Deena Lesser, a longtime commissioner of the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, town official and former mayor of Thomaston, died last week. She was 87.
Lesser died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease, family and friends said.
In her several decades working on the North Shore, family, colleagues and friends described Lesser as a “trailblazer,” helping pave the way for women in both local and county politics. They also recalled her as a kind but determined woman, with a strong belief in the power of individuals.
“There wasn’t anything my mother couldn’t see her way through,” her daughter Julie Barkan said. “She believed that people make things happen.”
Lesser served in numerous capacities for the Town of North Hempstead, Village of Thomaston and the Great Neck area.
She served as the mayor of Thomaston from 1989 to 1992, as town clerk from 1992 to 1997 and as a commissioner of the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District from 1999 until late 2016.
Jerry Landsberg, the chairman of the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, described Lesser as a mentor who had a “very calming influence” over other members at the district.
“She had a quiet demeanor about herself and was very knowledgeable not only about the water pollution control district, but local government,” Landsberg said, noting most of her career was dedicated to public service.
Steve Reiter, a commissioner for the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, described Lesser as someone instrumental in rebuilding the district’s plant and in the sewer district’s consolidation with the Village of Great Neck.
She also helped prevent the organization from being dissolved, Reiter said.
“When you think about women like that and the impact they’ve had on local and town government, it’s just amazing what they’ve accomplished over the years,” Reiter said.
She also served as deputy commissioner for community services and as an assistant to four town supervisors between 1999 and 2015, including Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth. Barkan said that while working in town government, Lesser helped forge Project Independence and worked on educational programs for family and domestic abuse.
Bosworth said she was saddened to hear about Lesser’s passing. She then described Lesser as a trailblazer, having held “many esteemed public service positions” like mayor, clerk and commissioner.
“Her impact on our town will be everlasting,” Bosworth said.
Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society, also noted Lesser as one of the trio of women – alongside May Newberger and Regina Gil – who helped restore the group after it dissolved. She said that in the eight years since then they had become friends, and that Lesser truly cared about what happened to Great Neck.
“She was the sweetest person on the face of the Earth,” Kasten said, “She didn’t have an evil bone. She really saw the good in everyone.”
Lesser was born on April 11, 1930, and grew up in Brooklyn. She later moved to Little Neck, East Meadow and then Great Neck in the 1960s with her husband Frank Lesser, who she married in 1951 following her graduation from Adelphi University. Together they had three children: Steven in 1952, Laura in 1954 and Julie in 1957.
Her career in public service began in the 1960s, Barkan said, where she and Frank helped spearhead a movement to stop Robert Moses from building a viaduct over the Manhasset Valley, which her family said elevated her to become a Democratic committeewoman.
Frank and Deena Lesser both served as the mayor of Thomaston and as commissioners for the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District at different times.
Before being the mayor of Thomaston from 1989 to 1992, Lesser was also on the village planning board from 1987 to 1991 and served as a village trustee from 1981 to 1987. She also served on the Great Neck Cable Commission and Public Access Committees from 1983 to 1985.
Robert Zimmerman, a national Democratic committeeman who knew Lesser since she guided him through buying his first house 25 years ago, said she was “an activist in the finest sense of the word.”
He recalled times where people flooded her home making calls for campaigns, as well as the many times she and Frank would visit his.
“Deena and people in her world made it about issues, made it about the community, and opened the doors for more people to be involved,” Zimmerman said.
A funeral service was held on Friday, Oct. 6 at 10:30 a.m. at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, 1001. Arrangements were made under the direction of Riverside-Nassau North Chapel in Great Neck.
Daughters Laura Lesser of Manhattan, Julie Barkan of Fort Salonga, NY, daughter-in-law Elizabeth Lesser of Great Neck, and her grandchildren Nicole, Emma, Julian, Molly, Sophie, Tessa, Annie and Aaron survive Deena Lesser.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers, that donations be made to the Alzheimer’s Association or Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore.
This story is an updated version of a previous one that ran in a previous edition of the Great Neck News.