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Eric Santiago

Eric Santiago, right, with his brother Gary preparing to open up their first store in 1979.

Months after a fire at a neighboring restaurant, an East Setauket business owner is still dealing with the aftermath in his own storefront.

Eric Santiago, owner of Innovative Nutrition, celebrated 40 years in business this summer, but the milestone was marred when he walked into his store July 30 to find water pouring through the ceiling. Besides the ceiling, the floor and a good amount of his merchandise were damaged as well. Earlier that morning fire had broken out in the kitchen of Mario’s restaurant in Old Schoolhouse Square, and due to firefighters needing to fight the fire from the roof, water began entering Innovative Nutrition.

The damaged ceiling of Innovative Nutrition after a fire in Mario’s this summer. Photo from Eric Santiago

To clean up, Santiago closed his doors for a week, and he will close the store again for another week or two during this month to have repairs done.

The business owner said it has been taking awhile to get everything resolved, especially having to dealing with lawyers and insurance adjusters. But after 40 years in business, he has what it takes to get through the adversity.

“You just have to buckle down,” he said. “It’s fortitude and it’s stubbornness.”

Through the decades the business has been known as Village Natural Foods and VNF Nutrition before Santiago changed the name to Innovative Nutrition. He and his brother, Gary, opened their first health food store in 1979. Santiago was 25 at the time and his brother 22.

“We both wanted to go into business,” he said. “It seemed like the right time to do it, and we’re both into health and wellness. It was the end of the ’70s and health food was very popular and becoming more popular.”

At first, he wanted to open up a surf shop and his brother a bicycle shop, but it was his mother who told her sons that if they opened a health food business, she would loan them the money. A year later, his brother left the business and now lives in Seattle where he has become a successful bicycle retailer.

In the 40 years since he opened his first store with his brother, Santiago has operated out of a few different locations. During the earlier days he was in a spot near Stony Brook Beverage on Route 25A and then where Starbucks is today in the Three Village Shopping Center. When Wild by Nature opened a few doors down from him, Santiago soon found out it was difficult to fight the competition.

“Wild by Nature put me out of business once and now a fire put me out of business, but we’ve come back both times,” he said.

He moved from the Three Village Shopping Center and set up shop in Port Jefferson, where he also lives. He said when the economy crashed in 2009, he moved back to the Three Village area and opened up at the current location.

Today besides Santiago and his five employees serving customers in person, Innovative Nutrition has a mail order business where people all over the United States can order from the store’s website. Like many small businesses, Santiago said it’s difficult nowadays to compete with major online retailers such as Amazon and other big-box stores, but he said there are benefits to purchasing from a small business, especially as some of the larger chains may have associates who aren’t as knowledgeable.

“I’ve been in the nutrition business for 40 years,” he said. “You can have a conversation with me about nutrition, about supplements. It’s a very involved field.”

Despite the adversities, the business has faced, Santiago said as a homeowner with two grown children, he can’t throw his hands up and quit.

“I can’t afford to lose,” he said. “Too many people have been counting on me over the years.”

A West Meadow Beach bench sports a new plaque honoring former park ranger Eileen Gerle. Photo by Eric Santiago

By Eric Santiago

More than 30 North Shore residents gathered around a park bench at West Meadow Beach on Sunday for the chance to see former Brookhaven park ranger, Eileen Gerle. The bench — which now bears a plaque commemorating Gerle’s work as an environmental educator — was dedicated to her after she retired and moved to Florida last year.

“It’s hard to put into words,” said an emotional Gerle. “It’s very overwhelming and touching to be loved by so many people.”

Gerle returned this week for a special Eagle Scout award ceremony of one of her former students just in time for a group of residents and friends to seize the opportunity and formally show her the plaque and celebrate old times.

Former town park ranger Eileen Gerle is honored at West Meadow Beach. Photo by Eric Santiago
Former town park ranger Eileen Gerle is honored at West Meadow Beach. Photo by Eric Santiago

“She was the best,” said Paul Feinberg, a West Meadow watchdog who helped organize the dedication along with a handful of other North Shore natives.

They were all frequent guests at Gerle’s “Sundowner” beach parties, where they would drink wine, eat cheese and watch the sunset. When it was clear Gerle was going to retire, the group hatched a plan to honor her work.

“We just decided that a simple plaque would be the nicest thing to do,” said Naomi Solo, a Port Jefferson resident who worked on the dedication.

As park ranger, Gerle was responsible for maintaining the beach, the area wildlife and, critically, educating people about the environment. She worked at West Meadow from 2009 to 2014 and said she made many friends along the way.

It was for this reason Solo and the others contacted Brookhaven Town for permission to install the plaque on a bench at the beach.

Her influence was so impactful that immediately after she resigned residents campaigned for town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) to guarantee that her position would be filled with another full-­time park ranger. Their efforts were successful and Gerle’s successor Molly Hastings took over the spot at West Meadow.

A year into the job, Hastings said the response has been nothing short of warm.

“It was really nice,” she said of when she started working at the beach. “I literally pulled up with the moving van and people were greeting me and welcoming me as I was taking the sofa and bed off of my truck.”

But Gerle’s greatest legacy lies in the students she taught, those at the ceremony said.

Aidan Donnelly, 13, was one of those who attended the educational programs Gerle organized. The newly appointed Eagle Scout was also the recipient of the William T. Hornaday badge — a prestigious award for “distinguished service in natural resource conservation,” according to the Boy Scouts of America website.

Aidan attributed the work he’s done, and the work he hopes to do as a future environmental physicist, to the lessons he learned from his mentor.

“She taught me everything I know about the beach,” he said of Gerle. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.”

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Above, the Northport Historical Society. Photo from Heather Johnson

By Eric Santiago

Over the last year, a group of Northport-East Northport teachers and students have worked to preserve an overlooked piece of Long Island’s history.

Eaton’s Neck was home to a leading patriot, forgotten except by a few local history buffs. Yet the biography of John Sloss Hobart (1738-1805) reads like the résumé of a Revolutionary War hero. Born in Connecticut, Hobart went on to graduate from Yale University, join the American resistance, help draft the New York State Constitution, briefly becoming a U.S. senator and eventually accepting a federal judgeship.

Unlike Revolutionary War-era icons like Nathan Hale or Paul Revere, Hobart’s name largely faded into obscurity.

“For some reason his name didn’t stand out the way theirs did,” Peter White, a retired social studies teacher who taught at Northport Middle School, said.

But there are pieces of Hobart’s legacy that survive. After his death in 1805, a close friend of Hobart’s, the judge Egbert Benson, commissioned a marble tablet in Hobart’s honor.

Bearing an inscription that praised his work in life, the Hobart tablet spent about the next 150 years in the basement of New York City Hall, according to a letter White co-wrote to the Northport-East Northport school board. This was until Richard Streb, a teacher at Northport High School, discovered the tablet in 1963. He convinced then-Mayor Robert Wagner’s administration to sell the tablet to the Northport-East Northport school district for $1.

A view of the tablet honoring John Sloss Hobart. Photo from Kathleen Cusumano
A view of the tablet honoring John Sloss Hobart. Photo from Kathleen Cusumano

It’s bounced around Northport-East Northport schools ever since, most recently embedded in the wall of the auditorium at Northport Middle School. When Streb retired in 1981, he asked White, his close friend and protégé, to look after the tablet.

It gathered dust in the back of the auditorium until last December when music department chairperson, Izzet Mergen, considered dedicating the space to former music department chairperson, Robert Krueger.

Realizing that moving the tablet would be a sensitive issue, Mergen contacted White, who then contacted Kathleen Cusumano, a permanent substitute teacher at Northport Middle School. A former student of White’s and a local history expert, Cusumano and the others formed a group to decide the tablet’s fate. The goal was to find somewhere the tablet could be seen and appreciated.

“We had the task of trying to figure out what to do with it,” White said.

Sensing this could be a valuable learning experience, Cusumano started recruiting students to help with the search.

“We have middle school students who are living on Hobart land,” Cusumano said. “There’s always that connection when you’re trying to teach history — that tangible connection of actually seeing something that really existed and didn’t just come out of a textbook.”

Now with a dozen students in tow, the group began exploring possible homes for the tablet. Several places were considered, with the Northport Historical Society, Northport Library and Huntington Town Hall as some of the most popular contenders. The students visited these locations before voting on where they would recommend the tablet be placed. Ultimately the school district, which owns the tablet, had the final say.

Heather Johnson, the director of the historical society, remembers when the students visited. She was particularly impressed with their thoughtful questions.

“For somebody who works in a historical society, we’re always trying get people involved of all ages interested in history,” she said. “There’s nothing more heartwarming and positive to see — really any group — but certainly a young group who are trying to make a difference.”

After the visit, the students started to lean toward the historical society, but they were reluctant to declare a permanent home for the tablet, Cusumano said. What if no one came to the historical society? Could they guarantee that some place like the library wouldn’t guarantee more visibility?

But the students managed to come up with a compromise, according to Cusumano; they decided to ask that the tablet only be loaned for a year. If the historical society turned out to be a poor fit, the tablet could be moved elsewhere at the end of the year.

The school board approved this recommendation at a recent meeting. According to district clerk, Beth Nystrom, the tablet will be moved to the historical society once the attorneys from both parties draft the formal agreement to loan the tablet.

For their part, Johnson said the historical society was proud and excited to add the tablet to their collection.

“When we found out we were the top choice, we were delighted and honored,” she said. “[The students] did their research, and that made it even more meaningful to be chosen.”

Cusumano also praised the students’ dedication. She stressed that some of the best learning can only be done outside of the classroom.

“I think when you experience — when you have experiential learning — it stays with you,” she said. “More things like field trips where [the students] can get involved, I believe, makes for a lifelong learner.”

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Superintendent Ken Bossert. Photo by Eric Santiago

By Eric Santiago

Port Jefferson’s school board took a firm stance Tuesday night against the direction in which New York State is moving public education.

In a statement approved at its meeting this week, the board highlighted three of the most controversial pieces of the educational reform agenda: the Common Core Learning Standards, standardized state tests linked to the new curriculum and teacher evaluations that rely on student performance on the former two. They join a growing mass of politicians, teachers and parents who, with a new school year winding up, are renewing a call for the Common Core to be revised or removed.

While the board called the Common Core “a significant step forward in providing a sound curriculum for our students,” the members spoke against what they perceived as a poor job by the state in implementing the more stringent standards, which were launched in New York classrooms a few years ago.

The backbone of the program is a series of standardized tests that track student progress. That data is then used as a component in teachers’ and principals’ annual evaluations. For those reasons, parents and educators have referred to the exams as “high-stakes” tests.

According to the board, it “forces teachers to spend the greatest percentage of instruction time on tested areas” while neglecting other important topics. For example, Common Core emphasizes English and math learning and as a result, the board said, teachers have spent less time on subjects like social studies and science.

The tests have also faced criticism because many parents and educators say they are not properly aligned to the curriculum, and thus include material students would not have learned.

The opposition to the tests has launched an anti-testing movement over the last two years in which parents have declined the tests for their kids, calling it “opting out.” In the last state testing cycle, Port Jefferson saw half of its third- through eighth-graders opt out of the standardized English and math exams.

This hasn’t been lost on state officials.

Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced he would assemble a group of experts, parents and educators to review the Common Core program, saying that he believes the system contains problems.

“The current Common Core program in New York is not working and must be fixed,” he said in a press release.

Cuomo said he will call upon the group to “provide recommendations in time for my State of the State Address in January.”

Test results show grounds are sound

David Badanes speaks at a Northport-East Northport school board meeting. File Photo by Eric Santiago

By Eric Santiago

The soil at Norwood Avenue Elementary School is safe for children, an environmental engineer told the Northport-East Northport school board last week.

“I would expect concentrations in my own backyard would be very similar to what we found on the school property,” said Paul Lageraaen, the environmental services department manager for H2M architects + engineers.

Last month, the school board tasked Lageraaen’s firm with analyzing the school grounds to determine if the area had been contaminated with hazardous chemicals out of “an abundance of caution, and in response to low levels of contaminants found in the soil of a neighboring farming property proposed to be developed into a winery,” according to a statement from Superintendent Robert Banzer. Dust from a property that is proposed to be developed into a vineyard next to the school may have fallen on school grounds while the land was being cleared out, officials said. Lageraaen presented the firm’s findings at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

Of the dozens of herbicides, metals and pesticides tested, only one was discovered at noteworthy concentrations. Arsenic, a common ingredient in pesticides before it was banned in 1991, was found at moderate levels in the northwest corner of the school. The proposed vineyard property is along the school’s eastern border.

This was not a great concern to Lageraaen.

H2M tested its soil samples against New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation Regulations Part 375. According to these regulations, residential areas should have a maximum arsenic concentration of 16 parts per million (PPM). The sample from that corner of the school was analyzed at 17 PPM. This was one of 16 samples taken from across the school grounds. The rest all tested below this level.

Lageraaen pointed out that regulations are not an actual limit.

“It’s defined as an objective,” he said. “It’s not a hard and fast action level.” This is because there isn’t a definitive consensus for what that level should be. For example, New Jersey regulations say that 19 PPM should be the maximum concentration for residential areas.

But the key finding Lageraaen cited was that were was no sign that soil around the school had been moved, disturbed or contaminated by a dangerous chemical.

“The soils that are at Norwood school are the same soils that have been there for 60 years,” he said. “If I found an area where suddenly arsenic or some other compound was at 100 PPM and everything else was at 15 PPM, then you have to be concerned.”

Once the presentation was finished, David Badanes, vice president of the school board, asked the central question for the board.

“I guess the bottom line question is this: Are the children that are going to play at Norwood safe?”

“Yes,” said Lageraaen, who also coaches community soccer at the Northport fields. “I have no qualms about returning there to coach or my kids playing on those fields.”

In closing out the discussion, board President Andrew Rapiejko said that the board has been in contact with the town about the proposed vineyard, and encouraged concerned community members to do the same.

In a phone interview on Thursday, Fred Giachetti, who owns the property and wants to develop it into a vineyard, stressed that he has contacted local officials and experts to ensure the property is managed responsibly.

“I have never been irresponsible and reckless in my whole life,” he said. “I’m a graduate of Northport High School. My wife and I have been trying to do something that is bringing back the agrarian traditions of our community because we have a great interest in it and a family history. We think it’s a wonderful idea — instead of building more McMansions or condos or townhomes, we could try and bring something back to the community that we’ve lost.”