Though Salvatore Ambrosino hadn't heard of social work until college, he proved to be more than just a quick study, family members said.
The Port Washington man headed Nassau County's Family Service Association for more than 30 years. He was a social work progressive, colleagues said, developing programs on domestic abuse, low-income housing and at-risk youth before they were mainstream issues.
Ambrosino died June 19 of congestive heart failure in Yonkers' Classic Residence, an assisted living facility. He was 89.
"Instead of the old, top-down model for social service agencies, he tried to empower the poor," said son Mark Ambrosino, 58, of Manhattan. "That was his passion."
Born in 1923 to Italian immigrants in Manhattan, Ambrosino tried unsuccessfully to join the military during World War II. A bad shoulder, his son said, restricted "Sal" to the Merchant Mariners.
After hauling supplies in the South Pacific during and after the war, Ambrosino returned to Brooklyn College. He learned about social work by chance in vocational tests at the college's career center.
"I always knew when couples were having problems because they came to my parents for counseling," he said.
After earning a doctorate of education from Teachers College in 1960, Ambrosino joined the Family Service Association. He spent decades advocating for low-income housing, teen pregnancy prevention and marriage counseling.
He took special interest in drug addicts, Mark Ambrosino said. "He took care of these guys, kept them going, kept them alive and got them jobs," he said. "He was so incredibly optimistic. . . . He loved a challenge."
Ambrosino retired in 1997, when the Family Service Association merged with Children's House to form the Family & Children's Association. He became a member of the Hempstead Boys & Girls Club's board of directors after retiring.
Other survivors include daughter Wendy, 55, of San Diego; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 26 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset. Ambrosino's final resting place is still undecided.