Thomas Roberts, who championed lighthouse, dies

On a dare from his wife, Thomas F. Roberts III of Bay Shore in 1979 formed a nonprofit group with the goal of saving the Fire Island Lighthouse from demolition. The group pulled it off, family and friends say, in large part because of Roberts' energy and fundraising acumen.

Roberts, 75, who was also a star student athlete and successful banker, died Monday at home after a two-year battle with colon cancer, having seen the shuttered lighthouse not only saved, but also relighted by the Coast Guard.

"Without him being involved in the early days, it might have been torn down like the one at Shinnecock," said Robert LaRosa, who succeeded Roberts as president of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society two years ago. "He was such a force to bring it back and get it into operation and also to bring back the original Fresnel lens" that was being displayed at a Philadelphia museum and is now in a new building adjacent to the lighthouse.


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Raised in Bay Shore, Roberts graduated from Bay Shore High School in 1957. He was one of the top golfers in the state, winning the Suffolk County title three out of four years -- a record that still stands. He was runner-up for the New York State title.

Roberts attended Wake Forest University on a golf scholarship. He graduated in 1961 with a business degree, with double majors in economics and finance.

He received a graduate business degree from Brown University and did additional graduate work at Tulane University in New Orleans and the University of Connecticut.

He was executive vice president of Seamen's Bank for Savings in New York City for 16 years while serving several years as president of the Mortgage Bankers' Association of New York. He was also a member of the New York State Job Development Authority and the Industrial Development Bond Insurance Managers.

In 1985, he formed a real estate financing firm, Thomas F. Roberts Associates Inc., and its subsidiary, Tri-State Appraisal Group, located in Babylon. He was a chartering director of Long Island Commercial Bank, now New York Community Bank. At the time of his death, he was a director of First Trade Union Bank in Boston.

In 1979, after reading in Newsday that the Fire Island Lighthouse was slated for demolition, he was so upset that his wife, Marilyn, dared him to do something about it. He assembled a group that raised more than $10 million to restore, relight and create the tourist attraction that today draws more than 200,000 visitors a year.

His last endeavor was to return the First Order Fresnel Lens to Fire Island and construct a building to house it. It opened in July 2011.

The Long Island Volunteer Hall of Fame inducted Roberts in 2006 for his role in historic preservation.

He was also active in the American Cancer Society.

"Tom had an exceptional amount of energy," his wife, Marilyn, said. "Nobody could keep up with him and that's why he could do so much."

She added, "He did teach his children to give." Both are very active in charitable work.

Besides his wife of 50 years, Roberts is survived by a son, Thomas F. IV of Montville, N.J.; a daughter, Nancy Lee Zuch of Bay Shore; his brother, Richard of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; a nephew, Richard Leonard of Northport; and two grandchildren.

Visiting hours at Frederick J. Chapey & Sons, West Islip Funeral Home, are tomorrow and Thursday from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and 7 to 9:30 p.m. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bay Shore. The family asks that donations be made to The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, 4640 Captree Island, N.Y. 11702-2601 or The Morgan Center for Children with Cancer, P.O. Box 333, Brightwaters, N.Y. 11718 or Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center Foudnation Volunteer Office, 1000 Montauk Highway, West Islip, N.Y. 11795

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