On Monday, his first official day of retirement, Mark Zaleski began his morning with a mundane task: catching up on yard work outside his Southold home. After 32 years as a dispatcher with the Southold Town Police Department, Mr. Zaleski had answered his final call Friday.
“It’s just bittersweet,” he said. “All I knew was to work every day.”
At the end of his last shift, Mr. Zaleski exited the back of police headquarters to find about 30 co-workers standing in two lines and applauding him in recognition of his three decades of service to Southold Town. The “walk-out” ceremony featured six bagpipers dressed in kilts. As they finished performing, Mr. Zaleski gestured a thumbs-up. He then thanked each of his co-workers personally, with a handshake and hug.
“I’ll miss everybody there,” he said. “Going to work every day and seeing the same people after 32 1/2 years, you’re just accustomed to a routine every day of going to work.”
Born and raised in Southold, Mr. Zaleski said he doesn’t remember exactly how he ended up becoming a department dispatcher. He had worked as an EMT and decided for some reason to take a civil service test.
“Everything back then was medical for me,” he said. “I have no idea why I even took the civil service test.”
The 12 dispatchers in the department handle all the 911 calls in Southold Town and coordinate communication among police officers, ambulance personnel and fire departments. At least two dispatchers are on duty at all times — and up to three during the busiest times, such as during storms. The department’s new dispatch room, which the officers plan to begin using this week, can accommodate a fourth dispatcher as well.
“It’s a very tough job,” said Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley, who has worked in the department throughout Mr. Zaleski’s tenure. “You can be sitting there with nothing going on and somebody calls that their husband is having a heart attack. And you have to go through a whole emergency medical dispatch protocol and talk someone through it.”
Mr. Zaleski, 55, described the job as hectic and said it requires the ability to multi-task.
His fellow dispatchers spoke of Mr. Zaleski as a dedicated professional who was always promptly on time. He was the jokester of the group, they said, someone who would hide behind a door and jump out to startle an unsuspecting colleague. He was like the big brother to everyone in the dispatch room, said Amy Fliss, who has been a dispatcher for eight years.
“We’re a family down there,” she said.
What stood out about Mr. Zaleski, co-workers said, was his ability to handle difficult calls in a job where nearly every call that comes in is unpleasant to a degree.
“He had an uncanny way of just turning a bad time into humor,” said Tammy Paladino, who partnered with Mr. Zaleski for the past decade. “Almost everything I’ve learned, I’ve definitely learned from him.”
Chief Flatley said he had tried to persuade Mr. Zaleski to sign on as a part-time dispatcher and still fill in from time to time.
“I don’t think he was going for it,” Chief Flatley said. “Sometimes you have to make the clean break. He’ll definitely be missed.”
The chief said they’re close to hiring a replacement, but added that it takes three to five months for a new dispatcher to become fully independent in the job.
Mr. Zaleski, who’s an avid NASCAR fan, said he looks forward to spending more time this summer at Riverhead Raceway, where he was hired to work as an official last year.
He’s been a regular at the racetrack ever since he was a kid, when his father raced, he said. His brothers also raced there, he added. When Ed and Connie Partridge purchased the track last year, Mr. Zaleski called them and inquired about joining.
“I work in the pits and I enjoy it,” he said. “I love NASCAR. I’ve always been a Dale Earnhardt fan, so I’ve been around racing my whole life.”
“It’s not often that you get to retire from your job and then go do something you like,” Ms. Fliss said.
Top photo caption: Mark Zaleski receives a round of applause outside police headquarters Friday after working his final shift as a dispatcher. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)