By Andrew Wroblewski
The only thing more persistent than Mario C. Buonpane Jr.’s smile was his passion.
“I’m going to remember his good nature, the way he always had a smile on his face, but beneath that good nature was a persistent advocate for our veterans and our community,” said John Cooney, a longtime friend and commander of the Northport American Legion Post 694, in which Buonpane served for more than 50 years. “That was the thing about Mario. He’d come into a room and greet you with his smile, but before you knew what had happened, you’d be handing over all your money to support whichever cause he was advocating for. He was such a staunch advocate, not only for the veterans, but for all of Huntington.”
A Korean War veteran, former Post 694 commander and 23-year chair of Huntington’s Veterans Advisory Board, Buonpane died on Sept. 7 after a battle with cancer. He was 83.
“In my opinion, he was a true American hero,” said Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport), who used Buonpane as a source for information on veterans’ issues.
Buonpane started his path toward heroism on Dec. 19, 1931 when he was born in Ozone Park, Queens. After high school, he was drafted into the United States Army on Dec. 10, 1953, during the Korean War and served until Dec. 1, 1955. Buonpane was stationed in Germany during the war and worked with the Corporal missile, the first guided missile with nuclear-warhead capability.
After his service, Buonpane utilized the G.I. Bill to study electrical engineering at Long Island University, while he worked three jobs. At LIU, he earned a bachelor’s degree and, later, an MBA.
Buonpane took that education and, in 1966, turned it into a career with aircraft conglomerate Grumman. He spent 25 years there, contributing to projects like assembly of the Apollo Lunar Module.
Retirement came calling in 2003, but Buonpane continued to work as an adjunct professor at Dowling College, teaching business classes abroad in countries like Russia and China while keeping his most important job at the forefront: He was a husband to Beatrice for 58 years, father to Karen Buonpane, Nancy Chang, and Mark Vincent (Buonpane) and grandfather to Vincent Chang and Joseph Chang. The family lived in Northport and then East Northport, before Buonpane and his wife moved to St. James last year.
“His home life was incredible. No matter how busy he was, he always put his family first,” said Vincent, 50, the youngest of the three siblings. “He taught all of us the incredible values of integrity and hard work, and that you should always set your sights high to continuously improve yourself. He always said: ‘A job worth doing is a job worth doing well.’”
Those values extended into Buonpane’s advocacy work. He was a longtime member of the Post 694 who left his mark with the post’s Boys State Committee. The program, now the Boys/Girls State Committee, grew under his leadership to become one of the nation’s finest, consistently sending Northport youth to the annual Boys and Girls State civics program to learn the importance of America’s political system.
With the Town of Huntington, Buonpane joined the town’s Veterans Advisory Board as a charter member in 1987. He became chairman of the board in 1993, working as a liaison between the town and local veterans organizations.
“Mario was my mentor and a great friend. He was a wonderful leader of our Veterans Advisory Board,” Carol Rocco, coordinator of veterans’ affairs for the town, said. “He did wonderful things for the veterans of Huntington.”
In a statement, Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone said Buonpane worked tirelessly “to support efforts ensuring that we all remember, honor and respect our veterans and that veterans got the services and benefits they earned by serving our country.”
Buonpane was also chairman of Post 694’s Veterans Affairs Golf and Tournament Committee. With that committee, he worked to restore the Northport VA Golf Course from an overgrown, diseased wasteland, to a course that is enjoyed by many during the warm-weather months.
“He got things done,” Vincent said of his father. “Everyone has dreams, but he actually made them happen.”
Visitation will be held at Nolan & Taylor-Howe Funeral Home in Northport from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. on Sept. 11. A funeral service will be held at the funeral home that day at 2:30 p.m. Post 694 will also host a memorial service at 7:30 p.m. on the same day.