Altamont’s statesman bids a fond farewell to public life

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“It was just great,” says Bill Aylward of happy villagers filling his house the first time he was elected Altamont’s mayor. Aylward, a village trustee, announced his retirement at the board’s March 3 meeting.

ALTAMONT — Bill Aylward remembers the night the whole village showed up at his house. It was Election Night in 1971, and he had just won his first race for mayor.

“And the crowd just showed up at the house! Everybody was in the house, in my house! It was just great,” he said during his speech at the last village board meeting he would attend as a trustee, on March 3.

Aylward, 80, has always liked to be in the thick of things. He was a teacher of social studies in the Guilderland School District for 35 years, starting in 1959. By his tally, he spent 26 years in village government, an additional 12 years in county government, and four years in Guilderland town government, with two of those as supervisor.

At the meeting, he spoke “first and foremost” of his gratitude to his wife, Sylvia, who “has been by my side throughout all of this.” He asked her to stand, and she did, to a round of applause.

He also introduced daughter Donna Murray, whose auburn hair recalled Aylward’s own in earlier years. He called Donna “the lucky one” — the only one of his five children who has made her life in the Capital Region and noted, “She was a great help when I was running for office.”

At the meeting and in a wide-ranging conversation at the Enterprise offices, Aylward recalled his entry into local politics in 1970.

Accepting accolades: As Trustee Bill Aylward said farewell to public life at the March 8 Altamont Village Board meeting, he asked his daughter Donna Murray, right, to stand, just as he had asked his wife, Sylvia Aylward, at left. Both of them were greeted with applause. The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

 

He ran for village trustee that year, with the Citizens Party. Party officials told him that “you don’t campaign,” so he didn’t, and he lost that race by 25 votes.

The next year, when the same people asked him to run for mayor, he agreed, but said this time he planned to campaign. He went door-to-door meeting people, including Ed Wendell, a former mayor living on Lincoln Avenue. He won that time, by 26 votes.

“It was one of the biggest turnouts in the village of Altamont,” Aylward recalled.

He spent five terms as mayor, from 1971 to 1981. He was on the Guilderland Town Board from 1993 to 1995 and was the Guilderland supervisor from 1995 to 1997, the first Democrat elected to the post since the town was founded. He went on to be an Altamont trustee for 17 years, from 1998 to 2015. For many years, from 1999 through 2011, he served as both Altamont trustee and also Albany County legislator.

In each political position that he has held, Aylward recalls with the most pride episodes where he has wrangled with other officials, asking hard questions, stopping dangerous projects and transforming others to the benefit of the community.

Just a few days after he took office as mayor for the first time, he learned about a project that the previous board and mayor before him had approved. A landowner on Helderberg Avenue wanted to build a driveway that would connect to Helderberg Avenue.

To do this, the landowner wanted to completely fill in a ravine across from his house. The project, which was underway, called for a sluice at the bottom of the ravine, 180 feet long, made of welded oil drums. On top of this, unclean fill would be piled up to the level of Helderberg Avenue.

The building inspector had called Aylward to tell him they needed his signature on a change order. When they had begun putting in fill, the oil drums beneath that were meant to carry water from the creek had collapsed.

Rather than sign, Aylward started asking questions. What if we get, say, four inches of rain, he asked, and the sluice fails? The answer that came back was, “We never get four inches of rain.”

Aylward red-tagged the project, and “it never reared its ugly head again.” After that, the village did get deluged with rain several times, and Aylward thought, each time, about what could have happened. In his layman’s opinion, Aylward said, if the sluice had failed, there would have been a damming effect and all of that unclean fill — hot-water heaters, refrigerators — would have come flying into Altamont.

He may have started out not making friends on the board, but Aylward was re-elected mayor four more times. He noted that he had no opponent in the next four elections “So that was helpful,” he quipped. He said he would have welcomed an opponent if anyone had wanted to run against him.

While he was on the Guilderland Town Board, which he joined in 1993, there was a board item to dedicate and open Crossgates Mall Road. There was a stipulation, he said, that there was to be a fence between that road and Westmere Terrace. But the fence hadn’t been built.

So at the town board meeting, he asked, “Where’s the fence?” He pointed out that there are children who play on Westmere Terrace, who may not be aware of the level of traffic that Crossgates Mall Road was likely to bring.

Aylward asked the Crossgates Mall representatives if they were planning to open the road without the fence, despite dangers to the neighborhood children, and they said yes.

He said that he was not going to approve that. He was the only Democrat on the board, he said. The other four were Republicans in a town that had long been dominated by Republicans.

There was a tense moment. Then Councilman Dick Murray said that he was not going to approve that either, Aylward recalled. “And then it went down the row.”

The Crossgates Mall team vowed then and there to set every construction worker at the mall on the job of putting up the fence before the road was to open the following week. And they did, he said; they finished the fence.

Once again, in his first term as county legislator, which began in 1993, Aylward stepped in to transform a process that, until then, no one else had questioned. This one involved the demolition of the French’s Mills Road Bridge in Guilderland Center, which had already been closed because it was not safe for vehicular traffic.

Aylward was on the Public Works Committee that reviewed this item. He knew that the town had a hike-and-bike trail and was astounded to see that the bridge was going to be demolished, at a cost of $250,000. He thought that it would make more sense to keep the bridge, for biking and hiking, than to tear it down.

Aylward immediately said to the other legislators, “I think I have a better plan than demolishing the bridge.” He suggested using that same $250,000 to reconstruct and restore it.

Today, there is a bike-and-hike trail there, and it’s a beautiful spot, Aylward said, very scenic. “I just happened to be on the right committee, in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Aylward did not grow up in a place like Altamont. He grew up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a part of Boston that he calls a “tough” neighborhood. “If you stayed close to your street, you were OK,” he said. “If you wandered off, you might be in trouble.”            

His first job was in the military — at Fort Bliss, in Texas — as an instructor at the guided missile school. His students included brigadier generals and major generals. He felt some hesitation about the position at first, since he had hoped to teach history. He said to his superior officer, “I think maybe the Army has made a mistake, sir. I’m a teacher.” The officer replied, “The Army doesn’t make mistakes. Are you a teacher? If you are, then teach!”

He came to the area soon afterward — to Guilderland Center in 1959 and then, in 1965, to Altamont, to the house where he and his wife have lived for 50 years now — and “got the spirit of Altamont into me.”

Looking back over a long career of public service, Aylward said, “I’ve done my duty, and I hope that doesn’t make it sound like a drudgery. It’s not. I enjoyed it.”

He went on, “I recommend local politics highly to others, especially now that I’m retiring.”

He laughed and said, “Think about it, because you can do so much for your community.”

More Guilderland News

  • The anniversary worship service starts at 11 a.m. in the church at 2291 Western Ave. followed by a luncheon in Fellowship Hall at 12:15 p.m. The Buena Comida taco truck will also be out in the church’s parking lot. Guilderland’s town historian, Mary Ellen Johnson, will speak in the sanctuary at 1 p.m. on the church’s history.

  • Guilderland’s current supervisor, Peter Barber, noted that McKown had served as the town’s supervisor for just over a decade until 1824 and then, 100 years later, the association was formed. “We’re now here,” said Barber, a century after that.

  • “We are concerned that our message, which was supported by the board, has turned into a task force to look at all district spaces …,” said Julie Petti, president of the Guilderland Music Parents and Friends Association. “We are concerned that the music department’s voice will be lost among the many areas vying for resources.”

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