By Carina Livoti
Few people knew more about the history of Huntington than Rex Metcalf, but his family, friends, and colleagues can tell you that he was so much more than just a mind full of facts and stories.
“He was a wonderful person. How can I describe Rex in a few words? It’s just impossible,” Patricia Metcalf, Rex’s wife of 43 years, said.
Rex Metcalf died April 14 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 72.
Metcalf was known for his passion for history, deep knowledge of Huntington’s past and remarkable storytelling ability. Born on July 15, 1942, he grew up in the historic Latting’s Hundred home, a red house just north of Park Avenue’s Woodhull Road intersection, and continued to live there for the remainder of his life.
Metcalf meticulously restored and maintained the historic qualities of the home. Ed Carr, head of Huntington’s Maritime Services, said that walking in the south end of the house was almost like walking in a museum.
“He had it completely furnished as if it were a 1654 homestead,” he said.
The house is one of the 20 oldest homes in the United States. Slaves were issued freedom papers in that living room. It is also the site of the Huntington’s first general store, post office and newspaper.
“He was a tremendous source of knowledge about Huntington history, undiscovered and under-appreciated history—women’s suffrage, African-American history. He was very enthusiastic about sharing what he knew with people,” Town Historian Robert Hughes said.
In the 1970s, Metcalf oversaw restoration of the colonial-era arsenal building located on the Village Green across from his own home. As a member of the Huntington Militia, a colonial era re-enactment group which he helped found for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, Metcalf was often the man greeting visitors to the building.
Graduates of Leadership Huntington’s Flagship Program Workshop series, who typically as part of the program spent a day with Metcalf touring historic sites as well as his home, said Metcalf’s enthusiasm and storytelling abilities made his love of history infectious.
“He created in all of us such an astounding respect for the many leaders that came before us, and he instilled a responsibility to understand what those leaders did for Huntington,” friend Nancy Engelhart said.
Engelhart worked with Metcalf at Leadership Huntington, for which he helped develop the “History Day” segment of the program and acted as that workshop’s facilitator.
“Some of the graduates had said that they really began to realize what a rich and exciting community they lived in and started to really understand the value of preserving the community for the next generation through Rex explaining the history,” Leadership Huntington President Sharon Saudino said.
Irene Moore, chair of the Huntington African American Historic Designation Council, where Metcalf served as an adviser, praised the historian’s generosity.
“Rex will be remembered for his unselfish sharing of his vast storehouse of knowledge,” she said.
Over the years, Metcalf also worked with the Huntington Historical Society and the Huntington Historic Preservation Committee.
“For more than 40 years, Rex Metcalf was a major force in helping keep Huntington’s history alive… His contributions will be greatly missed,” Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone said.
In addition to being a passionate historian, Metcalf was also a Vietnam War veteran and escaped prisoner of war. While colleagues said he was private about his military service, fellow veteran and friend Paul Kelly said that he as a decorated veteran.
“He was a light-weapons infantryman; he went out in the field and fought on the ground, up close and personal,” Kelly said.
Kelly described Metcalf as the Benjamin Franklin of Huntington, saying that he was highly intelligent and loved his family, his country and Huntington. As members of Nathan Hale VFW Post 1469, Kelly and Metcalf both worked on the Vietnam Committee, which worked to build the monument wall at Huntington Town Hall. Metcalf served as the committee’s chair from 1966-2003. He also belonged to the Sons of the American Revolution and the Huntington Militia.
“He was a gentleman, a good person, and a real patriot,” Kelly said.
While his incredible knowledge and generosity were treasures to the community, those who knew Metcalf said he was first and foremost a dedicated family man.
“The level of his devotion to his wife and his children was so incredibly obvious and really endearing,” Engelhart said.
Metcalf worked as an engineer for Grumman until he retired in 1994, according to his wife. After he retired, she said, he was able to really delve into Huntington’s history. He also spent significant time with their daughter, Sandra, during those years.
“We did all the regular family stuff; he was always there for us, whether it was our son’s car breaking down on a freezing morning or whatever it was, he was there,” she said.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, Daniel, Michael, and Sandra; his sisters, Ruth Marsh, Margaret Douglas and Joan Garmeson; many nieces and nephews, and the Huntington community at large.
Metcalf was buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Cold Spring Harbor. Funeral arrangements were by A.L. Jacobsen Funeral Home.