Tags Posts tagged with "Movers & Shakers"

Movers & Shakers

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Ann Becker and Edna Davis Giffen, Mount Sinai and Miller Place community members and historians, recently published a pictorial book showing past and present views of the area. Photo from Ann Becker

“I am one of those believers that if you don’t know your history, your life is not complete,” Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society Archivist Edna Davis Giffen said. “I believe that you need to not just look forward, but you need to look backward to appreciate what was done before, so that you can carry on into the future.”

That’s why she and Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker decided to collaborate on a single book about the history of the neighboring hamlets that would serve as a continuation of both of the individual books they each previously published.

Becker published a book on the history of Mount Sinai in 2003, while Giffen completed one on Miller Place in 2010. Their latest effort is called “Miller Place and Mount Sinai Through Time” and was released in November.

“I’ve always had a love of history, especially local history,” Becker said. “There wasn’t a lot available for young students to learn about their local community, and the books were provided for the curriculum to look at the documented history of our community and help people understand the rich history here.”

Becker, who received a doctorate in American history from Stony Brook University, is a Long Island history professor at Empire State College who has lived in Mount Sinai since 1982, and has been a member of the civic on and off since 1984, becoming its president four years ago. She was involved in the creation of the Heritage Trust board that was instrumental in creating Mount Sinai Heritage Park.

Ann Becker and Edna Davis Giffen, Mount Sinai and Miller Place community members and historians, recently published a pictorial book, above, showing past and present views of the area. Photo from Ann Becker
Ann Becker and Edna Davis Giffen, Mount Sinai and Miller Place community members and historians, recently published a pictorial book, above, showing past and present views of the area. Photo from Ann Becker

“I love local history,” she said. “History has always been important to me. It’s nice for people to realize that there are dedicated volunteers working hard presently to maintain the quality of life here.”

Community members like Brad Arrington, the civic vice president and corresponding secretary, have noticed Becker’s passion.

“She’s very civic-oriented and I think that’s not a term that people really use or appreciate anymore, in the sense that she really wants to do the best she can for the Mount Sinai community,” he said. “All the work she does, including the book, shows how much she cares about the community and how much she wants to help preserve our heritage.”

He said being civic-minded shapes how she addresses local problems and informs her opinions about the future growth and development of the town.

“I think the book is wonderful,” he said. “I think particularly for folks that might not have lived in Mount Sinai for decades to see the character of Mount Sinai. It also helps show people what’s left from the past and can help galvanize community members to help preserve those pieces of history that remain in our community.”

Giffen, who is a 12th-generation Miller Place resident now living in Mount Sinai, has been a member of the historical society since 1980 and became president when the restoration of the William Miller House was first beginning in that decade.

“I enjoy being part of the history,” she said. “We’ve developed so much since the 1960s that people don’t realize how much country there was here.”

Sharing this information with residents was something that drove her to work on her books.

“It needed to be done,” she said. “Lots of people don’t know what this place was like before the major settlement. I thought it was quite interesting working on the books, because when you see [the area] every day, you don’t pay attention to how much has changed.”

Becker said with the new book, the idea is to have an old picture and a new one side-by-side, to compare what the area used to look like and what it is now.

“We had fun taking the pictures to compare to the old ones that we had in the archives,” Becker said. “It’s a new look at Mount Sinai and Miller Place through time. It gives you that historical context, but it’s bringing us up to modern time. We thought it was important for the community to understand that being involved can have some really good results.”

The two authors received information and pictures from various people to help construct the book and Ann Donato, who has been on the historical society board for 15 years, said the book holds substantial importance.

“This area is so rich in history, going back pre-Revolutionary War,” she said. “We really need to let people know our past so we can understand the present and also the travels that we have taken as a nation.”

She believes Giffen is important to the community as well.

“Edna is so knowledgeable,” she said. “If anyone ever calls me with a question about the area or about a house, Edna has it at the tip of her fingertips. Edna is a treasure to our society.”

Although the two are experts and important in preserving and spreading the history of the area, they do it simply because they believe it’s vital.

“People should know about where they live,” Giffen said. “Everything in the future is based on the past.”

Stephanie Gress has made a mark on the Vanderbilt Museum. Photo from Gress

By Victoria Espinoza

Stephanie Gress has made a mark on the Vanderbilt Museum. Photo from Gress
Stephanie Gress has made a mark on the Vanderbilt Museum. Photo from Gress

One employee at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum was a fan of the spot long before she started working there and improving many of the exhibits.

Stephanie Gress, director of the curatorial department, frequented the Vanderbilt as a kid growing up in St. James, and even went there on her second date with her future husband to see the Pink Floyd laser show at the museum’s planetarium.

“A lot of people have a fond memory from here,” Gress said in a phone interview. “My niece actually had her wedding here as well.”

Gress has been upgrading exhibits at the Vanderbilt for nearly 15 years. She said some of the collections in the museum were more than 100 years old when she stepped in and needed refurbishing, and she was able to find funding to make the renovations possible.

The first exhibit Gress focused on, the Habitat Gallery, had been closed to the public since 1996, but she reopened it in 2001. She received a Save America’s Treasures grant — through the National Park Service — to make the renovations possible, including cleaning and restoring taxidermied animals displayed inside the dioramas.

“There was a whole generation of people on Long Island who hadn’t seen the exhibit,” Gress said.

For two years, Gress has also been working on a project at the Hall of Fishes that involves working with dry and wet fish specimens. She said some of the fish are a century old, and they have to be treated with extreme care because they are so fragile.

Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

William K. Vanderbilt II, the museum’s founder, caught all of the fish himself, according to Gress, and some were the first of their kind ever caught, so “he had the fun task of naming them.”

She said she feels lucky to have found the money to finance these projects because that can be difficult, but is crucial to keep the displays in the museum in their best shape.

Gress likes many aspects of her job.

“I enjoy seeing the reactions of the kids and parents that come here,” Gress said. “There is nothing else like this on Long Island. You can’t see another polar bear or whale shark around here.”

She said aims to continue Vanderbilt’s intention when he created the museum, — to bring pieces of other countries and cultures to Long Island.

“You can choose to visit the planetarium, see the museum or even just take a picnic on the grounds.”

Gress wrote a book this year, “Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate,” which has details about why the museum founder built his estate in Centerport and “how the place changed over the years, based on changes in his life, and how we use it today,” she said when the book was being released over the summer.

In terms of future projects, Gress said in an interview this week that there is always something to work on, and she expects to soon digitize the collections online to bring them to people who can’t make the trip to the museum.

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Bea Ruberto, who helped organize for a new Welcome to Sound Beach sign, poses with it between Dr. Denise Burton, left, and Councilwoman Jane Bonner, right. Photo from Bea Ruberto

She’s tiny, but mighty — that’s how Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) described Sound Beach civic president Bea Ruberto.

The 69-year-old editor and president of the Sound Beach Civic Association has lived in Sound Beach for more than 30 years, and her impact on the area is not only seen upon entering the hamlet but also felt far and wide.

Ruberto helped with the replacement of the Welcome to Sound Beach sign, organized and managed the Celebrate Sound Beach weekend, conducted successful Hamlet-wide garage sale, expanded the civic’s bimonthly newsletter, hosted the annual Pet Adopt-A-Thon for Brookhaven residents and chaired the annual scholarship fund food fair and silent auction, which raised and awarded $14,000 to local students. She also helped add an extra bus stop that takes commuters into Port Jefferson, to make the last morning train into the city. But what Ruberto said she is most proud of, though, is how she obtained grant applications to secure funds to improve the pedestrian walkway on Echo Avenue — a project that is near completion.

“I’m elated about the whole thing — it needed to be revitalized,” Ruberto said of the road. “The town has been very receptive to making changes along the way as needed and they did a fantastic job.”

Ruberto said she first approached Bonner with the problem when she saw a photo that showed a bus moving into the middle of the road while a runner raced alongside a wooded area.

Bonner said it’s been a pleasure working alongside Ruberto.

“She’s got a heart the size of Texas, cares passionately about Sound Beach and her role as a civic leader and is one of their most wonderful advocates,” she said. “She’s very forward-thinking; she’s patient; she understands. She’s one of those people that got put on Earth to help people, and she does a great job.”

Dan Losquadro, the highway superintendent for the Town of Brookhaven, has worked on various projects with Ruberto over the last several years and said she’s also been a driving force to get things done.

Bea Ruberto is a strong presence in the community. Photo from Ruberto
Bea Ruberto is a strong presence in the community. Photo from Ruberto

“Bea is someone that is passionate about her community,” he said. “Sometimes you meet people who don’t understand the work that goes into these projects or the time constraints and budget limits, but Bea has been someone who is always very understanding and easy to work with, but is also persistent. She never gives up on an issue.”

Mimi Hodges, a 58-year-old resident who grew up in Sound Beach, said Ruberto engaged her right away when she arrived to the area, helping her get involved in the civic — where she got to see the kinds of things Ruberto does, however obvious or subtle they may be.

“I’m just a little person who’s so impressed — the fact that she juggles all of this is amazing to me and she has so much energy and to be able to do what she does is remarkable,” she said. “She has a warmth and a generosity to her that I haven’t seen since I was a child, honestly. I say that with no hesitation.”

What she also liked, she said, is how Ruberto was able to make changes that enhanced and bettered the community, while maintaining its old hamlet charm that it had when she was a child.

The passion Ruberto has for Sound Beach was also recognized by state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who honored Ruberto as his Woman of Distinction in 2014.

Charlotte Fritts, the 65-year-old secretary for the civic for the last four years, said she has seen how tirelessly Ruberto works for the community and also said that the way Ruberto handles issues is appreciated by both the Sound Beach residents and the political figures that govern it.

“When she feels that a project is good for the community, she holds on to it, works with it in a very nice way and has established a great rapport with representatives in Brookhaven town,” she said. “She doesn’t just go to them with problems, but researches to bring various solutions to that problem, which makes it nice for them because then they have something to work with.”

Fritts said everything Ruberto accomplished thus far has not only benefited the community by making it better but also enriched neighbors’ lives as well.

“I admire her greatly — she’s tenacious,” Fritts said. “She’s really a very civic-minded individual and a very bright woman who is also a good neighbor. She’s very approachable to people in the community. She’s a caring person. A simple something that may not seem as important to a whole community is important to one person and she never makes anything seem unimportant. She always listens and helps resolve a situation.”

Fritts, along with other members of the community and politicians, said someone like Ruberto is needed in a community. It’s important to her, and it shows.

“The civic worked on issues that were important to the community as a whole and that interested me,” Ruberto said of first joining the civic back in 1995. “The people in Sound Beach are a wonderful bunch of people that really appreciate what the civic does. Seeing the rewards and the progress, that’s what it’s all about. No matter how hard leading up to something is, once it works out the rewards are unbelievable.”

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Fred Drewes holds up Christmas books he reads to children around the holidays. File photo by Heidi Sutton

Although he is retired, Fred Drewes’ plate is still pretty full.

The former biology and environmental science professor at Suffolk County Community College now has an entire park to tend to.

In 1988, Drewes was granted a sabbatical to do a hamlet study of Mount Sinai. He projected what he would like the community to look like in 25 years and suggested a central locale for a park.

“It was an ‘Ivory Tower’ idea,” he said. “I thought a central park would help bring people together and provide a focal point for community activities. Bonding with neighbors and friends and being refreshed by a park environment.”

With the help of Lori Baldassare, the then Mount Sinai Civic Association president, among other members, the civic purchased a 0.8-acre property with a New York State grant in 1999, and in 2001, Suffolk County purchased the adjoining 17.2 acres with the help of the newly formed Heritage Trust, a nonprofit, of which Baldassare is the president.

“He was very passionate about the community,” Baldassare said of Drewes. “Fred had a vision and he followed through on it.”

Although he was on a bike trip to 44 countries around the world at the time that the piece of property was purchased, Drewes dedicated his trip to the cause, and it was dubbed a Ride for a Park. While in his travels, he frequently wrote letters to a third-grade class and had pieces published to share his story, while also spreading word of the soon-to-be new park and help raise funds.

Fred Drewes plants a vegetable garden. Photo from Fred Drewes
Fred Drewes plants a vegetable garden. Photo from Fred Drewes

Not long after his return, in 2003, the park began to be developed, and from there, Drewes’ vision began to come to life.

An adventurer, the 79-year-old Mount Sinai resident traveled by bike, walked and camped on a seven-month backpacking trip around the world, hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and traveled around East Africa and South Africa, even living in Tanzania for two years while teaching at a college there, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I enjoy experiencing and seeing the landscapes of different places and enjoy those views,” he said. “I also enjoy the interactions that I had with people along the way.”

Those feelings fueled his desire to create similar experiences within his park, he said. Working closely on the landscape, he created a scenic environment and a Heritage Center that houses local activities for families and children.

“On any given day during the week, you probably would find him at the park,” Baldassare said. “You have to look at the park to see; his contributions certainly make a difference at Heritage Park. Without them, it wouldn’t be the same place.”

Bob Koch, of Koch Tree Services in Mount Sinai, said Drewes originally got him involved in working on the landscaping to help amend soil issues with the ground being so compacted that it made it difficult for plants to grow. Koch installed the Christmas tree that’s decorated every year, worked on the Parade of Flags event by planting each state’s tree along the Avenue of America and recently planted some young cherry trees down part of the pathways.

“Most of the things that I’ve done was Fred’s mind-set, and I was the muscle behind it,” Koch said. “It was his ideas and thank God we have him, because he prevented a Home Depot from going there and now it’s a beautiful walking park.”

Along with the Parade of Flags event, Drewes also reads “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to children around the holidays while they eat cookies and sip hot cocoa. He also works with the Boys’ and Girls’ Scouts and local Eagle Scouts with different projects at Heritage.

Koch said Drewes went to a lot of local businesses to get them involved in the park, which helped further integrate the community to its new central location. He planted many native trees like sugar maple, serviceberry, river bitch, dogwood, white pine and red oak and made a smiley face out of daffodils that emerges in the spring.

“I see his eyes light up when it’s filled with people using the park on a summer day,” Koch said. “I think we’re all very fortunate. For me, he was the guy that was instrumental in getting me involved in the park. I love him dearly. I’m appreciative for him getting me involved.”

To show his appreciation, Koch installed a Quercus bicolor tree with a plaque underneath it that reads: “Fred Drewes, a visionary who has tirelessly worked to make this park a reality.”

Drewes said the mission of Heritage Trust is to preserve the flavor of the area’s rural heritage and feels rewarded that people are complimentary and gracious in their comments about the work he’s done to preserve and showcase it.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback — it makes us want to continue our efforts in the park,” he said. “I relish and always enjoy my volunteer work up there because it gives me the opportunity to have a hobby, because I enjoy working on the landscaping that I do there, but also to see people enjoying the park; the walking paths; the landscape; the pass of activity to have quiet moments with family to have kids run around in a free-spirited way,” Drewes said. “I spend a lot of time and effort at the park and I’m gratified that I’m able to do that still at my age.”

Rocco Donnino, founder of Cow Harbor Warriors, and Tony Donnino, board member, wait to award a service dog to a veteran at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 15. Photo from Don McKay

The Cow Harbor Warriors are committed to fighting for veterans.

The Northport nonprofit organization, established three years ago, raises money and organizes events to commemorate the sacrifices veterans have made. Since the group was founded, according to founder Rocco Donnino, it has raised $235,000 for organizations that help veterans in need, like Paws of War, which matches disable veterans with service dogs.

“It’s an opportunity for us to say thank you,” Cow Harbor Warriors President Don McKay said. “I’m a strong believer in small steps make great things. We can never do too much to help our veterans.”

The group organizes several fundraising events throughout the year to help fund their Warrior Weekend, which includes a 4-mile run, a golf tournament and a parade through Northport Village to honor and thank the veterans and their families. The event, which also has a fundraising element to it, was originally meant to specifically honor veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and was held in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

“I travel a lot for my job, and in 2011, when the Iraqi war was ending, I was seeing a lot of servicemen and women in airports coming home,” Donnino said. “I would make sure to shake their hands and say thank you to every one I saw, but after a while that didn’t feel like enough.”

Donnino wanted to do something that takes advantage of the “wonderful and unbelievable” area he lives in — thus Warrior Weekend was born.

Veterans from those two campaigns and their families are brought for an all-expenses-paid relaxation weekend in Northport, starting with a Warrior Welcome parade and ending with a gala dinner with live music. The veterans ride into Northport Village on fire engines in the parade, and then are treated to activities of their choice, including fishing and golf.

Donnino said he wanted to bring veterans to a celebration specifically in Northport because the village has a “huge history of supporting troops and veterans.”

The event is held close to the anniversary of 9/11. This year, the warriors donated the money they raised during Warrior Weekend to three organizations: Paws of War, Hoops of Northport and the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Each organization received $25,000, McKay said.

Cow Harbor Warriors bounced back from a controversy to hold its signature event last year and this year. The Northport American Legion Post 694 alleged a couple of years ago that the group had not properly disbursed funds they had raised at the first Warrior Weekend in 2012 — a claim that canceled the event in 2013.

McKay called those allegations “baseless” and said the group has been fully vetted by the Suffolk County Department of Veteran Services and is in “full compliance.”

The nonprofit’s reach goes beyond the village boundaries. Paws of War invited members of the Cow Harbor Warriors to the New York Giants game at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 15 to present a service dog to a veteran at halftime on the field.

“It’s hard to explain how incredible the experience was to watch a veteran receive a service dog,” McKay said. “It was emotional, and a proud moment.”

Darryl St. George at a RAP Week press conference earlier this month. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Since returning home from serving overseas, a homegrown Northport High School teacher has devoted his free time to inspiring students, zeroing in on two specific issues.

Darryl St. George, a Centerport resident and United States Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, is the co-advisor of the Northport High School branch of Students Against Destructive Decisions and the advisor of Project Vets, a club that works to improve the lives of veterans once they return home.

“I love working with young people,” St. George said. “I find what I do in these clubs an extension of what I do in the classroom.”

St. George graduated from Northport High School in 2000 and earned his teaching degree from Marymount Manhattan College. He was in Manhattan when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, and said the day instilled a passion in him to help his country.

“I had this sense that I really wanted to serve,” St. George said. Personal reasons held him back until 2009, when he enlisted in the United States Navy.

His first deployment to Afghanistan was in 2011. When he came home nine months later, he said he discovered that one of his former students from Northport High School had died of a heroin overdose, and his own brother Corey had started abusing opioid drugs.

A few months later, he lost his brother to an overdose from prescription medication, which “changed everything.”

St. George was honorably discharged from the navy after three years and returned to his job at Northport High School, where he became a co-advisor of SADD with Tammy Walsh, another Northport High School teacher.

“One of my colleagues asked me to run the club with her, and together, the club really expanded from three kids at a meeting to more than 50.”

St. George said he was able to get the club to take a more active role in Recovery, Awareness and Prevention Week.

“We felt that the drug epidemic was such a crisis that this club would be the perfect vehicle to help combat the issue,” St. George said. “Tammy and I are open and candid with the kids about our own history with this problem, and I think the kids are receptive to that kind of honesty.”

St. George said he finds working with SADD very fulfilling, and sees it as necessary. “Ultimately, my drive for getting involved is to do everything I can so that no family has to go through what my family did,” St. George said.

St. George and Walsh have been working on a SADD Summit, which they hope will help bring RAP Week-like programs to other schools on Long Island. He wants to change the culture in every school.

Aside from working with SADD, St. George is involved in another club in Northport High School called Project Vets.

He said this club has a two-pronged mission statement — to work with veterans and help them with the transition period once they come home.

“I am a vet, and I personally know many of my friends that have had difficulty transitioning back home,” St. George said. “But they are not looking for any handouts. This club explores how we can improve their transition period.”

Project Vets is only in its second year, and St. George said at the first meeting there was more than 60 students wanting to join.