Lifelong Riverhead resident Ronnie Smith, a Vietnam war veteran, reflects on life in his hometown in the '60s. Photo: Denise Civiletti

I had the opportunity to sit and talk with an admirable and honorable man who holds his family and community values close to his heart. He is the epitome of a great husband, father, grandfather and friend. His personality is nothing short of pure positive energy. His humor and laughter can be infectious at times. His kindness portrays the gentleman that he is. That man is Ronnie Smith, a Vietnam veteran and a lifelong resident of Riverhead.

Ronnie has been married to his wife Diane for 48 years. He has two sons, Carl Tyrone, better known as Ty, and Maurice Donnell, better known as Doc. Ronnie has three grandchildren: Ty’s identical twins Dillon and Andrew, who will be 21 in May and Doc’s daughter Jordan, a soldier in the U.S. Army.

Ronnie graduated from Riverhead High School in 1967. From there he enlisted in the Army and served three years in the Vietnam war. He retired from Stony Brook University, where he worked at the data center for 43 years, starting out as a computer operator and ending his career as assistant manager of the data center at Stony Brook University Hospital.

Ronnie starts out by saying that his mother was the greatest thing that happened to me. “She realized that I wanted to read. She bought my first comic book in 1957,” he said. Of course, his appetite for reading expanded way beyond comic books, but that first comic book sparked his interest.

“Back then, it was cars and girls and I liked to read and was inspired with sports,” Ronnie said. If he wasn’t outside, he was in the house reading. He recalls that he and Jimmy Brown were the only kids in the neighborhood involved in sports outside of the neighborhood. “We played Little League baseball,” he said.

“The other thing we learned about in the hood was to take care of ourselves. We knew how to fight,” Ronnie says. He was one of the smaller guys but he was built. His father taught him to walk away from little annoyances. But if someone came after you, then that was on them.

“The three things I never knew about growing up was racism, bigotry and prejudice,” Ronnie said. “The only whites around us [besides the farmers] were Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and a white boy named Donald that lived on Osborn Avenue. He was mentally challenged and he was bigger than us and he always rode his bike down our way. He is the only one I remember,” Ronnie said.

“I remember asking my mom why Mr. Johnson was living in our neighborhood because he was a white man, she told me to shut up and mind my own business. It wasn’t until we moved out of the neighborhood that I understood why Mr. Johnson was living in our neighborhood. He was married to a black lady and this was the only place they could find a home because of their biracial marriage in Riverhead. Nobody ever told me but as I got older I pieced it together,” Ronnie said.

Thinking about Riverhead at that time, no one would sell them property in the white neighborhoods because he was married to a black lady, Ronnie said. “That’s probably one of the first incidents of prejudices that made me think,” he recalls.

“I’ve told my sons there’s prejudice, racism and bigotry. Down south, they let you know but up here it’s closeted. People don’t know. Like during the Civil War there were just as many riots up here against us as any other state in the south. What they don’t understand after emancipation, the N.Y. business districts and harbors counted on us with cotton and peanuts which was built all on our backs,” he says.

“When I was a child I didn’t understand that. I just thought it was the South and Midwest.”

But as he got older he learned racism lived close to home.

There were incidents on the school bus and in the classroom that drove home the point.

When Ronnie entered high school his grades in junior high earned him a place in Regents classes, which he credits Mr. Pine, the guidance counselor, for recognizing.

“I was put in Mr. Muldoon’s Regents English class because I was good with the literature part; I liked to read. However I had problems with grammar and I remember staying after class,” Ronnie recalls. “I explained the situation to him. Sitting at his desk, he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You don’t belong in my class.’ After that I wondered what all my other teachers were thinking.”

If it doesn’t kill you it will strengthen you, Ronnie says.

“Years later, after I got out of the Army, I went to school at night for computers. I went back to the school to see some of the coaches and I saw Mr. Muldoon in the hallway and I told him I was in his class. He didn’t remember me.” Ronnie told him he was an Army veteran and had gotten a job at Stony Brook in the new field of data processing. “I told him ‘I work for the state just like you,’ and walked away.”

I asked Ronnie about standing up for himself with apprehension during school, or just letting it pass and not saying anything.

“It was like the old people said. It’s like being in a fish bowl and everything is good and when you get outside the fish bowl and you look back — When I went in the Army I would tell the guys there were little incidents here and there and Muldoon — I just shrugged it off,” Ronnie recalls.

He recalls being singled out by teachers and bus drivers for no apparent reason other than the color of his skin: being smacked in the back of his head by a teacher in junior high school for making too much noise while waiting with other boys for his bus to be called at the end of the school day; being suspended from his bus for a week after a white boy cut one of the seats with a knife. He was punished because he objected to his sister being accused when she had nothing to do with it; all she had done was laugh.

“One thing I learned from my father is that you respect others and therefore you expect to be respected,” Ronnie says. “If you don’t respect me, you fear me. I learned from my parents and grandparents how to protect what’s mine.”

Another lesson he learned as a kid watching his father, grandfather the other fathers is the neighborhood is that black fathers would be stereotyped as irresponsible and not good fathers. Ronnie said

“This was something I did not see growing up,” Ronnie said.

Neither did I. It was always family values first.

Ronnie and I both agreed that racism, prejudice, and bigotry were so subtle in the North versus the South, where it was common knowledge.

Ronnie said a lot of stuff happened around us that we were shielded from. He said the Emmet Till incident was an example.

He recalled a class reunion and how some of the white boys said they were close friends. His reply was, ‘No, we were acquaintances. Did you know where I lived? Did you ever come to my neighborhood? Did you ever invite me to a party? The only contact we had was in the classroom and on the field,’” he said.

“But I can say from first grade all the way up to sixth grade, the teachers were pretty fair — and I can name all those teachers,” he said. Ronnie recalled one teacher, Mr. Edgar, who encouraged him to write. ”There were teachers who were genuinely good teachers,” he says.

Ronnie credits his mother because she realized that he liked to read and she supported and enabled Ronnie to explore a talent. He passed that value down to his sons to explore their talents and skills and to cultivate them.

Ronnie says he realized after leaving Riverhead how bigoted and racist Riverhead really was. He recalled his cousin Rich Ligon, the first black member of the Riverhead Fire Department. Ligon had to file a complaint with the state in order to join the department, which rejected his application. Ronnie said he knew he couldn’t be a cop because there was only one black man in the police department in Riverhead, Malcom Stewart and he was just a constable. If something jumped off in black community they would bring him in first to see if he could settle things.

Ronnie said he got out of Army in 1970 and looked for a home for his family. He looked at a mobile home in a park on Hubbard Avenue, which was advertised by an older white couple who were moving to Florida. He liked it and they set up a meeting to negotiate a price.

“So we had to meet at Michael’s Liquor store,” Ronnie recalls. “Some of the white people saw me come to look at the trailer and asked the owner if he was planning on selling the trailer to me.”

The old man had been told that there would be a problem.

Ronnie met him outside the liquor store and they talked in the car, where the man told him he would sell to him but warned him there might be some problems if he bought the trailer.

“I thanked him but declined because I worked at night and didn’t want my wife there alone,” Ronnie said.

Ronnie’s story is close to my heart. I have history with Ronnie. Ronnie is not just a friend but he is like family. Ronnie’s family was our next-door neighbor when I was just a little boy.

We called our neighborhood “the “Avenue.” If you are from Riverhead, you’re probably familiar with the infamous Horton Avenue. Those were the days when hotrods lined the streets for the Sunday afternoon delights of street racing, profiling, fun, and our
own Ms. Penny’s, the juke joint. Well, Ms. Penny’s just wasn’t the juke joint but the penny candy lady. All the little kids went there to buy penny candy. We didn’t live on Horton Avenue but Middle Road between Horton and Osborn Avenue.

Ronnie and his family came into my life during my formative years. These were important years in my life. I took to Ronnie as a little boy. His sensitivity was so laid-back and cool. He was just a laid-back brother who seem to stay to himself.

A few things I have to mention that left an impact on my life. First Ronnie liked to read. He had a collection of comic books that you wanted to read — the Marvel super-heroes! Secondly, they could get channel 11 on their TV and we couldn’t. You would find me at his house watching Mighty Mouse with him after school. Thirdly, Ronnie was sports-minded. He tapped into our potential in sports.

The older boys made a makeshift basketball court across the streets in the woods. He had to remind me that we were the fastest runners in the hood. We built box go karts and had races; they were great days. I wanted to emulate his character traits. Ronnie became my role model in my formative years growing up. I felt fortunate and empowered by him to have someone to look up to in those days. So I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed about his views on racism and bigotry living in Riverhead.

It’s so funny how growing up in Riverhead you don’t reach racism head-on until you reach school. As Ronnie put it, college was not really an option. It was either the armed services or work. He credits the late Mr. Antonio DeGrasse as instrumental in acquiring his job at Stony Brook and Mr. DeGrasse’s wife Ann Cotten who taught him to type.

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Lawrence Street is an educator and an advocate for education reform focusing on children with special needs. He has taught in Riverhead and New York City and held education administration positions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A native of Riverhead, he has always been a proponent for social justice and community awareness.