On a muggy late August day in 2016, the temperature was climbing as a group of several hundred awaited the chance to applaud the guest of honor. It was the official opening of the Patrick J. Solano Environmental Education Center at Frances Slocum State Park, and probably each attendee had a different reason for being there.
The man who was so many things to so many people drew a strong turnout that day: elected officials and state department heads who had turned to him for advice; conservancy leaders who appreciated his always attentive ear; veterans who knew the distinguished service to country he had paid.
There was one other group applauding especially hard that day. And why not? Mr. Solano reached out to the men and women in the audience who wore the DCNR patch and let it be known he appreciated what they did.
“My name may be on this building,” Solano said. “But all you people I’ve met and worked with over the years deserve the credit. All I can say is that we in Pennsylvania are lucky to have such a great group of dedicated people who care about our environment.”
Trademarks of the man: always appreciative, always humble. And, oh, so funny.
“This truly is an honor for me and very humbling in a sense,” Solano, 91 at the time, told the Luzerne County gathering. “If any of you here today are being bothered by those gnats, blame the Bureau of Forestry -- they were supposed to spray this place.”
Surrounded by his wife, Marie, and family, Patrick J. Solano died peacefully at home on January 23. He was 95.
Almost immediately, especially in Northeastern Pennsylvania, media accounts swelled with accomplishments of and testaments to the man affectionately referred to as the “51st state senator” and among the “Greatest Generation.”
Congressmen, former governors, elected state officials, and so many others pointed to the distinguished background that set Mr. Solano apart:
- During World War II, he completed 23 combat missions with the Eighth U.S. Air Force Heavy Bombardment Group aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress. For his service, he was awarded the Group Presidential Citation, the Air Force Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the European Combat Theatre Medal with two Bronze Stars.
- Following the war, he pursued a lifetime of public service at both the local and state levels. He served in the administration of nine governors and was frequently recognized for being a trusted advisor, a voice of reason, and a unifying force in the Pennsylvania Capitol.
- He served as Deputy Secretary for Parks and Forests with the former Department of Environmental Resources (DER), and as Acting Secretary when the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) was first created in 1995.
And it is here, within DCNR, that we find more words of praise for a man who was a guiding force in the department’s formative years:
DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn
“Like most people who knew him, I benefited greatly from Pat’s wise counsel from very early in my career. While in my twenties, I asked his assistance in getting an environmental education act passed, and he took the time to sit down and sketch out on paper a plan of attack for success.
His generosity to assist conservationists of all ages and affiliations to do good things and help others succeed was remarkable.
He served as a ‘go-to’ for all who wanted the political or substantive ‘lay of the land’ on issues impacting the Northeast and beyond. He was truly a fine representative of ‘the Greatest Generation’ and DCNR benefitted from him greatly over the decades.”
Former DCNR Secretary Ellen M. Ferretti
"To me, he was a mentor and longtime family friend. He never knew that I was always quietly learning from him. He realized that a few years ago when he complimented me on something I did as secretary of DCNR.
I told him, ‘I learned from the best. I learned from you.’ I am so humbled to have followed in his footsteps as a secretary of DCNR from Northeast Pennsylvania and to have shared his love of the outdoors, the forests, fields, and streams.
I am so proud to have been able to call Pat a friend and mentor, and I will miss him until the end of my days."
Former DCNR Secretary Rick Allan
“He was, still right up to the end, always working on things, but with this pandemic, he missed most what he really enjoyed doing, and that was interacting with people. He had to be cautious because of his concern for his wife, Marie, but he never wanted to step aside from being involved. For more than 30 years he had been my mentor and a fabulous friend.
We did so many good things up there (in Northeast Pa.). Pat’s duty to the state always came first, or maybe second, only to his wife, Marie, but family and service were so important to him. It did not matter who you were, he always would listen to you.”
Former DCNR Secretary John C. Oliver
“Pat and I went back over 40 years and he always had probably one of the best political minds I ever met. That proved invaluable in DCNRs’ earlier life when he often would consult with and advise me and DEP Secretary Jim Seif.
He provided just a great insight on the way to get things done in the political world in which we live. He was such a great supporter of our state, especially our state parks and state forests and especially in the Northeast.
He could work both sides of the aisle so well and smoothed over many an issue for the department. As they so often say, Pat was indeed Pennsylvania’s 51st state senator for life. He was just held in such high respect and I am so sorry to see him go.”
Gretchen A. Leslie, Senior Adviser, Office of the Secretary
“I met Pat when I first started my career with DER in 1993. He showed such kindness and support for someone just beginning in public service.
But that was who Pat was, no matter what your title, or who you knew, he had time for you. I am grateful for the guidance and support he showed me and countless others over his long and remarkable career.”