HOMETOWN: Glens Falls, NY
FAMILY: Partner, Jim Kneeshaw, six adult children and 18 grandchildren
EDUCATION: B.A., Elementary Education, College of Saint Rose
OCCUPATION: Senator, New York State’s 45th Senate District
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Board of Directors for Glens Falls National Bank, Arrow Financial (15 years) and Double H Hole In the Woods (a camp in Lake Luzerne for seriously ill children)
On December 31, 2020 Senator Betty Little will complete her ninth and final term representing the North Country in the New York State Senate. She has driven countless miles across the region during her 34-year career in public service, improving the lives of individuals and groups and championing causes that have helped make this region what it is today. After celebrating a milestone birthday in September, retirement is the next big project on her To-Do List.
When Little graduated from college in 1962, the career choices available to women were limited. She had majored in Elementary Education and spent the early years of her career teaching. Her second profession was Motherhood. A proud mother of six children Little put her career on pause to stay at home to raise them. When her youngest child entered kindergarten, her interest in community decision-making began to bubble. “The first issue I was really interested in was a trash plant that they wanted to build,” she recalled, “I disagreed with it and, in the end, the project lost millions of dollars.”
Little began her political career serving part-time in positions in town and county government near her home in Glens Falls. She continued to juggle motherhood and work as her children grew. “I was the housewife who showed up to be in politics,” she joked.
Her aspirations grew along with her children, and Little was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1995 and to the State Senate in 2002. With retirement just weeks away, she recently took time out of her busy schedule to reflect on her service and career for Strictly Business.
SB: How did you become interested in politics?
BL: I think you either are, or you aren’t. When I read the papers or heard about issues, I often had this little voice in my head that wondered why they did it the way they did. I had ideas about how I would do things differently.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
BL: The first thing you learn is that everyone is not your friend. When I ran for my first board position I needed eight votes. I received six, but then nine people swore they voted for me. That was lesson number one. You have to understand that you are not always going to be liked, and you are not going to please everyone.
SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
BL: My parents taught me to be grateful, appreciate what is going on around you and to always say thank you.
SB: How do you approach your work to best ensure a successful outcome?
BL: Success is when preparation and opportunity meet. It is important to continue to educate yourself and always look for opportunities. You have to work hard, and you also have to know your stuff. If you pretend to know something you don’t know, you will get caught. I have done tons of research into many topics so that I have all the information I need to be prepared. My role is to help people. The only way I can do that is to know the issue, know some possible solutions and know how I can help or where I can send them for more help when needed.
SB: What is your management and leadership style?
BL: The first thing is to have patience with people. The second key is communication. The skill that I have worked on the most is listening to other people. It is so easy to just rattle on to keep a conversation going. Sometimes you think you know where a conversation is going but it ends up in a totally different direction. I’ve learned that you really need to listen to people when they talk.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
BL: Professionally it is Robert Cronin, former Mayor of Glens Falls. He also taught at the College of St. Rose. I was interested in history and politics in college and he was very influential to me.
In my personal life, I have two daughters who have had a big influence on me. Their attitudes are so different from when I was a young girl growing up. I admire them and I have learned a lot from them.
SB: How have you inspired or mentored others?
BL: The League of Women Voters usually has a few women shadowing me. I have talked to a lot of school classes to educate them and get them comfortable with the idea of working in government. It is really heartwarming when you later see one of those kids out in the community and they remember who you are and what you said.
SB: If you could start your professional career over again, what would you do differently?
BL: I wish I had joined the military. My two sons served in the military, so I got to see the benefits of the military through them. Back when I graduated from high school, there were only two choices a woman had in the military — you could be a nurse or a secretary. I did not consider it, and now I wish I had. I think it is a great experience for men and women.
SB: How has the pandemic made things more challenging for your work life?
BL: It is hard not seeing people like I used to. Staff are going back into the office now but we are taking turns. There are no visitors coming in, and that has been very different.
SB: What benefits have come as a result of the changes that the pandemic has forced us to make?
BL: Soon after the pandemic started, telemedicine got a real boost. I think this is the wave of the future. Having the ability to hold an initial medical visit online from home is really going to improve people’s health.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
BL: I live in my mother and father’s house on Glen Lake. I love to swim, paddleboard, and exercise. I have a piano downstairs that was out of tune. During the pandemic, I found someone to tune it so I have been playing again for my own enjoyment.
SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
BL: I have always admired Sandra Day O’Connor. I am reading First, the most recent book about her life. She faced a lot of issues being the first woman Supreme Court justice, but she was still able to put her family first.
SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life?
BL: It is the idea that it’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you deal with it.
SB: Did you experience a failure or missed opportunity during your career?
BL: We improved cell coverage on the Adirondack Northway but it still drops out and has capacity issues. There are a lot of roads and highways in our region with no coverage. We have dangerous winters and winding roads, so we really need it. I sometimes think maybe I didn’t do enough to get those problems solved.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
BL: The things I am most proud of are not the things that make headlines. It’s the people I have been able to help. It is rewarding to help a constituent get good results with an issue they have — whether that be with a state agency or an insurance company, or any number of problems. My staff has been outstanding with that. We can’t help everybody, but we do the best we can. This is what we are here for.
SB: You’ve announced your retirement and are winding down in office. What’s next on your agenda?
BL: I have always been a busy person, so I was really nervous about leaving office. I think when you have six kids, you have to be comfortable with being busy. I was recently appointed to the board of ORDA, so that will keep me involved. I have also been involved in planning for the Universiade Games which will bring over 2600 athletes to Lake Placid to compete in January 2023. Creating more housing in that area is an important part of the planning for that event.
SB: How did you decide that this was the right time to step away from politics?
BL: I always said I would not be there after I turned 80. It was a day that I knew was coming and one that I felt would be the right time to leave. I stuck to it, and looking back now I can see it was the right decision.
SB: What will you miss most when you leave office?
BL: Without a doubt it is the people. All the people I have met and talked to during my career. It is exciting and heartwarming, and so much fun. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to be a legislator. I wish I had been able to do more but I did my very best. I have been so fortunate and I am so grateful for the life I have had. I am truly blessed and grateful.
SB: How would you like to be remembered?
BL: Certainly as being honest. I believe that when you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you said. I also want to be remembered as being accessible to talk to anyone and everyone who wants to be heard, and helping them the best I can.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
BL: We need to increase our year-round population in order for healthcare and schools to have a sustainable future. Medical professionals won’t come to live in an area where they see so few patients that they can’t keep up their skills. Without accessible cell service and internet access, this is very hard to achieve. Every household needs internet service. It has to be seen as important as having electricity in your house. This pandemic is the first time we have ever gone virtual, and I am sure it is not going to be the last time.