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Joan Grunebaum remembered at annual field hockey tournament

A bench rests beneath a maple tree at the northeast end of Great Neck North's Parkwood Sports Complex. With 20 Nassau County field hockey teams competing on mini pitches scattered across the grass on Saturday morning, the bench could easily get lost in the fray.

Its message, however, could not.

"The true measure of a person's legacy," a small plaque screwed to the bench reads, "is not how much they love, but how much they are loved by others!"

It is dedicated to the "loving memory" of Joan Grunebaum, the field hockey coach who died in 2002 and whose name headlines GNN's annual tournament.

"She was just one of the most caring, understanding, patient individuals I've ever met in my entire life," said Tracy Stiene, who coached with Grunebaum. "She just took the time out for every kid, especially the kids that were underprivileged. She gave them that extra love and support that they needed."

Grunebaum made her most profound impact with the Great Neck Spirits Special Olympics program, said her brother, Richard Grunebaum. Joan, he said, would help program members not only athletically but also educationally, guiding them through their lives on a day-by-day basis.

"Whatever she could do to help them," he said.

"She didn't have children," Carle Place coach Carol Nesdill said, "so her children were the Great Neck Spirits."

Grunebaum's work with special-needs children and dedication to the game compelled Nesdill to organize the first Joan Grunebaum Memorial Tournament before the 2003 season. Raffles and concession sales fuel an annual output that averages between $6,000 and $7,000, Nesdill said. The Great Neck Spirits Special Olympics program receives every penny.

Even the referees volunteer.

"It's a day to give back," said Karen Dowd, a member of the Nassau Field Hockey Officials Association.

At Great Neck North, Grunebaum's legacy still thrives. Jane Maher, a former colleague and the Blazers' current head coach, said she sees Grunebaum's footprint on the field hockey program today.

"We preach kindness. We're trying to get the kids out for the love of the sport," Maher said. "It's a different population here at Great Neck. It's not a population that has the sticks in their hands all year long, but it's a population of kids that love to play hockey.

"That is what this [tournament] is all about."

Kindness. Passion. Equal opportunity. Grunebaum is remembered for embracing all three.

"It's so great," Maher said, "to have her memory continue."

For Richard, the day is always bittersweet.

"I think it's great because they remember my sister. At the same time, I get sad," he said. "I wish they didn't have this. I wish my sister was alive, but I think this is a wonderful event and I'm glad to come here every year."

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