Westbury author fills the historical gaps
From Manhattan to Montauk, the area’s rich history has provided much fodder for the curious mind and practiced pen of Westbury’s Richard Panchyk.
His 29th book, Hidden History of Long Island, was released in December by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, and is a sequel of sorts to his 2008 volume, Forgotten Tales of Long Island.
In his latest work, Panchyk puts to good use the considerable research he has done in the decade-plus he’s spent poring through archives, reading historical tomes, going on countless road trips, and conducting interviews with people who provide a link to the past. Link is the operative word; each document perused, old newspaper read, visit to an historical site, or conversation with an “eyewitness to history” leads to yet another discovery.
“I like to connect the past to the present,” Panchyk said as he sat in his book-lined living room. “I look for traces of the past that are still in the present. The traces of history.”
Such history, though vanishing as time unfolds and human activity takes its toll, is very much with us—and his book also serves as a guide to places and buildings that can still be explored. Panchyk subscribes to William Faulkner’s credo that “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
“I wanted to tell the backstory behind some of the island’s history,” Panchyk explained. “Then, readers can do more research if they are interested.”
Panchyk covers the Gold Coast mansions, the pioneering auto races and polo contests, the Nike anti-aircraft missiles (remnants of those relics of the early Cold War still exist), and much else. The area’s renown as “The Cradle of Aviation” gets its due, and he mentioned how famed aviator Charles Lindbergh used to visit the Meadowbrook Pharmacy on Post Avenue to get his refreshments.
“The book filled a gap—and it’s [meant to be] entertaining,” he reflected. “There is a stigma attached to history, that it’s stuffy or boring.” Panchyk wants people to read his book and say, “There’s fun stuff in here.”
In fact, so much material was accumulated that Panchyk said, “I had to stop, or else it would have been like [Robert Caro’s bio of Robert Moses] The Power Broker, 800 pages. The publisher wants [these books] at about 144 [pages].”
He has also, naturally, written a history of Westbury.
A Writing Life
The native of Elmhurst, Queens, resolved to be a writer early on. In his press release bio, it is noted that “He made his first sale, a four-page handwritten trivia booklet written on a folded piece of loose leaf paper in a runny blue ink, to a third-grade classmate for a nickel.”
In his day job, Panchyk works for an engineering firm in Manhattan as a writer and editor. He holds a master’s in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
He has written books for adults and kids on subjects as wide ranging as archeology, Galileo, World War II, baseball, folklore, the Supreme Court and science. New York City and Long Island make up the bulk of his local history series. In September, he published Manhattan Churches, featuring a foreward by Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
His bio notes that his books “have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian and Portuguese.”
Not one to drop names, Panchyk has in the course of his writing interviewed such figures as Kurt Vonnegut, Rudy Giuliani, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Ken Starr, Mario Cuomo and Ralph Nader.
Among those who contributed forewords and introductions to his books were former President Bill Clinton, Senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and the late Archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan.
Panchyk’s books are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Visit www.panchyk.com.
Asked to pick a random “Top 5” favorites from his book, Panchyk responded
with the following:
“The first time a train hit an automobile in the history of the country.” It happened in 1901, at Post Avenue in Westbury, not far from his house. Fortunately, no one was killed.
The toll house (now a private residence) in the midst of Roslyn Cemetery that once collected payment for the only east-west turnpike in northern Nassau County.
The existing fragments of the Long island Motor Parkway, which he tabbed “the world’s first limited-access, concrete highway.” It was the brainchild of William K. Vanderbilt Jr. (hence its alternate name as the Vanderbilt Parkway). In his introduction, Panchyk wrote that seeking out its remnants “inspired me to search for other forgotten places and moments…”
“The House That Ruth Built.” The Dorothy Lannin House still stands in Eisenhower Park. She was the daughter and heir of former Boston Red Sox owner Joseph Lannin, who signed Babe Ruth. After winning two World Series, he sold the team to the infamous Harry Frezee, whose sale of “The Babe” to the Yankees inspired the “Curse of the Bambino.”
The mansion bought by the last monarch of Albania, the exiled King Zog. He never lived in it, and it was torn down after vandals ravaged it in search of his supposed treasure. Its ruins are now part of the Muttontown Preserve.