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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A community steps right up

When a storm blew down its windmill, West Babylon showed its caring character.

The West Babylon windmill -- erected in 1996

The West Babylon windmill -- erected in 1996 by the West Babylon Beautification Society -- was knocked over by the nor'easter that blasted Long Island on March 2. Photo Credit: Michael Dobie

This started as a story about a windmill.

And it began with a letter placed in my mailbox by a neighbor, Ruth Hill, who for years has been president of the West Babylon Beautification Society.

She was asking for help.

The problem was the windmill. It stood across the street from West Babylon High School — a community fixture since the society erected it in 1996. And it was knocked over by the nor’easter that blasted Long Island on March 2.

A word about that windmill. It was a delightful nod to the area’s Dutch heritage. West Babylon used to host huge farms run by Dutch farmers who grew tulips and other bulbs. The community’s tulip festival drew throngs every spring. One of the growers was Bulk’s Nurseries on Montauk Highway. And standing out front of Bulk’s was a windmill, the one that served as the model for the red, six-sided replica now lying on the ground.

A word about the beautification society. The one in West Babylon is like dozens across Long Island. They literally make us look better. In 1996, the society took a forsaken triangular spit of land in the intersection between Little East Neck Road and Route 109 and transformed it with the windmill, flowers and shrubs, a brick walkway and nice lighting. It was something you noticed as you drove past, as thousands do every day.

The society’s touches are all over West Babylon. Flower boxes here and there. Flower barrels along Little East Neck Road. Untold numbers of trees planted. Cleanups around town. The statue of the little girl sitting on a green pedestal reading a book outside the public library.

But after all these years, Ruth said, the society has a problem: “We’re aging out. Most of us, the preponderance of the very few people who run the organization, are in their 70s.”

West Babylon is not unique. “If you talk to any group, they’re phasing out,” said Mary Jo Poldino, who for 30 years has been what she calls the “liaison” for the society. “Ruth is right about that.”

And now they had a toppled windmill.

“We were really upset,” Mary Jo said. “When people saw it down, it was so traumatic for them.”

A word about what happened: She put a photo on the group’s Facebook page, asked for help, and crossed her fingers. And Ruth dropped her letter in my box.

“We don’t really have the money in our treasury,” Ruth said. “We have the money to maintain, but we really, really do not have the money to rebuild.”

But by the time I got back to her, something had happened.

Somebody saw the Facebook post and called. Somebody drove by the spot and reached out. Somebody saw Mary Jo in a store. Many were West Babylon graduates with businesses in the community. They offered their expertise, their time, their money, their material.

Tim Ray, a painter. Bob Laurice, Kevin Hennessy and Michael Maxwell, builders. Anthony Lemma, an electrician. Jason Ott and Craig Klaus and Eric Price and Daniel Bonaventre and Tony Nicolia. Babylon Town sent a crew to secure the area. And that big tent of volunteers, the business people and the society members, met last weekend at the windmill to plan its return.

“We’re really excited at the way people came together,” Mary Jo said.

Ruth said the response was so astounding that the windmill getting knocked down might have been a good thing after all.

“What happened,” she said, “was a miracle.”

In truth, what happened in West Babylon is what happens on Long Island all the time. It’s who we are. When we’re needed, we come together. We don’t hear about it when it happens in someone else’s neighborhood. But it happens.

This started as a story about a windmill. Until it became something else.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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