United States Navy veteran, presiding officer and six-term Suffolk County legislator, family court judge, commissioner of Social Services and volunteer. These are just a few of the titles that the Honorable Greg Blass has held throughout his storied and accomplished career serving the residents of Suffolk and the nation.
While his career in public service may have ended in 2013, Blass’ influence spans far and beyond the offices he once held and is felt to this day through former and continuing efforts to improve the lives of those he once called his constituents.
As a teenager, Blass enlisted in the U.S. Navy after hearing the call to serve his country. His rank in the Navy would eventually grow to lieutenant, serving in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he served as one of some 700 uniformed attorneys in the Naval branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Following his service in the Navy, Blass returned to Long Island. Born in Nassau County, in the Village of Freeport, he chose to settle as a North Fork neighbor in the quaint community of Jamesport.
“My grandmother was raised on a farm on the East End, in Riverhead,” he says. “I learned to swim and sail on the East End, and I was always attached to this part of the world because there is none other that comes close to it.”
In 1975, Blass was admitted as a lawyer to the Bars in New York and Florida. In 1978, when his time on active duty concluded, he began private law practice, working for a small firm in Riverhead, Raffe & Raffe, Esqs. Shortly thereafter, he again heard his calling to serve — only this time, it would be in elective office.
In the election of 1979, Blass won a Republican primary and then was successful in the general election, where he would assume office in January of 1980 to represent Suffolk’s largest legislative district, which once included six towns and almost the entire East End. After just two terms, Legislator Blass became the most powerful and influential official in the body, being elected presiding officer. He also served as the chairman of the Health Committee and of the Human Services Committee.
Blass continued to represent his district in the county legislature until 1989. After a brief hiatus following a tumultuous political primary, he was elected again to the legislature in 1993, where he would serve just one term before beginning a new endeavor.
“I was approached by some members of the party leadership and asked to run for the judiciary,” he recalls. “I was honored to be asked, and I realized that family law was something that I had practiced, and this position was something (in which) I would be able to do some really good things. So I took the risk and ran, and won, for New York State Family Court for Suffolk County.”
In 1996, Blass began to serve as judge in Suffolk County Family Court. The 10-year term brought him much success. In an observation of his courtroom which took place in 2004, he was described as “courteous,” “concerned” and “extremely patient” while also being noted as “listening carefully.” In fact, one court-appointed monitor stated that his jurisprudence and passion for children was exactly “what was needed in this time of their lives,” as many cases brought out difficult challenges in the lives of local families.
“Family court is the emergency room of the court system,” Blass says. “All varieties of miseries can turn into joy, and be somewhat improved, while others continue without changing. But, the bottom line, it’s a marvelous opportunity to ease suffering lives, from people of all backgrounds, especially children.”
He adds, “I handled cases for families of all ethnic, educational and economic backgrounds — and many times, successfully.”
After a distinguished career on the bench, Judge Blass was far from finished, and was appointed by then-Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy as the commissioner of the Department of Social Services in 2009, with unanimous approval from the legislature.
“I started as deputy commissioner, and with the work I did on that level, I was able to earn the confidence and support of the county executive and all the legislators, which was very important to me, to be Suffolk’s social services commissioner,” Blass says.
Here, he was tasked with facing head-on the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, tackling food stamp caseloads that grew by more than 100%, and emergency housing requests that, according to reports, grew by over 74%.
“A challenging time it was,” Blass says.
After four years as commissioner, he retired again to private life. At his departure, current Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone lauded the outgoing commissioner for his outstanding service, commending him on his stewardship and willingness to stop at nothing to protect this county’s most vulnerable.
After 35 years in a variety of public-facing roles, it was time, Blass says, to begin using his experience in government to advocate as a citizen, alongside his fellow citizens.
“I always was impressed by the words of Picasso: ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away,’” Blass says. “I felt, at this stage, I had accumulated some good experience and a skill set, and that it was time to give away without earning anything other than the satisfaction of doing it. The invitations came to join various boards, which I eagerly accepted.”
Blass would then go on to serve on East End Hospice, where he was part of planning, building and opening the Kanas Center for Hospice Care in Quiogue. He joined the Suffolk County Child Care Council, licensing and overseeing child care in Suffolk, and he also served on the board of Hallockville Museum Farm. He volunteers in the summer for EEH’s Camp Good Grief, which helps adolescents cope with the loss of loved ones. He is also a columnist for North Fork news website RiverheadLOCAL.
One nonprofit organization that is close to the heart of Blass is RISE Life Services. Currently, he holds the title of vice president of the Board of Directors and was recently elected president. RISE Life Services, formerly Aid to the Developmentally Disabled (ADD), is among the foremost advocates for those with special needs on Long Island and offers rapidly expanding day programs, services and assistance to those with autism and other developmental challenges.
“There is no more unrepresented, if not forgotten, constituency than the mental and physically disabled community that RISE services,” he says of his inspiration to get involved in the cause. “Were it not for the 32 group homes and the dedicated staff that houses our patients, they would be almost helpless, with families often struggling to find placement or other help when their children age out of programs, which happens for many in their early 20s.”
Blass continues, “New York is by no means the ideal environment for the disabled, and it is a miracle that we have been able to train and find employment for those we serve, keeping them housed and fulfilled in the process. … It is a continuing, awesome project in humanism.”
Blass’ influence and impact will be felt so long as he continues on his mission to help others, and if his zeal and passion is any indication, he is far from finished.
Todd Shapiro is a award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.