As quick as Bob Higgins was on the track, he was just as quick with a joke.
“He was famous for his super-corny jokes, but he was the perfect person to tell them,” said Tim Dearie, head boys track and field coach at St. Anthony’s High School. “He almost couldn’t finish the joke because he’d start laughing. He had this unique cackle kind of laugh that got people to start laughing before the joke was over. When he had finished the joke and was dying laughing, everyone would join in.”
Higgins, who lived in Coram and was an assistant coach of the St. Anthony’s boys track and field team for 11 years, died of brain cancer Feb. 11 at Stony Brook University Hospital, his family said. He was 57.
Born July 27, 1961, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Higgins grew up in East Setauket. He attended St. Anthony’s High School -- then located in Smithtown -- where he ran track and was a two-time All-American as a member of the distance medley and 4-by-1 mile relay teams.
“He was a courageous guy when he raced and really was physically gifted,” said Dearie, who was also Higgins’ high school teammate and longtime friend. “He had tremendous speed. He trained mainly distance base and then was asked to run the 400 on the distance medley at the Penn Relays (in 1978), and he broke 50 (seconds) without doing any speed or being trained like a 400-meter guy.”
After St. Anthony’s, Higgins ran for Harvard University, graduating in 1983 with a degree in economics. He then joined the family business, operating the Tara Inn in Port Jefferson until his retirement nearly a decade ago.
“He loved being part of the family business because he loved being able to help other people have a good time,” said his sister, Pat Paddock, of Stony Brook. “He probably knew every customer’s first name. He greeted everyone.”
After an initial feeling-out period, Higgins took charge of the St. Anthony’s mid-distance runners, spending his remaining years molding some of the best athletes in the state with Dearie.
“We always talked about how blessed we were to be best friends and working side by side with outstanding young kids, just laughing our way through every moment of it,” Dearie, 58, of Stony Brook said. "We’re all better people because we had him in our lives. Kids can spot a phony from a mile away. He was the genuine article, and they knew it.”
“He truly loved the coaching part of his life,” Paddock said. “He loved being around young runners and loved being able to teach them and guide them. … He would call me and get so excited on the phone telling me about a great race one of his runners had had. You could hear the passion in his voice.”
Away from the track, Higgins loved cooking, being outdoors, and indulging in his eclectic musical taste.
“When he was a little kid, he was in chorus but he was really shy, so he’d just mouth [the words], he didn’t even sing,” said Ellen Higgins of Mount Sinai, his former wife with whom he remained friends. “But, in a small crowd, he was quite the exhibitionist with his dancing. He loved Michael Jackson.”
Higgins also loved Frank Sinatra and Bruno Mars, Paddock said.
Higgins is survived by daughter Colette, 25, parents Joseph and Patricia of East Setauket; brothers Joseph, John, and Paul; sisters Pat Paddock, Nancy Sardinia, Tara Higgins Petracca and Kathleen Higgins Farley; and 15 nieces and nephews.
A wake will be held at the Branch Funeral Home in Miller Place 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Friday. A funeral Mass will be held 10:45 a.m. Saturday at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Setauket with internment to follow at St. James Cemetery in Setauket.