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Jo-Ann Raia

Huntington Town Clerk Andrew Raia (R)officiated over the Valentine’s Day Marriage Ceremony Marathon that took place in Huntington Town Hall Feb. 14. Photo from Town of Huntington

One Huntington official carried on a town and family tradition Valentine’s Day.

Tiffany and Luke LeGrow, above, renew their vows as their children Shane and Blakley look on. Photo from Town of Huntington

Huntington Town Clerk Andrew Raia (R)officiated over the Valentine’s Day Marriage Ceremony Marathon that took place in Huntington Town Hall Feb. 14. The event was first initiated by his mother, former Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia, in 1995. It was an event the new town clerk was pleased to continue.

“I am thrilled to be continuing on the tradition established by my predecessor, Jo-Ann Raia, of hosting multiple wedding and renewal of vows ceremonies on Valentine’s Day here in Town Hall,” he said. “This event has always been received enthusiastically by the couples that have participated, and it was a privilege and a pleasure for me to unite these couples and to share in their happiness on this very special day.”

Raia performed eight wedding ceremonies and one vow renewal during the marathon. Among the couples were Victoria Espinoza and Alex Petroski. A few years ago, the couple met while working at TBR News Media. Espinoza went on to become the editor of The Times of Huntington & Northport and The Times of Smithtown before she left the media group in 2017, and Petroski was the managing editor and editor of The Port Times Record and The Village Beacon Record before he left at the end of 2018. Jo-Ann Raia remembered Espinoza covering the event in the past.

“I am very proud of the way the new town clerk, Andrew Raia, planned his first Valentine’s Day Marriage Marathon, and I am pleased to see my tradition of 25 years continued,” Jo-Ann Raia said. “In fact, Victoria and Alex Petroski met at The Times of Huntington newspaper, and Victoria covered for the Times Beacon Record several years of my Valentine’s Day Marriage Marathon, and I’m excited they took the opportunity of getting married at Town Hall.”

Couples were able to bring family and friends along for support and 31 local merchants consisting of bakeries, restaurants, florists, supermarkets/food stores, pharmacies, gift shops, candy stores, a salon and spa donated items for this year’s celebration.

New York State Archivist Thomas Ruller presents Jo-Ann Raia with Leadership Award.

Jo-Ann Raia (R) was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Archives and Records Management in New York State by the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. The award was recently presented to Raia at a ceremony at the Cultural Education Center in Albany. 

“Every year we recognize individuals and organizations that have done outstanding work in managing records and preserving New York’s history,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa. “This year’s award winners do exemplary work to ensure that our state’s records are efficiently managed and are preserved appropriately for future research and use.”

Throughout her time as the Town of Huntington clerk, Raia has been a champion for archives and records management. One of her greatest contributions to the Town has been the development of a computerized records management program, which manages the holdings of the Records Center and Archives. Because of Raia’s hard work and dedication, the Town’s records center serves as a model for the entire state.

“We applaud the organizations and individuals who work every day to manage records to ensure accountability, efficiency and accessibility,” said Interim State Education Commissioner Beth Berlin. “Their dedication to archives and records management has inspired excellent programs and processes that serve as models for the entire state.”

Raia will retire at the end of the year from her post as Town clerk after 10 consecutive terms that span four decades. She has developed and implemented systems to create what has been regarded as an exemplary archive and record management system.

“We’re proud to recognize excellence in the use and care of New York’s records by individuals and organizations across New York,” said Thomas Ruller, archivist of New York State. “Thanks to the work and dedication of this year’s winners, New York’s documentary resources will be well managed, appropriately preserved and effectively used for generations to come.”

The annual archives awards program takes place every October, during American Archives Month, and recognizes outstanding efforts in archives and records management work in New York State by a broad range of individuals and organizations.

File photo

It’s status quo in Huntington. Voters reelected incumbents to fill seats in the county Legislature and town council.

Andrew Raia and his mother Jo-Ann Raia watch the election night returns. He took more than 57 percent of the vote for town clerk. Photo by. Donna Deedy

The popularity of Joan Cergol (D) shined through on election night, maintaining a clear voter count lead as district results were reported. Eugene Cook (R) eventually took back his seat for town council, but early on election night it looked as if challengers Kathleen Cleary (D) or Andrea Sorrentino (R) might unseat him.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Sorrentino said. “I’m just a guy off the street who decided to run and became a strong contender in this election.”

In the end, Republicans maintain control of the town council with the same people representing citizens. And with Steve Bellone (D) cinching the county executive for a third term, it’s government as usual until the next election cycle.

The big change in Huntington: Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia, who served for 40 years, passes the baton to her son Andrew (R-East Northport), a state Assemblyman for 17 years. He stays in state office until Dec. 31 and assumes his role as town clerk Jan. 1. “I’ll be working two jobs for the rest of the year,” he said. “The first thing I’ll do is help my mother clear off her desk.”

He expects to leave state government with impact. On Nov. 1, he requested that the state Department of Health conduct a longitudinal study for the Northport Middle School, where students, teachers and staff have reported for decades poor air quality, enough to make people seriously ill. Some people blame the building for the school community’s high cancer rates and other rare illnesses.

Raia’s vacant state Assembly seat could trigger a special election. The process, Raia said, doesn’t require a primary. The governor, Andrew Cuomo (D), however, may opt to skip on a special election, since 2020 is an election year. The governor has 77 days from Jan. 1 to decide, according to Raia. 

David Luces, Rita J. Egan, Leah Chiappino and Donna Deedy all contributed reporting.

Jo-Ann Raia at home in her garden. Photo by Donna Deedy

Jo-Ann Raia took a job 39 years ago, and the Town of Huntington hasn’t been the same since. Elected town clerk for 10 consecutive terms, she’s served office under six town supervisors. As she prepares to retire at the end of this year, her own legacy, some might say, overshadows them all. 

Jo-Ann Raia begins to sort through records in the Town of Huntington’s basement in 1984. Photo by Donna Deedy

“Huntington’s longest-serving town clerk, Jo-Ann Raia is an institution. Her handiwork is woven into almost every one of our major life milestones, from the beginning of life to marriage and the end for generations of Huntingtonians over the past four decades,” Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “She has set a very high standard for her successor to live up to.”

Town clerks are responsible for keeping records, charged with documenting every birth, death and marriage in the town’s boundaries, and safely handling and processing all other information, such as commuter parking and shellfishing permits. Her natural instincts and attention to detail have served the town well. 

“I’m somewhat of a hoarder,” she said jokingly. “I have a hard time throwing things out.”  

New York State now dictates the retention rules for certain records. That was not the case in 1984 when Raia first stepped foot into Town Hall as an elected official at age 41. She learned all she could about organizing and archiving documents, joined an international organization of town clerks and then developed a record system. What she has created, and will leave behind when she retires at the age of 79, is a record center and archives containing museum-worthy artifacts that may have otherwise been lost or damaged. 

Under Raia’s leadership, the town archives have preserved historical documents that include the original deeds, showing the town’s first purchase of property in 1653 from Native Americans. Other records include Revolutionary War artifacts, a slave registry and a docket showing the names and other information about residents who signed up for military service during the Civil War. 

Currency from 1779 stamped with a stein and the words Platt’s Tavern. Photo by Donna Deedy

The Revolutionary artifacts include coins from 1779 and a book of war claims, essentially a ledger full of IOUs from British government. Each page shows in detail how British soldiers in an effort to defend the colonies took whatever they needed from town residents:  ox, horses, saddles, etc. Because the British lost the war, residents were never compensated for the items taken, said Antonia Mattheou, the town’s archivist, who has worked alongside Raia for 26 years.

One of the town’s prized possessions is a 2 ½-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, a schoolmaster and spy for the Continental Army, who was captured in New York City and hung by the British at the age of 19. The sculpture was carved by Frederick MacMonnies, the same man whose 8-foot bronze Nathan Hale statue stands in front of City Hall in New York City. “Artists used to carve smaller versions of their work to earn income,” Raia explained. “Only three exist.”  

The statue used to be on permanent display in a prominent vestibule at Old Town Hall, which the town vacated in 1979.   MacMonnies’ widow Alice bequeathed the statue to the Town of Huntington in 1919. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. own the two other statues.

The preservation quest 

When Raia first took office, she noticed important documents were subjected to extreme moisture and heat, with some record books browning from being stacked over ventilation grates.  

The conditions prompted her to seek funding to renovate what was once a basement gymnasium.

“What is she doing down there?” she recalled people saying. Previous town clerks, she said, must have been overwhelmed or saw little value in organizing it all. 

Raia began securing grants to establish and grow a record center and archive her first year in office, when some of the town’s most important and valuable records were scattered.  

Over the years, Raia has become notorious for record-keeping and archiving. A long list of organizations and government entities have honored her for putting in place respectable record-keeping practices. People from the state’s police commission, for instance, have visited the town’s records center striving to duplicate her  model. 

Exhibits

Raia regularly curates exhibitions with the town’s archivist.

British war claims indicating items that British soldiers borrowed from Huntington residents during the Revolutionary War. Photo by Donna Deedy

Currently, Raia’s office is pulling together a tribute to Huntington’s shellfish culture. Its showcases include an old map of the bay floor depicting gridded parcels, where residents once staked claim to the sea floor, a commodity that shellfishermen passed on from generation to generation. 

The shellfish exhibit also includes a chart of the annual oyster harvests from 1880 to 1972 for the states of New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The chart that Raia has preserved and is now exhibiting shows dramatic declines in the bounty of New England oysters over time. 

“Jo-Ann Raia is the best town clerk ever,” said George Doll, a shellfisherman and former Northport mayor. “If you need something from Jo-Ann, you got it.”

He said that he’s going to miss her after she retires at the end of the year. 

Dedication and inspiration

“The town clerk needs to be available 24/7,” Raia said. Over the years, the phone would ring at all hours, sometimes from local funeral directors who needed deaths recorded so they could arrange for a burial. That aspect of the job sometimes entailed big black hearses with body bags pulling into her driveway at night. 

“I just wonder what the neighbors thought,” she said. “People didn’t have SUVs years ago.” 

The decision to not run for office again, Raia said, required serious consideration. 

Jo-Ann Raia today, 39 years into her job as town clerk. Photo by Donna Deedy

“My son said to me, ‘Mom, it’s time for you’,” she said. Her eyes welled up as she contemplates retiring in December.  

“My sister died at age 84,” she said. “If I run for another term, I’ll be her age.”  

Raia is an avid gardener and people tell her that her own property resembles an arboretum. She may help other people with landscaping in her retirement years and she may write a book. But she will remain living with her daughter Diane in Huntington. 

Raia’s son Andrew has been a state legislator representing Northport for the last 17 years. In November,  his name will be on the ballot for town clerk. 

“As much as I love being an assemblyman — I’d do it for another 17 years —you might say that I’ve been in training for the town clerk job since I was in 8th grade,” Andrew Raia said. “I can honestly say that I know this job backwards and forwards.”  

The job is purely a public service position, he said. 

“My mother has been so dedicated,” he said.  “She’s been the clearinghouse for problems.”

Raia’s staff members show similar devotion and are quick to agree that she runs a tight ship. 

“They stay because they like me,” Raia said.  

Her comment drew enthusiastic agreement from her office staff, during a recent interview. 

“Whoever  takes over the town clerk job better be good,” Raia said. “And I hope their initials are A.R.”

Brian Walling and Cari Endres enjoy their wedding ceremony. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

For 22 years Cupid has visited Huntington Town Hall for Valentine’s Day and spread his love throughout the building — with the help of Town Clerk and Marriage Officer Jo-Ann Raia.

Raia has been serving as marriage officer for the town since 1989, and in 1995 she started a tradition of a “marriage marathon.”

Alexander Acosta Herrera and Esmeria Martinson tie the knot. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

“I normally perform marriage ceremonies year round,” she said. “However in 1995 I thought it would be romantic to begin a Valentine’s Day marriage ceremony marathon. The couples I united over these past years received this idea enthusiastically. It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to unite these couples and to share in their happiness as they embark on their new lives together.”

The free event consists of couples partaking in a small marriage ceremony with Raia presiding, and then the new bride and groom cut a cake and enjoy drinks and snacks with their guests, donated by local vendors, as well as gifts for the couple and the maid of honor and best man. This year 11 couples were wed in town hall.

Local merchants have donated flowers, baked goods, decorations and other gifts throughout the years, and this year Raia said 34 businesses have donated to the event, including Copenhagen Bakery, The Flower Petaler, Rise Above Bakery, Fashion in Flowers and more.

Huntington residents Brian Walling, 42, and Cari Endres, 40, took advantage of this romantic event after finding out about it while paying off a parking ticket.

“It was the last day before I got another $100 charge and I saw the flyers when I was at town hall,” the bride said. “I asked him if he was working Valentine’s Day, and he said no, so I told him ‘we’re getting married on Valentine’s Day.’”

The couple met at a bar while skiing in Vermont two years ago.

“We were basically both watching TV rooting against the Patriots, because we’re both Giants fans and then I don’t think we’ve ever been apart since that night,” Endres said.

Brian Walling and Cari Endres enjoy their wedding ceremony. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

Walling said the hug the first night ensured him that Endres was the one for him.

“The conversation was fun and we definitely had a lot in common and we were just having a good time, but what sealed the deal was the hug,” he said. “It was the best hug ever.”

Walling proposed last July while the pair were spending July 4th weekend with family at Endres’ family lake house.

“My father passed away three years ago and he knew how special the lake house was to me,” Endres said. “We were up there with family after a lobster dinner sitting under tiki torches in bathing suits still and that was it.”

Jo-Ann Raia holds a map from the 1880s in the archives. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

There has been a steady hand at the helm of Huntington Town Hall for the past 30 plus years.

Jo-Ann Raia, Huntington Town clerk, was elected for the first time in 1981, and ever since then, she has not stopped bringing positive improvements to the town.

Raia has been a Huntington resident since 1958, but spent summers on the Island as child. She has worked under five supervisors and has served as secretary to the town board and board of trustees, among many other duties.

She has devoted much of her time in office to creating a state of the art facility for Huntington’s archives, and a successful records management program.

Raia said when town government moved into what is now Town Hall, in 1979, the archives were being stored in the old gymnasium, as the building used to be a high school.

“I was told that these were my records, as I am the legal custodian for Huntington,” she said in a phone interview. “I went to as many seminars as I could [on record keeping], I lobbied the state for funding and received state grants.”

She said the road was not easy to get a proper archive system in place, as she had to convince many people to give her the funds and resources required.

 Jo-Ann Raia displays one of the many old town records inside the town archive room. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.
Jo-Ann Raia displays one of the many old town records inside the town archive room. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

“When the town spends money on a baseball field, everyone can see it, but to put money into an area that’s restricted and no one will see it is a different story,” she said. “That’s why I had to convince and beg.”

The archives officially opened in October 1991 and ever since then, researchers and students from throughout Long Island have visited.

Through learning so much for the Huntington archives, Raia herself became well-versed in the topic, and has since spoke at conferences and panels on records management.

“We were the pioneers, and now [Huntington archives] runs like clockwork,” she said.

Some of the items in the archives that stand out to Raia are the Revolutionary War claims, the manumission of slaves and the Duke’s Laws.

Raia said she refers to the Revolutionary War claims as an I.O.U. book, with records of all of the things British soldiers borrowed from colonials living in Huntington in the mid 1770s, like oxen and wagons.

The manumission of slaves is a record of all the slaves freed from a former town supervisor who lived on Park Avenue in Huntington, and according to Raia, used to have African Americans enter through his back door as slaves, and leave through his front door as free citizens.

The Duke’s Laws, published in 1665, covered all the laws of colonial life, like no traveling on Sunday. Raia said Huntington is one of the few local governments to still have an original copy of them.

Aside from her many other duties as town clerk, Raia particularly enjoys the marriage marathon she performs every Valentine’s Day, where she marries multiple couples in a row throughout a day’s time.

In 1989, Raia was appointed marriage officer, and starting in 1995, decided to create a special event as marriage officer.

“I wanted to make it something special, so I researched other ceremonies, and found a special poem that I now recite that has sort of become my trademark,” she said.

The event has blossomed over the years, with merchants from all over town donating baked goods, flowers and gifts for the event. Raia personally donates all the paper goods and decorations.

Raia has presided over large and small ceremonies, and has even seen a ceremonial pick and axe procession performed by a local fire department.

“I never know what I’m going to see,” she said.