Ask about Gaetano “Guy” Ferrara in Valley Stream and you’ll get responses that range into the unexpected: historian, teacher, devout Catholic, civilian patrol officer, tennis champion, storyteller, would-be FBI agent, baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s former driver, classmate of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, salsa dancing instructor, stand-up comedian, nightclub entertainer.
The common thread? Ferrara has a reputation for lifting the world-weariest spirits — regardless of whatever job title he’s wearing at the moment — by pouring his boundless energy back into the neighborhood that has nourished him since 1963. “He’s like the Pied Piper of Valley Stream,” said Valerie Esposito, a trustee of the village Historical Society.
With his zest for life, Ferrara, 82, has continued to spread much joy, which is why the Herald has named him its 2017 Person of the Year.
President of the historical society since 2009, Ferrara moved to Valley Stream in 1963, where he lived with his wife, Carmel, for more than 50 years before her death in 2012. He was a technology teacher at Hewlett-Woodmere Junior High School for 46 years. An area of specific interest for him is Valley Stream’s aeronautical past at Curtiss Airfield. Some of the most famous pilots of the early 20th century, such as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, flew out of the airfield in Valley Stream — now the location of the Green Acres Mall.
Ferrara researched the history of the airport for three years, collecting information in 2009 to prove its historical significance to the Town of Hempstead’s preservation committee, which erected a historical marker on the Home Depot property on Sunrise Highway where two of the airport’s old hangars used to be.
Kate Murray, then the town supervisor, awarded Ferrara the Make a Difference Award in 2010 for his efforts to document history.
Ferrara has also served over the years with the Valley Stream Civilian Patrol, Blessed Sacrament Church’s Pastoral Council, Holy Name of Jesus and Mary societies, and the Nassau Senior Citizen Softball League. He also plays in a Latin orchestra, gives mambo lessons and does stand-up comedy.
“Every time I sit next to him he tells me a story, and I’m on the floor laughing,” Esposito said of her historical society colleague. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s just so nice.”
And, she added, “He’s got his bongos in the car trunk just in case.”
Mayor Ed Fare has worked with Ferrara in his roles at the civilian patrol and the historical society. “He instructs visitors who tour Pagan-Fletcher with a unique spirit and character — as if each tour was his first — exuding enthusiasm, with patience for questions, and kindness for perhaps not the most focused ‘students,’” Fare said, referring to the Pagan-Fletcher Restoration, a circa-1840 restored home that was once owned by Robert Pagan, the Scottish merchant who named Valley Stream. It is now a museum owned by the village.
In addition to leading tours of the restoration, Ferrara reveals his passion for Valley Stream to all who encounter him. Joosoo Kim, a colleague at the civilian patrol, said she was mesmerized by his knowledge. Ferrara recently learned that Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno briefly lived on Hommel Street in her youth, and the two patrolled the area in her honor.
“He was excited the famous actor once lived in the same town he lives in,” Kim said. “I felt the strong sense of pride in his voice.”
Amy Bentley, a historical society trustee who grew up in Valley Stream but now lives in Connecticut, discovered after meeting Ferrara that he had hired her as a camp counselor in Lynbrook in the summer of 1970.
“Although neither Guy nor I remembered each other from that time, I took that fragile connection we had made almost 50 years ago as fate,” Bentley said. “And because of Guy’s enthusiasm for all things Valley Stream — his warmth, inclusiveness, his hospitality — I can now go ‘home’ as often as I like.” Bentley commutes to Long Island for major monthly meetings and historical society events.
“Guy makes everyone feel welcome no matter how many years have passed,” she said.
His sense of humor puts everyone at ease. When Carmel died five years ago, Esposito remembered, he was quick to crack a joke during the wake when the priest’s cellphone rang. “She’s calling you! She’s calling you!” he blurted out.
Though Ferrara has moonlighted as a nightclub and lounge performer for many years — sometimes dancing the mambo with Carmel — more recently he has donated his time to teaching Valley Streamers to dance. “I do a lot of stuff that I don’t tell people,” he once told the Herald.
“Apparently, he still goes to all of the mambo and salsa clubs in the boroughs, and shows up with an entourage,” said Christina Scali, an archivist for the historical society.
Scali attended one of his free classes this year, and was surprised to see Ferrara’s partner — a woman about a third of his age — struggling to keep up with him.
“If everyone on this planet had half of Guy’s energy, positive disposition and strong moral compass, humanity would be significantly more advanced than where we are now,” Scali said. “In all honesty, I truly believe that Guy is one of the greatest assets to Valley Stream. He is a walking archive of historical knowledge, and one of the most positive influences that ever came walking down our streets. . . . We think the world of him.”