Environmental advocate Howard Meinke was ‘one of the giants’

Howard Meinke of Laurel, shown in a headshot that appeared with his guest columns in The Suffolk Times, died Thursday night.
Howard Meinke of Laurel, shown in a headshot that appeared with his occasional guest columns in The Suffolk Times and News-Review, died Thursday night.

The North Fork is a better place today thanks to the work of Howard Meinke, fellow environmental advocates and colleagues say.

He was a tenacious champion for the environment and for the quality of life issues affecting his neighbors. He always educated himself on the problems the North Fork faced before backing a solution.

Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said the North Fork might have become developed like Brookhaven Town had Mr. Meinke not been around.

“The problem with Brookhaven was that they didn’t have Howard Meinke,” Mr. Amper said. “I don’t believe [the North Fork] would be the wonderful place that it is without him. He is the model, the consummate community advocate and I don’t know what we’re going to do without him.”

Mr. Meinke — a former president of the North Fork Environmental Council, a great-grandfather and frequent contributor to The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review opinion sections — was killed while crossing Route 48 after attending a fundraiser at the Soundview Restaurant Thursday night with family.

Southold Town police said the crash appears to have been an accident.

Mr. Meinke’s letters to the newspapers typically touched on topics ranging from local environmental concerns to global warming to economic inequality, and he was a constant sight at fundraisers and local community meetings within Southold Town.

“He was probably one of the most passionate people that you’d want,” said Bill Toedter, the current president of the North Fork Environmental Council, an all-volunteer advocacy group. “Nothing flew off the top of his head, everything was very thought out. He was concerned with getting the facts right, but sometimes his heart and passion for the North Fork overrode everything.

“It’s a big loss for the East End,” Mr. Toedter said.

Mr. Meinke’s daughter, Nancy Morrell, said the family lived in Connecticut when she was young, but would sail across the Long Island Sound in the summers to stay on the North Fork.

She had come to cherish the area, just like her father.

“We loved this place more than where we grew up,” she said.

Mr. Meinke was also a devoted family man, often taking his three children — Nancy, Jeff, and Jan — and wife, Peg, on trips to go skiing or ice skating.

When the children grew up and moved out, Mr. Meinke focused on his wife and on boating.

“They loved to be out on the water,” Ms. Morrell said.

That passion is what stands out to Mr. Toedter when he recalls first meeting Mr. Meinke. It was at an art show at Peconic Landing in Greenport curated by the NFEC, back when Mr. Meinke was president.

Mr. Meinke spoke at the exhibition about his childhood memories of standing in the bay, with fish swimming around him and nibbling at his feet, Mr. Toedter remembers.

He wanted to see the North Fork’s waterways become that healthy again, Mr. Toedter said.

“I think one of Howard’s great things is that his passion and his stories resonated with everybody of every age,” Mr. Toedter said.

Mr. Meinke was working to help his community up until the day he died, Mr. Toedter said. On Monday, Mr. Meinke was in attendance at a NFEC meeting. After the meeting ended, he took some of the attendees back to the offices where they talked about water quality for another hour.

“He would tell me all the time that he knew his time here was short, and before he took his last breath, he wanted to see … fewer brown tides and more fish in his beloved Peconic, like the way it was,” Mr. Toedter said.

Mr. Meinke was also in the Town Hall Annex the day he died, volunteering his time with the town’s architectural review committee, said Southold Planning Department director Heather Lanza.

She said she was “overwhelmed with grief” since learning of Mr. Meinke’s death.

“Though he didn’t always agree with us, his input was always valued and he will be deeply missed,” she said. “The town has lost someone who was doing his best to look out for our future.”

Where Mr. Meinke differed from other environmental advocates was his drive, said Mr. Amper of the Pine Barrens Society.

“A lot of people talk about the environment and quality of life,” Mr. Amper said. “He rolled up his sleeves, day after day, week after week, year after year to protect the place he loved.”

Mr. Meinke had already been a longtime advocate when Mr. Amper got involved, he said.

“I’m Johnny-come-lately compared to Howard,” he joked. “He taught me so much.”

Mr. Amper said his colleague was “ubiquitous,” a leader who was one of the first to understand the importance of environmental protection.

“I can’t say an ill word about him,” Mr. Amper said. “He was one of giants.”

Now, in the wake of Mr. Meinke’s death, Mr. Amper said he hopes someone from an earlier generation learns from Mr. Meinke’s example, and takes up the cause.

But he’s quick to admit that Mr. Meinke could never be replaced.

“Hopefully someone will follow in his footsteps,” Mr. Amper said, “because no one can fill his shoes.”

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