Born 90 years ago this past Sunday, Al Kopcienski of Miller Place has led a life of uninterrupted service to his community.
Kopcienski’s sizable extended family flew in from around the country Oct. 22 to honor his life. On this joyous occasion, his daughter Elizabeth Schwartz thought it necessary to look back on her father’s life and reflect upon his achievements.
In an interview, Schwartz shared her father’s long commitment to the area. “My dad has been so invested in this community in a very quiet way,” she said. “The community needs to know. We need to remember people who are our unsung heroes.”
Kopcienski’s legacy of community service spans nearly a century. Among his many posts, he served as president of the Mount Sinai School District Board of Education, more than 60 years with the Port Jefferson Rotary Club, and the Miller Place Fire Department where he served as chief from 1967-68.
He lives by the Rotarian motto, “Service above self.” Schwartz said she and her siblings were also raised to follow this ethos.
“We were all raised — all eight of us — were raised with this mantra, ‘Service above self,’ that hard work is good work, that our job is to give to the community,” she said. “It is about community and not always about one person or self.”
Over the past nine decades, Kopcienski has witnessed firsthand the gradual transformation of the area. He said the little farming economy he once knew has gradually become a bustling environment.
“This area was a big farming area, and through the transition of years the farmers have disappeared,” he said. “The farming industry disappeared, and then the developers came in and started building houses.”
Despite the differences today from the undisturbed landscape Kopcienski knew growing up, he said young people can still derive vital lessons from his generation.
“One of my favorite sayings is ‘rest means rust,’” he said, emphasizing the value of physical movement and manual labor. “The service industry is well organized and has well-paying positions.”
While on the Mount Sinai school board, Kopcienski pushed for expanding opportunities for students pursuing professional trades. While today, many may place higher education at a premium, he still sees the value of these alternative career paths.
“There was a local superintendent of schools that would say, ‘All my kids graduate and go on to college,’” Kopcienski said. “I said to him, ‘What about the poor kid that can’t go on to college? What about the kid who went to BOCES, a trade school, where he spent half the day at school and then learned a trade?’” He added, “One of the problems we have is that people don’t want to get their hands dirty.”
Even at 90 years old, Kopcienski is still getting his hands dirty today, driving the ambulance for the fire department. He said he receives his fair share of raised eyebrows when arriving on the scene of an emergency.
“They say, ‘That old man’s driving the ambulance?’” he joked. Schwartz interjected, adding, “He comes home and tells us about all of the old people he drives to the hospital. And I said, ‘The old people, like 20 years younger than you, Pop?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
Despite the many changes he has observed over time, Kopcienski sees reason for hope. With 24 grandchildren, he now gets his chance to sit back, watch and follow the rising generation as it embarks on its path.
Still, at 90, there appear to be no signs of rust or rest on this lifelong community servant.