Pols, business leaders, civic do-gooders, clergy all take part
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
If you want to find anyone who is a very important person in Bay Ridge, then the Bay Ridge Manor catering hall on 76th Street is the place to be on Feb. 1. There, you’ll find the neighborhood luminaries all under one roof.
The Bay Ridge Community Council will hold its annual Presidents’ Luncheon at the Manor on Saturday, giving hundreds of the neighborhood’s movers and shakers the chance to rub elbows with each other while munching on sesame chicken.
“It’s always a wonderful event,” Jane Kelly, a past community council president, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It gives you the opportunity to talk to community leaders about what is going on in the neighborhood. And all of our local elected officials always come and speak. They always want to make an announcement about what they’re doing."
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer rides his bike from his Park Slope home to the Bay Ridge Manor every year for the luncheon. Former borough president Marty Markowitz was always a regular at the event and current Borough President Eric Adams has been invited this year, Kelly said.
Local elected officials like state Sen. Marty Golden, assembly members Alec Brook-Krasny, Felix Ortiz, Peter Abbate and Nicole Malliotakis and Councilman Vincent Gentile are regulars.
The luncheon, established more than 40 years ago to allow the council to congratulate the presidents of the organizations in its membership, has become a famous Bay Ridge tradition.
The stars of the show are the presidents of the council’s member organizations.
“Everyone always wants to come. It’s a big deal to get invited,” Maryann Walsh, a longtime community council member, told the Eagle.
The invitations are so coveted that members of organizations often fight over who is going to represent their particular group should the president be unable to attend, several council members told the Eagle. An organization's president is permitted to delegate someone to attend the luncheon in his place.
The council itself was established by two brothers, Vincent and Walter Kassenbrock, in 1951 to to fight the planned construction of the Verrazano Bridge. The Kassenbrocks believed that there was power in numbers and that if they could band various groups together, they would win their battle. The community council lost the fight and the bridge was constructed.
But the community council changed its focus to work on improving the quality of life for local residents and remains a viable organization today, 63 years after its founding. The community council sponsors essays contests for students, as well as a Halloween Art Contest, in which kids paint Halloween-themed pictures on store windows. The organization holds a photography contest each year.
The council currently has nearly 100 civic organizations, PTAs, church groups and business organizations on its membership roster.
The community council also bestows a Civic Award each year at its dinner-dance. The winner, chosen by a special committee, is usually a person who has worked to make Bay Ridge a better place.
In honor of the memory of Walter and Vincent Kassenbrock, the Kassenbrock Brothers Memorial Scholarship Fund was established. The fund's board of trustees awards scholarships to college-bound high school seniors who have performed community service projects during the year.
The annual Presidents’ Luncheon doesn’t date back to the council’s beginnings, but was established several years later, according to Robert Kassenbrock, Walter’s son.
In the early years, the luncheon took place in the cozy confines of the Hamilton House, a restaurant on Fourth Avenue and 101st Street. As the council membership grew, the luncheon was moved to the Bay Ridge Manor and its vast catering hall. “It had the same purpose then as it has now – to recognize the hard work of the presidents,” he said.
There was an awkward misunderstanding about the luncheon one year, according to Kelly. “It’s the Presidents’ Luncheon. One year, we had a president who thought it was the President’s Luncheon. He thought it was for him! He was telling us the people he wanted to invite. We had to explain it to him,” she said.
The luncheon is an invitation-only event. “Sometimes, we get phone calls from different people asking, ‘Can I buy a ticket?’ We always have to tell them no,” said Kelly, a retired Catholic school teacher, who has often served on the luncheon planning committee.
Bob Kassenbrock is the chairman of the luncheon planning committee. He is working with council members Eileen Potter, Arlene Keating, Janet Gounis, Eleanor Petty and Irene Hanvey on the seating arrangements for the event.
The event also gives the president of the Bay Ridge Community Council the opportunity to offer a type of State of the Council address to the gathering. The council’s past presidents have included Peter Purpura, Marie DiResta, Robert Hedlund, Andrew Sichenze, Robert Walsh, Richard Barry, Barbara Velucci, Tom Green, Gloria Melnick, Marianne Teta, Charles F. Otey, Greg Ahl, Maureen Stramka and Alexander Conti.
The council’s current president is Renee Dorsa.
Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-Bensonhurst) is a former president. He served at the helm in 1989.
Kelly, who has been attending the luncheon since she joined the community council in 1968, said she is always impressed by the size of the crowd. “I can remember the first time I went. I was impressed by the number of people there,” she said.
In the late 1960s, however, Kelly was one of only a few women in the council. She served as the president of the Our Lady of Angels Home School Association. At that time, the community council was dominated by men. “There were so few women that we had to take special care with the seating arrangements. We had to make sure there was a woman at each table and that all of the women weren’t placed at one table apart from the men,” she recalled.
DiResta was the first woman president of the community council in 1974.
“Now, of course, there are a lot of women involved in the council,” Kelly said.