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.
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