Year in Review: Queens mourned these local icons in 2022

Sylvia Weprin died peacefully in her sleep on Oct. 26 at the age of 92. (Photo by Adrian Childress)

As we look forward to 2023, QNS is looking back at our top stories throughout 2022.

In 2022, Queens lost a legendary sports director, the matriarch of a political dynasty and a movie star who was raised in Sunnyside.

Legendary St. John’s athletic director Jack Kaiser dies at age 95

Longtime St. John’s University Athletic Director Jack Kaiser dies at age 95. (QNS/File)

The St. John’s University community mourned the loss of longtime Athletic Director Jack Kaiser, who died Wednesday, May 25, at the age of 95.

Kaiser was remembered as a “foundational figure” in the history of St. John’s serving as the “patriarch of the Red Storm athletic department” for parts of nine decades, beginning as a standout three-sport athlete in the 1940s and ending with his tenure as the department’s athletic director emeritus from 1995 until his death.

Kaiser was one of seven athletic directors that banded together to create the Big East Conference in 1979, forever changing the history of college basketball. As the school’s athletic director from 1973 to 1995, Kaiser oversaw the men’s basketball team which was among the top five winningest programs in the country during that span.

A staunch advocate for equality on all fronts, Kaiser instituted women’s varsity athletics at SJU beginning in 1974, setting the foundation for the 10 successful Red Storm women’s teams sponsored by the university today.

Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Kaiser attended St. John’s Prep before enlisting in the U.S. Army toward the end of World War II. Upon returning home in 1946 he enrolled at SJU, where he was a three-sport star for the Redmen, decades before the name change to Red Storm. His greatest success came on the baseball team, and after college, he signed with the Boston Red Sox. As an outfielder, his pathway was blocked by the likes of Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, and so Kaiser decided to accept a standing offer to join the SJU baseball coaching staff, which he took over in 1956.

“As a player, a coach, an athletic director, and especially as a supporter of St. John’s, Jack was a difference-maker. We celebrate his life well-lived,” SJU President Reverend Brian Shanley said. “While the baseball stadium bears his name, Jack’s footprint on the trajectory of St. John’s athletics and his personal impact on our students transcends generations of Johnnies across multiple sports. Long before I came to know Jack personally, I knew of his influence on college sports, a boundless one that only endures and expands. Jack leaves behind an immeasurable legacy and commitment to athletic excellence. May he rest in peace.”

Actor and Sunnyside native James Caan dead at 82; known for Oscar-nominated role in ‘The Godfather’

James Caan, whose roles included “The Godfather,” “Brian’s Song” and “Misery,” died Wednesday, July 6, 2022, at age 82. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

James Caan, the curly-haired tough guy from Sunnyside known to film fans as the hotheaded Sonny Corleone of “The Godfather” franchise, died at the age of 82 in May. Caan was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx to Sophie and Arthur Caan, Jewish immigrants from Germany. They settled in Sunnyside, where Caan would grow up. The actor has previously said that Sunnyside shaped him into the rough and rugged actor he was known to be in most of his roles.

Caan’s identity from “The Godfather” stuck with him, once saying, “They called me wiseguy. I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m Jewish, not Italian.”

On growing up in Sunnyside, Caan said, “I really believe that you grow up a certain way in New York. There’s a New York morality, a sense of loyalty. You know how to win and lose. There are a thousand kids outside; you know who to push and who not to push. There’s a sixth sense you develop just because it’s New York.”

The Museum of the Moving Image’s Caan Film Festival celebrated the life, career and legacy of late actor in September revisiting the most iconic performances of his six-decade career such as “The Godfather,” “El Dorado,” “Games,” “The Gambler,” “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” “Cinderella Liberty,” “The Killer Elite,” “Thief” and “Elf.”

One of the last films Caan starred in as the commanding patriarch was James Gray’s “The Yards” in 2000. The film was fittingly set in the actor’s hometown of Sunnyside, Queens, which is situated less than a mile from the Museum of the Moving Image.

Sylvia Weprin, the matriarch of a political family, dies at age 92

Sylvia Weprin died peacefully in her sleep on Oct. 26 at the age of 92. (Photo by Adrian Childress)

City and state lawmakers joined Congresswoman Grace Meng, Attorney General Letitia James, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, and District Attorney Melinda Katz to pay their final respects to Sylvia Weprin, who died peacefully in her sleep on Oct. 26 at the age of 92.

She was married to former state Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin and mother to three sons, including Assemblyman David Weprin and former Assemblyman Mark Weprin, who spoke at her funeral at Schwartz Brothers-Jeffer Memorial Chapels in Forest Hills on Oct. 28. He recalled her toughness as an 8-year-old immigrant from Cuba arriving in the United States in 1938.

“Getting on a boat and coming to a new country, my mom didn’t know why she was coming. She thought she was coming to visit relatives,” he said. “She only spoke Spanish, not a single word of English. Kids can be cruel and she’d get picked on. One day four or five boys were picking on her so she went up to the biggest kid and punched him in the nose. They stopped picking on her.”

After graduating from Brooklyn College, she taught biology in English and Spanish for three decades, before retiring in 1991 so she could join her husband in Albany.

“She chose to forego her teaching career to be the wife of the speaker, moving to be by his side, not just for companionship, but truly for a profound partnership,” David Weprin said.

He told of his parents traveling to Mackinac Island in Michigan for a national speakers conference where his mother was holding court at the pool.

“Someone approached my father and asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ He answered, ‘This is the National Speakers Conference and I am the speaker of the great state of New York.’ The fellow then asked my father, ‘Who is that woman?’ pointing to my mother. ‘She’s my wife,’ he said, to which the man asked, ‘If you’re the speaker, why’s she doing all the talking?’” Weprin said.