Suffolk’s ‘Senior of the Year’ lives right here

Thomas Reilly of Mattituck, 96, has been awarded Suffolk County's "Senior of the Year" award.
Thomas Reilly of Mattituck, 96, has been awarded Suffolk County’s “Senior of the Year” award.

Thomas Reilly knows his stuff.

A short, sprightly man of almost 97 with wisps of white hair sweeping his head, Mr. Reilly knows about the phone scammers, tricksters and others who prey on the elderly.

So when he got a call a few weeks ago from someone saying he was “Steve Bellone,” Mr. Reilly was skeptical.

“I didn’t believe him,” he said. “So many people call you. ‘Lower your interest rate!’ This or that … I asked him, ‘What do you want from me?’ ”

Mr. Bellone, the Suffolk County executive, said he wanted to meet Mr. Reilly. After all, the 96-year-old Mattituck resident had just been chosen as the county’s Senior Citizen of the Year.

The honor comes after decades of selfless service to the North Fork’s elderly, said Southold Town Senior Center director Karen McLaughlin.

“He always has a way of bringing the sunshine to people’s lives,” she said.

Mr. Reilly has become a friend to dozens of senior citizens over the years through the center’s call program, which checks in with residents once a week for a quick chat. Each of the calls is a lifeline for the senior on the other end of the phone. It’s a familiar voice, someone to confide in, to complain to or to laugh with.

“He’s always there,” said one woman who uses the service. “He just brightens your day.”

“I just love talking to him,” said another woman, who identified herself only as Dorothy. “He always makes you feel like you’re 20 years younger.”

On Friday morning at 9 a.m. sharp, Mr. Reilly was at his usual spot — a small desk in a small room at the senior center, an unused computer monitor positioned next to a heavily used phone.

He thumbed through the handful of pages in his faded blue folder, finding each home-bound residents’ phone numbers and noting how each was doing after a brief chat.

“Very good!” Mr. Reilly responded with a laugh to someone as he wrapped up their call. “All right, have a good week.”

It’s the same routine he’s carried on for more than 20 years as a volunteer. Not even blizzards stop him. When the weather forced him inside this winter, Mr. Reilly called the usual suspects from his Mattituck house.

“Nothing holds him down,” Ms. McLaughlin said. “He’s an inspiration.”

Mr. Reilly is the last volunteer in the dwindling phone call program, serving the handful of people who need the care and attention. Elderly residents are more independent now and have technology like Life-Alert to help them, Mr. Reilly said.

“Old people don’t want to be old,” he joked. “They’re all more active now than they used to be.”

Mr. Reilly is a prime example. At 96, he’s the oldest volunteer at the senior center and its longest-serving volunteer by far, Ms. McLaughlin said.

“He does so much more than he’d ever admit to,” she said.

Mr. Reilly is also a staunch advocate for his community, neighbor Barbara Ackermann wrote in a letter nominating him for the award. He attends Rotary Club fundraisers and always brings cold watermelon “for the kids” to the local block party.

“Tom Reilly is the epitome of a dedicated senior citizen, a role model I could only hope to achieve in my lifetime,” she wrote. “A good friend with a wonderful smile, and a special warmth and sense of humor that few at that age maintain.”

Mr. Reilly’s history of service runs deep. A New Jersey native, he served as a tech sergeant in World War II, helping to ferry gasoline and supplies to General Patton’s army on the front line during the Battle of the Bulge.

After returning home a decorated veteran, Mr. Reilly began a career in the trucking industry. In his downtime, he was a first responder for his local ambulance company.

But 31 years ago, Mr. Reilly’ wife, Edna, began experiencing symptoms related to Alzheimer’s disease and the couple moved to the North Fork to enjoy a quieter life. Mr. Reilly started attending a support group sponsored through the town for caregivers living with those afflicted by Alzheimer’s.

“People have the wrong impression with Alzheimer’s,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh she’s gonna get better,’ but that never happens.”
At the same time, he started making phone calls to elderly residents who needed someone to check in with them.

“That’s how I got tied up with all this business,” he said, chuckling at his own joke.

Even after his wife died, Mr. Reilly kept coming to the meetings, sharing his story to help others manage. Helping people isn’t something he consciously thinks about, he said. It’s just something you do.

“He’s incredibly loyal. I think his way of really showing his appreciation is by paying it forward,” Ms. McLaughlin said.
Mr. Reilly said he’s grateful for the award. But he’s far too humble a man to admit he may deserve it.

“It’s going to inflate my ego,” he said.

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