By Wenhao Ma
Port Jefferson Village mourned the death of its first historian and a proud, devoted community member earlier this month. Robert Sisler died July 2 at the age of 88.
Sisler was a Spanish teacher at Port Jefferson High School from 1953 to 1984 and headed the school’s Foreign Language and Reading departments. He served as a member and eventually became the chairman of the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals. He was also the chairman of the Harbor Committee, a village trustee and the deputy mayor in addition to being the first historian of the village.
“[Sisler] was a constant lover of the village…his love turned into action.” —Nomi Solo
“He was an integral and driving force for exploring, recording and documenting our local history,” Mayor Margot Garant said in an email. “His writings and lifelong work of preserving Port Jefferson will ensure that our children for generations to come will learn about our ship-building heritage, our car-building years and our influence and impact in the American Revolution.”
As a historian, Sisler wrote several books on the early years of Port Jefferson. Topics included shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing, moral ethics, the development of radio and television at RCA Radio Central in Rocky Point and other historical articles for TBR News Media.
Jack Smith, historian from the Cumsewogue Historical Society, shared an anecdote about one of his experiences with Sisler. He said he read an article on an automobile factory in Port Jefferson about eight years ago. He then contacted the author, who was Sisler, hoping to invite him to the society’s annual Heritage Day, which is meant to celebrate the history of the community, to give a group of fourth-graders a lecture. Sisler agreed.
“He was always willing to share,” Smith said. He recalled on that day Sisler didn’t just come talk to the kids about the factory, but brought his own old car. “It’s a very generous thing,” he said.
The historical society once received a unit brick from Sisler as donation, according to Smith. The unit brick is different from normal bricks because it’s shaped like the letter “U.”
“We always had a nice relationship,” Smith said. “He’s a very nice man … he knew so many different things about Port Jefferson.”
Sisler’s most recent contribution to Port Jefferson was the restoration of the two centuries-old Roe houses, named for the family of the first settlers in downtown Port Jefferson, according to the village’s historical society. The original owner, businessman Phillip Roe, used his resources to help George Washington pass information in the Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War.
The reason for Sisler to restore historical sites, according to Nomi Solo, who said she had known Sisler since the 1970s, was because it’s better for people to experience the history themselves than to look at the remaining pieces in a museum.
“He was a constant lover of the village,” Solo said. She added that Sisler was instrumental in the construction of the Village Center.
“His love turned into action,” she said. “He was a very, very, very caring individual. It’s a loss for the community.”