Harold Lilie, who grew up milking cows on a Westbury dairy farm and later was a beloved "fixture" in Middle Island, died Thursday at his Middle Island home. He was 90.
For patrons of Ben’s Hardware Store in Middle Island, he was a familiar, smiling face. For Temple Beth Emeth in Mount Sinai, he was someone who always was willing to help. For his fellow veterans at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, he was someone who "wouldn’t forget the people that seem to be forgotten," said longtime friend Joe Fazio.
Fazio was in a pandemic-era caravan of about 20 cars that passed by Lilie’s Middle Island home to wish him a happy 90th birthday on April 21. His widow, Edith Lilie, recalled how he insisted on wearing his Middle Island Volunteer Fire Department chief’s uniform — he's served as chief during his more than 50 years of service — as he stood to watch, because the department "meant a lot to him."
"He was touched to the bone," she said of the caravan, which was organized by a firefighter.
Lilie was born April 21, 1930, in what is now Woodside, Queens. His family owned a small dairy farm there before moving to Westbury when he was about 6 or 7, Edith Lilie said.
Much of Nassau County was farmland, and Lilie "went by horseback across the plains of Hempstead to get to Mineola," she said.
Lilie served with the Army in Japan during the Korean War.
The couple met in 1961 at Ben's Hardware, which at the time was owned by Edith Lilie's parents. They married the following year and in 1965 bought the Middle Island house where he died. By that time, he was working at the hardware store.
"Customers used to come in just to talk to him," Edith Lilie said. "He was very friendly. It was a very homey, country-style store and he fit right in because he was a country-style man."
Their three sons started helping out at a young age, so the entire family worked together.
"It was a well-oiled machine," said youngest son Gerald.
People enjoyed being around him, eldest son Irving Lilie said. "He would joke around," he said. "He made everything fun."
Fazio met him as a customer in the 1970s.
"Harold was literally a fixture in Middle Island over the years through the hardware store and the paint store," Fazio said, referring to how the store began specializing in paints in the mid-1990s, becoming Ben’s Paint Station. "He could have been a de facto mayor of Middle Island."
The couple took over ownership of the store after her parents died. After the building burned down in the mid-2000s, the business moved to Coram before it was sold in 2017, Edith Lilie said.
The couple were founding members of Temple Beth Emeth in 1986. Lilie’s health declined in later years, but "he would attend as many services as he possibly could," said Debbie Giordano, the temple’s president. "He always was positive. I never heard him say anything negative."
The synagogue’s immediate past president, Matt Fox, said the couple "are extremely selfless people. They were always the first to step up and help."
Lilie was active in Jewish War Veterans Post 336 in Centereach, said David Stein, a past commander.
"Whenever I needed him, he always volunteered to help," including taking veterans home residents to the synagogue for Shabbat services, he said.
In addition to his wife and sons Irving, Gerald and Robert, he is survived by a brother, Martin, and a grandson and daughter-in-law. He was predeceased by two sisters.
Graveside services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday at Washington Memorial Park in Mount Sinai.