Ray DeForest, a teacher who inspired his students to dream and in retirement played jazz classics for free nightly at a Northport cafe, died early on Thanksgiving Day.
"He loved to have people listen to him play," said Victoria Twomey, 58, of Huntington, one of his five daughters.
DeForest, 90, died from lung and liver cancer at his Northport home, she said.
The piano man gave himself the nickname "Occasional Ray" -- even had it printed on business cards -- playfully boasting that he was "available for any occasion," Twomey said.
In his 80s, DeForest started playing the sentimental standards he learned by memory as a child of the Depression, such as "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "As Times Goes By," during his night gigs at Caffe Portofino.
Even after his diagnosis, he insisted on playing at the cafe, Twomey said. At home, in his final days, he still performed for family and friends.
"Despite his illness, his intuition for playing was still there," Twomey said. "That was his present to people."
DeForest grew up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. During World War II, he did intelligence work for the Army, based in the Philippines.
After the war, he earned master's degrees in English literature and philosophy from Yale University with help from the GI Bill. He taught English, social studies, Latin and art in the Cold Spring Harbor Central School District for 26 years.
"To his students, he made them believe in themselves," said another daughter, Royal Forest, 38, of Huntington.
About 30 years ago, he changed his surname from Forest to DeForest in honor of his French Canadian roots, the family said.
In Northport, he was a popular figure -- waving and chatting with people on the street or in the grocery store.
"He was always helping people, and having really deep, wonderful conversations with them," Forest said. "We always joked around that he was the second mayor of Northport."
Twomey said people were drawn to her father. "He was just a bright light. . . . He was so wise, just optimistic, upbeat and . . . kind."
At Caffe Portofino, people came "to hear Ray," said Rosemary Lombardi, Portofino's owner. "They just adored him. Everybody did."
Late in life, DeForest still drove and lived on his own. He never complained about his battle with cancer.
"I'm 90. I've lived a long life. But if I was 75, I'd be pissed," he told Twomey a few weeks ago, after learning that the disease had spread from his lungs to his liver.
Shortly before his death, he said it was "the last 12 years of playing piano that was the most important to me," she said.
DeForest was preceded in death by two wives, Nancy Trilsche and Karen Forest, and three siblings: Cecile, Constance and Robert Forest.
Besides Twomey and Royal Forest, DeForest is survived by daughters Pamela Cosgrove of Raleigh, North Carolina, Jennifer Forest of Hollywood Hills, California, and Toni Finsterwald of Fort Worth, Texas; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A wake will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 5 at Brueggemann Funeral Home, 522 Larkfield Rd., East Northport. DeForest's remains will be cremated. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Dec. 6 at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, 109 Browns Rd.