He knew at 9, Reggie Tuggle recalls, that he would be a church minister.
And so did much more, as the Rev. Reginald Tuggle blended pulpit and politics, education and economic development, activism and a helping hand.
"My mother told me way back then that there were two kinds of colored people in the world," Tuggle says. "The ones who were content with being the 'first and only' and those who were determined to reach back and grab another, pull them up."
Ask around. Tuggle is the latter, and one of the first blacks to hold several key positions on Long Island, friends and colleagues say.
"People called Reggie when they didn't get a street shoveled, when their kids missed the bus and they didn't know what do about it, when someone's child got off track," says longtime friend Deidra Parrish Williams. "He found the right person, followed up, looked in on people's children."
Donald Astrab, president of Nassau Community College, where Tuggle was associate vice president for marketing and communications for almost 17 years, says, "We'll miss Reggie in many ways, not the least of which is hearing his laugh that's like a bear hug of good humor and goodwill."
People are talking about Tuggle, 65, because he's trading Long Island for South Carolina and retirement . . . in his own way. He'll no longer be fielding press calls at NCC, and he's begun a new mission that aims to have a positive impact on the lives of young people.
Those who know Tuggle are not surprised by his latest initiative. He came to prominence locally by balancing his longtime position as pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt with other, high-profile full-time jobs. For 14 years, he was a Newsday executive before leaving in March 1995. That same year, he signed on at NCC.
Like many baby boomers, Tuggle is putting his own spin on the traditional "retiree" label. His next goal is to establish the Institute for Parental Leadership to help eliminate poor parenting skills that have resulted in everything from low academic performance to low self-esteem to disproportionately high incarceration rates among African-American and Hispanic youths, in particular, Tuggle says. And he strongly believes these things can be changed.
The idea for the institute was born of his outreach ministries at the Nassau County jail, where he routinely asked young inmates, "How did you end up here?" Their answers had a common thread: an absent father, or a mother who made bad decisions. But even single parents can raise decent, productive, thriving kids, Tuggle says. Young parents can be taught how to encourage their children, build confidence, fuel their aspirations and help them understand that "success in life comes through hard work."
Tuggle knows the power of strong parenting skills, especially for mothers and fathers who face multiple hardships. "I was raised by a single parent, but my mother had the wisdom to teach me certain values," explains Tuggle, who holds a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. "Bringing home a 'C' was totally unacceptable. Showing disrespect was unacceptable. We have to stop tolerating things that promote harm to yourself or to others."
So, as he settles into semiretirement in Fort Mill, S.C., Tuggle is seeking grants and other funding to establish free parenting classes and related programs. It will likely start small, he says, but he envisions a national movement. "It's a dream for me," he explains.
"He's looking to do something very special with kids and families . . . which is so very Reggie. He's just a very, very good man," says Sue Wakefield, who was Tuggle's chief assistant at NCC.
While packing up his office at the college last month, Tuggle reflected on his four decades of work on Long Island and the early benchmarks in life that helped mold him. In 1964, while a high school student, the Denver native carpooled to Mississippi to march against segregation. "On the way there, we stopped for a hamburger at a place in Chattanooga, Tenn., and got turned away at gunpoint," he recalls. "It was a very volatile year."
Seven years later, Tuggle's first foray onto Long Island had him organizing exploited migrant farmer workers on the East End. "I had never seen such misery," he says. When the commute from Connecticut, where he was an adjunct professor at New Haven University, began to wear on him, Tuggle opted to settle in Nassau County. There, over the next few decades, Tuggle reinvigorated a dying Memorial Presbyterian Church, as Roosevelt was morphing from an all-white to a predominantly black community. During his 37 years as pastor, membership soared, from about 50 to more than 1,000 congregants.
The church had been without a minister for two years when Tuggle was tapped for the job, recalls Rembert Brown, 90. A Newsday benefits manager who retired in 1990, Brown served for many years as the church's full-time administrator and president of its board of trustees.
"He came to us with a big Afro and beard, which, to him, during those times, was a way of identifying with the community," Brown says of Tuggle. "I can't even begin to name all the things he did over all his years in the community that proved he wasn't just here to serve himself; the number of people he personally loaned money to keep them from getting kicked out of their homes. It seemed like he was always on call, counseling people whose children were into drugs, and doing whatever else was asked of him. His whole desire was to work on behalf of this community and of Nassau County and Long Island. He never stopped being that way. Never."
The church became a kind of headquarters from which Tuggle preached and rallied residents around local causes, including a successful push for services as basic as new curbs and a county holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"We have the power to vote, the right to vote, the privilege to vote. But we weren't going to the polls," says Tuggle, who also was an aide to then-Hempstead Town Supervisor Alfonse D'Amato and former U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. Tuggle hobnobbed with the powerful and well-connected, working to upend the status quo from within those circles of decision-makers.
Last year, with retirement in mind, he began whittling his list of local obligations and resigned as Memorial Presbyterian's pastor. He'll return to Long Island to guest-preach, and he remains on the board of directors of Roosevelt's charter school and the Community Economic Development Corp. of Long Island.
"He still envisions a fully integrated Long Island, an economically healthy and sustainable Long Island, a place where there is real social justice," says Marianne Garvin, the corporation's chief executive. She and Tuggle began collaborating on ways to build affordable housing 30 years ago.
Though he's moved South, where his wife, Evette Beckett-Tuggle, now has an executive position, his ties here remain. "I've still got plenty of friends here," Tuggle says. "I have a huge network of contacts here. I love Long Island. I love the quality of life here, even though it's diminishing."
Tuggle's friend, Parrish Williams, a former Newsday spokeswoman who is now executive director of the Long Island Medical Foundation, says his departure marks a major loss for Long Island. "There's a lot that Reggie did that had nothing to do with what he was paid to do," she explains. "He's a connector. And that kind of thing is very important, particularly for the African-American community. Their access to information, resources, people of influence doesn't come readily."
Tuggle is looking forward to spending more time with his family, including his first grandchild, Isaac, the son of daughter Regine Moore, 28, an executive at Walmart's Bentonville, Ark. headquarters. His other daughter, Karleena Tuggle, 32, is a surgeon in Atlanta. Their mother, Marie Rebecca Tuggle, died in 1993.
"I'm leaving here [Long Island] so I can slow down a bit, travel, play more golf, read more books. But fully retire? No, not all," says Tuggle. His wife is chief executive of the Carolinas Minority Supplier Development Council. "There is so much work to do."