Monday, June 23, 2014

Fathers of the Five Towns: William Soper Pettit

William S. Pettit
(photo courtesy Linda Forand)
From humble beginnings in a family that traced its roots to the earliest settlers of the Town of Hempstead, William Soper Pettit became one of the most respected and influential civic leaders in the New York metropolitan area.

William Pettit was born on January 20, 1880, to Mary Elizabeth Craft and Theodore Edward Pettit.   From the age of 9, he sold newspapers and delivered telegrams at the Cedarhurst LIRR Station.  He was a descendant of Joseph Pettit, the first clerk of Hempstead (about 1657).

After graduating with Far Rockaway High School's Class of 1900,  Pettit went on to attend Columbia University's Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1903.   He authored a book History and Views of the Rockaways, published in 1901.  

Pettit was a leader of the secessionist movement to separate Far Rockaway from New York City and to create a "Rockaway City."  Although the movement was popular and Pettit felt that the legislation's passage was inevitable, it was vetoed by New York's mayor in May 1915.   In 1915, he also served as Special Counsel to the Nassau County Board of Supervisors.  He subsequently served as Chairman of the drafting commission for the Nassau County Charter, Chairman of the Nassau County Child Welfare Board, President of the Nassau County Historical and Genealogical Society and President of the Long Island Y.M.C.A.  In 1920 the Nassau County Republican party backed Pettit in an unsuccessful bid for Justice of the Supreme Court. 
Mary and Theodore Pettit
(courtesy Linda Forand)

In 1925 he won the first Alfred C. Bossom Gold Medallion for distinguished public service by a New York high school graduate.  The award was made for active work in furthering the development of the Rockaways and for leadership in civic and welfare enterprises."  (NYT 5/20/48, p. 60)  When the citizens of Hewlett Neck voted for incorporation of their village (1927), they met at Pettit's home on Barberry Lane in Woodmere.  Pettit was the attorney for the property owners in their quest to have more control over the future of their community.

     During World War I, Pettit headed the local draft board and during World War II, he was chairman of the Lynbrook Ration Board.  He organized the Five Towns War Finance Committee, was a president of the Nassau County Bar Association and a vestryman of Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church in Hewlett (now Trinity-St. Johns) from 1920-1947.  In addition, he was one of the first Trustees of the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library, when is was established in 1947.

Unfortunately, his illustrious career was cut short in May 1948, when he was killed in a collision with a truck in upstate New York. His wife of forty years, the former Dorothea Smolling, was seriously injured in the accident, but survived.  After his death, his home in Lawrence became the headquarters of the Five Towns YMCA, an institution he helped to found. They had no children.  Mr. and Mrs. Pettit are buried in the family plot in Trinity-St. John's churchyard.

Plaque in honor of W.S. Pettit
from the Trustees of the
 Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library

A 1929 article in the Rockaway Beach Wave listed Pettit's business affiliations:
  • President and Director of the Bus Line Holding Co., Inc.
  • Director and counsel of the National Bank of Far Rockaway,
  • Director and counsel of the Rockaway Beach National Bank
  • Vice President, director and Counsel of Hewlett-Woodmere National Bank
  • Director, Long Beach Trust Co., Vision Realty Corporation, Coney Island Estates, Atlantic Beach Realty Corporation, Madison Mortgage Corporation, Equitable Mortgage and Title Guarantee Co., Darwinian Realty Co., Bay Ocean Realty Association, Boardwalk Associates Inc. and Sarego Realty Co.

Further reading:
Bea Jones. "Nassau Civic Leader Dies in Crash, Newsday, May 20, 1948, p. 3.   (requires HW Library card login)
"Citizens of Hewlett Neck Vote for Incorporation," Long Island Daily Press, February 4, 1927, p. 10.
"Mitchel rejects the Rockaway Bill," The New York Times, May 2, 1915, p. 19.
"W.S. Pettit killed in auto accident," The New York Times, May 20, 1948, p. 60.
William S. Pettit. "The Cornell Cemetery, Far Rockaway," Long Island Forum, August 1946.

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