Woodhaven community leader and activist Maria A. Thomson passed away on January 10. She died of a stroke in her sleep, according to her husband.
Thomson was longtime executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation and founded the Woodhaven Business Improvement District in 1993.
“She was an extremely classy woman,” said Mathew Xenakis, owner of Park Place Florist. “I never saw her lose her temper or get mad. She was always professional even when someone was giving us a hard time.”
Xenakis has been a member of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District from the beginning, and became president of the organization in 2003.
“She kept the area to par,” Xenakis said. “She wouldn’t let just anyone open or have any landlord rent to just anyone.”
Thomson spent countless hours volunteering her time at several civic organizations. For more than 40 years, she belonged to the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, where she also served as president for six of those years.
Thomson joined Community Board 9 and played a vital role on the Education and Parks committees over the years.
Many others in the community praised her persistence that paved the way for improvements, such as the repairs on the Jamaica Avenue elevated train line and keeping Fire Engine Co. 293 open.
In 2013, her lifelong dream to have the Forest Park Carousel granted city landmark status was finally realized.
As a five-time president of the 102nd Precinct Community Council, Thomson was named the first and only 102nd Precinct Honorary Police Officer of the Month. With her connection to the council, she made sure to get extra officers patrolling Jamaica Avenue.
Stephen Melnick, a member of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, attended many 102nd Precinct Community Council meetings with Thomson during the 1980s.
He remembered her being vocal at the meetings, particularly at a time when crime was rampant in the city, and both Ozone Park and Woodhaven were plagued by constant burglaries.
“I was always a fan of hers, and I wish that more communities had people like Maria Thomson,” Melnick said.
Councilman Eric Ulrich called Thomson the “embodiment of community service.”
“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to work with Maria know that she had a heart of gold,” Ulrich said. “She was a legend, having dedicated decades of her life to the betterment of the community and the borough.”
Xenakis added that it’s going to be hard to fill Thomson’s shoes.
“I don’t think there can be a Woodhaven without her,” Xenakis said. “Honestly, no one cared like her so it’s going to be very hard. She’ll be truly missed.”
(JEN KHEDAROO) GEORGE O’NEILL
There wasn’t a dry eye inside Transfiguration Catholic Church on the morning of July 24 as Queens bid farewell to George O’Neill.
The longtime owner of O’Neill’s Restaurant at 65th Place and 53rd Drive in Maspeth, O’Neill passed away on July 18. He had been hospitalized and in hospice care when he returned home from Florida earlier that month.
He was 83 years old. He left behind a wife, six children and 17 grandchildren.
Hundreds of family, friends and community members impacted by the affable neighborhood leader packed the church for the funeral mass. Tears were flowing when two of O’Neill’s children, Tracy Murphy and George O’Neill, gave their words of remembrance.
After the funeral, many of his friends and restaurant patrons shared their memories of O’Neill.
“He’s always been there for me in my life, he’s more than a special friend to me, he’s family,” said George Mandato from Maspeth. “And I feel the O’Neill family always treated me and my family like we were family.
“I’ll never forget him,” added Mandato, who has known O’Neill since they were teenagers. “He’ll always have that spot in my heart.
O’Neill’s, known then as the Plateau Tavern, first opened in 1933. In addition to being a popular spot with numerous athletes from the Rangers, Mets and Jets, as well as local leagues, O’Neill’s was known for its philanthropic activities.
The restaurant regularly hosted fundraisers for law enforcement and first responders, St. Jude Children’s Hospital and other charities.
Every Christmas, O’Neill’s hosted a holiday party for the NYPD Honor Legion, which is dedicated to children and family members who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.
Patty Mascia, who worked for O’Neill for 27 years, said the restaurant owner was “nothing but a gentleman,” in addition to being a community activist.
“My grandchildren, when they would visit, he would run around the corner and buy Barbie dolls and bring them over to the kids,” she said. “He was just a wonderful man.”
Johnny McBride, a Sunnyside resident who has known O’Neill for 25 years, said whenever the community would have any benefit or charity events, O’Neill was the first man there with a check in hand.
“The church is packed,” McBride said, “and that’s what it tells you about him.”
Paul Bradshaw, a former baseball player in the Detroit Tigers organization, said O’Neill, who put his picture up on the wall in the restaurant, was always a “funny dude” with a great attitude about life. The Woodside resident said O’Neill was always going out of his way to be nice to everyone.
“He’s one of a kind,” Bradshaw said. “He’ll be deeply missed.”
Former State Senator Frank Padavan passed away on October 9. He was 83 years old.
Padavan, a Republican, represented the 11th Senate District, which includes northeast Queens neighborhoods from Whitestone all the way to Queens Village, from 1973 until 2010.
He was succeeded by Democrat Tony Avella, who issued a statement upon hearing the news.
Born in Brooklyn, Padavan attended Newtown High School and received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
After receiving his master’s in business administration from New York University, he went on to work for Westinghouse as an engineer.
Padavan spent three decades as a reserve member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Buildings in 1968, a position he held until he was elected to the State Senate in 1972.
Councilman Eric Ulrich said in a statement at the time of his passing that Padavan was a staunch advocate for his district and the forgotten middle class.
“He was an absolute gentleman and raised the bar for public service,” Ulrich said. “He will be remembered for his enormous legislative accomplishments in Albany, as well as the positive impact he had at home in the borough of Queens.”
(BENJAMIN FANG) JOSE PERALTA
State Senator Jose Peralta passed away suddenly on November 22 at Elmhurst Hospital. He was 47 years old.
Peralta likely died from septicemia, or bacteria in his bloodstream. Days before his death, he suffered what appeared to be a minor illness, but it eventually led to organ failure.
Peralta was first elected to the Assembly in 2002. He made history by becoming the first Dominican-American elected to the State Senate in 2010.
He represented the diverse neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Woodside and Astoria.
Peralta is survived by his wife, Evelyn, and his two children. Elected officials across the borough paid tribute to Peralta and his contributions to the community.
“Jose was a distinct politician, a man who always did what he felt was right, even if it was politically unpopular,” Congressman Joseph Crowley said in a statement. “That requires a level of courage and bravery we should all seek to emulate.”
Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents many of the same Queens neighborhoods, said Peralta had a “gentle demeanor,” but was a fierce fighter for his constituents.
“Jose was a kind man and a friend,” he said. “His passing is a reminder to us all of how fragile life is.”
Hundreds paid respects to Peralta at the wake at Joseph Farenga & Sons Funeral Home in Astoria on November 26, including former colleagues in government.
Outside the funeral home, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. called Peralta a “great guy” and a “tough worker.”
“He loved this city, loved Queens,” Vallone said.
Former Councilman Eric Gioia, who was elected to public office just one year before Peralta, also attended the wake. He recalled standing with the former assemblyman when he was first elected in 2002.
The last time he spoke to Peralta was around Christmas last year, when they both took their kids to take a photo with Santa Claus.
“He’s a reminder to all of us that we’re all on borrowed time,” Gioia said. “You go home and hug your kids. Life is too short.”
Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, who represents Mount Vernon and Yonkers, served in Albany with Peralta before he ascended to the State Senate. Though Pretlow said they weren’t very close, they were still friends.
“Even though he didn’t win re-election, he would’ve remained active in the community,” he said. “Now we’re not going to see what he would have done in his new position. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Hyacinth Gordon used to live across the street from Peralta’s office in Jackson Heights. She remembered that the state senator was a big supporter of her local church.
She told his family at the wake that he’s in heaven now.
“He was such a good person, a good servant, that God took him,” she said. “He has done enough here on earth.”
(BENJAMIN FANG) DON CAPALBI
Don Capalbi, longtime resident of Queensboro Hill, died on December 2 at a local hospice facility. He was hospitalized at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in November after sustaining a head injury from a fall. He was 73 years old.
Capalbi was born in Astoria, but will be remembered for his activism and involvement in the Flushing neighborhood of Queensboro Hill. He served as president of the Queensboro Hill Flushing Civic Association, and was a member of many other community organizations in the Flushing area.
They included the 109th Precinct Community Council, Lions Club, Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and Kissena Park Corridor Conservancy, to name a few.
Capalbi was also a community liaison for Congresswoman Grace Meng, and served in the same capacity when she was a member of the New York State Assembly.
“He was an invaluable part of my team, providing me with information and advice about community issues, and representing me at civic meetings and local events,” said Meng in a statement after his death. “But Don was much more than a terrific staffer and civic activist. He was also a great human being; a wonderful and special person who was selfless and full of life, and one of the kindest, friendliest and gentlest people I’ve known.”
“Flushing will miss an advocate, a friend, a mentor and a man who had an amazing drive to bring about change,” wrote Maureen Regan, who succeeded Capalbi as head of the Queensboro Hill Civic Association, in a Facebook post. “I believe that as time goes by we can begin to see the man who brought so much to so many.”