2015 Community Leader of the Year: Don Fisher

01/07/2016 6:00 AM |

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The Railroad Museum of Long Island simply wouldn’t be as vibrant as it is today had Don Fisher never come along.

That’s what the group’s vice president, Dennis DeAngelis, said in a recent interview.

Since October 2008, Mr. Fisher has served as president of the museum. But he’s been so much more than that, Mr. DeAngelis said. He’s been a fundraising leader, a pragmatist, an organizer of volunteers and the museum’s “guiding light.”

“He’s tremendous,” Mr. DeAngelis raved. “He has more energy and he’s more devoted to this operation than I can ever imagine.”

Under Mr. Fisher’s leadership, the museum has expanded its operation in Riverhead, improved its exhibits in Greenport and — most recently — secured an antique boxcar and a windfall of roughly $500,000 that leaves the organization in strong shape for the coming years.

And yet, that’s not all of Mr. Fisher’s achievements. He’s been a firefighter, worked in local schools, provided key support for Dances in the Park in Greenport during its earliest years and is currently a volunteer communications expert for Southold Town’s emergency management team.

“A more community-minded person, I don’t think you could find,” said Legislator Al Krupski, who is also Mr. Fisher’s brother-in-law.

For those reasons, and many more, Southold’s own Don Fisher is The Suffolk Times’ Community Leader of the Year for 2015.

It’s the second such honor for Mr. Fisher, who shared Person of the Year recognition in 2012 as part of the town’s 12-member emergency management team.

This 1960s boxcar was recently purchased by the Railroad Museum of Long Island using the estate money from Walter H. Milne. The boxcar, long coveted by the museum, completes a set on its track in Greenport. (Credit: Paul Squire)

This 1960s boxcar was purchased by the Railroad Museum of Long Island using the estate money from Walter H. Milne. The boxcar was long coveted by the museum, Mr. Fisher said. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

Mr. Fisher’s career of service began in the Southold Fire Department, of which he was a longtime member. He also worked for 37 years as an audiovisual technician in the Southold School District, leaving the district in 2008.

Using his knowledge of audio equipment, Mr. Fisher helped launch the popular annual series of dances in Greenport’s Mitchell Park, said Gail Horton, president of the Stirling Historical Society in Greenport.

Ms. Horton, who at that time was a village trustee, said Mr. Fisher helped set up sound equipment for the shows and arrange where the acts would perform.

“He had a lot of good ideas,” she said. “He was creative. He knew how to get things done.”

An avid amateur radio operator, Mr. Fisher has also used his knowledge of audio technology to help Southold Town prepare in the event of a catastrophe like a hurricane or storm that cuts off the town’s communication lines.

“If, God forbid, we needed communication, these guys with ham radios would be our voice to the outside world,” Mr. Krupski said.

But Mr. Fisher’s biggest achievements have come through his years as a volunteer at the Railroad Museum of Long Island near the Railroad Dock in Greenport.

For the past five years, Mr. Fisher has volunteered as the group’s president and has grown the group’s stable of volunteers in the village.

“We have a good core group of volunteers, young and old,” Mr. DeAngelis said. “That never existed before Don took over.”

After the museum received a half-million-dollar bequest from an Iowa man last year, Mr. Fisher helped lead discussions about what to do with the money — which amounts to nearly three times the museum’s normal budget.

The final decision — which put about $100,000 of the bequest toward ongoing restoration of a steam locomotive, roughly $200,000 into an endowment fund and the rest into escrow and reserves for upgrade projects at the museum’s headquarters in Greenport — will help sustain the museum for years to come, Mr. DeAngelis said.

In Riverhead, Mr. Fisher’s efforts have, in part, developed and expanded the group’s second location, near the downtown Long Island Rail Road station, into a tourist destination.

Mr. Fisher has also leveraged his reputation on the North Fork to grow the museum’s relationships with local politicians, craftsmen and nonprofit groups, Mr. DeAngelis said.

“He really has the pulse of the area,” he said.

Ms. Horton agreed, adding that the historical society and the railroad museum “fit together like puzzle pieces.”

“It’s very important for all the museums to work together and be strong,” she said. “We’re lucky in Greenport that we have these museums.”

Mr. Krupski called the railroad museum “a hidden treasure” of Greenport Village.

“They’ve thrived and really excelled because he’s there,” Mr. Krupski added.

Mr. DeAngelis, a former president of the group, said Mr. Fisher has already accomplished so much for the museum.

“I didn’t do a tenth of the job Don’s done,” he joked. “He has a vision and he’s able to take that vision and accomplish those goals.”

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Previous Winners
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year

2014 — Designer show house organizers
2013 — Ron and Doris McGreevy
2012 — Group for the East End
2011 — American Legion Post restoration volunteers
2010 — Peggy Murphy
2009 — North Fork Community Theater
2008 — Lori Luscher
2007 — Committee for Phil McKnight
2006 — Relay for Life organizers
2005 — Merle Levine
2004 — Christine Roache
2003 — Barbara Taylor
2002 — Kim Tetrault
2001 — Elinor May
2000 — Mark Miller
1999 — George Hubbard Sr.
1998 —Ed Siegmann
1997 — Freddie Wachsberger
1996 — Shelley Scoggin
1995 — Craig Richter
1994 — Stewardship Task Force
1993 — Walt Krupski
1992 — The Eklunds
1991 — Bill Grigonis
1990 — Merlon Wiggin
1989 — Jeanne Marriner
1988 — Ray Nine
1987 — Bessie Swann

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