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Tommy Sullivan, Vietnam-era veteran, has Sandy-damaged home rebuilt by community

With volunteers working on his home, Tommy Sullivan

With volunteers working on his home, Tommy Sullivan stands with Diane Burke, executive director and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Tommy Sullivan bought his Rocky Point bungalow in the 1990s with a prayer, a promise to God and a $3,000 loan from a friend.

The Vietnam-era veteran and his wife, Susan, hit hard times over the years and fell behind on the mortgage at one point. Superstorm Sandy punched holes in the roof, and the Oakwood Road house deteriorated because repairs were costly.

But early next year, the Sullivans will move into a renovated home thanks to generosity this holiday season, kind strangers, and Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, which is spearheading the rebuilding.

The volunteer effort brought together veterans groups and school students from Suffolk and Nassau counties. And it touched Sullivan, 70, a musician and songwriter who was a member of the group The Brooklyn Bridge in the 1960s, led by singer Johnny Maestro.

“There’s so much love in the whole community,” said Sullivan, who often performs his one-man show at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic. “Aside from friends helping us out, it’s also been complete strangers.”

The roughly $100,000 complete renovation is the largest project Habitat has undertaken under a program to repair homes for qualified Sandy victims, said Diane Burke, Habitat’s executive director and CEO.

“It was sort of a leap of faith on our board of directors’ part to say, ‘This build is right and we’re going to do it,” Burke said.

Since October, volunteers and workers have helped to install new siding, windows, plumbing, a new roof and other upgrades.

One day last week, an off-duty Suffolk police officer joined a college student who turned 19 that day and her mother to put up trim details on the porch.

“You just feel great at the end of the day,” said Lisa Prudenti, 49, the officer, a Rocky Point native and community service coordinator of the Long Island chapter of Team Red, White & Blue, a veterans group.

In November, North Babylon High School art teacher Veronica Murphy took students to the site. As a Habitat volunteer, rebuilding homes has taken on a personal meaning for her since neighborhood kids accidentally started a fire in her back yard that destroyed her Coram home.

“I’ve always said, ‘Kids will do more than you think if you give them the chance,’ ” said Murphy, adviser for the Students For a Better World club.

Students in the club helped to do landscaping. “Knowing that I’m helping someone really, like, brings a great feeling inside,” said senior Stephanie Casas, 17, a club president.

She wrote a note for Sullivan on a beam in the home: “I hope you enjoy your house.”

The students weren’t able to speak to Sullivan but sensed his gratitude. “You could see it in his face, see it in his eyes,” said David Bemus, 17, also a senior and a club president.

Sullivan promised to repay some volunteers with his music.

He received classical music training from Hicksville High School, graduating in 1963.

Two years later, he enlisted in the Army and was accepted into the marching band at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He said he started the first rock band there, The Nite-Ryders.

The band including several Hicksville classmates. Sullivan returned to Long Island in 1968 after serving in the Army for three years and joined a thrown-together group for a “battle of the bands” competition in Farmingdale.

One member called them the “Rhythm Method” — an inside joke from religious instruction as children.

After the performance, singer Maestro’s management approached the band and wanted them to join Maestro’s band.

“That was absolutely phenomenal. We were thinking we would be lucky and get a gig once in a while,” Sullivan said.

The Brooklyn Bridge formed in 1968 from the merger of The Del-Satins, led by Maestro, and Sullivan’s band. Sullivan was The Brooklyn Bridge’s musical director and arranger. He also played the saxophone, some flute and occasionally keyboard and bass.

They performed their top-selling hit “Worst That Could Happen” on The Ed Sullivan Show during the week of Christmas that year, in a segment following Stevie Wonder. “It was scary and thrilling at the same time,” Sullivan said.

Other television performances included on the Merv Griffin and Jonathan Winters shows.

He left the group in 1972 and co-founded Ramatam with Mitch Mitchell, a drummer for Jimi Hendrix up until Hendrix’s death in 1970.

As he kept his hand in the music scene, he also worked as a copy writer for television and radio and later advertising.

Sullivan stumbled upon the Rocky Point bungalow in 1996. He had qualified for a mortgage through the GI Bill, but he needed $3,000 for a good-faith deposit.

He walked into a Catholic church in West Islip during lunch break from his job at an advertising agency, and sank to his knees. He prayed that if God got him the $3,000, he promised to bring up his son in the church, and that he would go to church.

He also offered to start singing religious music if God led him down that path.

“I never made a lot of money in my career, but I figured there’s equity in my talent,” he said.

His boss at the agency, Bob Fehring, agreed to loan him the money.

“The guy’s a friend,” Fehring, who now lives in Palm City, Florida, and works in product development and marketing, said in an interview.

Maestro called two months after Sullivan moved in. He wanted to do a spiritual album. So Sullivan left his advertising job and spent 24 months in the studio with Maestro.

The break affected his and his wife’s finances. Other financial hardships and a drawn-out loan modification process plunged the couple into greater debt. After Sandy, Sullivan couldn’t afford the repairs on the roof.

Burke learned about Sullivan’s plight from a fellow veteran, John Rago, outreach coordinator for Supportive Services for Veterans Families.

More than 300 volunteers have taken part in the project, which is a partnership with the Health & Wellness Council of Long Island.

John Maio, a New York City firefighter, donated concrete when he saw a news report on the rebuilding.

“We’re doing a lot of Sandy work and things are pretty good; I’m just trying to give back,” said Maio, owner of Maio Building Corp. in Bohemia.

The Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars post donated $800; the Suffolk Council of Veterans gave another $300. Newman Plumbing & Heating did work at discounted rates.

Two weeks ago, the Habitat for Humanity Club at Friends Academy, a Quaker college preparatory school in Locust Valley, spent several hours helping to put insulation in the basement. Senior Dean Pappas, 17, said the outpouring “restores faith in humanity.”

On Wednesday, the last work day at the site before the holiday, Susan Sullivan, 59, brought nearly two dozen bottles of wine as gifts for volunteers, along with pizza and soda for lunch.

“We’re so overwhelmed with the love,” she said. “They’re the gift, the volunteers are the gift.”

Helping hands

Students from these Long Island schools volunteered to help rebuild Tommy and Susan Sullivan’s home in Rocky Point:

Connetquot High School

Friends Academy

Mount Sinai High School

North Babylon High School

Rocky Point High School

Shoreham-Wading River High School

Smithtown Christian School

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