article
September 10, 2014

9/11 memorial started by history teacher inspires community, students

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
9/11 Memorial
Caption: Richard V. Acritelli, Post 6249 memorial chairman, Rocky Point TA and Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College

It is not just in history books. It is in backyards, living rooms, and in local parks with empty swings where a mom or dad should have been. 

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 claimed nearly 3,000 lives — from age 2 to 85 — when terrorists slammed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City, a Pennsylvania field, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Since then, about 1,600 more people have died from injuries and illnesses resulting from their work as first responders in the days, weeks and months following the attacks.

And so, the cost of that day continues to escalate. The dust has never really settled. Many advocates, caregivers and others are preserving the memories of all that is good from those who gave their lives.

To honor those who died just because they went to work that day, and to champion those who showed courage in the aftermath, memorials have been built to honor the civilians and emergency first responders whose lives were lost on 9/11. Among the newest monuments is the vision of Long Island history teacher Richard Acritelli, a member of the Rocky Point Teachers Association and the Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College, where he teaches as an adjunct.

Acritelli’s town was one of many communities that faced a deep concentration of lives lost on 9/11.  Coram, located within commuting distance of Manhattan, lost 64 citizens. To create a space in their memory, Acritelli led the charge to build a memorial at the Town of Brookhaven’s Diamond in the Pines ballpark and playground. It opened in 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and was finished last year, complete with walkways, benches, lighting and landscaping.

Locating the memorial in a park was important, he said. It “shows you have activity and energy all around and the terrorists can’t take that away. The terrorists hurt Americans but didn’t destroy our way of life.”

Its focal points are twofold. A bronze eagle, designed by a former Long Island student Morgan Walters and created by sculptor Mike Curtis from Idaho, is set on a piece of steel from 9/11 standing on a black marble pillar. The eagle personifies freedom. Nearby, a statue of a proud German Shepherd, representing the rescue dogs who helped search the searing rubble of collapsed buildings, completed the monument last year.

Many local teacher unions helped raise funds to get the memorial built, Acritelli said, and the names of those organizations are engraved into bricks at the site. Teacher union members wanted to publicly remember students who had graduated from their schools and died on 9/11.

“Teacher unions from Montauk to Half Hollow Hills supported the project,” Acritelli said. “Brookhaven and Riverhead alone lost at least 46 residents and 18 graduates of local high schools. Their names are inscribed on the memorial.”

Rocky Point TA President Michael Friscia commended Acritelli for the time and effort he devoted to the project. To gather names, Acritelli combed lists from Newsday and the New York Times to see who among the deceased were from eastern Long Island.

“Long Island got hit hard,” Acritelli said. “In the community where I teach we lost four graduates.”

As a teacher of early and modern American history, Acritelli knows well the importance of history-shaking events. He knows the value of having people learn about effort and cost of war, of protection, of hatred. As a member of the Army Reserves from 1994–98, and the Air National Guard from 1998–2003, he also knows about serving his country.

The monument is another way of serving.

“We want to make it into a learning site,” he said. “Kids are using the park with their parents, and then walking over.” He envisions class trips there, with survivors speaking to students.

At the park, engraved plaques on boulders commemorate rescue workers and soldiers from subsequent wars after 9/11.

Supporters of the monument include the local Rocky Point VFW, where commander Joe Cognitore said the site “serves as an important reminder and lesson of the American spirit to always overcome all types of adversity to our people and nation.”

Kevin Kelly of Kelly Brothers Landscaping donated services to create the pillar concept for the eagle and the dog. His former teacher lost her son, firefighter Kevin Williams.

“He was one of the first responders … My friends had fathers and uncles who passed,” said Kelly.

John Feal of the 9/11 FealGood Foundation (www.fealgood.org), who supported the project, has worked with Acritelli in the past to speak to students about 9/11, and has given scholarships to students who wrote winning essays about 9/11.

“His (Acritelli’s) vigor and his enthusiasm about the project was unmatched. He was extremely diligent about everything,” said Feal, whose foundation supports and advocates for first responders and those involved in the 9/11 cleanup and support.