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.