Around Riverhead, he was known simply as Ziggy.
Synonymous with Polish Hall and easily identified by his welcoming smile, Zbigniew Wilinski was remembered this week as a champion for his hometown.
“He is an icon in this community,” remarked Riverhead Town Councilman Frank Beyrodt during an impromptu tribute at the start of last week’s Town Board work session.“He was someone who always had a smile on his face.”
Mr. Beyrodt called his friend, who died last Tuesday after a relatively brief battle with pancreatic cancer, the “unofficial mayor of Polish Town.”
Mr. Wilinski, 74, was the longtime president and manager of Polish Hall, where he could often be seen setting up for an event and making sure a good time was had by all who entered the Marcy Avenue landmark. Even in the past year, as the pandemic shut down events for months, friends said Ziggy continued to check in on the nearly 100-year-old building, which features a bar and bowling alley.
Mr. Wilinski’s brother, Roman, of Southold, said Ziggy’s warm and friendly nature was always a part of him. Community-minded, Mr. Wilinski also served as a member of the St. Isidore School Board and was an active member of the church there.
Many people around the East End also knew Ziggy for his career with the U.S. Postal Service. He was a Riverhead postmaster and served as a regional manager.
Mr. Wilinski began his career soon after graduating from Riverhead High School (Class of ’64) and Suffolk County Community College. His job at the post office was held for him as he enlisted in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971, serving in the Vietnam War.
Throughout his life, Mr. Wilinski was a fixture at Riverhead sporting events, occupying a spot in the bleachers for every varsity football game he could attend.
“He loved sports, even when he was in high school,” his brother said. “He was basically not the most athletic guy, but found ways to get involved. He was the manager for the basketball team.”
For someone as connected to all things Riverhead, it might surprise some to know Mr. Wilinski almost never lived here. He was born in Germany on June 21, 1946, to parents looking to escape the aftermath of a war that led them to concentration camps. They found a sponsor to bring them to Ellis Island when Ziggy was just a boy, but their initial destination was New Jersey, his brother explained.
When that sponsor failed to show up, they were instead taken to live on the Mattituck farm that is now home to Macari Vineyards. The family, which included parents Stanislaw and Aurelia and a sister Barbara, eventually settled into a home on Meadow Lane in Riverhead.
It was a long and circuitous route to Riverhead, but it quickly felt like home to the family. Through Polish Hall, where he always promoted Steak Nights and offered to host any event, he had an impact on many people’s lives.
“He would do anything for any organization,” Roman said of his big brother.
While COVID-19 restrictions limited occupancy during services at McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home last Thursday, there was still a steady stream of visitors. Roman noted that his brother would have gotten a particular thrill out of seeing members of the locally legendary band The Royals, which called Polish Hall home for performances over the years. Local dignitaries also stopped by to pay respects.
At work session last week, the Riverhead Town Board said a fitting and lasting tribute to Mr. Wilinski is in the works.
“I’ll miss talking to him at Polish Hall,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent. “I can’t imagine being there without talking to him up front about what’s going on in Riverhead.”
His brother said Mr. Wilinski had been sick for a couple of months, but was only hospitalized for a few days before his death. While only one person could visit at a time, he was able to see his wife of 48 years, Wanda, and their children, Mark and Michelle.
When it was his brother’s turn to visit he sensed they both knew it was time to say goodbye. In his soft voice, Ziggy told Roman, “I’m going home.”
“I don’t think he was talking about home on Broad Avenue,” his brother said.
Mr. Wilinski is also survived by his grandchildren, Adam and Austin, and daughter-in-law Sharon.
Contributions in his memory may be made to St. Isidore R.C. Church or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the family said.