Congressman George Wortley was known to run up the stairs two at a time. He moved quickly and smiled brightly. Even during the busiest of times, he attended a Catholic Mass nearly every day. His younger brother, Ed, remembers George whisking him away to baseball games and watching George grab one or two, sometimes three, Heath toffee bars while visiting the family pharmacy.
George loved his country, his family, his faith and Syracuse University sports teams. He cared about his constituents throughout the counties in his district and his dedicated employees at Manlius Publishing Corporation. “He never did anything halfway,” his youngest daughter, Betsy, reflected in his eulogy. “He worked hard and in his spare time, he worked harder.”
Later in life, Congressman Wortley recognized great value in creating a comfortable and meaningful space for older adults living in the Fayetteville area. This inspired him to create The Congressman George C. Wortley Foundation, which held annual fundraisers for the Fayetteville Senior Center that he helped establish. Now, years after George’s passing in 2014, his foundation has found a new home at the Community Foundation.
Wortley was born in Syracuse in 1926 and attended St. Lucy’s Parish school before his family moved to Tully. His father, a pharmacist, opened a combination drug store and soda fountain. George was proficient at reciting every one of their ice cream flavors and worked many afternoons in the store. After graduating from Tully Central High School in 1944, George felt the calling to join the Merchant Marines at King’s Point on Long Island. He wasn’t there long before the war ended and he returned to his education, attending Syracuse University.
Upon graduating from SU in 1948, George’s life really started to gain shape. That year, he attended the Republican National Convention where he met his future business partner, T. Elmer Bogardus. That same year, he met his future wife, Barbara Hennessy.
In what can only be considered a match made in heaven, George the newspaper publisher married Barbara, an expert papermaker. Barbara was the first woman to graduate from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and became an internationally known paper & pulp expert, writing over 30 technical papers about paper.
Wortley and Bogardus purchased the established Manlius Publishing Corporation in 1949. They were known for their many local newspapers in Onondaga and Madison counties, now known as Eagle Newspapers. In their first publication they stated their intentions, “We have only two policies: to be friendly and to participate wholeheartedly and intelligently in every worthwhile civic endeavor in the communities served by this paper.” George kept true to his promise and took care of his employees for forty years.
As they grew their family and careers, George felt called to embark upon a new path. In 1980, he won his campaign and became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Cathy Bertini, his campaign manager, later a United Nations official and current Community Foundation board member, grew close to George and his family during the campaign years. “George is genuine. There’s not a fake bone in his body. He was very practical, sensible and pragmatic,” recalled Bertini. “And, he knew the art of compromise.”
Most importantly, George listened to each constituent and valued their time. He appreciated talent whether it was from a high school student or a senior citizen. He was interested in learning from them and inquired about how he could help. Bertini was just 26 years old when she became his campaign manager. “I was young and he took my advice. That meant a lot to me. He wasn’t just using me as an assistant, so it was a very worthwhile experience,” reflected Cathy. “We both learned so much during that time, and we learned as a team.” Among other campaign matters, Bertini advised that first things first, he needed a new haircut if he really wanted to win. Cathy secured an appointment at a salon and he learned to use a new tool: the hairdryer. His wife and daughters appreciated his new style even though he took over the use of their hairdryer.
George held office in the House of Representatives until 1989 and was succeeded in office by Congressman James T. Walsh. During his time in Congress, he served on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, helping to write legislation to improve public housing and outlaw money laundering. In addition to his official role, he loved giving tours of the U.S. Capitol building to anyone who inquired.
George kept up with old friends and met new ones along the way. He met Colonel Bill Smullen in Washington while Bill was working for General Colin Powell. Bill and George found immediate common ground as fellow graduates of Syracuse University. When Bill moved back to Syracuse to take a position as the Director of the National Security Studies program at the Maxwell School, Wortley counted on Bill to give him the annual scoop on the SU football and basketball teams. “He called me at the beginning of every football season, and the start of every basketball season to ask: ‘How’s the team looking this year? How are they going to do?’ It was just one of those natural things that he did. I counted on it every single year.”
It was around 1979 when George, who lived in Fayetteville, took an interest in establishing a center for senior citizens. He helped to obtain the necessary funding for the purchase of a building, which became the Fayetteville Senior Center. It opened on June 1, 1980, and currently serves over 500 community members.
Around the same time, George founded The Congressman George C. Wortley Foundation, which held golf tournaments and other fundraisers throughout the year. His contributions accounted for about 25% of the Center’s annual budget. Recently, Wortley’s fund transitioned administration to the Community Foundation, which will continue to support the Fayetteville Senior Center while simplifying the foundation’s management.
“The Community Foundation is proud to be the steward of the Congressman’s charitable intentions and story,” said Tom Griffith, vice president of development at the Community Foundation. “We serve in this way for many private foundations when they reach that point in their lifecycle.”
George’s impact will forever be remembered by his family, his country and the many senior citizens who benefit from his generosity. As his daughter Betsy noted, “It was a very good thing to be loved by George Wortley.”