Neil Fenton of Riverhead died Monday at the age of 83

Neil Fenton of Riverhead died Monday at the age of 83 Credit: Fenton family

Psychologist Neil Fenton saved things. Not collected — saved. A historic East End farm village. Drunken driving offenders with little hope. The anguished minds of first responders to the Avianca Flight 052 and TWA Flight 800 tragedies, and to the World Trade Center terror attack.

“I was very proud of him” said his wife of 57 years, Eileen Fenton, of Riverhead. “He always helped people and he did it a lot.”

As head of training and education at Suffolk County’s Mental Hygiene Services, he voluntarily attended six weeks of the county’s police academy and spent three more as an observer, working with officers on patrol to better understand and empathize when treating police. He helped create a 23-minute film for the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office, aimed at preventing jail suicides. And he trained the hostage negotiators who oversaw the 1983 siege at Brentwood’s East Junior High School (now East Middle School) that ended with all 18 hostages safe.

A much-in-demand speaker, he lectured and gave seminars on stress management for everyone from local potato farmers to people just hoping to cope with the holidays.

“Half the time, I didn't even know where the hell he was when I was [Suffolk mental hygiene] director,” said Fenton’s former boss and decadeslong friend, Tom MacGilvray, now of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “But I knew he was out there doing good. He was like the ambassador of mental health.”
Fenton died Monday at the age of 83 at his family’s beach home in Jamesport, of what his widow called “a fast-moving, aggressive cancer.”

During the last stage of her husband's illness, some of the men he had sponsored in Alcoholics Anonymous, to which he belonged for a time in retirement, “were here for me,” Eileen Fenton said. “These guys covered in tattoos, who had lived out of their cars for months and years and had nowhere to go, whom he had connected with halfway houses — they all stayed in touch with him. He gave his all to these guys and they appreciated it.” A Buddhist monk, she said, “came and chanted over him. Just an incredible amount of care and love.”

Cornelius James Fenton was born June 23, 1941, in Queens, the elder of two children, with sister Mary Ann, of Irish immigrant Cornelius Fenton, called Con, and his American wife, Anne.

He attended Holy Cross High School in Flushing, then earned a psychology degree from St. Michael's College in Vermont and a master’s degree in counseling from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In the 1990s he returned to do postgraduate work at Manhattan’s The New School but stopped short of a doctorate.

He met Eileen Mary Goulding, then of Oyster Bay, at a dance in Mineola in 1964. They married in 1967.

Both worked. Neil Fenton was a counselor and therapist in New Jersey and Staten Island and later at the Riverhead Correctional Facility before joining Suffolk Mental Hygiene, retiring in 2007. Eileen Fenton held various positions including as coordinator of activities for Riverhead Town Board and as a judge's assistant with New York State Family Court before retiring in 2005. They moved to Huntington in 1974 and to Riverhead three years later.

Gregarious and standing 6-foot-7, Neil Fenton made an impression. “He was genuinely interested in getting to know people and made a point of going from one person to the next, finding out what they were about,” admired MacGilvray. At one professional event, MacGilvray recalled, then-Suffolk County Executive Bob Gaffney joked to him, “If I could work a room like Neil, I'd be governor!”

In the 1980s, Fenton headed Hallockville Inc., the group that successfully fought to preserve the namesake collection of 15 Riverhead and Southold farmhouses, barns and outbuildings dating to the late 1700s, and now the Hallockville Museum Farm. He competed in the Long Island Marathon in 1978, said his wife, and dabbled in stand-up comedy in the ’90s. A member of the Riverhead Rotary, he served for a time as district governor of Rotary International.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Kelly Sadowsky, of Rutherford, New Jersey, and Kate Fenton Charpentier, of Queens; and two granddaughters.

A viewing will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home in Riverhead. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at noon Monday at St. Isidore Roman Catholic Church in Riverhead.

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