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Jill Nees-Russell

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By Julianne Mosher

Beloved Port Jefferson resident Jill Nees-Russell lost her battle with cancer in June 2018, and now the community is celebrating her spirit with a new performance stage at Harborfront Park.

It all started last year when, after her passing, her friend, Carolyn Benson of East Setauket, along with village-based landscape engineer Michael Opisso, decided to find a permanent space that could honor Jill’s legacy.

The Port Jefferson resident came to the north shore from Los Angeles and immediately became involved with the community. She worked alongside Mayor Margot Garant as the village’s Director of Economic Development and Public Relations, as well as with the Port Jeff arts council, the PJ School of Rock and had worked in tandem with the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

“I feel like Jill designed this stage… I just held the pen.”

— Michael Opisso

“Dedicating this perfect stage to Jill is special,” Mayor Garant said. “She was a huge advocate for the arts within the community… dedicating this stage to her made sense and it was something the community could get behind.”

The planning for the 15 by 25 foot half-circle wood stage overlooking the harbor began in April. On Saturday, Aug. 10, it made its debut with an afternoon of songs all with the common themes of family and home.

The lawn was filled with over a hundred people whose lives were touched by Jill.

“We have beautiful weather today,” Garant said, “We know who’s looking out for us.”

Over 500 volunteers came together and money was set aside for the concept. With Opisso as the designer on record and Andrew Fortier as the builder, Opisso said that it wouldn’t have been made possible if it weren’t for Jill.

“I feel like Jill designed this stage,” he said, “I just held the pen.”

Fortier was also the first performer on the stage with his two children in their group, Tricycle. Together they kicked off the show with a song they dedicated to Jill and the legacy she left behind called, “Beautiful Light.”

“I want to thank you from the depths of my heart for what you’ve done for this community,” he said before they started to play.

Among the hundreds of people that attended Saturday’s event were Jill’s siblings and family who flew in from all over the country from places like Oklahoma, California and North Carolina.

“The stage is a way to showcase the talent that’s here and to showcase the community she loved.”

— Jeffrey Nees

“We want to thank you from the bottoms of our hearts for dedicating the stage to her,” Jeffrey Nees said. “Although she was from Oklahoma, her heart and her home were here in Port Jefferson.”

As emotional as the day was, Nees said that he knows his sister would be thrilled.

“Jill would think today’s event would be wonderful,” he said. “The stage is a way to showcase the talent that’s here and to showcase the community she loved.”

A dozen community members performed upon the stage, including students from the Port Jefferson School of Rock as well as a reading from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel.

Fortier said that performing on a stage is special because every performance is different. “That’s the beauty of live music,” he said, “That’s the beauty of what’s going to be happening on this very stage.”

Although this weekend’s concert kicked off the planned future performances the stage will hold, the stage was not entirely complete. A plaque dedicated to Jill will be added to the stage, as well as a canvas sail canopy that will embody the look of a sailing ship.

“The stage is a tribute to who she was,” Garant said. “It’s about time we had a focal point in our backyard that allows us to celebrate.”

Dressed in purple, runners took to the streets for the newly renamed Jill Nees-Russell Power of One Family Fun Run. Photo by Kyle Barr

A wave of purple flooded through Port Jeff May 18 as the Royal Educational Foundation hosted their sixth annual Family Fun Run, now named in honor of Jill Nees-Russell, an active village resident and foundation member who died last year.

Close to 200 people came out for the yearly event, raising funds for the foundation’s efforts to promote and aid the local school district. As the event went under way, foundation treasurer Laura Zimmerman spoke on the verge of tears about Nees-Russell, a proponent of both the foundation and the school district. She was nominated three times for the Power of One award, but was ineligible for the first time, too sick to receive it the second. Instead of giving her the award posthumously, the organization instead decided to rename the entire event in her honor. 

“We wanted to recognize Jill’s contribution to our village, school and community with a lasting tribute to her amazing spirit,” she said.

In addition to their Power of One award, the foundation awarded $750 to Fred Russell, Jill’s husband, who plans to use the money to create a scholarship in her name.

This year’s Power of One award went to Tony Butera, a teacher in the Port Jefferson School District who the foundation said inspires students and others in and out of the classroom. 

“To even be mentioned in the same space as Jill is an honor,” he said.

Port Jeff Chamber wellness fair showcases the bounty of healthy living

After the run, hundreds congregated at the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School gym for the 10th annual Health and Wellness Festival, hosted by the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.

Visitors could learn more about eating healthy, dieting, exercising and medicine from multiple vendors such as Mather and Stony Brook University hospitals. Participants even had the opportunity for face painting and to participate in goat yoga, doing poses such as “downward kid,” and “stretching goat.”

Members of the Royal Educational Foundation with Jill Nees Russell, center, in 2016

The Royal Educational Foundation of Port Jefferson is a not-for-profit educational corporation established in 1993 for the sole purpose of raising money to support and enhance the educational process in the Port Jefferson School District and to promote and support creative and innovative teaching techniques, programming initiatives and the utilization of new technologies in the classroom.  

Its board of trustees is comprised of community members who volunteer their time to organize fundraising events and to administer the foundation’s funds in cooperation with the school administration and board of education. Since its inception, the foundation has facilitated the granting of several hundred thousand dollars to the district.

Jill Nees Russell at Heritage Weekend in Port Jefferson in 2016.

Recently, the foundation lost a vital member of its board with the passing of Jill Nees Russell. She was a tremendous asset to the foundation, as well as to the school district and the greater Port Jefferson village community. She was a kind, caring and positive person who focused her energy on making Port Jefferson a better place. She led by example, was instrumental in moving many projects forward (new PTA events like the Science Fair and The Green Team, village programs like the Boater’s Maritime Festival, Heritage Weekend, Festival of Trees and The Holiday Light Show at Village Hall, just to name a few) and the positive impact of her selfless efforts will be felt for years to come. She is sorely missed by everyone who knew her.

At this time, the Royal Education Foundation takes special pride in announcing the renaming of the annual community walk-run event in Jill’s honor. Commencing with this year’s Family Fun Run, the event will be known as the Jill Nees Russell Power of One Family Fun Run!

The Power of One Award could not have a better namesake as Jill was the personification of its required attributes. The award inscription reads in part:

“The little things you do each day have the power to affect a great many people. You inspire us with your willingness and ability to help others. You take on the world, one day at a time, continuously searching for a way to make things better…”

This year will be the sixth time that the Royal Educational Foundation will present the award in conjunction with the annual Family Fun Run. The foundation is pleased to hold this event alongside the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce’s annual Health and Wellness Fest and looks to continue this partnership in the future.  

The Fun Run was started as a way to encourage physical activity and to celebrate the positive influence we can have on one another within our families and the community.    

The Power of One Award is presented to an outstanding community member who positively impacts the lives of those he/she touches on a daily basis. Past award recipients were Thomas Meehan, Richard Anderson, Deidre Filippi, Jesse Rosen and Christian Neubert. This year, the recipient of the Jill Nees Russell Power of One Award is Anthony Butera. Butera is an elementary school teacher in the district; heads the HS/MS drama program; and regularly volunteers for the Dickens Festival, the Harbor Ballet Theater’s “Nutcracker” production and with Theatre Three. The proceeds of this fundraiser will be used to enhance the quality of education in the Port Jefferson School District.

The Royal Educational Foundation invites you to participate in the 6th annual Jill Nees Russell Power of One Family Fun Run on Saturday, May 18. Whether you wish to walk or run, the 2-mile course is open to all ages. The run begins at 8 a.m. at the Port Jefferson Village Center, 101-A East Broadway, continues through the streets of Port Jefferson village, and ends in the High School Bowl. It coincides with the start of the Chamber of Commerce’s Health and Wellness Fest at 9 a.m. and all participants are invited, and urged, to attend.  

You may register for the run at www.reffundraiser.ticketleap.com/royal-educational-power-of-one-fun-run/ or on the day of the run between 7:30 and 8 a.m. at the Village Center. Advanced registrants need to check in no later than 8:15 a.m. 

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Mayor Margot Garant shows plans for new stage in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

Village to honor Jill Nees-Russell on anniversary of her death

As the weather changes, and the Island shifts itself from the cold of winter to the warm rains of spring, East Setauket resident and singer Carolyn Benson and village-based landscape engineer Michael Opisso walked along Harborfront Park, trying to find a permanent space that could add musicality to the park in honor of Jill Nees-Russell, who passed away in 2018.

Seeing the green grass starting to come in, the two had an epiphany.

Plans for new stage in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The spot revealed itself to me, and on the spot — call this being connected to the spirit of Jill — the energy of the whole idea, the concept came out of my pen and onto a piece of paper,” Opisso said.

The village is now on its way toward building a new performance stage in Harborfront Park, likely located on the eastern end closest to the Port Jefferson Yacht Club near a tangle of trees.

Designs for the new stage show a 15 by 25 foot half-circle wood stage surrounded by decorative plantings in front and two small staircases to get to the slightly raised stage. Opisso said the wood of the stage will include subtle etching to evoke the nautical theme of the village’s past. The rear will include decorative panels to focus the acoustics into the park itself. 

Above the stage, Opisso said there are plans for a multicolored canvas sail canopy above performers, using material that evokes the sailcloth of the old days when sailing ships dominated Port Jeff harbor. The landscape engineer said those sailcloths above the stage will be designed to be taken down during the winter months or storms.

“You’re looking at this space at the same time you’ll be seeing sailboats in the harbor,” Opisso said.

June will be the anniversary of the death of Jill Nees-Russell, a beloved Port Jeff resident, village public relations representative and lover of all things music. Benson said she had been good friends with Nees-Russell, and they would often talk about bringing something like these designs into Port Jeff.

“I met Jill a few years back during the [Charles] Dickens Festival, and so we used to walk around and say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there could be a permanent place where people could do Shakespeare in the park or dance recitals,” Benson said. “This was a way of combining Jill’s love of Port Jefferson, her love of music, love of being by the water, and that stage down in Harborfront Park is the epitome of her spirit.”

She added she had approached Mayor Margot Garant about the project, and she had quickly gotten on board.

The music stage has already been approved by the village board as of the village’s April 15 meeting. Garant said the idea has been kicked around since last year, especially with the current stage that bands and members of the Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council have been performing on has not aged well.

“Unfortunately, the arts council is performing on a ridiculous piece of plywood that caves in on it for too long,” Garant said. 

The mayor added this is the near-perfect kind of thing to remember Nees-Russell, who moved to Port Jeff from Los Angeles, where she had worked with a record label. On Long Island, she had involved herself with the Port Jeff arts council, had created a youth program with the School of Rock in Port Jefferson Station and worked in tandem with the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

The new stage is expected to be on the eastern end of Harborfront Park. Photo by David Luces

On Aug. 10, Garant said plans are in place to host a Port Jeff band day that will give particular attention to local bands and performers. On that day Nees-Russell’s family is expected to come down to Long Island where the stage will be dedicated in Jill’s name.

“Performing arts was always something very important to her,” Garant said. “We think it’s a home run, we see it as something that’s affordable, something that we can pull together the not-for-profits to make that happen.”

Current projections of costs by Opisso show a projected $12,500 for the construction of the stage and steps, $2,500 for the planters and flower boxes, $5,000 for landscaping and another $5,000 for the canvas backdrops and overhead sails. Designs for the project still need to determine the costs of lighting, sound and irrigation.

When presented to the village board at its April 15 meeting, trustees voiced their support for the idea.

“It’s about time we had something like this,” Trustee Larry LaPointe said.

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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