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LI quads ponder: Attend college alone or together?

Seventeen-year-old quadruplets Grace, Bobby, Danny and Erin Mele

Seventeen-year-old quadruplets Grace, Bobby, Danny and Erin Mele gather for a photo in their Setauket home. (Dec. 29, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

As the Mele family of Setauket waited for word from the admissions office of Hartwick College, unspoken questions hung in the air.

Would Erin get in?

Would Grace?

What about Danny?

And Bobby?

The quadruplets have vastly different interests - from French to forensics - but each was intrigued by the small campus upstate. Then, just before they headed to a weekend for prospective students last month, the admissions office called.

Danny picked up the phone. "Guys," he shouted to his brother and two sisters. "We're all in!"

The four have been almost inseparable since they were born 17 years ago. In all, they applied to a dozen colleges - including Stonehill in Massachusetts, and Roanoke in Virginia. But every time talk turns to splitting up, they admit they're comforted by the idea of spending the next four years together.

"It'd be like bringing my home to college, having my three siblings there," Bobby said.

The quads were born 11 weeks premature in the neonatal unit of Stony Brook University Medical Center, where their mother, Patricia, worked as a nurse practitioner. They spent 54 days in intensive care. Their mother, who had in vitro fertilization after four years of trying to conceive, refers to them as "miracle kids."

It took close to a village to raise them. Their grandfather, Anthony Valle, a retired NYPD officer, cooked and cleaned. Grandmother Geraldine prepared 48 bottles of formula a day, while an 80-year-old great-grandmother did laundry. Aunts and uncles rotated in for weekend duty.

"I think the kids are so close to each other because they were surrounded by a big, loving family," said Patricia Mele (pronounced me-lee).

The children were 10 when their grandfather died. On hearing the news, Danny ran to hug an aunt, lost control and fell down a flight of stairs. He spent several days in a coma at the Stony Brook hospital. Erin - who likes to point out she's the oldest "by three minutes" - had to be pulled away from his hospital bed. She and the others sat in a bay window of their house with photos of Danny, holding vigil for days until his recovery.

When their parents divorced several years ago, the children seemed to grow even closer. They alternate time with their mother and their father, Rob, who is in sales.

The quads, seniors at Ward Melville High School, have different personalities. Erin wants to be a homicide detective. Grace plans to be a doctor. Danny is a musician who learned to play guitar, then taught himself piano and drums. Bobby, the technology whiz, can fix any computer.

When the four started talking about college last year, Grace imagined going off on her own. "All through high school, I was one of the quads."

Scheduling college visits was difficult because Erin and Grace play three sports during the school year, while Danny and Bobby are involved in Presbyterian youth missions. Sometimes two visited a campus, sometimes all four went.

Although the Meles had put away money whenever possible for each child's education, Patricia at first resisted the idea of a private college. She did a quick calculation: A place like Hartwick would cost about $45,000 a year. Multiply that by quads and the four-year total would be $720,000, not counting inflation.

But Levenson reminded her colleges offer merit aid for talented students.

Danny and Bobby liked the close-knit feeling at Hartwick, in Oneonta. They applied early decision, so they're committed to attending. The girls applied under rolling admissions because they wanted to keep their options open.

Hartwick was so intrigued by the Mele foursome the college gave them a private tour guide during a visit last summer. And the school's financial aid package included "significant" grants for each as well as a sibling discount, Patricia said. But the family still would have to pay $100,000 a year if all four attend.

Hartwick has never had a set of quads, said assistant admissions director Ruth Morrongiello. "We're thrilled to know there are four academically talented students, all from the same family, interested in Hartwick."

Erin's desire to strike out on her own wavered last month after the siblings spent that weekend at Hartwick with host students. She saw her siblings, but not too much. "I realized I would have them if I need them, but I don't have to be with them if I don't want to."

Over the years, their mother has wondered whether the quads' unity would dissolve. In middle school, Danny and Bobby decided to stop living in the same room. "I wanted to be my own individual person," Danny recalled, "and I needed space for my music stuff."

Patricia Mele remembers thinking, "There's the first split."

She had no reason to worry. A few days ago, the boys approached her, arms around each other's shoulders.

"In college," Bobby informed her, "we're going to be roommates."

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