Rich Acritelli ’00, ’03 has had a love of history from a young age and got his bachelor’s degree in history. After serving nine years in the Army Reserves and Air National Guard, he followed his dream of becoming a history teacher.
As a high school history teacher in Rocky Point, New York, and an adjunct history professor at Suffolk County Community College, Acritelli wanted to give back even more by telling the stories of Long Island veterans to a larger audience. He found the perfect spot in the restored Rocky Point train station across from VFW Post 6249.
The Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars World War II and Military History Museum is set to open on December 7, 2023, which is the 82nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The museum, which is free to visit, will feature artifacts from veterans across Long Island, special exhibits, school programs and guest lectures.
Acritelli also led the construction of a 9/11 memorial in nearby Coram, New York, in 2011 that commemorates rescue workers, War on Terror veterans and the graduates and residents of the towns of Brookhaven and Riverhead whose lives were lost.
As he prepares for the museum’s opening, Acritelli describes how his time at Stony Brook helped shape his career and how he’s thrilled to share the memories and history of Long Island veterans with the community.
Why are you opening up this museum?
I love American history and American military history. Being a veteran myself, I think it’s so important to share the stories of our local veterans. And while this museum will be in Rocky Point, we’ll have artifacts from not just Long Island but also across the country, from different wars and military components. We want this museum to tie our local military history to American military history. There are so many important lessons, and we want to make sure people don’t forget them. We want to not only tell their stories but also shine a light on these veterans and their families, who have all made sacrifices for our country.
What sort of items will be on display? Will there be programs or lectures available?
Veterans and their families have generously donated all of the artifacts. We have weapons, uniforms, boots, parachutes, medals and so much more. Someone actually donated medals from veterans who served in Germany during World War I and World War II. We’ll feature different exhibits throughout the year. When it opens, there will be an exhibit on sports and the military and another on military families.
We’ll provide programs and classes for high school and college students, and I’ll work with different school districts to set up field trips. We’ll also have hands-on programs for the general public. And, of course, veterans will have the opportunity to speak about their experiences.
In addition to the museum, you helped establish a 9/11 memorial in your hometown. What inspired you to establish this memorial?
Joanne Ahladiotis ’96 was a friend and fellow Stony Brook alumni who died on 9/11. After the attacks, we started raising funds to build a memorial to honor our community members who lost their lives on 9/11, as well as rescue workers and War on Terror veterans. We were able to get the memorial built in Diamond in the Pines in Coram on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Creating the memorial was a way for me to honor my friend, as well as all those who lost their lives as a result of the attacks.
Why did you join the Army Reserves and Air National Guard?
I come from a very patriotic background. My grandfather’s name was George Washington Acritelli. Also, my mother grew up in poverty in Ireland. So, growing up, I always knew how fortunate I was to live in this country, and I wanted to go into the service to give back. I joined the reserves right out of high school and then pursued my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stony Brook while in the Air National Guard.
How has your service shaped you?
I appreciated the leadership in the service. I always liked the history behind it and the reason for doing things. I was an 18-year-old kid hauling jet fuel over the George Washington Bridge and along the Eastern Seaboard. I joined right after the Cold War and served alongside veterans from the Vietnam and Cold Wars and others who served in Iraq during the first Gulf War. I learned from the best how to work hard, ask questions and perform my job. And I knew what it meant to have a sense of purpose.
Once I got to Stony Brook, I learned very quickly how to balance school work and being in the service. I would work on papers at night in the field while others were sleeping. I also learned how to work together with people from different backgrounds. It was only a few months after graduation that I got my first job as a history teacher.
What was your time like at Stony Brook? What professors influenced you?
I took all the history classes Stony Brook had to offer, and I had some great professors. While in the honors degree program, I worked under Professor Michael Barnhart.
Professor Barnhart would sit with me, offer his advice and keep me motivated. He was tough, but he was fair, and I learned so much from him.
As an undergraduate, I wrote a 165-page research paper on General George S. Patton. I had to go into the modern military archives to gather information. It was such a great experience. Professor Barnhart helped me with that research paper, and I am actually using those skills to help open the museum.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching and helping your students learn about and understand the past?
Being able to share American history with students is such a great thing. As a nation, we’re always striving for greatness. Sure, there can be some trying times, but there are always lessons to be learned. And that is what I tell my students. I love to work with them on their writing — I even help them write stories for local papers. I find it so rewarding to teach them how to research information about their past and how it is intertwined with American history.