"He is consistently one of the most active members in the Rescue Company,” said Chuck Joyce, who served for 40 years with Ed Oppenheimer, the Herald’s 2017 Person of the Year. “It just amazes us that even with what he’s going through, he still shows up.”
A third-generation Rockville Centre resident serving his third term as a village trustee, Oppenheimer attended Morris Elementary School, and then South Side High School before graduating from Northeastern University in 1975 with a degree in business administration. After becoming a certified public accountant, he opened his own practice in 1977.
Now 65, Oppenheimer joined the village’s Fire Department in 1979. Over the course of 38 years with the department’s Floodlight Rescue Company No. 1 as a firefighter and emergency medical technician, he has responded to thousands of calls, from childbirths and broken legs to cardiac arrests and car accidents.
Oppenheimer had a tumor removed from his parotid gland this summer, and had reconstructive jaw surgery, his wife, Ethel, said. He recently finished therapy he was receiving in New Jersey, she added, and is recovering. “Knowing that he has a commitment to things makes him push harder,” Ethel said.
Robert Dunwoody, ex-captain of Floodlight, said that Oppenheimer’s medical condition hasn’t slowed him down, as he had been coming home on weekends from treatment to continue serving the Fire Department.
“He goes to calls,” Dunwoody said emphatically. “The man goes to calls when he’s out of the chemo radiation. It’s flabbergasting.”
Joyce, a former deputy mayor and a 52-year member of the Fire Department, said that Oppenheimer always makes himself available to help residents in distress. Since Joyce retired about a decade ago, there were times, he said, when he would receive an emergency call but didn’t have a crew to assist him.
Just a call away, Joyce said, Ed would tell him to drive the ambulance by his North Park Avenue office to pick him up.
“He’d say, ‘Oh Charles, come get me, I’ll be out front,’” Joyce said, his voice growing louder as he impersonated Oppenheimer. “He would leave the office when he heard that there was nobody available at that time” to respond to an emergency call.
Mayor Francis X. Murray, a member of Floodlight for more than 40 years, said there was a period where he, Joyce and “Eddie” would respond to five to 12 calls per day, many in the late hours. “He made more [calls] than me, that’s for sure,” Murray noted, estimating that Oppenheimer has responded to roughly 600 calls per year over the last decade.
“We’ve done CPR next to each other,” Murray added. “…We’ve worked together in the middle of the night, pumping on someone’s chest. There’s a lot of history between me and him, and him and this village.”
Fire Chief Brian Cook noted that Floodlight Rescue Company No. 1 typically responds to more than 2,000 calls annually, and that Oppenheimer is consistently one of the top emergency call responders in the company.
A man went into cardiac arrest in a North Park Avenue building a few years ago, Cook recalled, and Oppenheimer arrived first on the scene and performed CPR. “The guy’s alive today because of it,” he noted.
Last year, Oppenheimer assisted in two resuscitation efforts, the 12th and 13th of his 38-year career. He was among eight Fire Department members honored at the Town of Hempstead’s 2016 Firematic Awards ceremony for helping revive a man who suffered cardiac arrest at his daughter’s dance recital at South Side Middle School. The team used CPR and an automated external defibrillator before transporting the man to a local hospital, where he was treated and released.
“He’s had people unconscious on the floor up in north Rockville Centre with a drug overdose — an opiate — administered Narcan and the person was sitting up talking when we brought the ambulance,” recalled Dunwoody.
Oppenheimer is “very businesslike … but he’s got a very light, funny side,” Dunwoody added. “He’s the kind of guy you want to have live next door to you. He’s always willing to help.”
Ethel and his friends noted the calming effect Ed has on the people he helps. “He would sit with somebody,” Joyce said. “He’d get right on the floor and cross his knees and look at them and talk to them to explain to them why he thought they should go [to the hospital]. He cared about people. You could tell just by the amount of calls he made.”
In addition to his service as a village trustee and a first responder, Oppenheimer is a former Nassau County legislator and past president of the Rockville Centre Public Library. He was a founding trustee of the Rockville Centre Community Fund — serving as its treasurer for 25 years — has been on the village Planning Board and has served as a trustee for the Chamber of Commerce and Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David. Ethel said that fellow residents call him “Mr. Rockville Centre.”
Despite Oppenheimer’s occasional absence from village meetings in recent months due to his medical condition, colleagues said he is fulfilling his duties as a third-term board member.
Murray said that Oppenheimer meets with him and discusses village business. Fellow Trustee Emilio Grillo said that Oppenheimer has stayed in touch with village happenings by checking in with him and others by phone and email. Grillo added that during his time on the board, he has learned that Oppenheimer is not afraid to share his opinions, even if they’re unpopular, if he believes it is in the village’s best interests. “He maintains a sense of collegiality and camaraderie I think that transcends any kind of disagreement,” Grillo said.
He also alluded to Oppenheimer’s longtime work with the Fire Department. “There’s been a bit of a joke about the fact that Ed’s been in more people’s homes than anyone in the village,” he said, laughing.
Ethel said that Ed has continued to do accounting work while going through therapy, and his continued involvement in the community comes from a deep sense of caring for people and the place where he has lived all his life. She added that despite everything her husband has accomplished, he is most proud of his two children, Sarah and Andrew, and the people they have become.
“It’s been a very gruesome and tiring road,” Ethel said, “but we’re almost done, and knowing that he has something to come back to makes him that much stronger as he goes through this all.”
Oppenheimer was given the Eugene J. Murray Outstanding Citizenship Award at the Rockville Centre Community Fund’s 30th annual Mayor’s Golf and Dinner Classic in September, when he addressed a crowd gathered at the Rockville Links Country Club.
After his words, the Herald asked for a comment on what the recognition meant to him. “Voice is weak — more comfortable to write,” he scribbled on this writer’s notebook.
“It’s a huge surprise to be honored for doing what my parents taught me to do,” he continued, the pen moving swiftly in his hand. “It has been my pleasure to be just a small part of this community and having been allowed to participate. The strength of the community and the future promise of the community is more than enough!”