YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Go through the archives and pull out any Planning Board or Town Board agenda from the past two decades and chances are you’ll see Al Capellini’s name on it somewhere.
Capellini, a former Yorktown supervisor, bowed out of politics nearly four decades ago but remained a presence at town hall, representing many high-profile developments over the years, including Costco/Lowe’s and the Jefferson Valley Mall. It wasn’t unusual for Capellini, a land use attorney, to represent several clients in one night, receiving approval for one development, then remaining at the lectern while the board moved onto the next item.
However, his weekly appearances at town hall subsided several months ago after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Those who knew him, though, said he remained dedicated to his clients, working on projects until his final days. Capellini died on Thursday, April 12. He was 75.
Despite Capellini’s condition, Supervisor Ilan Gilbert said he met with him three times in the past month. Though not of all of his projects were universally accepted by town officials or residents, Capellini wouldn’t represent someone unless he thought it was in the best interests of the town, Gilbert said.
“He was working until the very end,” Gilbert said. “He was always concerned about his clients and concerned about his town.”
Capellini is a founder and former president of Circolo da Vinci, an Italian heritage organization that, among other charitable acts, provides scholarships to local high school students. He was also a trustee of the Jack DeVito Foundation and served as president of the Yorktown Lions Club. Capellini was named Lion of the Year in 1984-85 and a Melvin Jones Fellow in 1990. He was named Person of the Year by the Yorktown Democratic Club in 1999 and Business Person of the Year by the Yorktown Chamber of Commerce in 2004.
Gilbert said he got to know Capellini during his time on the Conservation Board. Just 13 years his junior, Capellini affectionately called Gilbert “kid.”
“He was a very, very special piece of Yorktown,” Gilbert said. “We’ve lost a real civic leader, a great person and a great man. He was an Italian mensch. Just a real compassionate, kind, loving individual. He never said a bad word about anyone, that I ever heard. He was an unassuming giant. He had no ego whatsoever, but he was a giant in this town.”
Aldo Capellini said his brother was “extremely well-liked” because he was a man of principle. Aldo said his brother was dedicated to his job and occasionally worked for free when people couldn’t afford his services.
“If I was God, I would have never took him,” Aldo said. “I would have left him here. He’s always done good for people.”
Capellini grew up in the North Bronx. After graduating from Mount St. Michael Academy in 1959, his family moved back to Italy but settled in East Harlem when he was 21 years old. He studied political science at Fordham University, where he was elected class president his senior year. He continued his studies at Columbia Law School and then at Fordham University before joining the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.
Marvin Raskin joined the Bronx District Attorney’s Office in 1972, when Capellini was deputy chief of the Appeals Bureau. Before that, Capellini was a trial lawyer, securing two convictions on homicide cases. Despite being an “exceptional” trial lawyer, Raskin said, Capellini moved to the Appeals Bureau because he didn’t want the pressure of being in the courtroom.
Raskin said Capellini was the first person many young lawyers sought for advice.
“He spoke our language,” Raskin said. “He explained to many of my ilk how to try a case; what to do and what not to do.”
Capellini began his political career in 1976, when he was elected to finish out the unexpired term of Councilman John Hand, who had been elected to the County Board of Legislators. A year later, he was elected town supervisor, an office he held until 1980, when he retired from politics and opened a law office in Yorktown.
It was around that time Raskin began looking for a new home. As with all major decisions, he called Capellini for guidance.
“He said, ‘You gotta move to Yorktown,’ ” recalled Raskin. “I was not in Yorktown an hour before Al put my name on his masthead.”
Years later, when one of Capellini’s clients went before the Zoning Board of Appeals, he refused to try the case, instead prepping Raskin on the issues.
“He educated me and we prevailed on a zoning issue,” Raskin said. “I will tell you to this day, [anyone] could have done it. I just took his guidance. He was not trying cases anymore and didn’t even want to do a zoning case, but he knew the law like the back of his hand.”
Capellini, a lifelong Democrat, commanded respect from both sides of the aisle, Raskin said.
“He commanded respect because he earned it,” he said. “This was one of the brightest, most self-effacing, unassuming, unpretentious guys.”
Indeed, Matt Slater, chair of the Yorktown Republican Town Committee, wrote on Facebook that Capellini was a “true gentleman” who loved Yorktown.
Raskin said Capellini had unwavering loyalty to the clients he represented, always giving them “110 percent.”
“I want to grow up to be like Al,” said the 72-year-old Raskin.
One of those clients was Rich Leahy, owner of Atlantic Appliance in Yorktown, whose property became the future home of Lowe’s. Leahy met Capellini decades before, in the late 1970s, when Capellini, then town supervisor, called Leahy and asked whether he could help out a woman who needed a refrigerator but couldn’t afford one. Leahy provided the appliance free of charge.
“From then on, we just became close friends,” Leahy said. “He was a great person.”
Leahy said Capellini dedicated himself to his work.
“He would say, ‘I can’t sleep. These problems are popping up in my head,’ ” Leahy said. “Everybody came before him. He put himself last in everything.”
He was also a very loyal friend, Leahy said.
“If you called him in the middle of the night, he’s going to take your call,” Leahy said. “If you said, ‘Come over,’ he’s not going to even ask why, he’s just going to come over.”
Though imitators may follow, trying to fill the void he left behind, there will only be one Al Capellini, Leahy said.
“There are going to be a lot of people trying to fill his shoes, and they won’t be able to,” Leahy said.
He is survived by his wife, Rosanna, and his two sons, Jeffrey and Terence.
Services were held at Yorktown Funeral Home on Sunday and Monday. The funeral Mass was held at St. Patrick’s Church on Tuesday. A private ceremony will be held at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Phelps Memorial Hospital, The Jack DeVito Foundation, and Doctors Without Borders.