Conversations with community leader Bill Corbett
While stopping to pick up lunch at the deli, William J. Corbett, Sr., seemed to know almost everyone waiting on line, waving and smiling as he perused the shelves.
“Who should I vote for this year?” one woman asked Corbett as he was leaving, which prompted Corbett to run through every Republican presidential candidate and his opinion of each, including how well he thought each would do in the race.
As former president of the Floral Park-Bellerose Young Republicans and current Citizen’s Party Captain and Republican Committeeman and husband of a former mayor, 74-year-old Corbett knows what he’s talking about.
“I’ve really had sort of like a dual life,” said Corbett, who goes by Bill and has lived in the village for 68 years. “I have my life in Floral Park, and I’ve had another life outside of Floral Park.”
In Floral Park, Corbett has been incredibly active in both his work and community service. He opened his own public relations firm 22 years ago that his wife and son work at, and he operates his own law firm with his wife. Corbett works with the Volunteer Law Initiative of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre to work pro bono for people who cannot afford a lawyer. He’s been the senior ombudsman, founding member of the Floral Park AARP and president of the South Side and West End Civic Associations. He was also the village’s prosecuting attorney and acting judge and still serves as the Judge Advocate for the Floral Park American Legion.
Yet at the same time, Corbett is a Washington insider, a city businessman and an international traveler.
“I went to the city and would be head of public relations for a huge corporation, and I would go to Washington and work for the government and U.S. Information Agency, and be vice president of the International Public Relations Association, which had members from over 120 countries,” Corbett said. “But then I went to Floral Park and came here as kid. I’ve always had a love of the village.”
Corbett headed PR for Avon Inc. and was president of the International Public Relations Association. He has served as a communications advisor for the U.S. Information Agency, on the advisory committee of the United Nations Communications Department and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the U.S. Department of Defense Information School. He has helped with numerous presidential campaigns and has met 15 presidents and vice presidents. He has traveled to more than 50 countries, at least to one on every continent, and been a featured speaker at conferences in places like Brazil and Abuja.
Even when he opened his own public relations firm from his house in Floral Park, Corbett’s first clients were international businesses, which would fax him throughout the night because of the differing time zones. Eventually, this constant faxing forced Corbett to open his office at a separate location from his house.
This office is now completely covered by pictures of him and his family with celebrities, including presidents of this country and other ones, Olympic athletes, actors and journalists. There were so many pictures that they did not all fit on the walls of the first floor, with some hanging in the basement. Each one had a story behind it, whether Corbett had met them at a White House dinner or had crashed on their couch.
“I’ve run out of wall space,” Corbett said. “I don’t even hang them up anymore.”
John Lockwood, who has been friends with Corbett for 25 years after meeting at the Masonic Lodge, said Corbett has remained humble despite his life adventures.
“What I like about him is he’s a friend to politicians and to those who receive no notoriety,” Lockwood said. “He’s a young senior citizen with a lot of energy who works every day, working for people and doing things for people. He’s like the Energizer Bunny and keeps on going, going and going.”
Lockwood said that Corbett and his wife, Ann, have done incredible amount of work for charity, including taking other senior citizens to medical appointments if they need a ride.
“I’m very proud to call him my friend,” said Lockwood, a retired IT manager. “That really sums it all up.”
Corbett first became involved in public relations at a young age.
“In the DeMoley junior Masonic group, a man who worked for The Daily News said, ‘would any of you like to learn how to write captions and take pictures and write press releases?’” Corbett said as he paused between bites of a garden salad with chicken. “So he took me over to his house in Elmont and he showed me how to write a press release and captions. I was only 15.”
After that, Corbett began writing press releases for his various organizations, including the Boy Scouts. He then became editor of a few of the publications at Hobart College, where he went to school. After graduating, Corbett joined the Air Force.
“I was so anxious, I got there three days early,” Corbett said. “I was supposed to be there Aug. 25, 1959, and I got to town and went to the base and they said, “You can’t be there, you’re not legally covered.”
At the Air Force office, he saw crash manuals and asked if he could take them with him for reading material while he waited to legally be allowed on the base. While sitting in a motel for three days, he read the manuals about three times.
“The next day [after going on base], a plane crashes. I went out there and I knew just what to do,” said Corbett, who has won three medals through his time at the Air Force, as well as the Town of Hempstead’s Make a Difference Award and the Floral Park Spirit Award, which he shares with his wife.
He said his actions impressed a colonel who would eventually become his boss and a very close friend. When Corbett went into the reserves for 10 years, he always did his summer training wherever this friend was, no matter which state it was in.
While in the Air Force, Corbett wrote reports about his team’s missions, which he said allowed him to really tour the 19 countries he went to more so than other Air Force cadets.
“It was fantastic,” Corbett said. “I did all kinds of things.”
Including traveling between New Zealand and Antarctica 26 times. Corbett said New Zealand is still his favorite place in the world.
After three years in the Air Force, Corbett attended Albany Law School. He said his father had always envisioned him to become a lawyer.
“I think it was a path to respectability, and I kind of liked helping people,” Corbett said.
Corbett has definitely used his law degree to help people, either by volunteering for the public sector or working pro bono almost throughout his entire career. He even went to Fordham University School of Law in recent years to get his Juris Doctorate to help out the people of Floral Park with real estate and wills.
Although Corbett was traveling often while he was a prosecutor and then acting judge, he said he always made sure to be back by court Monday nights.
“I used to joke about it, you make a lot of enemies every Monday night,” Corbett said. “You find people guilty and they don’t like to pay, but you try to treat them with courtesy and dignity and not make them feel too bad, and most of them would leave with a smile on their face.”
Corbett has continued to help people through his charity and volunteer work. He and Ann are former presidents of Friends of the Floral Park Library and began donating books to countries in Eastern Europe where there was a shortage of English books. They also founded Duds, a group that collects clothing for children at charity camps, and ran it for 30 years.
“That was very rewarding to work with these kid camps,” Corbett said. “As a kid, I went to one of these charity camps. It was closure to give back to the camp where I went as a kid.”
His Love Story
Bill met Ann at a Floral Park Young Republicans meeting in 1964. He was president of the club and was busy working on Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and attending law school, so the two were not able to go on a date until two months after getting to know each other. They got married in June of 1966, and “We are more in love today than we were 40 years ago,” Ann wrote in a 2006 article in Newsday on their love story.
Together, they have three children and four grandchildren. In his little spare time (he still works six days a week and sometimes until 8 p.m.), Corbett said his number one thing to do is be with his wife. He said he loves spending time with his family and enjoys reading, going to the theater and eating ice cream, which he said is his weakness.
But, he still loves to work. He used to tell his students at Iona College in New Rochelle, where he taught public relations for 10 years, “If you’re really cut out for this, you’ll love what you do.”
“I do,” he said. “When I look back, I think if I went tomorrow, I’d have no regrets. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do. The only regret is that I would leave my family and not be with them.”
The Corbetts also serve together as board members of the Floral Park Historical Society and Waterbill Watchdogs. Corbett said that he and his wife are partners in everything, and it is clear from the way he talks about her, he means it. He gets visibly agitated while talking about how although his wife has achieved a lot, people credit him with many of her accomplishments and some even thought he was the mayor, not her.
When asked about his own accomplishments, Corbett did not take full credit.
“That’s the secret; you have to marry the right person,” he said. “I did.”