After two decades in the Navy, Robert DeBona retired to the waterfront where his family once summered.
Mastic Beach was again his home, and from 1988 on, it would be the new focus of his service.
DeBona, who died on Sunday at age 66, carved out a second act as one of his blue-collar community's most prominent civic activists, championing everything from waterfront redevelopment to taxpayers' rights.
"Mastic Beach was always getting a bad rap and Bob was committed to making sure people would come down and see how beautiful it could be," said Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who became close with DeBona through his volunteer work. "It was his passion."
DeBona died at home of an apparent heart attack, family members said. Health concerns had only recently led him to give up his longtime post as president of the Mastic Beach Property Owners Association.
There, he opposed hamlet incorporation efforts out of fear of higher taxes. And once voters approved Mastic Beach as a village in 2010, he continued pressing the new government to live up to its promises of improving code enforcement without burdening homeowners.
"He was able to rise above a tremendous amount of vitriol," said Maura Spery, an association director who worked with DeBona on quality-of-life issues. "He was truly a kind, intelligent and ethical man."
Raised in Queens, DeBona fondly recalled fishing and boating on Mastic Beach with his family each summer. As a Navy chief warrant officer, DeBona worked in Greece and Italy before returning for good.
But by the late 1980s, Mastic Beach's once-quaint waterfront had become worn and neglected. Over the next two decades, DeBona restored the local yacht club and fought for grants to beautify the downtown's Neighborhood Road.
His work led to new sidewalks, streetlights and a gazebo. He also helped start the popular Blue Claw Crab Festival.
"To him, it was really about trying to change that town," said his stepson, Scott Levering, of Shirley. "He put his heart and soul into that place."
DeBona is survived by his wife of 25 years, Lynne; children Robert Jr., a Marine in Quantico, Va., and Amy and Jomarie, both of Boston; another stepson, Robert Levering, of Florida; and siblings John, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Joseph, of East Norwich and Rosemary Daley, of East Meadow.
Visitation will be Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. and Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Roma Funeral Home, 539 William Floyd Pkwy., Shirley. Funeral Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Jude's Church, 89 Overlook Dr., Mastic Beach. Burial will follow at Calverton National Cemetery.