PLATTSBURGH - Gordon J. Hazel Jr., a man best known in the community for his former role as executive director of the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity of Clinton and Franklin Counties, has died. Hazel, who had been battling pancreatic cancer since first diagnosed in August 2007, passed away Jan. 19 at the age of 62.
News of Hazel's death sent shockwaves through the community. Though he had battled one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, Hazel wasn't known to show signs of discomfort in public.
Bruce E. Garcia, the man who assumed Hazel's role at the JCEO following Hazel's retirement after 18 years in October 2008, said he was shocked and saddened by his friend's death.
"The last time I saw him was about two weeks before he passed away," recalled Garcia. "When I saw him, he looked great. He was still very thin, but he seemed to be as well as he could be."
When he learned of his friend being hospitalized days later, Garcia said, "It quite frankly didn't equate to what I had seen."
The two talked over lunch about each other's grandkids and about family in general, Garcia recalled.
"What we enjoyed talking about most was family," said Garcia. "One of the things I will remember most about Gordon was how much family meant to him - how much Kathleen and his sons meant to him, how much his grandkids meant to him."
"Those kinds of conversations with him will be the memories of Gordon I cherish," he added.
Garcia worked with Hazel as his deputy director for more than 12 years prior to Hazel's retirement, he said. During that time, Garcia said he saw a "transformation" of the organization under Hazel's leadership.
"When Gordon took over, JCEO had an annual budget of about $885,000 and employed 56 people," said Garcia. "When you look at JCEO today, we have a budget in excess of $7 million a year, employ 170 people and have really increased the amount of services provided by our organization. The transformation has been just remarkable. Gordon really made JCEO a thriving and dynamic organization."
Though Hazel has been honored for many accomplishments over the years, his most recent was his role in the development of White Pine Commons, a 32-unit affordable housing development on Wallace Hill Road. The JCEO honored Hazel last October by naming the development's community center after him during a special ceremony.
"Quite frankly, he had enormous accomplishments throughout his tenure and White Pine Commons was certainly a significant accomplishment," said Garcia. "But, when you look at his overall body of work during the 18 years he was [at JCEO], it's incredible."
John C. Bernardi, executive director of the United Way of Clinton and Essex Counties, agreed. The United Way honored Hazel with the Dorothy and Alan Booth Distinguished Citizen Award last February, crediting him for his role with the JCEO and for being a past chairman of the United Way's fundraising campaign team.
"Gordy really committed himself to the health and human service network in this region," said Bernardi. "The overall growth of the JCEO was a reflection of his vision and his leadership. JCEO was effectively able to serve many more people throughout the region during his tenure."
Bernardi recalled Hazel as "a good friend" he had known for "a number of years." One of Bernardi's fondest memories of Hazel was when he was looking to buy a boat, and Hazel invited him to go out onto the lake on his boat.
"He invited me and my whole family. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about boating from him because he was an avid boater," said Bernardi. "That was about 10 years ago, but I'll always remember that cruise on the lake."
"Gordy was a true gentleman, a very kind, very bright guy," Bernardi continued. "He lived every day of his life during his illness with an incredible amount of positive energy, dignity and a zest for living. I really respect him in a number of ways. He's someone who's an example to all of us."
Hazel came to the Plattsburgh area more than 20 years ago following the announcement the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Corporation in Massena was closing. Hazel was previously employed there as an accountant.
In addition to recognition from the JCEO and United Way, Hazel was also honored as the Irishman of the Year in 2008.
Hazel, the son of Gordon J. Hazel Sr. and Marion Hazel, Massena, leaves behind his parents; his wife, Kathleen; two sons, Marc and David; daughter-in-law Talitha Hazel; and grandsons Koby and Dylan. He also leaves behind a brother and sister-in-law, Richard and Sherry Hazel, Massena; a sister, Joanie, Massena; and many other relatives including aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
Donations in memory of Hazel may be made to the FitzPatrick Cancer Center, 75 Beekman St., Plattsburgh N.Y. 12901 or the JCEO, 54 Margaret St., Plattsburgh N.Y. 12901.
Brown Funeral Home, Plattsburgh, was in charge of services held last weekend. On-line condolences may be made at www.brownfuneralhomeinc. com.