History

Barbara and Herman Lee with Barbara’s mother Ethel Lewis. Photos from Geral Lee.

By Geral Lee

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is unquestionably synonymous with Black History Month. He courageously confronted social inequities and racism in the midst of an adverse anti-black administration largely due to J. Edgar Hoover who had been appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation, renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Few could compete with Hoover’s power and he went virtually unchallenged for half a century.

Hoover opposed making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. His smear campaign attempted to label Dr. King as a communist and a homosexual. He ordered illegal wire taps of Dr. King’s hotel room to try to justify his stance and used the power of government to satisfy his own bigotry toward blacks. Dr. King persevered.

Herman Lee in his Navy days (circa 1941). Photo from Geral Lee

There were many other individuals way before Dr. King who challenged the system in the name of justice. I am certain their actions helped define his political strategies. These people — and God bless them — were not just slaves, demonstrators or rioters.    

I must include Glenn Beck in this article. I am not suggesting he is an authority on black history. As the colorful conservative that he is, his question as to why the many contributions of black people continue to remain hidden from the mainstream is a legitimate one — and yet another reason to celebrate Black History Month.

In one of his tapings, “Glenn Beck Founders’ Fridays Black American Founders” (Fox News), that I listened to on YouTube, he mentioned Peter Salem, a hero in the Battle of Bunker Hill who saved scores of American lives. During the Battle of Lexington, white and black parishioners who worshiped together were commanded to fight. James Armistead served as a double spy. And is that Prince Whipple, the black crewman, in the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware? I am not so sure because many blacks fought in the American Revolution. Freedom was not an automatic option.       

There have been unsung black heroes making all kinds of contributions throughout American history. The members of the 333rd Battalion, for example. The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Baltimore, Maryland, which was one of the largest and most successful black businesses in America in the 1870s.   

“Dirty Little Secrets About Black History: Its Heroes & Other Troublemakers” by Claud Anderson reveals that in the late 1800s, blacks invented and filed for patents on a number of transportation-related devices. Andrew J. Beared invented an automatic train car coupler. Albert B. Blackburn invented a railway signal. R.A. Butler invented a train alarm. Although many inventors were fresh out of slavery and the literacy rate among slaves was 50 percent, black inventors filed hundreds of patents for transportation devices. The Safe Bus Company was a black-owned city-chartered bus line in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from 1930 to the 1960s.   

Black history celebrates regular people engaged in positive activities. Here are some examples:

My father Herman Lee resided at 34 Christian Ave., Setauket, between 1956 and 2011. He was employed at the Setauket yard of the Brookhaven Highway Department in the 1960s and promoted to foreman in the 1970s. He did carpentry/home improvement projects for Three Village homeowners; among his regular clients, the Windrows and the Strongs. In World War II he served on the USS Hornet CV-12. After he became a chaplain for the VFW along with his wife Barbara Lewis Lee who was a practical nurse and historian in her own right. They sent all of their four children to college: Barbara, Herman, Geral and Peter.

Barbara, Herman, Geral and Peter Lee. Photo from Geral Lee

Uncle Sherwood Lewis was an employee of Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO). He came up with an idea that saved the company more than $100,000 a year according to a Newsday article dated April 23, 1977. He, too, was raised on Christian Avenue and now resides in Massachusetts.

Grandmother Ethel Lewis, valedictorian of her high school graduating class, resided at 32 Christian Ave. with her husband Howard Lewis. They subdivided their property so my parents could build their house on Christian Avenue.

Aunt Hazel Lewis, salutatorian of her graduating class, was employed at Peck & Peck in New York City back in the day — a high-end boutique clothing store for women.   

Aunt Pearl Lewis Hart received an associates degree in accounting in her 40s, was promoted to supervisor of the payroll department at SUNY Stony Brook and, until her death last month at age 92, was living in her own home on Christian Avenue.

Uncle Harry Hart, Pearl’s husband, owned his own excavation and contracting business from the 1940s to the 1980s. He acquired land on Christian Avenue and rented to many local folks.   

Remembering a few of Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence can help provide the foundation for a healthy society: “Nonviolence is a way of life for brave people; attack problems, not people; know and do what is right even when it is difficult.”     

I know there are many individuals who believe in these principles.

Black History Month means different things to different people, but if it can fill in the gaps, identify injustice, encourage positive dialogue and provide a platform for people to work toward understanding one another, it is a valuable ongoing process.

Geral Lee returned to her Setauket home in 2013 to be with her father after living in Rhode Island for 12 years. She taught physical education and health in Hempstead early in her career and received a personal invitation from her primary school coach Jack Foley, who later became athletic director for Three Village schools, to teach at Ward Melville. She served in the Peace Corps in Senegal, loves dogs and cats and currently relieves stress as a reflexologist.

Image by Mike Sheinkopf

By Rich Acritelli

“Your success is now our country’s success.”

George H.W. Bush (R) who lost a hotly contested election to Bill Clinton (D) in 1992, passed on this message to the incoming president. Bush lost a difficult campaign to Clinton, but wanted a smooth transition of power to the newly elected leader. Both men were opponents who were completely opposite from each other. Bush was a fighter pilot who flew off aircraft carriers in the Pacific during World War II, and Clinton was decisively against the United States involvement during the Vietnam War. Bush was a conservative president and vice president living in Texas who served under Ronald Reagan (R) for eight years, and Clinton was a liberal governor from Arkansas. While their political views often clashed, since both men left office, they have grown to become good friends. These one-time executive adversaries are immensely close, and Clinton now regards Bush’s wife, Barbara, as a second mother.

Little-known Vice President Harry S. Truman (D) from Missouri gained power after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) April 12, 1945. Right away Truman felt the immense burden of responsibility after learning about the tragic death of Roosevelt. When he asked the late president’s wife, Eleanor, what he could do to help her family, she asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

Truman presided over the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, a fledgling postwar economy, and a difficult re-election against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey (R). Although Truman is remembered as an extremely capable president, he had the difficulties of serving after the trusted four-term leadership of Roosevelt and before the “General of the Armies” Dwight D. Eisenhower (R).

During World War II, Eisenhower was rapidly promoted and given an immense amount of authority by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, a highly regarded officer who became the architect of victory against Hitler in Europe. Outside of attaining a stellar record in the Army, Eisenhower’s only key blemish was his World War II affair with his driver Kay Summersby. After the war, he approached Marshall about the desire to divorce his wife and bring back his love interest to the U.S. Marshall took a heavy interest within Eisenhower’s career and he was seen as a second father to the future president. When the disciplinarian-minded Marshall learned that Eisenhower wanted to send for Summersby, he told his subordinate that he would run him “out of the Army” and make it impossible for him ever to “draw a peaceful breath.”

Marshall later wrote a scathing report about Eisenhower’s infidelities that was destroyed by Truman before he left office. Although Eisenhower and Truman did not have a warm relationship, Eisenhower stressed to Truman he could not believe how relentless the media was about his relationship with Summersby. Truman bluntly responded that if these were the only attacks against him by reporters, Eisenhower was immensely fortunate. Before he left office, Truman told the new leader he did not shred Marshall’s letter about Summersby to personally protect Eisenhower. His outgoing priority was to preserve the honor of the executive branch and its new leader, President-elect Eisenhower.

Currently, some of the cabinet nominations of President-elect Donald Trump (R) are facing scrutiny by Congress. Many previous presidents have endured political obstacles during this process. Clinton found it a chore to fulfill the attorney general position, as the first two candidates withdrew from being considered. George H.W. Bush watched as John Tower, his pick for secretary of defense in 1989 was not approved for the job. Personal allegations apart, the U.S. Senate did not like Tower’s connections to the national defense industry because they said it was a conflict of interest that could not be overlooked. It was the first time in 30 years the Senate refused to confirm a presidential cabinet appointment.

In 1980, Reagan faced scrutiny over Jackie Presser, later president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who was believed to have ties to organized crime. Presser was a labor adviser to Reagan’s transitional team, and the Democrats were outraged by possible connections of corruption. The choice of Jimmy Carter (D) for the Central Intelligence Agency, Theodore Sorensen, withdrew his own name in 1977 due to the onslaught of resentment waged against the former World War II conscientious objector. Many members of the intelligence and military communities were concerned that he was too much of an outsider who wanted to reform the CIA’s overall mission of gathering vital information during the height of the Cold War.

Historically speaking, the time between the election and inauguration, a period of uncertainty, has impacted every leader since the days of George Washington. These triumphs and failures are realistic issues that must be accepted by our leaders before they enter the Oval Office. This will be no different for Trump when he is sworn in Friday in front of the nation by Chief Justice John Roberts during an inauguration that will be watched by the world.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. Research for this story was contributed by the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society.

Edna White offers a section of clementine to her granddaughter, Alexandria McLaurin. Photo by Donna Newman

In today’s world, the loudest voices often preach a message of divisiveness and look to create an environment that excludes rather than accepts. This message runs contrary to the one preached by Martin Luther King Jr. and [his] vision for a just and peaceful future.

The invitation extended to community members was made in those words for an event titled We Thirst for Justice at the Bates House in Setauket Jan. 16 — the designated commemoration of the birth of the civil rights leader.

The event was organized by Michael Huffner, co-founder of the Community Growth Center with locations in Smithtown and Port Jefferson Station, in partnership with the All Souls Episcopal Church in Stony Brook. A newly formed service organization, The Spot — a new service group that provides resources, community and mentoring— and artist Alex Seel of the Center for Community Awareness facilitated a collaborative art project for the multifaith gathering. Each person was invited to record his/her vision of justice on a small square of colored paper. Seel, assisted by Vanessa Upegui worked to merge the squares into a colorful mosaic.

Huffner said he hoped the celebration would inspire people to work collaboratively for justice.

Vanessa Upegui and Alex Seel pause to display their art project. Photo by Donna Newman

“What seems like a small piece of paper can become a beautiful work of art when combined with others,” he said at the event. “What seems like a small voice becomes a sound capable of changing the world when combined with others … Dr. King’s message is simple. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. We must be the light; we must be the love that Dr. King spoke about.”

The Rev. Farrell Graves, spiritual leader of the All Souls Church, an associate chaplain at Stony Brook University and a founder of The Spot, added his take on the day’s significance.

“This is the joyful part of our work,” he said at the event. “We also have some more difficult work — to stand up for the common good. Freedom is for everyone, or it’s for no one. The cost of our freedom is constant vigilance, and by that I mean awareness, and I include in that self-awareness … If we don’t have the courage to look ourselves in the face, then fear and scapegoating take over. We start blaming others for our inadequacies … This is not yet the world that Martin Luther King envisioned. If we want to change the world, we must have the courage to change ourselves.”    

Seel stressed the importance of the fact that the civil rights movement of the ’60s was a collaborative effort and that such an endeavor is needed again to further the cause of justice in our country in our time.

“What we need now is leadership,” he said. “We need leaders who will bring different faith communities together. There needs to be a call to engage in a clear and effective goal.”

The event included live music and a diversity of foods. More than 65 people attended and, while the host organizations encouraged mixing and mingling, when approached, most people admitted they were sitting with people they already knew.

Far left, historian Georgette Grier-Key; second from left, teacher Monica Consalvo; second from right, alum Michael Tessler; and, far right, Mayor Margot Garant with seventh-grade students from the Port Jefferson Middle School. Photo from Monica Consalvo

MAKING HISTORY: On Dec. 22, seventh-grade students of the Port Jefferson Middle School attended an assembly that focused on how the village’s residents aided the efforts of the Patriots in winning the Revolutionary War. Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant, historian Georgette Grier-Key and alum Michael Tessler engaged the students in a fascinating display of how the Culper Spy Ring operated as well as having the opportunity to view Loyalist soldier Nehemiah Marks’ letter informing his comrades that Phillips and Nathaniel Roe, among others, helped supply Setauket-based spy Caleb Brewster with information to pass on to the Patriots.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato at the Mount Sinai Civic Association's 100th anniversary dinner. File photo by Desirée Keegan

In October, the Mount Sinai Civic Association celebrated its 100th anniversary and further cemented its role in providing the look, helping with the maintenance and ensuring the overall quality of life of the community. Considering its century-long list of accomplishments, the civic association is still going strong.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community,” Mount Sinai Civic Association Vice President Brad Arrington, a member since 2004, said. “It’s a mechanism to have an input in the future of my community and a place I plan to stay in for quite a long time.”

For their tireless efforts and infinite contributions, the more than 180 members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association have been recognized as Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community.”

— Brad Arrington

Made up of volunteers, the organization has been, and continues to be, built on local residents stepping forward and having a voice in shaping the place in which they live.

It all began on Oct. 5, 1916, when the civic association was founded as an offshoot of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association for the main purposes of obtaining better roads, improving conditions in Mount Sinai Harbor and figuring out ways to protect against fires, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Mount Sinai Volunteer Fire Department standing today.

The original officers elected at the first organizational meeting were Jacob Schratweiser, president; Philip C. Scherer, first vice president; William R. P. Van Pelt, secretary and Lorenzo H. Davis, treasurer.

They paved the way for decades’ worth of major civic issues that include successfully stopping the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor in the 1960s, suing Brookhaven for overdevelopment to reduce the number of housing units built in 1996 and working with state, county and town officials to purchase and preserve “The Wedge” property as Heritage Park. Developers initially planned to construct a Home Depot where the park is today.

Members of the civic association work toward improving their community, protecting its coastal environment and, perhaps most importantly, protesting against overdevelopment to keep their hamlet quaint and suburban.

“We want to [continue] protecting the open space Mount Sinai has,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “The woodlands, beach areas … preventing overdevelopment is [crucial] because that can also have negative impacts on taxes, quality of life and even things like crime.”

Becker, an active member since 1984, said she joined the organization because of the direct impact its work had on quality of life and families in the area.

Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker at a recent meeting. Photo by Kevin Redding

What initially prompted her involvement was the proposal for a giant commercial shopping center on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Canal Road, right behind her home, which would have been inconsistent with the aesthetic of the primarily residential neighborhood. Naturally, there wasn’t a lot of support for the planned development, and so the public — through the civic association — rallied against it and the shopping center never came to be.

Becker said the civic association is always on the lookout for problems and concerns residents might have with the ultimate goal of working on behalf of everyone to reach the best possible outcome and make a difference.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), whose office is currently working closely with the civic on two developmental projects, called Becker “a force to be reckoned with.”

“She’s exactly what a civic leader needs to be,” the councilwoman said. “The Mount Sinai community is very fortunate that Ann and the group continue to step up to the plate. They are a great group of volunteers and it’s an honor and a privilege to work with them.”

Fred Drewes, one of the civic’s long-serving members, joined in 1970, feeling it was important to be an active participant in the community and give constructive suggestions to help develop the quality of it.

Drewes, with the help of fellow civic member Lori Baldassare, projected his vision of a “central” park to help bring people together and have a location for community activities. It didn’t take long before the civic purchased the almost-a-Home Depot parcel and developed Drewes’ “Ivory Tower” idea.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the development of our hamlet,” he said, “has benefited from the input of members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association.”

John Cunniffe in his Stony Brook Avenue office. Photo by Donna Newman

To John Cunniffe, a person who lacks a knowledge of history is like a tree without roots.

So to make sure the history of the Three Village community is alive and vibrant, he’s spent the last decade offering his considerable architectural acuity to various organizations dedicated to doing just that.

Cunniffe sees the value in preserving heritage. He pays attention to the smallest of details, striving for historical accuracy while providing renovations that work in today’s world.

“There are many professionals in our community who give generously of their services to our local nonprofit organizations, often pro bono or for reduced fees, but none quite like John Cunniffe,” said Robert Reuter, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation. “He has helped jump-start and advance more important historic building projects throughout the Three Villages than I can count.”   

For his considerable contributions to the work being done by courageous nonprofits in preserving local historical edifices, for his unflagging willingness to lend his expertise to important local architecture projects and for his extreme generosity of time and spirit, John Cunniffe is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“When someone essentially does ‘pro-bono’ work in their area of expertise — that made John’s involvement just that much more selfless.”

— David Sterne

Raised on Long Island, the 45-year-old Stony Brook resident received his architectural degree from the New York Institute of Technology. He has worked for the Weiss/Manfredi firm where he honed his design pedigree.

The Cunniffes decided to return to Long Island from Virginia 10 years ago and settled not far from the Soundview area of East Setauket, from which his wife Colleen Cunniffe hails. There they are raising their two daughters.

Now known for prestigious residential projects that value historic preservation, while creating contemporary architecture for his clients, he has also become the go-to architect for important restoration and preservation projects throughout the Three Village area, Reuter said.

Cunniffe donated his services to create the documents and secure the permits necessary to relocate and restore the historic Rubber Factory Worker Houses for the Three Village Community Trust. Soon he was handling work for the Setauket Neighborhood House, the Three Village Historical Society, the Frank Melville Memorial Park, The Long Island Museum, projects in the Bethel–Christian Avenue–Laurel Hill Historic District as well as the Caroline Church, Reuter added.

“They all needed an architect,” Reuter said. “They got more than they asked for — they got thorough project planning and exceptionally good design, as well as the necessary documents and permits.”

Along the way, Cunniffe represented the Stony Brook Historic District as a volunteer on the Town of Brookhaven’s Historic District Advisory Committee and advised the Setauket Fire Department on planning and design for the new headquarters building on Route 25A in Setauket.

Setauket Fire District Manager David Sterne said he feels grateful to have had Cunniffe’s participation in the planning for the new fire department structure.

“John was an integral part of the community committee for the planning and design of the new firehouse,” he said. “He attended most meetings and his insights, especially from his architect’s point of view, were invaluable. It’s one thing for a person to take part as a volunteer, but when someone essentially does ‘pro-bono’ work in their area of expertise — that made John’s involvement just that much more selfless.”

Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell remembers where and when she first encountered Cunniffe. 

John Cunniffe constructed plans for the new Setauket Fire Department Headquarters on Route 25A in Setauket. Phto by Desirée Keegan

“I first met John when he was the representative from the Stony Brook Historic District to the Town’s Historic District Advisory Committee,” she said. “He always brought sound knowledge of architecture, a willingness to hear out the applicants and helpful suggestions to the meetings. Beyond his education in architecture, he has a sense of the importance of historical structures and how they fit into our community today.”

Russell said it is unique how Cunnife considers style, materials, location and history of a structure as well as how it has to conform to fit in today’s world.

“Whether it be its location in the community or the owner’s lifestyle, balancing all those variables takes a keen eye, and a heart for the type of work he does,” she said.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the Three Village area is a special place because of people like Cunniffe.

“Our extraordinary community is defined by caring people like John Cunniffe, whose professional architectural vision and personal commitment to volunteerism is a gift that enhances our sense of place,” he said. “We are indeed fortunate that John has chosen to invest his considerable talent and energies here.”

Reuter compared the architect’s work to another famous designer who worked in the area: Ward Melville’s architect.

“Richard Haviland Smythe did these sorts of community projects for his patron who generously funded them,” he said. “John Cunniffe is our modern day Smythe — if only we had modern day major patrons to move these many projects forward. John has been a wise, good-humored and essential partner.”

A rock, that sits in front of a home in Rocky Point and is believed to be a boulder deposited from glaciers thousands of years ago, is part of a Suffolk County spending controversy. Photo by Erin Dueñas

By Erin Dueñas

The massive boulder that sits in front of the boarded-up house at 30 Sam’s Path in Rocky Point looms large in the childhood memories of Annie Donnelly, who grew up there. When she was 8 years old, the rock was the place to be in the neighborhood — the place local kids would gather for use as a clubhouse or a fort or even just to climb. Years later, teens would find the rock made a great place for a first kiss or a first swig of beer.

“It was the focal point for so many of us,” said Donnelly, who is now retired and living in Florida. “It was the go-to place for many of our first times in those days.”

The rock, which measures 50 feet long and 35 feet high, was even the site for Donnelly’s wedding reception in 1971.

The home which the rock sits in front of, at 30 Sams Path, was purchased last year for $107,000. Photo by Erin Dueñas
The home which the rock sits in front of, at 30 Sams Path, was purchased last year for $107,000. Photo by Erin Dueñas

“There was a dance floor built by my dad behind the rock and we decorated it with flowers from around town,” she said. “It was an enchanted wedding.”

With her fond memories, it comes as no surprise that Donnelly supports efforts spearheaded by Suffolk County legislator Sarah Anker to acquire the property and turn it into a “pocket park.” Donnelly recalled that her father never minded when kids played on the rock, even though it sat on his front lawn. “Any kid could use it,” she said. “We knew it belonged to the town and everyone in it.”

According to Anker, efforts to acquire the property where the rock sits began after campaigning in the area last year, and listening to neighbors who weren’t concerned with the rock, but more with the dilapidated, empty house behind it.

“Neighbors asked about doing something with the zombie home,” Anker said. “Revitalizing the property was the main objective of the initiative.”

Anker pointed out that she never submitted legislation for the county to purchase the property with tax dollars like it’s been reported — stressing that public funds would not be used to purchase it. She said she is in talks with several not-for-profit organizations including the Nature Conservancy and the Peconic Land Trust, who may have an interest in helping to purchase the property for public use. The house was purchased though, last year, for $107,000, and the current owner has signaled that he could be willing to sell.

While some like Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Smithtown) says it’s “preposterous” and “embarrassing” to buy a rock, community members and historical leaders view the piece of property differently.

“Rocky Point is very proud of this rock,” said Rocky Point Historical Society President Natalie Aurucci Stiefel. “It’s a natural wonder and the town takes pride in it.”

“Neighbors asked about doing something with the zombie home. Revitalizing the property was the main objective of the initiative.”

—Sarah Anker

She said that the rock is likely how Rocky Point got its name. Local legend contends that it was once a spot frequented by Native Americans in the area, lending it its nickname, Indian Rock. Stiefel said that like many of the rocks on the North Shore, the boulder was deposited from glaciers thousands of years ago.

Anker said that there are many benefits to revitalizing the spot, which as it stands now, depreciates the value of the entire community. She noted the historical and natural value of the rock, as well as value of remediating the blighted area.

“There’s also the educational value,” she said. “I imagine a child looking at that boulder from thousands of years ago in awe.”

Dot Farrell, of Sound Beach, said she passes the rock frequently and considers herself sensitive to the historical significance it plays in the town. But she has reservations about what the acquisition of the property could mean for the town.

“Pocket parks become drug hangouts,” she said. “We don’t need another one.”

She also questioned where the money would come from to maintain the property, even if the initial purchase was made without tax dollars.

“It’s going to need ongoing upkeep and there are so many other things to spend money on,” she said. “I prefer my town didn’t take on anymore obligations that they don’t need. I want my town to be as fiscally savvy as I try to be.”

Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe's Board of Directors President Jane Alcorn helps American Physical Society President Sam Aronson unveil the historic site plaque while American Physical Society chair member Paul Halpern looks on. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Tesla Science Center At Wardenclyffe, a lab of the former inventor Nikola Tesla, is the only one left of its kind, so it’s no surprise it’s historic.

To recognize this, a large crowd of local dignitaries and community members gathered in Shoreham Dec. 11 to witness the site be designated as a national historic physics site by the American Physical Society.

Back in 2013 a local not-for-profit known then as Friends of Science East Inc. raised over $1 million to purchase the property – Nikola Tesla’s last standing laboratory he conducted research in – when it was on the brink of being forgotten with the hopes of preserving its history. The site has since turned it into a hub for science education, “inspiring the Tesla’s of tomorrow.”

And while there’s still plenty of work to be done before the Science and Technology Center and Museum opens, the APS’s plaque presentation ceremony proved appreciation for Tesla is alive and well – due in large part to the determination of those in Shoreham to keep the legacy of the Serbian-born scientist and inventor of alternating current electricity and neon lighting energized.

“We wanted to have a place where children could build upon their science education, enhance what they learn in school, and have an opportunity to explore and develop a curiosity of how the world works.”

–Jane Alcorn

Members of the APS, the largest professional committee of physics in the U.S. that has deemed just 40 sites worthy of designation since 2004, presented the black stone plaque to Board of Directors President Jane Alcorn and Director Marc Alessi, because of the site’s commitment to raising awareness of Tesla and physics to Long Island and across the world.

Paul Halpern, a chair member with the society, said the site is of great value and interest in terms of history and science.

“There’s a lot of [renewed] interest in Tesla now, and we’re hoping this will help spur on the Tesla Science Center project to build a museum here,” Halpern said.

Speakers took to the podium in front of the historic brick building where Tesla built his laboratory in 1901 with the help of renowned architect Stanford White.

Unfortunately, his funders had given up on the project a few years later and a tower he was using to send wireless power across the world was demolished in 1917, leaving his grand vision to go unexplored.

But, as the plaque reads in gold lettering, “while long-distance wireless power transmission remains a dream, worldwide wireless communication was achieved within a century.”

Alcorn, who has been an especially instrumental force in saving the site, said she and the rest of the volunteers at the center are humbled to be listed among the other notable institutions and people who’ve received the prestigious recognition in the past.

“We work to educate the public about Tesla and his work,” Alcorn said. “We also work to educate the public about the importance of science education for children … so when we set out to create this place, we wanted to have a place where children could build upon their science education, enhance what they learn in school, and have an opportunity to explore and develop a curiosity of how the world works.”

Tescla Science Center at Wardenclyffe Director Marc Alessi speaks during the national historic site designation ceremony. Photo by Kevin Redding
Tescla Science Center at Wardenclyffe Director Marc Alessi speaks during the national historic site designation ceremony. Photo by Kevin Redding

In the future, the 16-acre campus plans to include a children’s playground, an entrepreneurial lab, an exhibit space and a gathering space for community events and programs.

Alessi said he and the center raised upwards of $1.37 million in 2012 in collaboration with internet cartoonist Matt Inman through an internet fundraising campaign that had the support of over 33,000 people in 108 countries. They obtained the property from the Agfa Corporation officially in May 2013.

“For quite some time, [Tesla] was almost forgotten,” Alessi said. “If it wasn’t for the work of many of the people here in this community and across the country we would have lost this location, historic lab and beautiful building behind us. With all of that hard work we’ve been able to secure the property and pay testament to the history of this property and Tesla’s legacy here by establishing the museum and science center.”

Alessi said the site belongs to the public and the center wants to open as soon as possible and will continue to fundraise. Just that day, he said he was informed somebody in attendance of the ceremony who wished to remain anonymous donated $5,000.

He said the center hopes to have two buildings up by early 2018 and intends to eventually have something to the scale of the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey or the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Just before the official register was signed to seal the designation, Alessi called Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said the science center being developed is desperately needed in a nation that needs to focus more on science and fact.

“We are standing here – long after Tesla’s death in 1944, long after his emigration to this country in 1884 – to remind people that the power of ideas doesn’t die with the person who thought those ideas,” Romaine said. “We envision this to be one our best institutes.”

Ricardo and Eva Estevez with their children, Amelia Estevez Creedon and Ricardo Estevez Jr. Photo from Amelia Estevez Creedon

By Amelia Estevez Creedon

I am a Cuban-American woman born and raised in New York City. My parents have instilled in us a love for the United States and patriotic passion. We are also proud of our Cuban heritage and are affected by situations that arise in my parent’s native home.

My father came to the United States in 1960 after fleeing the Communist regime. My mother came to the United States in 1961. They met in the United States and married in 1971.

My father lived a prosperous life in Cuba.

He was a farmland owner and a veteran of the Cuban military. He also did many side jobs. One of his side jobs under the Batista government was to drive dignitaries to their desired destinations. My father loved Cuba. He loved the nightlife and  time with friends and family and was very proud to be Cuban.

My father was imprisoned. He remembers hearing men cry before they died in front of the firing squad. He was beaten, starved and tortured.

But when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, everything changed. My father was imprisoned. He remembers hearing men cry before they died in front of the firing squad. He was beaten, starved and tortured. The soldiers would insult, humiliate and mutilate the prisoners. The men in the prison were not criminals, but people that were incarcerated for voicing their opinion, going to church, refusing to join government-run organizations and more. My father was able to escape from prison and Cuba and help other families come to the United States.

My mother lived with her parents and two sisters. They were poor and worked hard to make a living. My grandfather was a mailman. My grandmother washed clothes for neighborhood families. Despite their poverty, my mother has precious memories of her country. She remembers school being a place of great learning. She recalls the love that existed between neighbors. She remembers a childhood filled with dreams, play and joy. All that changed after Fidel Castro took power.

Castro established watch groups within communities to make sure that civilians were obeying the rules he had in place. Neighbors began turning in neighbors for playing television programs that were considered anti-revolutionary, or eating food that was meant for the soldiers, or for gathering for prayer, or expressing views that were different from that of the government.

My mother remembers the frequent assaults on her house. Soldiers would enter by force in the middle of the night. The rationale for this entry might have been that a neighbor had heard them speaking ill of the government, or that they had some item that was considered counterrevolutionary. One night, my mother’s family was told to remove their crucifix from the house and replace it with Fidel Castro’s picture. My grandfather refused and was taken prisoner. He was incarcerated in a dark enclosed space, alone, starved, beaten and humiliated.

My grandparents knew they had to leave the country.

My mother remembers the frequent assaults on her house. Soldiers would enter by force in the middle of the night.

They applied for a program through which they might gain permission to leave. This program consisted of the family working in an agricultural camp for two years. This did not ensure exit from the country but placed their name in a lottery. The family was separated within the camp and lived in barracks. Life in the camp consisted of working from dawn until dusk cutting sugar cane. The work was brutal. The workers were given raw horse meat to eat, had no work breaks and limited water. My mother remembers being taunted by the soldiers. They would spit at her, call her “gusano,” which means worm, and was a popular derogatory term used to describe anti-Communists. The barracks had bunk beds with no mattresses or pillows. The workers were housed in these cramped quarters and the outhouses were filthy and unkempt.

My dad passed away this past March. My grandparents died two years ago. They knew that the government was still oppressing many, as well as incarcerating political prisoners and dissidents on the island.

This type of oppression continues today. The inhumane treatment of many Cuban citizens is still occurring. My parents, as well as grandparents, became United States citizens shortly after arriving. When they first arrived they worked long hours cleaning floors, waiting on tables, basically doing whatever work was available. My father was able to learn different trades as time passed so that he could better provide for our needs. Neither of them was a stranger to hard work and they taught my brother and me to value it as well.

They came to love the United States as their home. They were, and my mother still is, fiercely proud to be United States citizens. They taught us to love our country but to always have hope that Cubans in Cuba might also one day be free. They always reminded us that anyone could be successful if they worked hard in the United States and that freedom was not free. Every year our family prayed that Cuba would be liberated from this dictatorship. For my father and grandparents, Castro’s death would have restored a glimmer of hope that despite the years of tyranny, things could change.

Unfortunately, my grandparents and father never saw this day. Fidel Castro’s death does not mean that communism is over or that the brutalities will cease. His brother, Raul rules similarly. Yet, Castro’s death gives many Cubans a hope for the future, a hope that one day democracy and freedom might come to Cuba.

Amelia Estevez Creedon lives in Sound Beach. She is an elementary school teacher at Riley Avenue Elementary School and a school librarian, the leader for a Webelos and Bear den for Cub Scout Pack 204 in Miller Place and a member of the Sound Beach Civic Association.

Americans lost on Pearl Harbor are honored during a previous remembrance in Port Jeff. File photo

By Rich Acritelli

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the architect of the attacks on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, supposedly uttered these words as he assessed the immediate aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941. Up until Japan attacked, most Americans still subscribed to the popular sentiment of remaining out of the conflict, inspired by the words of Charles Lindbergh — “America first.” The America First Committee openly resented any notion that the United States should prepare for war. Even the first peacetime draft conducted in 1940 that expanded the military forces received stiff anti-war congressional opposition. While German tanks easily invaded France and later pushed through the Soviet Union, officers like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton still saw the cavalry play a major role within the mobility of the Army. All of this changed when Japanese fighter planes swarmed into Hawaii and attacked the air, naval and Army bases that manned the “jewel” of our forces in the Pacific Ocean.

When word of the attack spread to Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Cordell Hull was in the midst of negotiating with his Japanese counterpart. After a couple of choice words for the diplomat, the nation was rapidly placed on track for war. Within seconds, Americans were on lines blocks long to enter the service. President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation with his “Day of Infamy” speech that was adopted as a rallying cry by American citizens to defeat the Axis powers. Unlike the political gridlock seen today, Roosevelt’s words were accepted without reservation, and supporters and opponents of the president’s New Deal listened to the beloved leader. The “sleeping giant” of productivity, strength and endurance was awakened to defeat a global enemy. Prominent baseball players like Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and Yankee Manager Ralph Houk hung up their uniforms during the prime of their careers to support the war effort. By the end of 1942, the size of the U.S. armed forces had doubled from the previous year. The enthusiasm could be traced to a commitment to avenge Pearl Harbor and defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

Americans today do not realize how close the Allies came to losing the war. Although the U.S. government was fully committed to fighting and helping its allies, America had a steep learning curve in teaching its young men the ways of modern warfare. The Japanese crippled America’s naval forces and Hitler looked unstoppable in Europe, but Roosevelt promised armed forces would be fighting the enemy in the Pacific and in North Africa before the close of 1942.  Americans were drafted so quickly into the military that there were not enough uniforms, weapons, tanks or trucks for them to utilize for their training. Longtime Wading River resident Michael O’Shea, who passed away in 2009, was a navigator in a B-17 Flying Fortress and experienced the earliest aspects of the war efforts.

The New York City kid watched Yankee games and attended Stuyvesant High School. Like other young men, O’Shea was horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbor and wanted to forgo his senior year to enter the military. His parents were adamant that he finish high school before enlisting. As a young recruit into the Army Air Force, O’Shea for a brief time was stationed in Atlantic City, N.J. He was not issued a uniform, did not have many knowledgeable instructors, and the lack of heat in the military housing made people sick. The local resident flew 24 combat missions and had the rare experience of being shot down twice over Europe. He was later imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, the same camp depicted in the film “The Great Escape.”  In the spring of 1945, Patton’s Third Army liberated O’Shea. He was present to see the noted armored general speak to all of the freed Americans. O’Shea was a good friend to Rocky Point High School, where he was a proud representative of the “Greatest Generation” and spoke about his crusade against totalitarian powers.

It was 75 years ago that America was propelled into a war it did not choose, but the people worked together and completely sacrificed for the safety and security of a thankful nation. Citizens like O’Shea, without hesitation, risked their lives for the well-being of the country. On this Pearl Harbor anniversary, may we never forget those men and women who were lost and wounded in the defense of this nation and continue to do so today at home and abroad.

Joseph Lalota of the Rocky Point History Honor Society contributed to this story.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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