Obituaries

Mount Sinai anesthesiologist Richard Melucci, below, drowned in the Long Island Sound, scene above, after falling overboard off his 25-foot boat April 15. Photo from Facebook

A Mount Sinai anesthesiologist has died after falling off a boat in the Long Island Sound April 15.

Milford Fire Rescue received a 911 call from a woman saying her husband, Richard Melucci, 43, had fallen overboard as they were boating on the Sound near Milford, Connecticut at about 6 p.m. Melucci’s wife, Maryann, was below the deck when she heard the splash, police said.

Richard Melucci. Photo from O.B. Davis Funeral Homes

Police say Melucci, a 1991 Ward Melville graduate, was not wearing a life jacket when he fell into the water, so his wife attempted to throw a life ring out several times without success, according to Captain Kieth Williams of the Connecticut State Police Department.

Milford’s dive team and the U.S. Coast Guard responded to the scene and rescued Melucci from the water about 55 minutes later, authorities said. Melucci and his wife were taken to Milford Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

An avid boater, Melucci worked at Long Island Anesthesia Physicians in Rocky Point and was affiliated with John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. He was on his new 25-foot vessel, which was taken to Milford Landing, where authorities are conducting a full investigation.

Reposing took place at O.B. Davis Funeral Homes, 4839 Nesconset Highway in Port Jefferson Station. Visitation was help April 19, and will be held today, April 20, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Funeral Mass will be help April 21 at 10 a.m. at the Chapel at St. Charles in Port Jefferson. Interment to follow at Washington Memorial Park in Mount Sinai. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Rick Melucci Family Fund at https://www.gofundme.com/rick-melucci-family-fund. As of press time, after two days, the GoFundMe raised $76,425 of the $100,000 goal.

Yakub Gangat donated $1,000 to the fund, and left the message: “An outstanding clinician and leader. Fun loving with infectious personality. He’ll be forever missed.”

Jennifer Bednar, who donated $100, also said he will not soon be forgotten.

“A devastating loss,” she wrote. “I will miss that infectious smile. My whole heart goes out to Maryanne and family.”

Teresa Schully Habacker left a similar sentiment with her $200 contribution: “What a loss for the medical community. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. I will miss his competent care and his great sense of humor.”

Contest, in its third year, part of endowment by children in memory of their mother

Ed Taylor, Sherry Cleary and Karen Reid review entries for the contest honoring their mother Helen Stein Shack at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library. Photo by Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

When Helen Stein Shack passed away three years ago, her children wanted to celebrate their mother’s life with a legacy she’d have loved. Where to do it was an easy decision because Shack was both a bibliophile and a big fan of the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket.

Library Director Ted Gutmann recalled how Shack’s children approached him to establish an endowment that would support an annual event in her memory each April. They only needed to decide what the event would be.

“They wanted to do something at the library specifically dealing with children and literature created expressly for young readers,” Gutmann said.  “Librarian Nanette Feder had a group of teenagers working with younger children. We asked the teens if they’d like to try writing picture books. We created a contest, established rules, and offered a cash prize. The first year we promoted the contest through social media, the library website, department chairs and school librarians. Now it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Contest winners with the Shack family and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright. Ed Taylor, Karen Shack Reid, Cartright, Michelle Pacala, Samantha White, Katie Zhao, Sherry Cleary and Nicole Freeley. Photo from the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library

In an interview with three of Shack’s four children, as they gathered at the library Feb. 4 to review the entries, daughter Sherry Cleary explained their thinking.

“The inspiration for this library thing was that she really loved the process of children learning to read — and she loved this library,” she said. “It was our first choice to memorialize and honor her because when people would visit her, she would say, ‘Want to see my library? Let’s go see my library.’ She would bring people here, which is a little weird. It would make me laugh.”

All four children agreed that the library was the appropriate spot for Shack’s lasting legacy.

And now, the library is pleased to announce this year’s prize winners in the 3rd Annual Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Awards — a contest showcasing writing and illustration talent in Three Village secondary schools.

Each year students in grades 7 through 12 are invited to submit an original children’s picture book created by a single person or an author/illustrator team. There are two judging categories: Grades 7 to 9 and Grades 10 to 12. There is a first and second place winner in each category.

First Prize (Grades 7 to 9) goes to Eliana Sasson, an eighth-grader, for “We Can Still Be Friends,” which teaches children to embrace and celebrate differences. Second Prize is awarded to Nicole Freeley, a ninth-grader for “Sammy the Sock Monkey.” They are both students at P. J. Gelinas junior high.

First Prize (Grades 10 to 12) goes to Ward Melville high school sophomore Katie Zhao for “Claire and Her Bear,” about a young girl whose beloved teddy bear goes missing and the emotions she experiences when this happens. Second Prize is awarded to Cassidy Oliver, also a Ward Melville sophomore, for “Color Your World.”

“I think she  had this drive to do things differently. The way she grandparented — and her roots in education — inspired us to [create] these awards.”

—Sherry Cleary

Shack was an intelligent and courageous woman. After graduating from Brooklyn College in the early 1950s, she obtained an elementary school teaching job in California, and boarded a train heading west, alone.

“At that time, it was an extraordinarily brave thing to do,” said Cleary. “People got married and stayed in Brooklyn. I think she  had this drive to do things differently. The way she grandparented — and her roots in education — inspired us to [create] these awards.”

Cleary went on to describe the connection Shack made with her son, the first grandchild.

“I had the first grandchild,” she said, “but we were very far away. She didn’t see him often. She would tape her voice reading a children’s book and then send the tape and the book to him. So, he would sit in a big blue chair in our living room and listen intently to the tape and turn the pages when she made the noise [that signaled to do that]. He had connection to her in that way — and later, he became a librarian.”

Eventually, Shack had seven grandchildren.

Knowing how important children’s literature was to their mother, the family wanted their event to incorporate it in some way. Although Shack did not return to classroom teaching after remarrying and having two more daughters, when the girls were grown Shack tutored kids in the public schools. Her focus was on giving them access to literature. More than just teaching reading, she gave them access to books.

“And what you can get from books,” added daughter Karen Reid, “all the information. All questions get answered in books. And if you don’t have questions — read a book — because then you’ll have questions. [Our mother] was a big questioner and always wanted us to seek information in books. She thought it was wonderful that authors could write information in a way that kids would want to read it.” That impressed her.

Shack’s only son, Ed Taylor, said he didn’t think there was anything spectacular about his mother.

Helen Shack, second from left, with her children at Karen Reid’s 2011 wedding. Photo from Shack family

“She was just a loving person,” he said, “loved her family, her kids and her grandchildren, nephews and nieces. She always stressed education, always stressed reading. I don’t know if she was much different from other moms, but she was ours. She was special to us; but I think everyone’s mother is special to them. The best compliment I could give her:  she was a good mother.”

Cleary talked about a third daughter, Barbara Kelly, who has three children. The kids would come for two weeks in the summer to visit their ‘savta’ (Hebrew for grandmother).

“They’d come in the house and unload all their stuff and she’d say, ‘Did you bring books?’ and they’d look at her and say, ‘No, we didn’t bring books all the way from California,’” Cleary said. “And she’d say, ‘Let’s go to the library.’ She’d bring them to the library to get books. As the children got older, on their way to visit they’d ask each other, ‘How long do you think it’ll be till we go to the library?’”

Shack fostered the notion that you should never be without a book. Unsurprisingly, her progeny are all readers. “The irony is, because she was so connected to the library, she did not have a lot of books in the house,” said Cleary, “which used to drive me crazy. She’d say, ‘I don’t buy books. I go to the library.’”

Winning authors will be recognized at a private awards ceremony at the library, Thursday, April 27 at 7 p.m. Each First Prize winner receives a $400 scholarship; each Second Prize winner receives a $100 scholarship. Bound copies of all the winning entries will be presented and added to the library’s Local Focus collection. All contest entrants receive certificates of participation. Light refreshments will be served, donated by The Bite Size Bake Shop, a local Three Village business.

The Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, is located at 120 Main Street in Setauket and provides public library service to all residents of the Three Village Central School District.

Colleagues pay tribute to Peter Paul

Paul, second from right, in 2002 with colleagues David Fossan, Linwood Lee, Robert McGrath and Gene Sprouse; and Paul in a family photo. Photo from Gene Sprouse

For nearly 50 years, Setauket’s Peter Paul was a prominent member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University. With his death March 11 at the age of 84, the physicist left behind a legacy that will be remembered for years to come, especially by his former colleagues.

A native of Dresden, Germany, Paul received a Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg, and immigrated to the United States when he accepted a postdoctoral position at Stanford University. 

Linwood Lee, emeritus professor, recalled when he recruited Paul in the late 1960s. A former co-worker of Lee’s worked with Paul at Stanford University and told him how impressive the physicist was. Lee knew he had to hire him during a time when he called coming to Stony Brook University “an adventure” because the school was in its infancy.

Peter Paul. Photo from Stony Brook University

Lee said Paul was marvelous, and he’s grateful he recruited the professor.

“We established a laboratory here, and from the moment he got here, he was the driving force to make us all do better,” Lee said.

Paul was a professor at the university from 1967 to 2015 and later a distinguished service professor in the department and served as chairman twice during his tenure. One of Paul’s greatest achievements was building a first-class nuclear physics group along with his colleagues at Stony Brook.

In 1973, when the physicist spearheaded a small group to develop, design and construct Stony Brook’s superconducting linear for heavy ions, an improvement of the university’s existing Van de Graaff accelerator, it became the first such machine at a university lab.

Gene Sprouse, now a distinguished John S. Toll professor at SBU, was a graduate student at Stanford University when he met Paul. He later came to Stony Brook and worked on the accelerator project with him.

“That machine was really unique. It was a very powerful accelerator at a university,” Sprouse said.

Paul Grannis, another of Paul’s colleagues at SBU, said Paul was very proud of the accelerator project.

“It enabled research that had previously not been possible to be done, and it was quite a unique facility in the country,” Grannis said. “I know Peter was very proud of that and considered it one of his major achievements.”

Paul became a member of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee in 1980, and as chair, led the development of the 1998 Nuclear Science Long Range Plan, which in turn led to the construction of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Paul was appointed deputy director for science and technology in 1998 at BNL, and when John Marburger was appointed as President George W. Bush’s scientific advisor in 2001, Paul stepped in as interim director at the laboratory until 2003. Under Paul’s direction, BNL made many advances, including starting the construction of Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, and conceptualizing the electron-ion collider as a successor to RHIC.

Peter Paul with Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley, M.D. Photo from Stony Brook University

Paul returned to SBU after serving as interim director at BNL, and his ongoing success was never a surprise to those who knew him.

“Peter was very energetic and driven,” Sprouse said. “He was always pushing for excellence.”

Sprouse described Paul as a visionary who helped to create the Stony Brook University people know today, especially the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Throughout his career he helped to build the nuclear physics groups at Stony Brook, he helped to build the department, and then he helped to build things at Brookhaven,” Sprouse said. “He always kept an eye out for putting in place instruments and institutes that could strengthen Stony Brook in particular and Brookhaven, too.”

Grannis echoed Sprouse’s praise of Paul.

“He was very motivated to do the best that he could in all of his scientific endeavors and to insist that all those who worked with him do so,” Grannis said.

Chang Kee Jung, a SUNY distinguished professor, said when Paul returned to Stony Brook after his time at BNL, he looked for a research program to be involved in. He said he was surprised when Paul knocked on his office door one day and told him he was interested in the projects he was working on at the time.

Jung said he was hesitant at first due to Paul’s extensive experience. However, Paul assured him he would never do anything to interfere. Jung said Paul was always curious to learn more in his field, and didn’t have an ego despite all of his successes. The professor said Paul was the perfect person to have on his team, and he became an advisor to Jung. The two worked together until Paul became the university’s associate vice president for Brookhaven affairs — a position he held until his retirement in 2015.

He also remembers Paul fondly on a personal level and said he was grateful for the opportunity to visit the professor at home a couple of weeks before his death.

“Among all the people I met at Stony Brook, he was the strongest supporter of me, personally,” Jung said. “For whatever reason he liked me and the projects I was doing.”

Lee added that like many professors, Paul was always proud of his students. Many left SBU for prestigious careers, including Michael Thoennessen, chair, APS division of nuclear physics at Michigan University. Thoennessen wrote in an email Paul was his Ph.D. adviser when he attended SBU in the late 1980s.

Peter Paul. Photo from Bryant Funeral Home

“In Germany the Ph.D. adviser is called the ‘Doktor Vater’ (Ph.D. Father) and that is exactly what Peter was to his students,” Thoennessen wrote. “In addition to being a brilliant scientist and a great administrator, Peter was an amazing mentor. I would not be where I am right now without Peter’s advice and guidance.”

Grannis added that despite a demanding career, Paul led a well-rounded life.

“He had a very broad range of interests not only in science but in music, in travel, in reading,” Grannis said. “He was very well-informed on many things.”

Paul was an ardent opera-goer and hiker, and Jung remembers the professor being in his 70s and still traveling upstate to go skiing. His career provided him the opportunity to travel extensively, too. Among his trips were vacations to his homeland of Germany.

In his lifetime, Paul received numerous awards including the American Physical Society Fellow, Institute of Physics Fellow, Sloane Research Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award and the Order of Merit First Class from the German government. Paul is also an inductee in the Long Island Technology Hall of Fame. However, his greatest honor may be the legacy he leaves behind at Stony Brook University.

“Peter was one of the people that made us a better university,” Lee said. “He was active in associating us with Brookhaven, and he was always a booster of the university, and we always boosted Peter. It was hard to keep him because he was recognized as a top scientist. He turned down some very good offers to stay here.”

Sprouse said Paul inspired many to come to SBU and helped them, with his encouragement and leadership, to develop their careers.

“I just think that he was somebody that was really dedicated to the university and wanted to build it,” he said. “For those of us who were at Stony Brook, 40, 50 years ago, Stony Brook was kind of a dream, and Peter really made it a reality.”

Stony Brook softball player Danni Kemp died after a battle with cancer. Photo from SBU

The Stony Brook family is mourning the loss of student-athlete Danni Kemp, who passed away on the morning of March 10 surrounded by family following her battle with cancer.

The Seawolves, who had dedicated their softball season to the sophomore, 19, postponed March 10 games against Santa Clara and New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Danni Kemp up to bat for the Seawolves. Photo from SBU

“Our hearts are heavy today and our love goes out to Danni and her family,” Stony Brook softball coach Megan Bryant said. “In all too short of a young life, Danni touched so many in a beautiful way. She fought so hard against this terrible disease, and showed us what true courage is. May Danni only know peace now.”

In July, Kemp was hit in the head by a pitch while playing in a summer league game. When she began feeling dizzy, had trouble focusing and couldn’t keep her balance, doctors tested her for a concussion. An MRI revealed a cancerous brain tumor.

Due to the location, surgery was not an option, and Kemp began radiation therapy Aug. 29, receiving treatment Monday through Friday for a total of six weeks.

A GoFundMe page was created on behalf of the family Aug. 22, and in six months had raised nearly $130,000 of the $150,000 goal, with donations from 1,575 people.

“Danni is the toughest young woman we have all ever met,” wrote Bradley Taylor, who created the GoFundMe page. “Her strong and indomitable will has already proven to be more than enough to battle and beat a rare kidney disease while she was in high school. This will be a battle, but with so many people who know and love Danni and her family, they’ve got an army behind them.”

Since her death, hundreds more dollars have poured in from those touched by the loss of Kemp, even those who didn’t know her.

“I felt very sad when I read the story,” wrote John Colombo.

Janis Matton was also saddened upon hearing the news.

“I am so very sorry for your loss,” she wrote. “Danni was truly an inspiration to all. Prayers for your family.”

“We got an angel in the outfield behind us. Heavy hearts with a little something more to play for this season.”

—Kevin Kernan

Kemp hit .446 as a junior for J.A. Foran High School in Connecticut en route to All-Conference and first team All-State honors. In her first three seasons at Foran, she collected more than 100 hits and 40 stolen bases. She was also a member of the Connecticut Charmers, an Under-18 fast pitch showcase team coached by Neil Swanchak.

As a Seawolf, she scored her first career hit against Charlotte University Feb. 20 of last year; had a double and scored a run at Florida Atlantic University Feb. 26; had two hits, including a bases-clearing double in a win over Columbia University Feb. 27; walked twice and drove in a run at Manhattan College March 30; drew three walks in another contest; and walked and scored a run at the University of Massachusetts Lowell April 16.

Kemp’s death had an impact that reverberated beyond just her softball family. After news of her death spread around campus, many student-athletes took to social media.

Tiffany Zullo, a midfielder on the women’s lacrosse team from Connetquot High School, tweeted: “We all play for Danni and will forever be Danni Strong. Rest in peace to a beautiful soul.”

Kevin Kernan, a baseball pitcher, posted, “We got an angel in the outfield behind us. Heavy hearts with a little something more to play for this season.”

Details for services will be forthcoming once the Kemp family makes arrangements.

“Danni had her entire life in front of her,” Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron said. “I am devastated beyond words and heartbroken for her family and everyone who loved her. Her valiant fight over the past several months was an inspiration to all of us, and her impact on the Stony Brook Athletics family will be felt for many years to come.”

Accident leads to two fundraising efforts, 25A study

Nico Signore with his mother Kim. Photo from Facebook

Just days after Miller Place teen and lacrosse superstar Nicolo Signore died riding his bike on Route 25A, friends, relatives and community members are doing all they can to help his grieving family.

A little after 5 p.m. on Feb. 23, Signore, 14, described as “a happy kid with a big heart” by those closest to him, was out doing what he loved to do — riding his bike with his friends — when he tried crossing northbound Miller Place Road at Route 25A. The last of his group of four friends to cross the street, Signore was struck by an SUV after the light turned green, suffering significant head trauma.

Nico Signore wore No. 20 as a goalkeeper for Miller Place’s lacrosse team. Photo from Pam Santo Speedling

He was immediately rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, sending a shock wave through not only his family and friends but the entire community.

“I have no words to offer that could ever make this time easier; my thoughts are with you.”

“We are absolutely heartbroken with the loss of Nico. We will never forget him and will pray for peace for his loving family. We love you.”

“Although we do not know your family, we are part of the Miller Place community family. We are so very sorry for your loss. Our prayers are with you all.”

These messages, accompanied by donations of $100, are just a small portion of the love and support seen on the GoFundMe page “Please support Nico Signore,” one of two fundraising campaigns set up in the aftermath of Signore’s death. The page was created by family friend Pam Santo Speedling Feb. 25, just one day after the accident, with the intention of helping the Signore family pay for funeral costs and ease the burden of Kim Signore, Nico’s mother, who will now be able to stay home from work and grieve without worrying about income.

Nico Signore with his brother Vincent Jr., father Vincent, mother Kim and sister Sophia. Photo from Pam Santo Speedling

Speedling, who has been best friends with Kim for more than 20 years since graduating nursing school together, said she’s long considered all three Signore children her own, and sprang into action, unbeknownst to Kim.

“I just felt completely helpless because Kim was so distraught she couldn’t even speak, and so I knew I had to do something that would help her,” Speedling said. “The last thing you want to worry about after burying your child is worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills. At this point in [Kim’s] life, she doted on Nico and everything she did revolved around him. This accident just took her life away, it’s devastating.”

When she presented the idea to family friend Denise Cagno, Cagno told her it was a great idea.

“It’s just amazing how many people are being so generous and supportive of this thing for the family at this time,” Cagno said. “It’s a great way to help a family in need, and it’s a big load off them.”

“My little brother was the most perfect, pure person I’ve ever come in contact with. He could walk into a room full of sadness and light it up like a Christmas tree.”

— Vincent Signore Jr.

The fundraiser hit its goal of $5,000 after just about a day, and within three days, the funds exceeded $27,076. So far, 370 people have donated, with individual contributions ranging from $15 to $300. The family has considered putting Signore in a burial vault, as they did with his grandparents, which costs $10,000.

Charles Butruch, Nico’s uncle, created another GoFundMe page, “The Nico Signore Scholarship Fund,” Feb. 27, on behalf of the Miller Place teen’s parents, who wish to preserve their son’s legacy through a scholarship fund that will recognize Miller Place seniors “who embody the same exemplary spirit, courage, determination, love of community and passion for living that Nico exhibited so naturally.” After just one day, the page has raised $3,200 of its $25,000 goal.

Kim Signore is also interested in having a bike path named in memory of Nico in recognition of one of his greatest passions. Coincidentally, Suffolk County is in the process of planning a bike path that would run from Port Jefferson Station to Wading River.

“My nephew was just an unbelievable person, had such a love for lacrosse — ‘proudly wore the No. 20 for the Miller Place Panthers as goalie’ —and bike riding, he loved life and always had a smile on his face,” Butruch said. “It’s a very sad time, but hopefully through the scholarship, since he never got a chance to go to college or do what he wanted to do in life, other kids can … and he can have a living legacy.”

Nico Signore proudly displays a lacrosse award. Photo from Pam Santo Speedling

Butruch recognized the support of local businesses, including Middle Island Pizza, which has been sending food every day to the Signore family, saying the outpouring of support has given Kim and Vincent, Nico’s father, “an unbelievable feeling” and has “taken them totally by surprise.”

“My sister says her heart is touched, she’s overwhelmed with all the love and support being provided from total strangers,” said Kelly Butruch, Kim’s sister. “They’re brought to tears by all of this, it’s beautiful.”

Nico’s older brother, Vincent Jr., 22, expressed his feelings in an email.

“My little brother was the most perfect, pure person I’ve ever come in contact with,” he wrote. “He could walk into a room full of sadness and light it up like a Christmas tree. People from all over are reaching out with support, love and amazing memories of Nico and it’s really helped put into perspective how many lives he has touched. I would like to personally thank all my close family and friends for being such an amazing support system right now.”

In response to Signore’s death, State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) wrote a letter to the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, requesting a pedestrian/bicycle safety study along the Route 25A corridor to prevent further injuries or deaths, writing that Nico’s accident was “the second tragic fatality of a young student crossing Route 25A in Miller Place in 18 months.”

The family also points to the red light cameras across county intersections as a concern and a possible contributing factor in the accident.

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Erik Halvorsen in his last photo, taken during a Thanksgiving weekend vacation at Bear Mountain. Photo from Britt Halvorsen

Setauket arborist Erik Halvorsen, 45, died Monday, following a tragic accident while working on a tree in Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook.

The owner of Norse Tree Service Inc. was approximately 50 feet up in a tree while attempting to cut it down at approximately 11:15 a.m., according to Suffolk County Police. The trunk splintered and trapped him against the tree. Halvorsen, who was wearing a safety harness, attempted to free himself and fell 20 feet. An employee was able to lower Halvorsen to the ground. He was transported via St. James Fire Department ambulance to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad detectives are investigating the death, although no foul play is suspected. This is standard procedure in workplace deaths, police said.

George Powers, former owner of the Hither Brook Nursery in St. James, recalled his customer’s work ethic and expertise.

“[Erik] was very good at what he did — he was not a cowboy,” Powers said in a phone interview. “He took all the precautions. And then this happened anyway.”

A woman who came to the door at the Avalon office on Harbor Road in Stony Brook declined to comment, but Avalon’s Leadership Program Director Katharine Griffiths issued a statement later Tuesday morning on behalf of her entire staff.

“Erik was a friend to many of us at the park,” Griffiths wrote in an email Tuesday. “We are heartbroken over this tragic accident. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and his many friends.”

Halvorsen did a great deal of work for The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook. President Gloria Rocchio expressed her horror at the accident and her admiration for the man.

“We worked with Erik for years in Stony Brook,” she said. “He was very sensitive. When we did work on the village green, he designed [the landscape]. It was like an art form, what he did. Everyone was very happy with the result. He was very passionate. All of us here at The Ward Melville Heritage Organization are devastated. He was a great man.”

“Erik was by far one of the hardest working men we knew. He was one of the good guys, a person who would lend a helping hand without a second thought.”

—Laura Brown

The folks at Sheep Pasture Tree & Nursery Supply Inc., friends and neighbors of Norse Tree Service on Sheep Pasture Road in Port Jefferson Station, said he was very easy to recommend.

“Erik was by far one of the hardest working men we knew,” Laura Brown said in an email. “He was one of the good guys, a person who would lend a helping hand without a second thought. We easily recommended him to our customers because we knew he would do a good job. When he came into our office, he was always happy, fun to talk with and a gentleman. We will miss the days of him walking into our office at 5:45 a.m. to use our fax machine. We will miss him as will so many in our community.”

Bob Koch of Koch Tree Services reflected on the impact the incident has had on the community.

“I want everybody to know that the tree community is a very tight-knit family,” Koch said in a phone interview. “A tragedy like this affects everyone in it. Our hearts go out to Erik’s family. He was a wonderful young man. We all feel it when something like this happens.”

Powers shared an anecdote about Halvorsen that spoke to his character.

“He and his wife were on vacation on some island,” Powers recalled. “He saw a dog tied up in a very bad way. So he let it loose. The next day the dog was again tied up. So he adopted the dog and brought it home. He had to go through a lot of paperwork and paid to have [the dog] flown home. But that dog loved him. You could see it. He was just a good person.”

Halvorsen leaves a wife, Britt, and three children, Liv, Leif and Lilli.

A celebration of Erik’s life has been scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Old Field Club in Setauket. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Gerda’s Animal Aid Inc., a rescue organization run by Britt Halvorsen’s mother, at P.O. Box 1352, West Townshend, VT 05359, or by calling 802-874-7213.

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Three Village music teacher Virginia Rath Bidwell. Photo from Bryant Funeral Home

By David Gianopoulos

Virginia Rath was a music teacher in the Three Village area first at North Country Elementary School and then at Gelinas Junior High School in the 1960s and 1970s. I met her when I was in fifth grade. One day, at the end of class, she asked me to stay after. She said, “David, I’d like you to stay after. I’d like to talk to you.” I didn’t know if I was in trouble or not. I used to get in trouble quite a bit when I was a young kid. And she said, “I want to tell you something. I think you may have the best voice in this school. You have a gift and you’re talented, and you need to know that, and you need to work on it.”

Well, I had never heard once in my life that I was good at anything. See, I couldn’t read. And when I say I couldn’t read, I literally could hardly read at all. I had dyslexia. And back then, people didn’t know what dyslexia was. She looked me in the eyes and said, “You have a gift. You need to know that and you need to work on it.” Over the years after that she would stop into my class in sixth grade, knock on the door, and ask to work with me privately on singing. My teacher at that time was not too keen on letting me out of class because I was behind on everything. And I was. I was not a good student. I couldn’t read. But Mrs. Rath won that debate with my teacher and he reluctantly let me go and work with her. And what a lucky person I was because she gave me hope that there was something that I could do well. And do well at school. And excel.

Mrs. Rath stayed at North Country the next year while I and my classmates went off to junior high at Gelinas. But the following year she moved to Gelinas Junior High School and became the music teacher there. So I was lucky to have her for two more years. We did many classes together, but also she had me do solo performances with Janet Tramposh in the “Sound of Music.” When we were in sixth grade, she did the musical “Amal and the Night Visitors.” It’s an opera, along with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — all these great songs — and she’d have the soprano section and the alto section and the tenors and the bass, and some of these songs were complicated. But she worked those kids like a taskmaster. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sixth-grade class sound more beautiful or professional. Her drive and commitment were incredible. Virginia Rath died Oct. 12, 2016. I am forever grateful for her guidance — and showing me that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and it wasn’t a train. It was my future. Over the years since then, I’ve gone into the profession as an actor, I’ve done many TV shows and movies, I’ve done many plays — Shakespeare in the Park — and one of the reasons that I believe I am where I am today is because of her. She watered the plant I was as a young boy and gave him hope. I am forever grateful.

Virginia Rath Bidwell was buried at the Caroline Church in Setauket Tuesday, Oct. 18. I so wish I had been able to be there. What a gift she was. May she rest in peace.

[Arrangements were entrusted to the Bryant Funeral Home of Setauket. Please visit www.bryantfh.com to sign the online guest book.]

Honor Gracey Kopcienski 1932-2016. Photo from Kopcienski family

By Elizabeth Kopcienski Schwartz

Honor Gracey Kopcienski bestowed grace and kindness on every person she met throughout her 84 years. She left this world Sept. 17 at her Mount Sinai home with lifelong partner, Johnny (Alfred) Kopcienski by her side.

Honor was born July 2, 1932, to Ruth Jaynes Gracey, a much-loved Port Jefferson high school teacher, and Stuart Gracey, an internationally acclaimed singer and conductor. Honor and her sisters, Louise Hawley and Anne Hedstrom, attended the one-room schoolhouse on North Country Road in Mount Sinai. She and her childhood friend, Jane Carter, often reminisced about their wonderful early years freely roaming the woods and beaches of Miller Place.

“Honor and Johnny’s greatest gifts, and source of greatest pride, are their children, grandchildren and great-grandchild.”

— Elizabeth Kopcienski Schwartz 

Later, at Port Jefferson High School, Honor met Johnny. Their courting included a contest where they kissed all the way from Patchogue to Port Jefferson in the rumble seat of a Ford Model A. One particular Friday, after high school graduation and a semester at Mannes School of Music in New York, Honor went to Tinker National Bank and withdrew $89 from Johnny’s bank account. She had him drive her to Rose Jewelers in Patchogue where she informed him that he was buying her an engagement ring. They were wed May 25, 1952, and their love produced eight children, 24 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The values that defined Honor as a person are seen in her family: compassion, integrity and a love of music.

Honor’s devotion to music began early. At 12, she accompanied her father and his choruses. Early on she studied piano at a studio in the Old Field lighthouse. Later she participated in the Juilliard preparatory program. She was an accomplished pianist, organist and accompanist. Her passion led her to Infant Jesus R.C. Church in Port Jefferson where she and Johnny were wed, and where she served as parish organist for more than 50 years. Parishioners would often stand in the pews, marveling at her playing until the final note. Honor’s gift was an integral part of hundreds of weddings, funerals and masses. She and her musical partner and dear friend, Dolores Butera, were honored by The Port Times on behalf of Infant Jesus Choir as People of the Year for the Arts in 1991.

Honor taught and accompanied numerous children and performers, her own children and grandchildren included. She played for Manhasset Glee Club, Port Jefferson Choral Society, Southold Town Choral Society, Choral Society of Moriches, SUNY Stony Brook, and at master classes given by opera singer Eleanor Steber in her Belle Terre home. Later she was accompanist and mentor for the New Century Singers. Honor always maintained her own musical studies and in 2000 studied and passed the rigorous test to attain the prestigious Associateship of the American Guild of Organists.

Instead of retiring, Honor continued to play the organ at many local churches including Mount Sinai Congregational, Setauket’s Presbyterian with director Mark Orton, Port Jefferson’s First United Methodist and, most recently, St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach.

While busy raising children along with her musical career, Honor was also active in community service. She was instrumental in organizing Polish Fest at Infant Jesus Church, cooking kielbasa sausage side by side with Johnny; was active in supporting Port Jefferson Rotary charitable efforts including the Gift of Life; and was a contributing member of the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society.

When the new Infant Jesus Parish Center was built, Honor and Johnny donated a piano so that there would be music for all events there. They supported funding for a new piano for Earl L. Vandermeulen High School.

Honor and Johnny’s years of giving to the people and spirit of Infant Jesus Parish were recognized by the Diocese of Rockville Centre with the St. Agnes Medal of Service award. The couple were early advocates and strong supporters of Father Frank Pizzarelli in his efforts to minister to troubled youth in the community. The mission of Hope House Ministries matched Honor’s passion for personal, ongoing and daily commitment to the spirit of giving.

Honor and Johnny’s greatest gifts, and source of greatest pride, are their children, grandchildren and great-grandchild: Charlaine and Ira, Emma (Sean) and Abbie; Beth and Joseph, Kate (Dan), Caralyn (Johnny) and David; Mark and Rebecca, Andrew, Julia, Christian and Lauren; Therese and Clark, John (Shannon and baby Clark), Christen (Ryan), Mary Liz (Adam) and Luke; Ann Marie and Chip, Sergei and Daniel; John Paul and Martha, Jake and Mary Claire; Jennie and Peter, Gracey (Jamie), Peter and Annie; Matthew and Becky, Gregory, Benjamin, Margaret and Sam.

Their 24 grandchildren include five addressed as doctor, an Olympian, teachers, musicians, business people and enthusiastic students. Honor was proud of the legacy of hard work, service and compassion she instilled in her family. She will always be remembered by both her name and key trait: Honor.

Honor’s final days were blessed to end in peace, comfort and love through the assistance of the staff at Good Shepherd Hospice. Her family prefers that memorial donations be sent to Good Shepherd Hospice or the giver’s local hospice organization.

Arrangements were entrusted to Bryant Funeral Home of East Setauket. Please visit www.bryantfh.com to sign the online guestbook.

Elizabeth Kopcienski Schwartz is the daughter of Honor Gracey Kopcienski.

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"Ride for Becca" foundation created to help promising equestrians

22-year-old equestrian Rebecca Weissbard died suddenly when her horse fell on her during a jumping competition. Photo from the Weissbard family

Gold Medal-winning, 22-year-old equestrian Rebecca Weissbard died Aug. 31 in Saugerties, New York, when her horse accidentally fell on her during a jumping competition.

Her father Eric and her mother Lynne plan to honor their daughter’s memory by establishing a nonprofit for talented riders to help them fulfill their dreams, he said in a telephone interview. Acknowledging the fact that it is an expensive sport, their goal is to provide financial help to working-class kids who show potential and share Rebecca’s passion for horses.

Becca, as she was known, died instantly.  “It was quick,” her father said. “[The paramedics] tried their best, but nothing could be done.”

She was participating in one of the largest horse shows in the country, called HITS-on-the-Hudson. Becca and her mother were in upstate New York, and her father was home on the North Shore, serving a shift as an EMT with the Stony Brook Fire Department.

 Rebecca Weissbard with her father, Eric. Photo from the Weissbard family
Rebecca Weissbard with her father, Eric. Photo from the Weissbard family

“She was such a dignified and well-put-together young woman,” Eric Weissbard said. “She wanted to be the best — to do it properly. She lived her passion and her dream. She worked hard and excelled. It is only fitting that we help other kids pursue their dreams.”

Her grandmother, Rochelle Weissbard, remembered Becca being around horses practically from birth.

“Rebecca was on a horse when she was a few months old — on her mother’s back; on her father’s back,” Rochelle said. “When she was two Lynne went back to training riders at Smoke Run [Farm] in Stony Brook and she took Becca with her. Right from the beginning she was a natural — and fearless.”

Raised in Stony Brook, Becca attended William Sidney Mount Elementary School through sixth grade. Her parents established Sundance Stables in Medford in 2003 but soon outgrew their rented barn and relocated the stable to Manorville.

“Rebecca was the welcoming, cheerful pied piper of the kids,” her grandmother said. “Wherever she was there was love and there was joy — and silliness — but when she was ready to ride, she’d take care of business. And she did. When focused, there was no one better. She rode to win.”

The grandparents have long supported the quadrennial Maccabiah Games held in Israel that bring together Olympic-caliber Jewish athletes from around the world. Traditionally held the year following the Summer Olympic Games, they are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee and the World Federation of Sports.

As she became more and more proficient at the sport, Becca’s grandfather, Richard Weissbard, realized there were no equestrian events at the games. He contacted the director to ask why. That was about five years ago. The director said he’d get back to him.

The next Maccabiah Games — in 2013 — included equestrian events. Becca trained with Olympic equestrians Neal and Elisa Shapiro at Hay Fever Farm in Robbinsville, New Jersey, for several years. Neal Shapiro was the coach of the American Equestrian Team, which had 38 athletes. Becca won the first gold medal awarded in individual competition, which also helped the team earn silver overall.

The team members had to compete riding Israeli horses because the expense of bringing their own horses was too great. That was problematic for Becca considering, as her grandparents described seemingly in tandem, the horse she ended up with was “defective.” They said it actually went lame the day before the competition.

Very upset, Becca called her mother to find out what to do.

“She wanted to be the best — to do it properly. She lived her passion and her dream. She worked hard and excelled.”

—Eric Weissbard

“You march in there and you tell them you don’t care where they get a horse — just get one!” According to the grandparents, Becca practiced with a reserve horse for about two hours before winning the competition.

“She flew with him,” Richard Weissbard said; “…because she’s been around horses all her life,” her grandmother added. “We were so proud.”

At the games in Israel the then 19-year-old made connections that provided her with European opportunities.

“Wanting to go where the best horses are she chose to go to Holland,” her father said.

Becca worked at a horse stable in Holland for eight months. Her father said she learned a lot about top-tier horses and established a relationship with one particularly difficult horse. She made riding him look easy.

Labor laws for foreign workers dictated a return to the U.S., but a year later she returned to the Dutch farm for another three months. She’d fly back and forth as an escort for horses.

“In those 22 years she crammed in an awful lot of stuff,” her grandmother said. “But most of all she was a wonderful daughter, a great granddaughter, a terrific niece, and everyone who knew her loved her. Wherever there was excitement, there she was. Never a dull moment. She brought laughter and cheer and happiness and joy to everyone. She will be sorely missed.”

The Weissbards are setting up a foundation called Ride for Becca. “It will be a 501(c)3 nonprofit with the goal of helping kids who have potential to get to the next level,” said Eric Weissbard. “We want to find kids who are good and get them good training and get the horse good veterinary care.” They plan to keep Becca’s spirit and passion alive by helping others.

Once the 501(c)3 is established, tax-deductible contributions made out to Ride for Becca may be sent to Sundance Stables, 37 North St., Manorville, NY 11939.

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Mom first met her great-great-grandson Aiman on July 13, 2016. Photo by Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Growing up in Setauket, I learned a great deal from my father by his example, but encouragement and support came from Mom. My sister Ann, my brother Guy and I were taught that we were not only a family but a part of a community that extended from our relatives and neighbors across the street to our relatives and friends everywhere.

We lived with my Grandma Edith Tyler until I was 12 and then we moved into the house down the street where my father’s half sister Carrie had lived with her two aunts, Annie and Corinne, until their deaths. Soon after we moved, my Grandma Tyler moved in and lived with us until her death in 1963. A few years later my grandmother Margaret Carlton (Nana) moved from her home in Port Jefferson to our home and lived with us until her death in 1980.

During all this time, these transitions seemed very normal to me. Mom never said a cross word that I was ever aware of, nor any indication that it was the least bit difficult for her sharing a kitchen and dealing with a strong-willed mother-in-law and an equally strong-willed mother. I always loved and appreciated my grandmothers. They were, like Mom, independent women who had run households of their own.

Grandma and my grandfather Tyler owned and ran a boarding house (now Setauket Neighborhood House) until they sold it in 1918 to Eversley Childs. After my grandfather died in 1926, Grandma took the job of Setauket’s postmaster, and then as librarian at Emma Clark Memorial Library.

Grandma Carlton, Nana to us kids, had married Guy Carlton in 1909 in Alna, Maine, and the couple immediately moved to Port Jefferson where my grandfather Carlton, Pup-Pup to us kids, worked building the original Belle Terre Club. A master carpenter and cabinet maker, Pup-Pup built his house in Port Jefferson, overlooking the harbor, and my grandmother insisted that they have indoor plumbing. This was in 1909, when outhouses were the norm.

One summer (1948) I went to work with my grandfather in Crystal Brook. He was building a full bar in the basement of one of the houses. It was a beautiful piece of furniture with cabinets behind the bar in the game room of the summer cottages, and he told me, “Don’t tell your grandmother, she wouldn’t approve.” My grandfather was a tough man, but my grandmother was the strength of the family.

Mom took all of this in stride. She also believed in letting go and letting her kids explore and discover the world. When I was about 8, I was allowed to cross Main Street in Setauket on my own and take my 4-year-old sister and 3-year-old brother with me to Mrs. Celia Hawkins’ farm. We loved going across to the farm with cows, pigs, geese and a few chickens running through the house. We grew up on the buttermilk and candy corn Celia provided for us every day.

On a number of occasions, I unsuccessfully tried to milk the cows. I could never get the hang of it, but Celia let us churn the butter until our arms gave out and we collapsed on the porch. We also enjoyed mornings when we could help collect the eggs, learning quickly how to avoid having our hands pecked by the chickens.

Mom and Dad also took us on vacations to historic and natural sites from Williamsburg, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Niagara Falls and the Reversing Falls Rapids in St. John, New Brunswick.

Dad drove and Mom made up games for us to play in the car, usually looking for things outside as we drove. I didn’t realize it at the time, but although Dad was the tour guide and historian, it was Mom who put the fun into the trips with details about interesting signs, structures and people along the route.

“One in; one out. Life goes on and we have a plethora of memories and stories to keep in our hearts.”

— Beverly Tyler

As adults, we took Mom on a few trips, including one to Maine for the burial service of my Aunt Etta, who died when she was 105. Going through one town, Mom suddenly burst out laughing. She pointed out a Chinese restaurant named Mi Sen Gui, and exclaimed, “That’s my son, guy.”

Mom sang a number of years with the Greg Smith singers, even traveling with them to Europe. She played bridge with a group of friends and enjoyed the Setauket Library book study group, even traveling with members of the club to London.

Mom and Dad were members of the Old Field Point Power Squadron and Mom completed every advanced grade course, including celestial navigation. I remember that after completing that last tough course, her warm, aromatic chocolate chip cookies reappeared after a few years absence. Mom was also an excellent cook whose pie crusts have no equal and my wife will attest to that.

Mom enjoyed golf, bowling, boating, car trips and other outdoor activities with my father until his death in a terrible auto accident in 1975. Mom married her second husband Lewis Davis in 1978 and together they enjoyed golf, bowling, trips to Florida and trips all over the world, making a few lasting friends in Australia and other countries as well as closer to home. I especially got to know and appreciate Mom as a friend as well as a mom after Lew died in 2008, in his 94th year.

By the time Lew died, Mom had developed paralysis due to an inherited condition that strikes different people in our family at all different ages and with varied intensities. By the last few years of her life, Mom struggled with special shoes and braces on both legs. I hardly ever heard her complain or let her paralysis slow her down. By this year she was almost completely wheelchair-bound but was still able, with assistance, to move short distances, including in and out of vehicles.

Mom has always been able to take a problem, evaluate it, and after a day, make a decision that is best for everyone around her as well as for herself. Mom always wanted her colonial era home and property to be preserved. Working through state legislator Steven Englebright, this has been accomplished and the property will now go to the Three Village Community Trust.

Mom never lost her sense of humor. Recently, her companion Elizabeth was rubbing some lotion, with a pleasing but distinctive aroma, on her feet. Mom turned and looked very seriously at Elizabeth and said, “Will this clash with my perfume?”

Mom was always able to set herself a goal and stick to it. Elizabeth said that Mom is the only person she knows who could eat one dark chocolate candy kiss and put the bag of candy back in the refrigerator.

Mom’s concern even extended to our parish priest. A week ago we all feared the end of her life was near, but we didn’t know she knew. I told her that our rector, Canon Visconti, was on the way to see her and she whispered to me, “Does he know the situation?” That’s Mom, always one step ahead of the rest of us.

Mom died Thursday, Aug. 25, in her 102nd year, just a few hours after her fourth great-great-grandchild was born in Tennessee. Mom is survived by sons Beverly (Barbara) and Guy, daughter Ann Taylor (Frank), two stepdaughters Sukie Crandall (Steve) and Nancy Rosenberg, seven grandchildren, one step-granddaughter, 21 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.

One in; one out. Life goes on and we have a plethora of memories and stories to keep in our hearts.

The funeral will be Friday, Sept. 9 at 11 a.m. at the Caroline Church, 1 Dyke Rd., Setauket. There will be a wake at Bryant Funeral Home, 411 Old Town Rd. in Setauket Sept. 8 from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m.

Beverly Tyler is a lifelong resident of Setauket, Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from Three Village Historical Society.

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