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Port Jefferson resident Jill Nees-Russell lost her battle with cancer last June.
Many remember her as a great spirit, full of energy, with a love for her adopted hometown that propelled her to become involved in nearly every facet of life here.
She was the PTA president who launched innovative programs, a public relations representative who organized events to promote the village, and an ever-present figure at many of Port Jefferson’s functions and festivals.
And she had a deep love and connection with music.
Now, Port Jefferson is using a newly designed permanent performing arts stage as an opportunity to honor the woman who touched so many lives here.
Nees-Russell also volunteered at the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, and early in her career worked at Warner Brothers Records, when she lived in Los Angeles.
But among the many hats she wore, her most treasured roles were within her family — especially as the mother to her two children, Henry and Lily, and wife to Fred Russell.
Fred Russell told GreaterPortJeff his wife was never one for self-congratulatory gestures.
“She was all about helping other people and the village,” he said. “It was never about having the spotlight on her. She did everything for others and not for herself.”
Still, he’s happy.
He said dedicating a stage in her honor is a perfect tribute for someone who loved music and was a self-described closet singer herself.
“Music was definitely her passion,” he said. “It’s something we shared together.”
That passion was also shared by a local musician and friend, Carolyn Benson.
Benson is from Setauket but came to know Nees-Russell when she got involved with the annual Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson as a performer.
“I became really close to Jill,” Benson said. “We sort of flocked together.”
During one of their many walks around the village, the two had discussed the idea of creating a permanent performing arts stage for Port Jefferson.
A “place to have the community to come to have Shakespeare in the Park or recitals,” Benson explained.
After Ness-Russell’s death, the idea inspired a passion in Benson to complete the project — and dedicate it to her friend.
She brought the idea to the village.
More people started to come on board to help, including village resident and landscape architect Michael Opisso.
Benson and Opisso walked the grounds of Harborfront Park seeking out inspiration. And as she was telling him all about Nees-Russell, it hit him.
“We were migrating to this one area of the park,” he said. “We ended up in this one spot.”
That spot was a northern area of the park, adjacent to the Port Jefferson Yacht Club.
They both thought it was the perfect place for a stage overlooking the water, nestled against natural vegetation in a corner of the park.
Next, Opisso started sketching out the form of the stage.
“I saw it coming together in my mind’s eye as Carolyn described the functional requirements,” he said. “I started conceptualizing it. Giving form to the words.”
To shade musicians from the elements, he envisioned sail-like canvas canopies in blue, gold and burgundy.
Additional sail backdrops used to contain acoustics will be a more neutral beige color. The sails can be clipped on or off — depending on the weather.
Opisso created a curvilinear concept of a half-moon instead of a square stage to mimic what he called the “strolling pastoral quality” of the park and the bow of a ship.
The floor of the stage will use planking to look like a ship’s deck. He said the stage will be approximately 15 by 25 feet.
The front of the stage will be lined with planters filled with ornamental grasses that will camouflage footlights and wiring.
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Opisso said the design is meant to enhance, not take-away from the surroundings.
“We don’t want to impose but rather celebrate and enhance the vision of the park,” Opisso said. “To honor Jill’s vision.”
Officially it will be called the Port Jefferson Performing Arts Stage at Harborfront Park.
Mayor Margot Garant said the village is “deeply honored to create this important artistic space in Jill’s honor and memory.”
“[The stage] invites families to picnic in the park while listening to music with an elegant, maritime design that confirms to the natural beauty of the Park — and of Jill’s spirit,” she said.
According to Garant, the project will cost about $17,000 for staging and electric. The canvas sails will be an additional $5,000.
Some of the money to pay for the stage will come from a trust account accrued from the village farmer’s market. Additional funds will come from the Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy. The planting will be done in-house by the village’s parks department.
The village will be able to use the stage for a multitude of events, including making music a weekly component of the farmers market that takes place in the park.
Russell said he had been discussing the plans to create a tribute to his wife for months before Garant presented the idea to him. He was hesitant at first, but seeing the scope of what the planners imagined he quickly got on board.
“I felt like if we’re going to do something it should be big,” he said. “When I saw the plans, I realized it was bigger than I thought it would be. I was pleasantly surprised.”
Russell discussed the plans with his wife’s siblings as well.
“We all thought it was a great idea.”
Both his children are in the high school now, and he thinks the stage will really impress on them how much their mother did for others.
“It’s a great thing for them to remember her and what she meant to the village and residents of Port Jefferson.”
The stage is set to be completed by Saturday, August 10, with a tribute planned for Nees-Russell at the official unveiling.
Almost a year after she passed, people are still inspired by her.
Opisso said even he feels connected to her, even though they never met.
“I didn’t know Jill,” Opisso said. “But through the process I instantly felt connected with her.”
Benson called them “kindred spirits,” and said Nees-Russell’s ability to build bridges and inspire a small group of people to action still reverberates for her today.
“It’s a great legacy,” said Benson. “It encompasses her passion for music. Her passion for the arts. Her passion for the outdoors.”
Garant said that the natural beauty of the park reflects her friend’s spirit and with the stage in place, it will invite people to come enjoy music outside, something Nees-Russell loved to see.
“The performance stage is perfectly suited for our Jill,” she said.
Nees-Russell spent only 14 years as a village resident, but in that time she made an impact that will last many lifetimes.
“I definitely feel like this is a nice tribute to her and an honor for our kids,” her husband said. “It’s a place that 30 years from now they can they can bring their kids to show them what their grandmother meant.
“Someone who had that kind of impact on a community, who was there for only a small portion of her life.”