Ray Plakstis Jr., a former fire chief, business owner and lifelong Great Neck resident, was never one to seek the limelight even as he touched countless lives.
But the week following his death at 57 to what family members and his fire company believe was 9/11-related cancer on Nov. 30, his name was praised all around the peninsula.
Handfuls of people observed moments of silence in board meetings.
On Wednesday and Thursday, hundreds more flooded Alert Fire Company’s headquarters to show their respects – including firefighters from all around Nassau County. And come Friday, family, friends and firefighters filled the pews of St. Aloysius Church for a final sendoff.
“It’s like the whole world showed up,” Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar, a civic activist in Great Neck, said on Thursday.
Family and friends described Plakstis as someone with “extraordinary humility,” the power to go beyond just second chances, and as a selfless man who never looked for praise. This went beyond his service as a trustee, 33-year member of Alert Fire Company, and as the owner of Doray Enterprises on Steamboat Road, they said.
“He helped more people than anyone will ever know,” Thomas McDonough, Plakstis’ brother, said on Thursday, noting how Plakstis wouldn’t charge people who couldn’t pay for car repairs and helped continue the “Santa in the Green” tradition.
Michael Berry, the president of Alert Fire Company, said on Thursday night that like many of the first responders, Plakstis “answered the call” on Sept. 11, 2001, the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Plakstis would go down five days a week to the site in search of Jonathan Ielpi, a firefighter from Great Neck who died in the attack. Even after he was found months later, Plakstis continued going to Ground Zero to help the recovery effort.
But years later he was diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer, Berry said.
“This is why we are honoring this man’s life here tonight – as a line of duty death,” Berry said, choking up. “He was a hero. We will not forget Ray’s sacrifice.”
Hundreds of first responders saluted Plakstis’ open casket at the Thursday service. Many would also go to the front row to comfort his family, before embracing in the back of the room and patting each other on the back.
Berry also recalled Plakstis – whose sons he coached in lacrosse – as a great man outside the fire service. He was a man armed with funny sarcasm and faces that could make him laugh, Berry said.
But it was his generosity and putting others above himself that defined Plakstis, Berry said, whether it was ensuring the “Santa in the Green” tradition continued or working to establish and maintain the 9/11 Saddle Rock Memorial Bridge.
A message he received a month ago – “imagine the pain he was suffering” – underscored this.
“Hello Mike, just found out what you are going through. Just want to let you know Donna, me and the boys are with you,” Berry read aloud. “If we can do anything for you, please let us know. Don and Ray, Tyler and Ryan.”
“I saved that because it meant everything to me,” Berry said. “It shows you what kind of guy he was.”
At St. Aloysius Church on Friday morning, Alert Fire Company hoisted a massive flag over Middle Neck Road. Plakstis’ two sons, Tyler and Ryan, would soon help haul their father up the stairs for the funeral service. The church was full.
Paula Marino-Palumbo, Plakstis’ sister-in-law, said he was the meaning of selflessness and lived for family. And as he faced a terminal illness – his “hardest challenge” – she and others would call Plakstis “Invictus,” or “unconquerable,” after the Victorian poem of the same name.
“‘In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed,'” Marino-Palumbo said. “I read that line over and over as we watched Ray continue his fight. He never fell down – he kept going because it wasn’t his fight. He was fighting for Donna, for Tyler, for Ryan, for Tommy, his world.”
But now, as they move forward, Marino-Palumbo encouraged attendees to follow the example Plakstis set.
“The road ahead seems our hardest challenge. Let us live our life as Ray did,” Marino-Palumbo said. “Invictus. Unconquerable. Facing each challenge with strength, grace, courage – that is the greatest gift Ray could have given us.”