Your Lake, Your Newspaper

Farewell to a Friend. Mike Stafford: 1950-2024

Farewell to a Friend. Mike Stafford: 1950-2024 April 22, 2024
Mike Stafford, photographed at the Lake George Town Court on December 7, 2023, the day he announced he would retire from the bench after a twenty year tenure.
Mike Stafford, photographed at the Lake George Town Court on December 7, 2023, the day he announced he would retire from the bench after a twenty year tenure.

One frosty winter morning in 1995, I saw Mike Stafford walking down Albany’s State Street toward the Capitol with Secretary of State Sandy Treadwell; Mike had been assigned the job of Treadwell’s counsel by the new Governor, George Pataki.

(As Mike would later recall, the state GOP committee’s executive director and a future Congressman, John Sweeney, literally twisted his arm at an inaugural celebration into joining the new administration.)

I recall seeing Mike again one or two years later crossing Canada Street, now dressed as the small town lawyer he had become.

To be frank, I was a bit envious of Mike’s new life; I, too, wanted to return to Warren County and adopt the way of life in which I had been raised, one deeply engaged by my surroundings and absorbed in the doings of my community.

Mike helped me achieve that. At the recommendation of Warren County Clerk Caryl Clark and her daughter, Stephanie Merrill, I called Mike at his law office and told him I wanted to acquire the rights to the Lake George Mirror, which my father had owned in the late 1960s and early 70s but which was now defunct and had been for at least a few years. We identified the newspaper’s last owners, purchased every conceivable right to its name, contents and brand, and legal title to “America’s oldest resort newspaper” became mine.

When the Lake George Mirror resumed publication in 1998, Mike was the subject of one of its first profiles.

“One afternoon last spring, I called Mike Stafford seeking his counsel on a matter of importance to me: I wanted to purchase a barn. ‘Mike’s outside talking to some people,’ said the receptionist. ‘Let me go get him.’ When she returned to the phone, she apologized. ‘I’m sorry, Mike’s up on the roof.’ ‘What’s he doing up there?’ ‘Fixing it,’ came the reply.

“Mike Stafford, Esq. is versatile; a good thing, too, because the small town lawyer must not only negotiate the purchase and sale of barns, or houses and restaurants and motels, for that matter. While real estate is the most important part of any such practice, the small town lawyer must also draw up the papers to incorporate a business, dissolve a marriage, settle an estate or adopt a child. It’s a role that Stafford relishes.”

Born in 1950, Stafford grew up in Lake George, where his father, Joseph Stafford, was the director of the area’s best known funeral home and a part-time constable and his mother was a Johns Hopkins-educated private nurse, serving in many of the homes on “Millionaire’s Row.”

If his was not an idyllic youth, it must have come very close to that.

Mike once told the Lake George Mirror’s Buzz Lamb that as a thirteen-year-old, he would walk the streets of the Village with a shoe-shine kit slung over his shoulder.  His  goal was to net $40 a week.

 “My mother would put half in the bank for me and would give me twenty bucks to spend,” he told Buzz.   “One week I bought every girl I knew a ring.  That made me the most popular kid in the village, for that week at least.” 

When Buzz interviewed him, Mike still owned the shoe-shine kit.

A well-known photograph shot by Ed Lewi in 1967, which appeared in the New York Daily News and a week later as the cover of the Lake George Mirror, showed the Lake George Steamboat Company’s Mohican pulling roughly a dozen water skiers.

The Mohican was said to be the largest boat ever to tow water skiers, or at least that’s what was said by Ed Lewi, who began his career as a public relations executive by working as a publicist for local attractions.

In any event, Mike Stafford was among the skiers. (So too, was Renee Desormeau, now married to environmental attorney Tom West.)

According to Stafford, the years before New York State raised the minimum age for purchasing alcoholic beverages to 21 were “like being inside Lake George’s version of ‘Happy Days” (at least it was if you were drinking beer at Pete Smith’s Garrison, which reportedly had a distributor’s delivery truck assigned solely to that east side bar, dedicated to the task of keeping it supplied continuously with Budweiser.)

Mike graduated from Lake George High School, SUNY Plattsburgh (where a fraternity brother was Bolton Supervisor Ron Conover) and Albany Law School.

In Albany, he was law clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Kahn, but his interests ranged far and wide – to architectural preservation, record producing, local electoral politics and basketball, where he organized pick-up games populated by many of the same people he had faced in the gyms of the North Country as a high school student.

I first met Mike, not in Warren County, but at a reception in Albany for the incoming Secretary of State, a family friend, in January, 1995.

“When I’m not there, Mike is in charge,” Sandy Treadwell said.

Stafford told the Lake George Mirror that his service as the Department of State’s chief lawyer was an exciting time for him.

“Some of the career civil servants had become experts in not-doing. We had a different mission. We told the staff: ‘make it happen,’” he said.

During Governor Pataki’s first year in office, the Department of State’s waterfront revitalization projects became eligible for Environmental Protection Fund moneys, and many of the grants that Lake George received during and after Stafford’s tenure at the department owed something to his influence.

After Stafford moved back to Lake George, he dived into local affairs: serving on the boards of the Lake George Association and the Lake George Historical Association, promoting the Lake George legacy of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe and helping to secure the archives of Lake George photographers Jule and Fred Thatcher for a local museum, thereby preventing them from being sold to private collectors and dispersed across the country. 

Many people assumed that Stafford returned to Lake George to run for office himself.

That was not among his motives, but in 2003, he did run for Town Justice. He was elected to six successive terms, almost always without opposition.

The last article about Mike published in the Lake George Mirror concerned his retirement from the bench in 2023.

Stafford was commended for his two decades of service by the Town Board and by those attending the Board’s meeting that December afternoon. Among the latter was his fellow Lake George Town Judge, Brian Reichenbach.

“I’ve had the pleasure and the honor of serving with Mike Stafford for 18 years, for most of which a sign has hung in our chambers stating, ‘to administer justice without fear or favor.’ I can’t imagine anybody who has exemplified that code of conduct more fully over the last two decades than Mike Stafford,” said Judge Reichenbach.

Mike died in Florida on March 31 at the age of 73. His wife Nancy survives him, as does his daughter Jennifer, four sisters, three stepsons, many nieces and nephews and their spouses.

According to his family, a Celebration of Life and inurnment will take place on May 11, 2024 at New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages, FL.  A celebration of his life will be held at the Glens Falls Country Club sometime later this summer.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Cornerstone Hospice, 601 Mariposa Way, The Villages, FL 32162. “We have lost a good friend,” Lake George Supervisor Vinnie Crocitto said to me. We have indeed.

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