By Eric Santiago
More than 30 North Shore residents gathered around a park bench at West Meadow Beach on Sunday for the chance to see former Brookhaven park ranger, Eileen Gerle. The bench — which now bears a plaque commemorating Gerle’s work as an environmental educator — was dedicated to her after she retired and moved to Florida last year.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said an emotional Gerle. “It’s very overwhelming and touching to be loved by so many people.”
Gerle returned this week for a special Eagle Scout award ceremony of one of her former students just in time for a group of residents and friends to seize the opportunity and formally show her the plaque and celebrate old times.
“She was the best,” said Paul Feinberg, a West Meadow watchdog who helped organize the dedication along with a handful of other North Shore natives.
They were all frequent guests at Gerle’s “Sundowner” beach parties, where they would drink wine, eat cheese and watch the sunset. When it was clear Gerle was going to retire, the group hatched a plan to honor her work.
“We just decided that a simple plaque would be the nicest thing to do,” said Naomi Solo, a Port Jefferson resident who worked on the dedication.
As park ranger, Gerle was responsible for maintaining the beach, the area wildlife and, critically, educating people about the environment. She worked at West Meadow from 2009 to 2014 and said she made many friends along the way.
It was for this reason Solo and the others contacted Brookhaven Town for permission to install the plaque on a bench at the beach.
Her influence was so impactful that immediately after she resigned residents campaigned for town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) to guarantee that her position would be filled with another full-time park ranger. Their efforts were successful and Gerle’s successor Molly Hastings took over the spot at West Meadow.
A year into the job, Hastings said the response has been nothing short of warm.
“It was really nice,” she said of when she started working at the beach. “I literally pulled up with the moving van and people were greeting me and welcoming me as I was taking the sofa and bed off of my truck.”
But Gerle’s greatest legacy lies in the students she taught, those at the ceremony said.
Aidan Donnelly, 13, was one of those who attended the educational programs Gerle organized. The newly appointed Eagle Scout was also the recipient of the William T. Hornaday badge — a prestigious award for “distinguished service in natural resource conservation,” according to the Boy Scouts of America website.
Aidan attributed the work he’s done, and the work he hopes to do as a future environmental physicist, to the lessons he learned from his mentor.
“She taught me everything I know about the beach,” he said of Gerle. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.”