New Moon Cafe Owner Ronnie Campsey: A Hamptons Legend

New Moon Cafe owner Ronnie Campsey
New Moon Cafe owner Ronnie Campsey
Marc Horowitz

It’s Friday night in late summer in the hamlet of East Quogue, and the New Moon Cafe is packed, just like it’s been on a lot of late-summer nights stretched across a lot of years.

The guitar player picks out the first few notes of a Neil Young song that everybody knows. A bachelorette party rolls in. At the bar, three ladies who had their own bachelorette parties a long, long time ago smile in unison, then finish up the last of their tacos and order a fresh round of drinks.

Next to them, a lobsterman relaxes with a pint and a burger. He smiles too, and nods to one of the girls in the bridal party. He went to high school with her dad.

Over in a secluded little corner facing the street, a couple in their early 20s is snuggling. They have a visitor at their table. He has long gray hair cascading out from under his cowboy hat like some kind of aging hippie biker.

The couple, who look like they just came from an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot, are smiling. So is their visitor.

“Excuse me, folks, I hope you’re enjoying yourselves,” the hippie biker says. “I just want to let you know that you’re sitting at the Love Table. There’s something about this spot. Lots of young lovers get together here, and not so long ago, a couple who sat right at this table on their first date ended up getting married.”

The couple has just had a close encounter with Ron “Ronnie” Campsey: decorated Vietnam War hero, beloved community philanthropist, local legend, and since 1979, the owner and proprietor of the New Moon Cafe, arguably the single most important gathering spot in East Quogue.

Cut to one week before Veterans Day on a stunning and unseasonably warm fall afternoon. Campsey is working on a scrapbook as the sun streams in through a window facing New Moon’s courtyard. He’s recounting a seminal moment in his life:

It’s 1967 in Lộc Ninh, Vietnam. Campsey, then 25 years old, is on patrol with his unit: 1st Division, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, Delta Company, known collectively as “The Big Red One.”

“My unit had never been in face-to-face combat,” he explains. “To us, it was like playing cowboys and Indians … An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) round hit the rubber tree I was standing behind and blew it to hell — and it took me with it … My face and my arm were numb, my uniform was shredded … The medic said, ‘Campsey, I thought you were dead,’ and he pulled me back. I asked him if my arm and leg were still attached. He had to tell me that they were.”

Campsey suffered multiple injuries, including a fractured vertebrae and severe shrapnel wounds, but rather than sitting out the rest of the battle and getting the treatment he needed, he continued fighting on that day in Lộc Ninh.

A short time later, he was involved in a ferocious firefight where he displayed a level of bravery and selflessness in combat that ultimately earned him a Silver Star for Gallantry, two Bronze Stars for Heroism and a Purple Heart.

While his experiences in Vietnam changed him in many ways, Campsey refused to let his trauma consume him. He worked to overcome his physical and psychological wounds.

Part of the healing process involved codifying his thoughts on the Vietnam War — and the essence of war in general. When he marches in veterans parades or takes part in activities that call for placards or banners, Campsey carries a sign printed with his own words:

WHY I LOVE AMERICA
I march for those who are with me whose voices can no longer be heard
For the families who lost so much to war
Every day is Memorial Day for them
I hope the young men and women will stand up and ask “WHY?”
When the sabres of war come rattling again.

Ron Campsey & New Moon Cafe Give Back

A key part of Campsey’s healing process also involved giving back to the community he’s lived in for 45 years.

He works extensively with veterans organizations, but his community service does not end there. For two decades, he’s provided a full Thanksgiving meal at no charge to hundreds of local seniors — veterans and non-veterans alike.

For the first 10 years or so, he and his staff cooked the food on premises and served it at the New Moon Cafe bar — along with two free cocktails per meal. Eventually, Campsey and a team of volunteers began hand-delivering the meals to those most in need.

And during the early stages of the pandemic, even with his business suffering and potential bankruptcy looming, Campsey helped feed needy families for free.

He has also established the New Moon Cafe as the de facto spot the East Quogue community turns to for charity events and fundraisers. The restaurant space and the food are always provided free of charge.

“Ron Campsey loves the community so much, and the community adores him,” says Casey Ryckman, a longtime East Quogue resident and one of the organizers of a recent benefit at New Moon.

Ryckman notes that not only did Campsey donate the use of the restaurant and provide the food at no charge to the organization, he also personally helped serve the guests.

Campsey has earned his status as a pillar of the East Quogue community. But to become a true local legend, you need a bit of a rogue streak — and a touch of controversy. In Campsey’s case, that controversy came in 1990.

Campsey was living in the apartment above New Moon Cafe — the same apartment where he raised his four children and where he still lives today with his wife, Shana. He was arrested in New Moon’s dining room and summarily perp-walked out of the building.

He was booked on two charges: theft of cable services and possession of burglar’s tools. The latter charge made it sound like Campsey was caught hiding a set of bolt cutters and lockpicking gear. The reality was a lot more innocuous.

Based on the law as written, the “burglar’s tools” in question turned out to be the coaxial cables that ran from the upstairs apartment to the bar’s TV sets.

Campsey doesn’t deny that he received free service from Cablevision for a period of time. The rest of the story involves cops, lawyers, judges, corporate vengeance and lots of local newspaper coverage — all of which helped burnish his legend among East Quogue residents old enough to remember the details.

Campsey’s own memory of the specifics of the Cablevision case is a little fuzzy these days. But after a mistrial, a successful countersuit and lots of negotiation, he managed to walk away free and clear.

Now 80 years old and planning for the last chapters of his remarkable life, Campsey is asked whether he’d ever consider selling the restaurant he’s owned and operated for almost five decades — a place of monumental importance to the East Quogue community.

“We’ve talked about selling, but I’ve been visiting tables and welcoming people for 45 years,” he says. “In the outside world, I could never pay for the things I get in here.”

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