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Smithtown honors town residents felled by COVID-19 with a Redwood tree memorial

Members of the community and Smithtown officials gathered

Members of the community and Smithtown officials gathered for a tree planting ceremony Tuesday at Veterans Memorial Park in St. James to commemorate town residents who died of COVID-19. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Almost two years after a flu-like, highly contagious virus began to spread across the United States, Smithtown honored 475 town residents who died during the pandemic with the planting of a commemorative redwood tree Tuesday at Veterans Memorial Park in St. James.

The dawn redwood, now about 12 feet tall with thin russet foliage, is expected to live for more than a century, growing 100 feet high and offering shade to generations of town residents at play on the park’s ballfields.

"We will never forget the memory of the people who perished," Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said. "Our hope is that when you stop by the park, from time to time, that this tree will bring you comfort."

The virus has taken at least 4,034 lives in Nassau and 3,694 in Suffolk, according to New York State.

In his own remarks, town clerk Vincent Puleo recalled a 10-month span in 2020 where his office processed 344 death certificates, more than twice the normal number. "I had to certify every single one of them," he said. Some days, because of sickness or safety measures the town imposed, the office was nearly deserted, he said.

On a frigid, windy morning, ceremony attendees were mostly local elected officials and town employees. No town employee has died from COVID-19, but several have lost family members. They include Neal Sheehan, the town’s sanitation supervisor, whose parents, in their 70s, died from the virus last year.

Lois Chopik worked for 30 years at Patio Pizza in St. James; Richard Chopik ran what used to be called St. James Auto Collision. The longtime Smithtown residents lived in Blue Point at the time of their deaths.

"It struck so fast," Sheehan said in an interview. He and his sister, Laura Caliguri, had worked hard for a year to keep their parents safe, he said. His stepfather died hours after he was admitted to the hospital, his mother days later. "All we needed to do was get to the finish line where they had the vaccine, and we missed it."

Sheehan was thinking ahead to the first Christmas of his life without his mother. He said he expected to see more memorials in coming years. "I think people are going to realize how big an impact this had on everyone," he said.

David Barnes, Smithtown’s environment and waterways director, secured funding for the redwood with a $1,000 grant from New York State Urban Forestry Council through the Tree City USA program. The town plans a second ceremony, in the spring, to place a plaque under the tree and read the names of the dead.

"COVID has impacted, I think, every family in Smithtown, either directly or indirectly, and I think at this point, there’s probably not a person in town who doesn’t know someone who has passed," Barnes said in an interview. "I realize this is just a small gesture … but we wanted in some way to remember those family members they had lost."

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