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People of the Year

Heather Lynch visits Cape Lookout in Antarctica during recent trip that included an NBC TV crew that produced a feature for ‘Sunday Night with Megan Kelly.’ Photo by Jeff Topham

By Daniel Dunaief

Heather Lynch is thrilled that she’s in the first class of scientists chosen as a recipient of the National Geographic AI for Earth Innovation Grant.

An associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, Lynch uses computers to study satellite images to reveal details about populations of penguins.

In addition to determining how many penguins are in an area, Lynch also can use images of the stains penguin poop leaves on rocks to determine what the penguins eat. Krill, which feeds on the underside of ice, is reddish or pinkish, while fish leave a white stain.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

A total of 11 researchers won the grants, which are a combined award from Microsoft and the National Geographic Society and were announced in December. The winners were chosen from more than 200 qualified scientists.

“This is the first grant that National Geographic and Microsoft are doing,” Lynch said. “It’s super exciting to be in the inaugural group.”

To hear from Lynch’s colleagues, she is an extraordinary candidate for a host of awards, including recognition as one of the TBR News Media People of the Year for 2018.

In addition to landing a coveted grant for her innovative research using sophisticated computers and satellite images, Lynch earlier this year made a remarkable discovery using Landsat imagery about a population of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands in the Antarctic that was largely unknown prior to her published paper.

This archipelago of nine islands, which were named because of the ice that is impenetrable in most years, was home to 1.5 million penguins, which she surveyed using a combination of photos, drone imagery and hand counting. That figure represents a substantial population of a charismatic animal whose numbers often are used as a way to determine the health of a delicate region managed by a collection of nations.

“She does such good work,” said Patricia Wright, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University and the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio, a research station in Madagascar. Her discovery of the additional Adélie penguins was “fantastic.”

Lynch received some pushback from people who thought the discovery of these penguins ran counter to the narrative about the need for conservation. Wright appreciates how Lynch shared the discovery with the public, reinforcing her scientific credibility.

“She’s an example of a scientist who doesn’t give in to political pressure,” Wright said. “It’s difficult sometimes to face up to people who have good intentions, but who don’t seem to want to accept the reality.”

While the discovery of the Adélie penguins was remarkable, it doesn’t necessarily run contrary to the notion about the delicate balance of the Antarctic ecosystem, and it also doesn’t indicate that the population is soaring in a way the flightless water fowl never will. Indeed, the 1.5 million penguins may have been higher in the 1990s, although she is working to pin down exactly how much larger they might have once been.

Heather Lynch at Spigot Peak in the Antarctic. Photo by Catherine Foley

Lynch has also won admiration and appreciation from Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who recently won his 14th term and has focused attention on environmental issues.

“Her ability to use statistics and mathematics to further conservation biology is pioneering work and worthy of recognition,” Englebright said.

The assemblyman believes scientists and policymakers are still in the early part of the process of understanding the complexity of the ecosystems in the Antarctic.

Finding the penguins on the Danger Islands doesn’t mean the “Antarctic is any less at risk. We still have to place that discovery into its proper context and [Lynch] is helping us do that,” Englebright said.

People who have ventured to the Antarctic with her admire Lynch’s focus, energy
and stamina.

Michelle LaRue, who is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, suggested that Lynch was “the most hardworking scientist that I know.”

LaRue recalled a time when Lynch was ill, and she still got up and did her job every day.

“The work we were doing wasn’t easy,” LaRue said. “I know she didn’t feel well and she kept going. She has a lot of perseverance.”

LaRue appreciates how her fellow scientist sees the “forest for the trees,” using a combination of high technology and considerable on-site counting to understand what changes in the penguin population reveal about the region.

Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, has also worked with Lynch for years. He appreciates how she’s “not afraid of uncertainty. In science, it’s knowing how well you know something. She’s amazing at taking data and information, which from the natural world is messy, and analyzing it and helping people pull useful and meaningful knowledge from complex situations.”

Ron Naveen, who founded the nonprofit group Oceanites in 1987, has worked with Lynch for 11 years.

“I’m very much proud of her work ethic and the standard of excellence she brings to the job,” Naveen said.

Oceanites collaborates with Lynch and others, Naveen said, to understand how penguins have reacted to climate change in an area where temperatures have been increasing at a faster rate than they have for much of the rest of the world.

Naveen recalls how Lynch, whom he describes as “petite and energetic” lugged around “amazingly heavy equipment,” including a camera for a Google Earth project.

“Whether [Lynch] is hiking, using a satellite or a drone, or lugging equipment that’s heavier than she is, she gets the data,” Naveen said.

He recalled a lab meeting with Lynch, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in the lab of William Fagan. Lynch circled the room as she wrote on the board, sharing statistical language to explain a point.

“I had no bloody idea what she was talking about,” Naveen said. “When she was done, she sat down with a smile, and I raised my hand and innocently asked, ‘Would you mind translating that into plain English?’ Without missing a beat, she did.”

By all accounts, she’s continuing to do that.

Robert Misseri speaks at the grand opening of the Nesconset location of Paws of War in December.

By John Grimaldi

One way to show appreciation for U.S. veterans’ service to our country is to ensure they receive the support and services they require upon coming home. Smithtown resident Robert Misseri has stepped forward to answer that calling. 

A trainer works with a service dog at Paws of War in Nesconset.

Misseri is the founder and president of Paws of War, a Nesconset-based nonprofit organization that since 2014 has been helping train shelter dogs to serve and provide greater independence for veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental illness. 

Although he has not served in the military, Misseri firmly believes in the importance of his nonprofit’s work. 

“We feel we are saving lives, we have vets tell us if it had not been for Paws of War as a second — or sometimes first family — they may have taken their own lives,” he said. “The veterans get involved. They want to be part of something and they want to make it effective for other veterans too.” 

For his passion and commitment to helping Long Island’s veterans, Misseri is one of TBR News Media’s 2018 People of the Year. 

When he isn’t at his day job, Misseri, 49, spends most of his free time at Paws of War — often there on nights and weekends. 

“It has pretty much become a second full-time job,” Misseri said. 

He is fully hands-on involved in every aspect of running the Nesconset organization from small tasks like making sure there is enough dog food available to larger ones like reviewing applications for training classes or running group meetings. 

“You can’t imagine how much dogs make an impact on your life,” said Frank James, a retired police officer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, about his dog Bailey. “She’s helped significantly, really significantly.” 

This October, Paws of War moved to a new storefront within the Nesconset Plaza shopping center that offers more room to operate, due to the success and growth of the nonprofit. With the expansion, Misseri said the organization has added quiet rooms and lounge areas where veterans can relax with their companions. As many veterans suffer from PTSD, these quiet rooms and lounge areas serve as a sanctum where the former service members and first responders can go to unwind or relax with their four-pawed companions. 

The new, larger location has allowed the nonprofit to double the number of veterans they can train per day from 15 to 30, which, according to Misseri, made things “a lot less stressful.”

Paws of War then launched a new mobile vet clinic in November it calls the Vets to Vets Mobile Animal Clinic.

“One thing we see is that [veterans] have a hard time getting proper care [for their animals]; it’s expensive to get vaccinations and simple trimmings and services,” Misseri said. “It helps veterans mentally as well to know their animal is healthy.”

In addition to vaccinations and grooming, the mobile service will provide annual exams, dental checks, FIV/FeLV testing for cats, flea and tick preventative care, heartworm testing and microchipping services. 

And the need for the nonprofit’s services keeps growing. 

“There was an explosion of needs with constant referrals by [Veterans Affairs], and we realized we need to expand and expand quick,” Misseri said. 

With a new location and mobile clinic, the Nesconset nonprofit is better set to provide veterans with the services they need. To learn more about Paws of War, visit www.pawsofwar.org.

Arline Goldstein and Natalie Weinstein together inside Studio 455 Art Gallery

By Susan Risoli

The St. James of the past was a gracious world, where locals were joined by artists and celebrities summering in the prosperous farming community. St. James of the present is a town marked by empty storefronts and limited opportunity for growth.

“St. James needs sprucing up,” said Eric Neitzel, owner of DeBarbieri Associates Real Estate agency and a member of Celebrate St. James. “If you look at Lake Avenue, it looks a little depressed.”

St. James residents at the summer concert series organized by Celebrate St. James.

Interior designer Natalie Weinstein helped form the nonprofit organization Celebrate St. James whose mission is to “develop community pride and involvement, and allow people to understand what we can have here.” She is owner of Uniquely Natalie, a high-end furniture consignment shop housed in the former location of the historic St. James Calderone Theater, and Studio 455 Art Gallery on Lake Avenue. 

Like Weinstein, many of the group’s members are lifelong St. James residents. They are proud of the town’s rich history. New York City mayor William J. Gaynor and his family lived at the Deepwells mansion, where notable figures such as Harry Houdini, Mae West and Madam C.J. Walker strolled through the parlor. 

“Our unique and special town has an auspicious history — but it has so much more,” reads a post on Celebrate St. James’ Facebook page. “It has spirit and pride and a desire to look back while looking forward. It has young and growing families, valued seniors, those who have been here for generations, and those who have just chosen to live and work in our wonderful hamlet because of who we are and what we stand for.” 

For their vision and determination to make St. James thrive once more, TBR News Media is honoring the members of Celebrate St. James as 2018 People of the Year. 

Since its formation in 2017, the group worked hard to create an 18-month calendar for 2018 featuring historic photos of the town and put together an outdoor concert series at the St. James Gazebo. 

Events scheduled for 2019 include a springtime silent film festival and an Art Walk slated for May 5, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For three weeks, more than 20 local artists will partner with St. James businesses along Lake Avenue to showcase their work, according to Arline Goldstein, a St. James resident and Celebrate St. James member. It is currently in the process of reaching out to visual artists, sculptors, photographers, potters, weavers, performing artists and others interested in participating in the event. 

Weinstein said Celebrate St. James has also applied for a grant to create a historic walking tour enhanced by kiosks that people could access via an app on their phones. 

Arline Goldstein and Natalie Weinstein. Photo by Kyle Barr

Celebrate St. James is continuing its work to create a Lake Avenue arts district that would stretch from the St. James firehouse on Route 25A to Woodlawn Avenue. The group first presented this idea to Town of Smithtown officials at their May 8 board meeting. 

“It’s in my heart for artists to show their work, and for others to see that work,” Goldstein told TBR News Media in May. “The project is the culmination of all my ideas about art.” 

Neitzel explained that the district could become a reality when the street is outfitted with a sewer system. In the new year, the first piece of the plan will move forward, with dry sewer mains scheduled to be installed on Lake Avenue. The town’s streets and sidewalks will also be redone. 

“Right now, development is hindered,” Neitzel said. “Eventually the commercial community, and an arts community surrounding it, will be piped into the sewers.” 

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R), the town board and its planning department have said they will help in any way they can. Smithtown officials and St. James community members, including representatives of Celebrate St. James, have been having regular meetings to plan out steps toward downtown revitalization, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo. 

Weinstein and the organization’s hard work and persistence has not gone unnoticed by their neighbors. 

“Natalie is a phenomenal woman that’s done a tremendous amount for our town,” Tom Donohue, of St. James, said. She’s always looking for the future; she had a ton of energy.”

Goldstein also oversees a committee composed of residents, business owners, architects and representatives of the Town of Smithtown planning department. Goldstein said they are looking at various issues, including off-street parking and signage. 

“Right now signs are haphazard and not attractive,” she said. 

Goldstein said Celebrate St. James is strategizing ways to strengthen the relationship between the town and creative people. One goal is to have artists and musicians living and working in St. James, “to bring art from the studios right out into the community.”

“We can and will save this town through the arts,” Weinstein said. 

The members of Celebrate St. James are all volunteers. Together, they have embraced the challenge of navigating complex matters of zoning and funding, if it means restoring St. James to its former glory. 

“We have a big love for St. James,” Neitzel said, “It’s a wonderful town.” 

Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, above, sits in her office in Stony Brook Village Center.

By Donna Deedy

An old, darkened portrait of George Washington hangs on the wood-paneled wall behind her desk. Abraham Lincoln’s words are inscribed on an office vestibule plaque. She fills a seat once occupied by philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville. She’s Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization. And for the last 38 years, she’s been successful at a job that she never imagined for herself.

“It’s impossible to describe all that we do here in one sentence,” she said.

Gloria Rocchio plans cultural events with staff members Kim Hernandez, Gabrielle Lindau, Anna Macukas and Patricia Dilucca.

As a landlord, Rocchio oversees the Stony Brook Village Center and 41 other commercial and residential properties in the Three Village area. She’s on constant lookout for good tenants. Her ultimate goal, however, is community enrichment. With a background in Long Island tourism, she and her staff of 12 develop educational and cultural events related to history, science and the arts.

It’s all part of the Melvilles’ legacy. The affluent discount shoe retailer and his wife ushered in an enterprising plan in the post-Depression era to create a socially viable business district with a nearby university at the headwaters of Stony Brook Harbor. Originally called the Stony Brook Community Fund (founded in 1939 and renamed The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in 1969), its mission celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2019.

“People may not realize it, but Rocchio took on an organization that was not in the best fiscal condition and with the board turned it around to resurrect a community,” said Dr. Richard Rugen, the organization’s chairman of the board. “She’s been able to draw in big names and corporations, and our endowment has improved tremendously.”

Its net assets today are valued at $37 million, state filings show, up from a reported $2 million in 1980. Thanks to rental revenue, the company reportedly contributed $626,000 last year to the tax roll.

With an improved bottom-line, its programs now touch many lives.

The nonprofit business offers $l-a-year leases to three charitable organizations: The Long Island Museum, The Jazz Loft and Lending Aids for the Sick. Some of the region’s most celebrated chefs cook at the Three Village Inn and the Country House Restaurant, also part of the group’s holdings.

“We see familiar faces, business travelers and many new people in our dining rooms, and it’s all very rewarding,” said French chef Guy Reuge, who relocated his Mirabelle Restaurant to Stony Brook hamlet 10 years ago.

The organization’s programs on the Underground Railroad and the Culper Spy Ring have earned national acclaim. Performances at its historic sites reach virtual audiences near and far — from schools in Setauket to classrooms in Louisiana, Quebec and Panama. A new event in 2019 entitled The Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War will showcase the unsung stories of four women involved in George Washington’s spy ring.

When Rocchio sees a social concern, she said she looks for people who can take it on.

Stony Brook University is co-sponsor for an annual walk/run that has raised to date more than $1.4 million for breast cancer research. Its Youth Corp initiated last summer a farm-to-table event that fed the needy.

To promote regional tourism, Rocchio in 2017 recruited support from elected officials to designate Route 25A from Great Neck to Port Jefferson as a national historic trail. The roadway is now prominently marked Washington Spy Trail on 26 brown stagecoach signage.

Overall, an estimated 18,000 people of all ages attend each year more than 70 sponsored events in the village of Stony Brook. Activities range from summer concerts, wetland cruises and kayak rentals to luncheon theater and cultural seminars. December’s tree lighting ceremony culminated the year’s events

Rocchio lives in town with her husband of 43 years, Richard, and their shih tzu Muffin. Residents since 1977, she’s often greeted with warm hellos and suggestions as she walks through the village.

“It’s a 9 to 5 job with 24/7 responsibilities,” she said as she encountered a jammed door in need of immediate repair at the old post office.

“I suppose Lincoln’s words sum it all up,” Rocchio said, trying to explain her organization’s purpose. Ward Melville, she said, made sure Lincoln’s quote was prominently displayed throughout the village: “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.”

All photos by Donna Deedy

By Daniel Dunaief

Brian Hoerger saw the doors bowing inward. A deluge of about 4 inches of rain in an hour or so in Port Jefferson on Sept. 25 sent a river of water toward Theatre Three, which was holding auditions for “A Christmas Carol” and was preparing to share “The Addams Family” a few days later.

Brian Hoerger in front of Theatre Three

The doors and nearby windows were no match for water that came flooding in, submerging a lighting board, damaging props and leaving tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

Hoerger, the facilities manager at the theater founded in 1969, sprang into action, salvaging what he could, removing what was unrecoverable and stabilizing the situation enough that he could leave around midnight and return six hours later to continue the cleanup effort.

To hear his friends tell it, Hoerger’s response, which included coordinating more than 50 volunteers and prioritizing a way to get the theater back in action just a few days later, is typical of a man committed to the community.

Hoerger has “an unparalleled devotion to helping others,” said Mollie Adler, who attended high school in Port Jefferson with him. “He’s always been extraordinarily helpful.”

In response to the devastating water in the building, Hoerger “worked nonstop,” said Jeffrey Sanzel, executive artistic director of Theatre Three. “He was physically cleaning, he was supervising the things that had to be thrown out and he was dealing with a lot of the main stage electrical stuff.”

Margot Garant, mayor of Port Jefferson, recalled how she and Hoerger were “knee deep in the water,” and that he “goes above and beyond” with his lighting expertise.

“You call him, and he’s always there for you,” she said.

Hoerger was involved in setting up the rental for the replacement of the dimmer rack, which provides the stage lighting.

“He put the theater first, and he put the needs of the staff and the cast that was running in ‘The Addams Family’ first,” Sanzel said. “He stayed positive the whole time. He was always available.”

Hoerger wasn’t involved in much theater. A friend from when the two of them were 5, Eric Cherches, who was then a board member at Theatre Three, suggested that Hoerger give the theater a chance when he returned to Long Island in 2014.

Hoerger said he was hooked, especially by the production of “Sweeney Todd.”

“It was a great show, and the talent was amazing,” recalled Hoerger, who has helped with lighting, carpentry and building sets. While the Theatre Three cast and crew appreciate all he does to support them, he has also built up a reputation as a cook.

Beyond his work with Theatre Three, Hoerger has contributed in numerous other ways.

He pitches in with prom decorations.

The downstairs of Theatre Three after the flash flood. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Little kids will accompany their parents to work on the prom for older siblings or cousins,” said Cherches, a lawyer at the Law Offices of Eric D. Cherches in Port Jefferson. “Everybody knows [Hoerger]. He has a way of making everybody a friend.”

Hoerger has been helpful to Adler, who has had three surgeries for breast cancer and is a single mom dealing with significant financial challenges.

“My house was falling apart,” Adler said. “He helped organize a group of guys we went to school with” to come repair holes in the deck, to paint her door and to repair other problems.

Adler bakes Miss Mollie’s Brownies to support herself and her family. Hoerger brought her brownies into Theatre Three, which shares in the profits for the baked goods.

In addition to the many roles Hoerger has played at Theatre Three, which also include serving as a photographer, the organization has offered him a chance to stand in front of the lights he ensures are working. Sanzel asked Hoerger if he’d be willing to play the role of Mr. Fusco, the hardware store owner in “Saturday Night Fever.”

“That’s not my thing,” Hoerger said. “I enjoy watching the shows and being behind the scenes.”

Hoerger’s colleagues at Theatre Three appreciate his preparation and contributions in the moments when torrential rains don’t hit.

“Any time there’s a chance of heavy rain, he is out there with his pump and hoses snaked around the parking lot,” said Vivian Koutrakos, managing director at Theatre Three. “I’m more impressed with that” in those moments “when we’re not calling on the world to come help us.”

Bringing his childhood friend to the group was “the best thing I did during my almost 10 years on the board,” Cherches said.

Miller Place Boy Scout Troop 204 attend a wake for Andrew McMorris where they stood as honor guard. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Melissa Arnold

All across Long Island, as Boy Scout troops gather for regular meetings, they reaffirm their commitment to the organization’s oath and law. Time and again, they promise to be loyal, trustworthy and brave and to “help other people at all times.”

Whether it’s running fundraisers, washing cars, visiting seniors or fixing up neighborhood points of interest, the Boy Scouts in local troops are often the driving force behind Suffolk County community service efforts.

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) and Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said they believe that all Scouts, boys and girls alike, stand as a positive example to our community, and that everyone should strive to join them in living a life of respect, leadership and helpfulness.

“The town always has a ‘wish list’ of projects we’d love to take on, but simply don’t have the funding for,” Bonner said. “The Scouts really complement the work that we do, but even beyond that, they make a tremendous impact in so many different areas of our community.”

Many of the organization’s service projects are dreamed up and implemented by the most senior Scouts, boys approaching their 18th birthday who are striving to obtain the highest rank: Eagle Scout.

Troop 204 uniform

In Miller Place’s Troop 204, anywhere from six to eight boys make Eagle Scout each year. The process is rigorous, and the Scouts run every aspect from initial planning and fundraising to completing the project and writing a final report. According to Scouting Magazine, less than 10 percent of all Boy Scouts go on to become Eagle Scouts.

“It’s great watching the boys come in as novices and grow and mature and become good citizens,” said Joe Argento, scoutmaster of Troop 204. “It’s special to see kids I’ve known since they were young go on to make Eagle.”

This year, the troop’s newest Eagle Scouts from Troop 204 protected wildlife at Cedar Beach with the installation of fishing line receptacles, made massive repairs to a large storage facility at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rocky Point and spruced up the Miller Place signs and Center for Environmental Education and Discovery in Brookhaven, among several other projects.

While the Boy Scouts are known for serving their neighbors, they are also fiercely loyal to one another. The strength of those ties was on display this fall when Andrew McMorris, a Scout from Troop 161 in Shoreham, was struck and killed by an alleged drunk driver during a day hike in Manorville Oct. 1. Several other Scouts were injured in the episode as well. In the days after Andrew’s death, Scouts from across the region banded together to hang hundreds of red ribbons from Riverhead to Wading River and beyond. 

On the day of Andrew’s wake, they came out in force to stand vigil for their brother. Troop 204 served as an honor guard.

“No matter what kind of Scout you are, it’s all one big family,” said Ann Colletta, membership coordinator for the Benjamin Tallmadge District of the Suffolk County Boy Scouts. “Troop 161 is very dear to Troop 204, and we all wanted to show them that we have their backs. It could have been any of us.”

The Scouts would go on to raise more than $20,000 for a memorial fund in Andrew’s memory that went to support Troop 161. In addition, the troop is raising funds to build a 3,200-square-foot Adirondack cabin at Baiting Hollow Scout Camp in Wading River, which will be named McMorris Lodge in honor of Andrew. 

Scoutmaster of Troop 161 Matthew Yakaboski said the troop is only just beginning to heal after the tragedy in October, but they still have a long way to go. 

“To have that life cut short like that is awful,” Yakaboski said. “We’re just trying to celebrate his life and do what we can.”

Along with the effort to build a cabin in Andrew’s honor, Troop 161’s scoutmaster said a number of their Scouts are planning several Eagle projects in the upcoming year, all of which will honor Andrew and the other Scouts injured on that day. One Scout is doing his Eagle project at the Robert S. Reid Community Center in Shoreham creating a paved brick patio and garden around a tree the troop originally planted in honor of Andrew. Yakaboski’s son, also named Matthew, is going to work on a project in conjunction with nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving at the Jones Beach Theater. He will be renovating the area around a flagpole to create a brick path in the shape of a ribbon with each brick engraved with the name of people who have been killed or injured during DWI incidents. 

Anker was quick to note that troop leaders and parents are also worthy of praise for the time, effort and support they contribute to the organization.

“We have to give the scoutmasters credit, too — they’re more than just leaders or supervisors. They’re true mentors and role models that challenge the Scouts to grow not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. And when you have strong leadership in Scouts, it perpetuates strong leadership for the next generation.”

With additional reporting by Kyle Barr.

Angeline Judex stands with New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright at the 2018 Eastern Long Island Mini Maker’s Faire. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

kyle@tbrnewsmedia.com

At a glance, the Long Island Explorium building looks like an old-school log cabin compared to the great glass facade of the neighboring Port Jefferson Village Center and the rustic townhouses or surrounding businesses.

Angeline Judex

If anything, both the building and the Long Island Explorium program, which brings in school-aged children from all across Long Island in education programs, stand out. They have stood out in no small part thanks to Angeline Judex, the executive director of the explorium.

Judex has been a part of the Port Jefferson program for close to two years. “She has a great desire to work with people, and she’s very honoring of other people’s perspectives,” said Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, the president of the Long Island Explorium. “Through that dialogue with people is how we can achieve these goals.”

Every year the explorium welcomes close to 10,000 young students through its doors. Inside is a number of puzzles and interlocking machinery, all part of a teaching philosophy called constructionism, which asks young people to use ingenuity and logic to solve problems on their own.

“She’s made her program very successful, and she’s brought in students from all over Long Island,” Port Jeff trustee Bruce D’Abramo said. “She’s one of the reasons that Port Jefferson is a place for learning and life sciences.”

The explorium has become a lightning rod for STEAM education and creativity in Port Jefferson since it was created in 2004, then bearing the name The Maritime Explorium. Since then, programs have expanded outward from Port Jeff, but the most sizable events still happen within Port Jeff Village, often spilling out from its log cabin building and onto Harborfront Park. In November the explorium received $43,626 in grant funds to install native plant rain gardens in high visibility areas such as in front of its building on East Broadway and the corner of East Broadway and Main Street.

While the Mini Maker’s Faire had its fourth year in 2018, under Judex, the event gained official status with the larger Makers Faire organization. The past two events brought thousands of people to the village who experienced many things from amateur DIY robotics to Colonial-era cooking and blacksmithing. Now expanding on the idea, the executive director has brought in past faire participants for “makers spotlights,” which show guests at the explorium their projects and explain to them how they created them.

“I have found her to be very personable, very organized and very focused,” said village administrator Robert Juliano. “She has a sunny disposition and always looking to make things better for the explorium and the community.”

Angeline Angeline Judex receives a grant from Edward Palleschi of the Long Island Community Foundation. Photo by Kyle Barr

In August 2017 the explorium hosted a watching party for the total eclipse of the sun. Even then, with so many heads turned to the sky, the explorium was pushing the scientific impact of the event by having those who attended help to accumulate scientific data to be used by researchers across the country. Children of all ages charted the temperature, percentage of the sky covered by clouds, the color of the sky and the visibility of the sun every five minutes until the conclusion of the eclipse. All the data was collected and sent to NASA.

Brooks said since Judex has become the executive director, the explorium has focused more and more on outreach outside the Port Jeff community. The explorium hosts outreach programs for public school teachers called Educate the Educators that sends explorium staff out to school districts such as William Floyd to help those teachers embrace problem-based education techniques, often on a small budget. In the past instead of simply teaching kids about earthquakes with pictures and PowerPoints, Judex used gelatin and had kids build houses that could resist the constant trembling.

“Because of economics, going out on field trips is being done much less than it has been done in the past, so what we do is we bring our program to school,” Brooks said. “This takes the explorium model to other aspects of their teaching program.”

Judex and the explorium are not slowing down either. The Mini Maker’s Faire will return next year, and the executive director already has plans to make additions to the building interior, working with a local Girl Scout to create a programmable robotic hand.

If anything, Judex and the explorium have become much less of a hidden gem, and more of a shining jewel in the Port Jefferson community.

Rivera is honored by members of Brookhaven Town Board for his advocacy and support work surrounding the disease. Photo from Councilwoman Cartright's office

By Jennifer Sloat

He has been called an angel, the personification of goodness and strength, a champion of the underrepresented and an inspiration. Frank Rivera is all of that and more.

Rivera is the founder and president of Sarcoidosis of Long Island, an awareness and advocacy group for sarcoidosis, a rare and often debilitating disease from which the Coram resident is suffering. In 2004 at the age of 36, he received an incorrect diagnosis of lung cancer for which he underwent treatment. The X-ray showed lumps in his lungs. It was after a hospital visit in 2011 for abdominal pain that he was correctly diagnosed with sarcoidosis.

Frank Rivera, at center, cuts a ribbon at Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park to signal the start of his Sarcoidosis Awareness 5K. Photo from Councilwoman Cartright’s office

Things got even tougher for Rivera as complications from the disease arose. It attacked his neurological system, eyes and gallbladder. In April 2012, he went back to the hospital with more stomach cramps and learned his colon had ruptured. He contracted sepsis and nearly died.

Through it all Rivera continues to fight, not only for his own health, but for the health of others affected by the disease. His organization raises awareness for sarcoidosis patients at local, state and federal levels, and helps them find doctors and treatment.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said Rivera came to her office a few years ago and told her his story and idea to start a not-for-profit organization.

Anker said his tireless work with elected officials and medical research experts have provided him the guidance and resources to help residents dealing with sarcoidosis.

“He has accomplished so much,” Anker said. “It was his goal, and it remains his goal.”

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), a practicing ear, nose and throat physician, said when he heard Rivera was creating awareness, he reached out to lend support. Spencer, who lost his mother to the disease, said he was fascinated by the work Rivera does.

“It hit close to home,” the legislator said. “Many have not even heard of the disease.”

Spencer said that what Rivera has done also generated a lot of funding to aid sarcoidosis patients in seeking medical attention and emotional support.

“I hope to continue to support him,” he said. “I hope to see him do more great things for those who don’t have champions.”

Some of the organization’s efforts include a health fair and a 5K run/walk at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

“He gets folks together to share ideas and stories, and to support one another,” Anker said. “It is amazing what Frank has done considering he is dealing with his own challenges, both physical and mental.”

The Town of Brookhaven celebrates National Sarcoidosis Awareness Month in April, and it’s a direct result of Rivera’s work and dedication.

“The town board has learned an overwhelming amount about the misconceptions surrounding sarcoidosis and the hurdles patients face who are suffering from rare diseases,” said town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station). “This is due in large part to Frank’s efforts. Listening to Frank speak about his personal experiences is a testament to his strength of character.”

In an interview with RARE Daily, a Global Genes patient advocacy organization, Rivera said his focus is helping others with hardships before worrying about himself.

“There are 200,000 sarcoidosis patients,” he said. “I always consider myself a representative for those 200,000 patients. I always think about what they need.”

Anker said despite his own struggles he’s always being positive to inspire others to have the will to get through the tough times.

“He always has a smile on his face and goodness in his heart,” Anker said. “His mind is going 1,000 miles an hour to accomplish what he has set out to do. He has been able to accomplish so many of his goals.”

Comsewogue Library Director Debbie Engelhardt, third from left, and Port Jefferson Free Library Director Tom Donlon, second left, with others, cut the ribbon on a Free Little Library in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

Steering a community institution as it crosses the half-century mark in its existence is an enormous responsibility. But when the institution has the inherent added degree of difficulty associated with morphing to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, fulfilling that responsibility likely feels like threading a needle. As the third director in Comsewogue Public Library’s 50-year history, Debbie Engelhardt has gracefully and masterfully threaded that needle.

Engelhardt got her start in the library world as the director of Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton in the early 2000s. She was also the director of the Huntington Public Library from 2009 to 2012, before being selected as just the third director in the history of the Comsewogue Public Library.

The Comsewogue Public Library’s only three directors — Richard Lusak, Debra Engelhardt and Brandon Pantorno — in front of the newly dedicated Richard Lusak Community Room. Photo by Alex Petroski

In October 2017, Engelhardt played a vital role in planning, organizing and conducting a 50th anniversary celebration for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community staple. The day, according to many of her colleagues, had fingerprints of her enthusiasm, one-track community mindedness, and passion all over it, though that can be said about every day she’s spent at Comsewogue’s helm.

“Very rarely do you find anybody as dedicated to her profession and to her community like Debbie,” said Richard Lusak, Comsewogue Public Library’s first director from 1966 through 2002. The Oct. 14 anniversary celebration included the dedication of the building’s community room in Lusak’s honor, an initiative Engelhardt unsurprisingly also had a hand in.

“Those who come to know her quickly value her leadership ability and her insight into things,” he said. “She never says ‘no,’ she says, ‘Let me figure out how to do it.’”

The director tried to sum up her feelings about the anniversary as it was still ongoing.

“The program says ‘celebrating our past, present and future,’ so that’s what we’re doing all in one day with the community,” she said in October.

The event featured games, a bounce house, farm animals, crafts, giveaways, snacks, face painting, balloon animals, music, a historical society photo gallery and tour, and a new gallery exhibit.

“We thought of it as a community thank you for the ongoing support that we’ve had since day one, across all three administrations,” the library director said.

Engelhardt’s vision has been a valuable resource in efforts to modernize the library and keep it vibrant, as Amazon Kindles and other similar technologies have infringed on what libraries used to be about for generations. As the times have changed, Engelhardt has shown a propensity to keep Comsewogue firmly positioned as a community hub.

“I think she’s done a superb job with respect to coordinating all of the interests of input from the community as to what services are being requested by the public, whether it’s the children’s section, the adult reference and the senior citizens, including all of the activities we offer and the different programs,” said Edward Wendol, vice president of the library’s board of trustees who has been on the board for about 40 years. He was the board’s president when Engelhardt was selected as director.

Wendol credited Engelhardt with spearheading efforts to obtain a Free Little Library not only for Comsewogue, but for several other area libraries. The program features a small, outdoor drop box where readers can take a book to read or leave a book for future visitors.

“Anybody can use it as much as they want and it’s always a mystery when you open that box — you never know what you’ll find,” Engelhardt said during its dedication over the summer. “There are no late fees, no guilt, no stress. If you want to keep a book, you can … we are pleased to partner with the historical society to bring this gem. The books inside will move you and teach you. We say that libraries change lives and, well, little free libraries can too.”

The Little Free Library, a free book exchange, is located near the playground, alongside the shack at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai. Photo by Fred Drewes

Wendol said she also played a huge role in reorganizing the interior structure of the library. Engelhardt has created reading areas on all levels, placed popular selections near the entrance of the building, and taken an overall hands-on approach to the look and feel of the library. He also lauded her role working together with the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, an organization dedicated to serving the 56 public libraries in the county and assisting them in sharing services, website designs, group purchases and other modernization efforts.

“She’s great at what she does and seems to be having a great amount of fun while she’s doing it, and it’s kind of infectious,” said Kevin Verbesey, director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and a friend of Engelhardt’s for more than 20 years. “She is one of the leaders in the county, not just in Port Jeff Station and Comsewogue, but somebody who other library directors turn to for advice and for leadership.”

Her community leadership efforts cannot be contained by Comsewogue Public Library’s four walls however. Engelhardt is a member and past president of the Port Jefferson Rotary Club; a member of the board of trustees at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital; and vice president of Decision Women in Commerce and Professions, a networking organization dedicated to fostering career aid and support, and generating beneficial community projects.

When she finds time in the day, she participates in events like the cleanup of Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches, a facility for children with special needs. This past November she helped, among many others, clean up the camp with  husband, John, and son, Scott.

Joseph Higgins, owner of Tara Inn in Port Jeff, collects donations during a fundraiser Sept. 4 for Hurricane Harvey victims. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

A national tragedy sprung Joseph Higgins to action in September, but the owner of Tara Inn pub hasn’t needed a special reason to demonstrate his ethos of above and beyond generosity in the 40 years he has owned the upper Port Jefferson watering hole.

When Higgins heard of the devastation in Houston and the surrounding region as a result of Hurricane Harvey in late August, he said it resonated with him in a way that left him feeling like action was required. The pub owner decided to hold a benefit Sept. 4, Labor Day, to raise money for people affected by the massive storm. In addition to the sale of raffle tickets and Harvey relief T-shirts donated by Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, Higgins gave away 100 percent of the bar’s food and beverage sales from the day to a group providing aid for victims in the region.

“There’s very few people in this world that when they get to the pearly gates they’re going to hear, ‘we were waiting for you.’’’

— Stephen Murray

Tara Inn amassed more than $15,200 in sales and donations that day, which were given to the storm victims through the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Higgins rounded up the donation to an even $16,000.

“Forty years ago I had eight kids, my wife and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I said, ‘God, help me raise these kids,’ and he did,” the 87-year-old Higgins said during the event, while seated near the pub’s front door with a container for additional donations. “And I can’t thank God enough for all he has given me and that’s why we give back. I’ve had a great life, and I like to give back. There have been times in my life where I had an opportunity to do something good and I didn’t do it, and I always regret that. Every time something comes along that we can do for somebody else, I want to do it.”

In talking to his friends and family, Higgins’ assertion that he has missed opportunities to give back seems like a wholly disingenuous characterization of his life. For that reason, Higgins is a 2017 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

“He’ll say that money doesn’t mean anything to him, and the only other people I’ve ever heard say that are millionaires,” said Kate Higgins, one of the pub owner’s eight children, reiterating he is not a millionaire.

For about 30 years, Tara Inn has hosted similar events to the Hurricane Harvey benefit every Jan. 1 for a wide range of causes. After a fire left Billie’s 1890 Saloon shuttered, the pub hosted a fundraiser for Billie’s employees. When Erik Halvorsen, the late owner of Norse Tree Service, died as a result of a tragic accident on the job in 2016, Higgins organized a fundraiser for Halvorsen’s family. Another New Year’s Day event raised money for an Iraq war veteran who had been paralyzed in the line of duty. Higgins himself is a U.S. Army Korean War veteran.

Every year, Higgins also donates vegetables to Infant Jesus church in Port Jeff for its Thanksgiving event. The pub also serves a free lunch to senior citizens around St. Patrick’s Day every year.

Kate Higgins estimated her father has donated somewhere in the ballpark of $200,000 in total from the New Year’s Day fundraisers, but that doesn’t account for a lifetime of random acts of kindness Higgins has done over the years.

According to Tom Meehan, a longtime friend of Higgins’ and the principal of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, many years ago a couple came into the bar who had just gotten married at Port Jefferson Village Hall by the village justice. Meehan said they ended up at Tara Inn because they heard the prices were inexpensive, and they were looking to celebrate their marriage despite having very little money. Higgins caught wind, served the couple a free lobster dinner and then placed a call to Meehan, who owned a luxury van at the time. Higgins gave Meehan cash and instructed him to drive the couple to Danfords Hotel & Marina and pay for their stay for the night.

Despite all of his generosity, Higgins lives modestly, according to his daughters.

“At one point we had two picnic tables in the dining room for the 10 of us,” said Tara Higgins, whom the bar was named after. She added somehow Higgins and his wife of 65 years, Pat, managed to send her and her siblings to schools like Harvard, Boston College, Villanova and Providence to name a few. “With his grandchildren, like he is with everyone else, he has an ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world.”

“He’ll say that money doesn’t mean anything to him, and the only other people I’ve ever heard say that are millionaires.”

— Kate Higgins

Her sister Kate tried to explain why her father has decided to spend his life giving so much.

“I don’t think he ever forgets where he came from,” she said. “He didn’t have it easy growing up. He lost his father when he was really young. He just never forgets that, I don’t think.”

Stories of Higgins’ generosity flow like draft beer inside Tara Inn’s four walls. Mindy Talasko, an employee of the bar since it opened, said during a Saturday afternoon interview at the pub, pointing to one of the tables, Higgins had instructed the staff years ago that a father eating lunch with his daughter were never to be charged for a meal or drink at Tara Inn. The daughter had been injured in an accident as an infant, and had difficulties and disabilities as a result.

“He’s just a wonderful, kindhearted man,” Talasko said. “He would do anything for anyone and he’s done so much for me over the years. I probably wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Joe and Tara Inn and Mrs. Higgins.”

Talasko said she had three kids during the years she worked with Higgins. Years ago, she said she would regularly have car troubles, and eventually went to lease a new car to be able to travel back and forth to work. When she arrived to sign the paperwork she was informed she needed to come up with about $800 to pay for the insurance, which she didn’t have. She said she asked Higgins, who gave her the money. The next day she arrived at the bar ready to talk about how she would pay him back. Higgins asked how long the loan was for, and when Talasko responded four years, he told her, “In four years come back and talk to me.”

Up until recently, Tara Inn’s menu featured a hamburger for $1, a Higgins idea.

“He always said he wanted to keep it low so if anybody only had a dollar or two they could come in and get something to eat,” John Koehnlein, another old friend of the bar owner said.

The price has gone up with the changing times. A hamburger at Tara Inn now costs $2.

“His generosity is unmatched,” friend Stephen Murray said. “I can’t imagine anybody out there who does more than he does for people in need.”

Kate Higgins offered a theory to explain how Tara Inn has stayed in business for so long.

“I think his basic business model is ‘Make everybody feel at home, make everybody feel welcome,’” she said. “He doesn’t care what your background is. He doesn’t care if you’re head of one of the hospitals or the homeless guy up the street.”

Murray summed up the character of Tara Inn’s longtime owner, a man his daughters described as very religious.

“There’s very few people in this world that when they get to the pearly gates they’re going to hear, ‘We were waiting for you,’” Murray said.

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