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Local historian, theater director Tom Monsell, dead at 83


Thomas Monsell was many things, friends said: a former Lindenhurst schoolteacher who wrote a book on how to teach Shakespeare, a director of local theater who expanded Greenporters’ horizons and devoted local historian.

But foremost, like his family before him, he was a proud native son of Greenport Village.

“He was a Greenporter to the marrow of his bones,” said Thomas DeWolfe, a neighbor who would meet with Mr. Monsell in his later years.

Mr. Monsell, who helped to write a popular book on local history with Southold Town historian Antonia Booth, died Tuesday from complications of Parkinson’s disease, friends said. He was 83.

Gail Horton, who was a close friend of Mr. Monsell, said his influence could best be measured by the friendships he kept, many from his childhood years or as an English teacher.

“He still has friends from Greenport High School that come to see him when they come home,” Ms. Horton said.

A Greenport alumnus, Mr. Mansell first gained a librarian degree before returning to school to learn teaching. For years, he taught in the Lindenhurst School District and directed the school’s plays.

One of his former students, Alfred Doblin, later wrote in a newspaper column in praise of the impact Mr. Monsell had on his career.

“I used to think great teachers inspire you,” Mr. Doblin wrote of the continuing support Mr. Monsell shared. “Now I think I had it wrong. Good teachers inspire you; great teachers show you how to inspire yourself every day of your life. They don’t show you their magic. They show you how to make magic of your own.”

After a stint in New York City, Mr. Monsell eventually moved back to Greenport, where he continued his passion for theater, leading productions of unique plays for the local historical society, library and churches and the local theater troupe, “The Stirling Players.”

“I really learned a lot being in his plays,” Ms. Horton said. “I feel the reason I can deliver good speeches nowadays is because of Tom. He taught me how to punch a line and which words to accent.”

He once invited a favored New York City theater critic, John Simon, to Greenport to host a lecture. The critic agreed, Ms. Horton said.

Mr. Monsell also became a repository for local history. In 2003, he collaborated with Ms. Booth on “Images of America: Greenport,” a photographic history book detailing the village’s history.

“He was invaluable,” Ms. Horton said. “You could always go say, ‘Who lives on the house at 527 Manor Place?’ and he could go and tell you the history.”

The two became close friends through Ms. Horton’s husband, to the point where her children referred to him as “Uncle Tom.”

Mr. Monsell was also an avid biker and once went riding across Europe. While living on the North Fork, Mr. Monsell would often bike across the ferry to Shelter Island and then south to East Hampton to attend shows there, Ms. Horton said.

He traveled to England to see plays, she added. But as Parkinson’s robbed him of his mobility, Mr. Monsell longed to return; until his dying day he kept a travel credit card account open and paid, hoping to one day travel again.

In his final years, Mr. Monsell lost control of his hands and couldn’t hold a book or newspaper to read. Still, he asked friends to hold up the papers and turn the pages so he could continue to read.

“He still kept his mind alive,” Ms. Horton said. Friends were inspired by how well he reacted to his disease.

“In spite of all his suffering he never got bitter about his fate,” Mr. DeWolfe said. “He didn’t complain about it.”

Mr. Monsell died “peacefully” Tuesday morning, Ms. Horton said.

“It hasn’t really sunk in,” she said. “He’s a large part of my life.”

Visitation for Mr. Monsell is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 4, from 2 to 6 p.m. at Horton-Mathie Funeral Home in Greenport. A funeral service will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home, officiated by the Rev. Ben Burns.

Burial will follow at Stirling Cemetery. The family has asked memorial donations may be made to Floyd Memorial Library.

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Photo caption: The cover of a history book cowritten by Mr. Monsell in 2003, “Images of America: Greenport.”