Andrew Athanas, at age 71, has time on his hands — finally. After years of running the North Shore Civil War Roundtable for history buffs and decades of coaching school basketball teams, this retired teacher from East Northport has decided to chill.
In this year of change for Athanas, he permanently benched himself from coaching in February, leaving a record of winning games for the boys and girls basketball teams at the Huntington middle school; the girls junior varsity at Huntington High School and then as head varsity coach for the girls team at John Glenn High School in the Elwood School District.
On March 13, he was one of 10 coaches inducted into the Basketball Coaches Association of New York Hall of Fame for a slew of championships collected during his 30-year tenure: 15 league titles; four county; three Long Island and one state. He excelled, despite his casual entrance into the sport. “I just took up coaching as something to do in the wintertime,” he recalled.
In this year of change, Athanas also decided to turn over the presidency of the Roundtable, though it wasn’t an easy task. Because of their longevity on the board of trustees, four other officers also announced they’d be stepping down this year. With an aging membership on hand and no immediate volunteers to step into the positions being left vacant, Athanas worried that no one was willing to put in the work needed to keep the group viable.
“We’re in a transition mode,” he told the Roundtable audience earlier this year at the South Huntington Library, where the group meets. “I’ve been president for 15 years so it’s time,” Athanas said. “We are looking for board members who are interested in being officers. I don’t want this organization to go away.”
The Roundtable, like many special-interest clubs started long ago, has members who have been keeping things running for years but now say it’s time for a new crew to take charge. “The board members who are retiring, who are mostly in their 70s, have been on the board for many years,” Athanas said. “They feel it’s time for new people to step forward to run the Roundtable.”
Benson “Buzz” Schultz of Sag Harbor, who has been organizing the annual battlefield tours for five years, is leaving the board of trustees. Vice president and programming chair Alex Short of East Northport and membership chair Boyd Scheff of Huntington will follow suit. Treasurer Alvin Kravitz of Huntington is also stepping down. “It’s time for a change,” Kravitz said.
The age factor has also had an impact on the group’s more ambitious activities, Athanas said. On an annual battlefield tour he organized years ago, members walked the route of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The path was almost a mile long, and something that strenuous today is no longer possible, he said. This year, not enough members signed up to do any tour.
“We have to bring in younger people,” Kravitz said.
That’s an issue that’s been discussed at every board meeting, according to Athanas, and Roundtable leaders have been attending antique gun shows to draw in a receptive crowd.
For now, the Roundtable’s dilemma has been resolved. After Athanas made his appeal, the board held a special meeting and five of the organization’s 80 members said they would be willing to step up. In May, the membership will vote to install the new board members and officers will be selected to replace the ones leaving. Athanas will continue his role as webmaster of northshorecivilwarroundtable.org and as editor of Drumroll, the Roundtable monthly newsletter.
The group is dedicated to promoting understanding of the War between the States, a period of American history Athanas taught during his 32 years as department chair and history teacher at the J. Taylor Finley Middle School in Huntington. But it wasn’t until his then-college age son, Ryan, recommended he read “The Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, that a deeper interest in the war was stirred.
Ryan, 44, of Centerport, who is now the Harborfields Library assistant director, also suggested his father check out what was then the newly formed Roundtable that gathered at the Book Revue in Huntington. Athanas and his wife, Barbara, who met at what is now SUNY Oneonta, joined the Roundtable in 1995.
Since November 2000, when he became president of the group, Athanas has presided over 200 monthly meetings, produced 200 newsletters and organized eight of the annual out-of-state trips for members who tour Civil War battlefields. Planning and organizing for the group took hours every week, but Athanas’ dedication was fueled by his enthusiasm for the subject. Of the thousands of soldiers who fought in the war, he is most taken by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union officer who led the 20th Maine Regiment in a charge to defend Little Round Top on the second day of battle at Gettysburg. It was the most interesting segment of the war, Athanas said, “because of all the maneuvering” by troops on both sides.
“I’m very passionate about the war,” he said. “A lot of the issues of race and display of the Confederate battle flag that are surfacing in the presidential campaign have their roots in the Civil War. There are unresolved questions that the war and Reconstruction didn’t solve.”
In this year of change, Athanas, who grew up in Bayville, hasn’t made definite plans for the three hours a day he spent coaching or the four hours a week he needed for the Roundtable that he can now reclaim. He never took a winter vacation during basketball season, so a trip to Florida could make his agenda. But it’s almost certain he’ll be spending time in what he dubbed “The Shrine,” his garage that’s lined on one wall with coaching trophies. The garage has a hydraulic lift where Athanas works on his 1969 Corvette, 1957 MG MGA sports car and limited edition 2005 Dodge Ram Rumble pickup truck with Ryan.
Two grandchildren are asking for more quality time, Athanas said, and his wife of 50 years has some home improvement projects planned for him. One thing that’s not on the agenda is sitting out the rest of retirement.
“I bought a rocking chair,” Barbara Athanas said, “and he wants me to throw it out.”