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‘He is a true public servant’

Richard LaMarca is the Herald Guardian's 2019 Person of the Year

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Richard LaMarca is the type of person who, if he found a stocking filled with horse manure on Christmas morning, would start looking for his new horse. A self-prescribed “everyday guy,” he can be found at nearly every function in his hometown of Oyster Bay, where his involvement is more often than not the reason for that event’s success.

LaMarca has been the president of the Oyster Bay Civic Association since 2014, and was asked to join the board of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Chamber of Commerce a year later. Six months ago, he was asked to join the Oyster Bay Main Street Association Advisory Board, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering a healthy local economy while maintaining the downtown’s historic integrity. 

LaMarca is always in demand, his wife, Justine, said. And when he comes home after an event or a meeting, he’s never too tired or busy to speak to someone who needs his help. “He’s on his phone all the time because he enjoys helping people,” Justine said. “But he’s always here when we need him, too.”

New to the political arena, LaMarca was elected clerk of the Town of Oyster Bay in November. After sharing his eagerness to help the hamlet’s organizations even more in his new position, he expressed his admiration for the current clerk, Jim Altadonna, who ran unsuccessfully for town supervisor. “Jim is very professional,” LaMarca said. “After I won, he called to congratulate me, and was kind enough to ask if I wanted to sit with him during his two remaining meetings to see what he does. It was so helpful.”

Given his passion for Oyster Bay and its residents, and his ability to inspire others to get involved in its improvement and preservation, the Herald Guardian is proud to name LaMarca its 2019 Person of the Year.

 

His early years

LaMarca, 55, was born and raised in Oyster Bay, the oldest of five children. His parents and two of his siblings are still in town. His father, Anthony, an attorney, once worked with State Sen. Ralph Marino at the Oyster Bay firm Marino, Bernstein and LaMarca. Anthony, now 80, still practices law at a firm of his own in Syosset.

Rich, Anthony said, was a quiet child but had many friends. He attended Oyster Bay-East Norwich schools, where he played football, basketball and tennis. He graduated from Oyster Bay High School in 1982.

LaMarca’s friend Rob Brusca, an attorney who lives in East Norwich, met Rich when they were 9. They played Little League baseball together, then football and basketball in high school. “You couldn’t ask for a better friend than Rich,” Brusca said. “He was always empathetic and generous. The way you see him is exactly the way he is.”

LaMarca first realized that he had a talent for helping people when he was a teenager. “People felt they could confide in me,” he recalled, “and I realized I could make them feel better.”

He majored in business administration, with a concentration in international business, at Villanova, and graduated in 1986. Five years later he married Christina Matassa, and they moved to Levittown and had three children, two boys and a girl.

 

Career path

LaMarca’s first job was as a life insurance salesman for National Life of Vermont in Manhattan, which, he said, wasn’t for him. He began working for New York Life in Manhattan in 1987 as an internal auditor. In 1990 the company went international, creating New York Life Worldwide Holding Inc., and LaMarca was an accountant in human resources. He became an assistant vice president in 1996, and later an international vice president.

“I was traveling all over the world, setting up joint partnerships in Korea, Vietnam, Asia, Argentina, Mexico and other places, too,” he recounted. “I loved it. The hotels were like palaces. I learned there’s another world out there.”

While in was in Thailand, his brother, David, died at age 29, which Rich said changed his entire perspective. “I was doing a lot of traveling and was away a month at a time,” he said. “I was all about making money and moving up in my career to become the next big executive. When David died, it pulled the rug from under my feet.”

His career wasn’t as important anymore, he said. All he wanted was to be with his family. So he stopped traveling and became an executive recruiter for New York Life in 2000, hiring the executives and serving as chief of staff of the company’s human resources department.

Then in 2005, the department underwent a restructuring. “It became more competitive,” LaMarca said. “I was seeing my friends and co-workers on the verge of being fired, and I was sticking up for them. In 2010 I didn’t want to be there anymore. And I didn’t want to do this type of work anymore, either.”

He and Christina divorced in 2010, and Rich married Justine Lee. They moved to Oyster Bay in 2011, and a year later he was hired by the town to be the director of labor and management relations in the Human Resources Department and. Rich was happy to be back in his hometown but distressed by how much it had changed.

“It wasn’t the Oyster Bay that I remembered,” he said, shaking his head. “There used to be a roller-skating rink, a movie theater, a men’s clothing store. Now there was nothing for the kids to do” — he and Justine would add to his family by having twins, Peter and Amelia, in 2016 — “and a lot of empty storefronts. I decided that I wanted to help to make the hamlet more vibrant.”

 

Getting involved

The first thing LaMarca did when he moved back was join the Oyster Bay Civic Association. A couple of months later he was asked to become the group’s president.

“For me it was never about holding meetings on topics,” he said. “I wanted to get information out to residents about what was going on. “We created a website and a Facebook page in 2015, and it, along with the emails we send, have really taken off.”

Then Alex Gallego, who was the president of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich chamber, asked LaMarca to join the board. Gallego said he could see that LaMarca had leadership qualities, and he thought that nurturing a relationship between the chamber and the civic group would benefit the community.

“Rich is an open guy and a thoughtful person,” Gallego said. “Someone who could bring good clarity and judgment to the chamber. And he’s always involved in every activity in the hamlet that helps to make our community thrive.”

In 2017, County Legislator Don Mackenzie asked LaMarca to run his (ultimately unsuccessful) re-election campaign. LaMarca didn’t have any political experience, but said he found the work enjoyable. 

Meredith Maus, the executive director of the Oyster Bay Main Street Association, said she asked LaMarca to join the advisory board because she saw his leadership skills as a unifying force. “Rich is good at making people feel heard, and he follows through, which isn’t something that everyone can do,” Maus said. “All of the work we do at the Main Street requires a coordination with the town and other local organizations. Rich is able to tackle the issues that matter to our residents.”

This year the Republican Party approached LaMarca with an offer to run for town clerk. “I thought I was effective as a civic leader because I know people in town,” he said. “Like, I can tell a town worker there’s a pothole because I know them. If people like you, they want to do something for you. I thought, I can be more effective as an elected leader and help the community more.”

Four years ago, Maus said, LaMarca played a key role in moving forward a much-needed renovation of Townsend Park. The Main Street needed to approach the town to do the work, and LaMarca facilitated the meetings.

“Rich is somebody you can count on,” Maus said. “He is a true public servant.”