October 23, 2021

Willcox recalled for humor, frugality

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Newell Willcox, a former Cortland County legislator known for his sense of humor and reluctance to spend tax dollars, is shown is this 2014 photo. Willcox died Friday.

Newell Willcox was never shy about his feelings — even on the floor of the Legislature. His one-liners are memorable for their blunt criticism of the county’s operations, particularly when it came to spending money.

“Well, that’s always the old gag. Why not make it $70,000 or $100,000 more and really get a slammer,” Willcox said once of a suggested raise for a county administrator, a position he defended but also wanted to keep affordable.

Willcox, 90, died Friday.

A Republican from Homer, Willcox served on the Cortland County Legislature from 2004 to 2014.

He was known for voting against spending in almost any form, from a $16 million federally mandated radio upgrade project to accepting state funds for programs he did not think the county should have to provide.

One of his final votes, on Dec. 18, 2014, opposed creating the position of budget and finance director, a position he found an inadequate stand-in for the county administrator post he said never should have been eliminated.

Legislator Tom Hartnett (D-Binghamton), who served with Willcox, said Tuesday he ran into Willcox at the grocery store a few weeks ago. The pair walked through the store talking about county affairs and Willcox’s passion: fishing.

Willcox was preparing to go to his camp on the St. Lawrence River.

“He was just getting the camp ready, Hartnett said. “He loved it up there, he was an avid fisherman. He just loved it all.”

Hartnett recalled, with a grudging respect, Willcox’s readiness to vote down anything that involved spending money — even if it was a matter that involved receiving state funds, like social service programs.

“He didn’t believe we should take the programs and be stuck with the programs after the state decided not to pay for it, and in some respects he was right,” Hartnett said.

“He was very conscious of the taxpayer’s money,” said Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford, Virgil), who served with Willcox, although from the other side of the aisle. “He tried to reflect what the people in his district wanted and what they thought was important.”

“He was stubborn and he was proud of that,” former Legislature Clerk Jeremy Boylan said. “So he took the job seriously as a legislator but he had a great sense of humor.”

Cortlandville Supervisor and former county Legislature Chairman Dick Tupper recalled Willcox the businessman, founder of Willcox Tire, which he started with his wife, Ardis, in 1962. Tupper said he would take his car to be serviced there and Willcox would always wave him into the office.

“He would say, ‘Come in and talk.’ Even when he was not in the Legislature he always wanted to know what was going on,” Tupper said.

Past legislator Steve Dafoe said he was a pleasure to work with, and a longtime family friend.

“He was always glad to see you. No matter what, he was always glad to see me and I was glad to see him, too,” Dafoe said.
Kevin Whitney (D-Cortlandville), a legislator and firefighter who pushed for the county’s $16 million emergency communications system that was approved in 2011, recalled Willcox’s vote of opposition.

Whitney said skepticism is valuable to have on the Legislature.

“It’s a mindset you should respect: ‘You have to earn my vote through sound data,’” Whitney said.

He also recalled Willcox’s one-liners.

On the night of the vote against the radio upgrade project, in a room packed with first responders and law enforcement officers, Whitney recalls Willcox saying, “I’m probably going to need a flak jacket to get out of here.”

Willcox is survived by his wife, Ardis Tallmadge Willcox, sons Jeffrey and his wife Heidi, Stephen and his wife Suzanne, grandsons Christopher, Kevin, Brenden, Tyler, Mathew and Brett, and great grandsons Ryan and Ben.

Calling hours will be from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday at the Wright Beard Funeral Home at 9 Lincoln Ave., Cortland. Services and burial at Cortland Rural Cemetery will be private.