From a gurney in the emergency room at Buffalo General Hospital on May 6, Joe Sweeny wanted to make sure his longtime companion Mary Ellen Decker did not forget … the NYSUT tickets to a May 9th fundraiser for John Plumb.
"I asked him if he knew where he was, and he said he knew he was in the damn hospital, but he wanted to make sure that someone from NYSUT was at Plumb's fundraiser. He was passionate about getting John elected to Congress to give our region a stronger voice.
"Then he started worrying about the speech he was supposed to give at Worker's Memorial Day (on May 7 at Reservoir State Park.) When I told him I didn't think the doctors would let him go, as bossy as ever, he told me that I would have to give the speech then," she recalled.
If Decker felt she could have left Joe's side, she would have given that speech.
Joseph E. Sweeny, NYSUT Board member, former Dunkirk TA president and a social studies teacher for 38 years, died Sunday morning at Buffalo General Hospital from complications caused by an incurable brain tumor.
"NYSUT and the labor movement have lost a fierce advocate, a persuasive voice and a loyal friend," NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "Joe will be missed by many."
Funeral arrangements are incomplete until all family members can be contacted. But honoring Joe has already started.
"I was on the phone with Rick (Gallant, a fellow NYSUT Board member) and we knew folks would want to do something for Joe and we both instantly knew what Joe would want more than anything would be for folks to register people to vote and, specifically, for the Democratic Party," Decker said.
Nancy Baker, Dunkirk TA's current president, laughed when she heard of that request to register people as Democrats.
"Joe built a legacy of reaching out to help others and by motivating people to go the extra mile," Baker said.
"He was tireless," Gallant said, recalling he first met Sweeny at a NYSUT contiguous Election District meeting after he became elected president of the Corning TA. Sweeny represented ED 4, a huge geographic region that stretches from Salamanca past Olean while Gallant served as an at large director for both ED 4 and 46.
"My first thought was 'doggone this guy is passionate about worker rights and teachers.' My second thought was 'doggone, he talks forever!' Gallant said, laughing.
That ability to talk and to press the case of members he represented started as a young social studies teacher, recalled Anthony Bifaro, who first met Sweeny at a Chautauqua County local leaders meeting.
"I was president of the Brocton TA and Joe was an officer of the Dunkirk TA. Many locals were just beginning to understand the Taylor Law and there were demonstrations or picket lines several nights a week as a means of getting the message across to the public and getting our members engaged," Bifaro said.
"People followed Joe's lead so he would bring along many people with him to those demonstrations. Joe believed in the core mission of unionism – his members were foremost on his mind — and it didn't stop with NYSUT. He was a fierce advocate for all unions, active in the area labor council and became recognized for his advocacy, knowledge and activism."
Sweeny replaced Bifaro as ED 4 director when Bifaro went to Albany to work for NYSUT.
Indeed, Sweeny cut his union teeth very early in his teaching career. According to Decker, he liked to tell the story of his early interest in union activism to emphasize the importance of unionism and of contributing to Vote/Cope:
"Joe's very first general membership meeting was the ratification of the contract. Among the terms agreed to was the end of district-paid health insurance for retirees in exchange for a $500 raise. Even as a new teacher, he realized the consequences that would hold. The contract was ratified and Joe was determined that he would become involved rather than see something like that happen again."
Adam Kauffman of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board spent a lot of time in Dunkirk, working with Sweeny as local president, dealing with mediation and conciliation issues.
"Joe was bright and he could be stubborn," Kauffman recalled. "He cared not only about the teachers he represented but the children in the Dunkirk schools. This is not a cliche."
If there was another institution Sweeny was dedicated to, it was the Democratic Party. Joe often told the story about going to hear then Sen. John F. Kennedy speak the year he would turn 13.
"To hear him tell it, he came home from that speech energized with the Democratic Party," Decker said. Too young to vote, that was the first of a long list of politicians Sweeny would support. His favorites included working on Stanley Lundine's 1976 campaign to the U.S. House of Representatives, William Parment's 1983 election to the New York State Assembly, Anthony Dolce's 2013 election as mayor of Dunkirk and the 2015 campaign of Dr. Athanasia Landis as mayor of Fredonia.
"They were all special. Perhaps AJ's race as mayor of Dunkirk sticks out a little just because Joe was really proud to support one of his students," Decker said.
Sweeny served many roles in the Democratic Party. A past chairman of the Dunkirk Democratic Committee, he chaired the Fredonia-Pomfret Democrat Association.
Bifaro said Sweeny saw the natural connection between teaching and all public service careers, unionism and the Democratic Party.
"He always sought better working conditions and protecting workers rights," Bifaro said.
"Always" meant "always," unless severe weather kept him from an event, which happened this January.
"He left for a rally in Olean on Martin Luther King Day and it was a full-out blizzard," Decker said. "Fifteen minutes later, he couldn't go any farther. That and the other meetings he ever missed as a NYSUT Board member can be counted on one hand."
Sweeny was an active member of numerous committees, organizations and delegations that took him from one end of the state to the other. Thomas Y. Hobart Jr., NYSUT's first president, recalled the distances Joe would travel.
"I remember because when Joe was first elected the district went all the way to Corning and there was no direct route from Dunkirk to Corning, and there was no Route 86," Hobart said.
Sweeny mentored many. Dunkirk President Baker came upon a quote by Albert Schweitzer, she thought summed up Joe perfectly: "One thing I know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve."
"That was Joe," Baker said. "He always gave much more than he expected in return, leading by serving. Joe loved to get young and old, experienced and inexperienced, in the same room to get different takes on the same issue or problem. Then he gently influenced everyone by building them up and helping them come to their own conclusions. We agreed that we could disagree, even though I realized very early on that he was probably right. I never got less than the best from Joe and, for this, I will be eternally grateful to him."
In addition to honoring Sweeny's lifelong passion of advancing the interests of working families and the trade union movement by registering 20 people for the Democratic Party, contributions in Joe's memory can be made to:
Lakeshore Humane Society
431 E. Chestnut Street
Dunkirk, NY 14048
The Dunkirk Pet Pantry
5257 VanBuren Road
Dunkirk, NY 14048
Dunkirk Historical Society
513 Washington Ave.
Dunkirk, NY 1404