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Charles Dickens Festival

Jill Nees-Russell during a debate for village board. File photo by Elana Glowatz

By Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson is a tight-knit community with a small-town feel, which is probably at the top of the list of reasons why people love it. A byproduct of that fact is that when a community member is lost, the impact reverberates quickly and intensely. When the person is also widely beloved, the reverberations can feel seismic.

“She was the epitome of beauty, inside and out, loved by all who had the pleasure of knowing her and she touched us all with her grace, her smile, her spirit and her optimism and pure joy for life.”

— Margot Garant

That’s what Port Jefferson Village is going through right now with the loss of Jill Nees-Russell. The village’s longtime public relations representative and general Swiss Army knife died June 18. She left behind her husband Fred and kids Henry and Lily.

Jill was as kind and generous of a person as I’ve ever met. Two years ago this week, I was promoted at TBR News Media to the editor of The Port Times Record. My predecessor, Elana Glowatz, had covered Port Jeff for nearly a decade, establishing relationships and getting a feel for the ins and outs of the community to a degree that left me feeling overwhelmed and intimidated to say the least. How could I possibly maintain the
connections she’d taken painstaking hours, days, weeks and years to craft — let alone forming new ones on top of that?

I wasn’t on the job for more than a day or two before I was alerted that I had a call from Jill.

She reached out to introduce herself and invite me to join her for breakfast and coffee that week at Local’s Café. Somehow she must have sensed my head spinning a few miles down Route 25A at our Setauket office, and was immediately looking to offer a helping hand. She sat with me for more than an hour sharing names, contacts, future programs and events — and even insisted that I try the avocado toast she had ordered. I returned to work from that meeting with a fresh outlook on my new position. I felt like a skydiver who had just been gifted a parachute. Throughout the time that our career paths intersected, I always knew I could count on her for support, be it photos from an event I wasn’t able to attend or suggestions for who might be best suited to answer my questions.

Jill’s time in Port Jeff was so far-reaching that there are likely people who never met her that were still impacted by her talents and dedication. She was one of the driving forces behind so many of the most popular events the village has to offer, putting in hours of work to make the Charles Dickens Festival and Heritage Weekend seminal occasions.

Jill Nees-Russell during a past Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson. Photo from PJV

Testimonials about her impact on people who did know her have flooded social media in the days since her passing.

“We here in the Village of Port Jefferson were so very lucky to have worked with her, loved her and spent these last 10 years with her,” Mayor Margot Garant wrote in a heartfelt Facebook post. “Jill loved life and her family so much. She was the epitome of beauty, inside and out, loved by all who had the pleasure of knowing her and she touched us all with her grace, her smile, her spirit and her optimism and pure joy for life. I will miss her more than words can ever express and I know I speak for so, so many when I say we were so truly blessed to love her and have her call Port Jefferson her home.”

Many took to a Facebook group comprised of village residents past and present to also bid Jill farewell.

“Jill Nees-Russell loved our village and bled purple,” Brenda Eimers Batter wrote. “She will absolutely be missed.”

“It’s people like her that make our village the beautiful community it is and the community it will always be,” Steven Muñoz said. “She will never be forgotten. Her passion and love for Port Jeff will live on forever.”

Rest in peace Jill, and thank you for your unwavering kindness. The way you treated people should be an example to all.

The community came together in Port Jefferson Village over the weekend to embody a famous quote from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”

Dec. 2 and 3 marked the 22nd annual Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jeff, an event that brings out locals and visitors to take part in a weekend full of events, activities, performances and parades. Attendees were treated to ice skating, cookie decorating, a display of decorated Christmas trees with various themes, street performances by actors portraying people from the Dickens era, horse-drawn carriage rides, toasted marshmallows, Christmas carols and much more.

Every year the organizers of the event select honorees and dedicate the festival in their name. This year, George and Karen Overin, two long-time Dickens Festival participants and volunteers, were recognized.

“Perhaps there are no two people that better represent the joy, the feeling of family, and, indeed, the magic of this cherished weekend that has captured the imagination of people from around the globe,” the dedication to the honorees read in part.

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This is a big THANK YOU to the Village of Port Jefferson and all those who worked hard to transform the village into the Charles Dickens Festival. For the 21st year in a row, the seaside village came to life in the time of Dickens, with decorations, lights, greenery and especially costumed characters roaming the streets and welcoming visitors. This year, a second THANK YOU for naming us, Times Beacon Record News Media, the honoree for the event.

The entire weekend was a thrill, for us and for the thousands of people who chatted with the characters, shopped in the many varied stores, ate in the wide selection of restaurants, rode in the horse-drawn carriage, enjoyed the festival of trees and took in the harbor views. How do I know? I asked the festivalgoers, because I was there every day from Thursday to Sunday, and they told me how they decided to come into the village. Some came from Connecticut, enthusiastic about the magical event because they had visited before and knew of the many fun activities. It also helped that Port Jefferson ferry general manager, Fred Hall, offered a two-for-one price special during the weekend. The 10:30 a.m. boat on Saturday morning had 300 walk-ons alone, and they came without cars so no parking problems, and they had money in their pockets to spend for a good time. And people came from towns to the east and west, responding to the publicity and reputation surrounding the annual fantasy on the Long Island Sound.

Everyone might take the festival for granted after all these years, but I know how it came about because I was also there at the beginning. It was the brainchild of Jeanne Garant, the mayor at the time and mother of the present mayor, Margot Garant. Jeanne, a woman of vision, wanted the many organizations and groups to come together and work as a whole on a project to strengthen the sense of community and to celebrate the village. And she figured it wouldn’t hurt if the project helped the local businesses. So the first weekend in December was designated as the ideal time to capture some of the holiday shopping, and the theme was to be the Dickens stories and characters, who would come alive during those couple of days. And so it happened.

This was no small project to get the organizers’ arms around. Among those invited to offer their talents and to hold special events was the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, which would become the managing body alongside Port Jefferson Village, the historical society, the school district, the churches, various cultural paeans like Theatre Three (“A Christmas Carol”) and Harbor Ballet Theatre (“The Nutcracker”), the chamber of commerce and the civics, the constables, the ferry company, music groups, the harbormaster, the individual businesses and the residents just for starters. Events were designed for all age groups.

Eventually the Currier & Ives-like ice skating rink — another Jeanne Garant idea — joined the enchanting picture. And a special THANK YOU to nationally famed and charming confection artist, Pat Darling, for once again creating the whimsical Santa’s Workshop in the historic Drowned Meadow Cottage on West Broadway.

There are new offerings each year, and this past weekend Mrs. Cratchit’s Colorful Christmas Crafts was one such in the Village Center, along with an expanded Festival of Trees that each sponsor creatively decorated.

Port Jefferson Village was rich with events running through Saturday and Sunday. Indeed, it required more than two full pages in our Official Festival Guide just to list them in their many different locations hosted by the various community groups. So the original vision of a unified village has once again been realized. And the businesses were delighted with the results. “Never had an empty table all weekend,” one restaurateur said. “Shoppers buying all afternoon,” a jewelry store owner said.

Dickensian pleasure will go on throughout December this year, with the decorations and specials. And I would like to end on a personal note. I have watched countless parades in my lifetime as a child, a mother and a grandmother, but until this weekend, I had never been on a parade float. As the honoree of the Dickens weekend, I got to ride atop the ferry float and to wave at the thousands of people and shower them with (artificial) snow as they waved back, calling out greetings. What fun! We are deeply honored to have been appreciated in this way.

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