Project enhanced beauty of estate and safety for visitor-hikers
Joseph Luft rebuilt the steps on a steep trail at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum as part of his project to become an Eagle Scout.
Luft, a junior at Northport High School and member of Troop 41, reconstructed the hill and the steps leading from the Wishing Well Garden at the Vanderbilt Mansion down to the Boathouse on the waterfront. Jim Munson, the Vanderbilt’s operations supervisor, said the old steps had begun to fail and became a safety concern. On a Troop 41 trip to the Museum in 2020, Luft noticed the deterioration and decided he wanted to make the trail his Eagle project, Munson said.
Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, executive director of the Museum, said, “We’re grateful to Joe for his important contribution to the Vanderbilt. The rebuilt hill, steps, and trail are crucial not only to the beauty and accessibility of the estate grounds, but also to the enjoyment and safety of visitors who hike the trail.”
Luft, who chose the project because he loves hiking, started planning it a year ago. He began working on the trail in August and with help from his family, troop, and friends completed work on October 2. He thanked “14 incredible scouts” for helping him raise $1,324 by holding a car wash and for working with him to complete the trail.
“The most surprising aspect of the project,” Luft said, “was how willing people were to lend a hand whenever I needed help or volunteers. Whether it was purchasing supplies or scrubbing down cars, someone was always there with me to help make sure it was done right. The people at the Vanderbilt were incredibly flexible with timing and with occasionally lending us one of their golf carts to haul tools.”
Luft, who is about to complete the Eagle Scout requirements, said it felt “amazing” to finish the project. “It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, a lot of stress and work. But the project was finally done and all I could do was sit back and look at everything accomplished with a smile.”
He said he learned a lot about how to organize fundraisers and how to write emails in a professional manner. “I also learned something about time management and how strong a community Northport is when it comes to people supporting each other.”
On June 29, Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich welcomed Boy Scout Troop 229 from Selden to Town Hall. The group met in the Town Council conference room where Kornreich answered questions about town government and discussed his role on the town board.
The discussion included concerns from the Boy Scouts regarding recycling, homelessness, littering, park stewardship, clean energy and infrastructure. Kornreich also presented each Boy Scout with a Certificate of Congratulations for achieving their “Citizenship in the Community” merit badge.
“I enjoyed hearing about issues important to the Scouts from Troop 229,” Kornreich said. “It was really thought-provoking to see the world through their eyes and understand their specific community-based concerns.”
He added that the experience was “heartening.”
“I’m optimistic that the leaders of tomorrow will step up to help our township reach new heights.”
Shoreham-Wading River High School junior Jake Field conceived of a thoughtful school community addition for his Eagle Scout service project to mark his final rank in the Boy Scouts. Jake designed and built two benches to honor the memory of former student Andrew McMorris. His passionate project included a plaque that incorporated Andrew’s love of art, music, scouting and aviation. The benches were placed at Albert G. Prodell Middle School, where Andrew was a student.
Field said his project was a lot of work but he found it quite worth it. Field’s ability to plan, develop and organize the donation of the benches with Prodell Principal Kevin Vann and Superintendent Gerard Poole point to the leadership skills he obtained in his years as a Boy Scout. Once the district’s building and grounds crew prepped the location at the school, Field and his family met with Alisa McMorris and John McMorris to place the benches that will serve as a place for gentle contemplation in perpetuity.
On the two-year anniversary of that fateful day, Acting Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho gave Thomas Murphy, 61 of Holbrook, the max sentence of eight and a third to 25 years Sept. 30 for hitting and killing a Wading River Boy Scout while driving drunk.
The sentencing caps off month upon month of a tense courtroom back and forth, following with a sentencing that was first delayed due to the pandemic and then held back again after a lawyer for the defendant claimed there had been jury misconduct.
Andrew McMorris, of Wading River, was killed Sept. 30, 2018 after Murphy hit both him and several other young scouts of Shoreham Troop 161 while they were hiking along the road in Manorville, Suffolk County Police said. McMorris was only 12 years old.
Several other scouts suffered severe injuries that day as well. Thomas Lane, of Shoreham, suffered severe injuries while his brother, Denis Lane, and Kaden Lynch, of Calverton, both suffered injuries as well.
“Today, justice was served,” Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) said. “This was a difficult process, but today, justice was served. I want to thank the prosecutors in my Office who were so committed to achieving justice in this case as well as the Suffolk County Police Department for their partnership in this investigation and prosecution. Most of all, I want to thank the victims’ loved ones and the community for their support throughout this process.”
Murphy was convicted by a jury Dec. 18, 2019 of aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter and several other counts including assault and reckless driving.
Police have said that two years ago, shortly before 2 p.m., Murphy was leaving Swan Lake Golf Club to drive home after drinking alcohol since around 9 a.m. The DA said an investigation revealed that Murphy was approached by a friend in the parking lot who offered to drive Murphy home due to his intoxicated state, but he refused.
Murphy was driving southbound on David Terry Road when his white Mercedes SUV veered toward a group of 12 Boys Scouts and six Scout leaders from Troop 161 who were walking northbound on the shoulder of the roadway.
Police from the 7th precinct told prosecutors that Murphy allegedly had slurred speech and the scent of alcohol on his breath. Murphy refused a field sobriety test as well as a later blood test at the precinct.
Detectives would shortly after receive a warrant for a blood test from Murphy who prosecutors said revealed had a blood alcohol content level of .13% approximately four hours after the crash occurred.
Since Andrew’s death, the McMorris family have become active with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and their foundation, named after their son, has also benefited high school students in Shoreham-Wading River with scholarships.
“[The McMorris family] managed to turn their grief and their loss into something positive, becoming advocates in the community for safe driving and trying to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again,” Sini said.
With the weather warming, and with more people available to take walks while home from work and school (maintaining social distancing, of course), one local Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout Service Project has made a lasting impact.
Port Jefferson resident Cole Swensen, a member of Miller Place Boy Scout Troop 204, installed a bench, along with concrete pads on the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail earlier this month.
“I’m happy with the finished product,” Swensen said.
Swensen, a senior at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson, said he and his dad use the trail often for running and biking and saw there was a need for a new bench, made from wood composite, at the top of the hill just after the westernmost trail entrance in Setauket. The young man also installed three concrete pads on the trail, one at his new bench and two more at existing benches.
“These pads not only clean up the look of the benches and trail, but they also prevent the area in front of the benches from getting muddy,” Swensen said. “It also is a place for strollers to easily get off the main trail.”
Charlie McAteer, the chair of the Friends of the Greenway, said Troop 204 has been a huge boon to the trail, having done five projects with the Greenway, with one more still in the planning phase. This new project comes just as the Greenway is getting increased usage thanks to more people looking to spend time outdoors while maintaining a distance from others.
“This is a remarkable commitment to the Setauket to Port Jeff Station Greenway Trail,” McAteer said. “The community will be enjoying these for decades.”
The high school senior said he had been working on the project since before last summer but had to put it on pause after a severe bike accident led to a concussion. He conducted his fundraising last month, just as things with the coronavirus crisis were starting to close in. Still, he managed to raise about $1,000 toward the project. The build was over a three-day period with the bulk of the work centered on installing the new bench and making sure the concrete pads were leveled against the slope of the hill.
Swensen said he is still waiting on the finalized paperwork for his Eagle Scout application, since all offices are closed everything now has to be mailed.
After graduating high school, Swensen expects to attend SUNY Maritime to study naval architecture, involved in designing the hulls of boats and ships.
Swensen’s father, Eric, said his son has been interested in boats and sailing since he was young.
Over 530 hikers crowded in the entrance to the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field at Shoreham-Wading River High School. On a day when school was out for Rosh Hashana, both the old and young still woke up in the wee hours of the morning wearing red shirts emblazoned with the words, “Fly High Andrew.”
The Boy Scouts of America Suffolk County Council, along with Troop 161 and the McMorris family, together organized to memorialize Andrew McMorris Sept. 30, who was killed by a drunk driver last year, by finishing the troop’s hike on the first-year anniversary of the young man’s death.
Robert Rabbitt, the senior district executive of the Suffolk Boy Scouts council, said the Scouts, family and troop wanted to do something on the year anniversary to remember Andrew, and while they expected a good turnout of a few hundred, the more than 500 people who pledged to participate stunned him.
“We’re overwhelmed by the response,” he said.
Andrew was hit by a drunk driver while on a hike with his troop last year in Manorville. The 12-year-old Shoreham resident was pronounced dead the following day. The legal battle is ongoing for Thomas Murphy, the Holbrook man who has been charged in the death of Andrew. The trial is expected to begin in November, though that could be delayed.
The hundreds of people gathered there came from all over Suffolk County, even as far away as Huntington, Rabbitt said. Members of the Miller Place Panthers football team also came to hike in support of the McMorris family. Andrew’s father, John, is a guidance counselor at the Miller Place High School.
Scouts and community members signed up to take a 1-mile, 5-mile or 10-mile version of the hike, helping to fundraise for the Andrew McMorris Foundation and to help create scholarships in Andrew’s name. The Boy Scouts council was also accepting donations to help build a new lodge at Baiting Hollow Scout Camp in Wading River, which will be named after Andrew.
“What a wonderful turnout to celebrate Andrew,” said Matt Yakubowski, scoutmaster for Troop 161, as he and his troop boarded the buses to take them to the hike’s staging grounds. “It’s going to be a touching day.”
The hike started at the Pine Barrens Information Center in Manorville before moving through the Pine Barrens. The hike took participants past the place where Andrew was killed for those looking to pay respects.
Troop 161 has done much in the year since Andrew’s death to both memorialize him and work toward healing. The troop created a garden outside the Brookhaven town-owned Robert E. Reid Sr. Recreation Center in Shoreham to commemorate his life. Future Eagle Scout projects are planned to help advocate against drunk driving.
Later that day, the Andrew McMorris Foundation hosted a benefit at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, with the proceeds going to support the nonprofit.
Troop, town and community all had a hand in the new memorial
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The Boy Scouts of Troop 161 formed lines, and in each of their hands, they clutched a small red stone. Their faces were reflective and grieved, and when they walked, they did so silently, placing those rocks around the symbolic ribbon outside the troop’s meeting place at the Robert E. Reid, Sr. Recreation Center in Shoreham, all to honor one of their member who was killed last year.
Since the death of Andrew McMorris, a fellow in their troop who was killed by a drunk driver in the fall of last year, the community has rallied in support of the family after their loss. On that June 5 evening the red stones were inlaid with phrases written by the community. Some were stenciled with “fly high Andrew” while others read “fly high on an eagle.”
The final part of the Scout law says the young men should remain “reverent,” and as they paid homage to Andrew, the Scouts in his troop remained solemn throughout the entire ceremony.
Alisa McMorris, Andrew’s mother, was struck by how much the community and Boy Scout troop came out to support her family.
“A part of me died that day, and I didn’t think that I could stand again,” she said. “When the boys and the troop surrounded us, and the community surrounded us, we realized we had a support that would go to any lengths to help us take the next step forward.”
John McMorris, an assistant Scoutmaster in Troop 161 and father of Andrew, could barely hold back tears as he spoke to the crowd of gathered town officials and friends of the troop.
“It’s a beautiful place to do it where we hold our meetings every week,” he said. “Andrew loved Scouting, he loved his Scouting brothers.”
The new garden in honor of Andrew is located just outside the windows of the Shoreham community center, facing toward the playground. Members of the troop have been working on the project for months. In May, the troop spent hours upon hours on one of the hottest days in spring to help dig the ground for the project.
Since October the troop had spent months planning and then building the garden, starting with the red dogwood tree, which was donated by local Girl Scout Service Unit 69. Alisa McMorris is a Girl Scout troop leader, and her daughter, Arianna, is a member.
“We thought, what a beautiful way to merge the two Scout worlds is to put a garden around that tree,” she said.
In all, it has been a complete Scout effort. Joseph Pozgay, 16, who was named an Eagle Scout earlier this month, made it his Eagle Scout project to lay the bricks in front of the new garden. The idea came to him from a friend, Ryan Ledda, who used his Eagle Scout project to construct a memorial statue for Thomas Cutinella, who died in 2014. He said he remembered Andrew, the whole troop did, as a young man with great ambitions.
“I feel honored — I feel like I’ve achieved something,” Pozgay said.
Ken Wrigley, an assistant Scoutmaster and owner of Wading River-based Emerald Landscaping, helped to design the new garden. He said some of his distributors donated the plantings seen placed around the rock ribbon and red dogwood tree.
So much had been donated to the project that there were thousands of dollars left over. In the next Brookhaven town board meeting, officials voted to take a donation of $6,839 from the troop and use the funds to construct a pergola at the town-owned community center, near the troop-built garden.
“It’s commendable for Brookhaven that the Scouts have taken the center under their wing,” said Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point). “The fact that so much money was left over shows just how generous people have been with donations.”
Throughout the ceremony, Alisa McMorris kept raising her eyes to the sky. Above, the clouds had rolled in an overcast, threatening rain throughout the evening, but Alisa was watching and listening for something. That’s when they heard it, a plane overhead, likely a passenger jet.
To the McMorris family, it was a sign. Andrew had wanted to be a pilot, and the Shoreham-Wading River middle school student had flown in local youth pilot programs.
In a continuing show of support for a fallen youth in the North Shore community, Shoreham-Wading River High School will play host to the first annual Andrew’s Run Dec. 15 at 9 a.m. to support a local Boy Scout troop after its tragic loss.
“Andrew was going to do his first run for the cross country team in Shoreham before the tragedy,” said Matthew Yakaboski, the scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 161. The troop experienced the tragic loss of 12-year-old member Andrew McMorris from an alleged drunk driving incident in October. “This is a significant run,” Yakaboski added. “He just started his cross country career. He enjoyed running and just wanted to be part of the team.”
The race is coming together through the efforts of 16-year-old Miller Place student Danelle Rose, who is taking her passion for running and using it to support her neighboring communities.
“I, like many people, was extremely heartbroken by this tragedy,” Rose said. “I really wanted to help them heal the best that I could.”
Andrew, who was a seventh-grader at Albert G. Prodell Middle School in Shoreham, died Oct. 1 after an alleged drunk driver struck him and four of his fellow Scouts in Boy Scout Troop 161 while they were walking along the shoulder of David Terry Road in Manorville during a hike. Only days after the tragedy, community members from Riverhead to Miller Place came out in strong support of the family and troop, posting red ribbons on mailboxes, street signs and outside shops. The McMorris family was adamant that any monetary donations should go to Troop 161, the Shoreham-Wading River School District’s Wildcat Helpers of the Arts and Music and the nonprofit advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
All proceeds from the Dec. 15 run are slated to go toward the construction of a 3,200 square foot Adirondack cabin at Baiting Hollow Scout Camp in Wading River, which will be named McMorris Lodge in honor of Andrew.
“[Troop 161] is beginning to recover from the event, but the McMorris family still has a long, long road ahead,” Yakaboski said. “Whatever we can do to show the community is behind them is tremendous.”
Rose, who is a member of both the Miller Place High School’s varsity track and cross country teams, said she knew the family through John McMorris, Andrew’s father, who is a guidance counselor in her school district.
“I wanted to help these three communities; Miller Place because Mr. McMorris works there, Shoreham because that’s where Andrew lived and Riverhead because that’s where the troop members were from, too.”
The 2.5-mile run/walk will start at the high school baseball field, then take participants down the lower lacrosse fields, back up around the upper soccer fields then enter into the trails briefly before exiting out onto the upper soccer fields again before coming back to the finish line.
Jackie Rose, Danelle’s mother, said she is proud of her daughter’s efforts, adding, “She’s just a well-rounded excellent student, and she does what she needs to do.”
There is a $10 entry fee to sign up, but donations are also accepted. Sign-ups start on the day, Dec. 15, at 8 a.m., but people can register before the race at runsignup.com/race/ny/
shoreham/andrewsrun until Dec. 13.
*This post was amended to restructure Jackie Rose’ biography
Visitors to Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society’s annual Postman Pete event are in for an improved experience thanks to the ingenuity of a local Boy Scout who has reached Eagle status.
Boy Scouts hoping to become Eagle Scouts, the highest rank attainable by a male Scout, are tasked with completing a project that demonstrates leadership and benefits the community. Joseph DiBiasi, a 17-year-old Comsewogue High School senior and member of Boy Scout Troop 1776 said he has been attending the historical society’s Postman Pete festivities since he was a kid, an event that gives kids the chance to hand over a letter to be delivered to Santa around Christmas time.
Those interested line up to head into the building on the rear of the historical society’s property on North Country Road in Miller Place, where they head in when it’s their turn. The small building on the same grounds as the larger William Miller House has two points of entry, though the rear exit had about an 18-inch drop off from the doorway to a layer of rocks, making it unsafe for youngsters to utilize. Instead, a logjam would regularly take place at the main point of entry where those entering would have to saunter around those exiting.
“When kids would come in and see Postman Pete, bring their letter, and then they’d have to make a U-turn and go back out,” society treasurer Gerard Mannarino said Sept. 29 during the ceremony to unveil DiBiasi’s completed project. “It’s not an area that you can have traffic in both directions. We always wanted to be able to open the back door and have them go out, but we had the danger because the step down from there was big and it was just a big rock.”
For his project, DiBiasi drew up plans and constructed a deck, equipped with a railing, to make the rear of the building accessible and usable. The project required the drawing of plans, approval from the Town of Brookhaven building department and Historic District Advisory Committee, some redrawing and reimagining and lots of hard work through the spring and summer.
“In 2016 when Gerrard originally showed this to me I was like, ‘Wow, this needs to be fixed,’” DiBiasi said. “As a kid I went to Postman Pete and I just felt like, when I was a kid it was a big thing for me. So I thought this would be a great addition.”
Greg Muroff, DiBiasi’s Scoutmaster, said he was proud of his Scout’s diligence and dedication to the project, as it also exposed him to some of the “red tape” involved with getting construction projects approved by local government.
“It came out better than I saw in the drawing,” Muroff said. “I knew this was going to be a bit challenging for him but Joseph definitely persevered. He aspires to be an engineer at some point in his life. He definitely has a mathematical mind, and he put pen to paper.”
Brookhaven town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) attended the event and presented proclamations to DiBiasi and Michael Muroff, another Scout from Troop 1776 who presented his completed project that day.
“We always like to take time out of our day to recognize and honor our Scouts,” Bonner said. “So much attention is focused on the bad things our kids are doing and not on the good things they’re doing. It makes me feel good to know that we’re surrounded by some really great kids.”
From Riverhead to Miller Place, red ribbons hung on street signs, store facades, schoolyard fences and mail boxes. The North Shore community was draped in red, the same crimson color worn on the shirts and kerchiefs of Boy Scouts. The color now adorns a community in mourning.
As news spread that 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, a Shoreham resident of Boy Scout of Troop 161 and student at Shoreham-Wading River’s Albert G. Prodell Middle School, was killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sept. 30 while on a hiking outing with several members of his troop on David Terry Road in Manorville, the community quickly galvanized in support. Four others from the troop were injured as a result of the crash, according to Suffolk County police.
In the week since the news broke, hundreds of residents headed onto local community Facebook pages to share their grief and ask what assistance they could offer the family. Some offered to send food in their time of need. Others buckled down and started making ribbons and wristbands for residents to show their hearts went out to all those hurt by the tragedy.
Pamela Garee, an agent with Wading River real estate company Coldwell Banker M&D Good Life, who works closely with Troop 161, quickly got about 70 volunteers to create 700 red ribbons by Oct. 5. Each ribbon cost $10, with all proceeds going to support the troop, the Shoreham-Wading River school district’s Wildcat Helpers of the Arts and Music, and nonprofit advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Ribbons are still available at the Coldwell Banker office at the Shoppes at East Wind in Wading River.
“We’re really doing it to be supportive of the troop, the boys, the victims and their families,” Garee said. “The support from the community — it’s been wonderful.”
Garee said she expects to sell more than 1,000 ribbons by the end of the weekend Oct. 7.
Suffolk County has also taken up the task of honoring the Boy Scout, as County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office announced Oct. 4 it would place ribbons at the entrances to 16 major county parks.
“It is with great sadness that we remember Andrew, but I am proud to honor this bright, dedicated young man with this small act of remembrance,” Bellone said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family now and forever in the wake of this immeasurable tragedy.”
The first of three wakes were held for Andrew Oct. 4. The sidewalks were lined with red ribbons, and a near-constant stream of friends, family and community members journeyed to the Branch Funeral Home of Miller Place to pay their respects. Members of Boy Scout Troop 204 of Miller Place stood at attention in front of the funeral home, serving as an honor guard paying respect to the fallen fellow scout.
Others in the community were decorating their own houses and storefronts with the ribbons. Shortly after David and Gloria Kurtinaitis, owners of Forte’s Florist in Wading River, got word of the tragedy they used their own material to decorate their shopping complex with the symbol.
“It’s great when the community comes together, it’s just a hard way to do it,” David Kurtinaitis said.
The incident occurred Sept. 30 as the troop was taking a day hike through the Greenbelt Trail in Manorville. Thomas Murphy, 59, of Holbrook was driving a 2016 Mercedes southbound on David Terry Road at approximately 1:55 p.m. when his vehicle struck the scouts who were walking northbound on the shoulder of the roadway, according police.
McMorris was rushed to the hospital but died due to his injuries Oct. 1, police said. Along with McMorris four other boys were also hit by the driver. Denis Lane, 16, of Shoreham; Kaden Lynch, 15, of Calverton; and Matthew Yakaboski, 15, of Calverton, sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Thomas Lane, 15, of Shoreham, was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital where he has continued to be treated for serious injuries as of Oct. 5.
Murphy was charged with driving while intoxicated, though Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini’s (D) office has left open the possibility of upgrading the charges. An attorney for Murphy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The SWR school district has put a notice on its website saying support services were available to students and staff, and that parents or guardians could call the school should they wish their children to get grief support.
In a statement released to Newsday, the McMorris family shared Andrew’s love for acting, the Boy Scouts and aviation.
“Andrew wanted to fly before he could walk,” the statement read. “Airplanes, helicopters and rockets were the obsession of his life, and he achieved his first piloting goal this past summer during AeroCamp … Andrew was occasionally chided by parents, coaches and teachers for having his head in the clouds, but for Andrew, that only made sense.”
The support for the scout troop members and the McMorris family has even extended beyond the Shoreham community. A GoFundMe fundraising campaign for Troop 161 has exceeded $13,000 of a $15,000 goal as of Oct. 5, just five days after Andrew’s passing.
Andrew participated in AeroCamp, a youth flight educational program hosted by Mid Island Air Service. The organization released a statement highlighting Andrew’s love for aviation.
“Andrew worked hard during camp to complete his Boy Scout Aviation Merit Badge and we were so proud of him,” the statement read. “We are saddened by this senseless loss and offer his family our deepest condolences.”
A Change.org petition titled “Name an AA 787 after Andrew McMorris,” which seeks to get American Airlines to name a jet after Andrew, has already reached well over 12,000 signatures. The petition’s creator, aviation photographer Hunter Lyons, is seeking response from the airline that could help get Andrew’s name on a plane.
Andrew is survived by his mother, Alisha, father, John and sister, Arianna. In their statement the family asked that no items be placed as memorials at the scene of the crash, and instead that residents tie a red ribbon to their property, and that instead of sending flowers residents donate to Troop 161, WHAM and MADD.
“Bright and hardworking, Andrew was an honor roll student,” the family’s statement said. “Classmates, teachers and friends found him sometimes silly, always funny and, occasionally, a bit cheeky. He was a friend to everyone and showed kindness to all.”
This post was updated Oct. 8 to include the possibility the District Attorney will upgrade charges against Murphy.