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Person of the Year

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella and two other Comsewogue students. Photo from Joe Rella

Amanda Perelli

Those who know him say Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue High School, is an empathic teacher in the classroom and an advocate for service within the community, and that he often goes above and beyond.

Harris recently organized Joe’s Day of Service, a community service initiative where students and community members pledge to give back.

“Sometimes kids are like, ‘Oh, I have to get another five to 10 service hours,’ but with him the kids are so happy doing it. He’s really visionary in many ways,” Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella said. “He moves comfortably between and among the teachers, the administrators, the elementary students, secondary students, and really gets them excited about service. He’s a selfless person and that comes across in everything he does.”

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Harris has been a member of the district for 14 years, but it wasn’t until last year, with the help of his colleagues, that the idea for Joe’s Day of Service was born. 

The name was inspired by Rella for his constant dedication to better the community. 

Harris asked Rella what he thought of creating more districtwide volunteer opportunities and Rella was instantly on board.  

“He said, ‘What do you think about creating some opportunities [in service],” Rella said. “We have different opportunities at the High School level, where kids have to do community service as a part of the National Honor Society — what about if we did it on a district level? I said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea’ and he’s transformed the whole concept of service.”

The superintendent added the community was missing a districtwide event to get everyone involved at once.

Students in Harris’ class pitched how they thought they should spend the day — excited to work outside the classroom and with others within Comsewogue. 

“We had a movement here for many, many years to get kids more involved in their community — giving back, to be more empathetic,” said Joseph Coniglione, the principal at Comsewogue High School. “The goal was to do that through community service in the area. We had a large sum of students who went out and did individual projects and a tremendous group, who went to the Calverton National Cemetery to clean off the head stones and get them prepared for the veterans.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said Joe’s Day of Service was so successful she expects it will only grow in coming years.

 “The Comsewogue community is very close knit, and neighbors have already been working with students, teachers and faculty to improve the lives of others through the Joe’s Day of Service projects,” Cartright said. “Andy Harris and those involved have portrayed this initiative as continuous from the start, so I have no doubt that participation will increase as more members of the community learn about the project.”

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartwright (D). Photo from Joe Rella.

Harris spearheaded the initiative, developing one day-long service event that taught students the value of service while helping out the community. 

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Harris has inspired students to give back to their local communities, and he also teaches the importance of being a civic leader in service. 

“Andy is a veteran special education teacher, but what sets him aside from a lot of people is his ability to really be empathic toward people,” said Coniglione. “He’s probably one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet in your life. He really tries to make others life better and just happier.” 

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon speaks during a media event Feb. 9 at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Anthony Frasca

In a ceremony this past January at the Van Nostrand Theater on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) swore in Errol Toulon Jr. (D-Lake Grove) as the 67th Suffolk County sheriff.

Toulon, whose father is a retired Rikers Island warden, spent many years as a Rikers Island corrections officer and went on to become an aide to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). In that position, Toulon supervised numerous public safety departments including fire, rescue and emergency services.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., second from right, joined by his wife Tina, right, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during his inauguration Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Ralph Grasso has spent 31 years in law enforcement and is a close personal friend of Toulon. Grasso said he met Toulon at their children’s soccer game 27 years ago, and they struck up a conversation that led to a long-term friendship.

“He was in corrections, and I was an NYPD police officer,” Grasso said. “We hit it off and became friends. He is the godfather of my daughter.”

He said he knew Toulon would excel when it came to being sheriff.

“Knowing him, and how he perseveres through just about anything, I knew he would take this role and take it above and beyond,” Grasso said. “We speak a lot on the issues that correlate from the city to where I am now in the waterfront commission and the surrounding areas. He’s cognizant of everything that goes on, especially the gang issue.”

First Undersheriff Steve Kuehhas said Toulon can often be found out in the communities and the schools throughout Suffolk County with an outreach program he established.

“He dedicates at least two days a week to go to schools to talk about vaping, bullying and gangs,” Kuehhas said. “He goes himself and speaks to the younger ones in the middle schools.”

The undersheriff said Toulon also increased the number of officers in the county’s gang resistance program, where officers spend time with middle school students for a whole semester.

“It serves a lot of purposes,” Kuehhas said. “One is students are no longer apprehensive when they see a uniformed officer because some of them grow up with a negative connotation of a uniformed officer. But when they are in the schools every day, they see that the officers are just like their dads, and they are teachers and many times kids confide in the officers when they get to know them about things we can actually investigate or to help them.”

‘His mind is always racing. He’s always wanting to better the sheriff’s office. It’s really pleasant to know that he’s trying to better your agency.’

—Steve Kuehhas

Grasso said Toulon has placed the best of the best in the office and has taken on the role of sheriff head on.

“He’s a rare breed where he actually looks at the outside people and what they have to deal with,” Grasso said.

With a goal of improving the mission of the sheriff’s office, Toulon has looked to uncover talents already existing within the department.

“What Sheriff Toulon has done is increased some of the specialized units within the sheriff’s office on both corrections and deputies,” Kuehhas said. “He is also very attuned to education. He’s actively looking for officers with backgrounds in certain areas or specialties like analytics or education.”

Toulon’s approach to the sheriff’s office has been to engage actively and do what it takes to improve morale too.

“He’s nonstop,” Kuehhas said. “His mind is always racing. He’s always wanting to better the sheriff’s office. It’s really pleasant to know that he’s trying to better your agency.”

Kuehhas added that Toulon is always among the officers in the jails and stops in on holidays with Kuehhas and Undersheriff Kevin Catalina.

On a personal note, Sheriff Toulon is a two-time cancer survivor, and his battles with cancer have inspired him to continue his mission to help others.

“He’s an avid hockey player and a Penguins fan,” Grasso said. “He actually wears the number 66 because he also had Hodgkin’s disease along with Mario Lemieux from the Penguins.”

Gina Mingoia performs during The Sal Mingoia Pet Adopt-A-Thon Sept. 22, an event renamed in her father’s memory, who died in 2017 following a battle with cancer. Photo by Alex Petroski

By David Luces

For 20-year-old Gina Mingoia, Shoreham resident and local musician, her selfless attitude, her willingness to extend a helping hand and her music have endeared her to so many in the community.

Whether it’s donating her time or gracing people with her voice, she has undoubtedly made a lasting positive impact on many people’s lives.

Bea Ruberto, president of the Sound Beach Civic Association, can attest to that. 

“Gina is an all-around great person,” Ruberto said. “She is someone who is very committed to the community.”

Gina Mingoia performed in concert at this year’s Pet Adopt-A-Thon in honor of her father, Sal, who passed away in 2017. Photo from Mingoia family

Ruberto first met Mingoia through the civic association’s pet adopt-a-thon, an event that encourages responsible pet ownership and provides a place to help local animal welfare groups get animals adopted.

“After the first pet adopt-a-thon [in 2012], I began advertising it more,” she said. “I don’t know how they heard about the event, but her father Sal approached us and said, ‘We’re really committed to helping these animal welfare groups, and we would love to play at the event.’”

For the next five years, both Sal and Gina Mingoia donated their time and lent their musical talents to the event.

In 2015, Sal Mingoia was diagnosed with cancer. Despite that, when he heard the event was on the following year, he and his daughter made it a point to attend. 

In 2017, Sal Mingoia passed away, but his contribution to the event over the years left a lasting impact on Ruberto.

“I wasn’t sure if she was going to be involved this year,” Ruberto said. “I didn’t even approach her, but as soon as she heard that we were running the event, she contacted me, and she said, ‘I really want to be there. It was my dad’s and my favorite gig. I want to keep being a part of it.’

For this year’s event, the Sound Beach Civic Association changed the name to The Sal Mingoia Pet Adopt-A-Thon.

“Because they were so committed over the years, we changed the name in his honor, and we will continue to call it that,” Ruberto said. 

Music can create a special bond. That couldn’t be truer for Mingoia and her father. 

“She was meant to be in music and be on stage,” her cousin Jackie Mingoia said. “She’s a natural up there.”

Mingoia first joined her father on stage when she was 12. It was a perfect match, and over the years, she has been developing her craft with some help from her cousin. 

“The quality of music she was making was very good,” Jackie Mingoia said.

Sal Mingoia was a devoted family man to his daughters Samantha and Gina. Photo from Gina Mingoia

In 2017, Gina Mingoia won Long Island’s Best Unsigned Artist and got the opportunity to travel to Nashville.

Recently, Jackie Mingoia has helped her cousin as a fellow songwriter. She would assist with ideas or sometimes finish up a song with her in the garage studio Sal Mingoia made. 

One of those ideas turned into a song titled “New York,” which Gina Mingoia performed earlier this year.

When they’re not working on music together, Jackie Mingoia says her cousin has a funny side and is great to be around.

“Gina has a great heart,” Mingoia said. “She is a very giving person and always looking to help people however she can. She is the most selfless person I know.”

Kelli Cutinella has known Gina Mingoia for a long time and says she is a genuine, loving person who never asks for anything in return.

Cutinella got to know Mingoia through her son, Tom, and the two became close friends the summer before sixth grade.

“Tom always spoke very highly of her,” Cutinella said. 

In 2014, Tom passed away following a head-on collision during a football game. Almost two years later, Mingoia finished a song she dedicated to her late friend titled, “I Wish (Tom’s Song).” 

It was in October 2016 at The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation Golf Tournament, a fundraising event started by his parents to honor his memory, that Mingoia shared her song with them for the first time. 

“It meant so much to us,” Cutinella said. “Words can’t describe it. It was a really special moment for everyone that was there. You could tell the song was special for Gina.”

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Mingoia’s willingness to donate her time to help others has made her a role model in the community.

“Gina is wiser beyond her years,” Bonner said. “She is an old soul, a sensitive and caring person.”

Bonner says Mingoia has a great support system in her family, and she has a bright future.

“The sky is the limit [for her],” Bonner said. “Her music has amassed quite the local following. Whatever she wants to do, I hope she continues to touch people’s lives in a positive way.”

Alan Alda received the Double Helix Award from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory this month. Photo by Constance Brukin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

By Daniel Dunaief

In a world of tirades and terrifying tweets, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is encouraging its professors and students to do something the center’s namesake urges: Listen.

Tough as it is to hear what people mean behind an explosive expression that fuses reason and emotion, the scientists in training, established researchers and others who attend some of the lectures or workshops at the center go through an exercise called “rant” in which each person listens for two minutes to something that drives their partner crazy. Afterward, the scientist has to introduce their partner to the group in a positive way.

Alan Alda. Photo by Constance Brukin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

The staff at the Alan Alda Center finds inspiration, a role model and a humble but willing listener in Alda, the highly decorated actor of “MASH” who has spent the last several decades drawing scientists out of dense shells constructed of impenetrable jargon and technical phrases.

For his dedication to forging connections for scientists, Times Beacon Record News Media is pleased to name Alan Alda a 2016 Person of the Year.

“He’s doing a wonderful job,” said Jim Simons, the former chairman of the Stony Brook Mathematics Department and hedge fund founder who shared the stage with Alda this summer as a part of a Mind Brain Lecture at Stony Brook. “I can’t think of anyone better to be an honoree.”

Simons described a moment with Alda, who is not a scientist nor does he play one on TV, when he was sharing some abstruse mathematics. Alda’s eyes “glazed over when I was first talking to him. He’s teaching scientists not to get a glaze over their audience’s eyes.”

Alda works tirelessly to share a method that blends scientific communication with the kind of improvisational acting he studied early in his career.

“Improv is not about being funny,” said Laura Lindenfeld, the director at the center. “It’s about being connected.”

Last June, Alda was a part of a team that traveled to California to share an approach that is in demand at universities and research institutions around the world. The day of the workshop, three people who were supposed to help lead the session were delayed.

Alda suggested that he run the event, which would normally involve several instructors and break-out groups. Learning about the art of connecting with an audience from someone who reached people over decades through TV, movies and Broadway performances, the attendees were enchanted by their discussion.

“He’s the master,” said Lindenfeld, who was at the campus when the team received news about the delay for the other instructors.

As soon as the session ended, Alda headed for Los Angeles to conduct a radio interview.

“I handed him a granola bar,” recalled Lindenfeld, who joined the center last year. “I was afraid he hadn’t eaten.”

Alda celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year and shows no signs of slowing down, encouraging the spread of training techniques that will help scientists share their information and discoveries.

“He’s teaching scientists not to get a glaze over their audience’s eyes.”

— Jim Simons

The Alda Center is planning a trip to Scotland next year and has been invited to go to Norway, Germany and countries in South America, Lindenfeld said.

When the University of Dundee received a grant from the Leverhulme Trust to create the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, officials in Scotland, one of whom knew Lindenfeld personally, researched the Alan Alda Center’s mission and decided to forge a connection. Lindenfeld helped coordinate a congratulatory video Alda sent that the Scottish centre played at its opening ceremony.

“Everyone present from the highest Law Lord in Scotland, through to the principal of the university and the Leverhulme trustees did not know it was going to happen, and so it was a huge surprise that stunned the room into complete silence,” recalled Sue Black, the director of the centre in an email. “Brilliant theatre of which Mr. Alda would have been proud.”

Established and internationally known scientists have expressed their appreciation and admiration for Alda’s dedication to their field.

The training sessions “drag out of people their inhibitions and get them to think about interacting with the public in ways that they might not have felt comfortable doing before,” said Bruce Stillman, the president and CEO of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This month, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory gave Alda the Double Helix Medal at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Stillman described the public understanding and perception of science as “poor.” To bridge that gap, Alda’s programs “induce scientists to feel comfortable about talking to the public about their ideas and progress.”

Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel suggested that Alda’s accomplishments exceed his own.

“There ain’t many Alan Aldas, but there are a lot of Nobel Prizes out there,” Kandel said. While Kandel is “extremely indebted to having won the Nobel Prize,” he said the totality of Alda’s accomplishments are “enormous.”

The Alda Center is working with Columbia University, where Kandel is the director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science and a professor, to develop an ongoing program to foster scientific communication.

Alan Alda, left, at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Constance Brukin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Kandel, who considers Alda a friend, appreciates his support. Kandel said Jeff Lieberman, the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia, asked Alda and Kandel to give a talk on issues related to neuroscience. Lieberman “was my boss,” Kandel said, “I had to be there, but [Alda] didn’t have to be there. He goes out of his way for people.”

In 2017, the center will not only share its communication techniques around the world, but it will also create conferences for timely scientific topics, including climate change and women in science.

The glass ceiling is a “real issue for women in science,” said Valerie Lantz Gefroh, the improvisation program leader at the center. “We’re hoping to give [women] better communication tools so they can move forward in their careers.”

The center is also adding new courses. Next fall, Christine O’Connell, who is a part of a new effort at Stony Brook called the Science Training & Research to Inform Decision and is the associate director at the center, will teach a course on communicating with policy and decision makers.

That will include encouraging scientists to invite state senators to see their field work, going to Congress, meeting with a senator or writing position papers. In political discussions, scientists often feel like “fish out of water,” O’Connell said. The course will give scientists the “tools to effectively engage” in political discussions.

Scientists don’t have to be “advocates for or against an issue,” O’Connell said, but they do have to “be advocates for science and what the science is telling us.”

Given an opportunity to express her appreciation directly to Alda, Black at the University of Dundee wrote, “Thanks for having the faith to collaborate with our centre so far away in Scotland, where we are trying to influence the global understanding of forensic science in our courtrooms — where science communication can make the difference between a guilty or an innocent verdict and in some places, the difference between life and a death sentence.”

To borrow from words Alda has shared, and that the staff at the center believe, “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” Even if, as those who have gone through some of the sessions, the speaker is ranting.