By Peter Sloggatt
Sheila Saks, a civic leader who helped define and protect the residential nature of the Dix Hills community she called home, died July 18 of cancer. She was 75.
A city girl whose roots originated in lower Manhattan, Saks held a master’s degree from Columbia University Teachers College, and worked as a first grade teacher in upstate Mamaroneck before she and husband Avi moved to Dix Hills in 1970.
She became an active participant in community affairs, joining the House Beautiful at Dix Hills civic association, which she later served as president for 25 years. During that time, she helped shape the outcome of numerous development proposals.
Saks is perhaps best known for her work on the former Long Island Developmental Center property that the state excessed as a result of the policy of deinstitutionalization. Saks and other civic leaders faced down then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who had proposed the property be developed as headquarters for Olympus Corp. That plan was abandoned and Saks later helped guide development of The Greens, a 55-and-over residential community.
Saks had a toughness softened with compassion that had a way of bringing people around, former Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone said. He called her “a tough leader with a passion for doing what was right for the community.
“She was not just a person who said ‘no,’” Petrone said. “She looked for what would be good for the community.”
Years ago, state Assemblyman Steve Stern, who represented Dix Hills as county legislator before winning his Assembly seat last year, surprised Saks at a civic association meeting when he showed up to present her with a county ‘Woman of Distinction’ award.
“She truly was a woman of distinction,” Stern said. “She had an unwavering commitment to preserving our way of life.”
Along with her role at House Beautiful, Saks was also “an advocate for the [Half Hollow Hills] school district, she worked hard to protect the nature of the community she loved,” Stern said.
Saks was a trailblazer who, in the NIMBY era, when developers and community interests often clashed head-on, instead became the go-to person attorneys and developers would meet with before taking development plans public.
“In many ways she served as an example to today’s leaders,” Stern said. “She was part of a generation that led the way” to developers, government officials and the community working together.
One of Saks’ protégés was Suffolk Legislator Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) whom she influenced to run for public office.
“Sheila Saks was my friend, my confidante and my mentor,” Berland, also a former Huntington councilwoman, said. “We have lost an amazing advocate who did all she could to make our community a better place.
She was one of a kind.”
In addition to her husband, Saks is survived by son Simon, daughter Dawn Mintzer and five grandchildren.
Services were held at Gutterman’s Funeral Home in Woodbury, followed by interment at Wellwood Cemetery.