TICONDEROGA — Former Essex County Emergency Services Director Raymond Thatcher died Thursday following heart surgery.
Thatcher, 69, was director from 1990 to 2008, a span that included the 1998 Ice Storm and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He was also Ticonderoga fire chief in the mid to late 1980s and a member of Ticonderoga Town Council during the same period.
A lifelong Ticonderoga resident, Thatcher died at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
His friends and co-workers remember him as a caring individual who worked to help the public during disasters and emergencies.
Former Clinton County Emergency Services Director James King was one of Mr. Thatcher’s contemporaries and often worked with him on disaster relief.
“Ray had a large empathy for people,” King said Friday. “He wanted to make sure they were as well taken care of as possible during a disaster, whether it was a fire or a climate disaster, such as floods or the Ice Storm or snowstorms.
“He was a very ethical person.”
One of Thatcher’s chief projects was the new Essex County public-safety radio system that is nearing completion now. He argued repeatedly that the 1950s-era system was failing.
“When he was in deliberations in the political side, he had all his information, he made sure he had the right facts,” King said.
“He walked into the (Essex County) Board of Supervisors’ chambers well prepared. He wanted to take care of the citizens of Essex County whenever there was a problem his office was in charge of.
“He was very professional and well thought of across the state of New York.”
Mr. Thatcher believed in having the best-trained personnel possible, King said.
“He was very astute in hazmat and arson teams. He made sure they had the proper training and gear. We were the first in the state to have a regionalization program.
“We (Clinton and Essex counties) shared fire investigators and instructors long before the state mandated that. It was nice to work like that, in that atmosphere.”
He said after he and Thatcher retired, they still kept in touch frequently.
“He was a fine gentleman. I admired him, and we got along extremely well. I’ve lost a really fine friend.”
Thatcher was a 1962 graduate of Ticonderoga High School and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He was still active in the community as a member of the Ticonderoga Fire District Board of Commissioners and a trustee of the Ticonderoga Historical Society.
He concentrated on operating the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Ticonderoga after his retirement.
Thatcher’s death came as a shock to Ticonderoga Town Supervisor Debra Malaney.
“Ray was very involved in the community and well-respected throughout the region. He will be sadly missed.”
When he retired in December 2008, Thatcher told the Press-Republican much had changed since he became Emergency Services director in April 1990.
“It got to the point where it was incredible to keep up with everything,” he said then. “There was so much responsibility, so much going on every day.
“You work with a lot of agencies, right up through the federal level and including into Canada.”
‘COOL UNDER PRESSURE’
He said one of Thatcher’s strong points was his calm demeanor in emergencies.
“He was cool under pressure. You never saw him get mad or upset. He said you might see his jaw muscle tighten; that’s about it.”
Jaquish said Thatcher said that the elderly are among the most vulnerable of citizens when emergencies arise.
“Ray felt strongly about the care of the elderly, taking care of elderly people during disasters. He always made sure they were well taken care of.”
Essex County Board of Supervisors Chair and Jay Town Supervisor Randy Douglas declared a State of Emergency during his first few days in office in 2004, with an ice jam and major power outage during a stretch of weather with temperatures ranging around 20 degrees below zero.
“I was worried for my people, and I reached out to Ray for guidance, and he helped me immensely,” Douglas said by email.
“When he got to my town, the Community Center was packed. We had just opened the shelter, and we were doing whatever we thought was necessary to keep the people I represent safe.”
Douglas said news media were there from all over the North Country.
“I was very nervous, and Ray pulled me aside and said, ‘Randy, disasters can make you or break you. Let’s do this together, and I won’t leave your side until it’s over.’
“And he did not.”
1998 ICE STORM
Thatcher’s successor, Donald Jaquish, who took the reins as Emergency Services director from him in early 2009, said everything in the Emergency Services field changed after the events of 9/11.
“The workload increased five-fold. We had hazardous-materials teams, weapons-of-mass-destruction teams. It was a different ball game, and Ray handled it without a problem.”
The 1998 Ice Storm was one of the greatest disasters they’d ever faced, Jaquish said, with thousands without power and hundreds of people homeless.
“Ray wasn’t afraid to ask for help — military, NYPD. They all came to help.”
The storm had taken down trees and power lines throughout northern New York, many roads were closed, and cleanup took weeks.
“At the beginning, Ray slept on a cot at the Emergency Services offices; so did a lot of people,” Jaquish said.
LEARNED FROM THATCHER
They met with local emergency volunteer services and state and federal agencies, and had a plan in place in a hurry, Douglas said.
“I must say I learned a lot from Ray Thatcher, and still to this day, I use his advice in dealing with the numerous disasters our town and county have been hit with.
“After it was over, those first few days of my political career, (Thatcher) said, ‘We will meet soon to go over what we just did and how we can make it better,’ and we did,” Douglas continued.
“He certainly helped me better prepare for some of the worst disasters to come, including (Tropical Storm) Irene, in the years following.”
Douglas said that with Thatcher, Jaquish — who was then deputy director — and their local volunteers, they created a State of Emergency Comprehensive Plan for Jay that is still in use.
“Since 2004, my Town of Jay has had nine states of emergency, and we have dealt with them with a coordinated response because of guidelines Ray Thatcher helped us establish,” he said.
Douglas said his condolences go out to Thatcher’s family.
Calling hours are 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Wilcox & Regan Funeral Home in Ticonderoga, with a funeral at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary’s Church, also in Ticonderoga.
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