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Island Profile: A retail executive finds her way back home
Nanette Breiner-Lawrenson, the director of the Shelter Island Historical Society since last winter, is a former summer kid who came back to live and work in the place she loved and, in a way, never left.
She grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens with two brothers. Lawrence lives in Boston and Emory lives on the Island and is a member of the Planning Board.
From the 1950s, she grew up coming with her family to their Shelter Island home every Friday night and for all holidays.
She has always maintained the family home in HiLo Shores, and despite stays in several other states, “I’ve never been away for all that long,” visiting and vacationing here often.
Her parents “gave me many great gifts and one of the greatest was the opportunity to live on Shelter Island as a child,” she said. “It sounds trite, I know, but my experience here has certainly formed the person that I am today.”
She graduated from high school in Queens in 1972 and began working full time during the day and going to college at night. It was not until the late ‘70s that she finally got her degree, having transferred to Stony Brook University from C. W. Post. She majored in anthropology.
“I wanted to be the next Jane Goodall and work with chimpanzees,” she said. Although that never happened, she found those studies a solid foundation for her career “because it’s the understanding of a culture that enables you to work with a variety of people, some of whom believe things that you don’t.”
Her first job “out in the world” was at Tiffany and Company at 57th and Fifth, where she met different people, sampled her first corporate culture and her anthropology background didn’t let her down. Tiffany remained her employer for decades although her jobs changed over the years as she rose up the ladder.
Her first stint was in the display department, where she unpacked new shipments, labeled them and displayed them. Next she went to the china and crystal department as a buyer and eventually the merchandising manager.
“It was New York in the ‘70s, Boston in the ‘80s, New Jersey and Florida, mid-’80s to mid-’90s,” she said of her posts with Tiffany. Her titles went from sales manager to operations manager and finally to vice president of Tiffany and Company, South Florida.
She resigned in the mid-‘90s to avoid a transfer back to New York City because she and her daughter by then were deeply rooted in Florida. Because she had served on the boards of several non-profit groups during her career at Tiffany, a natural step for her was to begin consulting for them. She joined a consulting firm and, over time, worked with more than 30 groups on strategic planning, fund development, marketing and board development.
“I learned a lot,” she said. “Now I could never go back to a corporate lifestyle. Working with non-profits is to live in a passionate place, to live and breathe what you’re doing. It’s not about making money but doing something important and I absolutely love it.”
Nanette was formerly married to Kenny Lawrenson, whose family lived in Hay Beach. Her daughter, Courtney, 25, lives in Palm Beach, where Nanette continues to maintain a home herself. But she always missed the Northeast and, for a number of years, had been looking for a way back — not just to the region but to the Island.
“Florida was a beautiful place to live but it never tugged at my heart,” she said.
Now she’s here to stay. She’ll visit Florida now and then but “has no plans at present. Maybe in the winter for a week or two.”
Her first experience working with the Historical Society was as a member of the board. A year and a half ago, she was staying here on the Island, consulting for some East End non-profits and was referred by one of them to Pat Mundus, then director of the Society. She was asked to organize a workshop for the Society on strategic planning; soon after, members invited her to join the board of trustees. She has always loved Havens House, the 1740s headquarters of the Society as well its museum, “so filled with stories and history.” To return to the Island and fill the position of director is very much a labor of love for her.
She outlined a number of the Society’s future plans and needs. For one thing, the Havens House and the Society’s barn need new roofs.
The Society’s greatest need right now is funding for programs, both year-round as well as in summer, especially for the students of the Island. To make that happen, funds are needed to heat the barn through the winter.
She said she would love to see a children’s summer camp in the society’s barn with a focus on Island history.
A program she finds really exciting is the society’s ongoing oral history project. There are 150 tapes that were recorded over the past decade by Islanders remembering past events. They need to be digitized to make them easy for visitors to access. And further recordings need to be made, she said.
“Imagine walking in here” to the Havens House “and hearing the voice of some Island resident telling the story of some event in their life,” she said. Funding is needed for both equipment and someone to load the digitize the recordings. She estimated the project would cost about $12,000 but it could be started with $8,000.
“That would get us going,” she said. “It would be very exciting, to enhance the tours of Havens House with the voices of the people who were such a part of this Island.”