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compassion

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.

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Joe Biden has written a book called, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” about one year in his life. A memoir, it deals in part with the illness and death of his elder son, Beau, from brain cancer at the age of 46. I have not read the book. It just came out this past Tuesday, Nov. 14. But the coincidence of the book’s release on the day my husband died at a similarly young age exactly 30 years ago from cancer has connected me to Biden. I know what he went through — the shock, the pain, the hope, the heartbreak, the grief and the end that ultimately comes crashing down into silence. Then he faced the absolute necessity of having to pick up and function because life moves on with every passing day. And we must move on with it because there is no respite for the living.

Biden also writes about his difficult decision not to run for president in the 2016 election and about the foreign crises in Iraq, the Ukraine and Central America as part of his workload during that one year.

“I wanted to write precisely about the crises and dilemmas I faced as they intersected in the moment,” Biden told Philip Galanes in an interview with The New York Times. “I wanted to show that in the ebb and flow of life, nothing is totally separable.”

I know that Biden was lucky to have those other facets to deal with, just as I was lucky to have a huge challenge almost immediately after my husband’s death.

Two of my sons were away in college, the third was a high school senior and the newspaper was being challenged by the Communications Workers of America to unionize. A reporter on my staff, who had already made his mark by unionizing the teaching assistants at Stony Brook University, brought the union to my door. He turned his attention to our hometown newspaper, despite the fact that there wasn’t a community newspaper in all of New York state that had a union. Shoestring budgets and multitask jobs preclude coordinated decision making with a union. The CWA was attracted, I guess, because it represented new territory to conquer. The only problem was that community newspapers are not flush with profits and do not have large staffs to join a union. Nonetheless, we had to fight them off for six months, as they handed out pamphlets with all sorts of painful charges to get our staff worked up against the company. The climax came with an appearance before the National Labor Relations Board in a room without air conditioning in Brooklyn on a hot June day. The pickings were turning out to be pretty lean for the CWA, and they backed off.

Throughout the ordeal, I was wildly angry. I wasn’t getting a chance to grieve. Each day I had to rush to the parapets to defend the honor and integrity of the newspaper against what was to me a ridiculously unequal battle. I barely gave any attention to my grieving son who was still at home, nor did I have a chance to pour out my own grief somewhere in a quiet corner. But I did realize how fortunate I was in those who came to my defense. We had absolutely no money to hire a labor lawyer, and we had no idea how to respond. But the newly retired union leader of the Long Island Rail Road came into my office and offered his help.

Harold Pryor was the man who had terrified Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) during contract talks by calling wildcat strikes from his totally loyal followers, directing them to abandon the trains at the nearest station during rush hour. Pryor was living in the area and teaching at Stony Brook University. When he found out what was happening to our newspaper, he thought it was not only unfair but also idiotic. He came to advise me through the thicket of union maneuverings, and he brought with him an experienced lawyer to defend us during the hearing.

It was a script worthy of a movie. Here was this feared union leader facing off against one of the largest unions for the sake of a peanut of a newspaper. Jimmy Stewart would have played his part in the spirit of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And thanks to his aid, we emerged unscathed.

Only after it was all over did I realize that life had thrown me a life preserver, much as it had for Biden, and therefore we hadn’t drowned in our grief.

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