Robert Luongo's passing, nearly 16 years ago took from many a good man, with a brilliant mind and a love of family and friends.
But while Robert may have departed this life at the young age of 49, his legacy continues to resonate, according to his older brother, Lenny.
Robert was a 1973 graduate of Belleville High School, where he was captain of the football and track teams. He would attend Harvard University and was on his way to a stellar business career, as well as being a loving husband and father.
In 1999, Robert developed symptoms that were later confirmed to be the beginning of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
According to the ALS Association website, motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their demise. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost.
With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. The motor nerves that are affected when you have ALS are the motor neurons that provide voluntary movements and muscle control. Examples of voluntary movements are making the effort to reach for a smart phone or step off a curb. These actions are controlled by the muscles in the arms and legs.
ALS, of course, is also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, in memory of the New York Yankees slugger who died from the effects of ALS in 1941, at the age of 37.
Lenny Luongo, eight years his brother's senior, recalls the friendship and support which was provided by Robert from many family and friends, particularly Phil Cuzzi, a classmate of Robert's at Belleville High and today a successful Major League Baseball umpire.
"Phil was very close to Robert," said Lenny last week. "When Robert was diagnosed with ALS, Phil made him a promise that he'd help Robert's daughter, Dominique eventually follow her dad's footsteps and attend Harvard."
During Robert's illness, Cuzzi worked hard to provide his friend with tools that would help him communicate. In 2003, Robert received a computer that could read a person's eyes and generate words.
"It was tough," recalled Lenny. "The technology then isn't what it is today. Robert did his best, but it was hard for him. At the time, it was good for Robert to have that ability. His mind was very sharp."
On March 17, 2004, Robert Luongo died. He was 49 years old.
Less than a year later, Cuzzi began the first Robert Luongo ALS Fund Dinner, at Nanina's in the Park, in Belleville to honor Robert's legacy, as well as raise money for multiple causes, including research to one day put an end to this wretched disease.
"There were probably around 325 people at that first dinner," said Lenny. "It was a great turnout, and, of course, Nanina's did a tremendous job. From there, it just continued to grow."
Cuzzi had become an MLB umpire in 1999, after a long run in the minor leagues.
"Robert would go to Phil's minor league games everywhere possible," said Lenny, with a laugh. "I'm talking places no one had ever heard of, in the Southern League. That's the life of an ump in the minor leagues. It's not easy."
Cuzzi's promotion to the big leagues, ironically came in the same year Robert was diagnosed with ALS. It was during that time that Cuzzi made the promise to Robert that he'd do everything possible, financially. to help Robert's daughter make it to Harvard one day.
"Phil was always there," sad Lenny. "And after Robert died, the dinner took on a life of its own, with the silent auction and all the sports memorabilia."
The dinner has been held every year at Nanina's since the 2005 inception. On Jan. 30, the 16th Robert Luongo ALS Dinner will be celebrated.
"Every year, there seems to be a new attendance record for Nanina's when it comes to the dinner," said Lenny. "It's amazing. Dominique has already graduated, from Harvard, but the dinner continues to evolve. Phil's commitment to finding a cure for ALS and donating money for research is really something."
Every year at the dinner, the guest speaker is always a well-kept secret. Hall of Fame baseball managers Tommy Lasorda, Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa have been among the past guest speakers. A number of sports celebrities, such as Bob Costas, Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney have been regulars at the dinner.
January 17, 2020 would have been Robert Luongo's 65th birthday. And while he may not be with his loved ones, physically, his spirit and love for life has never wavered.
Lenny was asked how Robert would have reacted to all the attention the dinner in his memory has provided.
"I think he'd be proud," said Lenny. "It's a great event and our family is so appreciative. My dad (Michael) lived until 95 years of age and was able to attend a number of the dinners. He really enjoyed them. My dad didn't hear that well, so Sam Stellatella would film the dinners and send them to my father, so he could hear the speeches better, from home, after the event.
"And my mother, Angelina (everyone called her Lee) was also at some of the earlier dinners.
"While Robert would be proud, he probably would have had a couple of comments on the dinner. You know, constructive criticism. But that was Robert."
The Robert Luongo ALS Fund Dinner continues to raise money for research and has become a wonderful symbol of charity and goodwill.
That's just the way the Luongo family would prefer to honor Robert's life. Robert Luongo and his family were Belleville, NJ originals and a wonderful link to a cherished past.