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Chestene Coverdale, 30-year teacher and pantry founder, dies

Chestene Coverdale, who rose from a sharecropper family,

Chestene Coverdale, who rose from a sharecropper family, taught in Long Island schools for three decades and later founded and ran the Greater Sayville Food Pantry, died Oct. 3, 2018, of complications from a stroke she had at the end of July. She was 82. Newsday's obituary for Chestene Coverdale
Credit: John Coverdale

Chestene Coverdale, who rose from a sharecropper family, taught in Long Island schools for three decades and later founded and ran the Greater Sayville Food Pantry, has died. She was 82.

Coverdale died Wednesday at Good Shepherd Hospice Center at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson of complications from a stroke she had at the end of July. 

The youngest of 12 children, Coverdale was born in Westover, Maryland. Her father died when she was 3 months old, leaving her mother alone to raise the family.  From that humble beginning, she graduated from Delaware State College where she met her future husband Fred Coverdale. They moved to Long Island when she was recruited by the Middle Country School District to teach physical education and health.

“She had a heart and determination and a sense of self that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” said her son John Coverdale of Blue Point, a human resources consultant. “My parents came from socio-economic areas drastically different than Long Island, and how they got here I don’t know because they had no mentors, and no parents they could call for money. But they bonded, and helped each other …throughout their lives.”

Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter described Coverdale as “sweet, graceful, and low-keyed” but also determined.

“She was an iron fist in a velvet glove,” Carpenter said. “She was on a mission to help people who needed it and made it happen.”

The African American couple were a civic force in a mainly white community because of their personal bearing and decades of local friendships, according to those who knew them. 

“It was very hard to say no to Chestene,” said Charlene Lehmann, the pantry’s secretary. “She treated everyone from our homeless to CEOs with the same kindness and dignity. She was the type of person that everyone she touched ended up wanting to be a better person.”

She was active in many community groups, including stints as Sayville Rotary president, a Brookhaven Memorial Hospital advisory board member and supervising student teachers for Dowling College.

Coverdale taught several years in Middle Country, 12 years in Center Moriches and later worked as a sixth-grade teacher in Mount Sinai for 14 years until she retired in 1991. Her husband had a 30-year career in Bayport-Blue Point, rising to high school principal and assistant superintendent. When they first moved here, they lived in Patchogue and later Bayport.

The couple were wed for 53 years; her husband died in 2013. 

 Her son said at times her mother was “like a…cheerleader” for her husband when he coached school basketball and football. He recalled his mother even put up with his coaching at a summer basketball camp with famed Niagara University and later NBA coach Frank Layden, even though the family had to stay in a dorm.  “The next year she made sure they squeezed in a separate vacation,” he said.

In 1991, Coverdale started the Greater Sayville Food Pantry, located in the historic Gillette House just below Main Street and worked unpaid until stricken. “She saw a need before anyone else and very methodically engaged the community at a time when some might have resisted,” said Mary Lou Cohalan, a friend. “They got behind the idea because they got behind Chestene.”

The pantry, which now serves about 460 people a month, isn’t limited to food. “She found out what clients needed whether it was help paying for a heating bill to a job recommendation,” said Lehmann. “One recipient just told me his life didn’t begin until he walked in the door and met Chestene.”

Other survivors include daughter Terri Coverdale of Bayport; a brother, Lester Ballard of Hyattsville, Maryland; a sister, Isabelle Walker of Washington, D.C.; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A wake will be held Sunday, 2- 4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at Raynor and D’Andrea in West Sayville. Private cremation will be held later. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Greater Sayville Food Pantry, 47 Gillette Ave., Sayville, N.Y. 11782 or Bayport-Blue Point Foundation, P.O. Box 750, Bayport, N.Y. 11705.  

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