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Chris Lindley’s legacy: government at its best


Rochester has lost an example of public service at its finest with the death of Chris Lindley, former City Council member and deputy mayor. Chris, whose long battle with heart disease ended on Friday, was an ethical, highly principled person. And he offers a stark contrast to many people in politics today.

In his private life, Chris was a cook, self-taught home repairman, world traveler, terrific conversationalist, ardent tennis player, and exceptionally thoughtful friend. He and his wife Bettie have been proud, longtime residents of the city’s 19th Ward, and he was devoted to the YMCA and the Presbyterian Home.

He was a loving father and grandfather – “a gentle person,” says one of his two sons, Joel. “I wasn’t an easy teenager, and my dad was very patient.”

He was almost intimidatingly smart. And he came by that – and by his interest in politics and government – naturally. His father, Ernest Kidder Lindley, was a Rhodes scholar who became a respected Washington Post and Newsweek columnist and biographer of Franklin Roosevelt. Chris’s parents and the Roosevelts were friends, and Chris’s childhood experience included a dinner at the White House.

But that childhood didn’t include a close relationship with his parents, his sons Stephen and Joel say. He was raised by a black woman servant, and his relationship with her and other black servants seems to have shaped his passion about civil rights.

He was “on the right side of justice,” says Joel, “in almost everything that came up.”

He went to Cornell, earned bachelor’s and doctor’s degrees in history, and became a professor at the University of Rochester. He invited Malcolm X to speak at the UR – not because he agreed or disagreed with him, says Joel: “He just wanted to hear his opinions,” and he wanted students to hear them.

He stayed at the UR for seven years, but then must have found academia confining, Steve Lindley thinks; “You can’t be confined when there’s so much going on out there – the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War.”

He participated in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. He marched in Selma. And he threw himself into serving the adopted city he loved.

Part of a reform movement that wrested control of the Monroe County Democratic Party in the late 1960’s, he served on City Council for 12 years and later as deputy mayor under Tom Ryan for five.

“If he had been motivated by money,” says Steve, “he would have gone to law school and been a litigator.” Instead, he chose public service, to serve the community, not himself.

And in it, he was doggedly ethical. “He cared about making the world a better place,” Joel says.

He didn’t glad-hand and massage people or base his Council votes on what would win elections, says Steve. If he had, “it would have been interesting to see how far he could have gone.” Instead, his heart was in good government, in what makes a city strong. And he relished seeking opinions and advice from urban development experts, architects, policy specialists.

He didn’t hesitate to tell you where he stood on things, and he could be sarcastic. But, says Joel, “if he disagreed with you, it wasn’t personal.”

“There was not an ounce of venality in him,” says Steve.

Chris loved to entertain, loved having dinner parties, loved cooking for the dinner parties, loved getting people together to share opinions and discuss current issues. He and Bettie continued to do that this summer, despite his clearly failing health.

He seemed to meet that decline almost matter-of-factly, and I suspect he didn’t care much about having a public legacy. But for many of us, he has one:

This deeply ethical person showed that it is possible for people to go into politics for the right reasons. And do the right things.

Right now, it’s awfully good to have that example.