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Comsewogue School District

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The Port Jefferson Station and Terryville communities came together Dec. 18 to show that a National Guard Airman and community member is still remembered.

Comsewogue School District and Brookhaven Town officials gathered with community members at the corner of Bedford Ave. and King Street to honor Tech Sgt. Dashan Briggs, a Port Jeff Station resident who was assigned to the 101st Rescue Squadron, 106th Rescue Wing of the National Guard. He was among those killed when their helicopter was shot down in March, 2018. The 30-year-old was one of seven airmen on board carrying out a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, an American-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Underneath the sign for King Street now reads “Tech. Sgt. Dashan J. Briggs Way.” The street sign’s designation came after Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) sponsored and helped pass a town resolution in June.

“Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs was a husband, father, grandson, friend, neighbor,  and dedicated service member our country with honor and distinction,” she said. “We remember Briggs as a wonderful representative of our community and a leader who was committed to his work and to helping others.”

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said Briggs’ sacrifice can be better be remembered by both school and community.

“As a mother your heart breaks for the sacrifice the family has given for our nation and that’s
the reality for protecting our freedoms,” she said. “It’s such an honor for the family and the sacrifice, but its really important for his children to see this from the community. The kids may not remember this specific moment, but as they grow up and travel through the school they will always remember seeing their father there every day.”

Before the street sign unveiling, the school district presented Briggs’ family with a portrait of their husband and father at the Boyle Road Elementary School. Both of Brigg’s children are in the Comsewogue school district.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said the portrait does a great job as a reminder to everybody who moves up through the district.

““I think the portrait following the kids as they get older is a wonderful thing,” he said. “A whole generation of kids who grow up in this school and the school district will learn the lessons of sacrifice and service of country through the example of Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs. It’s a great way to honor him, it’s a great way to honor his family and it’s a great benefit to all of the kids in this school district.”

Additional reporting by Monica Gleberman

This post was amended Dec. 19 to add additional comments from Councilwoman Cartright.

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By Monica Gleberman

Comsewogue district officials took extra precautions after a non-life-threatening statement required the removal of a high school student Monday morning.

At 11 a.m. Monday morning, Superintendent Jennifer Quinn sent out a robocall alerting the community there was an incident at the high school that required immediate attention.

“Many of you are at work, but I just want to share some information with you because I think you’ll be hearing about it,” she said. “We had a student at the high school who made a comment that we took very seriously, it concerned us.”

Although Quinn did not go into details about the comment or the student, she did say there was no damage done to the school and none of the students were in immediate danger.

Within minutes of the call, parents began posting on social media with concerns about what happened and asking for more details from the district. School board President John Swenning responded with a post online, “all is safe at the [high school]. A comment was taken seriously, and action was taken. There was no immediate threat to any students or staff.”

In a private message, when asked if the board of education would make an official comment, Swenning said all comments are taken as “true threats” and the district followed protocol which included getting the Suffolk County Police Department involved.

The SCPD confirmed the incident in a statement via email Monday afternoon, adding that the student involved in the investigation made the “statement” in question on Friday, December 13, which the district was made aware of Monday, December 16.

In the email, the SCPD wrote, “The statement could have been perceived as a threat. The student was taken for evaluation and an investigation determined there was never a threat to the students or the faculty.”

Swenning praised the district and the police for their help. “Kudos to [the] administration and SCPD for their quick response.”

At the end of the school day, the administrators put up an alert on the district’s website with an update from Quinn. The new information included that the school psychologist was called in to help with the student once the administrators were made aware of the incident. Additionally, there were no weapons discovered on school premises and “[to the] best to our knowledge, the student did not have access to any,” the alert stated. “The student will not be attending school until we are confident that they are not a threat. Furthermore, appropriate discipline is being taken. Please be assured that the safety and welfare of all of our students and staff is always our number one concern.”

This post will be updated when more information becomes available.

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The Comsewogue School District has added its name to the list of districts that are standing up to New York State on a proposal that would mandate the HPV vaccine in state schools. 

The proposed amendment to Section 2164 of the public health law would require that all students born after 2009 receive the human papillomavirus vaccine as part of the state’s mandated school immunization program.

In a letter sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Dec. 6, the district detailed its stance on the matter. 

“While the vaccination may be helpful in preventing certain forms of cancer, the choice as to whether to have children vaccinated should be made by parents in consultation with their physician,” John Swenning, board president, said in the letter. 

The HPV vaccine is designed to prevent cancer-causing infections, but several school districts including Shoreham-Wading River and Three Village have written letters similar to Comsewogue’s saying it is unnecessary.

In a letter signed by the school board and superintendent, SWR said they did not believe it was necessary for a vaccine for something not usually transmitted in schools.

“The HPV vaccination has historically been a parental decision, is not transmitted in schools, lacks the full support of the medical community and would require schools to enforce a widely unpopular mandate by excluding children,” the letter stated. “It should not be adopted.”

The Comsewogue School district went on to say the activities that cause this spread of HPV should not be occurring on school grounds, and HPV is not a public health risk in the school setting. They also said that if this bill passes, it will preclude children from being able to access a public school education.

In addition to the letter, Comsewogue district board held a workshop Dec. 5 to discussed the proposed mandate.

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said the feeling she got from speaking with local officials is that the proposed mandate will not likely pass, but is still concerned about what it could potentially mean for students and parents in the district. 

“They told me that it is not happening,” she said. “I’m concerned that the other immunization changes happened so fast … that this might pass at the 11th hour, which could happen. It has been a little hard to predict lately.”

Quinn and other board members urged parents to reach out to local lawmakers. 

“It’s our kids, I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do but they’re telling you what they can put in their bodies,” Swenning said. 

Parents in attendance also brought up how the mandate could harm immunocompromised children, who can’t take certain vaccines and how the state may take away exemptions for the HPV vaccine. Current vaccine mandates exempt people who are immunocompromised.

Others were concerned the mandate would take away a parent’s prerogative and choice whether or not their child would get the vaccine. 

School officials also brought up the possibility of setting up a legislative committee session between elected officials and residents.

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The mosaic includes the Comsewogue logo and the notorious cherry tree. Photo by Leah Chiappino

By Leah Chiappino

Comsewogue High School’s lobby will soon receive a unique face-lift. The Art Honor Society and students in the advanced studios and murals class are putting the finishing touches on a mosaic that spans the entire center of the room. Fully designed by students, it consists of intricately placed pieces of hand-cut glass that reflect in the light of surrounding windows, making the whole piece sparkle.

The high school’s Art Honor Society with art teacher Gina Melton and Assistant Super Joe Coniglione on the right. Photo by Leah Chiappino

The project, which began construction three years ago, was the brainchild of Assistant Superintendent Joe Coniglione. 

“It has been a labor of love,” he said

The area on which the mosaic now sits was once a pit where students could sit and socialize. Eventually, it was filled in with concrete and a mural was painted over it. However, over the years the floor aged and the concrete began to crack, prompting Coniglione to push for something sturdier. 

“My thought process was rather than to paint it and have it crack again, we could have our amazingly talented student do a mosaic,” he said.

He brought his vision to Gina Melton, an art teacher at the high school, who ran with it.

“Both [Coniglione] and I are Italians so we appreciate mosaics,” she said jokingly. “However, mosaics are beautiful, and we figured if they could last through Pompeii, hopefully they will last through Comsewogue.”

Students then began the design process, making sure they included the school’s warrior logo, and aspects of the surrounding area of Port Jefferson Station, including the signature cherry tree outside the school’s window. They also added a starry night sky, as homage to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “The Starry Night,” which is a favorite among many students.

The mosaic includes the Comsewogue logo and the notorious cherry tree. Photo from Gina Melton

After the design was approved, students began to install the 2 million pieces, transitioning from glass to tile over time. They have to cut the pieces, lay them out and glue them down. 

Melton admitted the project has been a learning curve. 

“The first year the students were a little hesitant because it was so new,” she said. “545 square feet of space is a daunting task, but now that they’re seeing everything coming together, they’re very proud of it. I can’t even tell you how blessed I am to have the kids I have.”

For students who built the project, the process has had its good and bad times.

 “It’s certainly resulted in many cuts and scratches over the years,” Art Honor Society Vice President Alexa Bonacci said. She added that it was worth it to be able to look back and see what was created. 

While the Art Honor Society only meets once a week to work on it, several students within the club devote their free period and time after school to the mosaic. Bonacci works on it every day. She does not participate in any sports and said most people she knows work on it at least three days per week. She estimated Art Honor Society President Gianna Alcala has worked on it for at least 70 hours.

“This is something so many people are attached to,” society secretary Maison Anwar said. “When you see all the different techniques throughout the piece it makes you feel like everybody has a piece of themselves.”

The project was delayed because of the floor crack and the group of students subsequently having to redo the backboard. The original design was thrown out over the summer, forcing students to have to design much of the  project themselves. This has led the district to host what they call “mosaic workshops,” enabling students to work on the project for entire days at a time. “We made a lot of headway in those days,” Melton said.

Coniglione praised the impact of the program on students. 

“You would be surprised if you sat in Gina’s classroom for a day and saw students who struggle elsewhere in school,” he said. “They excel in her class because she allows students to find their creativity, and finds something good in every person,” he said.

Melton struggled to hold back tears. 

“They are amazing kids,” she said.

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Photography, art, science and several other classes do projects at and around the garden. Photo from Andrew Harris

Since the beginning of the school year, students have been gathering in the courtyard at Comsewogue High School on their off periods. 

Comsewogue students gather for festivities at the ‘Town Square.’ Photo from Andrew Harris

“Dr. [Joe] Rella always thought of our Rotunda as our town hall, and now we’ve expanded on his dream, by developing a Town Square,” said Superintendent Jennifer Quinn.

The space started with “Jackie’s Garden” a few years ago after the untimely passing of Rella’s wife, Jackie. Her passing left the school broken hearted, said special education teacher Andrew Harris, making them want to reach out. Harris suggested the idea, and “Dr. Quinn looked at me and said it was a beautiful idea, but asked me if I was sure I wanted to commit … because you know what happens to gardens?”

Harris knew exactly what she meant, having seen several gardens start-up and then eventually fall by the wayside. He promised her that for as long as he is a teacher at Comsewogue, he would make sure to maintain the garden.

The next thing the school knew, Boy Scouts from the High School stepped up and did their Eagle Scout projects to benefit the garden. Joey Rizzo, a junior, built several raised beds. He even created a barrier to protect the garden from other activities. Now-graduate Christian Freda built a raised bed for a student who uses a wheelchair, going further to design and build a bench that has wheelchair access. Last year, James Mantione, a junior, built a trellis that became the backdrop of many senior pictures at graduation. 

“These are amazing students who are doing wonderful things for our school,” said principal Mike Mosca. “These projects took up a lot of their own time and efforts while they developed great leadership skills. By next year, don’t be surprised to see grapes, eggplant, or even zucchini, growing from the trellis.”

Soon, community members and businesses asked to pitch in. Rich Crandle, from 4 Corners Produce in Port Jefferson Station, donated many of the flowers, plants and decorations for every holiday, which Harris called extremely generous. 

 “Ann Marie’s Farm Stand, Agway, and landscapers Chris Friedl, Tommy Deacy and Steve Long are a phone call away and will stop what they are doing just to help out clearing things or delivering soil and mulch,” said Joe Coniglione, assistant superintendent. 

Joe Rella, Jennifer Quinn and Joe Coniglione during the naming of ‘Jackie’s Garden.
Photo from Andrew Harris

The Whole Foods Foundation gave the district a $2,000 grant for the garden, which allowed the garden to expand.

Recently, the school added a sunflower farm in the middle as a result of a class project. 

“This year, students gather by the beautiful sunflowers at every lunch period, it’s quite beautiful,” said a senior posing for pictures with friends. 

According to Rella, sunflowers were Jackie’s favorite. 

“Our life skills class took that idea and ran with it,” said Joe Dimino, who helped with the project-based initiative. 

The students planned, researched and set up the garden, watching it flourish. Harris said that they weren’t quite ready to plant after mid-May, but then the unexpected passing of one of the district students occurred. 

“I told the students that I really didn’t have a good explanation, but I did know that this year we could plant and dedicate the sunflowers to Jackson, the young middle school student who lost his battle to cancer,” Harris said. “We all got out there and got to work to focus ourselves on something positive in his memory. The students were so proud of their efforts to get it done in time.”

Harris described an amazing thing that started to happen. Students, teachers, clubs and administrators started to “plug-in” various projects at and around the garden. This Halloween, the district plans to conduct a hay ride for the kids who visit for the annual Trick or Treat Streets.  Shane Goldberg, who teaches advanced science classes, planted vegetables.

“For a bit, our sprinkler system wasn’t reaching the plants, so one of the AP students designed and implemented a system to keep the soil and plants hydrated,” Goldberg said. “It was the perfect idea and solution to a real-life problem.”

For the past several years, the school’s food service department has served special meals that were designed by and even prepared with the help of Heather Rand’s English Language Learner classes at the middle school. Rand and her classes developed their own “Jackie’s Garden’” at the middle school. 

“The amazing thing to see was that these kids enjoyed their hands-on experience while learning a whole new language as well as science,” said John F. Kennedy Middle School Principal Mike Fama. 

The ELL teacher said new English language learners were excited and passionate about the garden. 

“It became the ideal way to teach science and English because all the students could relate to what we were doing,” said Rand. 

In the first year of the garden, Charlotte Johnson, who teaches drama and chorus, serenaded Rella and his family as well as the whole district during an evening where staff, students and families participated. 

“There wasn’t a dry eye out there,” Harris recalled one of the parents saying. “It was quite emotional.”

Many Comsewogue students have used the garden for public projects. Photo from Andrew Harris

On a daily basis, the school sees students from art, photography, ELA and more using the garden to do their projects. Outside, on a crisp fall day, both Rand and Natalie Rubenstein’s classes were busy measuring plant length and looking into microscopes all while recording data into their science notebooks. 

In many ways, the garden has become the focal point of the school and district. Students can be seen doing fundraisers and other activities, some to raise awareness of what is going on around them locally and even internationally. On one occasion, students displayed pride flags, sold cancer awareness shirts, all while sharing space with recruiters from the armed forces. On another table, they were collecting for Comsewogue graduates who are currently serving in the military. 

“We are a tight community, and we want those men and women serving to know that we remember them,” said Michelle Mortorano, head of the Parent Teacher Student Association. “Some of the elementary students will be putting hand-written letters inside the boxes we send to show how much they care.”

Soon, the district will display holiday decorations, celebrating the district and community. The rotunda is currently being renovated by art students working on an intricate mosaic that people will see as they enter the school. 

“The mosaic in combination with our kind and welcoming attitude — makes this place one of the best places on Earth to walk into,” Harris said. 

Harris described a scene at the garden, where a few students were doing their homework in the garden on picnic tables surrounded by baskets of flowers. 

“One student looked up and said growing up in this school district and community was one of the best experiences of her life,” he said.

Information for this article supplied by Andrew Harris, Michelle Lautato and Comsewogue High School students.

Huntington Co-Captain Holly Wright takes a shot on goal in a road game against Comsewogue Oct. 12. Photo by Bill Landon

The Comsewogue field hockey team’s game Oct. 12 was scoreless after 60 minutes of regulation, forcing the Warriors into a shootout against the visiting Blue Devils of Huntington. Lauren LoScalzo and teammate Anna Wickey settled it for the Blue Devils besting the Warriors 2-1 in the shootout to snatch the victory.

The win lifts Huntington to 5-7 in league with two games remaining before post season play begins.

Comsewogue drops to 4-7 and are back in action Oct. 15 on the road against Lindenhurst before their final game of the regular season at home two days later on senior night. Game time is 6 p.m.

Huntington set themselves up against Sachem East Oct. 15 at home game time at 4 p.m. They will be back at it hosting Riverhead Oct. 17 with game time set for 4 p.m.

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Students will walk through security vestibules come first school day

Workers construct the vestibule in Terryville Road Elementary School. Photo by Kyle Barr

With $32 million in the Comsewogue school district’s pocket from a recently passed bond, school buildings are seeing various amounts of renovation and reconstruction throughout
the district.

The Terryville Elementary cafeteria flooring is being replaced. Photo by Kyle Barr

Phase I is a $5.8 million chunk of the $32 million, which voters approved 768 to 315 back in 2018. Work is well on its way this summer, with projects going on in all six of the district’s educational facilities, many of which focus around the same theme, security vestibules.

“They are security traps, so there is a staging area between the two doors,” said Susan Casali, associate superintendent. 

Vestibules are being installed in each of the six buildings, though they’re not uniform in shape and design, having to mold around the current entrances. In the Terryville Road Elementary School, the building’s office is being moved closer to the entrance to allow for windowed access into the vestibule, “like you would see at a bank,” Casali said.

A new addition to the parking lot at Terryville Elementary. Photo by Kyle Barr

This works with the school’s Raptor Visitor Management System, a web-based monitoring software designed to track visitors and electronically check them against public databases. In addition, all employees now use lanyards that can be scanned at the schools’ front entrances to gain access to
school buildings.

All vestibules are expected to contain bullet-resistant glass. It was something that school officials said was part of the planned bond project during committee even before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year. That particular shooting set off a wave of calls for increased school security. If the glass is not installed by the time school starts Sept. 3, the district plans to install it before Jan. 1, 2020.

“We wanted to really increase our security,” Casali said. 

New refrigerator equipment is being installed at several Comsewogue schools. Photo by Kyle Barr

Other than the vestibules, this year’s part of the bond project includes repaving the parking lots and replacing sidewalks at Terryville Road Elementary School and Boyle Road Elementary School. At Terryville, the work has created an additional parking lot for school staff on the north end of the lot, as well as replacing the cafeteria flooring for asbestos abatement. This accounts for a large portion of Phase I funds, with work at Terryville and Boyle costing a combined total of $2,733,435.

All elementary schools will see new kitchen equipment, including a new kitchen walk-in cooler at Terryville and gas conversion and cooled condenser, replacing an old freezer and refrigerator at Boyle Road, Clinton Avenue Elementary and Norwood Avenue Elementary. Norwood will also be getting a replaced kitchen ceiling and serving line reconfiguration. The high school kitchen and cafeteria ceilings are also being replaced with new lighting where the kids will sit and eat.

Associate Superintendent Susan Casali demonstrates the ID system. Photo by Kyle Barr

In addition, doors throughout the district with knobs are being replaced with levers that are American Disabilities Act-compliant.

Phase II, taking more than twice that of Phase I from bond funds at over $11 million, will mostly go to reconstructing sidewalks and roads at the high school and Norwood. The project is also expected to add a batting cage to the high school’s upper gym, renovate the JFK Middle School auditorium, replace Terryville’s roof and replace waterless urinals and sinks throughout the district.

Additional information and pictures about phases I and II of the bond projects can be found at www.comsewogue.k12.ny.us/school_board/bond_status_updates_summer_2019.

A peek into the closed garden along Terryville Road, currently covered in weeds. Photo by Kyle Barr

Overgrown with weeds, the lone park on Terryville Road in Port Jefferson Station looks forsaken. Where students once grew plants for harvest, now the only thing cultivated there are weeds.

A peek into the closed garden along Terryville Road, currently covered in weeds. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though that could change, if local civic leaders manage to get the community involved.

“One day, I said to myself, maybe we can get this going again,” Sal Pitti, the president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association said.

The community garden, as it’s known, is owned by the Comsewogue school district, though it has been unused for years, according to Pitti.

The civic has asked community members for aid in repairing the garden, located just north of St. Gerard Majella Church on the other side of the street. The garden already contains an existing greenhouse, planter boxes, a gazebo and shed, though they have been unused for several years.

Susan Casali, associate superintendent at Comsewogue, said the property had been taken care of in the past by the Comsewogue Youth Center for years, but suddenly ceased operations several years ago. She added the district is looking forward to having the community revitalize the small patch of greenery along Terryville Road.

“The school district is very excited to have the community revitalize the garden and we have spoken to Sal and Ed about what we can do to help make the project a success and beautify the community,” she said.

Pitti and the civic are looking for a rotating cast of aid, with the civic president saying he did not wish for “the same five people to be doing the work every two weeks.”

The garden has been mowed enough to keep the grass from getting too long, but vines currently strangle the garden’s surrounding fence. On the inside, the greenhouse stands intact along with flower boxes, but those have similarly been surrounded by weeds.

Ed Garboski, the vice president of the civic, posted to the Comsewogue Community Group Facebook page asking if any community members would be interested in volunteering. Jennifer Dzvonar, president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, said she would look into ways her group could help, while Rob DeStefano, school district board member, said he would look into getting Cub Scout Pack 354 families involved in aiding the project. Other community members mentioned getting local Girl Scout troops on board as well.

While Garboski expects they will gather enough interest and volunteers for the initial cleanup, what they truly require is people dedicated to weekly maintenance.

“Our future hope is to create a location our kids can use for school-related activities of all capacities, as well as a place our senior community members may relax,” Garboski said.

Once the project is up and running, Pitti said they could potentially donate the food they produce to local churches for soup kitchens or other such outreach programs.

Those who are interested in assisting in the project can visit the civic’s website at www.PJSTCA.org and send an email with one’s information and availability.

There was much finality to this year’s school graduations at Comsewogue school district. As high school seniors got ready to leave for new horizons, superintendents Joe Rella will soon be leaving his position. 

At Comsewogue High School, as the evening sun crept toward the horizon June 26

, blocking in the football field with the cooling shade of trees, as the students were graduating so was Rella, or at least that is how he said he saw it.

Rella was in for his own surprise, as he was brought on stage alongside incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn and members of the school board. In front of the stage, graduates held up a sign reading Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center. Quinn announced the high school auditorium would now be sporting Rella’s name.

“Clearly you’re a lot smarter than I am. It took you four years to graduate high school, it took me almost 26,” Rella said, speaking to the students with a 2019 tassel on his hat. “Remember, wherever you go and whatever you do, you will always be one of us.”

Steven Nielsen, who lost his 17-year-old son James from a rare form of cancer a little less than a year ago, spoke to the graduating class about his son and what values he could share even after his untimely death.

“I think James is a good inspiration of how to live,” he said. “He was an amazing person, he was smart, he was handsome, he was extremely kind and unbelievably empathetic. Remember that, be kind, use that as an example. Think of other people in everything that you do.” 

Underneath each of the graduates’ chairs, stuck into the rough metal seats, was a Pokémon card. These, Nielsen said, were there to represent each of them had the opportunity to “evolve.”

He and his wife Jean, both teachers in the Comsewogue School District, accepted a diploma in honor of their son, with Steven Nielsen holding the cap and gown his son would have worn to graduation.

To cap off Comsewogue’s graduation ceremony, as the scenery got dark, fireworks rose above the trees of a distant field, and all the newly graduated students stared up at the sky. Unknown to high school principal Joe Coniglione, the field lights would take several minutes to warm up, and so the graduates cheered in the dark, hats flying through the air like tasseled stars.

The efforts of Craig den Hartog beautify local hamlets year after year after year

Craig den Hartog in front of his truck often seen by the side of Old Town Road. photo from PJS/T Chamber of Commerce

Craig den Hartog, a Terryville resident, was only a neon ink blot on the side of Old Town Road. A hunched figure in the weeds, his body bent over, his head low to the dirt, he could have been praying. 

A sign for Old Town Blooms in front of his planted daffodils. photo from Old Town Blooms Facebook

On the edge of the road, near to passing cars streaming past upward of 50 miles per hour, den Hartog was in his own sanctuary. The side of the road was his chapel that he has cultivated for upward of 10 years. In that time, he has planted tulips and bushes alike, one to keep the poison ivy and other invasive plants down, the other to make the corners along the road striking to anybody who takes the time to look at them.

Den Hartog is the owner of Emerald Magic Lawn Care landscaping company and the founder of Old Town Blooms, a community group that looks to maintain beautification efforts along Old Town Road and into the rest of the local hamlets. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature,” said den Hartog as he attacked the weeds along Old Town Road the morning of May 18. One particular stretch was choked with poison ivy and litter. 

The founder of Old Town Blooms has made it a personal mission to clean up his local area, though he is an old hand at landscaping. It’s been nearly a decade since he started, but his mission of beautification continues undaunted.

In numerous places the Terryville resident’s flowers bloom — daffodils and tulips. In the Steven J. Crowley Memorial Park, all the flowers that shine bright with oranges and purples are thanks to his constant efforts.

The Old Town Blooms project started nearly a decade ago, with him and neighbors having an “attitude adjustment hour,” calling themselves lawn lizards where a bunch of them would go to neighbors’ houses to do a specific piece of lawn maintenance. That was when the neighbors started to see just how dirty and overgrown Old Town Road had become with weeds, garbage and construction debris, including a growing pile of bricks. After complaining to Brookhaven town and not getting a response, they realized they were on their own. 

Since then, Old Town Blooms has planted thousands of flowers along the course of the road from Coram into Terryville and East Setauket. Den Hartog has become notorious in the area for his cleanup efforts and his attempts to get his neighbors involved. Having extra flower bulbs on hand, he has stuck them in his neighbors’ mailboxes and has felt great pride in seeing those flowers bloom in the beds in front of their homes.

Now he is the owner of Holtsville-based Emerald Magic Lawn Care Inc., where he does soil testing and diagnosis. He said those skills work great toward keeping the area safe from dangerous plants, as such things like mulching and which plants prevent weeds is often
very misunderstood.

“A big part of my job is not just diagnosing the problems in the landscape but also educating the client,” he said. 

Though the flowers present a united and vibrant resolution to beautification, many of his efforts go unnoticed. Plants that may seem like natural growth are actually specifically planted by the veteran horticulturist. Plants like purple coneflower and sedum are his “volunteers,” or the plants others would just throw away if they become overgrown. They help stem the tide of weeds, and he has to make sure that Brookhaven’s subcontractors don’t come in and mow his preventative plants. Since the program started, he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money on plants to bring life to the two-lane road.

It’s not just Old Town Road that has received his touch but the surrounding community. Joe Coniglione, the principal of Comsewogue High School, said Hartog helped with beautification of the school, sprucing the area up with flowers of gold and blue, the school colors. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature.”

— Craig den Hartog

“Him having spread that around this community is really uplifting,” Coniglione said. “His kids went through Comsewogue, they are long gone, but he is still involved in the community and the school… he’s just a great person.”

Den Hartog’s daughter, Michelle, lives in Queens and works at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Huntington as a teacher, but she tries to come out once or twice a year to help her father. Nearly 10 years ago, when the work started, she could only think how simple a fix it was, and she has started to do the same kind of cleanup and bloom plantings with the children at her school.

“Even starting at young ages, it’s so important to teach taking care of your community,” she said. “Every year, coming down this road in March and April and seeing all the daffodils it makes me so happy — just the seven miles — I’ll just do the drive just to see the blooms.”

Joan Nickeson, the community liaison for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce had met den Hartog years ago in the early spring, surprised by the sight of bright yellow daffodils popping up along Old Town Road. The Terryville resident would become involved with the chamber and was instrumental in area beautification, helping to remove invasive vines on trees and to maintain the chamber-owned train car at the corner of Route 112.

“At home we call him for our green issues,” she said. “He and my husband Rich could ‘talk trees’ for hours … We are indebted to him.”

Den Hartog has a passion for getting others involved, calling all who help him in his efforts “bloomers.” This passion for beautification has extended well past the confines of Old Town Road. Debbie Engelhardt, the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said the library organized a community cleanup in conjunction with the overall Great Brookhaven Cleanup. Den Hartog was there offering his expertise, and she said they will be working with him in the future.

“We are indebted to him.”

— Joan Nickeson

“Craig’s contribution was cutting the ‘mother vines’ of the poison ivy plants endangering many of the trees along Terryville Road,” Engelhardt said. “I was amazed at how many trees had been enveloped; most of us drive by and don’t think about these things. I’m glad the community has Craig out there, so we can keep as many trees healthy as possible.”

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) has seen the work of the Terryville horticulturist on multiple occasions. 

“He has always played an active role in our community,” Cartright said in an email. “Mr. den Hartog works hard as both a local business owner and on his volunteer endeavor, Old Town Blooms. Craig’s dedication to rallying our community and organizing local beautification efforts is truly commendable and a gift to the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville community.”

However, cleaning up such a vast area with himself and a few of the occasional volunteers does begin to become a mental rock climb. He admitted he does occasionally procrastinate on parts of the project, especially considering its vast size, not to mention his own business and the work he does at his house. But that’s when the script flips, once work begins, the momentum carries him through.

“As soon as I start, I start enjoying myself,” he said. “If you want something done, you just have to start.”