Irwin Garsten was more than just a notable businessman in the Riverhead community. He wore many hats. His main role was running his car empire, Apple Honda on Route 58. His business was his passion but it was also important for him to give back to the community.
He gave his time, money and support to so many local Riverhead organizations until he passed away at 86 in February. For this, Mr. Garsten is the Riverhead News-Review Businessperson of the Year for 2017.
Mr. Garsten began his business in 1959, opening his first Riverhead showroom on West Main Street, where the Buoy One restaurant now sits.
His stepson, Bill Fields, general manager of Apple Honda, recalled in an interview earlier this year that Mr. Garsten was one of the first business owners to see the potential of Route 58, moving his car dealership there in 1972.
“Route 58 was definitely a different atmosphere,” Mr. Fields said. “There were literally tumbleweeds blowing down the concrete road that was here.”
Of course, the entrepreneur was correct and his business was successful at the new location. The area then filled in with more stores, restaurants and other businesses.
Apple Honda’s new two-story 5,500-square-foot showroom was completed this summer. Mr. Garsten saw the project through until the day he died, even sending emails the night of his death.
“This was his dream,” Mr. Fields said. “He would be ecstatic with the finished product.”
Linda Hulse, assistant to the general manager, said she thinks about Mr. Garsten often while at work, as do many other employees.
“We often talk about it, and we say he would have been so delighted with all of this and the difference that it’s made here on the strip and how great we look and what it’s doing for this business and the people that work here,” she said. “I think everybody has a lot of pride now working here.”
Ms. Hulse knew Mr. Garsten and was a friend of his before she began working at Apple Honda about four years ago. They were both Riverhead Rotary members together and Mr. Garsten was even one of her sponsors when she first joined.
Outside of the car dealership, being involved with Rotary was very important to Mr. Garsten. He was a 40-year member of the club and a repeat recipient of the Paul Harris Fellow award, given to members who raise $1,000 or more for Rotary causes.
“He also was a major donor to the Rotary Foundation,” past Rotary president Beth Hanlon said in an interview in February. “He embodied the Rotary spirit. He was generous, caring and worked so hard to help so many organizations.”
Mr. Garsten’s giving nature also extended to the workplace.
Every October, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the showroom was decorated in pink and the dealership would donate money from cars sold and repaired during the month to the North Fork Breast Health Coalition.
Ms. Hulse said he also went above and beyond for his employees.
For example, she said, every Thanksgiving Mr. Garsten would personally hand out turkeys to each one and made sure the company had an annual Christmas party.
She said he also supported any employee who needed his help.
“This man would just take out his checkbook and write somebody a check because he knew they needed it,” she said. “He was supportive to anyone that worked here, and not just for his business but for them.”
His generosity with his money expanded into various areas of the community, from the Rotary to the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, Boy Scouts of America, Eastern Long Island United Way and the Peconic Bay Medical Center Foundation.
“A lot of people [say that] donating back to the community is good for business, but for Irwin it was much more than that,” said Andy Mitchell, CEO of Peconic Bay Medical Center. He added, Mr. Garsten was the “ultimate philanthropist.”
“Irwin had an amazing heart. He cared about people, he cared about his community,” he said.
Mr. Mitchell said Mr. Garsten set a high standard when it came to giving locally and donated to PBMC’s department of radiology every year.
Mr. Mitchell also recalled one year that the hospital’s Candlelight Ball honored Riverhead car dealers. The ball was the most successful fundraiser the hospital had in a number of years because Mr. Garsten rallied every car dealer.
“Irwin just had a way of inspiring all of us to give,” he said, adding that Mr. Garsten’s wife, Flora, and Mr. Fields carry on his spirit of supporting the community, though it is different now that he has passed.
“He always recognized that supporting one’s friends, neighbors and customers was just the right thing to do,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Irwin gave back because it was part of his DNA, it was part of the man.”
Photo caption: Irwin Garsten at Apple Honda in Riverhead in 2006 after winning Time Magazine’s Quality Dealer Award. He died in February at age 86. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file photo)
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2015: Jim and Barbara Cromarty
2014: Riverhead’s craft brewers
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