Biography of Zerah S. Westbrook
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ZERAH S. WESTBROOK
HON. Zera S. Westbrook, the present deputy comptroller of the state of New York, has an interesting and instructive history. As a state official he is at this time a temporary resident of Albany, his residence and home being at Amsterdam, N. Y. His career is one which illustrates in a striking manner, the rise, progress and development of a character such as only can be found in a land of free institutions, without the aid of the wealthy, titled, so called nobility. As will be seen in a brief review of his life, he has already exhibited those qualities which belong to true manhood.
Born at Montague, Sussex County, N. J., on the 7th of April, 1845, he spent his youthful days on a farm. His father, Severyne L. Westbrook, tilled a farm at that place. Zerah was a bright, delicate child and the delight of his parents. But he had scarcely reached the age of four years before the grave closed over his father, a useful and respected citizen; and his mother was called upon to make renewed struggles in his behalf during the opening years of his life. His mother was Susan E., daughter of James B. Armstrong of Montague, one of the prominent citizens of Sussex County. She was an intelligent and very pious woman, and died on November 22, 1889, in the seventy-seventh year of her age, beloved and respected by a large circle of relatives and friends. As soon as he was old enough he was sent to the district school; but as he grew up he was obliged to work on a farm in order to earn his bread and butter. He was a hard working lad but a successful young bread-winner. At the same time he was a studious youth, and before he was seventeen years of age he devoted what little time he could spare from manual labor to his school books. Thus inured to hard, honest toil, he has never been ashamed of work, and it is no wonder that today, with his early trying experience, he is the true, fast friend of workingmen. In 1862, at the age of seventeen, we find him working by the month on the farm of the Hon. Isaac Bonnell of Montague.
This was a stirring and critical period in the history of our country; the storm of civil war had burst over the land, and thousands of patriots were enlisting in the military service, and hastening to those fields of carnage, where,
” The bayonet pierces, and the sabre cleaves, And human lives are lavished everywhere, As the year closing whirls the scarlet leaves. When the stript forest bows to the bleak air, And groans.”
Westbrook, young as he was, could not resist the call of his country to arms; and leaving the farm of Mr. Bonnell, he hastened to enlist as a private in Co. ” I ” of the Fifteenth New Jersey volunteer infantry, under the gallant Maj.-Gen. Phil. Kearney with whom he served in the army of the Potomac in the famous First New Jersey Brigade – a brigade which rendered such glorious services in behalf of an imperiled government.
On his honorable discharge from Kearney’s New Jersey brigade, our young soldier came home and quietly resumed his work on the farm. Determined to continue his studies he spent one year at the Deckertown academy and then entered the Connecticut Literary Institution at Suffield, where he graduated in 1866. He was now ready to choose a profession, having no means to pursue a college course, and in looking over the whole field of work he was not long in selecting that of the law. With the same energy and decision of character that had marked his earlier history, he came to Albany and entered the law school here. Enjoying the able instruction of its learned professors, he made rapid progress in his legal studies and was graduated in 1867, when he was at once admitted to the bar by the general term then sitting in Albany. He first settled at Northampton, Fulton County, N. Y., and during his four years’ stay there he secured a good law practice in the counties of Fulton, Hamilton and Saratoga. It was the sterling qualities of the young lawyer, his excellent judgment, his sound advice, his devotion to his profession that crowned his labors at Northampton with success and made him so popular.
While living at Northampton he married Miss Matilda F., daughter of the late Fay Smith, a merchant of that town, and settled down happily in domestic life.
In seeking a still wider field for the practice of his profession, Mr. Westbrook removed to Amsterdam, Montgomery County, in the spring of 1871, where he was not long in establishing a large clientage, which he still retains.
Soon after he was old enough to vote, Mr. Westbrook espoused the cause of democracy, of which he is today a “bright and shining light.” So popular was he, without regard to party affiliations, that in 1873, after a two years’ residence at Amsterdam, he was elected president of the village by a majority of 126 over E. D. Bronson, a wealthy and well-known manufacturer of the place. And the manner in which he administered the affairs of the village was so generally approved that the next year he was chosen president without opposition. But higher honors were awaiting him. In bringing before the people a strong candidate for county judge, the democrats of Montgomery county said with one accord let us nominate young Westbrook, whose professional abilities were then so widely recognized, as well as his high character as a citizen. He received the nomination in 1877, and was heartily endorsed by many outside his own party lines; and when the votes for county judge were counted it was found that “Zera Westbrook had a majority of 1,319 over Hon. S. P. Heath, the republican incumbent. Judge Westbrook filled the office of county judge with great satisfaction to the public during six years, and when his term was about to expire he was re-nominated in 1883, and re-elected by the magnificent majority of 2,221 over Charles P. Winegar, the republican candidate.
It may truly be said that he made an excellent record as a fair-minded, impartial judge; and though his rulings were sometimes displeasing to defeated counsel and suitors, yet when such cases were carried to higher courts his decisions were invariably sustained.
After a constant and faithful service of ten years on the bench, Judge Westbrook resigned his office on the 1st of January, 1888, to assume his present duties as deputy comptroller of the state, for the discharge of which he is admirably qualified. When Hon. Edward Wemple, the popular and judicious comptroller, entered upon his new duties on January 1, 1888, he believed that if he could secure the services of his friend Judge Westbrook as deputy he would have the right man in the right place, and accordingly the judge received and accepted the appointment. And it may be truly said that to his executive ability, sound judgment, and large knowledge of constitutional and statute law is due in no small degree the orderly and efficient dispatch of business in the office of the comptroller.
As a still further manifestation of the popular regard toward Judge Westbrook he was unanimously nominated by the democrats on September 25th, 18S8, as representative in congress for the Twentieth congressional district, and the large vote that he received on election day was in keeping with his past record, evincing the high regard in which he is held by men of all political parties. The district is strongly republican but Judge Westbrook was so popular with the people and made such an energetic canvass, that he led the democratic national and state tickets nearly one thousand, and received a total of 20,665 votes, being the largest vote ever polled for a democrat in’ the district.
Judge Westbrook is a true friend of the farmers and the mechanics and of all classes of workingmen, and with such he is deservedly popular. He believes in the dignity and nobility of labor, but is no admirer of wealthy, grasping monopolists, that seek to obtain undue advantage of, or oppress the people.
His past career furnishes an example worthy of imitation by the aspiring young men of our land. Deprived at the age of four years of the tender and watchful care of a father, and thrown upon his own resources, in his boyhood days he labored with his young hands on a farm, studied all he could, engaged in the military service of his country, studied law, became a judge and a deputy comptroller of the empire state before he had scarcely reached the meridian of life.
Plain and unassuming in his manners, sincere and strong in his friendships, high and honorable in the aims of his life, he has already drawn around him hosts of friends whom he holds with a ” cord that is not easily broken,” who are now actively engaged in looking after his political interests, and who would rejoice in seeing him ” go up higher.”