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Amo Houghton, Corning Glass heir who served 18 years in Congress, dies at 93

Former congressman Amo Houghton has died at 93. (Harry Scull Jr./2004 Buffalo News file photo)

Over nine campaigns and throughout the cities and small towns of New York’s Southern Tier, a fall rite of campaign season always featured the arrival of Amo Houghton aboard his RV-turned-campaign bus – the "Amomobile."

Everyone in the district knew Mr. Houghton, the longtime chairman of Corning Inc. who left the corporate boardroom for the halls of Congress. But to the crowds who always seemed to welcome his arrival, this World War II veteran, corporate titan and distinguished member of Congress was just "Amo."

Mr. Houghton, who for the last several years lived a quiet life of retirement in Corning, died Wednesday in his hometown. He was 93.

A classic "Northeast moderate Republican" whose political breed has become largely extinct, Mr. Houghton elevated building bridges between partisan factions into a rare Washington art form. During 18 years representing a congressional district stretching from Jamestown to Elmira, he championed local causes such as completion of the Southern Tier Expressway and national issues such as reforming the campaign finance system.

His unique style stemmed from combining the advantages of his privileged upbringing with a down home ability to connect with average voters. As a result, Mr. Houghton plunged into the political world upon his retirement from Corning (the only chief executive of a Fortune 500 company elected to the House) to become a major political figure. And he was good at it, especially as a consensus builder.

Serving in Congress from 1987 until his retirement in 2005, he emerged as a moderating force in a House of Representatives marked increasingly by partisanship. As a result, when he joined Washington political groups, it was aimed at reaching agreement.

He was founder of the John Quincy Adams Society that joined business leaders and federal office holders, as well as the Republican Main Street Partnership that sought to strengthen the political center.

It seemed during his time in Washington that when partisanship began to dominate, all sides turned to Mr. Houghton.

“You can’t go kicking a guy in the shins or poking someone in the eye and then try to work out deals about the future of the country,” he told The Buffalo News in 1997 while organizing a conference seeking “civility” in Congress.

“It’s absolutely a matter of practicality,” he continued. “If you want to do the thing you were sent down here to do, you must be able to do it with both sides of the aisle.”

During those years, he lamented that few in the House even knew their Washington neighbor across the hall, so he organized a holiday party in 1996 to see if any good might result.

“Anybody in business realizes that relationships are more important than transactions,” he said.

A successor to his seat in Congress, Rep. Tom Reed, on Thursday recalled the long association his family had as employees of the Houghtons more than 90 years ago.

"Washington still has much to learn from his legacy," he said. "A legacy of common-sense governing through respected bipartisan friendships and political civility. A legacy where our country comes first and our political party a distant second. Our nation has lost a true hero, and our hometown of Corning has lost a great ambassador."

Amory Houghton Jr. was born in Corning as part of the family that controlled the giant Corning Glass Works, now Corning Inc. His early life seemed torn out of the pages of the “Directory of Patrician Families.” His grandfather, Alanson B. Houghton, was ambassador to Germany and then to the Court of St. James’s (Great Britain) after also serving in the House from 1918-1922.

His father, Amory Houghton Sr., also left Corning Glass to become ambassador to France during the Eisenhower administration. His cousin was Academy Award winning actress Katharine Hepburn.

The future congressman graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., before serving in the Marine Corps during World War II.

After the war he attended Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1950, and then came back to Corning and the glass works founded in 1851 by his great-great-grandfather. He joined Corning in 1952 as a junior process engineer, became president in 1961 and CEO in 1964. During his tenure, the company's employment grew to 29,000 through innovations such as Corning Ware, Corelle Dinnerware, automotive catalytic converters, and specialized flat glass now ubiquitous on smartphones and panels.

During his time in Corning he also plunged into community life, serving as president of the Rotary Club and playing drums in a local swing band. But when he left the executive suite in 1983, his eye was on Washington.

By 1986, the businessman was following the family tradition of government service. When Rep. Stan Lundine ran for lieutenant governor in 1986 with then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Mr. Houghton announced his candidacy to succeed him and easily returned the seat to Republican control.

He vanquished a succession of Democratic challengers every election following, even though Lundine had been the first Democrat since Reconstruction to win the Southern Tier seat. Mr. Houghton soon became a familiar sight in cities such as Olean, Hornell and in later years as far north as Auburn. Usually, he won elections with totals approaching or even exceeding 70 percent of the vote.

Though he hailed from a conservative district, Mr. Houghton’s special brand of Republicanism seemed to endear him to his constituency. He championed abortion rights, voted against impeaching President Bill Clinton and against permanently repealing the estate tax.

He also often voted with Democrats on the environment, civil rights, and funding for arts and education. In 2002, he emerged as one of the few Republicans in the House to vote against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. During that same period he helped pass tax breaks for New York City following the terrorist attacks of 2001.

During his corporate days, Houghton served on the boards of major companies such as Procter & Gamble, IBM, Citicorp, New York Telephone and others. He was also a trustee of St. Paul’s School, the Brookings Institution, a former member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and a past director of the Episcopal Theological Seminary. He held 14 honorary degrees.

In 1950, he married the former Ruth West of New York City. He married again in 1989 to Priscilla Blackett Dewey – a playwright, lyricist and poet – and together they reigned as one of Washington’s elite couples. She died in 2012.

Though Mr. Houghton will be remembered for many accomplishments, his neighbors in Corning often point to his leadership during the Hurricane Agnes flood of 1972 that devastated the city and left 22 people dead. In a speech over emergency airwaves, he pledged that Corning Inc. would never leave and would rebuild bigger and better. He kept the pledge.

The former congressman is survived by two sons, Amory III and Robert; two daughters, Sarah and Quincy; and a brother, James (also a former Corning chairman); two stepsons, Toby Dewey and Peter Dewey; a stepdaughter, Kippy Dewey;  nine grandchildren and one great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held in Corning at a later date, according to the Haughey Funeral Home in Corning.

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