My mother called the other day from Key Largo, Florida.  She had sad news.  I’m sure it won’t mean alot to you folks up here, but in a little hamlet in Eastern Long Island, where I’m originally from, it’s a big thing.  Please bear with me.

Mom read in the Suffolk Times Newspaper of the passing of a Mr. Frank Murphy.  Frank was a longtime family friend, the brother of my next door neighbor, Paul, and a very prominent businessman in my hometown of Mattituck, NY.  He was in his early 80’s.

“OK, we’re sorry to hear that, Richie, but then again, what does this mean to us here in Albany?”, I imagine you saying to yourself.  Well, I apologize, folks, but I really went into reminiscence mode tonite, and hope you'll stick with this for a second.

Thinking of Frank takes me back to a time and place when a person in your community was not just a member of the local tax rolls.   I remember calling him “Uncle Frank”, actually.  I called his brother Uncle Paul, and his wife Aunt Rita.  That’s the way it was back in the early ’60’s when you were in a town of 3000 people.  Close,connected, and  interested in each other's welfare.

It was an extended family, as odd as that sounds today.  All these folks socialised regularly at each other’s houses on weekends.  (I can still remember the smell of the pitchers of martinis on the table that I used to stick my nose in and sniff when noone was looking--that’s about as daring as I ever got back then!)

Frank owned a flower shop.  Which became a full featured  garden center.  Which in turn morphed into huge landscaping business in our town.  Well, not only our town.  He became a huge name throughout Suffolk County Long Island for his beautiful horticultural work.  He employed many of my classmates and me over several summers.  We cut grass, raked leaves, trimmed shrubs, and became part of an “army” of workers who planted grass in the median of the Long Island Expressway and on Fire Island to preserve land that was being eroded away over time.

He actually was an ecologist long before I knew what that was.

I learned to get my hands dirty with Frank, literally.  Actually, to be honest, it might be the only job I ever had where I learned what manual labor was like.  And I knew that I didn't want to do THAT for the rest of my life, so it spurred me to pay more attention in college!

I left Mattituck went to college, moved back to teach in the local high school for 5 years, then left again in 1980 and I haven’t seen Uncle Frank, his great wife Aunt Betty Jane (who taught in the school with me so I couldn’t call her “Aunt”)-- or any of the old neighbors since.  Nope.  Not Aunt Connie, Uncle Joe, Aunt Rita (the other Rita who lived down the block), Uncle Jack.  None of them.

(Am I boring you yet?  Probably..)  But there’s a point to this blog, believe it or not.

What I’m trying to say here is:  I challenge anyone out there to tell me if your child feels close enough to call your neighbors “Uncle” or “Aunt” today. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts they don’t know half of the neighbors in their general vacinity.  (I’m not lecturing here--my son didn’t either), and actually we can’t name too many of them ourselves!

That’s a damn shame, because I know that this close connection with the Murphy’s and  all these families helped shape me, and the rake and shovel that I used over the summers made me realize the value of working hard.  Plus if I went off the beaten path in any way, this close network would make sure that my parents knew about it, so it was a great checks and balance system as well.

Every neighborhood in America would be that much better with an“Uncle Frank” to show them what a real neighbor, friend and true role model is like. I send my condolences to all the Murphy clan.  I’m sure he will truly be missed.