The mold and mildew struck him first.
Cosimo Philip DeFina, an 81-year-old Montauk resident who goes by his middle name, Phil, strolled toward the hamlet post office on South Euclid Avenue this past July to pick up some mail, when he noticed a “terrible looking” bench, whose fine teak was masked with dark mildew. An elderly woman was sitting atop it, he recalled.
At once concerned and inspired, Mr. DeFina strode straight inside to ask permission to clean the bench. The Montauk Village Association, he learned, tends to that bench, as well as nearly 100 in total throughout the hamlet—most of which are memorials—but that, yes, he could do the honor.
What transpired next was a one-man bench-scrubbing marathon, a volunteer effort by an octogenarian that spanned the rest of the summer and cleaned scores of benches up and down Montauk.
“For someone to pitch in like that and not ask for anything in return is wonderful,” said Nancy Keeshan, president of the Montauk Village Association, who explained that her organization had cleaned the benches in the past, but as a not-for-profit, is dependent on the funds it receives each year. “It is really an inspiration to us all.”
Every morning from July to the middle of September—with the exception of Sundays, when he worshiped at St. Therese of Lisieux Roman Catholic Church, the Freemont Road resident, a friendly Korean War veteran, rose early, prepared his own breakfast of a poached egg with toast and coffee, and, by 6 a.m., cleaning supplies in tow, he headed for a new bench.
Some were so grimy that they required two days’ work. Those under trees, he said, tended to be even more coated in mildew and sap. Some were obscured by shrubbery and some were private, but Mr. DeFina, in his quest for cleanliness, left no bench untouched, even when he had a cold for the last three or four weeks of his mission.
He had to finish everything, he said, before traveling down to Florida, where he winters, in November.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to clean whatever bench I come across,’” he said, cheerily, recalling that there were about 20 near Gosman’s Dock alone. His last one was by the Montauk Point Lighthouse.
His routine typically took about four and a half to five hours per bench, he said, and included scraping and spraying them with bleach and “using a brush and just a lot of elbow grease to get it down to that natural wood,” he said.
“Those are teak benches. They’re very expensive benches, and they’re beautiful,” he said. “But they had a lot of growth on them. Once they’re dried, they have a nice patina on them.”
In addition to the heavy-duty scrubbing, he also did some repairs as he made his rounds.
“On some, the slats were loose,” he said. “Some needed to be glued together.”
For this he drove around with a full set of tools in his car, in addition to two two-gallon tanks, one filled with water, the other with bleach, as well as his brushes.
He kept a mental tally each day, but lost count of the benches somewhere around 100 in early September, he said. As for materials, all of which he provided himself, he estimates that he went through at least 10 to 12 cases of bleach, approximately six metal brushes and about 15 small vegetable brushes. In some cases, he improvised a little, putting extensions on some scrapers, creating longer handles on others.
Bench after bench, all summer long, Mr. DeFina applied the same grit.
“I thought it was very nice of Phil to extend his help, because they were pretty messy looking. He put his all into it,” said his wife of 55 years, Rose. “I was very proud of him. He stuck with it.”
The call to service is nothing new to Mr. DeFina, a native of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, who was always active in church and the Boy Scouts and was also a commander of the American Legion.
He moved to Montauk, where he had a summer home, upon his retirement from typography, the work of setting and arranging type and printing from them.
“I was probably the last typographer in America,” he said. He retired shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The Port Authority, which ran the World Trade Center, had been his big account, he explained. Though he was supposed to be in the Trade Center that infamous day in 2011, when it was leveled by two hijacked airplanes, he was not because he had gone to seek treatment for a back problem, instead.
Back to the present, Mr. DeFina said he drew inspiration for the bench work from bystanders.
“People were so great,” he said. “They would stop and say, ‘You’re doing a good job’ and beep their horn. That gave me an incentive to keep going.” Some offered water or coffee, but he always politely declined, as he had already had his breakfast.
“As I went along, it was like the man who would make the donuts,” he said. “I got up at 4 and thought, ‘I gotta clean the bench.’ I got it in my mind that I wanted to finish.”
He felt great, he said, after cleaning the final bench.
“The next morning, I said, ‘Gee, what do I do now?’” he said with a laugh before adding that he had trimming to do on his property before winter.
“It was an honor and a privilege to give back to a community that has given me and my family so much enjoyment for over 50 years,” he said.