Harold Politano of Deer Park loved a lot of things in his 58 years - his family, playing music, the yellow Camaro that he used to drag race down Route 109 back in the 1960s.
But his most recent triumph came from his lovingly tended garden. This summer Politano grew a 4-pound, 9-ounce beast of a beefsteak tomato that won Newsday's Great Long Island Tomato Challenge.
"When he won, oh my God, he went, 'The King!' " said his wife, Judy Politano, 58. "He even bought himself two shirts that said 'The Tomato King.' He would run around and put his hand in the air like a boxing champ."
Harold Politano died on Dec. 26 of pancreatic cancer. A former school custodian, he worked at Metavac, a Holtsville company that makes thin-film coatings and optical products. He worked there until the end of November, when his illness was diagnosed.
His family said that right up to the end Politano focused on the things that brought him joy - his life at home, and the garden where next summer he planned to grow sunflowers, and an even bigger tomato than the 2009 prize-winner.
"His biggest wish was to come home," said his daughter, Kimberly Politano, 33. Thanks to hospice care, he could. "He was here for Christmas."
A cheerful man whose hands coaxed miracles from plants and car engines alike, Politano was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, but spent most of his life on Long Island. He graduated from West Babylon Senior High School in 1969 and took a job at a small electronics company in West Babylon, where he met his future wife.
They had been classmates, but Judy Politano said she never noticed the good-looking blond until they began working together. "I was doing the wiring and soldering, he was our boss," she said. "He claimed he saw me in school and wanted to go out with me."
They hit it off and married in 1973, settling into a rented house in Babylon. Kimberly was born three years later. "It was the best day of his life," his wife said.
They bought a house in Deer Park a few years later. Politano worked as a custodian for the West Babylon and Island Trees school districts. The night jobs gave him time to walk Kim to school and day camp at the local swimming pool.
In his downtime, Politano liked to play guitar or compose songs on an electronic keyboard. He enjoyed time with his relatives, "basically just hanging out in the yard," said his wife. "He was really a home person."
Weekends were for barbecues, watching cop shows with his brother-in-law, or taking his father, Carl Politano, out for lunch.
"We'd just talk," said Politano, 82, of Syosset. "He was a good man. It went so fast. I'm going to miss him like mad."