After year of loss, Manhasset rallies for families

After year of loss, Manhasset rallies for families
For what some have called an exceptionally tragic year, support from Manhasset went beyond attending wakes and funerals. (Photos courtesy of University of Pennsylvania, The University of Scranton, Manhasset High School 2020 Yearbook and Jeffery Woo)

When Diane Bollen’s students bore the stresses of high school, they could count on her empathy.

When Kevin Driscoll’s classmates shuffled between classes, they could bet on his “What’s up?” in the hallways.

And the teammates of Langdon Woo, James Farrell, Michael Farrell and Ryan Kiess could count on their companionship and post-match hospitality.

But in just over a year, a town enduring the worst pandemic of recent memory experienced an additional loss of seven community members – what some have called an unfair proportion of tragedy.

The most recent deaths came in late July when a head-on collision along Montauk Highway in Quogue killed five, including Michael, James and Kiess, 20 and 25, respectively. Their loss, a pointed reminder of death’s lack of discrimination, was quickly met with community compassion.

Clergy estimate some 5,000 mourners attended the wake and funeral of the Farrell brothers. Similar crowds supported the Kiess family, and multiple police departments escorted all three men to their final resting place at Nassau Knolls Cemetery in Port Washington.

Months later, support for the afflicted shows little sign of stopping.

Since May 2020, the untimely departure of young men and women was met with an increasingly empathetic and resilient community. Over the month of August, Blank Slate Media interviewed over a dozen friends, family members, teammates, residents, businesses and school administrators about the response to the deaths.

Brianna Maglio, 24 on the date of the accident, was Kiess’ girlfriend. As she remains hospitalized in critical condition, the sole survivor of July’s crash, a campaign started by friends is poised to be Manhasset’s latest rally for strength in the face of despondency.

After their death, nearly every vertical structure in Manhasset was wrapped with three bands of blue and orange: two for James and Michael Farrell, and one for Ryan Kiess. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli)

Just seven days after a fund-raising effort was announced on social media, over 1,500 people signed up to walk, run, bike and raise money for Maglio’s recovery. That number of participants is expected to climb as people inside (and outside) a neighborhood struck by death begin to traverse 80 miles in her spirit.

The distance is the sum of the boys’ high school lacrosse jersey numbers: Michael Farrell as No. 4, James Farrell as No. 32 and Kiess as No. 44. All three were accomplished players who advanced to play for their universities.

Among those who organized the campaign is Blaise Buffalino, a childhood friend of Kiess. He normally completes an athletic challenge in September, but after proposing the idea to his friends, worked to dedicate one for Maglio.

“The whole point was we just want to donate money to Bri and show our love and support to the Manhasset community,” Buffalino said. “We’re here for them and we’re here to support Bri as she’s fighting right now.”

Quickly, Instagram feeds of Manhasset’s youth featured the three young men playing lacrosse in action photos from the account @miles_for_bri. Originating on social media, the drive hopes to honor the star athletes and raise money to cover Maglio’s medical expenses, to which many have already donated.

“It’s really amazing what’s happened here,” Buffalino said. “We just wanted to do our part and it has turned out way bigger than anything we could’ve imagined.”

Fifteen times bigger, in fact. If each runner who signed up as of Friday raised $1 per mile as recommended, over $100,000 could be contributed.

“It’s honestly just surreal,” Buffalino said. “I think it just shows how amazing they really were and the impact they had on these people.”

This would hardly mark the first time Manhasset stood up for the Kiesses, the Farrells or anyone impacted by tragedy.

Days after the crash in Quogue, bands of blue and orange, the Manhasset school colors, wrapped around nearly all the neighborhood’s trees, traffic poles and street signs in their memory. At Manhasset Al Fresco, a moment of silence was held, followed by businesses like Villa Milano donating an evening’s sales to the GoFundMe pages of victims, according to official Facebook posts.

Former football teammates of Kevin Driscoll Jr. etched his initials along with the Christian Cross on their wrist before a game last season. They advanced to win their first Rutgers Cup since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Driscoll Sr.)

Those actions follow what Dr. Joy-Anne D’Anca, director of guidance and counseling services at Manhasset schools, described as a year of unbelievable loss for the town.

“I’ve never had this much loss in any district,” said D’Anca, who previously worked in three other districts. “When you have loss, we’re always preaching to be together and then suddenly COVID comes, and we can’t do that.”

Physical distancing remained a strong recommendation in May 2020, when Kevin Driscoll Jr., 17, died after an accidental overdose of Xanax laced with fentanyl just a few weeks shy of graduating with Manhasset’s centennial class.

“With Kevin, we couldn’t be together, and that was the hardest part,” D’Anca said.

Well-known and well-liked around high school, Driscoll wore No. 80 on the varsity football team. His original jersey was given to his family at an August ceremony celebrating the team’s county championship and first Rutgers Cup win since 1957.

The teenager’s death came just as many in his class were announcing their plans to advance to higher education. It also came just weeks after coronavirus infections peaked in the county, and health precautions still recommended six-foot physical distancing.

But even in the face of coronavirus precautions and as Driscoll’s classmates departed from high school, community leaders arranged for his permanent presence on campus.

High School Principal Dean Schlanger and 2020 class President Jack Grygiel, with the support of the Driscoll family, have plans for installing a memorial bench in Kevin’s name. The bench is scheduled to be on Memorial Field in November, along with a plaque.

Also created was the Kevin Driscoll Memorial Scholarship, which was awarded to two Manhasset 2021 graduates.

Though Kevin’s parents, Kevin Driscoll Sr. and Victoria Driscoll, said their emotions took time to catch up to the reality of the situation, “It was during that period that I had tremendous support from the local people,” Driscoll Sr. said with his son’s jersey folded in front of him. “We didn’t ask for that support, but we had more resources and comfort and understanding than we could ask for.”

For the Driscolls, that support came in many forms. From text messages to nearly 100 sympathy cards to small prayer gatherings and both preserving and replicating Kevin’s football jersey, the family said neighbors’ behavior was characteristic of Manhasset.

“They reach out to the affected party with open arms in a respectful manner,” Driscoll Sr. said of the way Manhasset mourns. From people giving gift cards to calling to check in, “and people making themselves available to us, there’s nothing more that you could ask for them.”

“They constantly kept picking us up and saying, ‘we got you.’” Victoria Driscoll said.

“That helps,” Driscoll Sr. added.

Kevin’s death was the first of the seven. The following April, district officials informed the community of two deaths: beloved high school French teacher Diane Bollen and Munsey Park Elementary School nurse Coleen Gerardi. Emails about their death were sent to parents and students on consecutive days.

Elli Stougiannou and Michelle Park were students in the first class Bollen taught at Manhasset. After a battle with cancer, Bollen died one year after their graduation.

Park said she rarely went home after her last class of the day, instead staying late for extracurriculars and finishing homework. Similarly, Bollen would stay past 3 p.m., where, according to students, her capacity as a teacher extended beyond French.

“She was a great person to talk to,” Park said. “Everybody has doubts about their future. In those times, I would talk to Mme. Bollen about it and since she was young too, since she went through that kind of stuff not so long ago, she was able to relate to a lot.”

“That was I think one of the best parts of her character,” Stougiannou said. “She was a very consistent and reliable woman.”

Since her death, a memorial garden and scholarship fund were established in her name.

“It just is reflective of how much Mme. Bollen meant to her students,” said Laurie Marshall-Lauria, coordinator for world languages at Manhasset schools. “We think it’s very important, because she had such a positive impact, to honor her in this way.”

Diane Bollen, far left, and some of her first students at Manhasset celebrating the end of the 2019 academic year. After battling cancer, she passed roughly two years later. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Park)

Bollen was also honored in a moment of silence at the high school’s 101st graduation last June, just over four weeks after Manhasset resident and 2019 Chaminade High School graduate Langdon Woo, 20, committed suicide.

Like the Farrells and Kiess, Woo was an accomplished athlete. An MVP swimmer for the Port Washington Yacht Club and a Manhasset soccer player in his middle school years, he and his teammates often gathered at his house where backpacks jammed the doorway, and his sense of humor was a guarantee.

Also like the Farrells and Kiess, Woo’s wake was well attended by mourners who waited in long lines in spite of less-than-welcoming weather conditions. His passing was met with a wave of donations, over $18,000, to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“This community, this town, they came together to help us as much as they could,” said Jeffery Woo, Langdon’s father. “Even neighbors down the street we don’t always talk to a lot, they were all coming by to [show] sympathy.”

“Everyone wanted to show their support, and they’re doing the same for the Kiesses and for the Farrells,” said Langdon’s mother, Alice Woo. “It’s heartwarming to see that the community can come together for this. Is it surprising that Manhasset is doing this? No.”

Accepting a responsibility akin to first responders, Manhasset residents frequently displayed an urgency of empathy following the years’ premature deaths – a principle noticed by Bobby Anastasia, a resident of over 60 years.

“As much as we’ve grown in this community and extended ourselves, it’s still a small community at heart,” Anastasia said. “And when you lose someone like Kevin Driscoll or Kiess or the Farrells, they band together.”

Though Manhasset is resilient, consecutive deaths take a toll on mental health, according to community members. At Manhasset schools, where a previous survey indicated a high number of students felt an absence of mental health resources, the secondary school’s new Wellness Center could offer a more inviting space, with social workers, psychologists and counselors organized to operate as a “wellness team.”

“We have to be around each other when we’re in pain,” D’Anca said. “We’ve learned or adjusted to not having people around when we’re in pain, and that is a very dangerous place to be.”

“That’s a lot of tragedy in a short amount of time to process,” Alice Woo said. “It’s because of the tragedies that we need to stay on top of mental health around here.”

For adults, mental health could be as simple as keeping in touch, according to Langdon’s father.

“Don’t feel like you can’t speak to them as you used to speak to them even though there was a tragedy,” Jeff Woo said. “Let’s make sure we, again, keep in touch with folks. Invite people over to have drinks or dinner.”

Langdon Woo hugging Molasses, one of the two family dogs. This month, his father is organizing donations to Hope For Paws, a nonprofit rescuing neglected animals. (Photo courtesy of Jeffery Woo)

Four months later, in a fundraiser dedicated to his son, Jeff Woo is organizing donations to Hope For Paws, a nonprofit rescuing neglected animals. Langdon Woo treasured the family dogs, Newport and Molasses, and though realizing September is Suicide Prevention Month, Jeff Woo wanted a campaign that would have brought him joy. Over $4,000 had been donated just five days after launching on Facebook, surpassing the initial $3,000 goal.

Orange and blue bands still wrap the neighborhood’s utility poles, front stoop railings and streetlights. They’ll likely remain until eroded by weather in a community that has established a model for enduring a loss of life.

“There’s a lot of people from town that didn’t really know us that well that gave in something,” Alice Woo said. “And same thing’s going to happen for the Kiesses and for the Farrells.”

Correction: Due to incorrect information from police, an earlier version of this story misstated Brianna Maglio’s age. She was 24 years old on the date of the crash, not 22.

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