Jim Stark used to call me a lot. Not every day, but once every few weeks, sometimes months. And that was a lot for a guy so long out of politics, at least active politics.
He’d often call on Tuesday or Wednesday, when I was at my busiest, but I almost always answered when I saw his number on the caller ID. That’s because he was a pleasure to speak with. That, and he usually had something good to tell me about, whether it be some valuable background on a story the paper was working on or a rumor he thought we should chase down.
If it wasn’t to dish, he’d call me to give me an “attaboy” after we reported something that might, shall we say, anger some people.
Ever the politician, Jim always took the time to ask about my wife and our baby. He would follow those questions up with some helpful anecdotes about kids, grandkids and parenting — or grandparenting.
I wasn’t anywhere near Riverhead when Supervisor James R. Stark was at the helm, or even when he ran again to recapture that seat in 2007. I knew much about his achievements as a town leader mostly because he was quick to tell me about them. But in reading about his achievements in the obituaries published in the News-Review and elsewhere, I’d say that of everything Jim Stark was able to accomplish in his standout lifetime — including helping to lure Tanger Outlets and Atlantis Marine World to town — his finest work came as president of Heidi’s Helping Angels, founded with the mission of preserving the memory of fallen Riverhead ambulance volunteer Heidi Behr. Perhaps it took a lifetime of politics to gain the skills and connections that allowed him to be such an effective leader of the group, and bring so much attention to one of Riverhead’s greatest heroes.
The annual Heidi’s Helping Angels steak dinner at Polish Hall has been a huge success, not only in raising money for the Heidi Behr scholarship fund, but in keeping her spirit alive by recognizing and honoring those in the community who displayed the same selfless attributes she did at 23 in 2005, when she died in an ambulance crash in Aquebogue trying to save a man’s life. Jim made sure to call me months ahead of time to make sure I’d be at the dinner, which he emceed. I couldn’t attend the last two years. In 2013, my daughter was being born. In 2014, I was at a cousin’s bachelor party in Florida.
Jim seemed to be equally happy for me about both events.
Also during our phone calls, Jim would often brag about getting to stay in Hawaii, near his daughter and her family, during the coldest months in New York. He’d describe the scene around him out in the middle of the Pacific while I sat alone in my office, leaning back in a swivel chair and staring out the window and into the cold darkness of Main Road at 4:30 p.m. I’m sure he tortured many others as well with phone calls from Hawaii. He seemed to revel in it.
As a town leader, Jim Stark is remembered for pushing for — aside from more golf courses — commercial development to increase the town’s tax base. Whether you agree that helped the town and its taxpayers or not, he was quick to say that he wouldn’t roll over for the LLCs that are behind all these shopping plazas. He was especially proud of getting the developers of the Kmart shopping center to agree to hide it from open view on Route 58. If the Kmart developers didn’t want to work with the town, then they could hit the road. That’s what he told them, he would tell me. Jim lamented that so many other town leaders didn’t have to nerve to stand up to out-of-town developers, for fear of chasing them and their money away.
With his passing last week, it really started to sink in that I’m going to miss those phone calls, even the ones in winter from Hawaii. And I barely knew the man; I can’t imagine how much his children and grandchildren are going to miss having such a big personality around.
From now on, I’ll try to make it to every Heidi’s Helping Angels steak night at Polish Hall. Unless, of course, I have a bachelor party to attend.
Jim would understand.