Although he is retired, Fred Drewes’ plate is still pretty full.
The former biology and environmental science professor at Suffolk County Community College now has an entire park to tend to.
In 1988, Drewes was granted a sabbatical to do a hamlet study of Mount Sinai. He projected what he would like the community to look like in 25 years and suggested a central locale for a park.
“It was an ‘Ivory Tower’ idea,” he said. “I thought a central park would help bring people together and provide a focal point for community activities. Bonding with neighbors and friends and being refreshed by a park environment.”
With the help of Lori Baldassare, the then Mount Sinai Civic Association president, among other members, the civic purchased a 0.8-acre property with a New York State grant in 1999, and in 2001, Suffolk County purchased the adjoining 17.2 acres with the help of the newly formed Heritage Trust, a nonprofit, of which Baldassare is the president.
“He was very passionate about the community,” Baldassare said of Drewes. “Fred had a vision and he followed through on it.”
Although he was on a bike trip to 44 countries around the world at the time that the piece of property was purchased, Drewes dedicated his trip to the cause, and it was dubbed a Ride for a Park. While in his travels, he frequently wrote letters to a third-grade class and had pieces published to share his story, while also spreading word of the soon-to-be new park and help raise funds.
Not long after his return, in 2003, the park began to be developed, and from there, Drewes’ vision began to come to life.
An adventurer, the 79-year-old Mount Sinai resident traveled by bike, walked and camped on a seven-month backpacking trip around the world, hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and traveled around East Africa and South Africa, even living in Tanzania for two years while teaching at a college there, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I enjoy experiencing and seeing the landscapes of different places and enjoy those views,” he said. “I also enjoy the interactions that I had with people along the way.”
Those feelings fueled his desire to create similar experiences within his park, he said. Working closely on the landscape, he created a scenic environment and a Heritage Center that houses local activities for families and children.
“On any given day during the week, you probably would find him at the park,” Baldassare said. “You have to look at the park to see; his contributions certainly make a difference at Heritage Park. Without them, it wouldn’t be the same place.”
Bob Koch, of Koch Tree Services in Mount Sinai, said Drewes originally got him involved in working on the landscaping to help amend soil issues with the ground being so compacted that it made it difficult for plants to grow. Koch installed the Christmas tree that’s decorated every year, worked on the Parade of Flags event by planting each state’s tree along the Avenue of America and recently planted some young cherry trees down part of the pathways.
“Most of the things that I’ve done was Fred’s mind-set, and I was the muscle behind it,” Koch said. “It was his ideas and thank God we have him, because he prevented a Home Depot from going there and now it’s a beautiful walking park.”
Along with the Parade of Flags event, Drewes also reads “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to children around the holidays while they eat cookies and sip hot cocoa. He also works with the Boys’ and Girls’ Scouts and local Eagle Scouts with different projects at Heritage.
Koch said Drewes went to a lot of local businesses to get them involved in the park, which helped further integrate the community to its new central location. He planted many native trees like sugar maple, serviceberry, river bitch, dogwood, white pine and red oak and made a smiley face out of daffodils that emerges in the spring.
“I see his eyes light up when it’s filled with people using the park on a summer day,” Koch said. “I think we’re all very fortunate. For me, he was the guy that was instrumental in getting me involved in the park. I love him dearly. I’m appreciative for him getting me involved.”
To show his appreciation, Koch installed a Quercus bicolor tree with a plaque underneath it that reads: “Fred Drewes, a visionary who has tirelessly worked to make this park a reality.”
Drewes said the mission of Heritage Trust is to preserve the flavor of the area’s rural heritage and feels rewarded that people are complimentary and gracious in their comments about the work he’s done to preserve and showcase it.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback — it makes us want to continue our efforts in the park,” he said. “I relish and always enjoy my volunteer work up there because it gives me the opportunity to have a hobby, because I enjoy working on the landscaping that I do there, but also to see people enjoying the park; the walking paths; the landscape; the pass of activity to have quiet moments with family to have kids run around in a free-spirited way,” Drewes said. “I spend a lot of time and effort at the park and I’m gratified that I’m able to do that still at my age.”