By Chris Maffia
One sunny early spring afternoon, I had the good fortune of visiting one of our long-time neighbors, Mrs. Beruria Stroke, who moved to Old Field South during the Christmas of 1967 from Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband, George, and her son, Edgar. As we sat around the kitchen table, the sun seeping into the room, she recalled her almost half century living here in Old Field South – one filled with many wonderful memories, kind neighbors, and special moments.
Mrs. Stoke has a fascinating story which began in Yugoslavia where she was born. Her family spent years waiting for travel documents. When they were finally granted, the day was spent on the train traveling to Budapest when the train unexpectedly stopped. They were told to leave their luggage and find a place to sleep for the night as the train would continue the next morning. Fortunately, Beruria’s paternal family lived nearby and they found shelter with them. During the night Beruria and her family were awakened by aid raid sirens that proved to be a false alarm. But early that morning, they realized that their carefully laid plans would have to be altered as bombs had destroyed the rail tracks and trains. Fleeing for their lives, depending on the good will of strangers over and over again, fearing arrest at every turn, they would find their plan to reach Palestine would not come to fruition for many years.
Getting to Italy proved difficult and was achieved via a very circuitous route. She speaks of Italy as being very welcoming and fondly remembers all “the Italians who helped every step of the way.” For many years during the war, she led a perilous life with her family, depending upon the good will of Italians who helped shelter them. Whether it was a police officer, helping them travel on a train without documents, or a local pharmacist, or doctor who provided help with living accommodations, life for her and her family was just a breath away from disaster. Living in Bari, Italy as an interpreter until 1945 when the Canadians liberated Italy, she moved to Palestine with her family where she met her husband and fell in love. George wanted to finish his studies at the Sorbonne in France and she joined him in 1947. Eventually, they made their way to the United States.
Raising a family and living in Michigan were happy times for her. She began a book club that, to her surprise, ballooned to having one hundred members! George was an optical engineer and he was courted by the new president of Stony Brook, John Toll. Sensing a wonderful career opportunity, the decision was made to move to Long Island and George hired a builder. When Beruria learned that the original building lot was going to be situated next to a parking lot, the builder told her he could build the same house on another piece of land. A realtor took her to Old Field South where she found 23 Southgate zoned for a half acre lot. Upon seeing all those laurels in bloom one early June day she was entranced! “This is where I want to live,” she said. Although she had decided upon this property, a lawyer started driving her around to different properties in Strong’s Neck and St. James while her ten year old son sat quietly in the back seat. Beruria became suspicious wondering why was he doing this and asked, “Is someone objecting?” “It seems someone didn’t want these newcomers in the neighborhood.”
Ward Melville had wanted Stony Brook University to be a small teachers college and Old Field South to be an exclusive community. The truth is that in the original covenants of Old Field South drawn up by Frank Melville and his son Ward, Jews were discouraged from moving into this neighborhood along with other religions and nationalities. A sense of privilege and entitlement existed then for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Beruria called her husband and told him what was happening; George called John Toll, who then enlisted the aid of psychology professor Krazner who lived at 33 Intervale Rd. Professor Krazner and his family were also Jewish and they invited Beruria to breakfast to make her “feel that it was alright to live here.” And so at Christmas in 1967, they moved into their home but more importantly, they moved into a community.
Beruria loves to swim and continues to do so at West Meadow Beach. “Old Field South was never a neighborhood that you went to have a cup of coffee,” she said; yet, her neighbors were very generous. She fondly recalls the marine biologist who lived two doors down who built a pool in his yard and invited her to swim there whenever she wanted.
She recalled when the Old Field South Property Owners Association was established and it all started with a cocktail party, a tradition that continues today! She remembers having dinner with four Nobel Prize winners and being part of the Faculty Wives Club. The latter would host receptions at Sunwood where she would bake for those occasions. There was a ball field and playground near 11 Highwood that the local children enjoyed using. One of Beruria’s fondest memories is of the neighborhood children playing outside with her son. “There were always children to play with and always children outside playing in the road” – something she never sees today. Yet, one fond memory she cherishes is the blooming of the laurel and rhododendrons each spring. Others have suggested she move to a smaller home, “Why would I do that” she ponders aloud, as she sweeps her arm towards the vista of her yard through the kitchen window and declares “when I have all this here?!” After almost fifty years she still feels, “This is where I want to live.”