown, and William Zeckendorf, who was about to build the Roosevelt Field
shopping center. He took on Arthur Roth, the banker, as a client, as Mr. Roth
began building a small community bank into Franklin National, eventually one of
the largest banks in the country. Mr. Townsend liked to say he supported only
"things that are good for Long Island." Among them were North Shore
University Hospital and MacArthur Airport, projects that allowed Long Islanders
to obtain world-class medical care and to travel without having to go into New
York City. Sometimes Mr. Townsend resisted development he considered
He helped block a road down the middle of Fire Island, a project backed by
the iron-willed Robert Moses. Moses lost few battles, but he lost this one to
Mr. Townsend. During the 1980’s and into the 90’s, Mr. Townsend moderated a talk
show about local issues broadcast on Channel 55. A new generation came to
recognize this tall, opinionated patrician with the mane of white hair and white
goatee. But mostly, Mr. Townsend is remembered for running Long Island Business
News. He and his wife, Terri, bought the weekly paper in 1957 when it was still
called The Long Island Commercial Review. For the next 40 years, Mr. Townsend’s
column called "The Townsend Letter" appeared on the front page. In it,
Mr. Townsend beat the drum, week after week, for Long Island. to build its own
airports and hospitals, museums and attractions. Mr. Townsend combined the roles
of publicist and journalist and insisted there was no conflict in doing so. His
influence was legendary.
"You’d go into the office of any executive on Long Island and find a
copy of Long Island Business News on his desk, and there was Paul’s column on
the front page," Mr. Blankman said. Hank Boerner agreed. "Paul had
tremendous clout," said Mr. Boerner, who covered aviation and other
industries for the paper in the mid-60’s and who is now the partner in charge of
the New York region for Rowan & Blewitt, an international crisis-management
company. "Paul had more impact on how Long Island looks today than perhaps
any other individual." By the 1980’s, Mr. Townsend began cutting back on
his public-relations work, concentrating on his public speaking and his writing.
And after his stroke in 1995, the Townsends accelerated their efforts to find a
buyer for the paper; it was sold to Dolan Media in 1998. Mr. Townsend continued
writing the column, and since he was no longer able to type, he taught himself
to write left-handed. His wife typed up his column on a computer. After the
sale, the new publisher, John Kominicki, relegated "The Townsend
Letter" to an inside page and eventually phased it out altogether.
The column, he said, was out of sync with his plans to emphasize hard-news
reporting, not opinion. "I don’t think it’s any secret that Paul used the
newspaper to advance the clients of his public-relations agency," Mr.
Kominicki said. "He also used the paper to advance his own social and
economic beliefs, and to promote the interests of the people who owned important
assets or were poised to inherit them." Mr. Townsend said no one had
objected to his combining public relations and journalism. In Mr. Townsend’s
talk, he detailed a string of triumphs from earlier years, rehashed
infrastructure problems that have remained unresolved and revisited the case for
building a bridge and tunnel between the North Shore and Connecticut, a project
others abandoned years ago. Mr. Townsend also encouraged his listeners to call
or write Mr. Kominicki to urge him to take more stands on issues facing the
region. He also said businesspeople ought to lobby politicians aggressively to
get them to support capital projects. "That’s how we did it," Mr.
Townsend said. "That’s how we got a lot of things done." After the
meeting the Townsends greeted a stream of well-wishers. Mrs. Townsend said that
it was nice to see old friends but that she was happy to be out of the newspaper
business. "All the worrying over advertising and circulation, no, I don’t
miss that," she said. Mr. Townsend seemed pleased at the way the talk had
gone. "I was a little worried, because I hadn’t done this in a while,"
he said. "But it felt good." Does he still want his old column back?
"Oh, no," Mrs. Townsend said. "Oh, yes," Mr. Townsend said.
"Would I love to be able to pontificate again."