A College Friendship Proves Stronger Than a Storm

Jeanmarie Haggerty '08 and Matt Bursic '08

JeanMarie Haggerty ’08 and Matt Bursic ’08 in 2007

By JeanMarie Haggerty ’08

I often find myself boasting about Marist, both to my peers and to younger individuals considering the college for what is presented to them as one of the most important, if not the most important, four-year period in their lives. “You’ll never make friends like the ones you make at Marist,” I say, thinking of the monthly reunions I still have with 10 women whom I met there. “There’s so much opportunity to have a unique college experience,” I add, remembering my time as an RA, my time abroad in Sydney, my Tuesday nights in Intramural Basketball, the excellent mentoring and leadership provided by many faculty, and the many fun nights I had, all on the serene landscape along the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie. “I wouldn’t take back anything about it,” I usually finish with, hoping to connect with the anxiety I assume these younger people feel in selecting what college to attend.

In the nearly five years since I have graduated from Marist, I have obtained my MSW from the Hunter College School of Social Work, embarking on a career as a social worker in New York City. I often found myself feeling privileged for my life overall, but specifically for my time at Marist and the seemingly easy way of life I felt I was awarded there. I admit I have scoffed at the idea of the college experience as one of the most important periods of one’s life. What was so significant about life at Marist? How did those four years profoundly impact my life? Aren’t promotions, partnering, children, and loss so much more important? The life-defining moments were surely ahead. In retrospect, my pride and motivation to always strive for something better obstructed my insight. Still, it is hard to imagine tragedy when you fly high, and even harder to imagine who will support you when your wings falter.

On Oct. 29, 2012, my life, the lives of my family members, my fiancé and his family, and the lives of my friends and neighbors in the communities of Rockaway and Breezy Point, NY, were struck by tragedy. As is the case with these types of things, our lives changed forever and in ways that we were not prepared for. Hurricane Sandy hit us, and hit us hard. My family was among the lucky ones, as our home in Rockaway Park remained standing, the ocean water flowing from a block away and stopping one step below the first floor, creating a nine-foot-deep saltwater pool in the basement apartment, causing my parents, brother, and one sister to carry my youngest sister who is wheelchair-bound up to the second floor during high-tide fear. The one-story home belonging to my brother, sister-in-law, and my two-year-old niece was destroyed. Around them, mass catastrophe: flooding everywhere, whole blocks burnt to the ground around the corner and then, 10 blocks away, the beloved family restaurant that I waitressed at throughout graduate school, the Harbor Light, also destroyed by fire, over 100 homes burnt to the ground in Breezy Point, and sadly, lives lost. Rockaway and Breezy, small communities that were home to dozens of Marist alumni and current students, were faced with arguably the toughest times they will ever meet. I will never forget the feeling as I drove into Rockaway that Tuesday morning, absorbing all that I witnessed: an ocean that had unlawfully swallowed up land; smoldering fires and empty spaces where my friends’ homes once stood; the homes that stood ransacked, or crumbled like a caved-in chocolate lava cake; shell-shocked people, with tear-streaked, tired faces; planks of the famous Rockaway Beach boardwalk left haphazardly by the ocean in my family’s front yard; water lines along homes, fences, cars, and businesses that punched me in the stomach. I imagined that if I picked up a displaced sea shell, I could hear the ocean mocking, “What did you expect? I wouldn’t rise that high?” There was nothing we could do that day. Most were marooned without cell phone service, cars, gas, food, electricity, and heat. In a community where extending oneself to help another in need is commonplace, we were all in need and knew not where to turn.

At some point in that Monday-Tuesday span, I received a text from an old Marist friend, Matt Bursic, offering any help that my family should need during the hurricane. Although Matt and I had infrequently kept in touch since we graduated in 2008, I regarded him as one of my closest friends during my time at Marist. He was actually my first Marist friend. Matt was from Brooklyn and we had met the summer before college at the beach club in Breezy Point where we both worked. We were often inseparable when we began our careers at Marist, ultimately forming new friendships with others and finding our individual niches in college. I always knew Matt’s character was unquestionable, and that if I ever were stuck in a hard spot, I could depend on him. Hurricane Sandy was one of the lowest points in my family’s life, and I knew Matt’s offer to help was genuine, so I said yes. All Matt said was, “I’m on my way.”

I did not know that “on my way” meant ending a family vacation in Florida early to drive all the way back to New York. I did not fathom that “on my way” meant buying a gas-powered generator and water pump in North Carolina for my family, an expense in and of itself incredibly generous, but meaning so much more as we were cold and sitting in the dark, hearing that generators were impossible to buy throughout the tri-state area. I could never have imagined that “on my way” meant that Matt and his family would come to my family’s home every day that first week after Sandy hit, and then every single weekend for over a month to gut and clean, bringing us hot meals and much needed gas.

Each Saturday morning in November I was blown away by Matt and his family’s presence. They showed up again on Sunday morning, never stopping until the sun went down. It was cold. The rubble was heavy. The smells of gasoline and bleach seeped into your skin. Any clothes one wore were ruined and yet Matt and his family never hesitated. In mid-December Matt and his family moved my parents’ and siblings back into Rockaway from an apartment rented in Brooklyn, and then brought cookies and other holiday goodies to my house on Christmas Eve morning. All of this from a friend whom I was not even in regular contact with. In response to my fumbled, feeble thank you’s for the most generosity and support my family has ever been shown, all Matt said was, “You would do the same.” Simply describing Matt and his family’s actions dwarfs their significance; timeliness was a huge factor in saving what was left of one’s home after Sandy struck. The threat of mold, and the long-term, insidious damage it could wreak on one’s home was on everyone’s minds. Despite having nine feet of water in the basement, we never found mold, and just over one month after Sandy, we were able to move back in. Without the help of Matt, his family, and a few other family friends, my family would have lost our home completely.

How naïve I was, indeed, to regard my time at Marist as not being one of the most important times in my life. Marist attracts a specific caliber of person, and then continues to foster that character in ways that are made manifest throughout life as we are presented with the opportunity to define ourselves through our actions. Marist has allowed me to cross paths with individuals who have changed the course of my life, and that of my family’s, for the better. Matt Bursic and his family are such people. Without Marist, I would probably never have become friends with Matt. It was not Marist that saved my family’s home, but it was the person and his family that I met through Marist, which serves as a testament to the Marist experience and the bonds we formed there. I can confidently, proudly say that I wouldn’t take back anything about it.