By Danny Schrafel
When learning the story of Adam Spector, the Huntington school board member who died June 26 at age 51 following a four-year battle with lung cancer, one has the opportunity to do so using his own words.
Thanks to his blog, “My So Called Life,” most of which was dedicated to his battle against lung cancer, there is a rich history to tap into. His last entry, posted June 14, was about Huntington High School’s June 7 Relay for Life. His now 16-year-old son, Jackson, was staying overnight and walking for the American Cancer Society fundraiser. Spector, wearing oxygen and in a red scooter, had stayed for a few hours, flanked by his fellow board of education members.
“This year’s event was particularly meaningful yet particularly tough for me as I just had heart surgery less than two weeks ago,” he wrote. “It’s still not clear to me just how close I may have come to dying, but I guess it’s not that important. The importance and focus is on the days and weeks ahead as I hope to recuperate from the surgery and get back on track in my fight against lung cancer.”
According to friends and family, that ceaseless, contagious optimism and determination were signature Adam Spector, up until he died 12 days later.
They remembered a man who, later in life found his calling, and “pursued it with a vengeance.” They remembered a man who loved to write, both words and music, possessed a razor-sharp, self-deprecating wit, treasured his family and friends, fought for the underdog, had a clear vision for a better world and was pragmatic enough to make it happen.
“He spoke truth. There was no nonsense. He spoke from his heart,” friend Jennifer Mosden said.
But, as many knew, he was far from a shrinking violet. His wife, Meredith, told mourners, to laughter, that Adam described himself thusly: “You either like me or you can’t stand me. But I certainly make an impression.”
He certainly did.
The day after he died, his friends and family filled every one of the 700 seats in Gutterman’s Funeral Home in Woodbury on June 27. When there were no more seats, dozens more lined up against the walls.
“This is humbling, overwhelming and breathtaking – but not surprising,” Meredith said.
His biggest public impression may have been made in his battle to keep the Jack Abrams Intermediate School open. Spector, who became a stay-at home dad in 2003 and launched an IT business four years later, became a central figure in the Jack Abrams debate.
“He really rose to the occasion,” Meredith said.
Spector ran for the Huntington school board in 2010 and lost by 4 votes. That summer, the school board voted to close Jack Abrams. At about the same time, Spector was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He discovered it after it had spread to his hip. A year later, in 2011, Spector ran for the board again and won.
His arrival on the school board was one in a “convergence” of events that would thrust the district in a more positive direction, current board President Emily Rogan said.
“He was just such an integral part of our team,” she said. “He was part of what changed the experience for me.”
During his tenure, the school district maintained and restored educational programming. Jack Abrams reopened in September 2013 as a STEM Magnet school, which will grow larger in the coming school year. The district followed that up by restoring full-day kindergarten for the 2014-2015 school year, and also took great strides in increasing transparency and regaining the community’s trust.
“While I wish he were here to see more fruits of his labor, there are very few people who can look back on the work they have done in such a short period of time” and have accomplished so much, Rogan said.
Friend Pat Giles said that “school board meetings became boring again – in the best possible way.”
Spector’s other major accomplishments came in the realm of philanthropy.
Giles recalled what became the first Adampalooza, a backyard jam session that raises money for the American Cancer Society. Ahead of his birthday in 2012, Giles said Spector “wanted to have a party in his backyard with anybody he had ever jammed with” that could make it to Huntington. Instead of bringing presents, he asked guests to make donations; they raised $2,500 in the first year.
“The next year, we were in his backyard and he said, ‘why don’t we make a little more of an ambitious fundraiser?’ Giles recalled. Adampalooza 2 netted $10,000.
Giles said, per Spector’s wishes, the show will go on, bigger and better than ever.
“He said, ‘I want to do this for the next 30 years, whether I’m here or not,’” Giles said.
Jen Hebert, his running mate who was also elected in 2011, said they “became very close, very fast.” They also shared a common bond personally – Hebert’s husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer within days of Spector’s lung cancer diagnosis.
“We both wanted the same things, and we were running at a very contentious time in our community. I was so grateful to have Adam as my partner through that experience,” she said.
Now Hebert is stepping into the role Spector held for the last two years as the school board’s new vice president. Appointed to the role Tuesday, she said the designation was bittersweet.
“I’m honored to follow Adam. I wish so much that he was still here to fill that spot,” she said. “But as his unofficial board partner, I’m glad to follow him.”
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by his daughter, Jamie, mother, Helen, brother Marc and sisters Gail Sussman and Barbra Risi.
Donations can be made in his memory to Adampalooza.org, or to the Visiting Nurse Services and Hospice of Suffolk County, 505 Main St., Northport.