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OpinionColumnistsRandi Marshall

Charles Wang never stopped dreaming

His legacy on Long Island is still in the making.

The Islanders reacted on Monday to the news that former team owner Charles Wang died of lung cancer on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz; Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara, Joie Tyrell; Getty Images / Bruce Bennett, Cliff DeBear, Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke, Jim McIsaac)

There aren’t many dreamers on Long Island, those who think big, who have a vision for something grand, important, even transformative.

After all, it’s hard to dream about the future of the Island when reality keeps getting in the way, when the practicalities, the politics and the pay-to-play become roadblocks that stop people from dreaming.

Charles Wang, who died Sunday at 74, never stopped dreaming.

Charles — he was rarely Mr. Wang, and I always called him Charles — wasn’t a real estate expert, and he wasn’t a politician. The businessman and one-time majority owner of the New York Islanders didn’t like navigating the hurdles. He often refused to play the game, at one point declining to give a job to lawyer and lobbyist Armand D’Amato, brother of former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, despite the potential political repercussions for his beloved Lighthouse Project, a $3.8 billion effort to redevelop the Nassau Hub and remake the Coliseum for his hockey team. Charles believed he knew what was good and right. He thought anyone who disagreed with him was, quite simply, wrong.

That included me.

During my decade or so covering the Islanders’ search for a home, Charles would argue with me when he disagreed with how Newsday covered a story, or when he wished it reported things the way he saw them. He was gracious and honest, never hesitating to tell me what he thought. I saw Charles at moments of sadness, such as the late-night minutes after we learned the 2011 referendum to build a new arena with taxpayer funds failed.

I saw him at moments of happiness, such as his announcement that he was keeping the Islanders in New York, albeit in Brooklyn. And I saw frustration, for example, at a meeting in 2009 when he and developer Scott Rechler endured questioning from Hempstead Town Board members ready to say no to the Lighthouse Project.

But no matter the moment, Charles wasn’t going to give up on his dreams. That was true in Plainview, where he withdrew plans for a large mixed-use development after community and political opposition, only to partner with Beechwood Organization developer Michael Dubb in what became the mix of condos and retail space now under construction. It was true for Smile Train, the nonprofit organization he founded that provides free cleft-lip and palate surgeries to kids in developing countries. It was true of the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University, which focuses on Asian and Asian-American culture. And it was true for the Islanders. Any other owner likely would have left New York, but Charles tried to keep the team in Uniondale. After it moved, he still sought a home on Long Island. The answer: Belmont Park.

Even more recently, Charles had new visions for Long Island’s future. He still owns developable property in Oyster Bay, and he talked with Dubb about what was possible as recently as a few months ago.

Charles’ place on Long Island is complicated by the accounting scandal that plagued Computer Associates, now called CA Technologies, and by the Islanders’ failures on the ice — and in the team’s finances, which Wang kept afloat.

But his legacy is still in the making. When the Islanders play at Belmont, when Plainview is finished, when there’s economic activity at the Hub, and when, perhaps, future development in Oyster Bay includes his ideas for his own properties, a few of Charles’ dreams will have come true. None of it would have happened without him.

Long Island needs more dreamers like Charles — the big thinkers who push against the tide and who fight for the region’s future. To get it done, those dreamers need partners in real estate, business and government who will come with a pinch of reality and flexibility.

First, we have to dream. Charles Wang wouldn’t let me forget that.

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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