Opinion

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23. File photo by Bob Savage

By Rob DeStefano

What can you accomplish during a 25-year career at Comsewogue School District? Greatness. Let me explain: While I was a sophomore at Comsewogue, we were introduced to Joe Rella as the new teacher in the music department, a quarter century ago. In the months that followed, students started talking about music, band, theater and jazz with an increased frequency not measurable before. Something special was beginning.

I don’t remember which concert it was, winter or spring, but as a junior participating in the newly reinvigorated jazz band, it happened. We sat playing an upbeat swing-time classic — maybe Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” — and this new teacher stepped away from the conductor’s podium. We stayed cool, kept playing, though we wondered what was happening. He walked to the audience and offered a hand to his wife. A moment later, this new teacher and his wife were doing the Charleston in front of an audience of parents, while our band played. In that moment, the magic became real. Comsewogue had hired our own “Mr. Holland.” We had our first glimpse of who Rella was.

In the years that followed, class after class grew to appreciate his style — and his impact. His collaboration with our music educators led to a number of new opportunities for students. We had a pep band at home football games. Our theater performances recruited more students, some discovering talent they didn’t know they had. Even more, they found confidence, overcame shyness and lifted each other to perform at higher levels. This influence benefited all the district’s high school students when he became principal in the 1998-99 school year. How he found the time to continue to accompany students in their musical endeavors, I don’t know.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Rella’s appointment as Comsewogue’s superintendent in 2010 coincided with my election to our board of education. To call the last eight-plus years of working with him “unforgettable” is an understatement. Just as he inspired our students, he’s been a source of trust, candor and community to Port Jefferson Station residents, and beyond.

He’s proposed innovative solutions to challenges that threaten public education. He’s stood up for our children and an educational curriculum that prepares them to be their best. He’s advocated logic in the face of unreasonable and irresponsible policies dictated by out-of-touch government actions. As he prepares to retire after nine years as superintendent, his influence on our district, community and public education are deep and long lasting.

Great leaders don’t act alone. At each step in his 25-year journey, Rella has influenced the culture of the departments, schools and communities he’s worked with. Those who became Warriors along the way have become part of this culture of openness, collaboration and unwavering spirit. That makes me very excited for our community and Comsewogue School District’s future.

Our district administration has delivered great community successes in recent years. We’ve weathered the limitations of the property tax cap without compromising the quality of student education. Student access to technology has grown at all levels. Our arts programs are amazing. If you haven’t been to one of our schools’ art shows or musicals lately, I highly recommend them.

We’ve received accreditation from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a first on Long Island for a full-sized district, putting our educational standard significantly above those dictated by the New York State Education Department. Program performance has been on a strong incline. Our literacy program and programs for English language learners are providing stronger foundations toward the educational growth of every student. Our problem-based learning program is proving our students have the analytical, critical thinking skills for 21st century success. They not only pass state exams but demonstrate deep knowledge of topics and an understanding of the world around them.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue board of education member and a Comsewogue High School graduate

On top of all this, our district — and really, our community — culture is unprecedented. Our students are not only academically thriving, but they are responsible stewards of the schools and neighborhoods to which they belong. The number of volunteer initiatives and the number of students who participate is awesome to see. And the latest of these, “Joe’s Days of Service,” is one of the great cultural legacies that I have no doubt will become a lasting part of how Comsewogue students give back to the community that has supported them, even after Rella moves on. Our students, past, present and future, will continue to make us proud.

As incoming superintendent, Jennifer Quinn represents the next stage in our community’s Warrior spirit. She has worked alongside Rella to get us where we are. As our district has been elevated, she has built, evolved and driven the programs that are enabling our students to thrive. I’m extremely excited about the vision she has shared to continue Comsewogue’s trajectory toward the very best in academics, athletics and arts. Our community is becoming a more attractive place to live and raise a family. Ask your local real estate agent to confirm this. Where we’re headed, the place we live will become an even more coveted venue — a benefit for all residents.

Legacy takes many forms. Rella’s real, lasting impact on our community is proven by how we celebrate and carry forward the torch he passes along to us all. The job belongs to all of us. We must not lose sight of what makes ours a special place to be. We must recognize the opportunity ahead of us and continue toward it with the same unwavering commitment. We must continue to work together, support each other and continue to carry Comsewogue forward with pride because, in some way, we’ve all had the blessing of being students of Joe Rella. We are a family of Warriors.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue School District Board of Education member and a graduate of Comsewogue High School.

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Call me ghoulish, but I like to read obituaries. Of course they have to be well-written obits, like the ones in The New York Times. I almost never know the people who have died. If I’ve heard of them, their stories are usually on the front page. These obits that I refer to are usually found in the back pages. The dead are famous enough to warrant a significant write-up, and I always like to hear tales of people’s lives. That’s one reason I find them interesting. Another, perhaps more important attraction for me, is the random information to be gleaned on diverse subjects.

Let me give you some recent examples.

On an entirely random day, Thursday, Oct. 25, I read about Wanda Ferragamo, clever wife of the famous shoemaker, Salvatore Ferragamo, who had built a shoe shop in Florence, Italy, into a shoe design and manufacturing concern. Upon his death in 1960 — he was 24 years older than his wife — Wanda, who had never worked in her life until then, built the company into an international powerhouse with annual revenues most recently of more than $1 billion. Now I happen to like Ferragamo shoes, although I mostly don’t buy them. But the obit was something of a business case study for me, as well as the story of a remarkable woman who had just died at her hilltop villa in Fiesole, a beautiful village above Florence, at age 96.

Then there was Osamu Shimomura, who died in Nagasaki, Japan, at age 90. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for finding a glowing jellyfish protein that is now a major element of biological research. Shimomura, working in Washington state for a Princeton marine biologist in 1961, scooped up thousands of jellyfish from Puget Sound in an attempt to discover how they glowed green when agitated. They were able to extract a luminescent material, a protein, which they named aequorin. He also found trace amounts of another protein, green fluorescent protein or GFP that would glow green whenever ultraviolet light was shined on it. Ultimately the GFP gene was stitched into the DNA of other organisms, enabling researchers to track those organisms the way naturalists can track tagged cougars in the wild. This revolutionized contemporary biological discovery. Of great further interest, he lived with grandparents near Nagasaki and saw the American B-29 airplane that dropped its devastating atomic bomb on the city. He described what he saw in graphic detail in his Nobel autobiography.

Dorcas Reilly, who died in Camden, New Jersey, at age 92, might particularly be remembered at the Thanksgiving table. It was she who invented the classic American dish of green bean casserole when she worked in the Campbell Soup Company test kitchen. Containing a mere six ingredients, the recipe was printed on the label of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and called for cooked green beans, a little milk, soy sauce, pepper and some crunchy fried onions on top. Reilly helped create simple recipes to promote the sale of company products. Originally called the Green Bean Bake in 1955, Campbell’s estimates some 20 million American homes will serve the dish in two weeks time.

The Indian musician and teacher, Annapurna Devi, 91, died in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Called by The Times “a poignant inspiration for women artists,” Devi masterfully played the surbahar, described as a bass sitar. This is “a difficult instrument that few if any women of her era played.” She and her first husband, the famous sitarist Ravi Shankar, sometimes played together, but when she seemed to get most of the notice she stopped performing. A 1973 movie, “Abhimaan,” is said to have been inspired by their marriage and the tensions within it. She then limited herself to teaching and “turned out musicians of the highest caliber.”

There was also Tony Hoagland, who died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 64 and “a widely admired poet who could be both humorous and heartfelt.” He found insights and imagery in the everyday, like a pool in an Austin, Texas, park; a spaghetti strap on a woman’s dress that wouldn’t stay put; and, according to The Times, an old man dying awash in paranoia from too much Fox News.

Never heard of any of them? Now you have and learned something too, I’ll bet. I did.

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Knowing exactly what we want and then getting it brings out the thrilled child in all of us.

I recently attended a wonderful party thrown by one of my wife’s friends. I’ve seen this gentleman for years in various settings that are a blend of personal and professional. Each time, he seemed pleased with the fish he ordered for lunch, with the interactions at holiday parties or with the chance to discuss details of his children’s lives.

At this party at his house, however, I saw a different side of him that I hope resides in each of us. In his elegantly decorated and comfortable home, he welcomed us into a large kitchen. People stood around a table covered with various dishes, helping themselves to sliced steak, warm pretzels and a variety of appetizers.

While the food appeared pleasing to the guests’ palates, the bigger hit was the wide assortment of wines. With a stream of ordered and shiny glasses at the ready, each arriving guest had a chance to sample from a variety of wines, all gracefully arranged with the bottles of the neck facing outward, as if each container were a person reclining comfortably in a bath after a long day.

“This one came from a trip to California,” he said. “It’s my absolute favorite.” He proceeded to describe his experience at the vineyard and the interactions with its owners.

“After a sip, I told him I wanted his entire stock of this one,” he said, taking a small swallow, smiling and basking in the familiar flavor that splashed across his receptive taste buds. When told there were 12 bottles of that particular wine, he asked the owner to pack them all up and ship them to him. He was delighted to share what he described as an extraordinary taste of life with guests who became increasingly animated and comfortable with each other as the night wore on.

Once outside his house, he took us on a tour of some of the amenities he had taken considerable time to add to his house. For starters, he had two firepits on a 50-something degree evening, both of which offered welcome warmth against the breezes that seemed no match for the flames.

Around the side, he said he used to have a lawn. Once his children were old enough, he had no need for grass he would need to water and mow, and that young children didn’t occupy during evenings or weekends. He had recently installed a putting green for his wife’s birthday. That, however, was just the beginning of the story, as he had the green designed and installed to match the contours, speed and play of the nearest golf course.

First, he said, the installers put down a base. Once they did that, they added sand that they carefully contoured. That process took a solid two days, as a worker walked back and forth across the relatively small space, making sure of exactly the right concentration and height to match the specification.

Once the sand was down, other workers meticulously shaped it. Then they put the carpet down. A professional golfer designed the holes.

He assured us that the entire process has paid off, as he and his wife have loved the chance to hone their putting in the backyard, especially shaving several strokes off the weakest part of his wife’s game.

As we prepared to leave the home after a pleasant evening, it was clear that our host has learned to drink deeply of the pleasures life affords him. Hopefully, we can all bring something that provides such satisfaction into our lives.

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We as a country have experienced a tumultuous and polarizing last few weeks and months. The lead up to the first Tuesday in November and the midterm elections set the American electorate ablaze with strong opinions that saw former elected officials receive rudimentary pipe bombs via the mail.

With that as a backdrop, Veterans Day took place this past weekend, with beautiful, solemn remembrances unfolding at war memorials and firehouses, coupled with more raucous and celebratory parades happening across the North Shore and beyond. The events should have served as reminders that despite our differences, our shared values and appreciation for the sacrifices made by so many that allowed this country to flourish are what will be truly lasting in even the tensest of times.

While we were glad to see photos come through our inboxes and across our social media platforms of these events, we were saddened by an incident that occurred at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai relayed to us by Fred Drewes, a founding member of the Heritage Trust, the nonprofit which stewards the park in partnership with the Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County.

Drewes has dedicated much of his own time to beautifying the park and perpetuating a triannual program called the Parade of Flags, which features the flying of  about 100 flags representing American states and other important entities like the military branches lining an area of the park dubbed the Avenue of America. The park features other patriotic imagery including the Court of America, a sitting area with benches, plaques with quotes from presidents and other famous citizens and a rock garden in the shape of the continental United States.

The rock garden contains symbolic rocks, plants and flowers that are native to the corresponding region in which they lay. Blocks featuring the names of all previous 44 U.S. presidents and the years they held office border the garden. President Donald Trump’s block will be added at the conclusion of his tenure, according to Drewes.

Drewes reported to us that during recent weeks someone tore out former President Barack Obama’s block and discarded it in a nearby shrub. We’re not asking anyone to agree with all — or even any — of the former president’s political ideologies or practices, except for one.

“The forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us,” Obama said in 2011 while speaking in Tucson, Arizona, after a gunman shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona).

On Veterans Day especially, but going forward, we’d like to see Americans make a better effort to live by that axiom.

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As I sit here, writing my column on election eve, I can feel — or imagine I can feel — the nervousness of a nation on the threshold of the unknown. More than perhaps any other midterm election, this one has come to epitomize the turbulent and contradictory forces pulsating within America today. One thing is certain, however. The day after the election, we will still be living with those same forces: racism, income inequality, foreign affairs and the role today of the Constitution written more than two centuries ago.

Seemingly just in time, although he explains that he started the book two years before President Trump was elected, Joseph J. Ellis has written about these same subjects by sharing the conflicting viewpoints of a quartet of our most admired Founding Fathers. Remarkably they concern these same issues, and hence Ellis states in “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” that he is writing about “ongoing conversations between past and present.” He even labels chapters “then” and “now” lest the specific themes of his dialogues and how they relate to today are not clear. Our Founding Fathers not only argued among themselves, they argue across more than 240 years, speaking to us in the present — and in a way reassuring us that the dialoguing is not ruinous but rather an asset of our democracy.

So much for our current concern about a divided country.

The four founders are Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and James Madison. Ellis describes Jefferson’s contemptible views on race as he grew older, insisting as he did that the two races could not live together and that blacks could never be equal to whites. This after a younger Jefferson wrote that “all men were created equal,” and denounced slavery. But as we know, he benefited from many slaves at Monticello in Virginia and sired multiple children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Certainly he struggled with the whole issue of race but did little to try to ameliorate the problem. He might have banned the spread of slavery to the Louisiana Purchase that he so brilliantly acquired in 1803, or sold some of it to compensate slave owners for freeing their slaves or even have provided a safe haven for freed slaves to live there. He did none of that.

In their final 14 years through 1826, Jefferson and Adams exchanged letters regularly, arguing not only for their time but consciously for future Americans to be able to read their deliberations. Jefferson held a romantic notion that economic and social equality — not between the races, however — would come to be the natural order of American life. Adams realistically insisted that “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in individuals and families … the snowball will grow as it rolls.” Adams believed that government had a role in preventing the accumulation of wealth and power by American oligarchs. The Gilded Age of the late 1800s proved Adams right, as the unbridled freedom to pursue wealth essentially ensured the triumph of inequality. So has our own age. We have an endemic, widening gulf. What should be the role of government at this juncture in our democracy?

Madison — who orchestrated the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the ratification, wrote many of The Federalist Papers and drafted the Bill of Rights — changed dramatically from a staunchly held belief in federal supremacy to one in which states and the federal government shared sovereignty, thus allowing future residents to interpret the Constitution according to a changing world.

Washington famously warned against foreign adventuring in countries of little threat to the United States. It was almost as if he could see Afghanistan and Iraq over the horizon.

Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books about our early history, believes that history helps us understand the present. We can see the same arguments going back and forth that somehow sound an optimistic chord.

And what does he see as the ultimate fix? A great crisis would certainly unite us, he suggests, perhaps even that of evacuation of the coasts with rising seas. He also thinks mandatory national service would help, not necessarily from the military aspect but toward some form of public good.

Words are the symphony that warms the skin and colors the silence.

Words can be like the sound of reinforcements coming over the horizon when we feel penned down by an adversary. They rescue us just as we use them to swaddle others in their warmth.

As we make the transition from Halloween to Thanksgiving, Black Friday and, eventually, the December holidays and the new year, we can take solace in the anticipation of words that provide warmth through the darker days of winter.

We might take a trip to Central Park, where the sound of sleigh bells from carriages around a corner alerts us to the appearance of an approaching horse, even as the animal might remind us of a city that predated internal combustion engines.

Just the words “sleigh ride” might inspire our minds to play a song we performed in high school.

Words can also convey the remarkable scents of the coming seasons, with the air carrying the mouthwatering Pavlovian cue from gingerbread houses or holiday cookies.

I recently attended a wedding where a few well-chosen words triggered an almost immediate and reflexive “awww” from an audience delighted to hear how much a younger brother was inspired by his older brother, the groom.

Reading about how important our coat donations are can inspire us to rummage through our closets to help a child or an adult become more comfortable in the frigid air.

Well-chosen words can provide the kind of environment that empowers people to see and appreciate everything from the inspirational image of a person overcoming physical limitations to the intricate beauty of a well-woven spiderweb shimmering in the low light of winter.

Sometimes, as when a friend or family member is going through a significant medical procedure or crisis, words or prayer or encouragement are all we have to offer, giving us something to do or say as we hope the words provide even a scintilla of comfort.

Words can feel insufficient to express how we feel or what we hope happens when someone who has been in the foreground of our lives for years seems suddenly vulnerable.

Simple tools which we all take for granted, words can take us to a peaceful beach with the sound of water lapping on the coarse sand under our feet, transporting our minds and bodies away from the cacophony of busy lives.

In big moments, athletes often suggest that they are at a loss for words. In reality, their words and emotions are undergoing so much competition that their brain experiences a word bottleneck, with a flow of ideas and words awaiting the chance to dive from the tip of their tongues to the eager ears of their friends, family and fans.

The coming holiday season is filled with diametrically opposed experiences, as the joy of opening presents and reconnecting with friends and family for the first time in months or even a year is counterbalanced by the stress and strain of those people who feel overwhelmed or alone.

People who work at suicide hotlines or as 911 operators can and do use critical words to save people’s lives, bringing their minds back from the brink, restoring hope and offering a comforting verbal lifeline.

We take words for granted because we see and hear them so often, but the right word at the right time can transcend the routine.

Finding words that resonate is akin to strolling into a restaurant and discovering a combination of familiar and exotic flavors, all mixed together with a palate-pleasing texture that energizes us.

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Election Day may be over, but the work has just begun.

Political races are not just about the outcomes. Consistent engagement is needed to make actual change once campaigning is over. The momentum we have seen from our community needs to be kept up by members of both political parties, regardless of the 2018 midterm results.

Political engagement starts with voting, but continues with having conversations with elected officials, attending meetings and keeping an eye on meeting agendas. Let the officials know where you stand on critical issues and how you want them to vote while in office to continue to receive your support. Make a call, send an email or set an appointment to meet your state assemblymember, congressional representative or town councilperson at his or her office. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and let your officials know what’s on your mind.

Another key part of civic engagement is having conversations with the people you encounter in everyday life, whether you agree with them or not, and even joining civic associations.

There is no denying that there has been an air of growing divisiveness during the last few years in our country. Conversations across the aisle are needed more than ever.

Those discussions aren’t happening amid disagreements about gun control, health care, taxes and more. Conversations quickly become so heated people who were once friends, or at least cordial acquaintances, avoid each other in supermarkets or delete and block each other on social media rather than talking it through.

We encourage you to take the first steps in saying the chasm forming in this country is unacceptable. Painting swastikas on election signs is unacceptable. Comedians joking about a U.S. congressman with an eye patch saying, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever,” is just not appropriate. Openly promoting racism and encouraging violence goes against fundamental human rights and American principles.

With two years left until the next presidential election, and campaigns warming up already, it’s time to radically change the tone of the nation’s political discourse before it’s too late. People from different political parties can meet up, have intelligent conversations and come to an agreement. Or, simply agree to disagree and respect each other. There used to be a baseline acceptance that differing opinions were just that, and not an indication of evil motives.

Not satisfied with election results or your elected representative? Start demanding political party leaders seek candidates who have fresh, new ideas supported by concrete plans and the knowledge, confidence and energy to get things done, but do it constructively and with an open mind.

Neither party should take anything for granted, nor should President Donald Trump (R). After a turbulent first couple of years, there is serious work that needs to be done to unite our country to get it moving forward, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Carl Marcellino. Photo by Alex Petroski

The 5th Senate District is one of the key battlegrounds where incumbent Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) is facing a challenge from Democrat, Northport attorney Jim Gaughran for the second time as the Republican Party tries to hold on to its razor-thin, one-vote majority in the state Senate. We endorse Sen. Carl Marcellino for his record and experience.

Two years ago, Marcellino clung onto his seat by edging out Gaughran by a mere 1,761 votes, or roughly 1.2 percent of the more than 145,000 ballots cast.

Since 2016, there have been extreme changes to the political landscape. President Donald Trump (R) took office. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, put gun control back at the center of our attention. The parties have major differences in how to go about providing affordable access to health care insurance. Key legal decisions in Long Island Power Authority’s tax certiorari lawsuit against the Town of Huntington and Northport-East Northport school district have raised concerns about its potential impact if the utility company wins.

Keeping the 5th Senate District’s seat in the hands of Marcellino would be one step toward hopefully
ensuring the state government’s branches are balanced between the parties. We remember the lopsided policies, fraud and corruption that tend to occur when one party dominates.

However, doubts have been raised about Marcellino’s personal health. If you favor a younger representative with less experience but more spark, Gaughran offered intelligent ideas as to legislation he would pursue. 

Joan Cergol. Photo by Kyle Barr

Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D) may have nailed it when she said at the TBR News Media debate that “Huntington is a fantastic town going through some growing pains.”

Both Cergol and her opponent, Republican challenger Jim Leonick, agree that the Long Island Power Authority’s tax certiorari lawsuit against the Town of Huntington and development are key
issues the town will need to grapple with during the course of the next year.

Both agreed that the LIPA lawsuit needs to be thoroughly investigated and every possible stone turned over in looking for a solution. However, it is a problem bigger than any single board member. Whoever fills the seat will have a voice, and one of five votes on a highly divided council, in what happens to the future
development of Huntington.

Cergol, as the town’s former director of the Huntington Community Development Agency, comes with a lot of experience in this area and spoke of the necessity to strike a balance between smart growth, addressing housing needs and requiring developers to provide parking.

Leonick has campaigned against overdevelopment, but didn’t offer any original ideas. He decries the need for increased government transparency, as he did in his 2017 campaign, but only offered that he supported town forums.

We support Cergol on the fact she helps keep the town board politically balanced — it is currently made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent — while bringing a woman’s viewpoint and a wealth of background experience in community building.

We do think, if elected, she makes good on her and Leonick’s proposal of holding regular town hall forums.

Mike Fitzpatrick. Photo by Kyle Barr

While the TBR News Media staff fully believes in Democratic candidate Dave Morrissey’s genuine desire to tackle the ongoing opioid crisis, incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Smithtown) gets our endorsement for the 8th District seat.

Although Morrissey has a number of good and far-reaching ideas to help those in the throes of addiction, the question of how the state will be able to enact those changes remains up in the air. While the goals of increasing access to medically assisted treatment and addiction shelters is something to strive for, the Democraticchallenger also lacks concrete ideas of what the state government should do when it comes to high taxes and keeping people on Long Island.

Fitzpatrick is right on the money when it comes to government employee benefits as those are changes that must be strived for if the state wishes to cut down on spending. While the Kings Park sewers have been held up by partisan wrangling, we do appreciate the assemblyman championing the effort in Albany.

Our endorsement comes with a caveat: During the TBR News Media debate the assemblyman startled us with his belief that the thousands of people currently heading to the U.S. in a caravan from Honduras are, in some way, funded by billionaire George Soros, who often funds left-leaning political campaigns and is a consistent target in conspiracy theories by far-right groups.

We strongly encourage Fitzpatrick — whom we have always thought of as sensible — not to believe this and other far-right wing narratives without unassailable proof, and he should continue to focus on championing real changes in state policy to benefit his constituents instead, as he always has.

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