People of the Year

John Cunniffe in his Stony Brook Avenue office. Photo by Donna Newman

To John Cunniffe, a person who lacks a knowledge of history is like a tree without roots.

So to make sure the history of the Three Village community is alive and vibrant, he’s spent the last decade offering his considerable architectural acuity to various organizations dedicated to doing just that.

Cunniffe sees the value in preserving heritage. He pays attention to the smallest of details, striving for historical accuracy while providing renovations that work in today’s world.

“There are many professionals in our community who give generously of their services to our local nonprofit organizations, often pro bono or for reduced fees, but none quite like John Cunniffe,” said Robert Reuter, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation. “He has helped jump-start and advance more important historic building projects throughout the Three Villages than I can count.”   

For his considerable contributions to the work being done by courageous nonprofits in preserving local historical edifices, for his unflagging willingness to lend his expertise to important local architecture projects and for his extreme generosity of time and spirit, John Cunniffe is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“When someone essentially does ‘pro-bono’ work in their area of expertise — that made John’s involvement just that much more selfless.”

— David Sterne

Raised on Long Island, the 45-year-old Stony Brook resident received his architectural degree from the New York Institute of Technology. He has worked for the Weiss/Manfredi firm where he honed his design pedigree.

The Cunniffes decided to return to Long Island from Virginia 10 years ago and settled not far from the Soundview area of East Setauket, from which his wife Colleen Cunniffe hails. There they are raising their two daughters.

Now known for prestigious residential projects that value historic preservation, while creating contemporary architecture for his clients, he has also become the go-to architect for important restoration and preservation projects throughout the Three Village area, Reuter said.

Cunniffe donated his services to create the documents and secure the permits necessary to relocate and restore the historic Rubber Factory Worker Houses for the Three Village Community Trust. Soon he was handling work for the Setauket Neighborhood House, the Three Village Historical Society, the Frank Melville Memorial Park, The Long Island Museum, projects in the Bethel–Christian Avenue–Laurel Hill Historic District as well as the Caroline Church, Reuter added.

“They all needed an architect,” Reuter said. “They got more than they asked for — they got thorough project planning and exceptionally good design, as well as the necessary documents and permits.”

Along the way, Cunniffe represented the Stony Brook Historic District as a volunteer on the Town of Brookhaven’s Historic District Advisory Committee and advised the Setauket Fire Department on planning and design for the new headquarters building on Route 25A in Setauket.

Setauket Fire District Manager David Sterne said he feels grateful to have had Cunniffe’s participation in the planning for the new fire department structure.

“John was an integral part of the community committee for the planning and design of the new firehouse,” he said. “He attended most meetings and his insights, especially from his architect’s point of view, were invaluable. It’s one thing for a person to take part as a volunteer, but when someone essentially does ‘pro-bono’ work in their area of expertise — that made John’s involvement just that much more selfless.”

Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell remembers where and when she first encountered Cunniffe. 

John Cunniffe constructed plans for the new Setauket Fire Department Headquarters on Route 25A in Setauket. Phto by Desirée Keegan

“I first met John when he was the representative from the Stony Brook Historic District to the Town’s Historic District Advisory Committee,” she said. “He always brought sound knowledge of architecture, a willingness to hear out the applicants and helpful suggestions to the meetings. Beyond his education in architecture, he has a sense of the importance of historical structures and how they fit into our community today.”

Russell said it is unique how Cunnife considers style, materials, location and history of a structure as well as how it has to conform to fit in today’s world.

“Whether it be its location in the community or the owner’s lifestyle, balancing all those variables takes a keen eye, and a heart for the type of work he does,” she said.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the Three Village area is a special place because of people like Cunniffe.

“Our extraordinary community is defined by caring people like John Cunniffe, whose professional architectural vision and personal commitment to volunteerism is a gift that enhances our sense of place,” he said. “We are indeed fortunate that John has chosen to invest his considerable talent and energies here.”

Reuter compared the architect’s work to another famous designer who worked in the area: Ward Melville’s architect.

“Richard Haviland Smythe did these sorts of community projects for his patron who generously funded them,” he said. “John Cunniffe is our modern day Smythe — if only we had modern day major patrons to move these many projects forward. John has been a wise, good-humored and essential partner.”

SCPD branch involves the community to help with tips for investigations and arrests

Drugs recovered thanks to tips from Crime Stoppers. File photo from SCPD

By Rebecca Anzel

During its 22-year partnership with the Suffolk County Police Department, Crime Stoppers has served as a way for residents to share tips about crime anonymously in their neighborhoods without fear of punishment, and has helped cut crime and aid myriad criminal investigations

The not-for-profit organization expanded its repertoire of resources to include a general tip line, 800-220-TIPS (8477); another tip hotline for information about drugs, 631-852-NARC (6272); a website and a number for text messaging. Since 1994, its 22,287 tips generated by community members helped solve 42 homicides, closed 1,688 active warrants and led to 2,154 arrests, as at October.

Crime Stoppers president Nick Amarr. Photo from Nick Amarr

For the organization’s work fighting crime and the heroin epidemic in Suffolk County, Crime Stoppers is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said the organization is indispensable to the community.

“Crime Stoppers is a valuable asset and has created a great partnership with our police department to reduce crime in Suffolk County,” she said in an email. “They work diligently to coordinate information from the public and the media to solve crime and make arrests. I am proud to support Crime Stoppers and appreciate the dedication of the police officers and volunteers who keep our communities safe.”

The organization is staffed by unpaid volunteers, most of whom are former law enforcement or veterans. President Nick Amarr, a Marine and Crime Stoppers volunteer for 14 years, said the organization’s real value is in providing residents with a safe way to help law enforcement protect their communities.

“It gives the public a voice and an understanding of how important law enforcement is in keeping our freedom and protecting our children,” Amarr said. “That’s very important to me and everyone on our board.”

Amarr also said Crime Stoppers’ employees would not be able to continue the work they have been doing without the support of Police Commissioner Tim Sini, First Deputy Commissioner John Barry and Police Chief Stuart Cameron. Amarr has worked with four administrations and said this one strategically embraces Crime Stoppers as a partner and has done more in less than 12 months than he has seen accomplished in the past 10 years.

Members at a Patchogue benefit concert present Crime Stoppers with a large check representing donations received. File photo from SCPD

“We have reinvested in our partnership with Suffolk Crime Stoppers,” Sini said. “It’s a great, great, great way we’re able to engage with the public and we’ve done a lot of good for the communities.”

The 8-month-old narcotics tip line alone had led to a 140 percent increase in the amount of search warrants issued by August; hundreds of drug dealers have been arrested; the police department has seized a substantial amount of money; and is on pace to confiscate more illegal firearms than ever before, according to Sini.

For Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue founder and president, Dori Scofield, whose son Daniel died in 2011 from a heroin overdose, the work Crime Stoppers is doing to combat the county’s heroin epidemic is invaluable.

“The only way we’re going to combat this epidemic is by working together in different forces and stopping the drugs in Suffolk County and helping our youth that are already addicted and educating children and parents,” Scofield said. “This epidemic takes a village to combat and our police and the Crime Stoppers are an important part of that village.”

Crime Stoppers is funded completely by donations, which it uses exclusively for rewards for tips leading to an arrest. In July, the organization hosted a benefit concert at The Emporium in Patchogue, raising $58,000 in one night. Amarr said it will host another fundraiser at the same venue next year.

Mike DelGuidice at a concert fundraiser. File photo from Rebecca Anzel

Teri Kroll, chairperson of People United to Stop Heroin, part of Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, spoke at the event in support of Crime Stoppers five months ago. Since then, she said she has heard that parents across Suffolk County call in information they hear from their children about drug dealers and unsavory activities in their communities.

“They’ve made a huge difference,” Kroll said. “The police department can’t fight all crime without any help and the Crime Stoppers being a liaison between the public and them is only a plus.”

Tracey Farrell, formerly Budd, a Rocky Point mother who lost her son Kevin to a heroin overdose in 2012, agrees the service Crime Stoppers provides is life saving to many kids.

“In the few months that it [NARC line] has been out, it has made a huge difference,” she said. “It’s nice that people see when they make a phone call, something is happening. I can’t say enough about how great this is.”

Farrell also said she thinks residents are less interested in the cash reward that comes after a reporting.

“I think they’re happy they have some place to report things going on in their own neighborhood,” she said. “[And Crime Stoppers] needs to keep getting information out there wherever they can.”

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”

Mike Borella, left, stands with his parents, Carolyn and James Borella, at their family nursery in Nesconset. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Carolyn and James Borella of Borella Nursery have been making Smithtown a better, kinder and prettier place to live for decades — although they would probably refuse to take any credit for that.

The Borellas, whose family business of wholesale growing officially started in 1958, have gone out of their way to beautify just about every inch of the town, often free of charge, and that’s just a small percentage of the dynamic duo’s selfless efforts.

For all they’ve done to help their community and its people thrive, the Borellas have been recognized as Times Beacon News Media People of the Year.

Carolyn Borella, 61, said everything they do comes from the heart.

“We love living here, we love this community [and] all the businesses; we want people to live here and we want Smithtown to stay beautiful,” she said in an interview.

“[They] are two of the kindest, most giving and hard working people I have come to know.”
— Mike Donnelly

James Borella, 55, who was raised in the house that still stands next to the nursery, said he can’t imagine ever leaving where he’s been his whole life.

“I have a lot of friends retiring shortly or [who] have retired and they’re all moving and say ‘why don’t you move and retire out in the Carolinas or Florida?’ I say ‘there ain’t no way in hell I’m leaving here.’ Everything I love is within this town.”

When she’s not serving in the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce, Smithtown Business and Professional Women’s Network or at the Smithtown Historical Society planning festivals and taking care of the farm animals sheltered there, Carolyn Borella joins her husband in going to local restaurants to put poinsettias in their windows, donating leftover flowers and plants from their greenhouses to spruce up town hall, and growing vegetable flats for different churches to feed the local hungry.

With their son Mike Borella, 37, who works with them at the nursery, the Borellas built the first Garden of Freedom — a special garden decorated with statues, American flags and a banner thanking those who serve the country as firefighters, police officers, military personnel, as well as K9 dogs — in New York, for which they were recently recognized at a dedication and community celebration by Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. (R) and Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset).

According to Martin Aponte, president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Smithtown, the two have been instrumental in providing whatever the site needs since it opened in 2011.

“They have been so gracious with supplying us plants and bulbs and trees at no cost,” he said. “Around Christmastime, they have been giving us so much roping and so many wreaths; they are a staple in the town of Smithtown and their hamlet of Nesconset.”

Aponte said the Borellas are great people who believe in giving back.

“They’ve been generous with so many others throughout the community,” he said.

Just mentioning their names ushers in a wave of praise and admiration among Smithtown residents.

“[They] are two of the kindest, most giving and hard working people I have come to know,” Mike Donnelly, organizer of Smithtown’s 350th anniversary parade said, in which the couple was honored. “Their level of helping [and] sharing is beyond what most people are capable of being aware of. Running into them always makes me feel good.”

Christine DeAugustino, president of the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce, said the Borellas have been quietly supporting the town behind the scenes for years.

Speaking specifically about Carolyn Borella, DeAugustino said “the woman’s got a heart of gold.”

Carolyn Borella, known for loving all people and animals alike, recently held a fundraiser at the historical society and raised $6,000 for the maintenance and feeding of the animals, which include horses, ponies, sheep, chickens and barn cats. Fittingly, she also served as Mrs. Claus for holiday celebrations in Nesconset.

Carolyn Borella said her mother inspired her to give back.

“[Growing up] in Valley Stream, we were very money-challenged and I was raised by my mother, who was both my mother and my father because my father left when I was a very young girl,” she said. “My mother taught me three things: Soap and water is cheap; you will always be clean. I know how to cook and grow a garden, so you will always have food. And I will teach you what’s in your heart, and you will be the richest girl in the world … and I am; I may not have everything but I have it all.”

The couple met March 28, 1987, and got married 90 days later on July 3 at the foot of her mother’s hospital bed right before she died. They’ve been inseparable ever since.

“There ain’t no way in hell I’m leaving here. Everything I love is within this town.”
— James Borella

She said they have a complete ying-yang dynamic, and the fact they get along so well working together 365 days a year, 7 days a week, is a testament to that.

The nursery business came from James Borella’s family. His mother was raised in the world of greenhouses as his grandfather had a string of them in Flushing, Queens, back in the 1930s and ’40s. His father, on the other hand, was a potato farmer who would eventually be persuaded to drop his trade and start a nursery with his wife.

As James Borella said, it wasn’t much of a challenge for his father since working in the greenhouse is just “glorified farming.”

When his parents were retiring and mulling over the idea of closing down their long-running business, James Borella, who had been an employee, couldn’t bear seeing all their hard work disappear and decided to take it over in 1990.

From there, he was a one-man-band working behind the desk, growing in the greenhouses, hopping in the truck to deliver everything, until about 1995 when it was all getting too much for him to carry on his own.

He said he went to his wife and asked if she could come in and help, and she joined in, committed to building something together with him.

“That’s when Borella Nursery really started to go in a completely different direction and become the Borella Nursery it is today,” Mike Borella said, who works mostly in sales but also drives and delivers and helps customers. “From then until now, we’ve probably tripled our business.”

He said he wanted to make it known there are things besides working that his parents enjoy, like being in the Smithtown Bay Yacht Club.

But, naturally, the couple has taken it upon themselves to donate all the plants there, as well as organize three movie nights during the summer at Long Beach for the yacht club community.

“We set up a painter’s tarp, bring the movie, I bring a cotton candy machine and popcorn,” Carolyn Borella said. “It’s all free.”

Jack Smith at his home in Terryville. Photo by Kevin Redding

When it comes to preserving local history, Jack Smith has paved the way — literally.

After he retired from his teaching job of more than 30 years, Smith was free to do whatever he wanted.

But rather than just relax at home and take up a hobby, the passionate 66-year-old founded the Cumsewogue Historical Society instead, which has been integral in keeping the vast history of its surrounding communities in the forefront.

“I started to research the history of the area and realized there was quite a bit here,” Smith said in an interview. “So why not start a historical society? There’s a lot here and I thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

Smith even maintained the original Algonquin spelling of Comsewogue for the society; Cumsewogue loosely translates to “the place where many paths meet.”

For all his work in bridging the gap between the past and present for the Port Jefferson area and beyond, Smith is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

Mike Eiermann, the Cumsewogue Historical Society treasurer, called Smith a true “mover and shaker” in the community during an interview.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Jack Smith, Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine examine the Gentleman’s Driving Park. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“We have to try to keep up with him,” Eiermann said. “He’s very dedicated, very knowledgeable and is fully invested in what he does.”

As president and founder of the historical society, which was formed in 2008 and has about 30 members, Smith has accomplished a lot.

He and the group went to great lengths to preserve the old Terryville Union Hall as their main headquarters in the time following the society’s inception. Built in 1887, the union hall stands as the last historical building in Terryville, and Smith convinced local legislators to buy it and obtain funding for interior restoration. Now several showcases dedicated to local historical industries are inside the building, for example, the Porter automobile factory.

There are also roughly 120 vintage photographs of the community on display.

Smith established Heritage Day, a beloved event that exposes students from Comsewogue elementary schools to historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and demonstrates what life was like in the community then.

Smith said the program helps give students the unique opportunity to not only learn about the community’s history but also to see, touch and experience what life was like “before all the housing developments and shopping malls.”

But perhaps Smith and the historical society’s greatest achievement so far came in October when the Gentlemen’s Driving Park — the last Victorian-era harness racing track on Long Island where Terryville bettors once gathered to watch horses “race in heats” — officially opened to the public after several years of work to resurrect the nearly forgotten historical site.

The opening was attended by more than 100 people and served as a testament to Smith’s dedication to his cause. He discovered a faint outline of the horse track from a satellite image on Google Earth after hearing about its existence off Canal Road, visited the leaf-covered path in the woods with his wife Pam, and ultimately reached out to then Brookhaven Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and other council members about acquiring the entire 11-acre plot, clearing the overgrown path, and actively working to restore the track as close to the original 1880s footprint as possible.

“I am proud that our society has been able to preserve so much of our history that came perilously close to being lost,” Smith said.

He also uncovered various artifacts surrounding the track, including a pair of field glasses where the finish line was on the track, as well as a ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park on July 4, 1892, which is now on display at the historical society’s headquarters.

A ticket from a race day in 1892 was among Smith’s discoveries; and Smith at his home in Terryville. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Without Smith, the horse track and its history would certainly have been erased, according to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell.

“He was very diligent in doing the research and finding all the information he could on the track and he’s been that way with all of his endeavors,” she said.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), who worked alongside Smith to restore the track, said in an email statement Smith’s work in the community makes him more than deserving of the Person of the Year honor.

“His passion, meticulous care and diplomacy are appreciated by all who know him,” Cartright said. “His efforts to create and implement the annual Heritage Day, his comprehensive background and the lectures he gives at the library and his work and research to preserve the track are all done to celebrate the history of our community. I’ve had the privilege of knowing [him] both personally and professionally for many years.”

Smith said his love of history can be traced back to when he was in fifth grade, where his younger self first took an interest in consuming maps and all things geography related. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s in special education, which would be utilized at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, where he taught high school students from 1974 until 2005.

It was there he met his wife Pamela, a secretary at the school. She said they didn’t realize it at first but the two actually grew up around the block from one another in Centereach and even went to the same high school.

She said her husband is “very caring and extremely interested in helping the community.” History, including his own personal history, is a part of his daily life.

Members of the Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244. Photo from Bob Santos

By Victoria Espinoza

Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244 has been giving back to the community since its inception in 1946. From returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, to student outreach programs designed to improve leadership skills, to efforts to recover veterans’ remains, the post’s work is seemingly never finished.

Members of the post are actively involved in national and local efforts to help improve the lives of veterans, though they also work to locate remains of veterans from conflicts as far back as the Spanish American War of 1898.

For their dedication to the community and veterans alike, Times Beacon Record News Media has chosen the members of the Greenlawn American Legion Post as People of the Year.

The post has been involved in the Missing in America Project since 2009, a national nonprofit organization that works to locate and identify the unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans to provide a final resting place as a sign of honor and respect to those who have served the United States.

John Calderelli, a member of the Greenlawn post as well as a national representative of the Missing in America Project, said he felt compelled to work with the organization once he heard there were veteran remains stored in funeral homes across the country.

“That bothered me — it really didn’t sit well with me,” Calderelli said in a phone interview. “When you go into the service and make that agreement, there is an unwritten covenant that you will be buried in a federal cemetery with all your comrades in arms. To think veterans are lying on shelves for over 100 years. I think that’s wrong.”

Calderelli said he was outraged and couldn’t believe how many veterans were unidentified — and he still can’t believe how many more veterans he’s found since then. “I feel lucky I can help them,” he said.

Members of the Greenlawn American Legion Post smile. Photo by Bob Santos

The post has helped lay to rest at least 100 soldiers, including two from the Civil War. They organize burial ceremonies for all the veterans they find. Some ceremonies have included rider-less horses, Civil War re-enactors, and dove releases.

The Greenlawn post actively works with Sail Ahead, a nonprofit organization that uses sailing and the ocean therapeutically to help veterans with various service-related physical disabilities and illnesses, including traumatic brain injury and PTSD. For the past two years, the post has worked with them to take veterans out sailing for a day of relaxation on the Long Island Sound. This past July, more than 140 veterans and family members enjoyed a day of sailing and a barbeque at Centerport Yacht Club.

Bob Santos, a past commander of the Greenlawn post, said the day is for both enjoying and relaxing. Santos, who was awarded Legionare of the Year for the 10th District of New York for 2016, said he was sitting with a veteran who was a victim of PTSD and as soon as the boats took off, he loosened up.

“Before long, he was laughing and joking the way we do,” Santos said in an interview. “I saw him change. It’s a beautiful event.”

Santos said the post is working with Sail Ahead to develop more frequent sailing trips that allow veterans to take each other sailing on donated ships.

Bruce Blanco leads the American Legion Riders chapter in Greenlawn. The group of motorcyclists; who escort military units returning home from combat tours overseas, conducts cross-country fundraising events for wounded warriors and raises funds for countless local, state and national charities.

In 2016 alone, the riders have participated in more than 250 missions.

“I never want to see this disappear,” Blanco said in an interview. “The riders are trying to bring attention to what the American Legion does, and help to try and make it grow.”

The post does more than just support fellow veterans; they also regularly give back to the community with educational programs.

Vets in the Classroom is an annual event that takes place at Oldfield Middle School, where veterans talk to students about their experience of serving their country.

Ken Kirsch served in the U.S. Army as a war dog handler from 1979 to 1990 and is also a member of America’s VetDogs, a nonprofit that provides enhanced mobility and renewed independence to veterans, active-duty service members, and first responders with disabilities through service dogs.

He spoke to students at Oldfield Middle School and said the kids are eager to learn about their time overseas.

“It’s very important for these veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans, because we were not encouraged to talk about our experiences when we came back.”
—Bob Santos

“The kids were really excited about having us,” Kirsch said in a phone interview.

The program is not only beneficial for students, but for veterans as well.

“It’s very important for these veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans, because we were not encouraged to talk about our experiences when we came back,” Santos, who served from 1966 to 1970, said. “We came back to a different world. The country changed; the military was blamed for a lot. We were called baby killers. And you shrugged it off; but it left a mark.”

Santos said Americans’ indifference back home was the hardest to deal with.

“We felt that they were indifferent to what we had experienced,” he said. “They couldn’t relate to it, they didn’t want to and they were just glad it was over.”

The former post commander said it’s important veterans talk about it with kids to help heal and teach students about the importance of their service.

The post also sponsors students on a weeklong trip to learn about democracy and build strong leadership skills.

The Boys and Girls State is a program meant for high school juniors travel upstate  and run for office, learn public speaking, create and enforce laws, and actively participate in all phases of creating and running a working government.

The post sponsors the trip and raises money to send as many students as they can every summer from Harborfields High School, Walt Whitman High School, Commack High School and St. Anthony’s High School. They have raised more than $25,000 in recent years alone.

Charlie Armstrong, a legion member who works with the Boys and Girls State program says the experience is priceless for the students.

“We, of course, do a lot to help the veterans in the community, but this is when we get to reach out to the youth and help them, because they are our future,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s nice both ends of the spectrum are being helped. It’s reassuring to know there is a future happening, and these kids are all so enthusiastic about it.”

Armstrong also educates Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the community about flag etiquette and retirement, which includes how to handle and fold a flag and how to properly dispose of one.

“We show the proper respect for the flag and how the flag is seen as a symbol of freedom from oppression to other countries around the world,” he said.

The post has also helped support students who compete in the annual American Legion High School Oratorical Contest, a public speaking contest that awards college scholarships to students.

Current Post Commander Dennis Madden said he thinks the work the post does with the community helps residents look at veterans differently.

“We’re teaching kids about Americanism, what it means to be a dedicated citizen,” Madden said in a phone interview, talking about the school programs they work with. “The general public now sees the veterans in a different light, as citizens to the country rather than military men and women. It shows we’re regular people.”

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.

By Tracey Farrell

I was honored to be named a Person of the Year by Times Beacon Record News Media for 2015.

While I was truly honored, I was more excited at the prospect of getting the word out about the work I do with my group: North Shore Drug Awareness.

After losing my son to an accidental overdose in 2012, I was given a voice I chose to use to help other families who are struggling with addiction — to share my failures and successes, and the resources I have found and acquired through networking.

The absolute most poignant part of this story is that my story was published. The original story — in which I was named a person of the year — was seen by a woman who recognized me in my photo that accompanied the article as a client in her accounting office. She immediately shared the story with her best friend — a friend who desperately needed help with her addicted children.

A message I received from her changed a life. Linda Cirone was absolutely paralyzed by her children’s addictions. Not only did she enable her adult children, but she hid in shame. She could barely function or participate in her own life, and in her message in my Facebook inbox, she used that key word — Help.

Tracey Farrell with Linda Cirone at TBR News Media’s honorary dinner. Photo from Tracey Farrell
Tracey Farrell with Linda Cirone at TBR News Media’s honorary dinner. Photo from Tracey Farrell

I brought her with me to the honorary men and women of the year dinner, because her story of how she reached out to me was too important not to share. The power of that article could potentially save a life. And it did … her own.

This past year has been a roller coaster of change for her.

She chose to finally open up and share beyond the confines of her best friend and family members who would listen. She reached out through social media to the different parent groups that she learned of and began to realize she was so not alone. She began to share her story, which, like mine, has helped others.

Her children are still struggling, and while one is improving, Linda has grown in her own recovery. Yes, her own.

Addiction is a family disease and, as a parent, you too must learn to cope, or you will lose yourself in the process. She has learned to no longer enable like she did in the past. She has also followed a dream. She moved away from her children to the warmth of Florida, and now has a lovely condo on a small waterway. While she still feels the pull of her children’s addictions, she has also started to feel some freedom. Freedom to feel the sunshine, enjoy a nice day out with friends and family she has near her. This was not even an option to her a year ago — just a dream.

While her son was in Florida after we came up with a plan for him to seek outside-of-state rehabilitation, she met a woman who is the guardian angel for parents who send their kids to Florida for rehab.

The other day, as I opened my Facebook feed, I saw a post.

Linda checked in to the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County with that angel I spoke of. She attended her first task force meeting to help fight for positive changes in addiction services and housing in that area.

She has grown exponentially over this past year. She needed to. She was sick of hiding, but didn’t know where to look for help. And she found it. All because of an article in a local newspaper.

Tracey Farrell, previously Tracey Budd, is a Rocky Point resident who, since her son’s passing, educates others on drug abuse and assists in finding help for those who are struggling or know someone who is struggling with addiction. She is the founder of North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates and also a 2015 TBR Person of the Year.

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Principal Tom Meehan is all smiles with returning students on the first day of school. File photo

Tom Meehan is the kind of principal who would give a child the clothes off his back — literally.

When he saw an Edna Louise Spear Elementary School student was not wearing a jacket, the Port Jefferson principal took off the one he had on and gave it to the boy to wear home.

“He understands that it’s about the kids — that they’re the priority,” school board President Kathleen Brennan said, adding that Meehan goes “above the call of duty to make sure kids get what they need.”

For his dedication to Port Jefferson’s kids and the greater community, Tom Meehan is a Times Beacon Record Newspapers Person of the Year.

Meehan was hired for the 2011-12 school year, originally on an interim basis. District officials expected to hire a permanent elementary principal, but soon found the best choice was right under their noses.

Tony Butera, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Edna Louise Spear, has worked under a bunch of principals in his time there, but said Meehan has “a nice sense of what Port Jeff is supposed to be about.”

Principal Tom Meehan studies marine life with students at West Beach in Port Jefferson. File photo
Principal Tom Meehan studies marine life with students at West Beach in Port Jefferson. File photo

“He just sees it as, these are his kids,” Butera said.

Early on in Meehan’s time in Port Jefferson, there was an issue with one of the bus routes and it was running late. Brennan said the principal “got on the bus, rode the bus around the route and reassured the parents at every stop about why they were late and what happened.”

That leadership instinct is not something that can be taught, Brennan said.

“Tom has … what I call ‘horse sense’ about what school administration is about.”

One initiative Meehan started in the elementary school is a safety patrol for the fifth-graders to teach them responsibility. Among their activities, they help with dismissal, making sure younger kids get onto the school buses.

School board member Ellen Boehm, a former district employee, said it gives the kids a sense that “what they did was important.” And for the less outgoing kids, she added, “He built them up during their time as a safety leader.”

Meehan, a longtime volunteer for the Port Jefferson Fire Department, was also responsible for starting the tradition of elementary school kids singing at the fire department’s annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony. Brennan said the experience is significant for the kids who attend, and they’ve been able to see Meehan in uniform a few times.

It’s “important to see adults have other roles in the community,” she said.

Christian Neubert has worked alongside Meehan both in the school district, where he is a music teacher, and as a volunteer for the Port Jefferson Fire Department. He said the 9/11 ceremony is not the only way Meehan bridges the school and the department — he also gets firefighters involved in the school’s evacuation drills, and some high school kids now in the junior firefighter program had Meehan as a principal and look up to him at the firehouse.

Tom Meehan participates in the Royal Educational Foundation’s fun run through Port Jefferson Village, and receives an award for his contributions to the community. File photo
Tom Meehan participates in the Royal Educational Foundation’s fun run through Port Jefferson Village, and receives an award for his contributions to the community. File photo

Neubert, a lieutenant, noted Meehan is still qualified to fight fires inside buildings, despite being older than most guys who do that, since the physical requirements are high.

As a testament to his fitness, Meehan can be seen walking to school every morning, Neubert said, and students and teachers can sometimes catch a glimpse of him walking the school halls “in his suit and hiking boots.”

That’s not the only place they can see him. He’s at his students’ sports games and all around the village. During the Charles Dickens Festival earlier this month, Superintendent Ken Bossert said, he watched his students perform and then roasted marshmallows with them.

“He is just everywhere at all times,” Bossert said. “All the kids know him and love him.”

Well, almost everywhere: “Mr. Meehan is rarely in his office,” Neubert said, because he frequently drops into classrooms around the school.

Meehan has joined Neubert’s class a few times to share musical facts he knows, which the kids loved.

“In their minds, Mr. Meehan knows everything,” Neubert said.

That goes for sports too. A physical education teacher was once absent and a swimming class at the end of the day needed a qualified teacher or it would have been canceled. Meehan, a certified lifeguard, didn’t want to disappoint the kids, Bossert said, so he went home to get his swimsuit and taught the class.

Bossert said he was the “first principal that they ever saw in the water.”

According to a letter the superintendent wrote, nominating Meehan as a Person of the Year, “He was dry and back in his dress suit in time for dismissal.”

Tom Meehan, far right, poses with singers from the elementary school at the fire department’s annual 9/11 memorial ceremony in September. File photo
Tom Meehan, far right, poses with singers from the elementary school at the fire department’s annual 9/11 memorial ceremony in September. File photo

Meehan has helped kids on an individual basis as well. Bossert described a time when Meehan pulled some strings with the Long Island Rail Road on behalf of a special needs student who had “a fascination with trains,” and the child was able to conduct a train between the Port Jefferson to Stony Brook stations. He also brings gifts to kids during the holidays when he knows their families can’t afford them.

Those close to him said he knows every child’s name and if one needs extra attention, Butera said, “he’ll find ways throughout the day of stopping by” to check on that student.

But his subtle approach to offering that extra attention puts the kids at ease, Boehm said. She described it as, “Hey, I’m here, and we’ll take care of this together.”

Around the hallways, Meehan is also known for his sense of humor, cracking jokes with kids and dressing up as Mario for Halloween, making him more approachable.

“He has such a great rapport” with all the parents, the staff and the kids, and everyone in the community knows who he is, said Sean Leister, the assistant superintendent for business. Usually that kind of reverence comes with someone who’s been in his position for 20 years, Leister said, but Meehan’s attained it in five.

Even so, he doesn’t take credit for most of what he does.

“He’s not the kind of guy that likes any limelight or fanfare,” Boehm said. “He would never make a big deal about what he was doing.”

Ed Mikell shows off a clean bus stop in Commack just as his Seven Cents Club launched earlier this year. File photo by Alex Petroski

By Kevin Redding

Along Crooked Hill Road in Commack, garbage bags are piled up and filled with everything from fast-food wrappers to plastic cups and glass bottles. Tires, hubcaps, license plates and various construction materials are leaned up against a wooden post.

Only an hour or two prior, all these items were littered over the roads, sidewalks and grass. However, thanks to 73-year-old retired Commack resident Ed Mikell, the founder of the Seven Cents Club of Commack — a volunteer group of young people and retirees alike — the community can enjoy something scarcely seen when traveling through any town: cleanliness.

For all of his work cleaning up Commack, Mikell was named a 2015 Times Beacon Record Newspapers Person of the Year.

It all started when Mikell was cleaning a bus stop, where he discovered seven cents on the ground.

“My father [is] super energetic,” said Ed’s daughter and cleanup volunteer Jennifer Mikell. “He’s been retired for eight years and in his retirement he’s really done a lot to help others, whether it’s helping people balance their finances and figure out their own retirement, or helping out a local charity group that he works at a couple days a week.”

The Seven Cents Club sports its name on a spiffy garbage can in town. File photo by Alex Petroski
The Seven Cents Club sports its name on a spiffy garbage can in town. File photo by Alex Petroski

She explained that her father was frustrated that so many areas in his town had become so uncared for and unclean for so long.

“He wants to make the difference that nobody else is making.”

On Sept. 21, 2014, Mikell first took it upon himself to clean up an “unofficial” bus stop on Crooked Hill Road simply because he didn’t want people to have to stand in garbage. He went home, equipped himself with pails and some tools and went to work.

Using an abandoned shopping cart that had been turned sideways so people at the bus stop could sit down, Mikell filled up his pail four times, threw the garbage in the shopping cart, and wheeled it across the street to toss in a dumpster.

After making the bus stop pristine, Mikell reached out to the supervisor of Smithtown along with other Suffolk County representatives for some help, as he had become driven to clean up his neighborhood. A year later, Mikell has rallied together a small group of determined volunteers and has partnered with Suffolk County’s Adopt-A-Highway Program to secure cleanups on Crooked Hill Road up to its intersection with Commack Road.

The unofficial bus stop now has a white bench and a brown garbage can marked “7 Cents Club of Commack” placed alongside it.

“This is something that I thought would be a nice thing to do for the community,” Mikell said. “I’m just doing my part, [and] doing what I can as opposed to not doing something. I’m not marching and championing causes and all that stuff, but this is something I could put my hands around, and maybe make a difference. Abraham Lincoln once said ‘I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives …’ and that’s on the letterhead for the Seven Cents Club.”

The place in which Mikell lives has not ignored his efforts. Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), who was among those first contacted by Mikell, sees him as “the epitome of a good citizen.”

Ed Mikell overlooks one of his first sites as part of the Seven Cents Club. File photo by Alex Petroski
Ed Mikell overlooks one of his first sites as part of the Seven Cents Club. File photo by Alex Petroski

“He takes a bad situation and makes it better,” Kennedy said. “Instead of sitting around doing nothing in retirement, this man created something. He called the county to get the garbage picked up, he dealt with the town and he did everything that was needed. Who wants to live in ‘pigginess?’ I don’t think he had any other reason for doing it, other than to make something better. We’ll never stop people from littering, [but] truthfully, the difference between last week and the end of what was done this week is noticeable. Really noticeable.”

With volunteers from Dix Hills, Centereach and Hauppauge, there are hopes that this group will inspire more towns to have their own Ed Mikell and Seven Cents Club, but it won’t be easy.

“That’s a big undertaking,” said Ed Feinberg, a Commack resident and club volunteer. “That would require a lot of time and effort. If I’ve walked away from this with one piece of knowledge it’s that it’s not easy, working your way through the red tape of county government and getting corroboration and information, but Ed’s done it. He’s done it very well.”