Parpan Column: Best of times, worst of times in Riverhead

07/06/2013 10:00 AM |

I often tell people there’s no greater place to cover news than in Riverhead.

This town has it all: diversity, a downtown in flux, agriculture, silly politics, great local sports and loyal residents who are passionate about the place they call home.

With all of this comes the good type of news and the bad. This town is heartwarming one day and heartbreaking the next. The past week provided the perfect example of this.

My wife, Vera, and I were camping near the Jersey Shore two years ago when we received word of the horrible gel candle incident that left Michael Hubbard badly burned. The breaking news reporter for the paper at the time, I remember Vera, the breaking-news reporter at the time, trying to report the news from the road. It was exactly the kind of story you hate to have to tell, the kind where everything changes for the worst for a young person with promise.

Ever since that day, we’ve enjoyed hearing little bursts of good news as Michael has experienced small victories in his long road to recovery. Two years later, his friends and family were able to celebrate his biggest win yet as he was returned home to Riverhead from the Westchester County facility where he had been cared for since September 2011.

As a great example of a community hospital looking out for one of its own, Michael is now being cared for at Peconic Bay Medical Center’s skilled nursing facility as he awaits the opening of Brendan House, a group care facility planned for Riverhead. (I’d be remiss to not mention the role riverheadlocal.com publisher Denise Civiletti played in connecting Michael’s family with the hospital, where she previously worked. She declined to accept credit when asked about it last week, but both Michael’s family and hospital officials say she was a critical piece of the puzzle.)

Michael’s move back home was among the best news for Riverhead in quite some time. It was only one day later, that this community received some of its worst news in awhile.

If you know that feeling of nervous tension you get deep in your stomach when you hear unexpected bad news, than you know exactly what I felt when I received a phone call Friday night from one of our reporters was who was on the scene of a fire at Athens Grill in downtown Riverhead.

It’s not that uncommon to hear volunteers responding to a kitchen grease fire at a local restaurant over the scanner. But this one, I was told immediately, looked real bad.

News that a local restaurant was lost in a fire would never be good, but I can’t think of too many places I’d less like to see destroyed than Athens Grill.

Opened in 2004, John Mantzopoulos’ restaurant was ahead of others in the push to revitalize downtown Riverhead. And despite the restaurant’s reputation for serving up great food, it was clear he wasn’t making a killing there.

Like a lot of businesses on East Main Street, Athens had seen some ups and downs, and I don’t think it would be a leap of faith for me to say the restaurant had seen more slow days than busy ones as revitalization efforts downtown have ebbed and flowed over the years.

Still, Mr. Mantzopoulos carried on in a town where many before him had packed up and taken their recipes elsewhere.

It would take a heart of concrete not to feel sorry for the man and his staff, or to the many other downtown business owners affected by the news that his restaurant burned.

But this is Riverhead, the place where you get knocked on your back one day and you’re up on your feet another. This is a place where despite its flaws and the cynicism that breeds, everyone loves a tale of rejuvenation. This is, after all, the home Michael Hubbard returned to.

I’m sure the fundraisers that are already in the works to help rebuild the restaurant will be a major success.

I look forward to the day when the Athens building is restored and the restaurant rises from the ashes. I look forward to my next plate of lamb meatballs.

Grant Parpan is the executive editor at Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at gparpan@timesreview.com or (631) 354-8046.