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Person of the Year

John Fellin is the Oceanside/Island Park Herald Person of the Year

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The Rev. Nicholas Lombardi, who served as pastor of St. Anthony’s Church from 2012 to 2017, recalled the story of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer when speaking of his friend and former parishioner John Fellin.

At the beginning of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Tom has been tasked with painting a fence, but doesn’t want to do the work himself. So he tricks his friends into believing it will be fun, and they happily do the painting.

It’s not a perfect analogy, Lombardi acknowledged, describing Fellin, a longtime Oceanside resident, as decidedly not the kind of guy who would sit back while others did his work for him. The point of the comparison, Lombardi explained, is its illustration of how Fellin can “make a real hell of a lot of work a lot of fun.” Lombardi added, “He’s the type of person that could bring a lot of joy in your life just by being your friend.”

Fellin has organized St. Anthony’s annual Feast of St. Anthony’s each June for the past seven years, which, Lombardi said, is “no trivial thing.” The four days of rides and food — all of it prepared in-house — require months of planning. It is the church’s primary fundraiser, Lombardi explained, bringing in more than $100,000. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to stay in the black,” he said.

Fellin housed Hurricane Sandy victims at his home in the aftermath of the storm. For years he has counseled fellow members of his parish. This year he got involved in a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society mountain-climbing program called Climb 2 Cure, and in his first two climbs, of Mt. Washington, in New Hampshire, and Pikes Peak, in Colorado, he raised more than $75,000 to fund cancer research. The effort was inspired by his wife of 40 years, Cyndi, who had a brush with leukemia in 2015.

For these reasons, and more, we proudly name John Fellin the Herald’s 2017 Person of the Year.

Fellin, now 62, started from humble beginnings. Coming from a blue-collar background in Queens. As a teenager, he worked as a busboy at Bruno’s On the Boulevard in Jackson Heights, a catering hall he would later own.

He steadily worked his way up in the food services and hospitality industry, becoming the sole owner of Bruno’s, and now manages a Wayback Burgers franchise in West Hempstead. He attributed his success to good mentors and surrounding himself with quality people.

But it was Fellin’s hardship, his friends said, that continues to drive his charitable work. “John and I have had this discussion many times,” said Lee Hymowitz, Fellin’s longtime friend and frequent fundraising partner. “We both come from very blue-collar backgrounds, and we’ve both been very fortunate . . . we’ve just always felt that it was so important to give back and be thankful.”

The two met roughly 30 years ago at an interfaith event shortly after both had moved to Oceanside. Hymowitz, an Oceanside Jewish Center congregant, and Fellin, a parishioner at St. Anthony’s, forged a friendship that would serve others as much as it served each other. Together, they estimate, they have raised around $250,000 over the years for brain cancer research, Habitat for Humanity, interfaith groups, youth ministries and more.

“Is there anything we haven’t done?” Hymowitz asked in the lead-up to Fellin’s mountaineering efforts this summer, adding, “We should probably join Volunteers Anonymous.”

Hymowitz and Fellin have a jocular relationship. As they sat across Fellin’s kitchen table in August while discussing his training regimen, they often traded barbs that to an outsider might seem combative. “He’s a pain in my ass, to be honest,” Hymowitz later told the Herald. “He’s a know-it-all, and I have to smack him across the head sometimes, but 90 percent of the time he’s right.

“He’s spent his entire time in Oceanside working for the community,” Hymowitz continued. “He’s a good, good man.”

Of all their efforts, Fellin’s decades of work running St. Anthony’s Youth Ministry had the most tangible results, his friend said. For 25 years, Fellin counseled teenagers struggling with their faith, often offering them a shoulder to cry on.

“He’s a mentor, a spiritual director, and he really cares for the teens,” said the ministry’s current director, Kathy Spataro, who took over for Fellin roughly 15 years ago.

She recounted how, early in her involvement with the group, the church’s pastor at the time suggested to a girl whose father had recently died that she attend a Youth Ministry meeting. She remained quiet throughout the session, not uttering a word until Fellin sat down with her, and told her that he, too, had recently lost his father. He had died in 1990.

Then, Spataro recalled, “She talked. She just talked and talked and talked.” Years later Fellin attended her wedding.

“John always sat and listened and gave his undivided attention,” Spataro said. “Do you offer advice? Technically, no, but you let them come to their own conclusions by asking questions.”

She also credited Fellin with helping her in her own crisis of faith. Widowed with young children, she left the church. “I was angry,” she said. But Fellin brought her back into the fold, and suggested she get involved with the youth group.

“He helped me in raising my children,” Spataro said. “He’ll always be there if I need him.”

For more than 20 years, Fellin and Hymowitz co-chaired the Oceanside Interfaith Council’s annual Thanksgiving Feast for those who are struggling or might otherwise spend Thanksgiving alone. Fellin made sure that the kitchen and volunteers worked efficiently. “He goes out there, booming voice, and gives two to 300 people directions,” Hymowitz said, marveling at his friend’s ability to take charge. “I usually step back and let John do his thing.”

Hymowitz describes Fellin as a larger-than-life personality, his 6-foot frame matched only by his outsized heart. “As much as I do,” Hymowitz said, “he is so much more involved, and so much more the driving force behind things.”

And he does not do it for the recognition, friends say. “He’s extraordinarily humble,” Lombardi said. “He doesn’t draw attention to himself at all, except that he’s such a great guy.”

Hymowitz agreed. “You have a lot of people who have ulterior motives,” he said, noting that community leaders often seek elected office, or volunteer just to add another board membership to a resume. Fellin, he emphasized, is not one of those people.

“You can feel the warmth,” Spataro said of her mentor. “The sheer enjoyment he gets in helping other people … you can always count on him.”

Next year Fellin said he hopes to continue climbing mountains and raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, though he suffered a setback this fall when he injured his knee while training. He plans to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, in March with his elder son, John, and a handful of other Oceansiders.

Of his good friend, Hymowitz said, “He’s interesting to say the least, but I like him.”