Saturday, August 23, 2008
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I knew Vinny for many years, though not very well. Back when, as director of the East End Arts Council, I dealt with Vinny when he'd mount at least one exhibit of student work in our gallery every year. Deal with him but once, and you knew how deeply he cared for his pupils. They were more than pupils to Vinny. And he was more than a teacher to them.
This week, as I read through messages posted on the wall of a Facebook group created in his memory, and interviewed students and former students of this affable, fun-loving and passionate man, I encountered the same statements over and over again. It was almost eerie, as if they were all reading from the same script -- a testament to the breadth and depth of his commitment to youth and his passion for teaching.
From the teens in Riverhead, to the college students and the alumni artists, photographers and businessmen and women across the country and across the globe, their voices were one:
He was more than a teacher to me. He was one of my best friends. He was like my big brother. He was like my father. He made me believe in myself. He encouraged me more than anyone. He made me understand that I could accomplish something. I wouldn't have gone to college if it weren't for Mr. Nasta. I wouldn't be an artist today if it weren't for Mr. Nasta. He understood me. He cared about me. He cared about everyone. He would do anything for anyone. He was always there for me. He listened. He cared. He cared. He cared.
The intensity and the depth of love and grief that poured forth this week from the young people whose lives Vinny Nasta touched over the past 17 years at Riverhead High School was one of the most startling and moving things I've ever experienced as a journalist.
Their love for this man and the pain they felt at his untimely passing united them, and "the thing Mr. Nasta loved" -- as Erika Haas, the Riverhead High School junior who started the Facebook site in his memory, put it -- technology, gave them the means by which to come together to express that love and pain.
"I thought it was only fitting," Erika answered when I asked what made her set up the Facebook site, "to use the thing Mr, Nasta loved, technology, to create a memorial to him."
She set it up Monday morning, and by time the Duchess County Sheriff's Office, later that morning, officially released the name of the pilot killed at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome on Sunday afternoon, the "In Loving Memory of Vincent Nasta" Facebook group had more than four dozen members. Its numbers steadily climbed throughout the day Monday and Tuesday. As I write this Wednesday morning, it's 371 people strong, and growing still. Its members are almost all Riverhead students and alumni, representing almost every graduating class between 1995 and 2010, every class touched by Vinny Nasta. While most were students in his classes, not all had that honor. You didn't have to be one of his students to be one of his kids -- another oft-repeated refrain of the people who knew Vinny best, his kids.
Vinny's room was a place of refuge as well as learning, a haven where kids who might not otherwise have found their way through adolescence could "chill with Nasty." It was a place where they could belong, share their feelings, express their fears, laugh out loud, and feel good about themselves. Vinny's room was a place where kids dared to dream, and learned to soar.
"Fly high, Nasta," wrote Riverhead alum Sean Rachubka, "fly high."
The halls of Riverhead High School will be a little darker without Vinny Nasta's bright smile and warm presence, but, as his friend and colleague Frank Yolanga wrote, "Heaven just got a little bit brighter."
Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers
If something is repeated often enough, it becomes "true," right? That's why I'm compelled to answer the spin being spun about The Suffolk Times by various letter writers. The current flurry of criticism started with our "Gay on the North Fork" series in June and hit a crescendo following the publication of a reader's "Guest Spot" denouncing the use of torture of prisoners of war by the U.S. military.
We've found ourselves on the receiving end of many letters and e-mails -- some sent anonymously, so they never made it into the paper, because we require all letters to be signed by their authors -- accusing The Suffolk Times of all sorts of things, including printing only letters to the editor that conform to the editor's opinion about the president, or the war, or __________ (fill in the blank); of "slanting" our "reporting"; of having a "liberal agenda" instead of being "fair and balanced" (like Rupert Murdoch); and of not "reporting local news" (in favor of national or international news) in furtherance of our liberal agenda.
The Suffolk Times consists of about 100 pages each week, give or take. There is nothing but local news between its covers, except on the commentary pages, which are reserved for editorial and reader opinion. Local news is what we do. It's all we do. And it's what we've been doing for 151 years, since August of 1857. It's what community journalism is all about. It's been, and continues to be, this newspaper's formula for success.
We don't "report" on the war or, generally, the federal government, except as its actions and policies affect local people and issues. Yes, we have opined about the war, though not as much as some folks would have you believe. But news articles and commentary are two different things.
I'll readily admit I'm not a fan of Mr. Bush or the war. So I started wondering whether we've printed more editorials and op-ed columns criticizing the president and the war than I realized. I decided to do some research.
I searched The Suffolk Times Web site for all instances of the word "Bush" in editorials and columns between Jan. 1, 2004, and Aug. 7, 2008. That's roughly 238 editions of this newspaper.
In that time, in those 238 weeks, the word "Bush" appeared in editorials 12 times. One was in an editorial about the Iraq war, on the occasion of the U.S. military death toll's reaching 2,000. One was reflecting on the 2006 midterm elections. One was an endorsement of John Kerry for president (an endorsement, as I recall, some unhappy readers complained we, as a local paper, had no "right" to make.) One mentioned the president's name in passing, in an editorial about a former supervisor's "taking a page right out of the Bush-Cheney campaign handbook." The other eight all referenced the president in connection with local issues, such as Broadwater (four editorials), the effect of budget cuts on local hospitals (three), and immigration reform (an editorial in which we praised the president's position opposing a bill passed by the House.)
The word "Bush" also appeared in "columns" 36 times during the past four years and seven months. Seven of those references were completely unrelated or were mentions in passing in "columns" that were not commentary columns, such as the garden column or the Southold Seniors column; the search picked up references such as "under the bushes" and mentions of a local couple getting a tour of the White House but not seeing the president. The other 29 references were in op-ed columns in the commentary section.
The vast majority of those 29 columns had little or nothing to do with Bush or his policies -- they merely mentioned his name. Nine were "guest spot" or "equal time" columns submitted by readers. Of those, one, on Nov. 15, 2006, defended the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. One was about humorous campaign bumper stickers and one was about the number of Bush lawn signs versus the number of Kerry lawn signs.
Of the 20 columns mentioning Bush that were written by staff members, only six were actually about Mr. Bush or his administration's policies, and I wrote all six of them. Their topics? Two were about Broadwater, one was about Plum Island, two were about the war, and one was about the proposed marriage amendment. All of these big issues have big local impacts and I make no apology for thinking about them or speaking out on them.
I believe the commentary section of The Suffolk Times is a valuable forum for community discourse -- even discourse on non-local topics. It's one of the few forums where Southolders can publicly debate issues with one another.
We don't "censor" letters or op-ed columns. We do edit them, which can be a hefty job. We get lots of them, and I read and edit every one myself. I bend over backwards to help many letter writers make their points (whether I agree with them or not), taking a lot of time to correct grammar, syntax, usage and spelling, to make some letters more readable and others comprehensible. I ask people to tone down personal attacks. And I suggest substitutes for obscenities that some letter writers use (because this is, after all, a family newspaper).
What don't we print? We don't print letters that are libelous, because by publishing a libelous statement we bear legal responsibility for its libelous nature. We don't print letters to the editor generated by letter-writing campaigns mass-mailed to media outlets across the nation. (We get these every week.) And we don't print "open letters" to public officials or the community at large or letters to specific people (other than the editor).
If you would like to see more commentary supporting Mr. Bush, or the war, or expressing an opinion on any topic that interests you, then contribute something. This is your forum. Write a letter (350 words maximum, please), or an op-ed column (about 750 words). Put your name (no pseudonyms, please) and hamlet of residence on it, provide a contact phone number where you can be reached, and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Documents in Word format, attached to the e-mail message, please.) If you're not computer-savvy, we still accept letters the old-fashioned way, addressed to: Editor, The Suffolk Times, P.O. Box 1500, Mattituck, NY 11952 or faxed to 631-298-3287. Please type or print. If we can't read it, we can't publish it.
We look forward to hearing from you, even if it's to tell us how wrong we are or how stupid our opinion is. It reminds me of how much I cherish my freedom of expression.
Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers