Bob Russo, David Boller and James Paloumbis, have a bond that goes back much further than their decision to go into business together with Kevin Liebov, opening East Meadow’s Garden Social in 2017. They are fraternity brothers from Phi Kappa Sigma, at SUNY Oneonta, as was Kevin O. Reilly, who died on Sept. 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center.
Reilly, 28, was a New York City firefighter who was scheduled to work on Sept. 11. He was last seen in the lobby of one of the buildings at the trade center.
“I sat in front of the television knowing the world was changed forever and called every single personal friend in the city,” said Russo, who grew up in East Meadow. “I called 20 of them, except Kevin. I just didn’t think to call him.”
Russo saw Reilly six weeks before at his bachelor party in the Hamptons. He married in July.
“There were 30 of us at the party and we were having a blast, swimming, drinking,” Russo recalled. “At the end of the weekend five of us were left cleaning up, including Kevin. That’s when he noticed that he had lost his medallion — St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters.”
Russo said that Reilly never took the medallion off and was frantic. “We dove into the pool looking for it and tore the garbage bags apart but we never found it,” Russo said. “I told him, “There is nothing you can do. It’s gone.”
A couple of weeks after Sept. 11 the owner of the house they had rented found the medallion. He knew it belonged to someone at the bachelor party. Russo drove out to get it. He always imagined that his fraternity brother reached for the medallion right before he died on Sept. 11.
“They never found Kevin’s body. All we had was the medallion,” Russo said. “The day after the funeral I gave it to his widow, [Jennifer]. She gave it to Tim [Geraghty] a week later.”
Tim Geraghty was in Phi Kappa Sigma too. He and Reilly had an additional bond — they wanted to be firemen and were both training for the physical exam while in college.
“Kevin was more athletic, a baseball player and marathon runner,” Geraghty said. “He was pushing me. But I ended up getting 100 and he got a 95 because he made a mistake. So, I thought he would never get in.”
His dream of becoming a firefighter dashed, Reilly, who had majored in water resources at Oneonta, became an environmental consultant. Then in January 2000 he got a call from the New York City Fire Department. He was hesitant, Geraghty said, because he was doing well financially but he had always wanted to be a firefighter.
Reilly joined Ladder 40 in Harlem, where his father had served for over 16 years. He was then assigned to Engine 207 in Brooklyn.
“I didn’t communicate with him on 911 but I knew he was working,” Geraghty said. “We didn’t have a signal at Ground Zero so I didn’t know what was going on.”
When he returned home, Jennifer called Geraghty to ask if he had seen her husband. “I knew the chance that he was OK was slim,” Geraghty said. “There was optimism that he was alive, but trapped, which gave a lot of people false hope.”
Reilly was popular in college. The president of Phi Kappa Sigma, he was funny, intelligent and a born leader, Geraghty said. “He always had a positive attitude and always brought something to the table,” he said. “And he was proud of being Irish.”
On Reilly’s birthday in August each year Russo pours two pints of Guinness and puts one behind the bar. “I still remember how we all used to celebrate Kevin’s birthday in May so we could all celebrate it while we were in college,” Russo said, “and people would buy him drinks.”
Russo and Reilly were more than fraternity brothers. They were also close friends. When they vacationed together in Charleston two months prior to Reilly’s death they had a conversation that changed Russo’s life.
Garden Social would not exist, he said, had it not been for Reilly. The company where Russo worked closed in 2001. During the trip to Charleston, he told Reilly he was afraid.
“Kevin said I should start my own company,” Russo said. “He said I had a gift for gab and should give it a shot.”
He took Kevin’s advice, opening Primetime LLC, a small telemarking company. He did well making it possible for him to open Garden Social.
“I told the guys that we were going to do something for Kevin,” Russo said. “People say, ‘Never forget.’ It’s difficult to live it. Garden Social was opened in Reilly’s honor.”
Russo shares Reilly’s story often with customers and when he does they go outside to the flagpole. On it is a bronze plaque with Reilly’s photo. “Almost every time I enter this building I touch Kevin’s memorial,” Russo said.
“I don’t usually talk about 911 but I will always talk about Kevin,” Geraghty said. “You see the potential that was lost and it’s sad. He never had so many experiences.”
Russo said he has many good memories of Reilly. He was in a kill a keg competition with Reilly and there was the white water rafting trip where when they went over the first rapid Russo fell in.
“I went in head first and Kevin pulled me out,” Russo said, smiling. “Kevin’s pledge name was “Radar.” When you pledge a fraternity it’s a bond. We transitioned from boys to men.”