On June 28, 1972, a young schoolteacher named Bruce Stasiuk, secured a small piece of Long Island history for himself as he was driving his Karmann Ghia convertible with a friend on the Long Island Expressway. Heading east, they were the first to travel the final 2-mile stretch of New York Interstate 495, from Exit 71 to Exit 73.
In a Newsday story about the event, the two friends were labeled "adventurers." To reporters who gathered around his car, he quipped: "This occasion is historical . . . maybe we'll change our names to Lewis and Clark."
Now 71, Stasiuk (pronounced Stah'-shook) looks back on that moment wryly. "I was a little bit of a smart---," he said recently in the Setauket home he shares with Gina, his wife of 49 years, and their frisky 2-1/2-year-old French bulldog, Mugs.
Both the trip and his quip, uttered 43 years ago today, may have been Stasiuk's key moment in the spotlight. But those who know him are likely to emphasize other parts of his life, especially his 34 years as an elementary school teacher whose inventive methods and ideas touched more than three decades of children. Even when Stasiuk's life was ordinary, they might say, it was extraordinary.
"Of all the teachers I've ever had, he was the best," said Darlene Dougherty, who as Darlene Philibert was a member of Stasiuk's 1974-'75 fifth-grade class at Norwood Avenue Elementary in Port Jefferson Station. Even today, said Dougherty, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, "it's like there's a fan club on Facebook" of Stasiuk's former students.
That lasting dedication reflects the importance of exemplary people in our daily lives, said Gail Satler, a sociology professor at Hofstra University. We may worship celebrity as a society, but "for any community to thrive, there have to be people who extend themselves beyond what they have to do -- people who take it upon themselves to create a fabric for the community and are willing to be unsung heroes."
ORDINARY PEOPLE CAN HAVE AN IMPACT, TOO
Of course, Long Island has been home to more than its share of big names (think Theodore Roosevelt, Billy Joel, Julius Erving, Mariah Carey, Jerry Seinfeld, Nelson DeMille and Eddie Murphy, for starters). But "when you ask people, who has had an impact on your life, or whom do you admire, young kids will always pick somebody in their immediate world," Satler said.
Ask Dougherty about Stasiuk's impact on her life, and she will mention his ability to make abstract concepts and moral precepts come to life. She remembers when Stasiuk told her class that he and his wife had been at an auction and spent too much money. "We didn't understand what he meant by an auction," Dougherty said, or why one would spend more money than something was worth. So Stasiuk launched a classroom auction of Life Savers candies. "Right away, the whole class got into it," Dougherty recalled. "We were all caught up in the frenzy" and bids went higher and higher. "These kids were going to do without their lunch money now," she said.
The amount of the winning bid eludes her, but the lesson of the auction has stayed with her. "He said, 'Do you see what happened?' And it was light bulbs turning on in everybody's head," as the class realized that "people can get caught up in an emotion" and do irrational things.
There were other life lessons to be learned. One was the meaning of empathy. Stasiuk is physically disabled and got around class with the help of crutches and a leg brace. (These days he is much more likely to use a wheelchair.) To help the class understand, Dougherty said, Stasiuk told his students about the devastating accident that left him paralyzed at age 17.
As a kid, he was drawn to sports; a natural athlete. He enjoyed playing baseball and, at Sayville High School, Stasiuk was on the varsity basketball team and played linebacker on the varsity football team, . He was also adept at a skill that would, indirectly, prove his undoing -- springboard diving.
A DAY THAT CHANGED HIS DIRECTION IN LIFE
On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, he, a friend and the friend's female cousin went to a new trampoline center for some fun. When Stasiuk's turn came, his springboard training kicked in and he did a flip in the air -- maybe, he now thinks, to show off a little for his friend's cousin.
"Instinctively, I came down vertically, head first, instead of chest first," he recalled. "I broke my neck immediately. I could not move, or feel anything below my neck."
More than two years of hospitalization and rehabilitation followed, as Stasiuk regained some motion in his arms and hands. "Finally, I started standing up," he said. Once home, though, he faced the hard fact that "I was not going to be any of those fantasy things you dream about when you're a kid," he said. "I certainly wasn't going to be an athlete."
That realization helped him to focus for the first time on the future, and he entered Suffolk Community College. Before the accident, "I had no real direction," he said. "I had always disliked school, but at Suffolk Community, I did the work." He finished his education at what was then an extension of Adelphi University and is now Dowling College. There, the wiseguy who had always disliked school decided to be a teacher.
"My thinking was, I would make school, maybe, the way I would have liked it," he said. "The classroom was going to be fun." And that philosophy took students to new heights: One year, his class read that engineers were struggling to produce a module that would safely land an astronaut on the moon. It was 1969 and Stasiuk challenged his kids to design their own lunar modules, containing raw eggs -- "eggstronauts."
Stasiuk corralled some pilots at MacArthur Airport to help his class test their designs. With the final models in hand, the students boarded several small Cessnas and dropped their modules from 2,000 feet. More than a dozen eggs were recovered; only one egg was smashed. The experiment made Newsday in a column called "The Long Island Diary."
THE WORLD IS ALWAYS A FASCINATING PLACE
Outside of school, Stasiuk -- whose quicksilver mind propels him from subject to subject in conversation -- pursued every interest. For a time, intrigued by the history they captured, he collected courtroom artists' sketches of headline-making cases -- from the trial of Charles Manson to the testimony of Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods in the Watergate era. That hobby garnered him another feature story in Newsday.
He took up painting, becoming accomplished enough to show and sell his work. And he has displayed a penchant over the years for firing off letters and essays to newspapers. (Newsday has published a string of them, on subjects as varied as his childhood viewing of Babe Ruth's casket, the war in Iraq and the gas-guzzling "tanks" of suburban "road warriors.")
Stasiuk even made a stab at getting a pilot's license, though the "multitasking," he said, proved too great. "I wanted to have as pleasant a life as I could," Stasiuk said of his activities. "I did the things I could. I didn't go mountain climbing." His most recent dabble is in radio as a contributor to "Everything is Broken," a 2-1/2-hour talk show with Jim Lynch (WUSB/90.1 FM) on Tuesdays at noon.
Stasiuk retired from teaching fifth grade in 2002 when he was 58. These days, he continues his out-of-the-box teaching at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, known as OLLI (nwsdy.li/OLLI), a program for retirees and the semiretired at Stony Brook University. Stasiuk's classes are "beyond oversubscribed," said Nancy Gold, 68, of Setauket, who has attended them repeatedly. While Stasiuk has a workshop agenda of sorts, his groups have a free-form quality, said Gold. who has a part-time SAT tutoring business. "You never know what it's going to be, but it is always interesting, it is always entertaining," she said.
For Stasiuk, his animated fifth-grade classes and current workshops may not be as historic as that ride on the LIE, but his aim is clear. "I want people to have a good time," he said. "To me, nothing is worse than boring people."