Bob Mackreth has fit a lot of life into 100 years. Between his boyhood in Malverne during the Great Depression, his involvement in U.S. intelligence in World War II and his decades as a family man, he is a living testament to the importance of community history.
Anyone who spends more than five minutes with Mackreth is likely to be charmed by his wink-and-elbow sense of humor, which he often uses to dismiss others’ well-deserved praise of him. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said after being honored by Mayor Tim Sullivan on May 12, two days after his 100th birthday. “All I did was live a long time.”
He did much more than that.
SUB: A boyhood in Depression-era Malverne
To this day, Mackreth can’t eat cabbage without hearing his mother telling him and his siblings to clean their plates. During the Depression, he recalls, meals were usually some variation of boiled cabbage and potatoes, which were cheap options at a time when families struggled to put food on the table.
Mackreth remembers Long Island’s experience of the Depression with striking clarity. Unemployed men would commute into the city for some semblance of a routine; women would negotiate with grocers to charge food on overdue accounts; businesses performed half-services to accommodate tight wallets. Mackreth, who is writing a memoir, explains that there was a reward inherent in saving money, in being able to fix something or extend its period of usefulness that is missing in today’s age of quick disposal and easy replacement.
Malverne looked different then. With a population of less than 1,000, there seemed to be more fields than people. With his signature wit, Mackreth recalls that he would often walk down the Southern State Parkway with a childhood friend on their way to the carousel at Hempstead State Lake Park, “and walking along the parkway, every once in a while, a car would go by.”
When he was around 9, Bob started a publication called “The Weekly Cargo.” His mother, Sarah “Sallie” Mackreth (née Reva) was the editor in chief of the Malverne Herald for over 40 years — so it’s not surprising that he was, and remains, a talented writer. Ahead of her time, Sallie was ambitious and adventurous. Bob recalls her flying in an airplane with an open cockpit, and promising him that she would drop him her red scarf. The scarf, however, landed several blocks away, and was found by another kid.
“I came running over, saying, “Hey, that’s my scarf,’” Mackreth recounted. “He wouldn’t give it back.” Here he paused playfully, inviting his listener to fill in the blank. “But I went home with the scarf.”
SUB: World War II and activism
Mackreth enlisted in the Army when the United States entered World War II. He was chosen to participate in a specialized Army Intelligence training program. There, alongside men including future U.S. Sen. Frank Church and Henry Kissinger, Mackreth learned to interpret aerial photographs. He used his skills during his time overseas in England, France and Germany — even spotting the artillery stationed at the Ludendorff Bridge, the site of a significant Allied win.
During his service, he wrote letters to his “sweetheart,” Helen Rogan, and always carried a picture of her. They would eventually be married for 69 years.
After returning home from the war, Mackreth earned a degree at Hofstra University — studying French because it was the only subject he ever failed at Malverne High School. After earning a master’s from Adelphi, he began a career in social work that he would continue though his mid-90s, focused on helping disadvantaged children. He and Helen married on Nov. 9, 1947, and Bob Jr. came along a couple of years afterward. Later they had two more children, Bill and Patricia.
“They were a unit — a partnership,” Patricia, who’s now 62, said of her parents. “They supported each other.”
Helen was instrumental in keeping the Mackreth family connected — according to Patricia, she never forgot a birthday or anniversary. When Helen started having a difficult time in her mid-90s, Bob left his job to care for her full-time. She died in 2017, at age 93.
“I think he felt, this is my job and I’m going to do it for my wife,” Bob Jr., 72, said. “My father has always had a strong sense of duty. When he sees something wrong, he tries to fix it.”
Bob’s father, Andrew Mackreth, was a prominent member of the early Malverne community. One of the village leaders, Paul Lindner, who was also the head of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, tried to recruit him, but Mackreth was staunchly opposed to racial injustice, and rejected Lindner. Soon afterward, a burning cross was raised on the Mackreth family’s block, but they were not swayed by the threat.
Bob was delighted last year when the student-led project What’s In a Name? resulted in the renaming of Lindner Place to Acorn Way in September. He has spent his adult life taking part in racial equality marches — with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others — speaking out during the AIDS crisis, and caring for overlooked children in the foster care system.
“He’s a crusader,” Patricia said. “He’s always tried to fight for what was right. He’s still someone concerned about his family, his friends, his community and the world.”
Mackreth still living independently, remains close with his children and four grandchildren, and says they are the accomplishment he is most proud of.
“They’re the most beautiful, wonderful kids you can imagine,” he said of his grandkids. “I am completely in awe of them, and very proud. So perfect.”
Mackreth keeps the history of Malverne, and his own life, close to his heart. Helen lives on in his meticulously maintained calendar, which lists every family occasion. And the memory of 1930s Malverne lives on in the memoir now in progress, which doesn’t yet have a title, but does have a subtitle: “Recollections of a Lucky Boy.”
“I can only tell you that I’m a very lucky person,” he said. “Lucky to have been born in Malverne, lucky to have been raised in Malverne. Lucky to be part of this celebration. Just lucky to be here. It’s something I appreciate very much.”
Those interested in seeing more of, and hearing more from, Mackreth can do so on Monday, when he will serve as grand marshal of the Memorial Day Parade.
“He said Malverne is in his heart,” Mayor Sullivan said. “We wanted to give Malverne’s heart back to him in honor of his 100th and all of his contributions, and the memories of our village.”