A few years ago, Andy Stewart was climbing up the the back of a billboard on Route 9W with one thought going through his mind.
“This is really stupid,” he thought. “I should not be here right now.”
But Stewart, the then-executive director of Keep Rockland Beautiful, kept climbing and eventually hung a banner on the billboard alerting the public to a large cleanup the organization was running.
When looking for a visible place to hang the banner, Stewart noticed the billboard empty and called the number to ask about hanging something on it. When he was told he could he then realized he wasn’t too sure actually how to.
“I got rope, I got my Subaru and I went out and I climbed up the back of this billboard with ropes,” he said. “I kind of threw ‘em this way, threw ‘em that way and basically pulled the banner up. But when I was up there, this thing isn’t designed for climbing.”
He said when the back of the billboard was a criss-cross of 2x4’s with nails sticking out of them.
“If I fall, the insurance company is basically going to kill Keep Rockland Beautiful,” he said.
Stewart didn’t fall. Instead, he just had one more story to add to those that he and many others shared Wednesday night at Keep Rockland Beautiful’s annual meeting and dinner at Emmett's Castle at Blue Hill in Pearl River. At the meeting, the group was also saying goodbye to Stewart, who left the organization after 10 years with the organization after being elected Orangetown Town Supervisor last November.
“It’s just an amazing feeling for me to stand here and know that my family has grown so much over the last 10 years with Keep Rockland Beautiful,” he said.
Throughout the night, many talked about Stewart’s accomplishments as head of the organization, and plenty of others were happy just to be there to celebrate Stewart.
“Keep Rockland Beautiful really took off under Andy’s leadership,” said New York State Sen. David Carlucci. “If you go around Rockland now, you can see less pollution. There’s a drastic difference since he took over.”
Stewart was also presented with a number of awards, including plaques from three superintendents of highways.
“I’ve been through a lot of executive directors since 1998, and Andy by far is the best, the most creative and the most energetic person I’ve ever worked with,” said Wayne Ballard, Clarkstown superintendent of highways.
The group also honored Orangetown Superintendent of Highways Jim Dean, who has spent the past eight years on the organization’s board. Michelle Damiani, past president of Keep Rockland Beautiful, called Dean a friend and said he would help the group get whatever they needed, including ice.
“He’d bring us a truckload of ice,” she said. “He’d pull up and there would be these two gigantic coolers you could put bodies in with ice.”
Dean was presented with a clock for his service.
“I didn’t really need to get anything,” Dean said. “Eight years of being on this board was enough of a reward. These are hardworking people that are willing to give their time to try and make Rockland a better place, and I appreciate the opportunity to be there.”
Dean also had only positive things to say about Stewart.
“It’s been a pleasure working with Andy all this time on the board for Keep Rockland Beautiful,” Dean said. “For years, highway superintendents were getting blamed for not picking up all the litter on the side of the road. From Andy’s efforts, we’ve gone from maybe 500 people to 3,500 people each year coming out each year to help with litter.”
Stewart also shared another example of the kind of thing he did as executive director that led to numerous people to talk about his energy and passion at Wednesday’s dinner.
Stewart was with his two children and others in a rubbery canoe on the Hackensack River, where they were riding around picking trash out of the water.
“We’re going along and all of a sudden this sort of spike of a broken shopping cart that was submerged comes up through the floor of the canoe,” Stewart said. “Water starts to kind of fountain out the bottom of the canoe. We got the trash, we got the kids and everybody’s got their paddle like ‘Oh my god, quick, paddle for shore!’ We just made it to shore as the canoe was submerging.”
Stewart said that one thing he learned while executive director was just how hard it is to ask people for money.
“Nobody really likes [asking],” he said. “One of the things I’ve found out is if you know Keep Rockland Beautiful, you know that you get an extraordinary amount of bang for your buck. It has so many people out there who want to help. They do need to be asked, they do need to be given the opportunity.”
That’s why, Stewart said, he wanted to his last act as executive director to be signing up for a Keep Rockland Beautiful lifetime membership, which he did while presenting Damiani with a check.
“I’m moving from being the guy who’s given a whole lot of time to someone who is going to be a member for a really long time,” he said.
After his speech, Damiani and Sonia Cairo, Keep Rockland Beautiful’s new executive director, presented Stewart with a painting by James Kimak.
Before the dinner, Keep Rockland Beautiful held its actual annual meeting, where they elected two new board members: Hildee Ryan and Stony Point Superintendent of Highways Larry Brissing.