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LaGuardia College names academic hall for Maltese

Former state Sen. Serphin Maltese reacts to seeing a plaque bearing his name above a doorway at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Joe Anuta
Gail Mellow (l.) presents a Tiffany's bowl to Serphin Maltese, a former state senator who gave funds to LaGuardia Community College. Maltese also modeled for the painting in the background, which was created by his wife. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

Educators at LaGuardia Community College dedicated an academic hall last Thursday to former state Sen. Serphin Maltese, a man who worked with lawmakers across the aisle and who has a lot in common with the students at the college.

“Serph Maltese is old-school,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who spoke at the dedication. “He goes back to a time when things were bipartisan and cooperative.”

Maltese, a Republican, was elected in 1989 to the 15th Senate District, currently held by Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), and represented neighborhoods ranging from Howard Beach up through Maspeth and Middle Village.

Now his name sits permanently above a doorway on the fourth floor of a converted warehouse at 29-10 Thompson Ave. in Long Island City that used to house the Sunshine Biscuit Co.

Maltese secured $76 million in funding for LaGuardia Community College during his tenure as senator, though it did not even lie in his district. Much of that money went toward the academic hall named in his honor, which is hung with historic political memorabilia and contains a student lounge and two classrooms.

As a second-generation immigrant, Maltese funded the school to give an opportunity to his constituents, many of whose parents were not born in the country just like his.

“We have a kinship. The countries may be different ... but we needed an opportunity to excel in the greatest country in the world,” he said.

Maltese’s grandparents and father came on a boat from Italy and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan shortly after the turn of the century.

Like many hardscrabble tales of the American Dream, after attending public schools Maltese worked a day job to support his family and put himself through night school at Manhattan College.

Maltese, who eventually became head of the Queens Republican Party, was the first in this family to graduate from a university. He also graduated from law school at Fordham University through the state Regents Scholarship Program and lived off the GI Bill.

It was the opportunity provided by affordable city colleges that accepted anyone with a high school diploma and city scholarship opportunities that made Maltese’s success possible. And he made sure others could do it as well.

“We need to make sure immigrants can get an education for life and make it even better for their sons and daughters,” he said.

Maltese came from humble origins, and even after he was elected to the state Legislature, he retained his modesty.

“Every individual in this room knows this man as Serph,” said Jay Hershenson, a senior vice chancellor at the school and secretary for the CUNY board.

Maltese’s former colleagues — many Democrats — also had warm words for the former lawmaker.

Along with Gianaris, Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) fondly recalled his dealings with Maltese during his first days as a state legislator, and later the community projects they worked on together. Former Borough President Claire Shulman, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) and County Clerk Audrey Pheffer all recalled working with Maltese as well.

“This is so fitting, proper and perfect for Serph Maltese,” Pheffer said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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