WILLIAMSBURG — Vincent Abate, the longest-serving — and first — chairman of Williamsburg's community board, died last week at the age of 96.
Abate, who was born in the neighborhood and left only once to serve as a soldier in World War II, dedicated his life to working on behalf of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, from volunteering as an altar boy at St. Francis of Paola church to his long tenure as chairman of Community Board 1.
He retired as chairman in 2009 after serving in the volunteer role for 34 years — and helping push forward changes like the reopening of McCarren Pool and leading the board through years of cultural changes in Williamsburg.
He never missed a meeting as chairman, community board members said, even amidst hardships like his wife Rae's death and the death of his grandson's wife in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Abate worked in manufacturing and then as a clerk in the appellate courts, but his passion was in serving the neighborhood, friends and family said.
"I think if you look back, his life embodied service," said his grandson Kenny Manetta, "whether it be service in the military, service in the community or service to his family."
Abate was inspired to join civic organizations after controversial master builder Robert Moses tore down his church with the creation of the BQE, several people said.
But the Williamsburg native, a quiet but firm man, always was a leader, beyond the community board, friends said.
Abate led organizations like the Greenpoint Economic Development Corporation, the School Settlement Association and the Williamsburg Lodge No. 144 Order Sons of Italy.
"He was someone who everybody wanted to follow because they respected his opinions and his views," said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who Abate ran against in 1972 for state Assembly.
Lentol, who won by a slim margin, called Abate "the most formidable opponent I had," even though Abate ran on the Republican ticket in the largely Democratic area.
Abate ended up never serving in political office, but his calm demeanor and ability to broker compromises served him well as a community board chairperson, friends said.
His willingness to listen to all sides led Williamsburg and Greenpoint through small problems — like residents who were irked by the timing of a walk sign at a crosswalk — and big changes — like Greenpoint's environmental problems and Williamsburg's changing demographics, friends said.
Ken Fisher, who served on the City Council, said Abate was "unflappable" in the face of racial and economic tensions in the neighborhood.
He brought the fighting factions together to invest in Williamsburg and Greenpoint at a time when the neighborhood had been victim to "decades of disinvestment," Fisher said.
Notably, his fight for the revitalization of McCarren Park and the reopening of the pool led to the city naming a playground after him in 1994, making him one of the few living individuals to gain the honor.
"He was the pillar of the neighborhood, something that supports the whole neighborhood," said Mieszko Kalita, who was on the community board with Abate.
And at the end of meetings Abate would joke "new business, old business, monkey business," community board members said.
"He had this sense of humor," said Rabbi David Niederman, who still serves on the community board. "And at the same time, he was being a real leader."
Even after he retired from the community board, Abate continued to show up to community events, determined to show his support.
When the School Settlement Association campaigned for a new community center last year, Abate would show up to rallies and protests despite his advanced age, said Jose Leon, deputy executive director for St. Nicks Alliance and School Settlement Association.
"He was a fighter to the very end," Leon said.
He is survived by one daughter, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, according to his grandson Kenny Manetta. Abate died Wednesday after going to the hospital for an infection.
A funeral Mass was celebrated Monday morning at St. Francis de Paola Church, at 219 Conselyea St. Abate will be buried at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, N.Y.