By Rita J. Egan
When he passed Oct. 10 at age 85 from complications following knee replacement surgery, civic leader Bob de Zafra left behind a legacy in the Three Village area that will be remembered for decades.
The professor and scientist
A resident of Setauket for more than 50 years, de Zafra was a former president of what is now known as the Three Village Civic Association and Three Village Historical Society, as well as a co-founder of the Three Village Community Trust. His love for the area began when he moved from Connecticut to start his career in Stony Brook University’s physics department as a professor, according to Linwood Lee, a research professor at SBU.
“He helped establish experimental physics in our physics department, which was very heavily theoretical at the time, and he was really a leader in doing that,” Lee said.
He added that de Zafra conducted research in atmospheric physics, which led to him studying the Earth’s ozone layer. During trips to the South Pole and McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, de Zafra and his SBU colleagues discovered in 1986 that chlorofluorocarbon, a type of hydrocarbon, was a cause for the expansion of the ozone hole. In honor of his revolutionary climate-change work there, an Antarctic rock ridge now bears his last name.
The civic leader
In the 2002 Men and Women of the Year issue of The Village Times Herald, in which he was named Man of the Year in Civics as a “steadfast preservationist,” the professor emeritus said he saw his hometown in Connecticut “ruined” by development.
“I was sure that wherever I lived, I was going to do my best to make sure that sort of destruction didn’t happen,” he said.
State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said de Zafra accomplished his goal. When Englebright was running for county legislator 35 years ago, he said the Setauket resident approached him and told him there was a need to protect Detmer Farm, across from the Setauket Post Office on Route 25A. The property was eventually saved from development.
“It was the centerpiece of good planning,” Englebright said. “If we won the effort to protect that open space it would mean that we had protected an important part of the watershed of Setauket Harbor and the viewshed of everyone who visits our community, or we would have taken a step toward becoming something like Queens.”
The assemblyman said the importance of saving the Detmer Farm property was only the first of countless lessons he learned from de Zafra. Englebright said a traffic island once existed at North County Road and Ridgeway Avenue adjacent to Gallery North, and with de Zafra’s encouragement, he secured the Town of Brookhaven Highway Department to cover the road with truckloads of soil.
“It was one of the first restorations that rolled back the development wave, and it was Bob that said this should be accomplished,” Englebright said.
The assemblyman said he was impressed by how de Zafra, who was instrumental in the preservation of Forsythe Meadow in Stony Brook, used his own resources to buy older houses in the area and renovate them including his own home. With the woodlands behind his property, he bought the land parcel by parcel to protect the trees; the land includes a meadow of flowers. Most recently the civic leader bought the historic Timothy Smith House, recognized as the first town hall in Brookhaven, to renovate it.
“The model of what he did with his own personal resources to enhance our community is a heroic profile,” Englebright said. “He did it quietly without fanfare but in my mind he is a civic hero of the first order. He lived what he preached and was absolutely genuine.”
Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly C. Tyler and de Zafra met in 1974 when the Three Village Bicentennial Committee formed. Tyler said de Zafra was responsible for the greening of 25A by having 222 trees planted along the road from the Stony Brook train station to East Setauket, and he was instrumental in convincing local shopping centers to use unified signs.
In The Village Times Dec. 30, 1976, de Zafra was named Man of the Year for his greening efforts. The professor said during his commute to SBU he became frustrated with what he felt was the destruction of Route 25A. While he was part of the civic association, the organization had other priorities at the time, so he saw the forming of the bicentennial committee as an opportunity to beautify the road. Through letter writing and fundraising, de Zafra raised more than $13,000 for the planting.
“You only get a chance to do something like this once every 100 years,” he said during the 1976 interview. “I’m glad I grabbed hold of mine when it came my way.”
The success of the project and many others of de Zafra’s didn’t surprise Tyler.
“Bob was very well organized and relentless,” Tyler said. “He just took on a project and was a bear about it. He just kept at it no matter what the problem was until he got a successful conclusion. He was very good at talking to people and getting them to see his point of view without overwhelming them.”
Herb Mones, a former president of the Three Village Civic Association, met de Zafra 25 years ago through the organization and praised his friend for working with builders and local elected officials to curb development and maintain the historical and architectural integrity of the area. Mones said right up until de Zafra passed, he attended any event that was for the benefit of Three Village residents. Mones said his friend felt a responsibility to make the area a better place to live in.
“The thing that always impressed me is that Bob had a tremendous amount of energy and interest in preserving, protecting and enhancing the community in every way possible,” Mones said.
Current Three Village Civic Association President Jonathan Kornreich, who considers de Zafra a friend and mentor, echoed Mones’ sentiments.
“I can’t think of three people together who could fill his shoes, so great was the depth of his energy, passion and knowledge,” Kornreich said.
Local author John Broven also met de Zafra through the civic association and said the former president’s accomplishments were admirable as he fought random development rigorously, unknown to most residents.
“If Bob had been born in England, like his wife Julia, he would assuredly have been granted a knighthood for being such a dedicated community gatekeeper, let alone his incredible scientific achievements,” Broven said.
Cynthia Barnes, co-founder of the Three Village Community Trust with de Zafra, said he knew a great deal of municipality and zoning code laws and was a skillful researcher. His contributions were vitally important to the trust’s mission of preserving local properties, which included moving the Rubber Factory Houses to the trust’s Bruce House headquarters.
“He was able to grasp the whole picture yet delve into the details to see where the trouble lay, and point to the areas of weakness to try to strengthen them,” Barnes said.
“He certainly brought us a long way toward [preserving],” Barnes said. “Because I think everything we saved, with the help of our elected officials as well, he was definitely a motivating force.”
Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said de Zafra worked with her and her team on various issues and initiatives over the last few years. Most recently he was part of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Route 25A.
“Bob’s untimely passing is just before the acceptance of the 25A community visioning document later this month,” Cartright said. “Bob cared so deeply for community land use issues and for this project, and we would like to find a way to honor and recognize Bob’s massive body of work and contributions during the process and in the future.”
On top of his accomplishments, those who knew him praised de Zafra as a modest man.
“He wouldn’t want to be called ‘doctor,’ he wanted to be called Bob,” Mones said. “He never referenced his degree, his status within his field, his experiences that he had. He never used that as criteria in determining what he had to say or what he was doing. It was always based upon on the merits of the case.”
Englebright said de Zafra will be remembered by many as a man of action.
“He was the leading voice for protecting the essence of this place,” the assemblyman said. “It wasn’t just his voice, it was his action as well.”
County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who worked closely with de Zafra while she was president of the civic association, summed up how his family and friends were feeling the day of his funeral Oct. 17.
“The loss of Bob de Zafra leaves a hole in our collective heart,” she said. “He played a vital role in so many organizations as a watchdog for our community. Meticulous, passionate, diligent, generous, persistent and charming in his own way — he will be missed.”