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Dec 12, 2017 4:56 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Robert Stelling Remembered For Love Of Beach, Family And Friends

Robert Stelling, far right, on his sailboat, Elegance, with beach club friends and employees Justin Gerbereux, Andy Schwinn and Erich Schwinn.
Dec 14, 2017 10:37 AM

An essential part of learning how to sail is learning what to do if the boat capsizes.

Mike Finocchiaro remembers that lesson, and the man who taught it to him—Robert Stelling—many years ago off the shore of the Southampton Peconic Beach and Tennis Club on the Great Peconic Bay in Shinnecock Hills.

He was on a Hobie Cat catamaran with Mr. Stelling and others, mentally preparing himself for the intentional capsize that was part of the lesson. He was frightened: He’d heard stories about Mr. Stelling being tossed into the rigging and getting scraped up.

So he asked Mr. Stelling if purposely flipping the boat over was really necessary.

“He hauled in the sheetline, looked at me, and said something to the effect of, ‘You can’t learn everything from a book—you’ve got this. I’ll be with you the whole time,’” Mr. Finocchiaro recalled earlier this week. “It was what he was all about: teaching and making you grow. He knew he wasn’t always going to be there with you, but he made sure he set you on the right path. It was that way with everything.”

Mr. Finocchiaro is one of countless people who learned about both sailing and life from Mr. Stelling during the nearly 40 years that his family has owned and operated the family-friendly beach club.

He’s also one of many community members now mourning the loss of Mr. Stelling, who died on Saturday at the age of 50 when a small private plane in which he was flying crashed into a house in San Diego, California.

He was a passenger in the six-seat single-engine airplane with his wife, Dr. Dawn Stelling, and two family friends. Dr. Stelling survived the crash with minor injuries and returned home to Southampton on Monday to be reunited with their three children.

The pilot, who was not immediately identified, also survived—but one family friend, still unidentified by authorities, also died.

Dr. Stelling, a veterinarian who owns the Olde Towne Animal Hospital on County Road 39 in Southampton, was in California with her husband for a veterinary conference. It’s not clear why the group was on the airplane, a 1995 Beechcraft Bonanza registered to Altitude Aviation Inc. of Hermosa Beach, California.

Earlier this week, multiple publications reported that the plane took off from Montgomery Field in San Diego, just east of Clairemont, California, at about 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the pilot reported engine failure shortly after takeoff, and tried to make an emergency landing in a schoolyard.

After touching ground, the plane crashed into a fence and into the back of a house at approximately 4:35 p.m., the Union-Tribune reported. An investigation into the cause of the crash is being conducted by the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Earlier this week, friends and family were struggling to come to grips with the sudden loss of Mr. Stelling, who many described as a larger-than-life figure in the Southampton community.

They described the unique family vibe at the Southampton Peconic Beach and Tennis Club, and how Mr. Stelling cultivated a down-to-earth atmosphere reminiscent of a bygone era. Members describe a place steeped in old school nostalgia, with brightly painted cabanas, an ice cream counter, and faux palm trees “planted” on the beach.

Children who spent their summers jumping into the pool from the diving board and sharing a well-worn collection of communal toys stored under the beach deck often became employees as they entered their teenage years. Tradition and memory-making were sacred—and Mr. Stelling was a key part of it all.

Members fondly recalled how Mr. Stelling and his father, Robert Stelling Sr., known to most as Bob, attached a large bell to a wooden post bolted to the side of the restaurant. The younger Mr. Stelling would ring the large, loud bell several times just as the sun dipped below the horizon, as families sat on the outside deck, enjoying the spectacular views of the bay while eating dinner.

Gil Flanagan, a Southampton-based attorney, is a longtime club member and said he knew Mr. Stelling for at least 20 years. “He was the greatest host,” he said. “He always made a point to make everyone feel special and welcome.”

Mr. Stelling was idolized by many children who grew up going to the club with their families, learning to sail under his watch and paying those lessons forward years later, as they become sailing instructors at the club themselves.

One of them, Andy Schwinn, said he owes his love of sailing—and so much more—to Mr. Stelling.

“Robert had this ability to make you want to be involved with what he was doing. And it wasn’t to seek his approval or make him proud of you—it was because he was enjoying it and, in a way, you wanted to enjoy things as much as he was,” Mr. Schwinn said. “He made everything fun, period.

“He taught hundreds of kids how to sail, and the lessons weren’t just about sailing. I think he gave us all a sense of responsibility and freedom that you couldn’t get playing on a sports team or doing other activities.

“I don’t think that Robert was intentionally trying to shape lives, teach people life lessons, or make you idolize him,” Mr. Schwinn continued. “He just had this inherent quality that made him do that by being who he was. I can’t think of a single person who went to the beach club and grew up with Robert who didn’t feel that way about him.”

Similar sentiments were expressed on Facebook by others close to Mr. Stelling and his family: stories of his joie de vivre, his love of the beach and sailing, and how he was at once a dear friend, mentor and role model.

“When it came to working for the beach club, Robert and his father had very high expectations for the employees,” Mr. Finocchiaro said. “Myself and so many others attribute our work ethic and where we are today to Robert and his father, Bob.”

Mr. Finocchiaro said he will miss his friend, but, in a tribute to Mr. Stelling on Facebook, he spoke about how he would remember him—sipping on a Red Stripe beer, wearing a floral shirt and sunglasses, relaxing at the beach, toes in the sand, with steel drum music playing in the background.

“I will never forget you,” he wrote at the conclusion of his post. “I went to your parents’ house last night. We spend hours talking. My eyes kept getting drawn to a small sign that sat in the window. I can’t get the saying out of my head, and hope I never do. It read: Memories made at the beach last a lifetime.”

Funeral arrangements were incomplete as of Tuesday afternoon.

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God Bless The Entire Stelling family, Robert will be forever in our hearts
By mychildmatters (70), SOUTHAMPTON on Dec 11, 17 1:08 PM
2 members liked this comment
Our thoughts and prayers are with the whole Stelling family
By photo friend (31), southampton on Dec 11, 17 1:13 PM
1 member liked this comment
Devastating news. Such a gentleman. So many local kids can say he was their first boss.
By Draggerman (942), Southampton on Dec 11, 17 2:15 PM
So very sorry for their loss. Preayers and peace to the family. Speedy recovery to Dawn. ����
By LovedHerTown (132), southampton on Dec 11, 17 5:23 PM
1 member liked this comment
So sorry for your loss Dawn and the whole family - our thoughts and prayers are with you
By Jac-man (22), Southampton on Dec 11, 17 6:07 PM
1 member liked this comment
My heart is breaking for this beautiful family. ��������
By Woods woman (144), East hampton on Dec 11, 17 6:31 PM
1 member liked this comment
Robert was beloved by so many and adored by his beautiful family. All who knew him are heartbroken. Prayers and love for the Stelling and Rosko family.
By mcreste (6), Hampton Bays on Dec 11, 17 9:20 PM
1 member liked this comment
My deepest sympathies to the Sterling family. I remember when Robert was
just a young boy helping his dad. Such a nice boy who grew up to be a fine
man and gentlemen. May God Bless the family.
By Jimion (129), Hampton Bays on Dec 12, 17 7:44 PM
1 member liked this comment
Our hearts pour out for the whole Stelling family. We will continue to pray that Robert's family and friends can find some comfort in the many wonderful memories he created. Robert will forever be loved and remembered by all, young and old.
By BK East (1), Southampton on Dec 12, 17 8:59 PM
1 member liked this comment
I too was blessed and privileged not only to be a member of the SPBC community but also an employee. My heart aches for this family. My prayers go out to all of them.
By born & raised LI (1), Lynchburg on Dec 13, 17 7:42 AM
Robert's memory will live on in all of us who were fortunate enough to enjoy his warm and friendly hospitality at ''the beach club''. Heartfelt prayers for Dawn and the children.
By KevinLuss (356), SH on Dec 13, 17 8:26 AM
1 member liked this comment
When my dog Bridey was hit by a car on Forth of July night a few years back, Dawn and Bob, left a party they were at, to come help. I had never met him , but he made us feel at ease. Ill never forget that. Thank you. Rest in Peace.
By clamdigger (83), Quogue on Dec 13, 17 10:50 AM
1 member liked this comment
Some of our best memories for my family were our years as members of the beach club. The Stellings were gracious hosts. My heart goes out to Bob and Renee, Dawn, Denise and all the grandchildren. I wish you all peace and strength. RIP Robert. ��
By Pat (1), Southampton on Dec 13, 17 7:23 PM
Growing up at the Club with Robert and Dawn, watching them fall in love, having practically every childhood summer memory acquainted with them, my heart is hurting unlike I have known. My love, prayers and hugs goes out to everyone. Love you all!
By THalsey1 (3), Southampton on Dec 13, 17 8:06 PM
1 member liked this comment
Growing up at the Club with Robert and Dawn, watching them fall in love, having practically every childhood summer memory acquainted with them, my heart is hurting unlike I have known. My love, prayers and hugs goes out to everyone. Love you all!
By THalsey1 (3), Southampton on Dec 13, 17 8:06 PM