People of the Year

William Capurso and Kerry Maher-Weisse started up the Community Association of Greater St. James in December 2016. Photos from Kerry Maher-Weisse

The hotly contested 2017 Smithtown election not only pushed forward several political issues but resulted in the birth of new civic organizations across the town.

Both the Community Association of Greater St. James and Smithtown United Civic Association have emerged and risen up over the last year, becoming fountains of energy and new ideas with the aim of transforming their downtowns and the greater Town of Smithtown into a better place for residents and businesses alike.

Civic associations “play an important role,” Smithtown’s Supervisor-elect Ed Wehrheim (R) said. “This way before the town board makes a decision on the economic developments or otherwise, we have a sense of what the community wants, who are the taxpaying residents of this town, and what’s acceptable.”

Lifelong St. James resident Kerry Maher-Weisse, director of St. James Funeral Home, said she approached co-founder William Capurso with the idea of creating what became the Community Association of Greater St. James at a St. James Chamber of Commerce meeting in late 2016.

“I asked him, ‘Do you want to do something? I have visions for St. James. Do you want to jump on this? I would love to have you,’” Maher-Weisse said.   

The St. James civic association celebrated its one-year anniversary Dec. 16 with more than 270 family memberships behind it, according to Maher-Weisse, who serves as its president.

I commend Kerry Maher-Weisse for spearheading a group of residents to form the Community Association of Greater St. James.”

— Rob Trotta

“I commend Kerry Maher-Weisse for spearheading a group of residents to form the Community Association of Greater St. James,” said Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who has attended several of the group’s events. “I think it is great that they have solicited input from the residents and business owners, and have accomplished a lot in a short period of time. Their Summer Nights were a big success. I really feel they have gotten off to a great start and will have a very positive impact on the St. James community.”

The civic organization has initiated the St. James Farmers Market, which now runs on Saturdays from May to the end of October at the St. James Lutheran Church located on 2nd Avenue. Residents came together for the Summer Nights series on Lake Avenue that featured live bands, entertainment, food, art and crafts, and vendors to pack the downtown area. In the fall, the association hosted antique car shows to build on camaraderie built up over the summerS

“I think they have great ideas,” Smithtown Councilwoman Lynne Nowick (R), also a St. James resident, said. “The town, particularly St. James, has been asleep for a while and they are waking it up.”

Maher-Weisse said the goal of the fledgling civic association isn’t just to build community, but to bring attention to key quality-of-life issues.

“We have so many great resources in St. James but some things are lacking, that I made politicians aware of,” she said. “We have to take action. That’s why making the civic association was so important both politically and eventwise to take action and start getting grant money.”

Within a year, the civic association’s president believes their activism is having an impact. Town of Smithtown officials approved funds to install new equipment at Gibbs Pond Park and Gaynor Park, both in St. James, at their Oct. 10 town board meeting. It’s the first time in more than 35 years, according to Maher-Weisse, some of the parks have seen major upgrades.

“I’m glad we made the politicians open their eyes to say, ‘St. James is here and we want our tax dollars to be used wisely and spruce up the things that need some attention,’” she said.

The Community Association of Greater St. James is not alone in its desire to draw attention to a downtown area. A smaller group of residents came together in the western part of Smithtown as the Smithtown United Civic Association, unveiling in October a detailed conception plan for what Smithtown’s Main Street revitalization should look like.

Timothy Small, president of Smithtown United and a retired engineer, said the organization’s goal is to give local residents a voice in the future of their town. It was formed in response to two events: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allocating $20 million for sewers in Smithtown and the proposed sale of the Smithtown school district’s administrative headquarters on New York Avenue.

. We in town government serve the people. We want to know and we want to hear from them.

— Ed Wehrheim

“If you look at the downtown areas of Smithtown, Kings Park and St. James, they are tired looking,” Smalls said to TBR News Media in October. “There’s a lot of vacant shops and properties. We live in a wonderful town. The schools are wonderful, we love our homes, but it’s our downtown business districts that are deeply suffering.”

The Smithtown civic association leader said their conceptual revitalization plan was put together after the group spent approximately six months assessing community needs and drawing inspiration from surrounding towns, such as Huntington and Patchogue, for what they would like to see in Smithtown. The proposed design was unveiled on Facebook for public feedback, input and criticism.

Wehrheim said he spoke with Small Dec. 19 regarding the civic association’s desire to publicly present the plan at an upcoming town board meeting, possibly Jan. 25, 2018.

“I think they are having a positive impact,” the supervisor-elect said. “At least we have a sense of what they want and what they would prefer not to have near their residential community. We in town government serve the people. We want to know and we want to hear from them.”

A third organization, Nesconset Civic Association, was announced as newly formed at the Nov. 7 Smithtown Town Board meeting by Nesconset resident Peter Hanson, but was still establishing its goals. We look forward to seeing what changes take place in Nesconset in 2018.

The Shoreham-Wading River community and football team mourned the death of teammate Thoams Cutinella. File photo by Bill Landon

By Kevin Redding

Frank and Kelli Cutinella have always been this way. Family members and close friends say the Shoreham-Wading River couple, who were married in 1996 and together raised four kids, have always given back, helped others and been there when  needed the most.

“You can’t meet a more solid person than Frankie,” said Kenneth Michaels, Frank Cutinella’s childhood friend and fellow officer within the Suffolk County Police Department. “He’s a model. He’s someone you want to emulate. I’ve never met anybody like him in my life.”

Mount Sinai’s Theresa Biegert said her sister Kelli Cutinella helps no matter who needs it.

Thomas Cutinella hoped to donate his organs. File photo

“She’s so kind and loving and generous, and goes out of her way for everybody — her family, friends and members of the community,” she said.

So after tragedy struck the Cutinellas Oct. 1, 2014, they didn’t buckle, they didn’t wallow. The reach of their generosity only got bigger and stronger. Their mission in life began.

It’s been more than three years since their oldest son, Thomas Cutinella, died at age 16 from a helmet-to-helmet collision with another player during a Shoreham-Wading River football game. Thomas, a star Wildcat and junior at the time of the accident, had aspirations of serving his country and, like his parents, was always looking to lend a hand, or more.

When he was rushed to Huntington Hospital, and after doctors there told the Cutinellas what no parent should ever hear, they honored a wish their son made on his birthday that year to donate his organs to others. His heart, pancreas, kidneys, liver, tissue and skin all went to those in need.

“When Thomas went to get his driver’s permit that year, they asked if he wanted to be a donor even though he wasn’t old enough to register at the time,” said Maria Johnson, Kelli’s mother. “He was like, ‘Yes! What do you mean? Of course I want to be a donor!’ Thomas was a very giving boy. He had to get that from somebody, and he got it from his parents.”

Since his death, mother and father have taken it upon themselves to never stop honoring Thomas’ memory. And in signature Cutinella fashion, they’re bettering the lives of everybody around them in the process.

Frank and Kelli Cutinella have spoken in front of Suffolk County officials, athletic directors and football coaches from across the state about bringing much-needed changes to the sport that took their son’s life, and the culture surrounding it. Having seen firsthand the illegal hit Thomas took when an opposing player rammed the crown of their helmet into the side of Cutinella’s, and the brief celebration among the players and crowd that followed, Frank Cutinella became determined to make the game safer and reduce the unnecessary dangers encouraged on the field.

A former high school football player himself, Frank Cutinella presented his case to save the lives of young athletes to Section XI members, who, in the fall of 2016, began to implement the Tommy Tough Football Safety Standards across the county. In July of this year, Tommy Tough was adopted at the state level, by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Frank’s next goal is to take it to the  national stage.

Focused on limiting the risk of injury, caused by certain ways of tackling and leading with the helmet, the new safety measures are read before each game by on-field officials and stricter penalties are enforced when it comes to illegal contacts and hits. Educational programs on safety and proper helmet techniques are offered to coaches.

“Frank wanted to make a difference to the game and not let Tommy’s death go unnoticed,” said Tom Combs, executive director and former football chair of Section XI. “These standards make the game safer, bring an awareness to what is an illegal hit and what isn’t, what’s acceptable on the field and what isn’t. It’s helping coaches and players and officials get on the same page and understand that this game can be as safe as possible if we follow certain standards. Frank’s amazing. I don’t think I could’ve found the strength to do what he’s done.”

Frank and Kelli Cutinella sit on Wading River Elementary Schools new `buddy bench,` which was donated by nonprofit Kaits Angels, which was created in memory of Mattitucks Kaitlyn Doorhy. Photo by Kevin Redding

Kelli Cutinella has shared Thomas’ story, and advocated for the lowering of the organ donation registration age across the state, speaking at local school districts like Harborfields and East Islip, colleges like Hofstra and Stony Brook University, and in Albany to support the passing of a law permitting 16- and 17-year-olds to enroll in the New York State Donate Life Registry, which was rolled out in February 2017. She is also a frequent contributor at events put on by LiveOnNY, an organ donation network, and a nonprofit called Long Island TRIO, standing for Transplant Recipients International Organization.

Dave Rodgers, a leader at Long Island TRIO, said he had been following Thomas’ story since the day his death was reported, and was honored to have his mom join his cause. Within the nonprofit, Kelli Cutinella speaks to high school and college students about what organ donation and transplantation means from a parental perspective.

“It’s truly amazing what she’s able to do,” Rodgers said. “She takes it full circle from raising her son and what he and his loss meant to her, to the transplantation process of another person getting that life and then being in contact with all the recipients of Thomas’ organs. Her story is quite compelling.”

Not only is Kelli Cutinella friends with Thomas’ heart recipient, she has been running alongside her at the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk in New York City since 2015.

Karen Hill, a 25-year-old Washington, D.C., native, received Thomas’ heart three days after his death, while she was a student at Fordham University. When she was 11, Hill was diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease, and had been regulated with medication until she turned 21 and got on a waiting list for a transplant.

“It’s crazy because when I found out I needed a transplant, the first thing I wondered was, ‘Whose heart am I doing to get?’” Hill said. “There is no word in the dictionary that described just how fortunate I was to be able to receive the heart of such a well-loved person. I feel like since the transplant and meeting the Cutinellas, I’ve become a better person in my own life.”

Hill first met the Cutinellas in May 2015, along with the recipient of Thomas’ kidney and pancreas. She has been in frequent communication ever since and has found a real kinship with Thomas’ mother.

“Kelli is almost in a way like a second mom,” Hill said. “She has such a wonderful and warm personality. She and Frank both still have the most positive spirits and are great people to be around.”

Through The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation, the parents are also extremely hands-on and charitable within their son’s school district, granting a special scholarship in Thomas’ name — more than $14,000 in 2016 — to students of Shoreham-Wading River and beyond who exhibit characteristics of kindness, modesty and selflessness. The couple oversaw the building of the new memorial football field, and Frank Cutinella is spearheading the construction of a concession stand and bathroom on the property. Thomas was honored in the form of a buddy bench installed at Wading River Elementary School. At the high school, alongside the football field, a bust was created along with a special seating area by local Eagle Scout Thomas Leda.

Kelli Cutinella, right, and Karen Hill, left, after Hill received Cutinella’s son Thomas’ heart through a donation following his death. Photo from Kelli Cutinella

“It’s overwhelming for them, but they want to give back to the community because the community gave back to them in their time in need,” Michaels said. “Thomas loved that school and that’s where they felt they could truly carry on his memory. The [Cutinellas] were dealt a bad hand, but they’ve turned that bad hand into a royal flush.”

Biegert agreed.

“Kelli and Frank didn’t crawl in a hole and cry about this,” she said. “They opened their arms and thought of what they could do to make it better and make a difference.”

Kenny Gray, a family friend, said the Cutinellas encompass the small-town feeling of Shoreham-Wading River with their strong family values and love of community.

“I know that they will never fully recover from this and it continues to be a struggle for them, but they’re strong and keep life normal for the other three kids,” Gray said. “This tragedy has led Frank and Kelli to do even more for community and friends.”

Kevin Cutinella, 18, their second oldest child who also played on the high school football and lacrosse team and currently attends the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he’s most proud and admiring of his parents’ strength.

“I love that they haven’t changed at all — they stayed just as stable and strong as a rock,” he said. “It’s just what they’ve always been: strong, focused and helpful. It’s definitely rubbed off on us all.”

Joseph Higgins, owner of Tara Inn in Port Jeff, collects donations during a fundraiser Sept. 4 for Hurricane Harvey victims. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

A national tragedy sprung Joseph Higgins to action in September, but the owner of Tara Inn pub hasn’t needed a special reason to demonstrate his ethos of above and beyond generosity in the 40 years he has owned the upper Port Jefferson watering hole.

When Higgins heard of the devastation in Houston and the surrounding region as a result of Hurricane Harvey in late August, he said it resonated with him in a way that left him feeling like action was required. The pub owner decided to hold a benefit Sept. 4, Labor Day, to raise money for people affected by the massive storm. In addition to the sale of raffle tickets and Harvey relief T-shirts donated by Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, Higgins gave away 100 percent of the bar’s food and beverage sales from the day to a group providing aid for victims in the region.

“There’s very few people in this world that when they get to the pearly gates they’re going to hear, ‘we were waiting for you.’’’

— Stephen Murray

Tara Inn amassed more than $15,200 in sales and donations that day, which were given to the storm victims through the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Higgins rounded up the donation to an even $16,000.

“Forty years ago I had eight kids, my wife and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I said, ‘God, help me raise these kids,’ and he did,” the 87-year-old Higgins said during the event, while seated near the pub’s front door with a container for additional donations. “And I can’t thank God enough for all he has given me and that’s why we give back. I’ve had a great life, and I like to give back. There have been times in my life where I had an opportunity to do something good and I didn’t do it, and I always regret that. Every time something comes along that we can do for somebody else, I want to do it.”

In talking to his friends and family, Higgins’ assertion that he has missed opportunities to give back seems like a wholly disingenuous characterization of his life. For that reason, Higgins is a 2017 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

“He’ll say that money doesn’t mean anything to him, and the only other people I’ve ever heard say that are millionaires,” said Kate Higgins, one of the pub owner’s eight children, reiterating he is not a millionaire.

For about 30 years, Tara Inn has hosted similar events to the Hurricane Harvey benefit every Jan. 1 for a wide range of causes. After a fire left Billie’s 1890 Saloon shuttered, the pub hosted a fundraiser for Billie’s employees. When Erik Halvorsen, the late owner of Norse Tree Service, died as a result of a tragic accident on the job in 2016, Higgins organized a fundraiser for Halvorsen’s family. Another New Year’s Day event raised money for an Iraq war veteran who had been paralyzed in the line of duty. Higgins himself is a U.S. Army Korean War veteran.

Every year, Higgins also donates vegetables to Infant Jesus church in Port Jeff for its Thanksgiving event. The pub also serves a free lunch to senior citizens around St. Patrick’s Day every year.

Kate Higgins estimated her father has donated somewhere in the ballpark of $200,000 in total from the New Year’s Day fundraisers, but that doesn’t account for a lifetime of random acts of kindness Higgins has done over the years.

According to Tom Meehan, a longtime friend of Higgins’ and the principal of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, many years ago a couple came into the bar who had just gotten married at Port Jefferson Village Hall by the village justice. Meehan said they ended up at Tara Inn because they heard the prices were inexpensive, and they were looking to celebrate their marriage despite having very little money. Higgins caught wind, served the couple a free lobster dinner and then placed a call to Meehan, who owned a luxury van at the time. Higgins gave Meehan cash and instructed him to drive the couple to Danfords Hotel & Marina and pay for their stay for the night.

Despite all of his generosity, Higgins lives modestly, according to his daughters.

“At one point we had two picnic tables in the dining room for the 10 of us,” said Tara Higgins, whom the bar was named after. She added somehow Higgins and his wife of 65 years, Pat, managed to send her and her siblings to schools like Harvard, Boston College, Villanova and Providence to name a few. “With his grandchildren, like he is with everyone else, he has an ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world.”

“He’ll say that money doesn’t mean anything to him, and the only other people I’ve ever heard say that are millionaires.”

— Kate Higgins

Her sister Kate tried to explain why her father has decided to spend his life giving so much.

“I don’t think he ever forgets where he came from,” she said. “He didn’t have it easy growing up. He lost his father when he was really young. He just never forgets that, I don’t think.”

Stories of Higgins’ generosity flow like draft beer inside Tara Inn’s four walls. Mindy Talasko, an employee of the bar since it opened, said during a Saturday afternoon interview at the pub, pointing to one of the tables, Higgins had instructed the staff years ago that a father eating lunch with his daughter were never to be charged for a meal or drink at Tara Inn. The daughter had been injured in an accident as an infant, and had difficulties and disabilities as a result.

“He’s just a wonderful, kindhearted man,” Talasko said. “He would do anything for anyone and he’s done so much for me over the years. I probably wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Joe and Tara Inn and Mrs. Higgins.”

Talasko said she had three kids during the years she worked with Higgins. Years ago, she said she would regularly have car troubles, and eventually went to lease a new car to be able to travel back and forth to work. When she arrived to sign the paperwork she was informed she needed to come up with about $800 to pay for the insurance, which she didn’t have. She said she asked Higgins, who gave her the money. The next day she arrived at the bar ready to talk about how she would pay him back. Higgins asked how long the loan was for, and when Talasko responded four years, he told her, “In four years come back and talk to me.”

Up until recently, Tara Inn’s menu featured a hamburger for $1, a Higgins idea.

“He always said he wanted to keep it low so if anybody only had a dollar or two they could come in and get something to eat,” John Koehnlein, another old friend of the bar owner said.

The price has gone up with the changing times. A hamburger at Tara Inn now costs $2.

“His generosity is unmatched,” friend Stephen Murray said. “I can’t imagine anybody out there who does more than he does for people in need.”

Kate Higgins offered a theory to explain how Tara Inn has stayed in business for so long.

“I think his basic business model is ‘Make everybody feel at home, make everybody feel welcome,’” she said. “He doesn’t care what your background is. He doesn’t care if you’re head of one of the hospitals or the homeless guy up the street.”

Murray summed up the character of Tara Inn’s longtime owner, a man his daughters described as very religious.

“There’s very few people in this world that when they get to the pearly gates they’re going to hear, ‘We were waiting for you,’” Murray said.

John Turner is a champion for open space preservation and environmental conservation. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Anthony Frasca

A familiar face in the Setauket area is at the forefront of environmental preservation and conservation.

“It was good news when John and Georgia Turner moved to town,” said Robert Reuter, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation. “John is a legendary leader for protection of the environment and an admired naturalist and educator.”

John Turner has been involved with numerous groups whose focus is on either open space preservation or environmental conservation. Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she has considered Turner a vital resource since she was elected to office.

“I am constantly impressed by [the] scope of his knowledge about the town’s history and natural environment,” Cartright said. “His involvement with organizations such as the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, his teaching and author background, along with his constant desire to update existing knowledge with continued research makes John a wealth of information the town is lucky to have.”

The naturalist was co-founder of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a group whose mission is to promote education, to advocate for the protection of Long Island’s drinking water and to preserve open spaces especially in the Pine Barrens. According to the society’s website, with a large swath of land in Suffolk County slated for development, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society filed suit in 1989 against the Suffolk County Department of Health and the town boards of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. At the time it was New York state’s biggest environmental lawsuit, leading to the Pine Barrens Act, thereby protecting the Pine Barrens and establishing the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission.

Turner is one of the co-founders of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Photo by Maria Hoffman

As a spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, Turner has also been active in trying to prevent Plum Island from being sold and developed. The environmentally sensitive island is currently at the center of a swirling controversy and is the subject of a legal battle against the federal government under the Endangered Species Act and other laws, according to a TBR News Media July 14, 2016, story.

Made up of numerous diverse environmental groups, from the Connecticut-Rhode Island Coastal Fly Fishers to the North Fork Audubon Society, the Preserve Plum Island Coalition has advocated for the signing of a petition to save the island along with encouraging a letter-writing campaign to local elected officials. The island provides a habitat for a diverse variety of local and migratory wildlife.

Carl Safina, founder of the Safina Center at Stony Brook University and the endowed professor for Nature and Humanity in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said he has worked with Turner on a variety of environmental initiatives on and off since the 1980s.

“I consider John Turner to be the finest naturalist, and among the top handful of most engaged conservationists on Long Island,” Safina said. “He’s a true leader.”

As the conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, Turner led the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch this past fall. The group recorded and tallied nighthawk sightings at the Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket. A significant nighthawk population was noticed at the park in 2016 and the open vistas provided an important location for cataloging the bird’s migration. The nighthawk research was supported by the board of the park, another organization that, according to Reuter, Turner “has adopted with vigor.”

“We’ve walked every part of the park, looking for opportunities to improve habitat and interpret our diverse natural environment,” Reuter said. “The man certainly knows his plants and wildlife. He’s passionate about sharing his knowledge. Rather than just toss out ideas, John has prepared for the park a written blueprint for improvements and educational opportunities. It’s an honor to have his guidance.”

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said he considers Turner one of the finest naturalists on Long Island.

“He has brought his ‘inner pied piper’ of the environment to Setauket at the Melville Bridge,” Englebright said. “I watched through the years as the crowd grew. He has helped bring an awareness of the tidal wetlands of Setauket Harbor and has done it in a gracious and compelling manner. He is truly extraordinary, the essence of what a naturalist should be. He’s a special part of our community.”

Stony Brook University surgeon James Vosswinkel, above left, is recognized prior to the Dec. 5, 2016 New York Jets game at Metlife Stadium. Photo from Melissa Weir

When they come to him, they need something desperately. He empowers people, either to help themselves or others, in life and death situations or to prevent the kinds of traumatic injuries that would cause a crisis cascade.

Dr. James Vosswinkel, an assistant professor of surgery and the chief of trauma, emergency surgery and surgical critical care, as well as the medical director of the Stony Brook Trauma Center, is driven to help people through, or around, life-threatening injuries.

Vosswinkel speaks to people in traffic court about the dangers of distracted driving and speeding, encourages efforts to help seniors avoid dangerous falls and teaches people how to control the bleeding during significant injuries, which occur during mass casualty crisis.

For his tireless efforts on behalf of the community, Vosswinkel is a Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

Vosswinkel teaching bleeding control in April at MacArthur Airport Law Enforcement Division for the Town of Islip. Photo from Stony Brook University

Vosswinkel is the “quarterback for developing all the resources and making sure the quality of those individuals is up to very, very high standards,” said Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, the dean of the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. “He’s a very fine trauma surgeon, who has assembled a team of additional fine surgeons. If he’s ever needed, he’s always available, whether he’s on call or not.”

Vosswinkel has earned recognition from several groups over the last few years. He was named the Physician for Excellence in 2016 by the EMS community.

In 2016, Lillian Schneider was involved in a traumatic car accident for which she needed to be airlifted to Stony Brook Hospital. Despite the severe nature of her injuries, Schneider gradually recovered.

In September Vosswinkel was honored as the first Lillian and Leonard Schneider Endowed Professor in Trauma Surgery at Stony Brook University.

“What’s different about Vosswinkel,” or “Voss” as Jane McCormack, a resident nurse and the trauma program manager at Stony Brook calls him, is that “a lot of people talk about working harder, but he does it. He’s an intense guy who is very passionate about what he does.”

Dr. Mark Talamini, the chair of the Department of Surgery and the chief of Surgical Services at Stony Brook Hospital who is also Vosswinkel’s supervisor, said Vosswinkel will come to the hospital to help a member of his team at any hour of the night.

“When his people need help, he’s there,” Talamini said.

Vosswinkel was recently promoted to chief consulting police surgeon by the Suffolk County Police Department.

Dr. Scott Coyne, the chief surgeon for the Suffolk County Police Department said he’s come to rely on Vosswinkel repeatedly over the years.

Coyne said Vosswinkel is frequently on the scene at the hospital, where he shares critical information about police officers and their families with Coyne.

“He’s a very valuable adjunct to our police department,” Coyne said. “If you are transferred because of the seriousness of your trauma or the location of your trauma and you end up at Stony Brook, you can be well assured that you’ll receive state-of-the-art care. Vosswinkel is one of the leaders in the delivery of that surgical care.”

“If you are transferred because of the seriousness of your trauma or the location of your trauma and you end up at Stony Brook, you can be well assured that you’ll receive state-of-the-art care. Vosswinkel is one of the leaders in the delivery of that surgical care.”

— Dr. Scott Coyne

The trauma surgeon is also involved in helping train members of the community with a system called B-Con, for bleeding control.

Amid the alarming increase in mass casualty events that have occurred throughout the country, the first provider of care is often a civilian.

“Even before the EMS gets there, civilians can take action,” McCormack said. Vosswinkel has been directly involved in helping civilians to recognize life-threatening hemorrhaging, how to place a tourniquet and how to pack wounds.

“He’s been the energizer bunny for that [effort] all throughout Suffolk County and on Long Island,” Talamini said. “It’s been an incredible effort.”

Talamini said he is impressed by the work Vosswinkel has also done at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center to help prepare for its Level 3 certification.

“He has begun doing his magic at another significant Suffolk County hospital,” Talamini said. Talamini called his work on blood control at Brookhaven “superhuman.”

Talamini said he is impressed with his colleague’s ability to connect with people from various walks of life, which is an asset to the trauma surgeon.

“He’s that kind of person, which is why he’s been so successful with all these outreach events,” Talamini said. “His patients adore him.”

Working with the Setauket Fire Department, Stony Brook’s Trauma Center offers tai chi for arthritis and fall prevention, which uses the movements of tai chi to help seniors improve their balance and increase their confidence in performing everyday acts.

Discussions about Vosswinkel often include references to a conspicuous passion: the New York Jets.

Kaushansky called Vosswinkel the most die-hard Jets fan he has ever seen. His office is decorated with Jets paraphernalia, leaving it resembling a green shrine.

In December 2016, the Jets honored Vosswinkel for his lifesaving care of two Suffolk County police officers. He participated in the coin toss to kick off a Monday Night Football game.

Vosswinkel credited the trauma group for the favorable outcomes for the two officers.

“This is not about me,” he said at the time. “This is about Stony Brook. It is a true team that truly cares about patients.”

To be sure, the successful and effective doctor does have his challenging moments.

“He gets tired and cranky once in a while, like everyone else does,” McCormack said. “Most people in this building would be, like, ‘I want to be on his team. I know we’ll probably win with him.’”

A win for Vosswinkel and the Stony Brook trauma team is a win for the patient and for the community, which benefits from some of the best trauma care in the country, Talamini said.

“There’s nobody that’s more deserving and done so much and continues to do so much for the people of Suffolk County than Dr. Vosswinkel,” Coyne said

Miller Place comic book kid Jack Soldano sold comics at a stand outside the William Miller House to raise funds to replace the historic building’s roof. Photo by Kevin Redding

Jack Soldano can’t fly or shoot webs out of his wrists. And despite his spot-on Batman impression, he doesn’t spend nights jumping off buildings fighting crime.

But this past summer, the 13-year-old North Country Road Middle School student was inspired by all the comic books he reads to do some saving of his own, and in the process, he earned the title of hero in his hometown of Miller Place.

Every week in July and August, Jack, who was 12 at the time, set up a table at Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park and sold 1,000 of his own comic books, as well as pins, magnets and bottle openers he made out of the vibrant panels in extra issues he had. The booming business he dubbed Comics for a Cause — a magnet for Marvel and DC comics lovers of all ages from the area — collected a total $1,220, but Jack didn’t keep a cent.

Miller Place comic book kid Jack Soldano sold comics at a stand outside the William Miller House to raise funds to replace the historic building’s roof. Photo by Kevin Redding

Instead, he gave it all to the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society to help the nonprofit fund roof repairs on its main headquarters, the nearly 300-year-old William Miller House at 75 North Country Road. The night Jack presented the check to historical society members, he sold a few more comic books and contributed an additional $10.

“I was bitten by a radioactive altruistic person,” Jack quipped when asked what made him want to aid in the nonprofit’s effort.

In actuality, Jack, currently in eighth grade, said that he felt compelled to help when he saw in The Village Beacon Record in May that the historical society was in desperate need to renovate the collapsing roof on the structure, the oldest existing house in Miller Place, built circa 1720. While he didn’t know any members of the nonprofit personally, Jack said he had a strong connection to the town landmark, as he and his family were regulars at its annual Postman Pete and Spooky Lantern Tour events.

“I figured, I like helping people, I have these comics — way too many of these comics — and people need help,” said Jack, who inherited the large collection from his grandfather, the former owner of a hobby shop in Port Washington. “And also, smiles are contagious, so it makes me happy that I can make others happy.”

When they heard what the young entrepreneur planned to do for them, members of the historical society, who rely heavily on the generosity of others to function, were stunned. With an initial goal of $18,300 to fix the roof, Jack’s contribution had brought the repair fund to $7,500. As of Dec. 20, the nonprofit had reached its goal to be able to start the project.

A brick in his honor — reading “Jack Soldano Our Comic Book Hero 2017” — was recently installed on the walkway around the historic house. Jack was also named an honorary member.

“That boy is a diamond in the rough,” said Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society Vice President Antoinette Donato. “We sometimes have to send out an appeal to the public when we need to raise money, but we certainly did not expect a 12-year-old boy to respond to us the way he did.”

Donato said Jack is not just a role model to other young people but to adults too.

“I think he motivates everyone to think about giving back to the community — giving to a good cause and caring about the world around us,” she said. “He’s truly an inspiration.”

The historical society’s president, Peter Mott, was equally impressed with Jack, who he referred to as a friend.

Miller Place comic book kid Jack Soldano sold comics at a stand outside the William Miller House to raise funds to replace the historic building’s roof. Photo by Kevin Redding

“This young man displayed an uncommon and incredible sense of responsibility and concern for his local community,” Mott said. “We seasoned adults were in awe of his energy and spirit. Jack is, and we predict will continue to be, an amazing person who will benefit his local and larger community for many years to come.”

But for those who know Jack best, this generosity wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

“He’s always doing stuff like this,” said his friend, Cory Gardner, 14, who helped out during the comic book sales. “The levels of things he did, and does, for the community blows my mind. If he’s not a hero, I don’t know who is.”

Cristin Mansfield, Jack’s mom, said her son often helps the elderly on their block by moving their newspaper from the edge of the driveway to where he or she can reach it, and shovels when it snows.

“Jack’s always been an enthusiastic helper, from a very early age,” Mansfield said. “I think he just really feels good helping people out and making them smile.”

A member of his school’s track and wrestling teams and National Junior Honor Society, Jack is a frequent volunteer at Parent-Teacher Association events, including a reading club where he once dressed as Cat in the Hat and read to kids.

“Whatever is put before him, he always jumps in with both feet and takes it to the next level,” said Matthew Clark, principal at North Country Road Middle School. “And the fruits of his labor have created a contagious environment here. He stands out in such a positive way.”

In the midst of the comic book project over the summer, Jack began volunteering at Great Strides Long Island’s Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island, helping developmentally disabled children ride horses and even set up his table at the organization’s annual Evening Under the Stars fundraiser. He made 25 customized magnets and bottle openers and raised $100 for the event that benefits community therapeutic riding and veterans programs.

Of his own accord, he also made special magnets for a “swab drive” Nov. 30 that sought to find a bone marrow donor for a Sound Beach resident diagnosed with AML leukemia, the father of one of his friends.

“Jack’s just one of those kids who’s always thinking of things like that to do for other people,” said Kim Daley, whose husband was the focus of that event and has known Jack since he was in preschool. “He’s always been the boy that goes out of his way to make sure no one sits alone at lunch, and confirms everyone gets a chance at an activity  … He’s observant and sensitive to others. I could go on and on about Jack and what a big heart he has.”

Jack hopes he can inspire more people his age to get involved in any way they can.

“With a great ‘blank’ comes great responsibility,” he said, paraphrasing a quote from Spider-Man. “Go fill in the blank.”

Kings Park closed out the week with seventh straight Suffolk County and Long Island crowns. Photo by Bill Landon

By Desirée Keegan

Securing seven years of bad luck is as simple as breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder, but earning seven years of good luck is much more complicated.

After taking over a losing program, Kings Park varsity volleyball coaches Lizz and Ed Manly have steered the Kingsmen to seven straight Suffolk County and Long Island championship titles.

“They’re straightforward — if you’re not doing something correctly, or doing something you shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to let you know,” said senior Erika Benson. “But I think everybody needs someone like that in their life. They don’t sugar coat things for you.”

The middle hitter said her married mentors not only care about their Kingsmen as players, but as people. This is chiefly due to Ed Manly’s job as a guidance counselor within the high school.

“Mr. Manly is always asking us if everything is OK, and if he can help us in any way to let him know,” Benson said. “As a guidance counselor, he’s helped us seniors a lot with anything we went to him with regarding college.”

Senior Kara Haase said the girls have improved on and off the court because of the values of friendship and family fostered within the program by the Manlys. She said she has seen it firsthand for the last six years.

“Our success has to do a lot with our coaches — they pushed us every day,” she said. “They not only taught us to strive to be better as players and teammates, but as individuals. Their coaching style can be strict, but all they want is for us to have fun while competing at a high level. It has truly been an honor playing for them.”

Head coach Ed Manly talks to his athletes between sets. Photo by Bill Landon

Lexi Petraitis said she first met Lizz Manly when she was in fourth grade during a volleyball clinic, where the coach pulled her aside to teach her how to use her height to hit in the middle of the front row. She played for Manly when she was on the middle school team. The coach was pregnant at the time, and remained at the helm up until the day she gave birth.

“I think that Lizz and Ed were two of the most dedicated coaches I’ve ever seen in any sport,” the senior said, noting how Lizz Manly also attended the state championship finals to watch her husband and her girls compete when she was nine months pregnant with the second of her two children. “If that isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is.”

This past fall Kings Park finished with its second straight undefeated League V season, going 14-0, and snatched its seventh straight county and LIC crowns. The seven seniors in a rotation of eight secured a fourth consecutive appearance in the state tournament, finishing third after the group came in second in 2016.

“On the court, although they push us to our physical and sometimes emotional limits, the team and they know that it’s a prime example of ‘If it doesn’t kill you, it will only make you stronger,’ and they most definitely made us stronger,” Petraitis said. “If they didn’t push us as hard as they did I doubt the legacy they created would’ve existed. They are the type of coaches that do everything in their power to make us successful.”

Current Iona College standout Amanda Gannon, a 2015 Kings Park graduate, was the first volleyball player to win four straight Long Island titles in school history. She said she first met Lizz Manly when she was in sixth grade. Manly was her physical education teacher, and persuaded her to join the volleyball team. Gannon went on to become the all-time kills leader in Kings Park school history.

“She was always so caring and kindhearted,” Gannon said. “I love going to her office even just to talk to her. I was super excited when I joined the team to be led by such an understanding, loving person.”

Gannon was called up to the varsity team as a freshman, playing under Manly until she graduated, which was when her coach’s husband grabbed the reins so his wife could focus on raising their family.

“Luckily, my husband took over for me so I can still feel a little involved, and he did a great job,” Manly said. “With confidence and determination, they continued the Kings Park volleyball tradition.”

Kings Park player Amanda Gannon with coach Lizz Manly. File photo from Bill Denniston

Gannon said it’s because the Kingsmen always wanted to make them proud.

“We were all so motivated to play for them,” she said. “We wanted to prove to them how good we can be. It started by having good culture, being who you are, respecting yourself and respecting the program. All four of my years we really embraced that.”

Petraitis shared a similar sentiment about her coaches’ accessibility and warmth.

“I’ve never had a coach other than Lizz and Ed that I have felt so comfortable asking them anything,” she said. “If I ever had a question about a free ball play or footwork, etc., I’ve never been scared to ask. There aren’t words to describe how much I appreciate them and how much they have influenced my life. They have been with me throughout and supported every single part of my volleyball career.”

Ed Manly wrote in a letter to family, friends and fans that he and his wife will be retiring, stating that stepping down was the hardest thing he has done, but said it’s been difficult to put in the time needed with a growing family.

“Today was by far the hardest day we have had as coaches,” he said. “We have stated time and time again to our athletes that family comes first, and at the present time giving our program the time it deserves no longer was possible. We are so incredibly thankful to every player we coached, every coach we have become friends with and competed against, and all of our volleyball friends we have met along the way. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with so many amazing families in such an amazingly supportive community.”

Their departure will undoubtedly leave a hole at one of the most successful athletic
programs in any sport in Suffolk County.

“It’s sad to see them leaving,” Gannon said. “They took a failing program and turned it around to be one of the most successful on Long Island. They have changed so many people’s lives and have established a community that will never be torn down. They will be greatly missed, but I’m truly grateful for all that they’d done for me, my teammates and Kings Park. I know that what they have
created will last forever.”

Former Huntington Councilwoman Tracey Edwards won the Democratic town supervisor primary. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Town of Huntington Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) learned a lot about herself in 2017. For one, she’s not a politician.

The 56-year-old Huntington native, who lost to state Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station) in the November race for town supervisor, will not be returning to the town board Jan. 1. But she is proud of the campaign she led and the community-oriented issues it centered on.

Edwards ran for Huntington’s top seat instead of taking the admittedly safer route of running as an incumbent for re-election to the town board. When asked why, she repeatedly said, “This is not about me. This is about what I believe is best for Huntington.”

She has always seen herself as a community advocate and public servant, first and foremost, a trait noticed and respected by those she has served.

Tracey Edward (D) was first elected to Huntington Town Board in 2012.

“At the end of the day, I’m a community advocate,” Edwards said. “The nastiness and personal attacks in elections were never things I was ever interested in. I want to help people and our town. True public servants don’t stop doing that just because they lose an election.”

In junior high school, she got her official start in community service as a candy striper at Huntington Hospital. She was encouraged to give back to the community by her father — a narcotics detective on the town’s former police force — and mother, Dolores Thompson, a Huntington activist still going strong today.

Edwards has served on the board of directors of the Long Island Association in Melville and is the Long Island regional director of the NAACP — a post she said she looks forward to returning to.

As councilwoman and supervisor candidate, she focused on making Huntington a more inclusive place for everybody, regardless of age, race, gender or economic bracket.

“We have a very robust, diverse and unique town that is filled with wonderful neighborhoods and great communities,” Edwards said. “There’s no place else I would rather live. While I wish Chad Lupinacci the best, I’ll be keeping my eye on him to make sure this town continues to move in the right direction for all.”


True public servants don’t stop doing that just because they lose an election.

— Tracey Edwards

During her four years in office, Edwards has worked alongside Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) to expand affordable housing legislation for millennials and first-time home buyers and has been hands-on with youth-based programs that focus on character building, recreation and tackling the drug problem. She created a special annual luncheon, dubbed Memories of Huntington, to honor seniors age 75 or older, who have lived in town for more than 50 years, for their contributions to Huntington’s history.

“Tracey is not a politician’s politician … she’s for the people,” said Jo Ann Veit, a member of the Senior Reunion committee. “People love her because she’s there for them and she gives you that feeling that she’s there for you, thinking about you and the town, and what would be best for the seniors in the town. When people leave that reunion, they’re all so pleased with Tracey and how genuine she is. She has been a wonderful councilwoman.”

Bob Santo, commander of Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244, has gotten the same sense of sincerity from Edwards in the years they’ve known each other.

“The first time I met Tracey was during a parade in Huntington Station and she was on the back of a motorcycle being ridden by one of our American Legion motorcycle [members] — she was having a grand old time,” Santo said, laughing. “With Tracey, what you see is what you get, and what she says is what she means. She’s never trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes.”

Councilwomen Susan Berland and Councilwoman Tracey Edwards spotted at the parade on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 . Photo by Stephen Jimenez

Santo praised the councilwoman for spearheading the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center, a program that offers assistance with résumé preparation, job searches, career options and job training access for unemployed and low-income residents, many of whom are veterans.

Edwards said her proudest accomplishment has been her ability to turn difficult times in her life into something beneficial to those around her. Upon being diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2016, she was determined not to miss a single board meeting and scheduled her chemotherapy, radiation and surgery sessions around them.

When she finally became cancer-free, Edwards, who said she goes for breast cancer screenings once a year, realized there were probably so many women out there who may not be aware of the importance of screenings or have access to health care.

She partnered with Huntington Hospital-Northwell Health to host an education program on preventative screening exams, risk assessment, nutrition and information for free breast cancer screenings at Huntington Town Hall.

She also helped to rewrite the town’s ethics code to make town hall a more transparent place for residents.

NAACP New York State Conference president, Hazel Dukes, commended Edwards for fighting for the rights of all people, regardless of race, creed or color.


She didn’t want to go back as a councilwoman and why would she? You don’t go backward, you keep going forward.

— Dolores Thompson

“I know that Tracey Edwards is a committed and dedicated public servant,” Dukes said. “She truly brings conviction to the cause of equality and justice for all people. She’s embodied that in her professional life, as a worker in the NAACP and her political life.”

Edward’s work ethic comes as no surprise to her mother, Dolores Thompson.

“This year she’s had the initiative and aggressiveness and guts, in plain old English, to run for supervisor in this special community,” Thompson said. “She’s a trooper, a very strong woman who speaks her mind, and I’m very sure she will do something even better for this community as she progresses. She didn’t want to go back as a councilwoman and why would she? You don’t go backward, you keep going forward.”

Edwards, who lives in Dix Hills with her husband, was recognized by outgoing
Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) during a town board meeting Dec. 13.

“Four years ago, we were blessed with a person that I have never, ever encountered someone with more energy and the ability to move in and create change,” Petrone said. “A woman who has given so much in the short, short four years to the Town of Huntington and its residents … Tracey Edwards, we the members of the Huntington Town Board on behalf of the residents of Huntington wish to extend our sincere thanks to you for service to our community.”

Edwards thanked members of the community and assured all in the room her journey isn’t over.

“You haven’t heard the last of me,” she said. “You have not.”

The Reboli Center for Art and History is located in Stony Brook at the former site of the Capital One Bank. File photo

It’s much more than a place to go to appreciate the work of late artist and painter Joe Reboli.

Located at the former site of Capital One Bank across the street from where Reboli grew up in Stony Brook, the Reboli Center for Art and History, which opened a little more than a year ago, blends a collection of art from the prolific painter with works by other local artists, rotated every three months.

Housed in an A-frame white building with blue awnings, the center has showcased the work of artists including Ken Davies, who was Reboli’s teacher and mentor.

Reboli was born and raised on Main Street, not far from where his name is memorialized.

He and his family had a long history in the area. His grandfather ran a business across the street from where the center now stands, and decades later his aunt worked in the same building when it was a bank.

He died in 2004 at age 58 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Since his death, his wife Lois Reboli had been attending makeshift meetings at coffee and kitchen tables across Three Village with a squad self-identified as The Rebolians, working to make sure Joe Reboli’s story lived on.

“[The center is] hopefully a gift back to the community my husband loved so much,” said Reboli, a former art teacher.

The Reboli Center is named in honer of late Stony Brook artist Joe Reboli. File photo

He was on the board of the Three Village Community Trust and Gallery North. When asked by his wife why he attended those gatherings, she said he told her he loved the community and wanted to support it in some way.

“I didn’t really understand it at that point,” she said. “I did after he got sick, and I just really wanted to give something to the community so they would remember Joe.”

As part of the center’s cultural contributions, free talks are given with local artists, and, after a successful musical debut, the center may be the site of future concerts.

Donna Crinnian, a photographer whose pictures of egrets were featured at the center in the fall, called the center a great addition to the community.

“Everybody in the community likes having it there,” she said. “They get a really nice crowd coming in for the speakers.”

Besides Reboli, the idea for the studio gallery came together with the help of Colleen Hanson, who worked as executive director of Gallery North from January 2000 until her retirement in September 2010. She worked alongside Lois Reboli after Joe passed and also helped launch the first Reboli Wet Paint Festival weekend at Gallery North in 2005.  Hanson also worked with B.J. Intini, a former Gallery North assistant and executive director who is the president of the Farmingville Historical Society.

“I made a vow that we would do something for [Reboli],” Hanson said. “If we were to find a space, it had to be in Three Village and it had to have a Joe-like feeling. Now, I pinch myself and think, ‘This is so cool.’ We love this community. We want it to be even better and richer for everybody, and I see this as a beautiful upbeat place where people want to be.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) is credited with helping to make the purchase a reality, Reboli said. He helped the three, self-dubbed the “tres amigas” create a not-for-profit called the Friends of Joseph Reboli, with a mission of collecting, preserving and exhibiting artwork and artifacts related to Joe Reboli. The group filed for federal 501(c)(3) status in 2012.

Reboli had been looking for a suitable place to share her late husband’s work with the public and had been demoralized by a few false starts when she wondered if she would be able to find the right spot.

“If we were to find a space, it had to be in Three Village and it had to have a Joe-like feeling. Now, I pinch myself and think, ‘This is so cool.’”

— Colleen Hanson

It wasn’t until March 2015 when Hanson said she heard of Capital One in Stony Brook potentially leaving the historic landmarked building at a price tag of $1.8 million. Englebright spearheaded securing a $1.3 million state grant that went toward the purchase of the building, and two anonymous $150,000 donations turned the dream into a reality.

“He went to bat to help us get as much funding as we could,” Reboli said of the lawmaker. “He was remarkable.”

She signed the contract Sept. 25, 2015 — her late husband’s 70th birthday.

“It’s everything I hoped for and more,” Englebright said of the center. “I have heard from dozens of people and they are absolutely thrilled that this is a new part of the cultural dimension in our community.”

Englebright said the late artist’s paintings open up a wide range of conversations about the interaction between nature and development. One of his favorites is of three gas pumps in front of a coastal scene on the North Shore.

“He put this scene together that clearly to me is an expression of concern regarding the impact of overdevelopment, on a way of life, and on the beauty of Long Island,”
Englebright said.

In its first full year of operation, the center, which is free for guests, has hosted a range of crowds and events. In May, it welcomed a visit from the Commack High School Art Honor Society. In late October, world-renowned cellist Colin Carr, who has appeared with the Royal Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Montreal Symphony and is teaching at Stony Brook, performed at a benefit concert.

He said the way the sound worked its way through the building was an unexpected
surprise.

“When I went in there and played the cello briefly as a trial run, it was immediately apparent that this was perfect for the cello,” Carr said. “It’s always exciting to walk into a new place, whether it’s a room or concert hall or even a church, to sit down and start playing and feel that there’s an immediate rapport between me, the instrument and the space.”

Carr is the one who suggested that the center would be a “wonderful place for a small music series.”

Reboli said she is thrilled with the direction the center is taking and suggested the showcase is far beyond what she had imagined when she first discussed highlighting her late husband’s artwork.

On a Friday in late November, the building hit a high-water mark with about 180 guests in attendance, Reboli said.

“I would have been happy with a wall somewhere,” Reboli said. “This has morphed into something that would have been unimaginable before. Never did we expect to have a place like this. This is a miracle.”

Port Jefferson High School Principal Christine Austen. File photo

Being named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education is an achievement that takes a village, but leaders in Port Jefferson School District attribute the designation to one confident, tough yet compassionate woman.

Christine Austen is in her third year as principal at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. In that short period of time, according to her colleagues, she has imposed her strong will, ideas and work ethic on the school and is the person most responsible for the school being recognized on a national level in September with the Blue Ribbon honor.

“The award acknowledges and validates the hard work of students, educators, families and communities in striving for — and attaining — exemplary achievement,” the education department’s website says regarding qualifications for Blue Ribbon distinction. About 300 public schools nationwide were awarded in 2017.

Teachers Eva Grasso and Jesse Rosen accompany Austen to Washington, D.C., as part of receiving the award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

For helping to earn the prestigious award for Port Jeff and for her tireless efforts to improve the academic, social and emotional well being of all of her students, Times Beacon Record News Media named Austen a 2017 Person of the Year.

“The things that are happening at the high school among the staff, with the students, with the community, you can’t have those things happening without a principal who’s really moving it, is a big part of it, gets involved — she does not look at the clock,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said.

According to Jessica Schmettan, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, Austen’s relentless commitment to analyzing the effectiveness of academic programs and initiatives, and examining results with a critical eye have created quantitative improvements in student performance since she became principal.

“She’s always attuned to the data to help push the academic limits forward, and we definitely see those quantitative results,” Schmettan said. The curriculum and instruction director pointed out Austen’s strengths as a principal are far from limited to fostering academic excellence though. “The principals I’ve worked with always demonstrated a clear strength — who was more of a social and emotional leader, who was more of an instructional leader, who focused more on the community. Everybody that I worked with demonstrated a strength in certain areas, where Chris I think embodies all of those things and that’s really unique.”

Austen and her husband Phil are each products of the Port Jefferson School District and community. She got her start working for the district as a librarian, and eventually served as a kindergarten-through-12th grade assistant principal for her first foray into the administration world. Despite competing against at least one other candidate with experience as a principal, Austen wowed the school board at her interview, which led to her earning the position.

“She came in the room, straightened her back, she sat in the chair and just emitted this confidence that, ‘I’m going to nail this, I’m going to give you my best answers,’” board of education President Kathleen Brennan said. Brennan said Austen’s confidence, without arrogance, stood out during her interview and has translated seamlessly into the position.

Many of her colleagues spoke about Austen’s knack for deftly walking the fine line between holding students accountable without being punitive, while always remaining positive and generally warm.

“If you’re working in this field, and she’s no exception, her ‘put the students first’ mentality is definitely a great strength,” Assistant Principal Kevin Bernier said.

Bernier shared a story about an incident that occurred during a pool party at a student’s home in 2016.

Port Jefferson high school Principal Christine Austen, second from right, and others from the school celebrate its National Blue Ribbon School award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

A student at the party, who frequently had seizures, was the only person in the pool at one point. Bernier said he noticed something was wrong with the student, and realized he might be having a full seizure in the pool at that moment.

“It only took a second,” Bernier recalled. “I said, ‘Is he OK?’ You saw something and he started to go down and before I even blinked my eyes, [Austen] was in the pool. If he went under he was going to take in water right away, and it was literally before I could even blink my eyes she was in the water.”

Bernier noted, Austen is far from an avid swimmer and the student was much taller than her, making the rescue no simple task.

“It took quite a bit of courage to dive into that pool,” said Edna Louise Spear Elementary School Principal Tom Meehan, who also was at the party.

Middle school Principal Robert Neidig, who started the same year as Austen, said he considers her a mentor. He said she’s great at giving one on one advice, but he also loves to hear her speak publicly because she strikes a perfect tone of humility and warmth accompanied with an unquestionable confidence that creates a perfect mixture for a leader.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the job without having her perspective,” he said.

Casciano summed up some firsthand observations he’s had since Austen took over at the high school.

“You’ll see her in the hallway putting her arm around a child,” he said. “She knows them and knows just from expressions on their faces, she could tell whether or not they’re having a good day, bad day. And if things look like they aren’t going well, she’ll engage the student and try to encourage them.”

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