Community Board 1 Chair Vincent Abate, whose tenure began in 1980 and spanned drastic changes in North Brooklyn and New York City, recently announced he will step down in June of 2009.
An emotional Abate – for whom a McCarren Park playground is named after – announced his retirement at the May monthly CB1 meeting.
“Hitting this age, I get up every day in the morning and think, ‘I made it,’” the lifelong area resident said with his trademark humor and comic timing.
“I’ll be 91, and I know when my number’s up. I figure I’ll give someone else a chance.”
Whoever steps into the breach will be hard-pressed to match Abate’s resume of community service, which began during his grade school days at P.S. 23 (which has since been torn down and relocated).
At P.S. 23, the young Abate served as the chief monitor, whose job it was to ensure that the student body was in line for classes at the sound of a whistle, a job description similar to his duties as CB 1 chair.
After grade school, he went to the defunct Boys School on Johnson Avenue, but left before graduating to work at the grocery and dry goods store owned by his Italian immigrant parents.
“We were poor people. I had to go to work,” he remembered.
He worked until 1941, when he was drafted into the army prior to America’s involvement in the war. Shipped to Fort Jackson, Colorado and assigned to be an orderly, Abate found himself out of New York City for the first time.
Abate and both his brothers were veterans: one brother served in the Navy, while another later fought in the Korean War.
In their military service, the Abate boys were chips off the old block: Their father fought in the Italo-Turkish War before immigrating to America, where he was soon after drafted to fight in World War I.
Vincent Abate stayed stateside during the war, achieving the rank of Sergeant Major in the personnel department, where he handled discharges and promotions.
It was during his tenure in the army that Abate married his longtime sweetheart, the former Rae Salvato. They took their honeymoon in an exotic locale for a Brooklyn couple: Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where Abate was stationed.
After the war, Abate embarked on what would become a 30-year career in the soda bottling business. He started off working for a local Orange Kist bottler, eventually buying the franchise that was located next door from his Manhattan Avenue home.
The business flourished until the 1970s, but when the industry shifted from using reusable glass bottles to disposable plastic ones, Abate was put out of business.
He landed on his feet, however, becoming a confidential messenger in the State Supreme court before becoming a senior court clerk.
He held that job until 1998, when, at the age of 80, he retired when his wife became sick.
His wife’s subsequent death was followed by two other hardships: the loss of his daughter to cancer and the loss of his grandson’s wife, who was working in the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Through it all, the tireless Abate stayed busy and emotionally afloat by throwing himself into community work.
“It kept me occupied – I was never home,” he said. “Otherwise I would have gone batty, losing so many people in such a short period of time.”
In addition to his work with CB 1 – which began in the 1975 when Community Boards were first created – Abate held many other leadership positions with local organizations.
The breadth of this list makes one wonder how the man ever got any sleep. He served as commander of the local American Legion post; president of the Sons of Italy Williamsburg Lodge; chairman of the Greenpoint Hospital Advisory Board; assistant chair of the Woodhull Hospital; and the chairman of the Board of the School Settlement House on Jackson Street and the Swinging Sixties Senior Center.
“I just fell into these things. I guess I enjoyed being interested in my community,” he said. “I have over 100 plaques in my cellar.”
Though his days at CB 1 are numbered, his time as an active community member is not. A board member at many of the organizations he used to head, Abate promised his attendance would not slack off.
But he will be missed at Community Board 1, over which he presided with a firm emphasis on efficiency counterbalanced by an affable, grandfatherly wit.
“Vinnie runs CB 1 meetings with an iron fist, but always in the interest of fairness to everyone and farness in the process – he doesn’t play favorites. He’s a terrific moderator and has a wicked sense of humor while running the meetings,” said CB 1 Transportation Committee Chair Teresa Toro.
Added ULURP Committee Chair Ward Dennis, “He has been fighting for the community since Robert Moses divided it with the BQE. But most of all, he’s a staunch defender of the Board and those of us who work with him on it.”