I first met Jeff Wise about fifteen years ago when he worked for the Coalition for the Homeless and I was working for the Department of Health on issues of adult home reform. He would sit in the group meetings and not say much. Then after the meetings ended, I would have a sidebar conversation with him. I found him to be incredibly insightful and passionate about the issues. What I also got from him was how respectful he was of our differing perspectives.
Soon after I got my position at MHANYS, he got the position as President of the New York State Rehab Association (NYSRA) which was fortuitous for me. His offices were literally across the street from mine. We would frequently meet for coffee over the time he was at NYSRA. Over that time, he grew to be more than a colleague, he became a friend. We had many commonalities in our love of baseball, music and handicapping (he was actually very good at it—me not so much). More than all of that, what I got from Jeff was wisdom and advice. You see Jeff was about the smartest person I knew, but he didn’t have to show that he was the smartest person in the room to be effective. He was incredibly successful through reasoned, rational, respectful discussion. He was like EF Hutton, when Jeff spoke, everyone listened, because we all knew he was coming from a place of great intelligence and compassion. He had many accomplishments at NYSRA driven by his intellect, dedication and respect he garnered across government and all stakeholders.
When he was appointed as the Director of The Justice Center, I could not think of anyone better for the position. There was no one I knew who was more respected in the community than Jeff. His leadership of the Justice Center was a monumental task. There were critics on all sides. Yet, Jeff ran the agency with the same traits he always exhibited—-a keen intellect, a willingness to listen to all sides, a compassionate understanding about individual rights, a respect for all stakeholders but with a moral line that he would not cross. His vision created this agency and the major reason the Justice Center has built credibility in the community is a reflection of Jeff. Of course, in typical Jeff fashion, he always credited others and never himself for any success.
After Jeff’s accident, he was in Albany Med for about six weeks rehabbing. During that time, he had an incredible amount of well-wishers visiting him and sending him notes. I know from his closest friends those visits and notes were of great meaning to Jeff. He was so modest that it was surprising to him how many people respected and loved him. Wasn’t a surprise to those of us who knew him, but it was a surprise to him.
Over the last few days, I have spoken with a lot of people about Jeff and his life. After the initial shock of losing him, words spoken about him were so moving that they would bring tears to my eyes. Richard Gallo said of Jeff, “The light around our mental health community has become much dimmer”. Harvey Rosenthal said of Jeff, “He was a committed defender and advocate for people with disabilities.” Bill Gettman of St. Catherine’s in Albany, said, “A tragedy and sad day for his family and friends but also the families and children he advocated for in many roles.” Governor Cuomo put a very moving statement together about Jeff that is also attached.
When you lose a friend, the hardest part is losing the day to day interactions. The phone calls, the lunches, the laughs, the discussions—all the things that comprise a friendship. I will greatly miss those interactions—his sardonic wit, his sharp intellect, his candor, his political acumen, his modesty but mostly I will miss the wonderful, generous, big hearted person that was Jeff Wise. There will never be anyone like him.
Below is Governor Cuomo’s statement about Jeff
“I am deeply saddened to learn of Jeff Wise’s sudden passing. As the Executive Director of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs since its founding in 2013, Jeff was a dedicated, exemplary public servant who gave his professional life to the cause of helping those in need. Throughout his career, Jeff worked tirelessly to support vulnerable individuals, including the homeless, people with mental illness, and those with developmental disabilities. His stewardship of the Justice Center has benefitted the lives of people across the state, and he will be greatly missed by all those who worked with him. On behalf of all New Yorkers, my thoughts are with Jeff’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
Glenn Liebman, CEO