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Person of the Year

Michael Donatelli shows off the book donations he received to bring to underprivileged families. Photo from the Donatelli family

By Karina Gerry

Generous, inspiring, compassionate and dedicated, are just a few of the ways people describe 15-year-old Huntington resident Michael Donatelli.

“Michael just as a son has taught me patience, inspiration and truly the true meaning of giving back to others especially during this time of year,” Jennifer Donatelli, Michael’s mom, said.

A sophomore at Chaminade High School in Mineola, Donatelli has a long list of accomplishments for his short 15 years. In 2018 he created the nonprofit, Books for Babies, with his brother Nicholas and friend Catarina Chelius. Inspired by their love for reading, the teenagers found a way to donate their old baby books and promote literacy to underprivileged families across the Island and abroad. 

“They both love to read and saw that there was a need for an organization like this in local communities as well as the country and abroad,” Jennifer Donatelli said. “They wanted to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children by being able to provide them with books in the hope that they too will grow up to be avid readers.”

Donatelli and his book drop-off box. Photo from the Donatelli family

Books for Babies accepts donations for babies and toddlers up to 4 years old. Once the books are collected they are sorted and packaged into custom-designed reusable tote bags with the nonprofit’s logo. Volunteers then distribute the books to homeless shelters, family service leagues, soup kitchens and orphanages. 

“They had their research backed, they looked into literacy rates and just found what a difference it makes, the books that are read to very early ages,” said Michael Strandberg, math teacher at Chaminade and moderator of Catholics for Life. “They found that if they could get more books into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have many, that they could help them for the rest of their lives and improve their academic achievement.”

In November, Michael partnered with Catholics for Life, a national organization of which he is a member, to lead a week-long book drive at Chaminade where they collected hundreds of books. These books were packaged and sent to 250 parishes in the Solomon Islands, located in Southeast Asia.

“It was very impressive how Michael led a drive for a school of over 1,600 students,” Strandberg said. “He prepared announcements to be read each day, he prepared a flier and put it around the school.”

During the pandemic, Michael was concerned about the children who still wanted and needed books, but the organizations and groups he worked with were closed. He decided to create a Books for Babies YouTube channel, where each night he read a baby book and shared it to the channel, hoping to inspire children to read during their time at home. Soon it caught on and children across the country were volunteering to read their favorite books for the channel.

“It was a nice way to try to keep it going, and stay connected,” Jennifer Donatelli said.

In addition, Michael and his brother Nicholas started a book distribution drive-up. Using a local church’s parking lot, they donated tote bags filled with baby books to anyone willing to come and receive them. The response to the drive-up was a success and now the nonprofit holds  one every month.

Michael’s dedication to Books for Babies means he’s always thinking of new ways to grow the organization. He decided to create a literacy program, Opening the World of Learning, also known as OWL, to further the group’s mission of promoting reading to underserved communities. OWL brings books to life at nursery schools in underserved communities across the Island. Books for Babies’ volunteers provide a fun-filled interactive story, followed by an enjoyable activity, and at the end each child receives a free tote bag filled with age appropriate books.

On top of his work for Books for Babies, Michael maintains honor roll status at his school, is a member of nine clubs, volunteers at his church as an usher, volunteers at Huntington Youth Court and is studying for his black belt in jujitsu. 

“He is quiet, he is shy, he is unassuming but he does so much to help everybody else,” Andrew Kelapire, owner of Shindokan Budo Long Island, said.

Michael’s compassion and willingness to help others is what motivated Jennifer Donatelli to nominate him as a TBR News Media Person of the Year.

“I’m so incredibly proud of my son,’’ the mother said. “He’s the type of person that does things and likes to fall under the radar or without anyone fussing. He kind of just likes to do his own thing and volunteer and help others very quietly — and others see his generous spirit and how he is.”

Mark Freely with a furry friend. Photo from Mark Freely

Mark Freeley is the kind of person who likes to get his hands dirty, especially when it comes to helping people in need.

The longtime Stony Brook resident is usually juggling multiple projects, sometimes all in the same day. Whether he’s fighting insurance companies on behalf of his law firm’s clients or picking up rescued dogs, Freeley never shies away from stepping up.

As a young law student at Hofstra University, Freeley got his first taste of how his career could make a difference.

“I was a law clerk for a small firm that did personal injury cases, and I found that I really enjoyed it,” said Freeley, founder of The North Shore Injury Lawyer based in Woodbury. “It’s gratifying to know that I can help people dealing with serious accidents or injuries fight for the insurance money they need.”

This year, he’s also been working with small businesses struggling to access financial assistance in the wake of the pandemic.

Those efforts caught the attention of Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, who also advocates for local businesses.

“I thought it was terrible that so many businesses were being denied support from their insurance companies because of the nature” of the pandemic closures, Rocchio said. “When I found out Mark was involved in fighting for those businesses, I picked up the phone and introduced myself. He has so much compassion for the entire community.”

As it turned out, Rocchio and Freeley often crossed paths while walking their dogs around the T. Bayles Minuse Mill Pond Park. Last summer, Tropical Storm Isaias did significant damage to the site, leaving piles of rubble and a six-figure bill in its wake.

Without prompting, Freeley launched a social media campaign to help restore the park and chipped in some of his own money. 

That’s only the latest example of how Freeley has used social media to create positive change. In 2017, he and his dog Storm earned national attention when Storm rescued a drowning deer on their usual walk. Freeley created a Facebook page, Good Boy Storm, to raise awareness of local animal rescue needs.

While he’s always loved animals, it was Freeley’s daughter that led him to do more. Their weekly visits to see the puppies at the Lake Grove Petco store in her younger years blossomed into them volunteering together with Last Chance Animal Rescue in Southampton.

“We did it every Saturday for eight years, rarely missing a week,” Freeley said. “They’re such wonderful people, and I’ve made some really tight bonds through helping to save animals.”

Last Chance is run entirely by volunteers, and Freeley has done everything from fostering to running adoption events and picking up newly rescued dogs at 6 a.m. each weekend.

“I meet the transport van in Patchogue every Saturday, when they bring up rescued dogs from South Carolina. I’m in charge of all the collars and leashes, and making sure the right dog is going to the right foster family,” he explained. “When that van opens up and you see it full of animals that have been saved from being killed, all that effort is worth it.”

This past year, according to Last Chance, it has facilitated the adoption of 875 dogs and cats. And even though his daughter is now away at college, Freeley keeps coming back. 

“Mark and his daughter Nicole were so faithful right off the bat, and Mark was always willing to take on additional responsibility when needed,” said Judith Langmaid, director of adoption for Last Chance Animal Rescue. “He’s been there to teach other volunteers that come in, run his own supply drives, sponsor fundraising events, and even play golf in the pouring rain for our benefit. He really is a superb individual and we are so grateful to have him.”

Langmaid added that Freeley is humble and would likely shy away from any attention focused on his contributions.

“He’d rather highlight everyone else and encourage others to lend a hand,” she said.

Before congratulating Mark Freeley for being named a TBR News Media Person of the Year, consider fostering or adopting through Last Chance Animal Rescue. An animal can only be brought to Long Island if there is a foster family ready to take it in, so help is always needed. Learn more by calling 631-478-6844 or visit www.lcarescue.org.

Erica Cirino with her book, ‘Thicker Than Water.’ Photo from Erica Cirino

By Donna Newman

At year’s end, TBR News Media honors community members who have shared their time and talents to enhance the place they live for the benefit of all. Long Island environmentalist Erica Cirino takes her efforts to a global level.

We are pleased to honor her as a 2021 TBR News Media Person of the Year.

After earning a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism at Stony Brook University, this former Huntington resident has dedicated herself to one of Earth’s most pressing environmental concerns.

According to the bio on her website, Cirino is a science writer, author and artist exploring the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. Her widely published photojournalistic works depict the numerous ways people connect to nature — and each other — and shape the planet. Her work has appeared in Audubon Magazine, The Guardian and on the National Geographic Voices blog and VICE News among other media outlets.  

While working at a rehab clinic as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Cirino saw firsthand that the majority of animals brought in for care were there as a result of human actions that have deleterious effects on wildlife — and nature. This realization led her to focus on telling the stories she feels need to be heard to prevent continued destruction of the planet and further harm to wildlife.

Currently, Cirino manages outreach campaigns and online and print media for The Safina Center, a nonprofit nature conservation and environmental organization that is affiliated with Stony Brook University. The center is headquartered in Setauket.

Carl Safina, the eponymous center’s founder, said he has known Cirino about six years.

“Erica has been a kind of protégé for years,” he said. “I am not sure that does her justice, because she is her own person with her own work and views. But I have helped her along as best I can because she has great talent well worth assisting. Erica was one of the main reasons we created our junior fellowships [for younger scholars establishing their careers]. Now she is the author of an important book and in high demand as a speaker. I can hardly imagine doing what we do without Erica. She seems able to do just about anything. She is multitalented and preternaturally efficient.”

In a review of her book, “Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis,” in this newspaper last month, Jeffrey Sanzel lauded Cirino’s recently released treatise.

Author Erica Cirino

“Cirino, a gifted author whose writings have been featured in Scientific American and The Atlantic, has penned a smart, passionate exploration of one of the most troubling and challenging issues,” he wrote. “The book examines a problem of overwhelming global impact.”

Sanzel concluded, “It would be impossible to read this powerful book and not look at the world differently, both in the larger picture and day-to-day life. … Erica Cirino’s ideas stimulate thought, raise awareness and, most importantly, are a call to action.”

Lise Hintze’s connection to Cirino began with their dogs. The pups had an affinity for one another in their Setauket neighborhood, and began playing together in Hintze’s fenced backyard during the pandemic as the women got to know each other.

“When I first met her, she said, ‘I’m going to write a book,’” Hintze recalled. “She talked about her sailing and the expeditions she’d been on, and her travel all over the world. And I asked, ‘How old are you?’ because her face did not match the experiences she’d described. She replied, ‘I’m going to be 29.’ And I thought: ‘And you’ve done all that?’”

The more time they spent together, the more Hintze learned from her new friend. Cirino talked about what’s happening in the oceans and how serious it is and Hintze’s admiration for her passion and determination to solve this problem grew.

“Erica is one of the most dynamic young people I’ve ever met,” Hintze said. “She is an incredibly terrific young woman, soft spoken and extremely humble. I wish she knew her own worth. She is going far. Erica can confidently take anything she chooses to the next level.”

Learn more about this talented champion of our planet at her website www.ericacirino.com. Her book, “Thicker Than Water,” is available at islandpress.org/books or Amazon.com.

Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic President Sal Pitti protests a potential cell tower along Canal Road in 2019. File photo by Kyle Barr

If there’s a man around town, then that man’s more than likely to be Sal Pitti.

Whether he’s rolling up in his car to check on any reported problems, meeting with developers planning to build up in the Port Jeff Station area, running civic gatherings or attending town meetings focused on residential issues, it’s not hard to find the shaved head and thick, salt and pepper beard as the marked signs of his presence. 

Pitti has been vice president and now president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association over the past several years, and in that time has become a staple of community activism for the two hamlets. The retired ex-NYPD officer can be seen throughout the community, driving around with his current VP and friend Ed Garboski, as they check in on any supposed disturbances and the sites of any ongoing development.

Garboski said he was first introduced to Pitti through Joe Rella, the beloved former superintendent of the Comsewogue School District. Pitti was involved with the school’s Drug Prevention Coalition, and Rella asked Garboski to get involved. After talking for a good while, the two decided they should merge the coalition with the civic, and Pitti became an integral part of the PJS/T organization.

Since then, he’s become a major member of multiple committees, including Brookhaven Town’s Quality of Life Task Force and Suffolk County’s drug task force, for which Garboski said Pitti was instrumental in working with Suffolk County Police Department officials to close down several known drug houses in the community.

“He’s not going to give you lip service, and if there’s a problem he’s going to go after it,” the current civic VP said. “He’s committed to this community, whether that’s drugs or working on the homelessness issue. He’s got a lot of empathy for them. It’s not, ‘Let’s just get rid of them,’ it’s, ‘Let’s find out how we can help them.

Charlie McAteer, the civic’s corresponding secretary and previous Person of the Year recipient, has known Pitti for close to a decade. McAteer first interacted with Pitti through his stewardship of the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail, when he was helping to clean up the trail and the parking lot on Route 112 that marks a trail end. Over the years, both Pitti’s and Garboski’s activism drew McAteer into the civic more and more.

Sal Pitti with other members of the PJS/Terryville Civic discuss ideas for the Terryville Road community garden. File photo by Kyle Barr

McAteer said Pitti was instrumental in multiple recent community projects, including the revitalization of the community garden on Route 112, keeping on top of the Lawrence Aviation property with the Suffolk County Landbank, and more recently working with Brookhaven Town to secure the historical Terryville Union Hall under civic stewardship after the local historical society folded in 2019. McAteer said they are now talking with the town about renovating the property to bring it back to its original 1800s-era look.

Pitti “is really utilizing his retirement time to help the community,” McAteer said. “Having been a New York City police officer, now retired, he has such a repertoire. He puts people at ease, that way they can talk to him. And he will then be able to then convey any problems they have to the powers that be.” 

Frank Gibbons, a longtime civic member and all-around expert about the area’s traffic history and issues, said Pitti is always willing to help anyone in the community.

“If anybody needs his time for anything, then he’s there,” Gibbons said. “You don’t have to ask him twice. Hell, most of the time you don’t have to ask him, he’s asking us, saying ‘Hey, will you come join us?’ Whether it’s cleaning up around the chamber of commerce train car, or cleaning up all the walking paths over to Stony Brook.”

Others who have known Pitti for a shorter time than Garboski and McAteer said his drive to see good work done is striking.

Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who is finishing up his first year as Brookhaven Town councilmember, said he has worked closely with Pitti ever since he came into office. 

“Soon after I took office, I met with Sal and the board of the civic and we had a frank discussion about the community’s needs, wishes, challenges and opportunities,” Kornreich said over email. “I found Sal’s insight and level of connectedness to his community to be very inspiring. For no reason other than the betterment of his community, Sal has worked hard for many years, investing time, money and energy. One can’t help but be inspired to support his efforts.” 

Andrew Harris, a special-needs teacher at Comsewogue High School and the school liaison with the civic, said Pitti and the other civic leaders are honestly concerned that their community remains a nice place to live, for all its residents.

“He’s a big dude, he’s an ex-cop, he looks like a pretty tough guy, you know?” said Harris, who is also a previous Person of the Year recipient. “But really, he’s the kindest, nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, personalitywise. The bottom line is he just volunteers his time for others.”

Susan Eckert with Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta helping to collect food for a drive. Photo from Demetria Mudar

By Donna Deedy

Susan Eckert is one of those unsung heroes who works behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for others here on Long Island’s North Shore. 

The Northport native began her public relations career at the Long Island Lighting Company during the turbulent era that saw the rise and fall of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. 

After new management eliminated the entire department in the early 1980s, according to former LILCO PR associate Demetria Mudar, Eckert moved on to forge her own unique, decades-long personal legacy in community service. Along the way, she has gained the admiration of others. 

“People like her,” Mudar said. “She’s a lovely person and her character, combined with her work ethic, stand out.”

Eckert touches the lives of others through her full-time positions, most notably as a legislative aide in Suffolk County and as a volunteer for nonprofit organizations. 

She works for county Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who said that hiring her was among his best decisions as a lawmaker. He has nicknamed her “Radar” after the “M*A*S*H” character because she’s finely tuned in to her surroundings.

Susan Eckert. Photo from Demetria Mudar

“Susan knows what I’m thinking, what is right and what to do next before anything even happens,” Trotta said. “She is a godsend and the backbone of my office.” 

On the job, Eckert organizes senior information fairs as well as winter coat and food drives for the local pantry at St. Joseph’s Church in Kings Park. 

She also researches and promotes many important proposals, such as Trotta’s life-saving 911 bill in 2014. 

That law mandated that hotels and businesses provide telephone systems with direct access to emergency operators without the need for dialing a prompt to connect with an external phone line. It was created in response to a tragic incident where a child tried unsuccessfully to call for help for his mother in a hotel room. 

If you have ever dropped off excess prescription drugs at any county police department, you can thank Eckert. She coordinated the first medicine disposal program on Long Island back in 2011 when she was an aide for Trotta’s predecessor, Legislator Lynne Nowick (R-Smithtown). 

The effort aimed to protect the area’s drinking water supply, while preventing drug misuse or abuse. The initiative ultimately expanded and became a model for a state policy that eliminates the need to flush pills down the toilet. 

As a liaison, Eckert has been involved with Suffolk County Department of Health Services programs, the Suffolk Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, the county Communities of Solutions, Smithtown Youth and Community Alliance, Commack Coalition of Caring for substance abuse and the Northport school district Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force. She also served as chair of the county’s Women’s Advisory Commission in 2011 and was a member from 2008-14. 

Determined to raise awareness of the abilities of the disabled, Eckert took a job in public relations for United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Suffolk, where she received national recognition for composing the group’s publications. 

Eckert’s omnipresence in Suffolk County is matched only by her standing in her hometown.

She currently serves as president of the Friends of the Northport-East Northport Public Library, a volunteer position she has held since 2013. Library staff member Janet Naideau said Eckert has enhanced the library experience for the entire patron community by organizing a full range of special events. For members of Long Island Horticultural Society, Eckert has planned garden tours locally and abroad to Northumberland, England. The legislative aide mainly focuses on health and literacy projects. But her interests extend into the arts. She created Art in the Alcove in the county Legislature building in Hauppauge to showcase the work of local sculptors. For years, Eckert was a member of the Northport Historical Society exhibits committee. 

She is also a volunteer for the Reboli Center for Art and History in Stony Brook, where she writes press releases and composes profiles to highlight the talents of Long Island’s artists.

“I have known Susan for more than 20 years,” Lois Reboli, the center’s president, said. “I think the world of her.” Eckert, she said, is remarkably generous, caring, brilliant and a skilled fundraiser. “She never asks for a thing in return,” Reboli added. “And is so deserving of this honor.” 

During this season of giving, Susan Eckert shows us how giving back results in a rewarding way of life.

Leigh Wixson (right) with her colleagues, Monica Passarelle and Christina Almeida, from the Smithtown Animal Shelter. Photo from Town of Smithtown

With the popularity that pets and other animals already feature on social media, one wouldn’t be blamed to think it’s a cinch to get folks into local municipal animal shelters and find those longing dogs and cats a forever home. 

Yet, any shelter worker will tell you it remains an intense challenge to help animals, whether to find new owners or to live safely in Long Island’s dense suburban landscape. To many who work with or in the Smithtown Animal Shelter and Adoption Center, director Leigh Wixson has proved to be a steadfast and extremely compassionate head of the shelter, one who is open to any suggestion and recourse to help those furry companions within the Town of Smithtown.

Nicole Garguilo, public information officer for the town, has worked intimately with Wixson since the director came into the job in 2019. Together, they have set up multiple blasts on social media to promote the animals currently inhabiting the shelter. Beyond the usual social blasts profiling those animals waiting for adoption, Wixson and her crew have started to get especially creative.

“I always laugh because I feel like I torture Wixson and the others at the shelter with my ideas,” Garguilo said, mentioning their recent video where they used shelter dogs to recreate famous movie scenes from “Lady and the Tramp” and Rin Tin Tin-featured adventures. The shelter recently posted a video of their hotdog challenge on TikTok, where shelter dogs had to catch in their mouths small pieces of hot dogs thrown to them. Another video featured a buck trapped in a fence during rutting season, and as town animal control officers pried it loose, Jim Carrey’s appropriate line from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” played in the background: “All right, you’re a reindeer. Here’s your motivation: Your name is Rudolph.”

Beyond that, those who constantly work with the shelter said with Wixson’s kind, open and funny demeanor, she has a knack for using social media in a way that both informs and promotes the shelter.

“She is very, very good at using video, which can be cute, so it grabs the attention of people on social media, but they also learn something,” Garguilo said. “When they learn something, and when they see that video, they realize, ‘Oh, if I have that situation, I can call the shelter, they’ll help me.’ And she’s been very successful in getting our social media pages to go viral.”

The animal shelter has had leadership problems over the years. Former director George Beatty resigned in 2015 after some 30 years at the helm, and a shelter advisory council of volunteer residents designed to offer recommendations to the town on shelter operations quit shortly after it was created that same year. Susan Hansen, Beatty’s replacement, was suspended from the shelter director’s position in 2017, and the town’s Department of Public Safety temporarily took over the shelter’s reins. 

But Wixson’s tenure has catapulted the shelter ahead of its contemporaries, according to those people who have worked intimately with her. Different folks have pointed to her deep knowledge base as well as her constant attentive attitude to those animals inhabiting the shelter, often going above and beyond what’s usually expected of a director.

Charmaine DeRosa, a longtime animal advocate from St. James, said that of all the multitudes of shelters across the Island she works with, the shelter headed by Wixson is the best in terms of their openness and care for the animals.

“A lot of people in the community are more willing and more open to donating to the shelter, and they think about the shelter a lot more,” DeRosa said. Wixson and her staff “are very open, and the animal adoptions are handled so quickly and nicely.”

The shelter also performs many other services beyond adoption. In 2018, the town netted a $168,000 grant from New York State to create a new trap, neuter and release program to try and handle the stray dog and cat populations — otherwise known by animal activists as community dogs or cats — while treating them for diseases or parasites. Garguilo said Wixson’s experience in the private sector was incredibly helpful for getting the program off the ground. Instead of building a separate building, as the town originally planned, Wixson suggested using multiple pod trailers, each with their own heating and ventilation. The trailers help keep the stray animals away from the general population to help them acclimate if they’re to join the shelter.

The shelter’s animal control arm has also taken off on social media. Denise Vibal, an animal control officer at the shelter, can be seen in multiple videos attending to deer during rutting season or explaining what to do when people find injured animals on their property. She said Wixson has been a “fantastic boss” and attentive leader, adding that she’s been in the animal world for a long time and understands the struggles and remedies in this line of work.

“Most supervisors, they wouldn’t know every cat’s name, every dog’s name, every quirk, every this or that,” Vibal said. “So, she actually takes the time to get to know them, to have them in her office, take them for a walk, or have a relationship with a really tough animal who’s had a rough life.”

“In the past, we were told not to post anything, but the community likes to see wildlife and rescues, and things like that,” Vibal added. “And I think it’s great for the community morale. So Wixson has been very positive about posting different things, not only for the animals but what we do for the community.”

The shelter has faced other ongoing issues due to the pandemic. Vibal said that as more people go back to work, the shelter has seen a rash of pet abandonment, especially those animals folks acquired during 2020 that they claim they don’t have the time to take care of anymore. Though it is a felony to abandon a pet, those in the know said the shelter has worked hard to help any animal in need.

“The fact that she’s been able to keep the morale up, especially right now, and really take care of her employees, as well as love these animals unconditionally, is really very special,” Garguilo said.

May Chasteen, of St. James, has been volunteering for most of her life. Photo from Mary Beth Chasteen

Volunteerism runs in the blood of one St. James resident.

May Chasteen, 90, has always found time and energy to volunteer. Currently, she is the vice president of the Fairfield at St. James Civic Association.

The spot on the board is a volunteer position, and through the years, she has also served as its president and recording secretary, using the shorthand skills that she developed during one of her first jobs with American Express.

Dan Ryan, president of the civic association, said while members have had to lessen activities due to COVID-19, the board members’ responsibilities include providing information to the residents and giving them a voice. Before COVID-19, they would hold monthly meetings, send out newsletters and invite speakers to talk to the residents. Often, the monthly meetings will feature people in the medical and political fields.

Ryan described Chasteen as “a gem” who is always willing to help out, and due to her delightful personality is seen by many in the community as the “face of the organization.”

“She’s a terrific asset to the civic association,” he said. “I find probably her greatest asset to me is that she knows the workings of these organizations. She knows the legalities, so to speak. I really rely on her and depend on her.”

Photo from Mary Beth Chasteen

Someone who has witnessed Chasteen’s volunteerism through the decades and admires her work is her godson, Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). He called her “a source of strength, wisdom and guidance” for her children and grandchildren. He said she is a role model who has always supported his career choices and puts other people first.

“She instilled her values and positive work ethic in her children, relatives and colleagues,” Trotta said.

Her daughter-in-law Mary Beth Chasteen agreed and said the St. James resident has always found time for others and enjoys keeping busy.

“She’s 90, and she still does a lot,” Mary Beth Chasteen said. “She’s in a bible study group; she’s in a Rummikub group; she plays canasta. You look at her calendar and she is booked more than me and my husband.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook section, while working for American Express she attended Brooklyn College to study law and languages, including German, French and Russian, adding to the Spanish she already knew.

During this busy time, she was involved in her church where she met her husband Gerard. After the couple moved to Commack, the mother of four children still found time to volunteer with the Girls Scouts, Holy Cross church and the PTA. All this while driving her oldest daughter, Susie, to ice skating lessons early in the morning.

Chasteen also fundraised for the former St. John’s Hospital in Smithtown before it was built, and once it was open, volunteered as one of the “Pink Ladies.”

Her volunteer efforts led to her joining the management team at St. John’s in 1982 as director of volunteers, where she oversaw more than 400 volunteers and fundraised, creating an annual awards ceremony. Mary Beth Chasteen remembered one year her mother-in-law organized the highest ticket-selling fundraiser for the institution.

“She really did a lot of good for the community,” Mary Beth Chasteen said.

Juggling various responsibilities has never been much of a problem for her mother-in-law.

“When she’s given a challenge, she really meets it head on,” the daughter-in-law said. “She’s pretty amazing.”

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis talks to attendees at the fourth annual Light the Brook ceremony in November of 2021. Photo from Stony Brook University

From offering insights about higher education to The New York State Senate, to presenting her academic research on slavery to the University Senate, President Maurie McInnis earned kudos and appreciation as she completes her first full year at the helm of Stony Brook University.

McInnis, who earned her doctorate from Yale University, became the first president to present her research to the University Senate as a scholar in October amid her inauguration week, in a talk titled, “The Shadow of Slavery in American Public Life.”

“She hit it out of the park,” said Richard Larson, president of the University Senate and professor of Linguistics at Stony Brook. “She’s quite a remarkable individual from the standpoint of intellectual achievement.”

The talk included a description of the work of Eyre Crowe, whose 1853 sketches of a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, provided an eyewitness account abolitionists would use and which formed the basis of an award-winning book by McInnis.

TBR News Media is pleased to recognize McInnis as a Person of the Year for 2021 for her careful guidance of the university amid the pandemic, for her goal of bringing diverse groups of people, departments and communities together, and for her efforts to enhance the profile and talents of the university.

“Day after day, I see a new initiative of hers that expands the visibility of Stony Brook or further tends to the needs of minority students, or helps researchers accomplish their goals,” Alan Alda, award-winning actor and founder of an eponymous science communication effort at the university, explained in an email. “Dr. McInnis brings people together and makes big ideas happen. I don’t think the university could be in better hands.”

Commencement ceremonies

Graduation at Stony Brook in May this year was like the movie “Groundhog Day” for McInnis.

Except that, instead of acting without consequence the way Bill Murray did in the film, McInnis attended 10 graduation ceremonies, which had to be separated to reduce the number of people at each graduation.

McInnis offered her congratulations for the academic achievement of the graduates and applauded their resilience, particularly amid the worst of the pandemic.

She was “quite insistent” that she attend each of these events, which were held over the course of three days in the warm sunlight, Larson said. “She wanted to hand out the certificates personally. That was an incident that just really struck home with me. Each ceremony was many hours long.”

During her inauguration week lecture, McInnis discussed her research in Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia.

Louis Nelson, a former colleague of McInnis at the University of Virginia, where he is currently vice provost for Academic Outreach and professor of Architectural History, sang her praises.

She is “one of the most impactful social historians of the American South at work today,” said Nelson, who co-edited the book “Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University” with McInnis. Her “scholarship has forged a path toward the truth telling that our nation needs to confront,” he said.


Photo from Stony Brook University

In addition to the scholarship and academic rigor she brings to campus, McInnis has won appreciation from her colleagues at Stony Brook for her compassion.

Richard Gatteau, vice president for Student Affairs, explained that he dealt with a health issue earlier this year. “Right away, she was empathetic,” he said. McInnis turned to him during a meeting and asked how he was doing. He genuinely appreciated her support.

A provost at The University of Texas at Austin before she arrived at Stony Brook, McInnis officially joined the school only months after the worst of the pandemic reached Suffolk County. An active participant in calls before her July 1, 2020, start date, she has helped oversee the university’s distinguished response to the pandemic.

Carol Gomes, chief executive officer of Stony Brook University Hospital, observed that McInnis does considerable homework in making decisions. She also emphasized how McInnis “always emphasizes the importance of working together.”

The university president asks “good, insightful questions and she can analyze different sides of an issue, process the information and provide meaningful feedback,” Gomes said.

Even before McInnis arrived on campus, she “did call me regularly to ask how things were going, to get acclimated to what was happening at the hospital during the height of the pandemic,” Gomes said. “It was very comforting to know that I had somebody to whom I was reporting who cared and was compassionate, and who thought about reaching out and developing a relationship before she began.”

McInnis also called state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) before she arrived on Long Island.

Gaughran is on the Senate Higher Education Committee, which held hearings around the state, including one on the Stony Brook campus, where McInnis was the lead witness.

“I was very impressed with her presentation and her answers to questions,” he said. “She clearly seems to be the right fit for Stony Brook during what are some very challenging times.”


McInnis is committed to developing and enhancing the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

She elevated Judith Brown Clarke, who joined Stony Brook as chief diversity officer in February of 2020, to vice president for Equity and Inclusion.

Brown Clarke described the promotion as “game changing” for diversity, ensuring that fairness and social justice are “woven into every part of campus governance and decision making.”

As an example, Brown Clarke is a part of the governance committee, which allows her to look at the equitable distribution of resources like software that make it possible for students to learn remotely.

Rosemaria Martinelli, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, had served as McInnis’ chief of staff for two years at UT Austin before McInnis joined SBU. Martinelli followed her to Long Island.

Martinelli is thrilled with McInnis’ support and guidance for Stony Brook’s bid to compete for a global competition to establish a climate solutions center on Governors Island in New York City.

SBU’s proposal, which involved numerous departments, “energized everybody,” Martinelli said. “We engaged our campus community and [McInnis] helped us identify the academic partners. She was involved in every step.”

Judith Greiman, chief deputy to the president, lauded the McInnis leadership style.

“She is unique [among college presidents] in that she has all the credentials anybody might want, she has ambition for the institution, and she does not have an ego that gets in the way,” Greiman said. She has a “collaborative leadership style.”

Indeed, Doon Gibbs, laboratory director at Brookhaven National Laboratory, appreciated McInnis’ commitment to collaborations.

She has “galvanized impact at the university and among its partners with a new sense of energy, unity and inclusiveness,” Gibbs explained in an email. He suggested it was “a pleasure to work with her on behalf of Long Island and New York state.”

Judith Greiman, center, with Joan Dickinson, SBU’s director of university community relations, and Michael Arens, assistant vice president for government and community relations. The three executives were attending community service day Aug. 21 outside the Staller Center. Photo from Stony Brook University

It didn’t take long for chief deputy to the president of Stony Brook University, Judith Greiman, to impress her new boss.

When Maurie McInnis was interviewing for the job as president, Greiman drove her around and had breakfast with her.

The two spent a “good bit of time together,” McInnis said. “I immediately thought to myself, ‘If I’m lucky enough to get this position, I would be lucky if I could keep [Greiman] in that role.’ It was not a long evaluation process. She [is] an incredible asset.”

TBR News Media is pleased to recognize Greiman as a Person of the Year for 2021 for her tireless work at Stony Brook University.

Greiman is “behind the scenes doing her work with little fanfare, but she makes a tremendous impact,” said Carol Gomes, CEO of Stony Brook University Hospital.

Gomes cited Greiman’s decision making and her relationship with government agencies that work in tandem with the university. She also said Greiman has the university’s, community’s and students’ best interests at heart whenever she makes a decision.

Greiman’s colleagues are impressed by her dedication to work.

“I’m usually the second-to-last person to leave the suite,” said Braden Hosch, associate vice president for Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness. Greiman “is the last.”

Hosch knew her before the two joined Stony Brook University, when he was chief academic and financial officer at the State of Connecticut Office of Higher Education and Greiman was president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges. The two interacted regularly, sometimes on different sides of an issue.

“She always won,” Hosch recalled. “You want to make sure she’s the person in your corner.”

Hosch suggested that McInnis’ decision to keep Greiman as her chief of staff is a testament to Greiman’s deep institutional knowledge. She started her Stony Brook tenure on July 1, 2015, which is exactly five years to the day before McInnis joined the university.

Judith Brown Clarke, vice president for Equity and Inclusion and the chief diversity officer, appreciates the support she has received from Greiman.

Greiman is “so gracious with ensuring that she’s working with me on these strategies,” Brown Clarke said. “If I was doing it by myself, there may be some things I would think, not knowing the culture, that I may come up with a different solution.”

A bowl of rocks sits on the desk of SBU President Maurie McInnis. Judith Greiman collected the rocks and asked SBU vice presidents to share a single word for each one. Photo by from Judith Greiman

In addition to keeping the big picture goals in mind, Greiman had a well-received idea the week McInnis was inaugurated.

Greiman knew McInnis believed in the rocks, pebbles, sand metaphor for work. A management philosophy, the rocks represent the bigger picture goals or principles, while the pebbles are smaller issues and the sand represents even less significant but necessary items. Filling a bowl with rocks leaves room for sand and pebbles. Putting sand in first, however, could make it harder to include the necessary rocks.

“As a leader,” McInnis said, “we will be well served by understanding that you need to remember what your priorities are. Make sure you’re allocating your time toward those priorities,” which are the larger rocks.

“It’s a visual way to remind yourself that you have to think of the big rocks,” McInnis said.

Keeping this lesson in mind, Greiman collected rocks and asked the vice presidents to share a single word for each rock. Greiman gave McInnis a bowl of rocks with a word on each. The bowl sits on her desk.

Greiman’s word was “humor,” Gomes used the word “strategic,” while Brown Clarke shared a Japanese word that means a way of recognizing the beauty in imperfections.

“That’s how I see DEI,” Brown Clarke said. Filling imperfections in society with something of value can “make it beautiful.”

McInnis was thrilled with the gift.

While Greiman works such long hours that McInnis has urged her, unsuccessfully, to take time off, Greiman helps provide balance, humor, peace and muffins for her staff.

A talented baker, Greiman has provided those members of the staff who can or do eat sweets with goods she bakes at home.

Hosch savors her blueberry muffins with fresh ginger, while Brown Clarke enjoys the chocolate chip cookies.

McInnis, who remains active by kayaking and can’t eat most of the foods because of a gluten allergy, is grateful for everything Greiman brings to the proverbial table.

“I could not hope for a better person to work with,” McInnis said. “Not only does she have such an incredible command of all the issues, both the internal campus issues but also the external issues, but she does so with this amazing presence.”

McInnis said her deputy’s sense of humor “tends to set everybody right in the room. She is a very centered individual [who] has the ability to build the team and help everybody work through even the most difficult of situations.”

Indu Kaur, right, with her sister Kiran Wadhwa at SāGhar in Port Jefferson. File photo by Julianne Mosher

Soft spoken and modest, Indu Kaur has been quietly helping out her community, all while managing and operating three local businesses — two of which opened in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Kaur, owner of SāGhar in Port Jefferson, also works alongside her family with their two other establishments — The Curry Club in Setauket and the newly renovated The Meadow Club in Port Jefferson Station. 

A resident of Setauket, her sister Kiran Wadhwa said that while she lives a few minutes out of the village or station, Port Jefferson is her second home. 

“She just wants to always lend a helping hand,” Wadhwa said. “Her goal is to make the community better.” 

Indu Kaur with blueprints of her new restaurant after purchasing The Harbor Grill. File photo by Kyle Barr

Joan Nickeson, community liaison to the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, said that Kaur is a member of several different boards and groups that all service Port Jefferson and its surrounding areas. 

“She is a model of entrepreneurship,” she said. “I am thoroughly impressed by her talent, grace and forward-thinking perspective.” 

Nickeson added that along with being a PJSTCC member, she is part of the Port Jefferson Chamber and the Three Village Chamber of Commerce. Kaur is also secretary of the Cumsewogue Historical Society, and owner of the historic Baylis-Randall house, next to The Meadow Club.

“She is looking to refurbish it and establish space for photos and archives of local history of, not just The Meadow Club, but the Baylis-Randall house, historic Port Jefferson Station and Terryville,” she said. 

While working full time at SāGhar in the village, dishing out delicious Indian and American cuisine and cocktails to locals and visitors alike, Wadhwa said that Kaur also does finances for The Meadow Club and handles all of its operations. 

“She burns the candle at both ends to improve her restaurant and catering hall,” Nickeson added. 

This past June, Kaur and Wadhwa hosted the Port Jefferson high school’s prom at The Meadow Club, as well as Port Jefferson Chamber’s Health and Wellness Fest in October — two opportunities that brought both sides of Port Jefferson together. 

And all of these things were implemented over the last year and a half — while dealing with and overcoming the coronavirus.

“Although women-owned businesses are somewhat rare in the restaurant/hospitality industry, Indu Kaur has managed to open two unique properties during a pandemic — The Meadow Club and SāGhar,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). “She is a role model for women aspiring to be restaurateurs. She has a can-do, work-hard attitude that she attributes to her immigrant family.”

Kaur previously told TBR News Media that after a fire devastated The Meadow Club in 2018, she and her family spent more than two years repairing it and turning it into the picture-perfect venue it is today.

But in the midst of rebuilding and construction, the pandemic hit — also as Kaur signed the deal on taking over the former Harbor Grill (Schafer’s) in the village. 

“Two years ago, we thought we were done,” Kaur said last November, just as The Meadow Club was starting to unveil. “But now we’re excited to bring our gem back to Suffolk County.”

Indu Kaur, left, with her family. Photo from Kiran Wadhwa

Hahn added that Kaur “had the courage and perseverance to rebuild The Meadow Club and reopen it bigger and better in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Incredibly, she also simultaneously opened SāGhar, a new restaurant in Port Jefferson Village with rooftop dining. It was this open-air rooftop that helped her stay open throughout the pandemic.”

An empathetic business owner, Hahn said that Kaur would always put the needs of her customers first — even as she struggled herself throughout the troubles of maintaining her establishments during a trying time. 

“Even though she was incredibly busy with two businesses, she never forgot the hardship of her employees and the brides and grooms who were displaced by the fire, and did her best to help them find new jobs and wedding venues,” Hahn said. “Indu is an unstoppable force and a tremendous asset to our community.”

And on top of all that, Kaur would personally drive meals — more than $30,000 worth of food — to first responders throughout the pandemic to make sure they had nice hot meals and to say “thanks.”

Kaur still stays philanthropic, donating meals and food to homeless shelters and families that lost their jobs due to the pandemic. 

And she’s a great neighbor, Port Jefferson Village trustee Rebecca Kassay said. 

As of late, Kaur has taken it upon herself to create welcome bags for residents moving into the newly opened apartment buildings in town. 

“These lovely gift bags full of local vouchers, coupons, gift cards and information about the Port Jefferson business community help to tie new residents into our vibrant community,” Kassay said. “Indu so often weaves people together in the most beautiful ways, and we are endlessly grateful for her thoughtful and inclusive efforts.”

Kassay added that Kaur is a “gift to this community.”

“Between the glowing positivity she emanates, her incredible organizational skills and her generous spirit, it is no wonder that her business and community efforts find deserved success,” the village trustee said. 

Kaur’s sister agreed. 

“She always gives 100% — whether it’s for her friends, family, businesses or community,” Wadhwa said. “There is no one else I can see being any more deserving of this nomination for Person of the Year than Indu.”