By Jano Tantongco
The Huntington woman who saw the birth of a modern educational institution and helped shape its foundations just turned 105 last week.
Adela Fencl Larsen, who has lived in Huntington for about half a century, celebrated the post-centenarian milestone on Feb. 6 at her current residence, Daleview Care Center in Farmingdale.
Larsen was not available to answer questions, but her story and decades-long career was recounted by daughter Cheryl Larsen. Cheryl said her mother helped shape Western Suffolk BOCES in its earliest incarnation by serving as an executive secretary through several administrations.
“She was just a wonderful woman. She was always there for us, my sister and me. She was generous, kind,” Cheryl, 71, said. “Her heart was in whatever work she was doing.”
Adela Fencl Larsen was born Feb. 6, 1912 to farmers Frank and Marie Fencl in a small, agrarian community in Protivin, Iowa, that primarily consisted of Bohemian immigrants. Nicknamed “Del,” Larsen is the only surviving sibling of her parents’ 12 children, five boys and seven girls.
In 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Larsen convinced her father to embark on a journey that would take her to New York to live with her older sister, Marie. She would leave behind her studies at the Iowa State Teachers College, but would eventually find herself back in the world of education.
“Times were hard, but she was always a determined; a well-focused woman, with great academic skills and a congenial personality,” Cheryl said in an emailed statement.
When Larsen came to New York, she soon met husband-to-be Harold Larsen, the son of a Norwegian ship’s captain. The couple lived in Brooklyn and had two children, Judy and Cheryl. In 1948, they moved to Huntington, settling at 22 Aberdeen Drive.
That same year, Larsen became the executive secretary to A.M. Jones, the first director and superintendent of Western Suffolk BOCES. The BOCES program was also first created that year by the state lawmakers.
In the institution’s earliest years, its main facility was located in Huntington. It eventually relocated to Deer Park, and then back to the Town of Huntington to Dix Hills, where it stands today.
BOCES expanded further under the direction of the next Superintendent John McGuire, with Larsen continuing to serve. Larsen told Cheryl that McGuire was so passionate and dedicated to making Wilson Technical School a model for the whole country, he literally worked himself to death.
After a day of extensive meetings and looming deadlines, the pair stayed late to complete two days of work that had to be finished in one. Upon leaving the parking lot, Larsen noticed McGuire’s car moving erratically, eventually coming to a stop on side of the road.
“When she approached the car, McGuire was slumped over the wheel, the engine still running, but it was too late,” Cheryl stated.
Wilson Tech still exists today and just celebrated its 52nd anniversary. It operates campuses in Dix Hills, Huntington, Northport and at Republic Airport in Farmingdale.
A witness to Larsen’s ability, the next superintendent, Dr. Gordon Wheaton, petitioned the state to expand her responsibilities and increase her salary. She was charged with attending to most of the affairs of the vast educational system while acting as its comptroller as she attended to expenditures and procurement.
Aside from her BOCES work, Larsen was also one of three founders of the Huntington Business and Professional Woman’s Club, an organization that met monthly to outline resources for budding “go-getters” and fundraise for local children.
“If that was not enough, she still found time to deliver hot meals for the ‘Meals on Wheels’ organization,” Cheryl stated.
Larsen’s retirement dinner in 1979 was attended by at least 300 people, including government officials and high-ranking representatives from the state’s Department of Education.
She also has six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Remarkably, Larsen, even at the age of 105 is in “excellent health,” Cheryl stated.
“She can eat more ice-cream than you can imagine. Remarkably, with all that fat, cholesterol, and calories, she is in excellent health
“And… would you believe, she does not take any medications at all!”