When the owner of a popular Seaford restaurant was diagnosed with cancer, George Vignola planned a massive golf outing to offset his friend's medical bills. And when "Big George" learned about a baby struggling with complications from muscular dystrophy, Vignola organized a fundraiser to renovate the home of a family he had never met.
Unsolicited acts of kindness and philanthropy were common with Vignola, a Seaford resident and former Massapequa Chamber of Commerce president who died April 7 at age 70. The cause of death is unknown.
"Our dad taught us it’s not about money or prestige. It’s about how many hearts you can touch," said Keri Ingvarsson, 41, of Los Angeles, Vignola's oldest daughter. "The tens of thousands of people my dad touched will go on to touch and give back selflessly. I believe my dad will touch a million lives after his death."
A 100-car caravan paraded through Nassau's South Shore on Monday to pay tribute to Vignola, who was remembered as a larger-than-life figure who could command any room he entered.
Born in Manhattan, Vignola's family moved to Wantagh when he was a child. Vignola was a track star at Wantagh High School, where he is in their Hall of Fame for the high jump, and attended the now defunct Lea College in Minnesota on a track scholarship.
Vignola started the New York office of Commercial Collection Consultants Inc., a debt recovery company in Massapequa that he ran for four decades.
He would have two daughters, Ingvarsson, 41, and Kaitlyn Vignola, 34, of Manhattan, with his first wife, Maureen. The couple divorced and five years ago Vignola married his second wife, Theresa.
Family members recalled George Vignola's zest for life, from his voracious love of the Yankees and Giants to his passion for making music.
In the 1970s and 80s, he played on a softball team with a group of old friends — many of whom tuned into an online memorial service in their decades-old jerseys.
Vignola was a weekend DJ and a drummer in The Paper Bag, a 70-piece rock band that plays the South Shore bar scene. Ingvarsson said her father would often bring his bongos to friend's weddings and slip the band a $100 to get on stage and play a few songs.
"That's just who he was," she said. "He was the most famous unfamous person. Everyone knew him in Seaford, Wantagh and Massapequa."
Mary Clarke recalled how Vignola learned of her daughter Colleen's medical condition at Maria Regina Roman Catholic Church in Seaford, where he attended Mass every morning, and sprinted into action, raising money through raffles and golf outings.
"George exemplified what being a true Christian is by his genuine selfless concern, care and generosity to others, looking for nothing in return," Clarke said of the man she called "Uncle George."
In his later years, Vignola spent much of his time on his boat, "Loose Change." He and other members of the church's "God Squad" were regulars every morning at the Seaford deli where a breakfast sandwich is named in his honor. The Big George contains egg whites, turkey, hot sauce and tomatoes.
Vignola is survived by his wife, two daughters, three stepdaughters, a sister, Barbara Hoff of Coram, and nine grandchildren. A family service is planned at a later date.