DELMAR – When former State Sen. Howard Nolan first published his memoir in 2018, he entitled it “Politics and Ponies,” giving front cover attention to his two well-known passions. When Nolan passed away earlier this year in June, his obituaries lauded him as a “former powerhouse of New York politics” and as a savvy businessman, lawyer, and groundbreaker for New York State horse breeders. Yet, the real legacy of this man, who also once cited Ayn Rand to explain the virtues of capitalism, were the many lives he changed as a result of his extensive philanthropic work.
And work is the operable word here. Over decades, Nolan elevated the notion of pro bono publico – for the public good – well beyond his passion for politics. Of course, Nolan sat on Boards of charitable organizations – St. Peter’s Hospital, WMHT, the Community Foundation for the Capital Region, the Center for Disability Services’ governing board and its foundation board, and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Second Chance Program, to name a few, but for Nolan, however, a board seat was far more than a chair in which to rest comfortably.
“Everything he did he gave 110 percent,” said Debbie Nolan Murray, the third of Nolan’s seven children and who now runs the family real estate business. “He jumped right in, pulled up his sleeves, and would ask what do you need me to do, and then he would do it.”
In 1983, Monique Koehler incorporated the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation as a not for profit foundation to create a home for racehorses who had run their last race and who otherwise may have faced slaughter. Koehler considered Nolan, a state senator and owner of Blue Sky Horse Farm, a 200-horse breeding farm, a natural fit for her board.
As Nolan recounted in his memoir, after joining the TRF Board, he was driving home from his Blue Sky Horse farm, which is near the Wallkill State Correctional Facility in Goshen, and noticed that the prison had a farm on its grounds. As he drove by, he thought, “Wouldn’t this be great if we could join with the state and find something to do for the prisoners?”
That idea provided the vision for a program, and in 1984, he started TRF Second Chances, which pairs inmates with retired race horses. Inmates participating in the program learn valuable horseman skills, such as anatomy, how to care for injuries and equine nutrition. According to the TRF website, after being released from prison, graduates of the program have found jobs as farriers, veterinarian assistants and animal caretakers. They also gain confidence, empathy and trust from caring for another living being, all of which are qualities that help them avoid re-entering the correctional system. TRF states that studies have shown a reduction in recidivism in correctional facilities that host the Second Chances Program.
The program has now been adopted in five other states, including Florida, California, Kentucky, Maryland and South Carolina, with eight farms located at state correctional facilities.
Joe McMahon, owner of McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, was Nolan’s friend and business partner. He thought Nolan was way ahead of his time when he thought of pairing inmate rehabilitation with horse training.
“Howard was always very aware of social justice” and “was way out in front of it,” reflected McMahon. “He had a lot of foresight about that and did a good job, and the proof is that the program has now existed for nearly 50 years.”
Nolan melded his passion for helping people with his work in the State Senate. Most notably, he and then Assembly members Michael McNulty and Richard Conners pooled the entirety of their member items one year to fund an innovative program – the Honor Court – a not-for-profit drug diversion program for people battling addiction as an alternative to incarceration in the City of Albany. (The Honor Court program has since been adopted in the towns of Bethlehem, Colonie and other surrounding towns).
“Honor Court gives people hope that there is life further on and that people respect their dignity as a human being,” said Sister Phyllis Herbert, a co-founder and current Director of Honor Court.
Nolan’s good friend and a priest in Albany, Father Peter Young (now deceased), had championed this cause, which was not very popular at the time.
Herbert said Honor Court got started with the member item funding provided by Nolan and the two other state legislators that allowed them to hire drug counselors and to expand the program’s geographic reach.
“Senator Nolan espoused a lot of the principles upon which Honor Court was founded: dignity and respect for people and giving people a second chance because none of us are perfect,” she said.
The program was kept going when those funds were renewed each year.
“We recognized that addiction was a disease and that people who suffer from addiction deserve a chance at a recovery program and that they are better served by a recovery program than by prison time,” said McNulty, now retired. He said the three never regretted their decision of devoting substantial funds from their member items to the cause.
Herbert reported that over the years, thousands of individuals have graduated from the Honor Court program. Some of them have used their experience to help other recovering substance abusers and went on to work in rehabilitation programs and even assumed leadership positions in those kinds of organizations.
According to Herbert, Nolan and then McNulty’s support did not stop at funding. Nolan hired program graduates to his legislative staff. He and McNulty also often attended the annual Honor Court anniversary celebration, along with community members, past graduates and their families.
“His attendance meant a lot to people because it showed them that people in the legislature believed they could make it,” she recounted. “They felt supported because these legislators were doing more than dropping money in, but showed that they believed that the program participants could make it.”
McNulty said in a recent interview that when he and Nolan attended Honor Court anniversary celebrations at the Courthouse and heard the personal testimonials, they witnessed someone who succeeded in recovery and could feel there was an impact on someone’s life – the evidence was right before their eyes.
“It’s not abstract, it’s not numbers. These were human beings who went through the program and put their lives back together,” he added. “Howard understood the principle that life was to give and not to take.”
Nolan also gave considerable time to children with disabilities, as one of a group of friends determined to create a program of services that would enable children with disabilities to lead as full and independent lives as possible. Those efforts led to the creation of wide-ranging services for children with disabilities and their families at what is now known as the Center for Disability Services in Albany.
Nolan’s involvement with the Center began in about 1960. “He was a pioneer, an ambassador, out in the community talking about what the Center does, giving people tours with staff and getting people involved,” said Anne Schneider Costigan, the Center’s Senior Vice President of Communications and Development who worked with Nolan since her hire in March 1985. “He was just a tireless advocate for people with disabilities and for their families.”
His contributions were both large and small, according to Costigan. “It didn’t matter who was calling, he would pick up the phone and if he couldn’t directly help you he would reach out and find someone who would.”
In 1960, Nolan was one of the creators of the Center’s telethon, an event that still continues today as a community tradition and is the oldest telethon in the country. Costigan attributed much of the Center’s telethon success to Nolan’s participation. She described how he would secure the talent of athletes and movie stars to appear and strategize over planning each year’s telethon. At the over 20 telethons he attended, Nolan greeted people, walked people to the stage, watched the numbers grow on the tote board and even counted the change and dollars put in the big “fishbowl” that grew with contributions during the telethon night.
Costigan laughed as she recalled how Nolan didn’t just man the telethon phone banks taking incoming contributions, but made outgoing calls to people to actively solicit them to contribute. “Howard was involved with the Center until the day he died,” recounted Costigan.
I can’t tell you how many hours we spent as a family at the telethons, “said Nolan Murray. She and her sisters were even enlisted as part of the “local” on-air talent and danced on the telethon stage with their ballet and tap dance classmates. “When you saw kids your own age with these disabilities, you never forget that and it makes you very thankful for what you have.” She noted, however, that her parents made sure that “you didn’t think of these kids any differently; it was just that they didn’t have the ability to walk or talk.”
On the financial side, Nolan made sure to secure funding for the Center through his own and other State senators’ and assemblymen’s member items. He also made significant personal financial contributions.
When the Center began its only Capital Campaign in the late 1980s, it set the extraordinary goal of raising $7.6 million. “Howard was at it from the start to the finish,” said Costigan. “We met the goal.”
After Senator Nolan passed away in June, the Center received many “In Memory” gifts. “These are the people Senator Nolan introduced the Center to,” said Costigan. She reported that those “In Memory” gifts are still coming in.
Asked to describe her father’s legacy to his family and the public, Nolan Murray said that she and her siblings were taught by their parents from a very early age that “no one is better than anyone else” and that ethos was the driving force behind her father’s desire to help people.
“When you were with him, it was always, ‘What can I do for you?’” she added. “He just wanted to help people.”
Herbert agreed. “He cared about his people. When he was involved in a problem, he locked into it. Once he locked into something, he really worked on it.”
“He didn’t sit by the sidelines waiting for issues to come to him,” said McMahon. “Howard went out to them.”
As for the Center, Costigan said simply, “his legacy is alive here and will live on here forever.”
This story appeared on page 1 of the August 30, 2023 print edition of the Spotlight