Ray Plakstis Jr., a local fire chief, deputy mayor and business owner sometimes known as the “unofficial mayor” of Great Neck, died on Friday from 9/11-related cancer diagnosed in 2016. He was 57.
Plakstis was a two-time fire chief of the Alert Fire Company, where he was a 33-year member and a first responder who made numerous trips to Ground Zero to aid in the recovery effort. He also served as a trustee in the Village of Great Neck and owned Doray Enterprises in Great Neck.
But many people also remembered him for his problem-solving, ability to teach and selflessness, whether it was offering his gas station as a fueling site in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, maintaining the Saddle Rock Memorial Bridge or installing Christmas decorations at the Village Green.
“Ray was a gift to the community,” Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar, a local activist who ran his campaign for trustee, said on Monday. “He was third generation here, his roots were deep, and most of the things that he did for the community went unpraised at the time. He never sought the limelight, he never sought congratulations or thanks.”
He was “the unofficial mayor of the Village of Great Neck long before he ran for office,” Gilliar added.
Mike Green, the chairman of the Alert Fire Company, said Plakstis was instrumental in getting the department where it is today. He spearheaded training, was always innovative and sought new technologies to make the department better.
He always found a way to get things done, Green said. One example was when he managed to get a fuselage of a plane to simulate training for more than 40 fire departments, Green said.
Additionally, when he was a first assistant chief, Plakstis was able to go to Ground Zero “dozens of times” because he had tools other agencies did not – he had initially been told there were already “too many people” working there.
“His values, his generosity, his dedication was almost overwhelming and it was contagious,” Green said. “You told him about something and if he could help, he would.”
“I wish all people would give back to their community like Ray did,” Green added. “This would be a much better world.”
Chief Steven Schwartz said Plakstis was a “great mentor” and had “a gift of being able to connect with people.” Schwartz also said Plakstis was very caring, gave people second chances, and taught him how to put himself in other people’s shoes.
“They could be down in the gutter or high on the throne, he would treat each person with the same respect,” Schwartz said. “And if somebody was in need, he would reach out to them.”
Plakstis’ half-brother Thomas McDonough, a former chief of the Port Washington Fire Department, said Plakstis had always been good at solving mechanical issues and coming up with new ideas. The two of them also shared a passion for the fire service, McDonough said.
McDonough joined the Alert Fire Company in 1979, and Plakstis joined in 1985. But while McDonough ultimately left the Alerts in 1987 for Port Washington, he said Plakstis decided to stay, likely because of his connections to the people and fire company.
According to the Alert Fire Company, Plakstis was elected to the position of second lieutenant in 1991. From there he rose through the ranks to eventually become chief of department in 2002 and again in 2014.
“He was a very big part of Great Neck and Great Neck was a very big part of him,” McDonough said.
Plakstis also became the third generation owner of Doray Enterprises, after his father and grandfather, on Steamboat Road. The gas station was used as a FEMA fuel depot for multiple municipalities after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which, according to the Alert Fire Company, came “at great personal expense.”
But it was also once a place where people would discuss life and politics, Green said.
“In the old days, Ray’s gas station was the meeting point – that’s where everybody went to talk politics, to talk about their problems,” Green said. “He always would listen.”
While serving as chief of the fire department, Plakstis was also a trustee in the Village of Great Neck and became deputy mayor, working with Mayor Pedram Bral.
Bral said Plakstis knew the history of Great Neck “backwards and forwards” and was “really an asset” to both him and the board. He also described him as “a really genuine person” and a “no-nonsense man who really gave to the entire community selflessly.”
“There’s so much to say about him,” Bral said, adding that his passing is a “great loss to the entire community.”
And, McDonough said, Plakstis would always aid people when they were at their lowest.
“If you didn’t have any place to go on Christmas Eve, you went to my brother’s house,” McDonough said.
He also recalled how two children were orphaned and Plakstis took them in. And, when Child Protective Services told him that he and his wife, Donna, couldn’t do that, the two became certified as foster parents and took care of them until they were adopted.
“My brother took people in and helped them when they were at their lowest point,” McDonough said. “He always tried to find the good in everybody and he would give the shirt off his back, he would give you the food off his plate.”
Plakstis came from a multi-generational family of firefighters and community servants.
His mother, Doris Groene, who also died from 9/11-related cancer last year, was president of Great Neck’s Vigilant Fire Company. His older brother Thomas McDonough served as chief of the Port Washington Fire Department. And Tyler Plakstis, his son, is a firefighter with the Alert Fire Company.
Plakstis is survived by his wife Donna, his sons Tyler and Ryan, his brother Thomas McDonough, and several nieces, nephews, friends and family.
Visitation will take place at the Alert Fire Company headquarters, located at 555 Middle Neck Road, Great Neck, on Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. and Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. There will also be a firefighters’ service there at 8 p.m.
The funeral mass will be on Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Aloysius Church at 592 Middle Neck Road, with interment to follow at Holy Rood Cemetery at 111 Old Country Road, Westbury.