Greenport’s Heaney family pays it forward

08/18/2011 4:18 PM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Helen and Jack Heaney, seated center, with their 7 daughters at Sunday's family reunion.

In the midst of a drenching rainstorm, Greenport’s Heaney family gathered Sunday for their 55th annual reunion.

As the extended family descended on Kathy Heaney Wallace’s home on Shipyard Lane in East Marion, many had in their minds the untimely deaths of brothers Timothy and Shawn Heaney, sons of Bernie and Maria Heaney, and the scholarship that their large family has given to Greenport students in their names since 1989.

Under rain-soaked tents, the youngest members of the group ran, in drenched bathing suits and wrapped in towels, gorging themselves on buckets of peaches and appetizers, while each nuclear family within the extended clan gathered to be photographed for posterity.

There were Bernie and Maria and their surviving children, Jack and Helen and their seven daughters, who are behind the scholarship plan. The crowd included families whose names were not Heaney, but who all had a twinkle in their eye and an inner knowledge that their position in this tight-knit group was secure.

The reunions officially began in 1956 when Julia and William Heaney, the now-deceased family patriarch and matriarch, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. They’d been holding unofficial gatherings for years, but Julia began counting them in 1956, when the last of her six sons returned from the service. Three served in World War II and three in the Korean War.

“We used to have a lot of first cousins who attended, but not so much anymore,” said Jack Heaney. “Now the younger ones don’t come without perfect weather.”

But even without complete attendance, there were still more than 100 people at the Wallace home Sunday afternoon.

“My family’s 32 alone, including great-grandchildren,” added Jack. “We always had it in August.”

Bernie Heaney, Jack’s brother and fellow Korean War veteran, was seated next to him recounting how his son, Shawn, was lost at sea at age 25 while working on a fishing boat in Alaska in 1985.

“The Coast Guard search was stupid,” he said. “It took a Coast Guard cutter four to five hours to get there. An Air Force pilot went down trying to find them.

“They were mid-water trawling, working with a Japanese fishing boat,” Bernie said. “Shawn was the deck boss in charge of the fishing gear. They were in the Aleutian chain when they hit a willywally — that’s wind off the mountains — that hit the boat in the back and it rolled. Nobody knows what happened, but there was ice on the deck and the boat pitched forward.”

The federal government later named a marine safety law after the boat, which lost five crew members that day. The law requires boats to carry equipment to keep ice from forming on their decks.

Every Christmas, Bernie and Maria and their four surviving children put a wreath on the monument to sailors lost at sea, located at Sandy Beach in Greenport. But Shawn’s death was only the beginning of their troubles.

In 1988, their son Timothy was working at his auto customizing shop in Riverhead when he stepped outside to talk to the driver of a Snap-On Tool truck and was killed by a sniper who had delusions of being a commando on a military mission. The sniper went on to wound three other people in Riverhead before he was captured by police.

The next year, Timothy and Shawn’s cousin Anne Heaney Chouinard and her six sisters — Kathy, Gwen, Theresa, Rose, Patty and Jenn — got together to create a scholarship in memory of their cousins.

“It was really hard for the family. They had to go through the trials with Timmy, and they lost his brother and didn’t even have a body,” said Ms. Chouinard this week.

This year, she said, the family has passed the milestone of awarding $100,000 in honor of Timothy and Shawn to 127 students at Greenport High School.

“It’s unbelievable. I’ve seen children of Timmy and Shawn’s classmates win the scholarship,” said Maria Heaney at the reunion.

“They were athletes. Timmy was an excellent wrestler. They played football and were involved in homecoming. Timmy was a good artist. He designed the sailboat sign at the entrance to Greenport. Shawn was a good gymnast.”

Both of them were involved in scouting. Shawn became an Eagle Scout and Timothy saved a life while working as a lifeguard at a Greenport beach. Timothy graduated from Greenport High School in 1977 and Shawn in 1978.

Each year, Bernie and Maria help their nieces decide on the amount of the scholarship money to give to each student who applies.
“We try to make sure everyone who applies gets something,” said Ms. Chouinard.

And in the meantime, as reunion-goers continued to get drenched, they tried to make sure everyone remembered that the warmth of a family’s love transcends the harshest of storms.

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