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Bob Hanlon—‘A modern-day Ben Franklin’—remembered for his love of learning, community

Bob Hanlon was a ______.

Fill in the blank.

Any one or two words would seem insufficient to adequately describe the Orient man, who died Oct. 21 after a long battle with cancer.

Lawyer. Civic leader. Inventor. Explorer. Painter. Sculptor. Poet. Woodworker. Teacher. Firefighter. Sailor.

All that and more.

“He was so many things,” said Venetia Hands, past president of the Orient Association, a civic organization.

Mr. Hanlon, who was 74, was by many accounts an extraordinary individual with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He had many interests and many skills, like a modern-day Ben Franklin.

“He would argue with that,” said his wife, Jessica Frankel. “He was a pretty modest guy.”

Perhaps as much as anything, the Orient man was a lifelong learner, a voracious reader, even to the extent that he read the instruction manuals that came with products from beginning to end, said Ms. Frankel.

His knowledge, talents and interests were widespread. He built his own sailboat and taught himself to sail as a teenager. He was described as a talented stained-glass artist. “He built his own alarm clock,” Ms. Frankel said. “Who does that? Bob did.”

When the mood struck him, he sang Christmas songs — in Latin!

“I did not know that and yet it doesn’t surprise me,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said. “I’m shocked on two levels — I didn’t know he could sing and I didn’t know he could speak Latin.”

Ms. Frankel said, “Well, no one said he could sing well, but when he sang, he sang.”

The Latin can be traced to Mr. Hanlon’s Catholic schooling. He spent his high school years in Baltimore training to become a priest, but went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Long Island University, a Master of Science degree in counseling from the College of Staten Island and a Juris Doctor degree from Brooklyn Law School.

His professional career, though, began as a grammar school teacher and then as assistant director of special education for the New York City Board of Education.

When he was in his 40s, he went to law school and graduated magna cum laude, then served as a federal law clerk and became an intellectual property lawyer.

“It’s a life that we should all aspire to live.”

Kathryn Casey Quigley

Mr. Hanlon and Ms. Frankel, who were both previously married before they wed in 1999, moved to Orient in 2010 following his retirement. His post-retirement life might have been busier. He served four years as president of the Orient Association and was an Orient fire commissioner. After an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Southold Town Board in 2019, he began a two-year term as the Oysterponds Historical Society president.

An independent thinker, Mr. Hanlon had a distaste for party politics, Democrat or Republican (although he ran on the Democratic line in 2019). What he was interested in were issues, which he delved into. He attended countless meetings and hearings as a private citizen to educate himself on issues, particularly those involving Orient.

“It was never about politics for him,” Mr. Russell said. “There was a passion for the issues. I would say there were many instances where Bob’s perspective might have been more in line with what you would call a Republican perspective, and then there were certainly perspectives that were more in line from a Democratic lens, but he was one of the last of the independents. I think that’s why I admired him so much.”

Southold Democratic Committee chairwoman Kathryn Casey Quigley recalled interviewing Mr. Hanlon during the screening process for candidates for the 2019 election.

“I was blown away from the interview because I felt like he came out of central casting for what a Town Board member should be,” she said. “He was just the quintessential community, civil, civic servant. He passionately knew all the issues. He attended all the Town Board meetings. He worked for change within his community at every level and he was just getting into the race for all the right reasons — to better serve his community.”

Ms. Frankel said: “How many people do you know would love going to Southold Town Board meetings over and over again? How could you enjoy that? He goes: ‘It’s fascinating. I learn so much.’ ”

Mr. Hanlon’s love for his community may have matched his love for learning. Ms. Hands pointed to Mr. Hanlon’s success in helping to stop heavy trucks from Connecticut take the Cross Sound Ferry to Orient and using the North Fork as a route to New York City. She said: “Bob heard about this and he called a meeting of the Orient Association, and there were a hundred people there, which is really good for a community turnout, and every single one said, ‘No, we don’t want that.’ … He went into battle with the rest of the team and he stopped it. It was wonderful.”

Friends remember Mr. Hanlon for being so respected that when he spoke, people listened. But he didn’t lecture, they said. He listened to counterarguments on issues calmly and respectfully.

“He loooved to discuss,” said Ms. Frankel, who noted her husband did not hold grudges against those who disagreed with him.

“He didn’t dislike people who disagreed with him,” she continued. “He was OK with that. He had no problem with that.”

Orient Association president Drianne Benner said, “That to me is what Bob was about, bringing people together, crossing a divide.”

Ms. Hands said she learned many things from Mr. Hanlon, “but one of them was the real difference between the common good and individual rights. Bob talked about how important it is in law to balance the rights of the individual with the common good for the community, and it was a concept I didn’t know. I’m not a lawyer.”

Mr. Hanlon’s two-year term as Oysterponds Historical Society’s president coincided with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, and he steered the organization through a challenging period.

“The remarkable thing for the historical society was that he was the president when COVID hit, and we not only survived, but had a great year, and a lot of that had to do with Bob’s enthusiasm,” said Ann ffolliott, the historical society’s acting president. Many of the society’s Zoom seminars were widely watched. “The people in the community came through financially to support the institution,” said Ms. ffolliott.

Mr. Hanlon and Ms. Frankel lived in some history themselves, a farmhouse that dates back to 1869. It was awarded house landmark status by the Southold Historic Preservation Commission earlier this year.

Ms. Quigley said she left a memorial service for Mr. Hanlon Saturday at the Orient firehouse thinking to herself, “It’s a life that we should all aspire to live.”

It was a life not easily defined, certainly not by one or two words.