Jill Nees-Russells’s love of music and commitment to her community stood out the most on a bright, beautiful Saturday afternoon when Port Jefferson Village held a ceremony to honor her with the dedication of a new performing arts stage in her memory.
Nees-Russell died last June from cancer. She was an active member of the community serving as PTA president, village public relations officer, and spearheaded many other volunteer projects that benefited the people of Port Jefferson.
Nestled into a corner of Harborfront Park between views of boats gently bobbing in the water and the big red Village Center, the stage is a permanent fixture for residents to enjoy music, performances, and gatherings of every kind.
It sits off a curving pathway, embraced by the tree line that borders the yacht club and Centennial Park beach behind it and faces an expansive lawn for the public to sit in chairs and on blankets to enjoy the performances that will be staged there in the days and years to come.
During the ceremony, Mayor Margot Garant cited Nees-Russell’s “creativity, sensitivity and passion” for the outpouring of support in the village, inspiring them to create the performing arts stage in her honor.
In one of her many roles, as a board member of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, Nees-Russell was instrumental in getting a bus secured to be used as a mobile museum and education center.
“The memory of her spirit and enthusiasm remain an inspiration and will continue to guide the board to focus on its mission moving forward,” said Jim Faith, the museum’s executive director, during the ceremony.
Nees-Russell’s four siblings traveled to Port Jefferson for the dedication of joining her husband, Fred Russell, and their children, Henry and Lilly, who still live in the village.
Her older brother Jeff Nees came in from Oklahoma to thank the village for making sure his sister’s memory stayed alive.
“Jill was from Oklahoma but her heart and her home were here,” he said. “She was passionate about making the world aware of this little gem that is Port Jefferson.”
Nees-Russell’s husband took to the stage to talk about his wife and the love she had for the community.
“Even though Jill had the talent and the beauty to be on the stage she was usually one of the ones behind the scenes,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized how fitting a performance stage for the arts would be the perfect gift for Jill to share with the community for years to come.”
Nees-Russell had a passion for music and a talent for organizing.
“She had the personality to bring people together,” Russell said. “With her big beautiful eyes and generous nature, everyone who knew her loved her and those who didn’t have been blessed by all the charitable contributions she made.”
Landscape architect Michael Opisso designed the stage and local musician and craftsman Andrew Fortier built it. Although the stage and railings were completed in time for the ceremony, there was still work to be done, with a backdrop and multicolored sail-like canopies still to be installed.
Fittingly, the man who did the work to build the stage was also the first one to perform on it. Fortier and his two children sang a song that he wrote specifically for the occasion.
Nees-Russell and her husband moved to Long Island from Chicago just over 14 years ago and although they did not know anyone when they arrived, Russell said that the village embraced them and their small children.
“Our friends become our family and Port Jefferson became our home,” he said.
Scroll down to see photos from the dedication.