Doing God’s work, Tony Gazzola made an impact
There were so many acts Anthony “Tony” Gazzola did to make his neighborhood, and actually the lives of others, better, it would take a huge book to write them all.
It was probably because of his low-key, gruff-but-fair persona. He was Brookhaven Town’s chief investigator and always made sure he rode his turf, the streets of East Patchogue and North Bellport, in his off-time, whether it was taking DWI offenders around for community work, making them pick up litter on the street, then feeding them at his home, or rolling down the window of his green Dodge pickup truck, conversing with residents, then matching them up with a particularly needed talent like beautifying trash cans with a painterly eye or getting a doctor to check on seniors at a local nursing home.
Years ago, one high-up official insinuated Gazzola was crazy because he called in so many of the crimes in his community.
“More people would call him, then they would call the police,” said his son Vito Gazzola, a 7th Precinct sergeant. “He felt that the quality of life there should be the same where he lived for the residents as it was in Miller Place.”
His famous line, said daughter-in-law Eileen McCallion, was, “I’m doing God’s work.”
Tony Gazzola, a 1997 Long Island Advance Man of the Year, the founder of the South Country Community Conference, the originator of Martha Avenue Park, who pushed for the baseball and football fields there and the Safe Summer Youth Program in the 1990s so kids would have a calm place to play sports, died Sunday surrounded by his family. He was 75.
Gazzola had a storied police background and saw a lot. But he wasn’t embittered. Just savvy. “He was a police officer in Far Rockaway,” said Vito Gazzola. “He was undercover there and became a detective and retired from the 101st Precinct.” Gazzola bought his house in East Patchogue in 1964, where he and his wife Laura raised their three sons, Vito, Louie and Tony.
“It took a lot, but when he was mad, you knew it,” recalled Vito Gazzola. “When we had the Volkswagen and he had to take us places, we made sure we behaved.” Well, there was nowhere to run in that small vehicle and he also saw what happened to people when they weren’t disciplined.
But his sons were loved. “I’ve never seen a bond so strong of a father with his sons,” said MCallion, “and I’ve known him since I was 15. They never had a fight and they always had utmost respect for their father.”
Married 54 years to Laura, the love of his life, she never knew who was going to eat her savory meals because her husband was always inviting people in. Sunday dinners were shared with neighbors, even the homeless can man.
“You have to break bread with the community or you won’t get respect from them, he believed,” recalled Vito Gazzola. He broke bread with many people over the course of the years because of all the attempts to move the community forward, some successful, some not, but not for lack of commitment. He supported the area’s ShotSpotter implementation and also a business Main Street presence on Montauk Highway.
Gazzola was even called the “Cake Man” because he would pick up a weekly supply of cakes and snacks to deliver to families, churches and nursing homes in East Patchogue and North Bellport from the Drake’s warehouse on Peconic Avenue. The cake distribution got their start at Martha Avenue Park, where he handed them out to the kids who came. Because, he knew, all youngsters need fuel to play.
Greater Bellport Coalition president John Rogers met Gazzola at the group’s first meeting in 2006.
“Tony was the unofficial mayor of North Bellport and had his hands in a lot of things in the community including keeping the community clean; there’s been a lot that Tony had a hand in creating, past history so to speak, because he’s been so active,” Rogers said. “I don’t see anyone filling the void that he leaves. I don’t think anybody would be as motivated or would spend as much time.”
Gazzola worked for a time as a town bingo inspector. He liked politics and was elected chairman of the Brookhaven Town Conservative Party and worked for a time for Assemb. William Bianchi’s community liaison.
Community activist Georgette Grier-Key worked with Gazzola on the South Country Community Conference, the Greater Bellport Coalition and the South Country Library and saw him step in on many neighborhood issues. “He was holding up the banner for marginalized people,” Grier-Key said. “When it came to having a safe environment, he created a cadre of volunteers who met regularly when the cops weren’t responding. It’s still going on in the neighborhood and it created a sense of network and community because of Tony.
“His morals and integrity were from a different time. He was a rock to the Bellport area and was a father to many people.”
Gazzola retired from Brookhaven Town in 2013; his life slowed down when he was diagnosed with cancer on the lung a year later, McCallion said. He had treatment; there was a free pass for a time, then the cancer returned to another area. But he lived long enough to know that his granddaughter Angela Parisette was graduating from the New York City Police Academy on Tuesday.
Gazzola is survived by his wife, Laura, his son Louie and daughter-in-law Eileen McCallion, son Vito and daughter-in-law Deborah, son Tony and daughter-in-law Kimberly as well as eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was waked at Robertaccio Funeral Home in Patchogue on Wednesday. A funeral Mass will be held at St. Joseph the Worker R.C. Church, East Patchogue, where he was also active, today, Dec. 31, at 10 a.m. He will be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bellport. The family is requesting that any donations in his name be made to Lighthouse Mission, 1543 Montauk Highway, Bellport 11713.
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