Joe Ferris, Bklyn reformer, state assemblymember, ardent activist, COVID-19 victim
Joseph Ferris, a longtime Brooklyn assemblymember who helped to found several block associations and civic groups in Park Slope, was involved in the struggle to save Brooklyn’s historic brownstones, and worked to establish the Old Stone House as an ongoing memorial to the Battle of Brooklyn, died on Saturday, June 20, at Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn after contracting COVID-19 in April.
Ferris was elected to the Assembly in 1974, representing Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Sunset Park and Borough Park, and served for a decade.
Assemblymember Robert Carroll, his present-day successor, said, “Joe Ferris had a profound impact on the politics of Brooklyn and New York City and was a fierce advocate for independence and reform. He was one of the founders of Park Slope’s local political club, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and did so much for Brooklyn and the constituents he served.”
A lifelong Brooklynite, Ferris was born on Oct. 10, 1934, and was the oldest of Catherine Downes’ and William Ferris’ five children. He graduated from St. Francis College in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in history.
After graduation, Ferris served in the United States Army Reserve and spent 15 years teaching in New York City schools, including several years as a teacher at Rikers Island prison.
Although he was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974, Ferris’ commitment to public service began years earlier. With like-minded friends and neighbors in Park Slope, he helped lead the charge to save Brownstone Brooklyn from the wrecking ball beginning in the early 1960s.
The block associations and civic groups he helped found include the Kensington Community Council, the Park Slope Civic Council, the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (originally the Slope Independent Democrats) and the Brooklyn Irish-American Day Parade.
Ferris was particularly proud of his work with groups like the Magnolia Tree Institute in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which planted thousands of trees, many of which stand to this day, in Brooklyn neighborhoods. A devoted Catholic deeply moved by the writing of Dorothy Day, he spent several years volunteering with the Young Christian Workers in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1964, Ferris mounted his first campaign for elected office with a run for Congress. Five years later, he served as campaign manager on Norman Mailer’s mayoral campaign, where he was referred to as a “one-man think tank.”
In 1970 and 1972, Ferris lost extremely close races to represent the 51st District in the New York State Assembly. Victorious in 1974, he served five terms before retiring. While in the Assembly, he served as chairman of the Legislative Commission on Science and Technology as well as the chair of the Assembly Subcommittee on Public Power.
He married Joan Ferris in the summer of 1984. Their first son, Joseph, was born the following year. In 1988, their second son, Thomas, was born. A devoted father, Ferris passed on to his children a love for civics, history, New York City and public service.
After retiring from elected office, Ferris remained active in the community, collecting petitions outside the Key Food to get candidates on the ballot, testifying at community board hearings on local issues and fighting to keep and grow the city’s manufacturing job base.
In particular, Ferris worked to stabilize the then-underused Old Stone House in Park Slope, which played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, and turn it into an official historic house and museum. In the ’80s, he worked with John Gallagher, John Muir and Herb Yellin to establish the First Battle Revival Alliance, which would eventually evolve into the Old Stone House’s governing body.
By the early 2000s, Ferris was an active board member at the Old Stone House and was involved with the Irish American Parade Committee’s efforts to memorialize the Battle of Brooklyn on a broader scale.
“I was terribly saddened to hear that COVID-19 had claimed Joe Ferris, one of the most tenacious and principled fighters for just causes I ever met,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. “Joe was a proud Irishman, an equally proud Brooklynite and an unabashed progressive who fought against redlining and founded CBID. He loved history and worked to revive the Old Stone House. He leaves a rich legacy and will be sorely missed.”
Survivors include his two sons, Joseph M. Ferris of Brooklyn, New York and Thomas Ferris of Shelburne, Vermont; daughter-in-law Eugenia Ferris; and grand-daughter Sophia Ferris; brother William Ferris of Staten Island, New York; and sisters Eileen Ferris and Mary Lou Amaro, both of Brooklyn, New York.
Ferris was predeceased by his parents, Catherine Downes and William Ferris, his brother John Ferris and his wife Joan Ferris.
A funeral mass will be held at St. Francis Xavier in Park Slope in August. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his memory to the Old Stone House online or at P.O. Box 150613, Brooklyn, NY 11215.