The legacy of a man whose generosity knew no bounds is setting sail in Island Park.
Three years ago, John Esposito, a longtime Island Park resident, left a request in his will for his cousin — Lincoln Orens Middle School teacher and Island Park Kiwanis President Karen Davis — to start a scholarship fund for deserving kids in the village. But after Esposito died May 2021 at age 94, it turned out there was more to his request.
After a year of probate on the will and two years of consultations with lawyers and accountants, Davis and others are ready to begin awarding scholarships as part of the John Esposito Commodores Scholarship Foundation.
The foundation will offer four $25,000 scholarships each year for the foreseeable future to Island Park residents who attend Long Beach High School or a private school. The money, from Esposito’s estate, has been invested to ensure its perpetuity.
The foundation is a nonprofit managed by a board of directors, with Davis as its president. The board will review applications for the scholarships, and Davis encourages high school seniors to apply, with the help of their school guidance counselors, and emphasizes the broader criteria beyond academics. The scholarships are need-based and focus on family values, community involvement, and work ethic rather than just good grades.
“Because I think, overall, to John, that would be what’s most important,” Davis said. “Not a perfect GPA, but more so that you’re a good person in the community, because he was a good person.”
The scholarship program is tied to the history of the Commodore fishing station, owned by the Esposito family. The station, which was at the base of the Long Beach Bridge on the Island Park side, holds sentimental value for locals.
“Saturdays were like going to Shea or Yankee stadium, with all the excitement in the air,” Island Park Library board President Joe Ponte recalled. “You couldn’t wait for the weekend, to be up at 5 a.m., to be on the Commodore boat and go to the bait store to catch your fish. It was the pride of Long Beach, Lido Beach, Island Park and Point Lookout.”
Esposito, who had a chemistry degree from Columbia University, decided on an alternate career, and operated the Commodore fishing station after his father, Gennaro’s, sudden death from a heart attack in1969. The business had been in the Esposito family since the 1940s. Despite the tragedy of his father’s loss, Esposito, along with his brother, Clement, and their mother, Rose, dedicated themselves to the family business. John managed the bait shop and the snack bar and took care of all the bills. Clem was the boat captain, and Rose tended a garden, growing produce for meals while also working in the bait shop.
“My cousin John (had) just graduated Columbia with honors in chemistry, and he gave up his dream to run the bait house,” Davis recalled. “Here you had a Columbia graduate with a chemistry degree, and there he was, putting up bait and worms and serving coffee down at the shop.”
The business was deeply rooted in the community for over 60 years. A man of few words and a low profile but important actions, Esposito had a lasting impact on generations of Island Park residents. He would anonymously charter boats to take local students, or Cub Scouts, fishing. After Hurricane Sandy, he anonymously donated over $10,000 to Lincoln Orens to replace stringed instruments in the music department that were destroyed in the storm.
He paid for a student’s college education, foreshadowing the creation of the scholarship foundation. “Angie Santi, whose mom was Esposito’s cleaning lady for many years, started going to John’s home when her mom was cleaning,” Davis said. “She was about 5 years old, and every time her mom went to clean the house, she would always bring Angie, and she would sit with John and they would play cards and talk. Angie is a former student of mine at Lincoln Orens, and John ended up paying for her college education. John was always very, very generous.”
Davis’s brother, Gary Stevenson, has a connection with Esposito that began when he was young. Stevenson, 54, of Island Park, has captained a tugboat for 30 years. He started working at the Commodore fishing station when he was 12. Stevenson said that Esposito served as a mentor and confidant to him after his father died.
“John was very, very quiet, and I feel blessed that I got to get into the shroud of secrecy he had,” Stevenson said. “He talked with me more than he talked with most people, and after my father passed, he was one of the few adult men that I could go over and talk about anything with.”
Esposito’s work ethic and dedication were evident as he mentored local kids, giving them after-school jobs at the fishing station, teaching them valuable skills and emphasizing the importance of hard work and saving money. Stevenson reminisced about how close-knit the Espositos were.
“I started working on the boat when I was 12, and I wish I had more time with them,” he said. “The business and the family working together — you didn’t truly appreciate it up until now that I look back, and it was pretty cool.”
The fishing station property was sold in 1987 to a man who planned to establish a hotel resort and apartments — and much of that money will fund the new scholarships. The buyer, however, died before any of his projects began, and the property stayed vacant until the popular Pop’s Seafood Shack & Grill opened in 2011. Pops was closed as a result of the commitment to the Empire Wind renewable energy project.
The John Esposito Scholarship Foundation stands as the legacy of a man who quietly shaped the lives of many. “John just gives and gives, and gives and now he is still giving, which is lovely,” Davis said.
For more information about the scholarships, Island Park students can contact their guidance counselors at Long Beach High School.