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Photo courtesy Office of Ed Romaine

By Ed Romaine

Suffolk County has 109 volunteer fire departments and 28 EMS agencies with more than 13,000 active men and women firefighters and EMS personnel. Each year they respond to thousands of calls, never knowing what they will face as they leave their homes — saving countless lives and protecting homes and businesses in our communities.

But these departments need help. Suffolk County is currently part of an aggressive recruitment and retention drive for new volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel. It is easy to take for granted that someone will swiftly come when you dial 911. Over the past two decades, our region’s recruitment has fallen behind, leaving those that remain burdened with extra responsibilities to shoulder.

The government has been working to provide more incentives to those who are interested in becoming a part of their local fire or ambulance department. 

Despite what may appear as a difficult endeavor, it has never been a better time to be a volunteer firefighter or EMS personnel. Through a combination of local, state and county programs, volunteers receive property tax reduction, New York State income tax benefits, free health care checkups, free insurance, college tuition reimbursement and service pensions as well as free equipment and training. 

Recently, the state income tax benefit was expanded, and the service pension was enhanced for EMTs. With rising medical costs, the value of health care and routine checkups has only increased. We will continue to work with state and local governments to expand these benefits wherever possible. 

Firefighters are the heart of our communities. Whether it is in the scope of their official duties or through the many ways they charitably enhance our communities, the fire department is never out of the beat with the community.

Volunteers point to the camaraderie, lifelong friendships and professional development as reasons for joining and staying.

It has never been easier to join your local fire department. A visit to the website suffolksbravest.com will provide all the information you need to start your journey. If you have a passion for serving your community and are willing and able, now is the time to heed the call.

Ed Romaine (R) is the Suffolk County executive.

John Connell. Photo courtesy M.A. Connell Funeral Home Inc.

Prepared by Caitlin Berghela

John Joseph Connell, affectionately known as “Eddie” and “Pop Pop” by his grandchildren, passed away on Friday, April 26, surrounded by his family. 

Born March 18,1937, to Michael and Florence Connell, John was a lifelong resident of Huntington who deeply loved his community. Growing up, he attended St. Hugh’s School and Huntington High School, where he met the love of his life, Elizabeth “Betty Ann” Class, daughter of William Class, John’s physical education teacher and the first athletic director at Huntington High School. After high school, John made frequent trips to visit Betty Ann at Cortland State University, while working at the M.A. Connell family funeral home in Huntington Station and serving in the Navy Reserve. 

In 1960, John and Betty Ann married and began building their family and a life filled with love in Huntington. In 1961, the high school sweethearts welcomed their son, Michael and, soon after, John’s Navy service was activated to defend his country during the Cuban Missile Crisis. John was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1962, and in the following year, he and Betty Ann welcomed their daughter, Debbie. 

As he and Betty Ann raised their family and planted deeper roots in Huntington, John proudly ran the funeral home for decades with his brother Peter, furthering his family’s legacy and eventually working alongside his son, Michael, and son-in-law, Nicholas Berghela Sr. In 2018, his grandson, Nicholas Berghela Jr., joined the funeral service, making him the fourth generation that has served the Huntington area now for over 100 years. John’s commitment to his work was seen and felt by every person he served, so much so that he never officially retired, and would come to the funeral home nearly every day, right up until the very final days of his life. 

While John was able to accomplish so much in his life, it is without question that family was at the core of his existence. As his children grew and started families of their own, John welcomed his son-in-law, Nicholas, and his favorite daughter-in-law, Anne Penders, into his family and loved them as if they were his own children. In turn, his children blessed him with four grandchildren, Krysti (Josh), Nicholas Jr. (Caitlin), Edward John and Grace, and three great-grandchildren, Oliver, Myles and Nicholas III. Becoming a grandfather, and eventually a great-grandfather, was one of John’s greatest joys in life and something in which he took immense pride. Alongside Betty Ann, they loved supporting their grandchildren and great-grandchildren by attending every concert, sporting event or graduation. To add to his list of loving nicknames, John proudly donned the title of “El Grande de Grandisimo Great Papa” upon welcoming his great-grandchildren. 

Beyond being supportive parents and grandparents, John and Betty Ann filled their days by traveling the country and the world together. From their summers in Montauk, to trips to Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and Bermuda — John and Betty Ann loved every moment of their travels with their children and grandchildren. For many years, they split time between their home in Huntington, with their homes in Florida, from Palm Coast and, eventually, Fort Myers, ingratiating themselves into their communities, and making lifelong friends. Some of their favorite time spent in Florida were the many trips they made to Sanibel Island, either by themselves or with family and friends.

Perhaps the only thing that could rival the deep love that John felt for his family and community was that of his sharp wit and cunning sense of humor. John could be counted on to make everyone laugh, no matter how serious a situation whether that was by busting out some dance moves, offering one of his signature one-liners that were sure to stop you in your tracks (like offering to lend a hand, and then proceeding to clap), or by making a clean (and sometimes questionable) joke. His ability to keep the party going, lift spirits or soothe a troubled heart, was unparalleled. 

As John rejoins his bride, who passed in 2020, he will be loved and missed by his family, extended family, many friends and the community in which he dedicated his life. Viewings to celebrate John’s life will be fittingly held at M.A. Connell Funeral Home, 934 New York Ave., Huntington Station, Wednesday, May 1, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Mass will be celebrated at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs R.C. Church, 53 Prospect Road, Centerport, at 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 2, with graveside burial to follow at St. Patrick’s Cemetery, 183 Mount Pleasant Road, Huntington.

Barbara Fine with Jerry her husband of more than 60 years. Photo courtesy Doug Fine

Barbara Fine, a resident of Setauket for more than half a century, passed away March 21. She is the mother of Ken, Rob and Doug; grandmother of Leah, Ethan, Quinn and Zach; the mother-in-law of Dionne and Amanda; and is also survived by her brother Steve.

After being raised in New York City and Long Beach, Barbara attended the University of Michigan at age 15, and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania after transferring. A voracious reader, she later earned two master’s degrees, and taught for 40 years as a reading specialist in the William Floyd school district. 

She believed in the power of journalism, and organized annual field trips with students to Long Island newspapers. She was a strict grammarian who encouraged correct diction around the home and classroom. Her son Rob said, “She was gifted in all academic subjects, including science and math.”

She was also a founding member of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook. Known for her sense of humor, she loved Pink Panther movies and once submitted a salad recipe to the Village Times reading, “Take lettuce, add dressing.” Her son Doug said, “I probably wouldn’t have become a writer without her upbringing.”

In her leisure time, she loved to travel and visited every continent, including Antarctica. An avid tennis player despite childhood polio, she often could be seen jogging around the Setauket Mill Pond, near which she lived with her high school sweetheart and husband of more than 60 years, Jerry, who passed away in December.

William Blackwood. Photo courtesy Mary Grace Blackwood

Prepared by Mary Grace Blackwood

William Blackwood, of Port Jefferson, passed away on Feb. 22. He was 94 years young. Bill lived a long, happy and adventurous life with a personality and wit that endeared him to everyone he met. Bill leaves behind a legacy of perseverance and humor in the face of adversity and a family that will be forever grateful for his love and attention. He often told us, “Life is not a rehearsal, this is the play.”  

Bill was a lineman for LILCO and owner of Great River Electric, the largest swimming pool wiring company on Long Island in the 1970s. An avid long-distance swimmer, Bill also worked as a lifeguard at Sunken Meadow Beach.

A talented actor, Bill performed for many years at Long Island community theaters and later as an actor in residence at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. 

Bill is survived by his wife, Mary Grace; daughters and sons-in-law Jamie and Ron Burns, Bonnie and Roy MacDonald, and Laurie and Edward Lorch; grandchildren Justin Lorch and wife Lisa Evac, Rebecca Lorch and Michael Post; and brothers-in-law and wives Rosario and Kathie Lazzaro, and Tom and Christina Lazzaro and all their children. 

A celebration of life is being held June 10, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

Please email Mary Grace if you’d like to attend at: [email protected].

Barbara Belle Zorn Winkler. Photo courtesy Kathy Leon

Prepared by Kathy Leon

Barbara Belle Zorn Winkler passed away from endometrial cancer on Feb. 10 in Stony Brook at the age of 84. She was a loving mother, a devoted nurse and a cherished member of her community.

Barbara was born in Nutley, New Jersey, and moved to Long Island after graduating from Ave Maria St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing in Florida in 1960. She worked at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson from 1964 to 1973 and excelled there as obstetrics supervisor and later night supervisor of the hospital. She also worked at Regina Residence in Port Jefferson, a home for unwed mothers. She became the school nurse at R.C. Murphy Jr. High School in Stony Brook from 1977 to 1996.

She is survived by her daughters Kathryn “Kathy” Winkler Leon, Nancy Winkler Brogan and Elizabeth “Liz” Rios; sons Erik and Kurt Kirkman; brother Barry Zorn; sister-in-law Lydia Zorn; and grandchildren Andres Leon Miller, Malakai Leon, Sierra Leon, Audrey Brogan, Bradyn Brogan, Stella Rios and Ellie Rios. She was preceded in death by her mother Elizabeth “Betty” Brady Zorn, Frederick “Fred” Zorn and fiancé James “Jim” Kirkman.

A Mass will be celebrated at St. James R.C. Church in Setauket on Friday, April 5, at 10:45 a.m., followed by a celebration of life ceremony from 1 to 5 p.m. at The Setauket Neighborhood House at 95 Main St. Contributions can be made to The V Foundation for Cancer Research (www.v.org) in Barbara’s honor.

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Susan Bebb Seel. Photo courtesy Wylie Hunt

Prepared by Wylie Hunt

Susan Bebb Seel passed away after an eight-year battle with cancer on Feb. 29 in Stony Brook, surrounded by a loving family. 

Sue was born on March 27, 1950, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was raised by Hellen and Dr. Kenneth Bebb in Wichita Falls, Texas. After living in the Washington, D.C., area, Sue moved to Stony Brook in 1994. She attended Wichita Falls public schools and graduated from the University of Texas with a master’s degree in speech pathology and audiology.

In the D.C. area, she was a founder of Rivendell School. Sue had a vision for unique ways of educating children. She poured her heart into developing a curriculum that reflected her faith and interest in literature, history, art and music. She was always an avid reader and member of the same book club of lovely ladies in Stony Brook for more than 30 years.

In 1996 she received certification as a life coach and coached clients of all ages. She coached clients at John T. Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson, The Stony Brook School and countless others all over the country. She will be remembered as someone who received life from encouraging and inspiring others. Sue’s greatest joy came from relationships with family and friends. 

Her motto was “Show up and connect.” She did that well and to her fullest capacity even with stage 4 cancer. Sue loved to hear other people’s stories and was a shining light to everyone who met her. Her passion and love for people was unsurpassed. Sue and Spencer shared that enthusiasm and compassion in their community outreach and in their business, Made to Move Tennis & Wellness. In conversations with her husband, sharing their faith about God’s design for us to be healthy and to move, the name of the club, Made to Move, came into being. Sue loved to move. She was a triathlete, and before she competed in triathlons, she was a tennis player and active every year at summer camp.

As a member of Caroline Episcopal Church in Setauket for 28 years, she was passionate about music and sang in the choir. Sue also led adult education classes and Bible study; taught Sunday School; volunteered for Vacation Bible School; was active in Long Island Episcopal Cursillo, a program that seeks to grow Christ-centered leaders to fulfill the mission of the church; and made many, many prayer shawls and meals for those in need.

In 2016, before being diagnosed with cancer. she and her husband started The Village Spot, a nonprofit organization committed to helping young people, ages 18 to 30, who might be struggling to find a career or a meaningful place in their communities.

She leaves behind her husband, Spencer Edelbaum; her sons, David and Alex Seel; her daughter-in-law Erin Seel; her grandchildren, Ian and Eliza Seel; her cousins, Carolyn Kelly, Beth Russell, Louise Ratz and her second cousin, Susan Hernly Reed. Sue was preceded in death by her parents, Hellen and Kenneth Bebb, and her brother, Richard Bebb.

A memorial service will be held at Caroline Episcopal Church, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket, on Saturday, April 13, 10 a.m. The service will be live streamed, with the link on the church’s website: www.carolinechurch.net.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to: Rivendell School, 2410 N. Kensington St., Arlington, VA 22205; Caroline Episcopal Church, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket, NY 11733; or GIST Cancer Research Fund at gistinfo.org.

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Mary Ellen Niciu. Photo courtesy Legacy.com

Prepared by Christine Mackowiak

Mary Ellen Niciu, 83, of East Setauket passed away March 3 at Sunrise Senior Living in East Setauket where she had been in residence in the Memory Care facility since 2019. 

She was born July 10, 1940, in Brooklyn, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Maraia. She married William T. Niciu on July 5, 1964. 

Ellen graduated from SUNY Center on Long Island at Oyster Bay, in 1962 with a bachelor of arts in history. Upon her marriage to Bill, Ellen devoted her life to the care and upbringing of her family. She spent much of her time supporting her two daughters’ extracurricular interests, highlighted in particular by her volunteer time with The Clarkettes of Port Jefferson. 

In the latter portion of her life, Ellen worked for the NYS Department of Labor where her focus was assisting others with obtaining employment. Ellen also volunteered with The Guide Dog Foundation, raising several guide dog puppies. 

She was a dedicated daughter and aunt and adored her many cats. Her three grandchildren, Chris, Nicole and Jessica, were the pride of her life, and she reveled in all of their successes. She was predeceased by her husband of 56 years and beloved sister Rosanne Maraia. She is survived by her two daughters, Christine Mackowiak of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and Elizabeth Niciu of Columbia, South Carolina; her three grandchildren and her brother Michael Maraia.

 A celebration of the liturgy of Christian burial was held on March 11 at St. James R.C. Church in East Setauket and interment followed at St. James R.C. cemetery. In lieu of flowers donations would be appreciated in her memory to Good Shepherd Hospice at www.catholichealthli.org.

Earl L. Vandermulen High School. File photo

By Phil Griffith

Some residents advocate defunding and closing the Port Jefferson School District. They promise an illusionary tax reduction. I believe the schools and students are our village’s greatest assets. Since the first school opened in 1820, Port Jefferson residents have enthusiastically supported educating our children. It’s time to rebuke those who would abandon that tradition.

The human cost of closing the schools would be devastating. Students would be transferred to presently unknown school districts. All employees would lose their jobs, salaries, contractual rights and benefits. Local control by our elected school board would be lost. Residents will not be permitted to vote on school budgets or elect board of education members. Parents and students lose proximity to schools. Businesses will discover lower takings because students, parents and special events attendees will shop elsewhere. We’ll no longer be able to brag about the super schools in our village. No longer will prospective home buyers choose Port Jefferson because of the prestigious reputation of our education system. How will that affect home prices?

Is our Port Jefferson School District superior? Class size is 10 students to one teacher, one of the smallest anywhere. Our special education program is one of the finest. According to U.S. News & World Report, Earl L. Vandermeulen High School ranks No. 99 within New York state and No. 903 out of 17,680 United States schools. Of the 72 school districts in Suffolk County, Port Jefferson ranks No. 7. The music program is nationally recognized. Special classes like Latin are offered. Due to the low number of students, participation in varsity sports is high. Students are 100% immunized — 48% female, 52% male — and come from Belle Terre and Port Jefferson villages. 

Niche.com ranks Port Jefferson School District No. 44 of 687 as best places to teach and No. 71 out of 681 as best teachers in New York. Of teachers in Port Jefferson district, 100% are professionally certified and have at least three years’ experience. The high school was awarded a United States Blue Ribbon medal for excellence in 2017. The district has a 0% dropout rate and a 98% graduation rate in four years. Do we want to abandon such an excellent academic institution?

After the school district is gone, how will real estate values be affected? There is a direct correlation between the school budget, higher income, better schools and real estate prices. The National Association of Realtors found 26% of homebuyers consider the quality of the schools to be very important. A good school system raises the value of all homes. According to NewHomeSource, house prices in a top-rated school district are 49% higher than the national median average. A Brookings Institution study demonstrated homes in prestigious school districts are $205,000 more valuable than in low-performing ones. The National Bureau of Economic Research found every $1 of school spending returned $20 on home value. The New York Times cited that every increase of five points on standardized test scores raises home prices by 2.5%. 

What happens to the 204 years of schools in Port Jefferson? Formal education in Port Jefferson began in 1820 when James Monroe was U.S. president. There are traditions unique to the Port Jefferson School District. In 1926, The Purple Parrot newspaper was begun and followed by “Crystal” yearbook in 1927. The daisy chain and Halloween parade continue. We gather in Harborfront Park for eighth grade dance and junior prom pictures and frivolity. The senior prom is preceded by a red-carpet entrance into the community-decorated high school. Our Wall of Fame honors alums. The elementary school pool provides life-saving lessons. We welcome back our former students with a homecoming parade down Main Street, football game and class year anniversary dinner. Who will wear the purple and white school colors in the Royals tradition? Where will all of the championship trophies, plaques and banners go?

Will the accepting school district(s) match the Port Jefferson schools excellent academics, special education, select courses, athletic participation, neighborhood proximity, traditions, close social relationships and unique quality? Let us unite students, parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, civil service employees and residents to “Save Our Schools.”

Michael H. Burner. Photo courtesy Burner Family

Prepared by The Burner Family

Michael Burner, 80, of Westhampton Beach, passed away on March 6.

Michael was born on Sept. 15, 1943, to Kurt and Anna Burner in the Bronx. At 16 years old, his first job was in a button factory also in the Bronx. He was a rising star in the retail world and as only Michael could do, he went into an entirely new field: construction. Later in life he became a builder/developer, as the founder and president of Elderco Inc., a creator of fine homes in the Hamptons.

In 1980 with three kids in tow, Brian, Robin and Gabriele, he married Nancy J. Marchesini who already had daughter Tara. Soon Britt, Kyra and Taylor made it an uneven seven.

To say Michael was a family man is an understatement. From starting the Safe Homes Program and Friday Night Recreation to coaching sports teams and serving as president of the Port Jefferson School Board of Education, Michael was an impactful part of the local community. Ever dedicated to community service, Michael was a leader and active member of the Port Jefferson Lions Club and, later, the Moriches Bay Project, Kiwanis of Greater Westhampton and was a charter member of the Westhampton Yacht Squadron.

Michael will be missed by his friends, family, clients, business associates, the Elderco team and all of the other various lives he touched with his sarcasm and quick wit.

Michael is survived by his wife Nancy; son Brian; daughters Robin, Gabriele, Tara, Britt, Kyra and Taylor; 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to The Michael H. Burner Community Service Trust at everloved.com/life-of/michael-burner. All donations will be used to support various community groups and projects in which Michael was involved.

Shea Baron. Photo courtesy Friends of St. Patrick

The Friends of St. Patrick announced this year’s winner of the  $1,000 scholarship to be Shea Baron from Shoreham-Wading River High School.  

Shea is a third generation Shoreham-Wading River resident and will be attending Stony Brook University this coming fall.  

Shea wrote an essay describing her love for St. Patrick’s Day and her lifelong experiences going to the Miller Place- Rocky Point annual parade.

Friends of St. Patrick was founded in 1949 by businessmen John M. Sullivan and George Faulkner, the Friends of St. Patrick launched their first Miller Place – Rocky Point St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 11, 1950.  

Because of Shea’s dedication to her community and her faith The Friends of St. Patrick felt as though Shea certainly deserves this recognition Congratulations Shea Baron!