As we reach the end of a year, I am always saddened when the media reviews the names of the famous and not so famous people who are no longer with us. Long Island lost many prominent people, each of whom, in their own ways, contributed to the heritage of our region and enriched our lives. With no disrespect to all the people we lost, I am singling out the late Judge Arthur Spatt, Frank Castagna and Gerald Wolkoff.
Judge Spatt, a senior federal judge, was one of the state’s most respected jurists. I met him in the 1970s when we were both campaigning for public office. We stood together on a number of freezing mornings at South Shore railroad stations. He was running for his first judicial spot and I was seeking re-election to the state Assembly. We continued to cross paths over the years as his wife Dee and his five daughters lived in my Assembly district.
It is rare when a judge moves quickly through the court system despite party enrollment. But after a short term as a State Supreme Court Justice, Spatt, a Democrat, was elevated to the federal court by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush. Over the years, people of all political stripes recognized his reputation for brilliance and competence. His zest for hard work and his judicial talents were the talk of the profession.
Judge Spatt, who died at 94 on June 12, made history in numerous cases. Once upon a time Nassau County had a Board of Supervisors, which was an archaic form of government. The judge decided that it violated the one-person, one-vote standard and ruled against the board structure. It was replaced by the county Legislature. He approved the merger of Long Island Jewish Hospital and North Shore University Hospital, against the objections of the Justice Department. He was a stellar jurist.
Frank Castagna was 91 when he passed away July 7. I met him frequently at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, which he and his wife Rita supported generously. Frank was a tall man, but even taller when you look at how he changed the island landscape. His company, Castagna Realty, was at the forefront of many significant real estate projects. The Americana Manhasset is a national model for luxury centers that are not massive shopping malls.
He built numerous hospital facilities, courthouses, police headquarters, and many multi-family and office projects. But Frank stood out because of his expansive philanthropy, which improved the quality of life for countless people in this region. In remembering Frank, I like to recall that he was always humble and gracious when you spoke to him. He always made the conversation about you and steered away from his many achievements. He was truly a unique person.
Gerald Wolkoff, a Long Island pioneer, was 83 at his death July 17. He built hundreds of homes, but made his mark with industrial parks. The Heartland Industrial Park in Hauppauge and the 400-acre Heartland Business Center in Edgewood are home to thousands of jobs. Combined, it is estimated that he created roughly 10 million square feet of real estate.
He became well-known on Long Island because of his determination to build a planned community known as Heartland Town Square. It was to be located on the site of the former Pilgrim State property, which he had purchased in 2001. He envisioned housing for young families, office space and entertainment, with its own internal transportation system. It was meant to be a national model when completed.
“Gerry,” as he was known, was determined and at times feisty, when it came to advancing his visionary project. He was dedicated to the task of building his Town Square, a challenge now in the hands of his son, David. I like to remember the Gerry I knew. He always had a gigantic smile when he spotted you. He would leave a crowd of friends just to give you a hug and to ask for your family. He had the ability to disarm his opponents with a charming and sincere hello.
Knowing these three wonderful people surely enriched my life and gave so many people so many wonderful memories.