Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame opens its doors

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On October 25, the realization of a dream nearly two decades in the making finally came to pass when the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in Patchogue finally opened its doors.

Fittingly, the place where the hopes and dreams of so many local athletes—Bridgehampton’s Carl Yastrzemski, Center Moriches’ Sue Wicks, former Westhampton Beach basketball coach Rich Wrase, NBA star and Southampton High School alum Clarence “Foots” Walker and East Hampton basketball coach Ed Petrie, to name a few—were memorialized was itself a product of the hopes and dreams of a dedicated group of sports officials and community servants, several of whom, unfortunately, did not get to see the process through to completion.

A group of eight men, who would become the Hall’s founding fathers—Gaetano “Butch” Dellecave, John F. Foley, John J. Foley, Arthur Figliozzi, Richard Finn, George Waldbauer Jr., Kevin Maloney and Thomas McAteer Jr.—initially discussed the idea for a Long Island sports hall of fame with a committee of Nassau County residents in 1988. Today, according to the Hall’s executive director, Ed Morris, all that remains from that islandwide effort is a small display at Nassau Coliseum.

Holding its first inductions in 1990, with Yastrzemski among the first honorees, the Hall was founded long before a building to house memorabilia was constructed. The guiding light, according to Waldbauer, John F. Foley and Morris, was Dellecave. A basketball official who also worked as a guidance counselor in the Connetquot School District, his love of sports helped lead to the creation of an institution that would not only honor professional but also amateur and special needs athletes. Coaches, fellow officials, sports physicians and even sportswriters would also be considered for induction.

Community involvement, said Morris, is a crucial part of the process for induction that unites all of its inductees.

“Boomer’s a great player, but Boomer also gives back to his community,” said Morris of the former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason, a Hall inductee.

To date, more than 200 inductees have been listed from a wide array of sports, from baseball and football to gymnastics and auto racing. Special needs athletes and para-Olympians have also been honored with their own exhibits. Runner Dennis Oehler of East Hampton, who competed despite an amputated leg, is one of the inductees. Oehler took the gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Paralympics, running it in 11.73 seconds and setting a world record.

Dellecave died in August 2000, not long after the organizers obtained property for the building. Besides being a colleague, Waldbauer, who is currently the Hall’s vice president and the executive director of the Police Athletic League, remembered Dellecave as a character with an occasionally mischievous sense of humor, recounting one particular incident of mistaken identity.

“He used to call my office and say he was someone else to my secretary, and after a while she got wise,” he said.

One day, Yankees great Yogi Berra actually did call the office, but the secretary, thinking it was another of Dellecave’s jokes, refused to take the bait. Eventually Berra got put through, but not without some embarrassment over the confusion, Waldbauer said with a laugh.

“It was his dream and his thing,” he said of Dellecave. “He wouldn’t let any of us not do it, you know?”

Fellow founding father Figliozzi, a former superintendent with the Eastport School District until his retirement in 1988, also did not live long enough to see the Hall’s building. He died in January 2003. Like Dellecave, he too had a career as a basketball official, which earned both men places in the Hall. Dellecave was inducted in 1998, and Figliozzi was inducted in 1997.

As the number of inductees grew over a decade-long period, so did the need for a proper building. The founding fathers continued to evaluate properties throughout the county for use, but no opportunities emerged from their search. Patchogue eventually became home to the Hall, said Morris, due to a desire to keep it strategically located and near major thoroughfares.

“The center of Long Island is Brookhaven Town, populationwise,” said Morris, who is also a retired under sheriff with the Suffolk County Police Department. Morris became involved in the Hall as a result of his friendship with members of the founding group.

In 1998, the Hall’s organizers got the break they were looking for after Morris asked fellow East Moriches resident John Kanas, who was the CEO of North Fork Bank at the time, about local foreclosed properties the bank owned.

Shortly thereafter, the former Union Savings Bank building on South Ocean Avenue was sold to the founders for the jaw-dropping sum of $1, according to John J. Foley, who said the property’s real value was nearly $1 million.

Though his status as founding father of the Hall hasn’t changed, Foley—father of famous wrestler and 1999 Hall inductee Mick Foley—is no longer a member of the board due to time constraints. He currently works as the coordinator of the Graduate Certificate Program in coaching education at Stony Brook University, while working as co-director and president of the Long Island Institute of Professional Studies in Smithtown, a continuing education program for teachers, administrators and athletic coaches.

“It fell out of heaven and dropped into our laps,” he said of the generous offer of the land for the Hall.

Though grants and donations helped pay for the renovations, eventually the bank building had to be sold, according to Morris, as renovation costs proved too expensive. The annex beside it was kept, and the planning stage for the Hall’s construction began.

“Everything revolves around money,” said Waldbauer of the stop-start pace that plagued the nearly eight years of construction, as funds from donors and grant money obtained with assistance from politicians such as U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, his predecessor Felix Grucci and State Senator Caesar Trunzo trickled in. “The plans had ideas and concepts, and we needed the money to get it all done.”

A final grant of $250,000, obtained with the help of Trunzo, is slated to come through in January, according to Morris. This grant will largely fund a computer system that will unite the goal of education with interactive technology that will hopefully make the Hall more than a museum.

“I’ve been to Cooperstown 20 times,” said Morris, who said he is an ardent Yankees fan. “You can go look at Babe Ruth’s cleats, but that doesn’t turn me on after a while.”

In accordance with the changes, the Hall’s hours will expand in January, though those hours have yet to be announced. At the center of the Hall is a 40-seat theater, used to show sports movies, but that will also be available for seminars and community meetings, said Morris.

Plans for a second floor that will contain a sports research center have yet to be realized, but Morris remains hopeful that the goal will be tackled in the coming years.

Though the process is ongoing and evolving, the founders happily bask in the glow of their accomplishments.

“It was wonderful, after 20 years of waiting,” Waldbauer said of the opening ceremony last month. “It was a lot of work and a lot of effort by a lot of people.”

The Hall is currently open on Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit suffolksportshof.com or call (631) 758-7463.

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