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Column: Mattituck’s ‘rumpled genius’ made his mark; will be remembered with scholarship

To this day, the memory remains as clear as day to LeRoy Heyliger.

Mr. Heyliger was an Air Force sergeant assigned to a B-52 bombing outfit in Guam in 1960 when he received a surprise visit from fellow serviceman Bill Lynch Jr. (nicknamed Butch). Mr. Heyliger had known Mr. Lynch and his parents, a family that attended services at Unity Baptist Church in Mattituck.

“It was Christmas, I’ll never forget … and everybody was expecting Bob Hope, with the USO show coming in, and we got this call that this plane was inbound from, they wouldn’t say where it was from,” recalled Mr. Heyliger.

The plane landed and, in anticipation of seeing Mr. Hope, a ramp was put up, the door opened … “and here comes Butch,” Mr. Heyliger said. “He’s waving his discharge papers. He says, ‘Sergeant Heyliger! Sergeant Heyliger! Is that you? I’m on my way home for Christmas! I got my discharge papers!’ Out of all those guys coming off the plane, it was great to see him.”

All these years later, Mr. Heyliger could chuckle at the memory of Mr. Lynch marking the end of his tour of duty. Mr. Lynch came from a small town and the humble beginnings of a potato farming family, but made a big impact. The former Mattituck High School sports standout went on to make a name for himself in Democratic Party politics, having worked alongside major political figures. He was former New York City mayor David Dinkins’ campaign manager and went on to serve Mr. Dinkins as deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations. He was a civil rights activist who helped former South African president Nelson Mandela campaign for political reform in his country. He worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and served as a consultant to former New York governor David Patterson.

While he was in college, Mr. Lynch went to Washington, D.C., to attend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “That really got him going into politics,” said Mr. Heyliger, 88, a Mattituck resident who is a deacon at Unity Baptist Church and a Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force member. “That’s when he adopted the motto, ‘Make It Happen.’ ”

Former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state and New York senator Hillary Clinton attended Mr. Lynch’s funeral in 2013 (Mr. Lynch was 72) and spoke glowingly about him. On that occasion, Mr. Dinkins was quoted by the New York Daily News as saying, “Today we say goodbye to the greatest man I have ever known.”

The Daily News noted that Mr. Lynch wasn’t much for formal attire and was dubbed the “rumpled genius” for his disheveled clothes and sharp political instincts.

Mr. Lynch was also hailed as an outstanding athlete. “He played baseball, soccer, basketball, track, you name it,” said Mr. Heyliger.

Mr. Heyliger recalled that Mr. Lynch’s mother consented to his sports activities, with one caveat. “She told Butch, ‘You could play all the sports you want, but you got to go to church, Sunday school,’ ” he said.

The Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, with the help of its sponsors, wants to establish a scholarship in Mr. Lynch’s name for a Mattituck High School student. Toward that end, the civic association will host a 5K fundraising run/walk May 7 at Veterans Beach in Mattituck. Participants may register at events.elitefeats.com/mattituck22. The entry fee is $30.  

“The civic association is looking to give back to the community and raise awareness,” said Jim Underwood, the civic association’s treasurer. “The motto is to inform, enhance and protect. This is about informing about a noteworthy person in the Mattituck landscape.”

Mr. Heyliger said there was much to like about Mr. Lynch. “He was just a great guy,” he said. “He practiced his religious beliefs, I know that. He was outgoing, friendly. He was like a son to me, really.”

For years there has been talk of renaming Factory Avenue in Mr. Lynch’s honor. He attended church on that Mattituck street as a child.

“We want to work on that,” Mr. Heyliger said. “The thing about Bill was this: He loved Mattituck, he loved the town. And when he died in New York, they wanted him to be buried because of his military career … in Washington, D.C., at the National Cemetery, and he refused. He said, ‘No, I’ll be buried in my hometown with my folks, where I live and where I love and where I grew up,’ and that’s where he is.”

Mr. Lynch rests in peace at Bethany Cemetery, across the street from Unity Baptist Church.

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