People of the Year

Mari Irizarry

During the onset of the pandemic, the Three Village Historical Society had a difficult decision regarding laying off employees when they were unable to hold events which generate revenue.

Part of Three Village Historical Society Director Mari Irizarry’s (left) job is archiving records. Above, she is with Long Island Library Resources Council Project Archivist Robert Anen with an archival box containing the audio tapes from Glenda Dickerson’s Eel Catching in Setauket project that was originally believed to be lost. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

They could keep only one person on staff, and they chose at the time creative services manager Mari Irizarry, who has worked with TVHS since 2016. Earlier this year, the TVHS board of trustees appointed Irizarry the society’s director, a position that hadn’t been filled for some time.

TVHS president, Jeff Schnee, said the society had reached a point where they needed someone as director once again as the board of trustees looked to work with various organizations, develop relationships with community members and enrich its educational programs. The society is also planning to open the Dominick-Crawford Barn Exhibit and Education Center in the near future. The preservation project will feature expanded archives, an exhibition and education center, and a gift shop.

Schnee said after working nearly a year with Irizarry he knew she would be the perfect director.

“Mari’s superpower is that she’s a bridge builder,” he said.

He added Irizarry has helped TVHS work with other art and cultural organizations in the area, which he said is ideal as whenever people attend an event, they ask what else there is to do locally. Schnee said it’s a win-win situation where the society recommends neighboring museums and galleries, and they do the same by suggesting the historical society to visitors.

Among Irizarry’s accomplishments is forming a youth advisory committee with high school students, which Schnee said is “huge” for the society’s future as they share their ideas and volunteer at events. Irizarry reaches out to the committee members’ parents to ask them to get involved, too.

“It’s broadening the experience, the skills and the potential of our board and membership,” Schnee said.

Irizarry brings some 20 years of experience in nonprofit and government sectors. Schnee said with her past experiences with nonprofits, she’s been able to attract more people to the society and many have joined because of her. This year there have been 125 first-time members.

Currently, TVHS is working on the museum that will be housed in the Dominick-Crawford Barn and will feature a 1,500-square-foot first floor of educational and exhibit space. Schnee said Irizarry is on the design team of the museum, and he is confident in her abilities.

“We’re so lucky to have her,” Schnee said.

Irizarry has also developed the gift shop currently in the historical society’s main building on North Country Road. When talking to the director about the gift shop, Schnee said he had hoped to create an experience for visitors.

“She developed what was a small little area into a marvelous array of books as well as other items locally produced that visitors can take back as a nice memento of visiting our establishment,” he said.

Margo Arceri, Tri-Spy Tours owner, credited Irizarry for bringing interesting Culper Spy Ring-oriented merchandise to the society’s gift store.

According to the society, there have been 1,600 transactions at the gift store this year.

Arceri also praised Irizarry for her work during the pandemic

“She really kept that train moving when the rest of the world stopped,” she said.

Mari Irizarry and Jeff Schnee address attendees at the groundbreaking of the Dominick-Crawford Barn Exhibit and Education Center in March. Photo by Raymond Janis

Arceri said planning virtual events during the pandemic has taken the historical society to the next level, and Irizarry’s forward thinking has helped TVHS immensely. According to a recent Year in Review email from the society, there were 58,000 attendees to TVHS events, either in-person or virtually, who live across the United States and five countries.

“I think she put on all her different hats, and she shines with each one quite well, and I think the key was that she kept us moving forward in terms of creative thinking,” Arceri said.

Over the last couple of years, Irizarry has spearheaded free events on Culper Spy Day and this year introduced the first Three Village Outdoor Winter Market.

“She has a passion for the society,” Arceri said. “She has a passion for the community, and I think that we’re very fortunate to have her.”

Beverly C. Tyler, TVHS historian and education committee member, described Irizarry as a positive multitasker and people person. He said she has been learning as she goes and is organized, a good manager and executive.

“She has a natural talent for working with people and getting things done,” he said.

Tyler added, “She has progressed from being a media person to having all around knowledge of what the society needs and what’s best for the society.”

The historian added she knows how to spot people’s strengths and how they can best contribute. He noted regarding the various planning committees, Irizarry coordinates well with the members. “We know when we’re working with her on a project what’s expected of us, and she knows exactly how to get the most out of what we’re doing to make the society move forward,” he said.

“She has a passion for the society,” Arceri said. “She has a passion for the community, and I think that we’re very fortunate to have her.”

For steering the historical society toward the future, Irizarry is among TBR News Media’s 2022 People of the Year.

Port Jefferson Station/Terryville residents fought successfully to defend their community against cracking, a harmful practice in political redistricting. Pictured above, several residents speaking up during an unofficial meeting of the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee at the Setauket Neighborhood House Friday, Aug. 5. Left to right: Ira Costell, Joan Nickeson, Francis Gibbons and Lou Antoniello. File photos by Raymond Janis
By Aidan Johnson

In an age and political culture defined by partisanship and polarization, the few examples of unity and solidarity give us hope. 

This summer, the people of Port Jefferson Station and Terryville did just that, defending their community’s integrity within the Town of Brookhaven. In this year’s controversial redistricting process, the strength, persistence and overwhelming numbers of these citizens would win the day.

Reapportionment is a decennial procedure within the town, adjusting the lines of its six council districts to reflect changes in population over those 10 years. 

From the beginning, this year’s redistricting process was marked by chaos and confusion. “The hearings were poorly advertised, they were chaotic, they were confusing, they were marked by a lack of support information from the town, which resulted in maps that just appeared out of thin air,” said Port Jefferson Station resident Ira Costell at a public hearing in September.

Two draft maps appeared on the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee’s website by late July. These maps, having no input from the committee itself, proposed significant changes along the borders of Council Districts 1 and 2, with much of Terryville potentially cut away from Port Jefferson Station.

Culturally and historically, Port Jeff Station and Terryville are a united community. Their residents share a zip code, school district, library, chamber of commerce and civic association, among other shared community institutions. When the people of this area were alerted to the proposed changes to their political representation, they stormed into action.

The summer of resistance

Cracking is an unpopular practice in political redistricting. By dividing a community across multiple districts, a mapmaker can also blunt that community’s voting power. The intended effect of cracking is often a dilution of public resources and funds away from the cracked area. 

Throughout the redistricting process, Terryville resident Joan Nickeson gave a forceful critique of cracking. “It is unconscionable that you would crack our high school from the rest of its district, and crack neighbor from neighbor, and actually cleave members of the chamber of commerce from the chamber of commerce office,” she told the Town Board during an August public hearing.

In an Aug. 11 letter to the editor, “Reflections on Brookhaven redistricting process,” Terryville resident Francis Gibbons criticized attempts to crack the community as antithetical to the values of freedom and democracy.

“Manipulation of the redistricting process is a game played by both parties throughout the United States,” he wrote. “To me, it is a disgusting game. It flies in the face of everything so many have fought and died for.”

Paul Sagliocca, a Port Jeff Station resident, commented on the historical progress the area has made in recent years. As the community embarked on its local renaissance, he questioned why others would attempt to disrupt that development and forward movement. 

The area “is on the up — we do not need to be divided,” he said in an August hearing. “I would really wish that when it comes time to vote, that Port Jeff Station/Terryville stays in one solid community within District 1.”

Throughout several public hearings before the redistricting committee, local residents came out in numbers to express their displeasure about the proposed maps and how they could their hinder their representation. They often criticized the committee process itself.

Setauket-based George Hoffman, a Democratic appointee to the redistricting committee, suggested that his fellow committee members had good intentions. However, he was discouraged by the process overall. 

“I think the whole experience was disappointing,” he said in an interview. “I think we could have come up with what would be considered fair.”

Even among the committee members, the process was rife with confusion and discontentment. In one occurrence in early August, a scheduled public hearing at the Setauket Neighborhood House was canceled just hours before its start. 

“They decided to cancel this meeting without any concern for the people that were already coming. They only pulled it from their website at 4:30,” Hoffman explained during the unofficial meeting that took place later. Many spoke anyway during this unofficial meeting, eager to make their voices heard before a committee without a quorum and to the rest of the attendees.


Despite the uncertainty throughout those pivotal summer months, the Town Board eventually heard the people and responded accordingly. On Thursday, Sept. 29, the board unanimously approved a map that keeps Port Jefferson Station/Terryville almost entirely unified within CD1.

Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who represents the 1st District, expressed his appreciation for the effort and devotion of the residents throughout the process. 

“People are so busy these days that it seems like fewer and fewer people have time or attention for civic matters,” Kornreich said in a statement. “Seeing so many residents actively participating in what is usually a pretty dry government process was inspiring because even in today’s highly polarized political world, people from both parties united to advocate on behalf of their communities.” 

The councilmember added, “I have particular admiration for the folks from Port Jefferson Station and Terryville who have helped cultivate a very strong sense of community spirit over the last couple of years. There are so many exciting things happening in that area, and I am proud to continue to represent this thriving community.”

While the local residents prevailed in the end, the outcome was not universally triumphant. Throughout the process, many felt that the movement of the mostly white population of Ridge into Council District 4 could silence the voices of the ethnically diverse communities of Gordon Heights, Coram and North Bellport. Correcting this apparent injustice will be the responsibility of the entire township during the 2032 redistricting process. 

But the people of Port Jeff Station and Terryville should be proud of their redistricting success this year. Through their hard work over those confusing summer months, their community stands together — united and one. 

Their dedication and passion, courage to lift their voices to power, and commitment to lock arms and stand together were inspiring and could serve as a model for other communities.

For protecting their community and refusing to “crack” under pressure, TBR News Media recognizes the citizens who fought for a fair redistricting of Port Jefferson Station/Terryville as People of the Year 2022.

Rich Tomitz, above left and below right, in his element, coaching members of the St. James-Smithtown Little League. Photo by Steven Zaitz

Throughout his tenure as president of the St. James-Smithtown Little League, and over the course of his life, Rich Tomitz has always been a big dreamer. 

Rich Tomitz, above left and below right, in his element, coaching members of the St. James-Smithtown Little League. Photo by Steven Zaitz

So much so, that when his friends and associates tell him that he is out of his mind or he is wasting his time with his latest ambitious project or idea, he has a simple response for them: “It’s my time to waste.”

Thanks to this defiant determination, hundreds of Zoom calls and a dash of Tomitz’s legendary enthusiasm and panache, there are now two gleaming artificial turf baseball fields for the kids of Smithtown and beyond to enjoy. 

With the help of Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim’s (R) office, the Smithtown Parks, Buildings & Grounds Department and internal fundraising campaigns, Gaynor Park and Veterans Memorial Park in St. James have been modernized. What the naysayers labeled a pipe dream, Tomitz turned into reality.

“Both fields are beautiful,” Tomitz said. “It took a lot of phone calls and favors that I had to cash in, but we got it done. Ed Wehrheim and the Smithtown parks department were very supportive and getting these fields redone was truly a team effort.”

In addition to being more resistant to bad weather, the project resulted in the fields getting enhanced safety features, dugouts and backstops. Even the surrounding playgrounds and landscaping got makeovers, thus improving quality of life for non-baseball kids, too. Personalized bricks adorn the area behind home plate at Gaynor and serve as a nostalgic touch to players and families, past and present.

“There is nothing quite like building a park where our young residents can enjoy and build lifelong memories,” Wehrheim said. “This was truly a private and public partnership and was a great example of what can be done when there is community collaboration.”

Tomitz, a former Wall Street worker, took over SJSLL in 2017, and he has devoted much of his time to the kids of this community for close to a decade as a board member. The league serves over 600 area boys and girls from ages 4 to 13 and competes in the national Williamsport Little League tournaments for baseball and softball every year.

“I’ve known Rich since the sixth grade, and he’s always had the gift of gab,” said Peter Famighetti, who is treasurer of SJSLL and grew up with Tomitz in New Hyde Park.

“To know him is to love him, and I really think that it took somebody like Rich to bring all the necessary parties together along with effective fundraising to get the wheels in motion for the new fields,” Famighetti said.

Tomitz’s wheels didn’t stop turning there.

Rich Tomitz with members of one of the St. James-Smithtown Little League teams

With the upgrade to Gaynor and Veterans Memorial parks, he has been able to realize another dream — having the New York State softball championship tournament held locally. 

Tomitz, Peter Russo, Sean Singh and Eric Hanson coached the 11-and-under Smithtown softball team during their state championship run in Rochester this past summer and while there, they had a group epiphany — we could host this tournament in our town and make it extra special.

After four months of negotiating with multiple parties locally and in Rochester and again working closely with Wehrheim, Tomitz and his project team struck a deal to move the tournament here.

In July of 2023, the state softball championships for 10U, 11U and 12U will be held on the new fields in the town, and it promises to not only be exciting, nearly month-long competition, but a family friendly extravaganza for Smithtown and visiting families from across New York state.

“This is a huge opportunity for Smithtown and our league to showcase where we live as well as our new fields,” Tomitz said. “We plan to make it a great family experience and I think that will not only be great for the kids, but also for the restaurants and hotels. Smithtown is the greatest place in the world to live and we can’t wait to show our New York state neighbors what we have to offer: baseball movie night on the outfield grass, ‘50-foot-long subway sandwiches,’ balloon animals … you name it, we’ll have it.” 

“I’m ecstatic about the softball tournament coming to town,” Wehrheim said. “Hosting these types of major tournaments was a big part of why we invested in the renovations of these parks. The tournament will be great for tourism and will generate an uptick in commerce and small businesses. It will put our park system on the proverbial map and inspire our community youth to engage in the sport of softball. We’re excited to host so many families and looking forward to welcoming the tournament to Smithtown.”

Singh, whose daughter Jiselle is the starting shortstop for the champion 11U softball team, would love to repeat the triumph in 2023 in front of a hometown crowd.

“I’m honored to be a part of something so special,” coach Singh said. “Rich is a pillar of the community and of the league, and he has gone above and beyond to help our athletes grow and develop. When I moved out here, he shared his vision of rebuilding the Smithtown softball program from the ground up and when he asked me to help him do this, I knew I could not say ‘no.’ The result was the first-ever state softball championship in Smithtown’s history and now we’re hosting it, it’s a really special achievement.”

Tomitz’s daughter Nadia, who just turned 11 and plays second base for the champs, beams with pride over her dad and the efforts he has put forth for the team, the league and the town.

“I love my dad and he’s the best,” Nadia said. “He’s always on the phone, talking about something and trying to do good things for all the kids. He never stops talking about this stuff.”

Even with the tournament secured, Tomitz’s talking has just begun. Over the next few months, he will focus on securing vendors, sponsors, entertainment and housing just to name a few. Plus, he still has the regular business of the Little League to deal with. Despite all of that, he intends to take his place in the dugout as part of the coaching staff of the 11U team that is looking to repeat as state champions.

“We want to win two in a row,” he said. “And I want to be there for every second of that.”

Win or lose, it surely will be time very well spent. For his enterprise on behalf of SJSLL, TBR News Media is pleased to name Tomitz a Person of the Year for 2022.

Olivia and Harlan Fischer, above, are among TBR News Media’s People of the Year. Photo from Branch Financial Services

Harlan and Olivia Fischer have been married for nearly 50 years. Even more impressive than the longevity of their marriage is their track record of giving back to the community and surrounding areas.

This year the Fischers funded the restoration of the Hercules figurehead by Stony Brook Harbor. Photo from The Ward Melville Heritage Organization

These philanthropic efforts have earned the Head of the Harbor residents a spot among TBR News Media’s People of the Year for 2022. This year isn’t the first time one of the Fischers has been featured in the special edition. Harlan Fischer, president of Branch Financial Services, was a Man of the Year in 2000 for his accomplishments in business.

Tom Manuel, founder of The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, knows firsthand about the Fischers’ generosity.

“The Fischers were literally the first people to come alongside and support The Jazz Loft when we were in our planning stages back in 2014,” he said. “Each year they have selflessly, generously, and without reservation supported us more and more, and we are honored to have an annual 12-performance concert series in their name.”

Recently, the couple offered a $25K match for the venue to establish an endowment.

“They are true philanthropists doing things for the right reasons,” Manuel said.

The Fischers’ involvement with The Jazz Loft began one day as Harlan was walking one of the couple’s dogs in the Stony Brook Village Center. He ran into Manuel, who was promoting the future venue. The two began talking about jazz, according to The Jazz Loft founder.

Manuel said it turned out Fischer had read about the plans to open the venue, and when he heard the musician was performing at the shopping center, he went to check him out.

Manuel said Fischer gave him an envelope with a check inside. He thought it was for $50, but it turned out to be for $1,000.

The Fischers became even more involved in the Three Village area when Harlan moved his office from Smithtown to Setauket in 2020. Driving past Stony Brook Village Center twice a day, he asked Manuel and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization president, Gloria Rocchio, if WMHO needed assistance with anything. These discussions led to the Fischers sponsoring the installation of a replica of the center’s historic weathervane that shattered last year, and the restoration of the Hercules figurehead that sits by Stony Brook Harbor as well as the pavilion that shelters it.

WMHO board members debuted the restored Hercules figurehead at a press conference on Oct. 14.

“When we make contributions to places, we like to see the results of it,” Harlan Fischer said at the press conference.

Rocchio said in a phone interview that the board members met the Fischers several years ago.

“We found that we have the same interest, which is the love of the community,” she said.

With the Hercules project, Rocchio said Harlan took time out of his busy schedule to get to know the contractors, workers and artists involved in the restoration.

“He’s a very interesting man, and the two of them are very talented,” Rocchio said.

She added, “They’re good people. They have really embraced the community completely.”

The couple are also known for rescuing dogs, and they regularly donate to Little Shelter Animal Rescue’s annual Pet-A-Palooza in Huntington. 

Olivia and Harlan Fischer, above, are among TBR News Media’s People of the Year. Photo from Branch Financial Services

Leigh Wixson, director of Smithtown Animal Shelter, said the Fischers donated $7,600 for a dog park behind the shelter in September 2017. She said the park helps with the dogs’ physical activities and interaction. The park was named the Olivia and Harlan Fischer Recreational and Development Park and is the size of half a football field.

Wixson said the dogs will pull handlers toward the park when they see it, and can play fetch, run and explore. The shelter sometimes sets up small pools and sprinklers for the animals.

“It’s enriching having that large of a park,” she said. “We had outdoor pens already, but they’re quite small and didn’t allow a lot of space for running.”

In addition to their philanthropy, many know the couple for their love of art, and their contemporary studio art glass collection. In an August 2020 interview with TBR, Harlan Fischer said, for him, that love began after a 1988 car accident when he was hit by a drunk driver. He realized he could have been killed, and up until that point his life was mostly about work.

“All of a sudden it got me in touch with my mortality,” he said.

A talk with his physical therapist led him to joining the Smithtown Rotary Club, and he went on to be president of the club in 1997-98. It was during this time he learned about the Smithtown Township Arts Council and became a board member. He eventually became president of the council for five years, and learned a good deal about art from the director of the council at the time, Norma Cohen.

Harlan and Olivia’s love of art has led to raising money for various organizations, including hosting fundraisers in their home. Among their philanthropic activities in the art community have been being members of The Long Island Museum’s Directors Advisory Circle and sponsoring the East End Arts Music Masters Mentorship Program for high schoolers. Harlan Fischer is also a former board president of the Art League of Long Island. Last year, the East End Arts Council selected the Fischers as their 2021 Community Impact Award recipients.

Recently, Olivia Fischer has also been knitting scarves and donating them to Gallery North’s gift store, where all profits from the scarves go back to the gallery, according to Kristen Domiano, a registered service associate with Branch Financial Services.

Over the years, the Fischers have become so much more to the people they interact with than philanthropists.

Domiano described the couple as “generous” and “thoughtful.”

“There aren’t even words to describe how they are,” she said. “They’re so special.”

Due to his profession, Harlan, who is also chair of the Head of the Harbor Planning Board, usually winds up being the main spokesperson for their efforts.

Olivia “never likes to be in the spotlight, but it’s the two of them together,” Domiano said.

She added it’s cute to see the couple together. “He starts talking about Olivia, and he just gets choked up.”

Harlan Fischer is also generous and appreciative regarding his staff, according to Domiano, describing him as honest and a mentor.

Manuel said he and his wife, Laura, “are blessed to have friends with such outstanding character.” 

“Harlan and Olivia have been such generous sources of encouragement, advice and genuine love,” he said. “Our community is lucky to have them here not just because of the amazing projects and things they do, but because they call our community their home. Our community at large is a better place because they are a part of it.”

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has held elective office continuously since 1983. Englebright’s long tenure now comes to a close. 

In a tight state election for District 4 last month, Englebright narrowly lost to his Republican Party challenger Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson). In an exit interview, the outgoing assemblyman reflected upon his pathway into government, the legislative victories throughout that time and the meaning of public service.

The road to politics

Growing up, the young Englebright spent much of his time in libraries. He found refuge in books, which satiated his curiosity and “compelling interest in how things worked.” He also nourished a lifelong fascination with history through those hours devoted to learning.

Leading up to his first run for office, Englebright said he was deeply disturbed by the environmental degradation characteristic of those times. The “almost daily reports” of overdevelopment and sprawl, oil spills and drinking water contamination, each had left a deep and abiding impression on him.

‘The proper role of government is to protect the people who sent you.’ — Steve Englebright

He was teaching geology at Stony Brook University when he began considering public life. “I realized that drinking water was the first limiting factor for the continued well-being of this Island, and I was not really seeing any meaningful public policy growing out of the reports of chaos,” he said.

The late professor Hugh Cleland, from the SBU Department of History, would prove to be the catalyst behind Englebright’s ascent to politics. Cleland sat down with him at the campus student union. For several hours, the two discussed a possible bid for a Suffolk County legislative seat.

“This was a really serious and credible and well thought-out request that he was making,” Englebright said. “So I didn’t just wave it off. I gave it some thought and, sure enough, I found myself saying, ‘What’s next?’” 

After that meeting, Englebright decided to run and was elected to the county Legislature in 1983. He won election after election for the next four decades.

County Legislature

Upon entering the county Legislature, Englebright simultaneously confronted an array of environmental dilemmas. He described the defunct Long Island Lighting Company, the precursor to today’s Long Island Power Authority, as “at that time wanting to build a small galaxy of nuclear power plants on Long Island.” He stressed that the utility company was favoring its shareholder interests at the residents’ expense. 

Englebright successfully championed, along with a grassroots movement of LILCO ratepayers, against the construction of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear plants to follow. Their resistance efforts were grounded primarily in the risks associated with evacuation.

Another major policy issue during his early political career was the protection of groundwater and surface waters in Suffolk County. “I pushed successfully for the largest county-level open space program in the nation,” he said. He was one of the earliest critics against sprawl. 

As a county legislator, he initiated the first plastics ban in the nation. Though ahead of his time on the issue, he admitted that not enough has been done elsewhere to counteract the problem, which he said “has exploded into a worldwide catastrophe.”

He sponsored legislation excising a small fee on hotel and motel rooms, considering the measure as a fee on tourists allowing for their continued enjoyment of the area through reinvestment into the county’s most attractive destinations.

“If you wonder why county Legislator [Kara] Hahn [D-Setauket] is able to have some discretion to provide funding to Gallery North or the Reboli Center, that funding is coming from the hotel/motel room fee,” he said.

State Assembly

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). Photo from North Island Photography and Films

As a state assemblyman, Englebright quickly picked up where he left off, building upon and expanding his county policies at the state level. Among his earliest actions was the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, a state law ensuring the preservation of the Pine Barrens as open space.

He sponsored some of the original laws in New York state related to solar power and other renewables. “In my first year in the state Legislature, I was successfully pushing for legislation that had paved the way for the electronic age,” he said.

Englebright added that the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was the most crucial legislation he ever sponsored. This ambitious law aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Englebright also successfully led a statewide ban on purse seining, a highly efficient fishing technique responsible for the depletion of menhaden, or bunker, in New York’s surrounding waters.

“The marine world all depends on having this abundant fish at the base of the food chain,” the assemblyman said. Purse seining allowed large-scale fishing operations to collect “whole schools of menhaden, millions and millions of fish.”

One of the fondest moments throughout his tenure happened just last summer. On a boat trip off the coast of Montauk Point during early morning hours, the sun rising off the horizon line, he witnessed entire schools of menhaden beneath the water.

“The sea was boiling with fish,” he said. “Menhaden, they were back by the billions.”

Reminiscent of his earliest years in libraries, historic preservation would be a significant point of emphasis for Englebright. “I’m very proud of the many properties that are preserved, the historic sites.” Such sites either preserved or to be preserved include Patriots Rock and Roe Tavern in Setauket and William Tooker House in Port Jefferson, among many others.

Even in his final days in office, Englebright made historic breakthroughs. Though his reelection bid was unsuccessful, Englebright rejoiced in yet another major victory for environmental sustainability. Last month, New Yorkers overwhelmingly approved a recent $4.2 billion environmental bond act, a multiyear investment in clean water, air, wildlife and the environment.

Reflections from his community

During his extended time in political service, Englebright has worked alongside countless public representatives at all levels of government. He maintained “they’re not all scoundrels,” adding that many were “superb public servants.”

In a series of written statements and phone interviews, several public representatives and close Englebright associates and friends had an opportunity to weigh in on his legacy of service and commitment to his community. 

Englebright “proved himself to be an environmental pioneer, a champion for the causes and concerns of his constituents and an unflinching fighter for the communities he served,” Hahn said. “For those of us who served in elected office with him during his tenure, irrespective of political persuasion or level of government, Steve proved himself to be a friend and mentor who embodied the role of effective leadership in the lives of those we represent.”

 As recently as Dec. 6, the Three Village Community Trust honored the assemblyman by renaming the Greenway trail as The Steve Englebright Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway.

Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant commented on the characteristics that set Englebright apart from other politicians. She said his scientific background and wide-ranging interests added depth to his political persona.

 “He’s a unique legislator in that he’s so well rounded in those other areas and that he’s not just focused on the hard line of the law,” she said. “He’s involved with his community, he’s approachable, he’s caring, he’s kind. He’s a very unique representative, and we’re going to miss him sorely.”

 Like Englebright, Port Jefferson village trustee Rebecca Kassay worked in environmental advocacy before entering government. She discussed Englebright’s ongoing extended producer responsibility legislation, which would require producers of packaging materials, rather than taxpayers, to be responsible for managing post-consumer packaging material waste.

 “This can be a step toward addressing a multitude of waste management, environmental and financial issues facing municipalities and individuals,” Kassay said. “I hope to see the assemblyman’s colleagues and successor continue advocating for policies with long-term solutions,” adding, “Englebright is the type of commonsense representative we’d like to see more of in government.”

 In a joint statement, George Hoffman and Laurie Vetere of the Setauket Harbor Task Force reflected upon Englebright’s importance to local harbors.

 “In his time as our state representative, Steve Englebright never forgot the importance of the harbor,” they said. “Assemblyman Englebright found ways to secure needed dollars from Albany to help the task force in its mission of protecting water quality and the sustainability of Setauket and Port Jefferson harbors.” 

Joan Nickeson, community liaison of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, credited Englebright for the continued flourishment of her area. She said the hotel/motel tax he sponsored had enabled the chamber to conduct its annual summer concert series at the Train Car Park.

 “Assemblyman Englebright has continued to be a friend of the chamber by supporting our local businesses and attending our ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” she said.

 Within those 40 years, countless other acts and initiatives have come to fruition with Englebright’s assistance. Reflecting on his time in public service, he outlined his political doctrine.

 “The proper role of government is to protect the people who sent you,” he said. “If you keep your eye on the prize, you can achieve things for the people who invested their trust in you.” 

 On the role of the public representative, he added, “Use the office as a bully pulpit, speak truth to power, identify things that are wrong and right them, and treat the office as an opportunity to do good.”

 For wielding his office as a force of good for four decades, TBR News Media dedicates Steve Englebright as honorary 2022 Person of the Year.

Michael Donatelli shows off the book donations he received to bring to underprivileged families. Photo from the Donatelli family

By Karina Gerry

Generous, inspiring, compassionate and dedicated, are just a few of the ways people describe 15-year-old Huntington resident Michael Donatelli.

“Michael just as a son has taught me patience, inspiration and truly the true meaning of giving back to others especially during this time of year,” Jennifer Donatelli, Michael’s mom, said.

A sophomore at Chaminade High School in Mineola, Donatelli has a long list of accomplishments for his short 15 years. In 2018 he created the nonprofit, Books for Babies, with his brother Nicholas and friend Catarina Chelius. Inspired by their love for reading, the teenagers found a way to donate their old baby books and promote literacy to underprivileged families across the Island and abroad. 

“They both love to read and saw that there was a need for an organization like this in local communities as well as the country and abroad,” Jennifer Donatelli said. “They wanted to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children by being able to provide them with books in the hope that they too will grow up to be avid readers.”

Donatelli and his book drop-off box. Photo from the Donatelli family

Books for Babies accepts donations for babies and toddlers up to 4 years old. Once the books are collected they are sorted and packaged into custom-designed reusable tote bags with the nonprofit’s logo. Volunteers then distribute the books to homeless shelters, family service leagues, soup kitchens and orphanages. 

“They had their research backed, they looked into literacy rates and just found what a difference it makes, the books that are read to very early ages,” said Michael Strandberg, math teacher at Chaminade and moderator of Catholics for Life. “They found that if they could get more books into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have many, that they could help them for the rest of their lives and improve their academic achievement.”

In November, Michael partnered with Catholics for Life, a national organization of which he is a member, to lead a week-long book drive at Chaminade where they collected hundreds of books. These books were packaged and sent to 250 parishes in the Solomon Islands, located in Southeast Asia.

“It was very impressive how Michael led a drive for a school of over 1,600 students,” Strandberg said. “He prepared announcements to be read each day, he prepared a flier and put it around the school.”

During the pandemic, Michael was concerned about the children who still wanted and needed books, but the organizations and groups he worked with were closed. He decided to create a Books for Babies YouTube channel, where each night he read a baby book and shared it to the channel, hoping to inspire children to read during their time at home. Soon it caught on and children across the country were volunteering to read their favorite books for the channel.

“It was a nice way to try to keep it going, and stay connected,” Jennifer Donatelli said.

In addition, Michael and his brother Nicholas started a book distribution drive-up. Using a local church’s parking lot, they donated tote bags filled with baby books to anyone willing to come and receive them. The response to the drive-up was a success and now the nonprofit holds  one every month.

Michael’s dedication to Books for Babies means he’s always thinking of new ways to grow the organization. He decided to create a literacy program, Opening the World of Learning, also known as OWL, to further the group’s mission of promoting reading to underserved communities. OWL brings books to life at nursery schools in underserved communities across the Island. Books for Babies’ volunteers provide a fun-filled interactive story, followed by an enjoyable activity, and at the end each child receives a free tote bag filled with age appropriate books.

On top of his work for Books for Babies, Michael maintains honor roll status at his school, is a member of nine clubs, volunteers at his church as an usher, volunteers at Huntington Youth Court and is studying for his black belt in jujitsu. 

“He is quiet, he is shy, he is unassuming but he does so much to help everybody else,” Andrew Kelapire, owner of Shindokan Budo Long Island, said.

Michael’s compassion and willingness to help others is what motivated Jennifer Donatelli to nominate him as a TBR News Media Person of the Year.

“I’m so incredibly proud of my son,’’ the mother said. “He’s the type of person that does things and likes to fall under the radar or without anyone fussing. He kind of just likes to do his own thing and volunteer and help others very quietly — and others see his generous spirit and how he is.”

Mark Freely with a furry friend. Photo from Mark Freely

Mark Freeley is the kind of person who likes to get his hands dirty, especially when it comes to helping people in need.

The longtime Stony Brook resident is usually juggling multiple projects, sometimes all in the same day. Whether he’s fighting insurance companies on behalf of his law firm’s clients or picking up rescued dogs, Freeley never shies away from stepping up.

As a young law student at Hofstra University, Freeley got his first taste of how his career could make a difference.

“I was a law clerk for a small firm that did personal injury cases, and I found that I really enjoyed it,” said Freeley, founder of The North Shore Injury Lawyer based in Woodbury. “It’s gratifying to know that I can help people dealing with serious accidents or injuries fight for the insurance money they need.”

This year, he’s also been working with small businesses struggling to access financial assistance in the wake of the pandemic.

Those efforts caught the attention of Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, who also advocates for local businesses.

“I thought it was terrible that so many businesses were being denied support from their insurance companies because of the nature” of the pandemic closures, Rocchio said. “When I found out Mark was involved in fighting for those businesses, I picked up the phone and introduced myself. He has so much compassion for the entire community.”

As it turned out, Rocchio and Freeley often crossed paths while walking their dogs around the T. Bayles Minuse Mill Pond Park. Last summer, Tropical Storm Isaias did significant damage to the site, leaving piles of rubble and a six-figure bill in its wake.

Without prompting, Freeley launched a social media campaign to help restore the park and chipped in some of his own money. 

That’s only the latest example of how Freeley has used social media to create positive change. In 2017, he and his dog Storm earned national attention when Storm rescued a drowning deer on their usual walk. Freeley created a Facebook page, Good Boy Storm, to raise awareness of local animal rescue needs.

While he’s always loved animals, it was Freeley’s daughter that led him to do more. Their weekly visits to see the puppies at the Lake Grove Petco store in her younger years blossomed into them volunteering together with Last Chance Animal Rescue in Southampton.

“We did it every Saturday for eight years, rarely missing a week,” Freeley said. “They’re such wonderful people, and I’ve made some really tight bonds through helping to save animals.”

Last Chance is run entirely by volunteers, and Freeley has done everything from fostering to running adoption events and picking up newly rescued dogs at 6 a.m. each weekend.

“I meet the transport van in Patchogue every Saturday, when they bring up rescued dogs from South Carolina. I’m in charge of all the collars and leashes, and making sure the right dog is going to the right foster family,” he explained. “When that van opens up and you see it full of animals that have been saved from being killed, all that effort is worth it.”

This past year, according to Last Chance, it has facilitated the adoption of 875 dogs and cats. And even though his daughter is now away at college, Freeley keeps coming back. 

“Mark and his daughter Nicole were so faithful right off the bat, and Mark was always willing to take on additional responsibility when needed,” said Judith Langmaid, director of adoption for Last Chance Animal Rescue. “He’s been there to teach other volunteers that come in, run his own supply drives, sponsor fundraising events, and even play golf in the pouring rain for our benefit. He really is a superb individual and we are so grateful to have him.”

Langmaid added that Freeley is humble and would likely shy away from any attention focused on his contributions.

“He’d rather highlight everyone else and encourage others to lend a hand,” she said.

Before congratulating Mark Freeley for being named a TBR News Media Person of the Year, consider fostering or adopting through Last Chance Animal Rescue. An animal can only be brought to Long Island if there is a foster family ready to take it in, so help is always needed. Learn more by calling 631-478-6844 or visit

Erica Cirino with her book, ‘Thicker Than Water.’ Photo from Erica Cirino

By Donna Newman

At year’s end, TBR News Media honors community members who have shared their time and talents to enhance the place they live for the benefit of all. Long Island environmentalist Erica Cirino takes her efforts to a global level.

We are pleased to honor her as a 2021 TBR News Media Person of the Year.

After earning a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism at Stony Brook University, this former Huntington resident has dedicated herself to one of Earth’s most pressing environmental concerns.

According to the bio on her website, Cirino is a science writer, author and artist exploring the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. Her widely published photojournalistic works depict the numerous ways people connect to nature — and each other — and shape the planet. Her work has appeared in Audubon Magazine, The Guardian and on the National Geographic Voices blog and VICE News among other media outlets.  

While working at a rehab clinic as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Cirino saw firsthand that the majority of animals brought in for care were there as a result of human actions that have deleterious effects on wildlife — and nature. This realization led her to focus on telling the stories she feels need to be heard to prevent continued destruction of the planet and further harm to wildlife.

Currently, Cirino manages outreach campaigns and online and print media for The Safina Center, a nonprofit nature conservation and environmental organization that is affiliated with Stony Brook University. The center is headquartered in Setauket.

Carl Safina, the eponymous center’s founder, said he has known Cirino about six years.

“Erica has been a kind of protégé for years,” he said. “I am not sure that does her justice, because she is her own person with her own work and views. But I have helped her along as best I can because she has great talent well worth assisting. Erica was one of the main reasons we created our junior fellowships [for younger scholars establishing their careers]. Now she is the author of an important book and in high demand as a speaker. I can hardly imagine doing what we do without Erica. She seems able to do just about anything. She is multitalented and preternaturally efficient.”

In a review of her book, “Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis,” in this newspaper last month, Jeffrey Sanzel lauded Cirino’s recently released treatise.

Author Erica Cirino

“Cirino, a gifted author whose writings have been featured in Scientific American and The Atlantic, has penned a smart, passionate exploration of one of the most troubling and challenging issues,” he wrote. “The book examines a problem of overwhelming global impact.”

Sanzel concluded, “It would be impossible to read this powerful book and not look at the world differently, both in the larger picture and day-to-day life. … Erica Cirino’s ideas stimulate thought, raise awareness and, most importantly, are a call to action.”

Lise Hintze’s connection to Cirino began with their dogs. The pups had an affinity for one another in their Setauket neighborhood, and began playing together in Hintze’s fenced backyard during the pandemic as the women got to know each other.

“When I first met her, she said, ‘I’m going to write a book,’” Hintze recalled. “She talked about her sailing and the expeditions she’d been on, and her travel all over the world. And I asked, ‘How old are you?’ because her face did not match the experiences she’d described. She replied, ‘I’m going to be 29.’ And I thought: ‘And you’ve done all that?’”

The more time they spent together, the more Hintze learned from her new friend. Cirino talked about what’s happening in the oceans and how serious it is and Hintze’s admiration for her passion and determination to solve this problem grew.

“Erica is one of the most dynamic young people I’ve ever met,” Hintze said. “She is an incredibly terrific young woman, soft spoken and extremely humble. I wish she knew her own worth. She is going far. Erica can confidently take anything she chooses to the next level.”

Learn more about this talented champion of our planet at her website Her book, “Thicker Than Water,” is available at or

Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic President Sal Pitti protests a potential cell tower along Canal Road in 2019. File photo by Kyle Barr

If there’s a man around town, then that man’s more than likely to be Sal Pitti.

Whether he’s rolling up in his car to check on any reported problems, meeting with developers planning to build up in the Port Jeff Station area, running civic gatherings or attending town meetings focused on residential issues, it’s not hard to find the shaved head and thick, salt and pepper beard as the marked signs of his presence. 

Pitti has been vice president and now president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association over the past several years, and in that time has become a staple of community activism for the two hamlets. The retired ex-NYPD officer can be seen throughout the community, driving around with his current VP and friend Ed Garboski, as they check in on any supposed disturbances and the sites of any ongoing development.

Garboski said he was first introduced to Pitti through Joe Rella, the beloved former superintendent of the Comsewogue School District. Pitti was involved with the school’s Drug Prevention Coalition, and Rella asked Garboski to get involved. After talking for a good while, the two decided they should merge the coalition with the civic, and Pitti became an integral part of the PJS/T organization.

Since then, he’s become a major member of multiple committees, including Brookhaven Town’s Quality of Life Task Force and Suffolk County’s drug task force, for which Garboski said Pitti was instrumental in working with Suffolk County Police Department officials to close down several known drug houses in the community.

“He’s not going to give you lip service, and if there’s a problem he’s going to go after it,” the current civic VP said. “He’s committed to this community, whether that’s drugs or working on the homelessness issue. He’s got a lot of empathy for them. It’s not, ‘Let’s just get rid of them,’ it’s, ‘Let’s find out how we can help them.

Charlie McAteer, the civic’s corresponding secretary and previous Person of the Year recipient, has known Pitti for close to a decade. McAteer first interacted with Pitti through his stewardship of the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail, when he was helping to clean up the trail and the parking lot on Route 112 that marks a trail end. Over the years, both Pitti’s and Garboski’s activism drew McAteer into the civic more and more.

Sal Pitti with other members of the PJS/Terryville Civic discuss ideas for the Terryville Road community garden. File photo by Kyle Barr

McAteer said Pitti was instrumental in multiple recent community projects, including the revitalization of the community garden on Route 112, keeping on top of the Lawrence Aviation property with the Suffolk County Landbank, and more recently working with Brookhaven Town to secure the historical Terryville Union Hall under civic stewardship after the local historical society folded in 2019. McAteer said they are now talking with the town about renovating the property to bring it back to its original 1800s-era look.

Pitti “is really utilizing his retirement time to help the community,” McAteer said. “Having been a New York City police officer, now retired, he has such a repertoire. He puts people at ease, that way they can talk to him. And he will then be able to then convey any problems they have to the powers that be.” 

Frank Gibbons, a longtime civic member and all-around expert about the area’s traffic history and issues, said Pitti is always willing to help anyone in the community.

“If anybody needs his time for anything, then he’s there,” Gibbons said. “You don’t have to ask him twice. Hell, most of the time you don’t have to ask him, he’s asking us, saying ‘Hey, will you come join us?’ Whether it’s cleaning up around the chamber of commerce train car, or cleaning up all the walking paths over to Stony Brook.”

Others who have known Pitti for a shorter time than Garboski and McAteer said his drive to see good work done is striking.

Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who is finishing up his first year as Brookhaven Town councilmember, said he has worked closely with Pitti ever since he came into office. 

“Soon after I took office, I met with Sal and the board of the civic and we had a frank discussion about the community’s needs, wishes, challenges and opportunities,” Kornreich said over email. “I found Sal’s insight and level of connectedness to his community to be very inspiring. For no reason other than the betterment of his community, Sal has worked hard for many years, investing time, money and energy. One can’t help but be inspired to support his efforts.” 

Andrew Harris, a special-needs teacher at Comsewogue High School and the school liaison with the civic, said Pitti and the other civic leaders are honestly concerned that their community remains a nice place to live, for all its residents.

“He’s a big dude, he’s an ex-cop, he looks like a pretty tough guy, you know?” said Harris, who is also a previous Person of the Year recipient. “But really, he’s the kindest, nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, personalitywise. The bottom line is he just volunteers his time for others.”

Susan Eckert with Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta helping to collect food for a drive. Photo from Demetria Mudar

By Donna Deedy

Susan Eckert is one of those unsung heroes who works behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for others here on Long Island’s North Shore. 

The Northport native began her public relations career at the Long Island Lighting Company during the turbulent era that saw the rise and fall of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. 

After new management eliminated the entire department in the early 1980s, according to former LILCO PR associate Demetria Mudar, Eckert moved on to forge her own unique, decades-long personal legacy in community service. Along the way, she has gained the admiration of others. 

“People like her,” Mudar said. “She’s a lovely person and her character, combined with her work ethic, stand out.”

Eckert touches the lives of others through her full-time positions, most notably as a legislative aide in Suffolk County and as a volunteer for nonprofit organizations. 

She works for county Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who said that hiring her was among his best decisions as a lawmaker. He has nicknamed her “Radar” after the “M*A*S*H” character because she’s finely tuned in to her surroundings.

Susan Eckert. Photo from Demetria Mudar

“Susan knows what I’m thinking, what is right and what to do next before anything even happens,” Trotta said. “She is a godsend and the backbone of my office.” 

On the job, Eckert organizes senior information fairs as well as winter coat and food drives for the local pantry at St. Joseph’s Church in Kings Park. 

She also researches and promotes many important proposals, such as Trotta’s life-saving 911 bill in 2014. 

That law mandated that hotels and businesses provide telephone systems with direct access to emergency operators without the need for dialing a prompt to connect with an external phone line. It was created in response to a tragic incident where a child tried unsuccessfully to call for help for his mother in a hotel room. 

If you have ever dropped off excess prescription drugs at any county police department, you can thank Eckert. She coordinated the first medicine disposal program on Long Island back in 2011 when she was an aide for Trotta’s predecessor, Legislator Lynne Nowick (R-Smithtown). 

The effort aimed to protect the area’s drinking water supply, while preventing drug misuse or abuse. The initiative ultimately expanded and became a model for a state policy that eliminates the need to flush pills down the toilet. 

As a liaison, Eckert has been involved with Suffolk County Department of Health Services programs, the Suffolk Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, the county Communities of Solutions, Smithtown Youth and Community Alliance, Commack Coalition of Caring for substance abuse and the Northport school district Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force. She also served as chair of the county’s Women’s Advisory Commission in 2011 and was a member from 2008-14. 

Determined to raise awareness of the abilities of the disabled, Eckert took a job in public relations for United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Suffolk, where she received national recognition for composing the group’s publications. 

Eckert’s omnipresence in Suffolk County is matched only by her standing in her hometown.

She currently serves as president of the Friends of the Northport-East Northport Public Library, a volunteer position she has held since 2013. Library staff member Janet Naideau said Eckert has enhanced the library experience for the entire patron community by organizing a full range of special events. For members of Long Island Horticultural Society, Eckert has planned garden tours locally and abroad to Northumberland, England. The legislative aide mainly focuses on health and literacy projects. But her interests extend into the arts. She created Art in the Alcove in the county Legislature building in Hauppauge to showcase the work of local sculptors. For years, Eckert was a member of the Northport Historical Society exhibits committee. 

She is also a volunteer for the Reboli Center for Art and History in Stony Brook, where she writes press releases and composes profiles to highlight the talents of Long Island’s artists.

“I have known Susan for more than 20 years,” Lois Reboli, the center’s president, said. “I think the world of her.” Eckert, she said, is remarkably generous, caring, brilliant and a skilled fundraiser. “She never asks for a thing in return,” Reboli added. “And is so deserving of this honor.” 

During this season of giving, Susan Eckert shows us how giving back results in a rewarding way of life.