I remember the "Raffle Lady."
I inherited her along with the desk and office when I took over as Tribune Publisher almost three decades ago.
When my friend and partner, Gary Ackerman, handed me the keys and the newspaper and went off to run the government, he also left me with several people who were, let's say, peculiar. The "Raffle Lady" was the most memorable.
The raffle lady
I don't know if Gary or I ever knew her name, but she showed up at our double storefront office on Kissena Boulevard with the regularity of summertime mosquito bites, peddling her raffles. Apparently, her church was always involved in fundraisers for a variety of causes and the "Raffle Lady" found it her mission in life to peddle the ducats along the Kissena corridor where the Tribune grew in its early days.
The "Raffle Lady" was odd. Now, "odd" is a kind word to choose to describe her peculiarities. She was persistent, intrusive, and rejection didn't faze her. She almost welcomed abuse. As a matter of fact, she thrived on rejection. She would have made a wonderful salesperson. In fact, she was. She was there several times a week, asking for a dollar or five or 10 for some cause with a space cadet's demeanor and a twinkle in her eye. She combined mildly bizarre behavior with the tenacious dedication and drive of a woman on a mission - a mission to do good for someone. I never really knew where the dollars were going. Yet I was pretty sure they were going to do some good.
It's amazing, almost 30 years have come and gone since I first met her - I haven't seen her in more than a quarter of a century. Her face, manner and presence are still with me - her downright annoying, intrusive but yet usually welcome presence remains. Yes, the "Raffle Lady," like hundreds of others across the borough who are on their small missions to do good or bring about change, often march to the beat of the proverbial "different drummer." They see the world and people through a unique perspective and the world and people usually respond by labeling them.
"Community Characters" was our ultimate choice of title about four years ago when we selected the first group of Queens civic-minded folks who exhibited, let's say, "non-traditional" behaviors to achieve the ends they perceived as worthwhile. More often than not, their quirky behavior or mannerism or focus became part of their persona, or at least the rest of us so perceived.
Now some four-plus years later, we were back looking for another group. When the initial concept was conceived, it started off as an idea in this writer's head with the working title: "Community Crazies." It was a title of affection. Around the newsroom, we refer to a lot of the marvelous contributors to the Queens scene as "crazies."
Crazy is often a term of endearment - especially in our business. Some of my best friends are "Crazies." Some of us and some of you are, too.
We mean no offense. We say it with a smile and we picture that "big tuba" as producing the beat to which some march. They just hear different music. And much of it is beautiful.
We've all known them. Some of us are them. Many of us like them. And sometimes elected officials hate them. They are civic leaders, environmentalists, people with causes, people on a mission, people who love their neighborhood, people who hate progress, people who lie down in front of tractors, people who picket legislators who vote the wrong way. They are people who attend meetings; they raise their hands and speak; they are occasionally disruptive and are sometimes asked to leave. Sometimes they chair the civic group, sometimes they dress funny and everybody knows they are the characters. But they are more committed than most and usually work very, very hard.
They are people who contribute to the fabric of our society.
Four years ago, in my column I wrote about Frank Skala, as my Community Character of choice. Frank changed little in the almost 50 years I've known him. First as a student in Campbell Jr. High where Frank taught. Mr. Skala left an impression. He taught us; he made us think; and he was a little strange. Next as a UFT Union Chairman, Frank and I represented neighboring schools and occasionally attended district meetings together. Frank and I both cared about kids, teaching, education and politics. Only he just always seemed to see reality a little off center - at least off my center. Now that's not a political spectrum reference, that's just a view of the world. Those of you who know Frank, understand. And finally as Trib Publisher, I encountered Frank Skala as a civic leader, and letter writer. He leads causes, stops by our office and is regularly Santa Clause at our holiday parties.
Frank has been a thorn in the side of an awful lot of people and a rose blossom to a few. Frank is all those weird adjectives and all those wonderful things that one thinks about when you think "civic leader."
As wrong as he usually is, he's right on. He cares.
And back in 2004, for the creative month and a half that we worked on the volume, Frank Skala was my "Community Crazy."
But that was four years - a lifetime ago.
Many Community Characters have left us moving on to preach to St. Peter that his pearly Gates are tarnishing or complain about the inequality of man and animals in heaven or whatever. I remember Peter Chahalis; he was the "Mayor of Maspeth," when I first took over the Trib. In Flushing, there was Aaron Weiss whose strange vision brought us Flushing Fantastic, the single best one-day celebration in downtown Flushing's history. They are no longer with us and I fear the Raffle Lady may be peddling her ducats on some heavenly cloud, but they were in a tradition that has been nobly carried on by dozens of Queens locals.
They Broke The Mold
This year, we lost the Community Character for whom I've had the greatest affection for the three decades I've been piloting the Trib.
I met him sometime in the early 1970s when he arrived at my house with my college buddy, Trib editor Gary Ackerman.
My memory of the adventure, the project we three shared at the time was dwarfed by the enthusiasm of then young David Oats.
But that moment began a journey of more than three decades where David, Gary, I and the Queens Tribune would grow and forever be intertwined.
I remember the causes, the late nights, the passionate fights. I remember the fun, the excitement of being part of any effort with David, the dean of Queens journalists.
David was a New York World's Fair fanatic and the head of the Queens Olympic Committee. He served as editor of the Queens Tribune in three different decades. David kept the Tribune's heart - the newsroom - beating for more than a third of this newspaper's life.
David was the watchdog of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. He sent alarms through the borough when the plane warning light atop the Towers of the New York State Pavilion went out. He was uncompromising on the West Side Stadium - only Queens could host his Olympics.
David was the Tribune and the Borough's conscience, advisor, prodder, challenger and friend.
He was unyielding and accepted no viewpoint but his own. He was driven; he was bright; he was charming and yes marched to a beat most of us don't hear.
He also had that twinkle in his eye - just like the Raffle Lady.
I never met anyone like David and expect I never will.
David will always be with me. His rich smile, his devilish grin, his brilliant writing, his unyielding single-mindedness, but most of all his passion.
David Oats' passion for life, for his beliefs, for the people and things he loved, will for me, stand as his monument, forever as tall as any stadium he championed or tree he fought to preserve.
For all of us who worked with him, played with him, fought with him, learned from him, and taught him, David Oats was a one of a kind who we will treasure forever.
When it comes to Queens Community Characters, to me, David Oats was the mold.
Community Characters, you don't always agree with them; but almost always admire their commitment, tenacity, and contribution.
We present in these pages more than 40 odd - and I say that with love - Queens Community Characters. Our list is ongoing and changing. If you belong on it and we've left you, my apologies. If you made it four years ago, we eliminated you from consideration. If you didn't return our phone call, we may have moved on. This group is merely representative of the heart and soul of the individuals and groups who have toiled in the fields of Queens. There are others, certainly many others, who have earned their way onto the list, but won't appear in this edition.
This list is just our beginning. Please share those missing from our quirky Queens do-gooders list. Read this issue and let us know who we missed and how to reach them-my email address is below. We shall occasionally share them with our readers.
With all true conviction, we salute the Queens Community Characters. They deserve our admiration and applause. It is their dogged determination that helps to keep the government on the right track, helps to keep the parks green and the walls clean. They often do so without recognition or gratitude.
To the entire group contained on these pages and to the dozens we've yet to meet, we say thank you.
We salute you.
And we occasionally just scratch our heads.