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Dr. Joseph Rella

Dr. Joseph Rella at his last graduation ceremony at Comsewogue High School in 2019. File photo by Kyle Barr/TBR News Media

The Suffolk County Legislature has approved naming Port Jefferson Station’s Terryville Greenbelt in honor of former Comsewogue School District Superintendent Dr. Joseph Rella. The initiative was led by Legislator Kara Hahn, in honor of the highly regarded teacher, principal and administrator who passed away in February 2020 at the age of 69. 

 Described as “one of the most courageous and inspiring educators ever,” Dr. Rella began his 25-year career with the Comsewogue School District as a part-time music teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School. He also served as principal of Comsewogue High School prior to becoming school superintendent in 2011, a post he held until his retirement from the district in 2019. 

“Dr. Rella was absolutely beloved in the community. Every child in the Comsewogue School District knew he cared about them, knew he believed in them and knew he loved them,” said Legislator Hahn. “His impact upon the district, his students’ lives and this community have been profound and through this tribute we honor the lasting legacy of his actions.” 

Located within the Central Suffolk Special Groundwater Protection Area, the Terryville Greenbelt is situated between Route 112 and North Bicycle Path in Port Jefferson Station.  The greenbelt area is over 75 total acres that Suffolk County and the Town of Brookhaven have each pursued preserving through individual and joint purchases of open space parcels. 

“The Terryville Greenbelt adjoins Comsewogue High School so forever linking this preserved land to the school where Dr. Rella served and to the greater community seems fitting,” said Leg. Hahn.

The bill, which has been co-sponsored by neighboring Legislators Sarah Anker and Nick Caracappa, now goes to County Executive Steve Bellone for his signature. It is anticipated that once the naming becomes official, a ceremony will be held in recognition of Dr. Rella’s contribution to education and to his community. 

“Dr. Rella cultivated a community where people came together and respected one another in all of their differences. His mission was we are one, working together to be the best we can be. His focus was always to ensure the best for the students and their families” said Joseph Coniglione, Comsewogue SD Assistant Superintendent for Staff and Student Services. 

“He created a culture of kindness throughout his career and having a wellness space dedicated in his memory is a tremendous honor for his family, our schools and this community.”

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Photo by Andrew Harris

By Kylie Schlosser and Andrew Harris

Tuesday Dec. 14 at Comsewogue High School was a very special evening indeed. It was well orchestrated in more ways than one.

Dr. Rella’s son, Richie, spoke about how he was grateful that Comsewogue (where he spent most of his time) ‘shared’ his dad with the family. Photo by Andrew Harris

When Superintendent Jennifer Quinn spoke, she said that Dr. Rella always said that during any celebrations, it was the musicians who were called upon first. Sure enough, musicians and singers from all the schools serenaded everyone that evening.

The dedication of the auditorium could not have been any more fitting, as it was on an evening surrounded by family, friends and love, of course, all to honor the man who started out as a part-time piano player at a church.

Later on he would become a music teacher, principal and eventually the superintendent of Comsewogue. 

Board member Rob Destefano spoke about him with a unique perspective both as board member and as a former student at Comsewogue.

“I am so proud that we are honoring his legacy with his name on this auditorium,” he said. “This is the classroom where he influenced the lives and education of so many of us.  Going through some old papers this past week, I found the program from one of those early, magical moments. This is the program from the 1996 Spring Concert. Some will recall, about how Dr. and Mrs. Rella danced in the aisles as we played ‘Sing! Sing! Sing!’  Classic Louis Prima / Benny Goodman swing music. Magic was happening!”

Charlotte Johnson, choral director, and her Tapestry Singers sang some lovely and fitting songs that evening.

Johnson said, “If you listen to the words of the song, [A Million Dreams], you can imagine Dr. Rella speaking them. He always felt that making this district the best it could be was not impossible … We just need to  put our thoughts and dreams into action, develop a plan and then have the courage to see it through.”

Destefano summarized it best. 

“If we remember the lessons we have been taught here, the time will soon come again, when Comsewogue will dance in the aisles of this auditorium. There is room for all of us. And I hope you will get out of your seats and join us!”

The district believes he, along with his wife, Jackie, would dance to the song that his beloved Tapestry sang that evening: 

“Every night I lie in bed

The brightest colors fill my head

A million dreams are keeping me awake

I think of what the world could be

A vision of the one I see

A million dreams is all it’s gonna take

Oh, a million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

However big, however small

Let me be part of it all

Share your dreams with me

You may be right, you may be wrong

But say that you’ll bring me along

To the world you see

To the world I close my eyes to see

I close my eyes to see.”

— “A Million Dreams” 

Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Ziv Zaifman

Kylie Schlosser is a 9th grade student at Comsewogue High School. Andrew Harris is a teacher in the district. 

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Students like Mei Li Johnson spent their mornings volunteering at the local nursing home. Photo from Andrew Harris

By Deniz Yildirim

On Monday, June 21, the Comsewogue community celebrated its fourth annual Joe’s Day of Service — a day for students and educators alike to give back and complete service projects for the community. 

This year the day started with a special ceremony at the Comsewogue High School where a tree was planted and dedicated to the late superintendent of the district, Dr. Joe Rella, who died in February 2020.

As per the class of 2023, a Japanese red maple (Joe’s favorite) was planted in front of Comsewogue High School. Speakers during the planting included the current superintendent, Dr. Jennifer Quinn and Richie Rella, Dr. Rella’s son. 

Photo from Andrew Harris

They moved the crowd, including Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), with their words about the late superintendent and spoke about his love for the school and kind nature. 

“If anyone knew my dad, they knew it’s all he ever talked about,” said Richie. 

“And though Joe is no longer with us, it is his sincerest question that has guided Dr. Quinn during this incredibly challenging school year; How are the kids?”

After these heartfelt testaments, a small student choir, directed by Charlotte Johnson, performed “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan. 

Afterward’s, two buses, donated by Suffolk Transportation, took volunteers to Woodhaven Nursing Home in Port Jefferson Station. Once there, students gifted residents with painted rocks and artwork. They also planted flowers and read handwritten letters from students from the elementary schools and JFK Middle School which were collected and paired with a blanket by school social worker, Ginger Guidone. 

“All in all, it was a day well spent and one we hope Dr. Rella would have been proud of,” said special education teacher and student character liaison Andrew Harris, who coordinated the event. 

Deniz Yildirim is a librarian at the Terryville Road Elementary School.

The late Joe Rella, pictured in June of 2019 with Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

There are only so many people who could have done the job that Dr. Joe Rella, the former Comsewogue superintendent, did — teacher, principal and finally head of schools. If the scores of affectionate tributes posted to social media are anything to go on, Rella is one of the few folks you could point to that has made the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community what it is today.

Rella died last Friday at the too-young age of 69. He had been dealing with a diagnosis of bile duct cancer for the last few years, but still he kept at the job until he finally retired last year. Community members know there wasn’t a day that went by where Rella did not put himself forward for the benefit of the community, whether it was his weekly online story times or his constant attendance as the “piano man” at district concerts. Many in the community can point to examples of outreach and help he bestowed upon employees and students in the district.

North Shore residents often rightfully complain of their high taxes, the majority of which stem from school districts, but Rella showed that a school district can become the heart of the local hamlet and the epicenter for every goings-on in the area. It can become the source of pride and culture for residents, not only the entity that simply teaches students for 13 to 14 years at a time.

What we found in reporting on Comsewogue is that doors were always open. Most of the time, officials did not hesitate to speak on either positive events or district issues. In an age where there seems to be more and more red tape between district/school administrators and both journalists and the public, Comsewogue, under Rella’s guidance, showed just how effective being open to public comment could be. In a final interview with Rella before he retired, he spoke to one newbie editor of how important it was to listen to community feedback, no matter if it was negative and no matter if you may disagree with it. As a former music teacher, who brought music into everything he did, he said the important thing was to listen.

Rella was named one of TBR News Media’s People of the Year in both 1995 and 2010 for music and education, respectively. Though the papers have changed editors since then, the editorial staff was amazed reading those old articles, seeing just how much of the same man was in stories 25 years old as he was in articles written about him little more than half a year ago. There is a sense of compassion, of simply wanting to be there, to spread an awareness of purpose amongst students and staff and to act selflessly and to help define a community around a sense of selflessness and compassion.

Other supers have also made the list of People of the Year, including Elwood’s Ken Bossert — formerly Port Jeff superintendent — who has shown a similar sense of community engagement. 

Of course, we do not wish to diminish the hard work of the many heads of schools in our coverage areas, and we know many who have shown strides in district leadership. What we instead ask is for more people to look at the example Rella left in not just defining a school district, but defining neighborhoods and neighbors, of being the precedent which every student and even most residents could look toward. He was the one who looked to building trust not by demanding loyalty, but by creating a space everybody feels they’re on the same side and that all are working toward goals that benefit everyone. 

Rella will be missed, but his example remains one that all should live by.