Photo: Emil Breitenbach Jr.

The community bade farewell today to one of Riverhead’s finest.

Retired Riverhead Police Officer James Zaleski was laid to rest at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery following funeral services at the church this morning.

Zaleski died Nov. 20 at the age of 81.

The Riverhead resident served on the town police force from 1972 until his retirement in July 1994.

He was affectionately known in the community as “Mr. Riverhead,” someone who knew everyone and someone everyone knew.

“He was like the unofficial mayor of Riverhead,” said Council Member and Supervisor-elect Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead Police detective who served with Zaleski on the force.

“He just knew everybody,” Hubbard said.

“And when you rode with him out in Jamesport, and you’d go on a call, he invariably knew somebody on the call — or somebody knew him,” Hubbard said.

Zaleski worked for many years in the department’s 602 sector, which encompasses the town’s eastern region. He knew everything and just about everyone in the sector, Hubbard said.

“He knew his area and it helped him be a really good cop,” he said.

Zaleski was Hubbard’s training officer when the incoming supervisor got out of the training academy in 1981. “You rode with him for the tour. And he would, you know, we’d go with him on calls and learn how to do things and paperwork and all that other stuff,” Hubbard recalled in an interview today.

“When I showed up at the relief point to get in the car with him, he’s like, “Okay, kid, come on. Get in the car. I’m going to show you how to be a cop.’ And off we went. And I’m like, ‘Oh, cool,’” he said with a chuckle. Hubbard was 21 at the time.

“He loved his job. He was he was a good cop. He treated people fairly. And you know, that’s one important thing for a young officer riding with him,” Hubbard said.

“You know, people can get under your skin and maybe you get angry and you take it out on them, but he never did. He’d just say, ‘People are having a bad day. I got to deal with it. I’ll pick up the pieces and I’ll help them out. Hopefully, we don’t come back again.’ And he just had a very good attitude about wanting to help people and helping people along the way,” he said.

“They always said that as a cop you wore many hats. You were a priest. You were a doctor. You were a psychiatrist. You were, you know, whatever it took to handle the call and help the people in need,” Hubbard said. “So that’s part of the adventure, I guess, part of the fun of being a police officer. There’s so many different things can happen and no two calls are the same and you never know what’s around the next corner. There’s always an element of surprise and you don’t get bored.”

Zaleski “didn’t have a bad bone in his body,” Hubbard said. “He was just one of those people.”

Zaleski served in the U.S. Air Force from 1962 to 1966 during the Vietnam War. He attained the rank of airman first class and was awarded the Air Force Good Conduct Medal and Air Force Expeditionary Medal. He was a member of the Riverhead VFW Post 2476.

Police officers and veterans turned out to honor Zaleski at the visitation held yesterday at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Mattituck and today at his funeral.

“Police Officer Zaleski took great pride in being a Riverhead police officer and a Riverhead resident,” Riverhead Chief of Police David Hegermiller said today. “He was always there to help, whether on or off duty, and even in retirement.”

Photo: Emil Breitenbach Jr.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.