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Walt Whitman

Vinny Altebrando with his wife Kristie and their four daughters. Photo from Kristie Altebrando

When it comes to handling students, the teachers, administrators and faculty members at South Huntington school district have a new mantra these days: WWAD, or “What Would Altebrando Do?”

It’s a tribute to a man who, as a physical education and special education teacher and renowned varsity wrestling coach at Walt Whitman High School for the last 15 years, consistently went out of his way to make students and student-athletes’ lives better — particularly the “underdogs” that struggled in and out of school.

Vincent Altebrando was somebody who once bought a tuxedo and prom ticket for a wrestler who came from a broken home and couldn’t afford them, and then dressed in a tuxedo himself, picked up the teenager and chauffeured him to the big event. He was a beloved local whose nine-hour wake service last month drew a crowd of 3,000 people, where hundreds more had to be turned away.

Vinny Altebrando, who was Walt Whitman’s wrestling coach, on left, with state champion Terron Robinson during the state tournament. Photo from Terron Robinson

The renowned coach, a Miller Place resident who died April 20 at Stony Brook University Hospital after being diagnosed with HLH, a rare autoimmune disease, at 51, had a big heart and an infectious laugh, an affinity for belting out Beatles songs, and a tough-love competitive spirit that not only put the district on the map athletically, but helped his players beyond the sport. There really was nothing he wouldn’t have done to help his students, according to those closest to him.

“He was always about the kids,” his wife Kristie Altebrando said. “He was always doing things for them. And just when you thought it was enough because his plate was full, he found more room on it. He’s changed a lot of lives.”

Both in school and at home, she pointed out, referring to their four daughters, each of whom compete in sports, from lacrosse to volleyball and field hockey.

“With his attitude, grace, helpfulness and encouragement, it’s all made them who they are,” she said. “I just hope he’s looking down, knowing that while he was alive he was doing all this for people.”

Robin Rose, Walt Whitman’s head varsity football coach and childhood friend of Vincent Altebrando’s, said the wrestling coach had a myriad of accolades. He won the sportsmanship award at this year’s Suffolk County Wrestling Coaches Association ceremony.

 “The best compliment is that Vinny turned athletes into state winners and he helped non-athletes become winners themselves,” Rose said. “He’s a guy this district can’t replace.”

Altebrando also played a large role in launching adaptive physical education and a Special Olympics program for the district’s special needs students.

Vinny Altebrando and his youngest daughter Mirabella. Photo from Katie Altebrando

“It’s an amazing void that he leaves in the school,” fellow Walt Whitman physical education teacher and childhood friend Scott Wolff said. “He was this big, tough, sweet guy; this big center of life in the building and that’s gone now, so we’re all trying to fill a little piece of it — just by building up spirits, being nicer to each other, spending more time with the kids who are struggling. I can already feel the effects.”

Wolff and Altebrando, who was raised by his mother and older brothers after the death of his father at a young age, both went through the Middle Country school system; graduated from Newfield High School a year apart; and were hired at South Huntington Elementary School on the same day in 1994. According to Wolff, Altebrando has been the same since he first met him.

“Vinny was always the best guy to be around — fun, humble and knew how to make everybody feel comfortable and special,” he said.

Terron Robinson, 19, knows that about the coach perhaps better than anybody.

The 2017 Walt Whitman graduate first met his coach as an eighth-grader as a budding wrestler. Robinson said he’d long been cast aside by teachers and other students at school due to his family background — two of his brothers had been to prison, and he thought everybody assumed he’d wind up there as well. He lost his mother at a young age and by the time he was in ninth grade, his father and a brother died, too. It didn’t take long, however, for him to have somebody to turn to.

“In my eyes, that man [Altebrando] was like my father,” said Robinson, who, under the guidance of Altebrando, was a state champion wrestler by 11th-grade. “He saw the good side of me when nobody else did. He was always there for me no matter what. Without him, I’d probably be in a jail cell.”

Altebrando made sure Robinson always had food and clean clothes. He pushed him to do well in school and treat everybody with respect. He took Robinson to the doctor when he was hurt. The coach would even take it upon himself to drive every morning from his home in Miller Place to where his student-athlete lived in Mastic Beach, pick him up and take him to school in South Huntington — where the two of them often worked out together before classes started.

“There was no greater bond I’ve seen between coach and player than the one they had,” Walt Whitman high school athletic director Jim Wright said. “Vinny just saw him as a kid with potential, as a wrestler and also as a person. He brought out the good qualities in Terron and turned him into a citizen.”

Vinny Altebrando, on right, with his oldest daughter Anjelia, who will be attending his alma mater, Springfield College, in the fall. Photo from Katie Altebrando

Altebrando graduated from Newfield High School in 1984. He was a star athlete on football and wrestling teams, the latter being a somewhat lackluster sport in the district before he came along.

“Then it became an event to go to,” Wolff said, laughing.

Altebrando went to Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he wrestled and received a degree in physical education.

It was during a hectic commute from his first teaching job in Brooklyn that Altebrando bumped into an old familiar face — his future wife — from his high school days.

“We took the train home together and we were engaged within a month,” Kristie Altebrando said. “He was my lifeline, my go-to guy … and it’s overwhelming to see the outpouring of love from so many people for what he’s done and see how many lives he’s touched.”

Natalia Altebrando, 13, a North Country Road middle school student and goalie on a travel lacrosse team, said her father taught her on and off the field how to find courage and strength, and to be kind to others.

“He made such an impact on my life,” she said. “This has broken my heart in a thousand pieces, and the only one who would [normally] be able to fix that for me is him.”

Altebrando’s oldest daughter, Anjelia, 17, will be following in her father’s footsteps and attending Springfield College in the fall.

“He was my role model and really pushed me to work hard for what I want,” she said. “He let me know that anything is possible.”

The 300-book collection, acquired by late Northport resident Marvin Feinstein, contains several first editions

The Feinstein family stands with a Walt Whitman impersonator in front of new Norman and Jeanette Gould Library collection. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The unveiling of a new library collection at the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site has allowed it to lay claim to having the second largest Whitman-related book collection in the world.

The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association publicly celebrated its acquisition of approximately 300 Whitman-related books collected by late Northport resident Marvin Feinstein April 26.

“This collection will be of tremendous value to Walt Whitman scholars and historians,” said George Gorman, deputy regional director of New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “It’s an amazing treasure.”

“Ever since I knew Marvin, I knew how much he admired the writing of Walt Whitman.”
– Miriam Feinstein

Miriam Feinstein said her husband, Marvin, was a lifelong book collector turned bookseller. Together, the couple ran M&M Books selling out-of-print, rare volumes at large book fairs up and down the East Coast since the early 1980s.

“Ever since I knew Marvin, I knew how much he admired the writing of Walt Whitman,” she said. “It was always his dream to acquire a full collection of Walt Whitman’s books.”

She recalled how almost every day, her husband, would set off and “invariably” come home with a bag of books. Sometimes he would purchase books by Whitman or one of his other favorite writers, Mark Twain.

Upon her husband’s passing, Feinstein and her sons, David and Allen, reached out to the WWBA offering to donate 40 Whitman-related books, according to Executive Director Cynthia Shor — one of which was a volume containing the complete works of Walt Whitman.

The family then offered to donate half of the remaining collection, about 250 books, which had been appraised at $20,000. The collection contains many rare books including 25 first editions, among which are “Leaves of Grass” and “November Boughs.” The association was only able to come up with funding to purchase 10 additional books and sent Shor to the Feinstein’s home to pick them out.

“This collection will be of tremendous value to Walt Whitman scholars and historians.”
– George Gorman

“When I got there I realized there was not a best book, they were all the best books,” Shor said. “I came back and said, ‘We have to do something more than this. We have to secure this for history.’”

WWBA Trustee Jeffrey Gould stepped forward to donate $10,000 through his Jeffrey S. Gould Foundation to acquire the entire collection, which will become known as “The Norman and Jeanette Gould Library” in honor of his parents.

Jeffrey Gould said his parents started up a publishing company in Queens during the 1950s, like Whitman, and ran their own printing presses.

“It’s such an amazing parallel to our own lives,” he said. “We can help spread the word of literacy with Walt’s magnificent writings.”

The collection will be housed and preserved in a bookcase on the birthplace’s premises, among its other exhibits in the main hall. It will be available to the public for scholarly research, historic documentation and those who generally appreciate Whitman’s writing.

Trustee Tom Wysmuller said with this addition, the birthplace’s collection of Whitman-related books is second largest only to the Library of Congress.

“They don’t have to go to Washington D.C. anymore, they can come right here,” Wysmuller said. “You can come here and steep yourself in history.”

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Darrel Blaine Ford will be the featured poet at the Second Saturdays poetry series at All Souls Church in Stony Brook Feb. 10. Photo from All Souls Church

By Daniel Kerr

The Second Saturdays poetry series will be returning to All Souls Church, 61 Main St., Stony Brook, on February 10 at 11 a.m. Suffolk County Poet Laureate Gladys Henderson will host the readings. The featured poet will be Darrel Blaine Ford, a Walt Whitman devotee for more than 75 years. He will read poems from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” including “Song of Myself.”

Ford was born on Long Island in 1930, where Whitman had been born more than a hundred years before. Similar to Long Island’s most famous poet, Ford has long white hair, a snowy beard and stands over 6 feet tall. He has often said that he and Walt Whitman have much in common.

“I’m a happy guy, and I think Whitman was, too,” Ford said. “There are people who stress his loneliness, and that was certainly a component of his life, but I think he was a glass half full rather than a glass half empty sort of guy. I wish I were as creative as he was, but I think I have the capacity to appreciate creativity, and I know he did, too.”

The poet has been impersonating Whitman since 1987, often visiting schools and libraries on Long Island dressed as the “The Good Gray Poet” — complete with a carpetbag and a cane with his face carved on it.

“I had no great desire to be more than what I am, and that is just somebody who is available when you need a Whitman,” Ford said.

An open reading will follow the intermission, and all are welcome to read their own work or that of another. Please bring a can of food to donate to help feed the hungry in our area. For more information, call 631-655-7798.

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Gabrianna Lorefice moves the ball through traffic in Smithtown West's nonleague loss to Walt Whitman. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Smithtown West looked to shake off the cobwebs early this season, hosting Walt Whitman in a nonleague matchup Dec. 9, but a slow start for the Bulls left them in a deficit they could never recover from, falling 76-38.

Madison Flynn jumps to the rim. Photo by Bill Landon

Walt Whitman found its 3-point game early, hitting two in the opening minutes during a 10-0 run before Smithtown West called timeout. Down 14-0 after the break, Smithtown West junior guard Gabrianna Lorefice split her chances from the free-throw line to take the goose egg off the scoreboard with just over a minute left in the opening quarter.

With 4:28 left before the halftime break now trailing 24-9, sophomore forward Jillian Meaney hit a 3-pointer to close the gap, but the Wildcats countered with three triples of their own to take a commanding 40-16 lead into the locker room.

The Bulls held their own under the boards with aggressive rebounding that resulted in several jump balls, but struggled in transition and getting the ball to fall in the net.

“I saw some good things from players that haven’t had much playing time who have come up from junior varsity so that’s good, but defensively and transition-wise we need to do a better job,” Smithtown West head coach Katie Combs said. “I saw a lot of strength underneath the board even though [Walt Whitman] had the [height] advantage there.”

Rebecca Farrell shoots from 3-point range. Photo by Bill Landon

Senior guard Lauren Soriano opened the second half with a 3-pointer, and Meaney hit her second triple of the game but again Walt Whitman countered to keep the edge.

The Bulls found themselves down by 34 points midway through the final quarter, a hole too deep to climb out of. Lorefice led her team in scoring with eight points, sophomore Madison Flynn followed with seven and Meaney tacked on six.

Smithtown West has one more nonleague game, a Dec. 13 home game against Northport at 6 p.m., before beginning league play Dec. 19 in a home opener at 4 p.m.

“What’s helpful is that we’re able to fix our offensive mistakes, but today we felt a tremendous amount of pressure,” Combs said. “For next week we’re looking to get our first win and carry that momentum into our first league game and then build from there.”

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Newfield's Olivia Bond saves the Wolverines from losing a point. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

The Newfield girls volleyball team came roaring back from a first-set loss to take the next three for a 3-1 nonleague win over visiting Walt Whitman Oct. 10, 19-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-19.

Newfield’s Madison Wenzel serveds the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

Newfield took its first lead on a point that put the Wolverines ahead 7-6 in the second set. The team made several mental errors and was caught looking at two inbound balls as Walt Whitman bounced right back to tie the set 15-15. After a handful of long volleys, Newfield found its rhythm and rattled off three unanswered points, and after a brief hiccup scored two more to edge ahead 20-16.

Coming out of a Wildcats timeout, Newfield capitalized on Walt Whitman miscues, and senior outside hitter Olivia Bond smacked a break point kill shot over the net to propel the Wolverines to the win.

“At first our energy wasn’t up, and in the second set we knew we needed to win,” Bond said. “Walt Whitman was really good at scrambling, but we pulled it together. We pushed, and once we bring our energy up, we can do anything.”

Walt Whitman stretched in the third set to break out to an 18-12 advantage. Newfield came out of a timeout call refreshed, and chipped away at the deficit until the Wolverines tied the set 19-19. Both teams traded points, and again Walt Whitman was back on top, 22-21. That is, until Newfield senior Naomi Ruffalo-Roman had something to say about it. She sent a kill shot over the net to tie the set 22-22, and scored twice more from the service line to bring her team to the finish line.

“We made more mistakes than we would like,” Ruffalo-Roman said. “But we worked really hard towards the end and our hitting was much better.”

Newfield’s Naomi Ruffalo-Roman spikes the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

The Wolverines knew they had to come out strong in the fourth set to avoid a fifth, and took charge from behind the line as senior libero Jessica Clark went on a service scoring streak that put Newfield ahead 18-10.

“Whitman is a really good team — they were scrambling, so we had to gather it up,” Clark said. “Our team played better from [the second set], but we need to focus on our serving — we hit a lot into the net.”

Newfield junior Jeanette Bruni got busy from behind the line as the left-handed hitter found holes on the other side of the net to put her team out front 22-15. The team ran away with the game from there.

Ruffalo-Roman had 18 kills and 10 digs to lead Newfield, now at 5-5 overall, and junior setter Madison Wenzel added 36 assists and three aces.

“They got to a lot of balls and they kept the ball in play,” Newfield head coach Christy Innes said of Walt Whitman. “They are very young and we knew we had to out-hustle them because that team can get their hands on a lot of balls that other teams can’t.”

Newfield is back in action hosting Smithtown East Oct. 13 in a League III matchup at 5:45 p.m.

Jean Linzee will portray Emily Dickinson. Photo from the WMHO

In honor of National Poetry Month the Ward Melville Heritage Organization will host a live dramatic performance titled “Artists & Poets,” showcasing iconic American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, at the Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., in Stony Brook Village on Sunday, April 19, from 2 to 5 p.m. The event will  feature Jean Linzee as Emily Dickinson and Darrel Blaine Ford as Walt Whitman.

A former Long Island biology teacher and world-traveled ornithologist, Ford not only has a striking physical resemblance to Walt Whitman but a personal affinity with him since childhood, when he was given a copy of “Leaves of Grass” and was “hooked ever since.” He has been recreating Whitman’s persona for over 30 years and continues to maintain his legacy today by visiting schools and libraries as the famous poet.

Linzee is a Yale graduate and has taught English and theater at The Stony Brook School for over 20 years. Her experience includes not only teaching but also acting, directing and writing. She has conceived, written and performed in many of her own one-woman shows, as well as William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” based  on the life of Emily Dickinson, which she has performed in England, Poland, Switzerland and throughout the United States.

There will be a special interaction with the audience and the actors, who will perform in an impromptu skit embodying the personas of Dickinson and Whitman as if they were meeting for the first time. The performance is $20 per person and will include refreshments.

There will also be a free art exhibit on site including works by Pat Solan, Flo Kemp and members of the Stony Brook Photography Club. Additional dates for the free art exhibit are April 16, 17, 18, 20 and 21.

For further information, please call 631-689-5888 or visit www.stonybrookvillage.com.

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