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Joseph Higgins, owner of Tara Inn in Port Jeff, collects donations during a fundraiser Sept. 4 for Hurricane Harvey victims. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

A national tragedy sprung Joseph Higgins to action in September, but the owner of Tara Inn pub hasn’t needed a special reason to demonstrate his ethos of above and beyond generosity in the 40 years he has owned the upper Port Jefferson watering hole.

When Higgins heard of the devastation in Houston and the surrounding region as a result of Hurricane Harvey in late August, he said it resonated with him in a way that left him feeling like action was required. The pub owner decided to hold a benefit Sept. 4, Labor Day, to raise money for people affected by the massive storm. In addition to the sale of raffle tickets and Harvey relief T-shirts donated by Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, Higgins gave away 100 percent of the bar’s food and beverage sales from the day to a group providing aid for victims in the region.

“There’s very few people in this world that when they get to the pearly gates they’re going to hear, ‘we were waiting for you.’’’

— Stephen Murray

Tara Inn amassed more than $15,200 in sales and donations that day, which were given to the storm victims through the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Higgins rounded up the donation to an even $16,000.

“Forty years ago I had eight kids, my wife and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I said, ‘God, help me raise these kids,’ and he did,” the 87-year-old Higgins said during the event, while seated near the pub’s front door with a container for additional donations. “And I can’t thank God enough for all he has given me and that’s why we give back. I’ve had a great life, and I like to give back. There have been times in my life where I had an opportunity to do something good and I didn’t do it, and I always regret that. Every time something comes along that we can do for somebody else, I want to do it.”

In talking to his friends and family, Higgins’ assertion that he has missed opportunities to give back seems like a wholly disingenuous characterization of his life. For that reason, Higgins is a 2017 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

“He’ll say that money doesn’t mean anything to him, and the only other people I’ve ever heard say that are millionaires,” said Kate Higgins, one of the pub owner’s eight children, reiterating he is not a millionaire.

For about 30 years, Tara Inn has hosted similar events to the Hurricane Harvey benefit every Jan. 1 for a wide range of causes. After a fire left Billie’s 1890 Saloon shuttered, the pub hosted a fundraiser for Billie’s employees. When Erik Halvorsen, the late owner of Norse Tree Service, died as a result of a tragic accident on the job in 2016, Higgins organized a fundraiser for Halvorsen’s family. Another New Year’s Day event raised money for an Iraq war veteran who had been paralyzed in the line of duty. Higgins himself is a U.S. Army Korean War veteran.

Every year, Higgins also donates vegetables to Infant Jesus church in Port Jeff for its Thanksgiving event. The pub also serves a free lunch to senior citizens around St. Patrick’s Day every year.

Kate Higgins estimated her father has donated somewhere in the ballpark of $200,000 in total from the New Year’s Day fundraisers, but that doesn’t account for a lifetime of random acts of kindness Higgins has done over the years.

According to Tom Meehan, a longtime friend of Higgins’ and the principal of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, many years ago a couple came into the bar who had just gotten married at Port Jefferson Village Hall by the village justice. Meehan said they ended up at Tara Inn because they heard the prices were inexpensive, and they were looking to celebrate their marriage despite having very little money. Higgins caught wind, served the couple a free lobster dinner and then placed a call to Meehan, who owned a luxury van at the time. Higgins gave Meehan cash and instructed him to drive the couple to Danfords Hotel & Marina and pay for their stay for the night.

Despite all of his generosity, Higgins lives modestly, according to his daughters.

“At one point we had two picnic tables in the dining room for the 10 of us,” said Tara Higgins, whom the bar was named after. She added somehow Higgins and his wife of 65 years, Pat, managed to send her and her siblings to schools like Harvard, Boston College, Villanova and Providence to name a few. “With his grandchildren, like he is with everyone else, he has an ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world.”

“He’ll say that money doesn’t mean anything to him, and the only other people I’ve ever heard say that are millionaires.”

— Kate Higgins

Her sister Kate tried to explain why her father has decided to spend his life giving so much.

“I don’t think he ever forgets where he came from,” she said. “He didn’t have it easy growing up. He lost his father when he was really young. He just never forgets that, I don’t think.”

Stories of Higgins’ generosity flow like draft beer inside Tara Inn’s four walls. Mindy Talasko, an employee of the bar since it opened, said during a Saturday afternoon interview at the pub, pointing to one of the tables, Higgins had instructed the staff years ago that a father eating lunch with his daughter were never to be charged for a meal or drink at Tara Inn. The daughter had been injured in an accident as an infant, and had difficulties and disabilities as a result.

“He’s just a wonderful, kindhearted man,” Talasko said. “He would do anything for anyone and he’s done so much for me over the years. I probably wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Joe and Tara Inn and Mrs. Higgins.”

Talasko said she had three kids during the years she worked with Higgins. Years ago, she said she would regularly have car troubles, and eventually went to lease a new car to be able to travel back and forth to work. When she arrived to sign the paperwork she was informed she needed to come up with about $800 to pay for the insurance, which she didn’t have. She said she asked Higgins, who gave her the money. The next day she arrived at the bar ready to talk about how she would pay him back. Higgins asked how long the loan was for, and when Talasko responded four years, he told her, “In four years come back and talk to me.”

Up until recently, Tara Inn’s menu featured a hamburger for $1, a Higgins idea.

“He always said he wanted to keep it low so if anybody only had a dollar or two they could come in and get something to eat,” John Koehnlein, another old friend of the bar owner said.

The price has gone up with the changing times. A hamburger at Tara Inn now costs $2.

“His generosity is unmatched,” friend Stephen Murray said. “I can’t imagine anybody out there who does more than he does for people in need.”

Kate Higgins offered a theory to explain how Tara Inn has stayed in business for so long.

“I think his basic business model is ‘Make everybody feel at home, make everybody feel welcome,’” she said. “He doesn’t care what your background is. He doesn’t care if you’re head of one of the hospitals or the homeless guy up the street.”

Murray summed up the character of Tara Inn’s longtime owner, a man his daughters described as very religious.

“There’s very few people in this world that when they get to the pearly gates they’re going to hear, ‘We were waiting for you,’” Murray said.

WWE Wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley poses for a photo with the Castoro family during his event Sept. 7 where he raised funds for autistic families affected by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Kevin Redding

Wanting to help in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, wrestling icon and Smithtown resident Mick Foley stopped by a local comic book shop Sept. 7 to sign autographs for a cause close to home.

The big-bearded and even bigger-hearted 52-year-old best known to WWE fans as Cactus Jack, Mankind and Dude Love visited Fourth World Comics on Route 112 in Smithtown to sign autographs, pose for pictures and raise money for KultureCity, a Birmingham, Alabama-based nonprofit advocating for autism awareness and acceptance.

WWE wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley poses for a photo with young children during an event at a comic book store in Smithtown where he raised money for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Photo by Kevin Redding

Foley helped raise $3,240 for the organization that is helping dozens of special needs families that have been affected by the Category 4 storm in Houston, Texas.

When he found out the group had members on the ground in Texas, and special needs families were struggling with torn-apart homes and lost items, he knew he had to get involved. The organization is also near and dear to Foley, because his son is autistic.

“Anyone who knows about children on the autism spectrum know they tend to thrive on regularity, and so to take everything they have and to suddenly turn that upside down is just devastating — even above and beyond what other families are going through,” Foley said. “This just seemed like a good way to make a difference. The money we raise may not change the world, but it will change the lives of these families.”

As a frequent shopper and celebrity guest at Fourth World in recent years, Foley took his idea for the meet-and-greet fundraiser directly to Glenn Fischette, the comic book store’s owner.

“It was really last minute, [but] as we can’t really go down there and help, we figured this is a good way to do it,” said Fischette, adding that he and Foley spent a day and a half blasting the event across social media after Foley proposed the idea Sept. 5. By 5 p.m. on the day of the event, an hour before Foley was set to arrive, a long line of super fans had already assembled outside.

WWE wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley meets young fans during a signing to raise money for Hurricane Harvey victims. Photo by Kevin Redding

“People just love him. I know a lot of people who’ve been here before to see him, and they want to see him again,” the owner said. “He’s really into the charity stuff, so it’s great.”

Set up behind a table inside Fourth World Comics, Foley put a smile on the faces of hundreds of adults, teens and kids eager to meet their hero as he signed shirts and his own Pop! Vinyl doll for $20 to $30.

The Castoro family, from Smithtown — parents Jason and Nicole, and their 9-year-old kids Marilena and Brandon — were at the front of the line, each of them donning a wrestling shirt. As excited as they were for Foley, they came to support the cause, too.

“I think it’s wonderful he’s using his celebrity status for a good cause,” said Jason Castoro, a lifelong fan. “Sometimes when we go to meet famous wrestlers, you have to wait on a long line, and that’s just to meet them and take a picture. This really adds something special to it. We realized we had to come to this.”

Nicole Castoro pointed to her daughter, Marinella, who she said came up with a similar idea on her own.

“The other day, she said, ‘why can’t all the wrestlers just give the people in Texas the money they make?’ and here he is, giving them all the proceeds,” she said. “That’s really cool.”

WWR wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley signs an autograph for Chance Clanton, of Austin, Texas, who is staying in New York for the week. Photo by Kevin Redding

Another lifelong WWE and Foley fan was Chance Clanton, an Austin, Texas resident staying in New York for the week. He said he has friends in Houston and is grateful for the overwhelming support from everybody, including his childhood idol.

“It’s really cool that he’s taking time out of his really busy schedule to show support for something like this,” Clanton said. “But it also really was no surprise to me when I heard he doing it, he’s so charitable.”

Throughout the event, Foley shared stories from his career, goofed off and laughed with fans, all the while thanking each and every one of them for being there.

“I’m really flattered by the length of that line — I didn’t think there would be this many people,” Foley said. “This shows the strength and the heart of the Smithtown community and the surrounding areas. We’re called Strong Island for a reason. We pull together. And that’s really nice to know.”

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the enormous energy of Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm for a time, could be harnessed to serve later in some practical way, perhaps to light the city of Chicago during one of winter’s darkest weeks?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the unending rainfall brought by Harvey, in some places in Texas more than 50 inches already, could be captured, stored and brought to areas that are arid and desperate for water?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the disastrous effects and ruination caused by Harvey could somehow bring Americans back together, red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, forgetting their anger and moving compassionately together to help the tragic victims of our fourth largest city?

Wait, I think destructive Harvey has done just that.

Am I imagining, or did I hear one of our more bellicose representatives, from Long Island no less, promise to bury the hatchet and vote aid for the state of his longtime adversary, despite not having received such aid in our time of terrible need? And wasn’t he bragging about his empathy?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the unprecedented flooding caused by Harvey could incredibly make the prospect of nuclear war with Kim Jong-un secondary at the top of the news hour, beneath the fold on the front page of the daily newspaper and in the public consciousness?

Yes, it happened like that. Even President Trump disappeared from the news for a time. Harvey it seems, terrible as it is, can do strange things.

But the cost, in human agony, is catastrophic. Millions of people throughout the Gulf Coast have had their lives smashed, and that certainly is the main story for America this week. We have been glued to the television, watching the families with little more than the clothes on their backs, wading through the waist-high water to meet a rescuer in a rowboat, their homes behind them flooded to the windowsills. Where will they sleep? What will they eat? Will they have enough water? Did they remember to bring their medicines? Are their other loved ones somewhere safe?

So far, the number of wounded and dead has been low, certainly compared to the horrors of Katrina. But there are all sorts of wounds. Most of the people we see on the screen seem remarkably calm but are most likely in shock, trying to make sense of how their lives have violently changed. For some, their houses are totally gone, smashed and washed away in the floodwaters. For others, their homes will have to be razed to the ground because of mold and rebuilt — if there is money to do so. Unlike with Katrina, where some 50 percent of the homes were insured, it seems only around 20 percent in the Houston area have flood insurance. Businesses, restaurants, automobiles, jobs, whole neighborhoods are gone. Addresses mean nothing because streets are buried. Valuables and memorabilia of a lifetime have floated off. But most residents are “lucky”: They have escaped with their lives, their children in their arms.

The victims of Harvey have been grievously wounded. Our entire nation has been wounded.

We have, for now, lost a wide swath of the South, the ordinary, productive lives of the people who lived there and the many resources they gave us, from rice to oil and gas. After concerns for food and shelter are met for those rescued, there is the real threat of infectious disease, pollution and even the possibility of crime. And how will the affected states dispose of all the garbage Harvey will have left in its wake?

In some ways the rescue operation is a mini-Dunkirk. Good Samaritans, using all sorts of recreational vehicles, pickup trucks, fishing boats, motorized rubber dinghies and even Jet Skis, have rushed to help people trapped on roofs, in attics and in trees. The giant volunteer rescue effort, alongside official disaster responders, is a testament to the courage and basic decency of people throughout the country. 

No one was asked whom he or she voted for. America, there is hope.

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If you were to ask those of us of a certain age, we would insist that we want to age in place. That is, we want to continue to live in our houses, cook in our kitchens and sleep in our bedrooms. This is a worthy goal for it saves family and the government a lot of money. Statistics have shown that hospitalization and nursing homes are far more costly than living at home. Still, we also know that more accidents happen in the home, and that means continuing to live at home presents certain challenges.

The greatest hazard, it would seem, is for older adults to fall. Now, and for the last score of years, there are programs with certifications that train people how to make homes safer, especially for preventing falls. For example, the National Association of Home Builders offers a course that trains CAPS: certified aging in place specialists. These may be builders, remodelers, occupational therapists or interior designers who can come into a home and make suggestions for retrofitting.

There are 3,500 such specialists but Dan Bawden, from Houston, who helped develop the program in 2001, told The New York Times there are 10 times as many needed to upgrade such homes. The highest rate of home ownership in the country, some 80 percent, is by older people, and the great majority of us are in single-family homes.

The three most important features allowing residents to move around safely are: to have an entrance without steps; to live on a single floor; and to have hallways and doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, less than 4 percent meet that description. And if further features are thrown in, like doors with lever handles — rather than knobs — plus light switches and electric outlets that can be reached from a wheelchair, that rate falls to 1 percent, according to the recent article in the Times: “Planning to Age in Place? Find a Contractor Now” by Paula Span.

At this point, with about 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, it would make the most sense for every new house to be constructed according to what is termed “universal design.” Such homes would have bathroom grab bars, higher toilets, curbless showers, widened doorways and added lighting. Such features would promote independence for the disabled and older people.

There are other associations that offer similar certification programs. Certified Living in Place Professional program is one such. Local agencies on aging and senior centers may also give this kind of information. What seems to work best is if an occupational therapist and a CAPS, or equivalently trained graduate, team up to interview each homeowner and determine what is most needed.

Costs for these modifications can be a problem. There is little government help for such remodeling, with the exception of the Department of Veterans Affairs and perhaps Medicaid. Some states do offer tax credits but not many. Mostly such alterations are privately financed, despite the potential savings from staying at home. A bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress last year for a $30,000 federal tax credit, but to date it has gone nowhere.

Approximate costs could run as follows, according to Bawden: two grab bars installed for $200-$300; replace doorknobs with lever handles $60-$90; for every relocated electrical outlet or switch, $175-$250. Those are the smaller costs. Then there is replacing a tub with a roll-in shower at $8,000-$10,000, and an entirely new bathroom with universal design elements for more than $25,000.

The biggest hurdle of all may be to get older residents to feel that they need such modifications. At the least, kitchen floors might be textured rather than covered with tiles that are slippery when wet; the color of the kitchen counters might contrast with the color of the floor as the more elderly lose depth perception; front edges of stairs could be outlined with colored tape; freezers are safer in a pullout drawer at the bottom of a refrigerator — and, for Pete’s sake, get rid of those much-beloved throw rugs.