In the spring of 1994, Jimmy Only was invited to interview for the job of associate minister at a church in Manhasset. Only, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, who attended college at Mississippi State and a seminary in Texas, had spent most of his life well south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“I barely knew where Long Island was,” he recalled with a chuckle.
He and his wife, Colleen, a native of Burleson, Texas, drove down from Boston, where Only had just finished his doctorate at Boston University. They arrived just in time to hit the eastbound LIE at rush hour. Only recalled his wife’s reaction to the bumper-to-bumper traffic and screeching horns.
“Colleen said, ‘I’m telling you right now, I could never live here.’ ”
They got off at Exit 36, Searingtown Road in Manhasset, and explored the North Shore before the job interview. “We drove into Manhasset, saw the beautiful Colonials and the spring flowers,” recalled Colleen, 54. “I turned to him and said, ‘I could live here.’ ”
Twenty-three years later, the Rev. Only, 53, is minister of the Congregational Church of Manhasset, and Colleen is an active member who has also taught in the church’s preschool. They are the parents of Matthew, 20, and Alina, 16.
“We love it so much here,” Only said.
Now that’s something you don’t often hear from native Long Islanders, who are usually too busy complaining about high taxes, traffic and corrupt politicians to stop and appreciate what makes the Island such a special place. That’s where folks like the Onlys, who grew up somewhere else but now call Long Island home, can provide a refreshing perspective.
It’s not just the obvious things — the beaches, the parks, the proximity to New York City — that keep these transplants here. While the physical beauty of Long Island’s Gold Coast was what initially appealed to the Onlys, what has kept them here is the character and makeup of their fellow Long Islanders.
“One of the things I appreciate the most is that I know where I stand with people,” said Colleen. “People here are more upfront. I don’t have to guess what they’re thinking.”
At their church, the couple has created a sort of oasis for transplanted Southerners. The associate minister is Lori Burgess, 38, a Georgia native who moved with her husband, Jacob, 40, to Long Island in 2007, when he got a job in finance. They were “church shopping” and heard a Southern accent at the pulpit of the Manhasset church. Burgess, who had just finished divinity school, introduced herself to the Rev. Only — who at the time just happened to be in the market for an associate minister.
“I said, ‘Are you a seminary graduate?’ ” Only recalled. “She said, ‘Yes.’ ” Although she hadn’t been looking for a job, Burgess accepted Only’s offer and has been part of the church for 10 years.
“I’m not huge on saying, ‘God did that, God did that,’ ” Only said. “But I think there might have been a little divine push to get her here.”
Burgess said she and her family, which now includes Aaron, 9, and Charlotte, 7, “have really made a home here. What we love the most is the diversity.” The Burgesses grew up in a small, homogeneous town in northeast Georgia, where 90 percent of the population was Southern Baptist. “Our idea of diversity was hanging out with a Methodist,” Burgess said.
Her children will have a much different experience growing up on Long Island. “We love that we’re raising our children in a place where they’re going to see people of different ethnic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different SES’s [socioeconomic statuses],” she said. “That will give them a perspective of the world that will help them and help them become better people.”
While there are still things that puzzle the Only and Burgess families about Long Island — such as the lack of interest in college football, itself practically a religion in the South — they are happy in their adopted home. “We love being in a cosmopolitan area, and being with people of all kinds,” said Jimmy Burgess. “It’s a wonderful thing to find.”
When not in Rome . . .
Arriving on Long Island as a new employee at Hofstra University in 1989, Lynda O’Malley was overwhelmed. “I remember driving down Hempstead Turnpike and seeing Hofstra for the first time, and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, look at the size of the campus!’ ”
O’Malley, 52, whose maiden name was Roman, grew up on a dairy farm outside Rome, New York.
“Yes, I was a Roman from Rome,” she joked. The size, the intensity, the pace of life in her new mega-suburban home was jarring. “It was a hard transition,” she recalled. “But it was the best experience I could have gone through.”
Twenty-eight years later, O’Malley, who began her Hofstra career as a coordinator for the department of residence life, is still at the university — she’s now assistant director of public safety. The North Massapequa resident is also married and the mother of three children, ages 19, 18 and 16.
Any reservations about leaving upstate New York are long in the past.
“I started to adapt because I loved having easy access to everything,” O’Malley said. “The city, the beaches, shopping. Growing up, if we wanted to go to a mall, it was a 35- or 45-minute drive.”
Another revelation was the beaches. “The ocean was a huge thing for me, when I first arrived, and it still is,” she said. This past summer, she attended — by her own estimate — 12 concerts at Jones Beach. A couple of years ago, she also discovered Fire Island. “I could go there every day,” O’Malley said.
While she never lost some aspects of her rural upbringing, such as greeting everyone, strangers included, with a “hello,” she has seen others melt away like the West End 2 shoreline at high tide. Case in point: dogs.
The O’Malleys got Lexi, a husky Lab mastiff, in 2014. At first, O’Malley said, she was dead set against having a canine in the house.
“In upstate New York, dogs live outside,” she said. But she admits that after about a week, “my cold, black heart melted.” And now, “I have a pillow for Lexi, I have blankets. She gets home-cooked meals. It’s sick!”
O’Malley measures the attitudinal changes by that of her husband, Steven, a native Long Islander. When they were married in 1994, O’Malley said her spouse told her he would always stay on Long Island. More than two decades later, her husband has changed his tune, and like a lot of Long Islanders has threatened to relocate to a state with lower taxes and warmer weather.
“I say, ‘OK, bye! The dog stays with me,’ ” O’Malley joked. “I wouldn’t leave Long Island for anything.”
You CAN go home again
Theresa Mirachi Figueroa, 59, and her husband, John, 56, are native Long Islanders who left the area for greener (and warmer and less-taxed) pastures, only to return, with a new appreciation for their home.
Mirachi Figueroa grew up in Valley Stream; her husband in Wyandanch and Farmingdale. They were married in 1995 and settled into work lives that were dramatically unsettled by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. John’s trucking business ground to a halt because of restrictions on travel to Manhattan after the terror attacks, and the Selden hair salon that Mirachi Figueroa worked in went out of business, with the owner citing a drop-off in customers after the attacks as the reason.
It seemed time for a change.
“I thought, ‘Maybe we should give another place a try,’ ” recalled Mirachi Figueroa. It so happened that her husband’s family owned a condo in New Port Richey, Florida, that wasn’t being used. “We both decided we should take a shot and see how we liked Florida,” she said.
At first, they liked it just fine. Both are motorcyclists, and Florida offered an opportunity to ride year-round. Plus, the cost of living was dramatically lower. But as the years went on, Mirachi Figueroa said, their feelings about the Sunshine State soured.
“The flooding and hurricanes and bugs and alligators and snakes and the humidity,” she said, ticking off the things that began to cast her new home in a different light.
Especially the relentless heat. “I realized that I’d rather be in a snowstorm,” she said with a laugh.
In 2015, the couple returned to Long Island after a nearly 14-year absence and settled in Farmingdale. Much had changed — taxes were higher, for example — but there were many features of the place they’d grown up in that the couple saw with new eyes, and that Mirachi Figueroa had longed for while in Florida.
“I missed the neighborhood feeling, I missed the four seasons, I missed the restaurants, the food, and I really missed the people,” she said. “People down there say, ‘Oh, those New Yorkers.’ But to me, some of the friendliest people live here on Long Island.”
Mirachi Figueroa is back cutting hair, and her husband is a contractor. They still get plenty of riding time on John’s Harley-Davidson, and love heading out to Greenport, but now they also ride their bicycles down to Jones Beach, or enjoy paddleboat rides in Belmont Lake State Park in North Babylon.
“My husband said to me the other day, and he’s absolutely right: ‘The best of everything you need is right here on Long Island.’ ”
The roads more traveled
Attorney Matt Conroy flipped open the pages of a Nassau-Suffolk atlas and studied the unfamiliar roads. “I said, ‘If we go north on the Meadowbrook, it just ends among these other highways,’ ” he said, recalling a conversation with his law-school roommate at the time. “If we go south, we hit water.”
He went south, and as soon as he got on the Loop Parkway west and saw the beaches and seaside communities, he’d made his choice. “This is where we’re living.”
It was August 1991, and Conroy was a first-year law student at Hofstra University in Hempstead. The Lexington, Massachusetts, native with a fondness for Cape Cod decided against living in the university housing on Hempstead Turnpike, and instead found a home on Point Lookout, where he resided happily for three years.
After graduation, Conroy got a job back in his hometown, but when he got engaged to a girl from Queens whom he met during a trip to New York, he returned to Long Island, this time to Rockville Centre.
“I loved it!” said Conroy, 48. “Great town, great community. We put four kids through public schools,” he added, referring to his 18-, 15-, 13- and 11-year-olds (Conroy and their mother are divorced).
In 2004, Conroy, now a resident of Melville, hired a new associate for his Garden City law firm, Schwartz Law P.C. In addition to being an attorney, Maria Diglio was also a veteran runner and triathlete. She introduced Conroy to her friends and training partners in the local endurance sports community. “They all seemed to be such healthy, active, interesting, successful people,” he said.
The training needed to compete in endurance sports also appealed to the self-described workaholic, and soon he was off and running — as well as biking and swimming. Conroy has gone on to complete two Ironman-distance triathlons, 12 half Ironman races and 10 marathons. Training for these super-long-distance events — long rides and runs on the North Shore, swims in Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean — has gotten him to the point where he is as good as an atlas when it comes to finding his way around Long Island.
“These beautiful parts of Long Island became my training ground,” Conroy said. “Now I know them all . . . the roads, parks, beaches.”
It was through endurance sports that he also met his fiancee, Eliana Themistocleous, 50. She is an Ironman triathlete and a transplant, too. She moved with her family from the African nation then known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Massapequa in the early 1980s, so she has been on Long Island longer than her fiance.
While Conroy is still proud of his Massachusetts roots, he does allow that in one area his adopted home has his native region beat.
“The beaches are nice in New England, but there is nothing that compares to the South Shore of Long Island,” he said. “And I don’t think enough people here appreciate that.”