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Bill Leonard and the sea were a perfect fit and inseparable. He was born on Dec. 21, 1928 and spent his early childhood on Gnarled Hollow Road (first house on the left) in East Setauket, New York. The Leonard home was just a stone’s throw from Setauket Harbor and just around the corner from the Rolston’s grocery store, where his father was manager.  Setauket Harbor was Bill’s “playground” and he’d tell you the marshy area behind his house “produced the finest muck in the world.”

His mother’s scolding’s were not enough to keep him from trudging around in that muck and coming home looking and smelling like a “swamp monster.”The family, now including a four-year-old brother, Edwin, moved to South Street in Port Jefferson village when Bill was 15 years old. One more Leonard boy (Francis) was born there, and Bill became a much admired and dearly loved big brother.  

He spent his teenage years cultivating life-long friendships, “having way too much fun,” and dreaming of the day he’d join the armed forces. At 17, he enlisted in the Army and at 20 he joined the Navy.

Bill and his duffel bag traveled the world. He was part of the occupational force in Korea while in the Army and served as an Engineman aboard four Naval ships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and a PT boat in Vietnam. He achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer before his retirement in 1973. 

During his 22 years in the Navy, he was a Frogman with the Underwater Demolition Team (UDTs).  These teams were the predecessors of the Navy’s current Seal Teams. It was very dangerous work.     

Bill and his wife, Shirley, were both in their late 40s when they married. Shirley was an Army veteran (a WAC from 1950-53) and a beloved primary school teacher. Their marriage was one of deep mutual respect, adoration and a love everlasting.  

Shirley once wrote to a friend “Bill is quiet and unassuming. Little by little, I am finding out more and more. He is not a braggart. If there were a catastrophe, I would put my life in his hands. He would protect me.”  

Bill described their relationship this way: “It was just so comfortable —  like slipping on your favorite sweater.”  

Shirley (Bill’s “Punkin”) passed away in 2017.  

Bill’s health began to decline in 2020. By March of that year, after a short hospital stay, he was thoughtlessly and indefinitely placed in a nursing home as COVID-19 raged out of control.  

Thanks to the unyielding efforts of his family, Bill was able to return home and spend the last year and a half of his life in the cozy little house he shared with Shirley on High Street in Port Jefferson village.  Even as the end grew near, Bill never failed to lift the spirits of those around him. He was courageous, a guiding light, and an inspiration to all.  

He will be remembered for his kindness, generosity, good humor, optimism, honesty and his unrivaled quick wit. He will be missed but never forgotten by his adoring family and a multitude of friends who so enjoyed his company.

Bill was placed in hospice care at Stony Brook’s Veteran’s Home on July 29 and passed away ever so peacefully on Aug. 15.  He asked that no formal service be held in his honor.  He wished to be buried at sea as that was where his spirit longed to be.  

The Rev. Gregory Leonard and many members of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket held a very special place in Bill’s heart — a proclamation and certificate they presented to him in 2008 for his commitment and support was a prized possession.  

Contributions to the church in Bill’s memory may be made to:  Bethel A.M.E Church, 33 Christian Avenue, P.O. Box 2117, Setauket, New York 11733.

Photos from Larry Hohler
Leg. Kara Hahn. Photo from Larry Hohler

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) is a daily runner who has participated in many local races, but her effort on the Port Jefferson/Setauket Greenway on Saturday, Oct. 16 in the Annual Kenya/USA Bi-Continental race was special.  

For the last 17 years, Hope Children’s Fund, a local not-for-profit, has held a 5K fundraiser in support of the Jerusha Mwiraria Hope Children’s Home for AIDS-affected former street children in Meru, Kenya.  

Hahn came in first among the female competitors in this year’s event with a time of 28:52. The overall winner was Setauket resident Donald Dodge, with his time of 24:28.  

The Kenyan times were inconclusive, but in all of the competitions since 2005, the Kenyans have won 16 times.

Rebecca Kassay along with the crew from Aureate Visuals and local hired help in front of their 1991 Winnebago. Photo from Kassay

Baltimore, Maryland. So much has been said about the city, criticism that came from way beyond the city itself. But Rebecca Kassay, the co-owner of the Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jefferson, saw something incredible from the people living there. There was a community in the neighborhood of Cherry Hill growing fresh fruit and vegetables, teaching others to farm, giving access to fresh food for people who live several miles from the nearest supermarket. The program, called the Black Yield Institute, was making a difference in their community, and the Port Jeff resident said she knew it needed to be seen by the world.

Rebecca Kassay fist bumps a volunteer at Cherry Hill, Baltimore’s Black Yield Institute. Photo from Kassay

“What they’re doing there is just so incredible as far as combining uplifting the community — integrating culture and fun,” said Kassay. “It was amazing to experience it with my own eyes and be there while this incredible group said, ‘we’re going to create this garden, how can we help people become more aware of health issues and social issues?’”

The inn owner is out on the road, touring in a renovated 1991 Winnebago with her husband, Andrew, and their dog. Filming with a Setauket-based crew, she is trying to spread the news of just how many nonprofits and volunteer works are out there and how much good they do for their respective communities.

“What I really love is connecting people, not just with a cause they love to help, but more importantly, connecting them with the power within themselves,” she said.

The show, titled “Be the Change with Rebecca,” is finishing filming throughout the fall before transitioning to full post-production during the winter. The show expects to come out sometime in spring 2020 on Amazon Prime video.

Kassay, 30, who was born in St. James and later moved to Port Jefferson to open the Fox and Owl Inn with her husband, said the show is inspired by modern serialized documentaries, and takes a form much like a show she loved as a child, “Dirty Jobs,” hosted by Mike Rowe. In much the same way to that Discovery Channel hit, which had the host performing a variety of blue-collar jobs on screen along with the regular workers, Rebecca gets down and dirty with the volunteers, whether it’s driving in nails while building houses or digging in the dirt in a community garden.

“We’re collecting the stories of how they do the work and how they decided to come out,” she said. “Such as, here’s what it looks like when you volunteer at a community garden, here’s what it looks like when you volunteer to restore an oyster reef.”

By the end of their trip, they will have traveled as far east as Baiting Hollow on Long Island, as far south as Washington D.C. and as far west as Detroit, Michigan.

Kassay had the idea for this project nearly two years ago, working off her own background as a youth volunteer project manager at Avalon Park and Preserve. She reached out through local Facebook groups for a crew interested in taking on the project, and the Setauket-based Aureate Visuals production team answered the call.

The three filmmakers, Steve Glassner, Larry Bernardo and Marvin Tejada, have donated their time on a pro bono basis to help make the project possible. All three have worked on projects before, such as Mentally Apart, a feature film set to premier by the end of the year. All three met while in school at Five Towns College.

“It’s been a very, very fun experience, especially all the people we meet and the locals who worked on the crew with us,” said Glassner. “It’s been a real learning experience. We’re meeting people from all walks of life, and it’s amazing and incredible what they’re doing in their own communities.”

The project has taken in this spirit of volunteerism with the crew. The folks at Aureate Visuals, in keeping with the spirit of the show, have volunteered their time to the project. Several of the crew work day jobs, and so they are constantly travelling back and forth from Long Island to where the next shoot is taking place.

Rebecca Kassay, middle, works with a group of volunteers at an oyster farm. Photo from Kassay

Glassner added production has been smooth, and each shoot “felt like we were a family — no egos — it’s one giant collaboration.”

For the most part, the project is self-funded, though they have received significant pledges from the Port Jefferson Rotary Club and have financed $1,654 so far from backers on Indiegogo. Everything else is coming from the owners of the Fox and Owl Inn. Their minimum budget, according to their Indiegogo page, includes $3,000 for travel and lodging, $3,000 for local crew wages, $1,500 for per diem food, $500 for miscellaneous expenses and $800 in Indiegogo related fees.

As the family goes around in the renovated Winnebago, retrofitted with whitewashed cabinets and flooring to make it feel like home, she has become surer this was the right way to get the message across.

“Working with these young people when you connect them with a power within themselves, they just light up,” Kassay said. “The light in their eyes is something the greatest gift you can give someone, connecting them with that.”

The project still has investor space open, and the Indiegogo ends on Sunday, Aug. 18. People can visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/be-the-change-with-rebecca#/to donate.