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Poetry

Karl O’Leary with his sons Cooper (left) and Cameron (right) at the Walt Whitman Birthplace ceremony this May. Photo from Karl O’Leary

By Stacy Santini

Most of us can look back on our lives and remember one person who impacted our journeys in such a profound manner that they will never be forgotten and their influence comes alive over and over again as we carry on with our daily activities.

For the pupils at Mount Sinai Middle School, that person is certain to be Karl O’Leary. An English teacher fascinated with poetry since the age of 7, O’Leary holds close the teachings of Walt Whitman and is dedicated to cultivating enthusiasm for life and thinking way outside the enclave of his classroom.

The cover of Testimonial Tales. Photo from Karl O’Leary
The cover of Testimonial Tales. Photo from Karl O’Leary

Coaching his students to take life on he says, “It is good to experience life and go beyond the boundaries; school is not just within four walls but about challenging themselves not for a grade but who they are, who they want to be.” O’Leary knew rather early that he couldn’t just preach this Whitmanesque philosophy. He had to and wanted to live it, to be tangible proof of his convictions. He embraces the simple life and dwells among nature as often as possible, albeit hiking Long Island’s Paumanok Path or camping for several weeks in rural New Hampshire with his family.

O’Leary is committed to the poet he admires so much by seeing, observing and listening, finding simplicity in a noisy world. He also involves his students in the numerous workshops and activities The Whitman Association offers at Whitman’s Birthplace in Huntington, encouraging fundraising and giving back.

O’Leary has published a book of poetry entitled “Testimonial Tales,” which is an ode to his wife Melanie. Meeting her through a friend, it quickly became apparent that she was “the one.” As with so many other enchanted lovers, O’Leary states, “When you know you just know.” Filling a small bed and breakfast in Cape Cod with immediate family members, they quietly exchanged their vows and began building a life together in the Village of Belle Terre. They started a family and today have two children, ages 3½ years old and 15 months.

Karl O’Leary with his wife Melanie. Photo from Karl O’Leary
Karl O’Leary with his wife Melanie. Photo from Karl O’Leary

The collection of poems documents their lives together — milestones, relationship transitions and daily rituals.  The message is simple but strong and unalterably beautiful. O’Leary wrote Melanie a poem every week since their courtship and felt it was time to share his sentiments with the rest of the world. When he is asked specifically why he decided to publish the book, he boldly states, “For one, Melanie deserves it, my wife is everything, and two, I tell my students to be proud of their work and get it out there in the world. How could I tell them those things if I did not do the same?”

O’Leary’s goal for the future is to certainly write more, and he is eager to put together another collection with poems and prose he has written over the years. For him, publishing his work is not about fame or money but to fulfill himself, to look back and be content with himself that he did indeed try. Give of yourself, celebrate yourself were essential themes for Whitman and apparently for Karl O’Leary too. Students pay attention.

‘Testimonial Tales’ by Karl O’Leary is available at Barnes and Noble stores and at www.amazon.com.

Valedictorian Seth Brand. Photo from Mount Sinai school district

They volunteered countless hours, participated in numerous activities and have taken more than 40 Advanced Placement courses combined, so it should come as no surprise that Seth Brand, Brendan Zotto and Tiffany Ong are at the top of Mount Sinai High School’s 2015 graduating class.

Seth Brand
With a GPA of 102.399, Seth Brand graduates as this year’s valedictorian and will head to Harvard University in the fall.

The varsity soccer and basketball player said he plans on studying biology, but is still undecided as he wants to explore and see what he is most interested in.

“I think I’m going to find what I really want to do upon going to Harvard,” he said.

Brand added that he knows whatever he ends up doing, it will involve making a difference in others’ lives.
Over the course of his four years at Mount Sinai, Brand took a total of 24 AP classes and exams — 13 of which he self-studied for — and passed every single one.

In addition to playing sports, Brand served as class president in 10th and 11th grades, and as president of the National Honor Society. He was also vice president of the school’s Environmental Out Reach club, coordinating beach cleanups and collecting recyclables.

Brand reflected fondly on his time as a Mustang and said he benefited from being in small school. He also gave a shutout to his teachers and the friends he has made.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go.”

Brendan Zotto

Salutatorian Brendan Zotto. Photo from Mount Sinai school district
Salutatorian Brendan Zotto. Photo from Mount Sinai school district

In addition to being the Mustang’s senior class president, Brendan Zotto is also this year’s salutatorian, graduating with a 101.213 GPA. He heads off to Stony Brook University in the fall and will major in computer engineering.

Zotto said a programming class he took as a freshman spurred his interest in the subject. After taking the AP Physics C exam, which he self-studied for, Zotto said he realized he was interested in computer hardware as he learned about circuitry, and electricity and magnetism.

“I’m hoping college is an experience like that, where I learn one thing and it leads me to something else,” he said.

In his spare time, Zotto, a member of the cross country track team, said he enjoys running.

His favorite memory from high school, he said, was participating in the National Honor Society’s Video Game Tournament, where students played Super Smash Brothers Melee and raised money for the group.

Zotto, who is also vice president of the Computer Club and treasurer of the Science Club, said he hopes to one day make and improve on current computer hardware.

The salutatorian said college would offer him the “experience to learn more about myself and about what I’m studying.”

Tiffany Ong
Tiffany Ong rounds out the top trio and is this year’s senior class poet. Ong is graduating with a 101.146 GPA and will head to New York University in the fall, where she’ll major in nutrition and dietetics.

Senior class poet Tiffany Ong. Photo from Mount Sinai school district
Senior class poet Tiffany Ong. Photo from Mount Sinai school district

Ong said she picked the major because she has a passion for the sciences, health and food.

“I just love how we can take care of our bodies and be athletic and still have a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

The student government secretary said she stays active in a few different ways. She played varsity tennis until her junior year and currently spends much of her time dancing at Backstage Studio of Dance.

While Ong’s dream job would be to dance for a living, she said she understands how challenging that is and will explore creating a major at NYU that combines her passions for dance and nutrition.

“Hopefully, I can help dancers in the future, or any other athletes.”

The senior also has a love of art and music. She is an accomplished violin player, having served as concertmistress of the high school’s orchestra, ensemble leader of the chamber orchestra and a section leader in the Long Island String Festival Association.

Ong said she enjoyed attending Mount Sinai because it is a small school where you get to know everyone, but she is also excited for new experiences college will bring.

“I’m looking forward to seeing new people, being on my own, growing up really fast, especially being in the city.”

Jean Linzee will portray Emily Dickinson. Photo from the WMHO

In honor of National Poetry Month the Ward Melville Heritage Organization will host a live dramatic performance titled “Artists & Poets,” showcasing iconic American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, at the Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., in Stony Brook Village on Sunday, April 19, from 2 to 5 p.m. The event will  feature Jean Linzee as Emily Dickinson and Darrel Blaine Ford as Walt Whitman.

A former Long Island biology teacher and world-traveled ornithologist, Ford not only has a striking physical resemblance to Walt Whitman but a personal affinity with him since childhood, when he was given a copy of “Leaves of Grass” and was “hooked ever since.” He has been recreating Whitman’s persona for over 30 years and continues to maintain his legacy today by visiting schools and libraries as the famous poet.

Linzee is a Yale graduate and has taught English and theater at The Stony Brook School for over 20 years. Her experience includes not only teaching but also acting, directing and writing. She has conceived, written and performed in many of her own one-woman shows, as well as William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” based  on the life of Emily Dickinson, which she has performed in England, Poland, Switzerland and throughout the United States.

There will be a special interaction with the audience and the actors, who will perform in an impromptu skit embodying the personas of Dickinson and Whitman as if they were meeting for the first time. The performance is $20 per person and will include refreshments.

There will also be a free art exhibit on site including works by Pat Solan, Flo Kemp and members of the Stony Brook Photography Club. Additional dates for the free art exhibit are April 16, 17, 18, 20 and 21.

For further information, please call 631-689-5888 or visit www.stonybrookvillage.com.