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Editorial: Great Neck And USMMA: The Ties That Bind

The recent attention and increased funding showered on the United State Merchant Marine Academy is overdue, but nevertheless, gratifying. It is a start. The academy is a unique institution in our community and the over the years, the ties that have bound the community to the academy, have remained intact in spite of the fluctuations in leadership and the decreased level of funding there.

That good relationship has survived in part because of person-to-person contacts and old fashioned give-and-take. Over the years, families in Great Neck have welcomed midshipmen and women into their homes to help ease the transition from home to college in that sometimes stressful freshman year. Many of those relationships have really clicked with friendships continuing long after graduation.

Not-for-profit organizations in Great Neck know that if they host fundraisers at Melville Hall, people will flock to attend in part for the terrific food provided by Richard Stancati and his staff, but also for the breathtaking views of Long Island Sound. Stancati, with his background as a restauranteur (remember The Kitchen where the new Dunkin’ Donuts is located now?) makes a point of purchasing from local vendors and in turn, no less than 19 local merchants donated goodies for the parent association’s holiday party for the midshipmen this year.

The Great Neck Historical Society ends its trolley tours at the academy because of its buildings of architectural note and beauty. And if you haven’t visited the Museum lately, you should. A new exhibit has just opened which traces the history of the merchant marine’s role in keeping the Allied forces supply lines open across the Atlantic in World War II.

The Record chronicled the huge volunteer efforts of approximately 100 midshipmen and women who gave back to Kings Point Park by digging up mounds of an invasive and thorny vine, cat briar, and by mulching the walking trails and picnic areas last fall and this spring. Thanks again for all their hard work!

And to crown it all, in 2003 USMMA students began volunteering for the Vigilant Fire Company’s ambulance service. They are able to help in providing the quick response time for residents who live at the tip of the peninsula. And they helped their own classmates in the frightening carbon monoxide evacuation at the dorms that eventually led to a greater awareness in the community of the simmering issues at the academy.

While we do not have a birds-eye view of the internal workings of the academy, through the wonders of the Internet, the Alumni Association and Foundation’s winter edition online newsletter, The Kings Pointer, reveals an odd situation.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood is viewed as an advocate for the academy, firm in his efforts to secure more funding to improve the infrastructure and a state of the art training environment. But the immediate administrative bureaucracy that oversees the Academy and has direct influence and decision-making powers, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) is seen as hell-bent on undermining the institution by micromanaging and making major decisions in an atmosphere of secrecy and with the exclusion of academy personnel.  Take the decision about shutting down the Global Maritime and Transportation School  (GMATS), the continuing education center that provides up-to-date training for naval reservists and civilians working in the maritime industry. According to the chairman of the Alumni Foundation, Charles J. Hill, over 7,000 students have been trained at GMATS in just the past three years. Not only was it self-sustaining, but also raising over $7 million for the academy without appropriated funds, many of those individuals streaming into Great Neck for this training stayed at our hotels, dined in our restaurants and perhaps shopped in our stores. That influx of tourism will end.

The decision to end the ability to book Melville Hall for fundraisers and other events is also a great blow, a tremendous loss. It, too, was a self sustaining entity. Why end something that works so well and is so integral as a link to the host community?

We believe that this community, its leaders and its residents, should rise up in support of the academy. Letters and emails should be directed to congressional leaders, to the Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and to the Maritime Administrator David Matsuda. They need to know that the relationship between the community and the USMMA is vital to both and that people in Great Neck are watching these decisions unfold... and are very concerned.

- Carol Frank