The heart that beat inside Robert Cetlin was half-destroyed by a midlife heart attack, but the psychologist's empathy with others never flagged, his daughter said.

"There was just this openness about him," said daughter Andrea Cetlin of Northport. "He made them feel so good about themselves, and people were very comfortable going to him with things. He just had this interest in people, and they felt it."

Cetlin, 82, of Kings Park, died May 6 of heart failure and other complications.

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It was "natural" for him to go into psychology, because from a young age he wanted to understand people, Cetlin said.

He received his master's degree in psychology and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1958, he went into the Army's medical service corps at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

That year was memorable -- he eloped with Isabelle Gentile, whom he met in his university days, their daughter said.

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A few years later, Cetlin left the Army to work with people with disabilities, first at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Northport hospital, then at the Long Island Developmental Center in Melville.

He was 51 when a heart attack struck as he jogged.

Half his heart was disabled, Cetlin said, and the man who loved sports, jazz and being a therapist had to cut back on his activities.


"He was never allowed to return to a regular job," she said, "and on top of that had to give up jogging, tennis, martial arts and his lifelong passion of playing the saxophone."

He focused more on his private practice, she said, and had such a bond with patients that they kept in touch for years after counseling ended.

"The sound of his hello was the most positive, enthusiastic, encouraging hello you could ever hear," daughter Michele Shanahan of Waxhaw, North Carolina, said in a eulogy at his wake. "You knew you would be laughing soon after 'hello' because of his great sense of humor."

Not one to complain, Cetlin pursued what he enjoyed in his own way, his family said.

He would often drive to the Kings Park bluffs to be near the water and beaches -- it was in his psyche after growing up in the seaside town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Andrea Cetlin said.

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"He would open the window and sit there," she said. "If he felt strong enough, he might go out and walk a little bit."

As his strength waned, he delved into his artistic side.

An avid reader, the psychologist started to write and attend a short story group at the Northport library, she said.

He was thrilled two years ago when an online Jewish magazine published his short story "Dry Bread," his family said. In it, an escapee from a Nazi work camp meets a stranger decades later, someone who had seen him in his darkest hours, coming back to a hometown in ruins.

This past winter, his family said, Cetlin proudly volunteered in heart research with stem cells, hoping to heal or help as a guinea pig.

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"He was a strong fighter with a gentle spirit," Andrea Cetlin said, "and he stayed this way till the end."

His family plans to sprinkle some of his ashes at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, which he loved.

Besides his daughters, Cetlin is survived by his wife, Isabelle, of Kings Park; and sister, Brenda Schenk of Westport, Connecticut.