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April 26, 2013
Island Profile: She flew out of Dodge and landed in paradise
Shelter Island Library board member Phyllis Gates, who is also active in the League of Women Voters, was born in 1941 in Dodge, a small Nebraska town about 20 miles from Omaha. She eventually moved, when she was six, with her parents and younger brother, to Beatrice, Nebraska. It was a much larger and more exciting place — a town of 8,000. She graduated from a Catholic high school there in 1959, one of a class of 13.
It’s not surprising that, after a long public relations career in New York City, she finds Shelter Island “like coming home. Then, the sea was of cornfields and now it’s saltwater but the feelings are the same.”
She understands small places.
She attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, graduating in 1964. Unsure of her next steps, she taught high school for a time while working on a master’s degree in theatre, which she never completed. Theatre was not her main interest but the man she was aiming to please was: she married him, actor Tom Crawley, in 1967. They moved to New York City, where Tom enrolled in the first class of what was to become the Tisch School of the Arts.
The only job she could find was as a receptionist for a small company, Pegasus Publishing, which had opened its doors five months earlier and “published the kind of books on college required reading lists,” she recalled. After six weeks, she was assigned to work for an editor but shortly thereafter she was offered the chance to do public relations for an array of upcoming books.
At the same time, Tom, acting in New York, belonged to a company that had an opportunity to work for a month in Dubrovnik, Croatia, then Yugoslavia. She went with him and got to know the other members of his theatre company, including actress Linda Gates, the wife of Gary Gates, Phyllis’ future husband.
Through the years, Phyllis and Gary became good friends because they were the only non-theatre people in a circle of actor friends and spouses.
Back in New York City, working on her first publicity campaign for Pegasus, she staged an event at Esquire Magazine and six months later the publicity director there called, announced she was leaving and asked if Phyllis would like her job. The answer was a definite yes.
From 1969 to 1979, she held a number of positions at Esquire, Inc., first as director of publicity for both Esquire and GQ (Gentlemen’s Quarterly) and subsequently as vice president for investor and corporate relations. But rumors of a takeover had the ring of truth, she thought, and when she was offered a position at CBS, she accepted.
From 1979 through 1990, she created and then managed the communications department for CBS Magazines while Gary was writing at CBS News. Her responsibilities included all communications and media relations, through several organizational realignments, acquisitions and divestitures. When CBS was sold to Viacom, she, as all department heads did, stayed on under existing contracts. When the contracts ended, all departments, including hers, were eliminated.
During those turbulent years, her personal life changed dramatically as well. She was divorced, amicably “if there is such a thing,” in 1979; without children, the parting was smoother than might have been the case. Years later, in 1983, Gary was divorced as well. “The friendship maintained itself,” she remembered, “because we liked each other a lot.” But the relationship stayed on a “friendship” course “until about ‘87 and then it went in a romantic direction.” She married her award-winning writer husband in 1989.
She tried doing freelance work, as well as some speech writing, but found it all difficult to do without a staff and realized it was not what she really wanted to do.
In 1998, the couple bought a house on Shelter Island, where they already had some friends and had visited over the years. They kept a studio apartment in the city. “We didn’t want to cut ourselves off completely. But when I moved here, I saw the sky and it was there and there were stars at night and there were birds in the morning. I have yet to hear a garbage truck outside my window. I really loved living in the city. I loved it, but now when I go in, what I hear is the noise and what I see is the chaos and what I miss are the birds and sky.”
Just as she stopped freelancing, she met Betsy Jacobson, then president of the Shelter Island League of Women Voters at a party on the Island and joined the group. Initially she was involved in the membership drives but moved on to the position of secretary that she currently holds.
Four years ago, she was invited to join the board of the Shelter Island Public Library. “I couldn’t have joined at a more exciting time,” she said. The library in recent years has become the place for information, for enjoyment, for programs, for “your children or grandchildren,” she said. “The staff is so terrific, Denise [DiPaolo] is a gift from God. No one there knows the meaning of the words, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I can’t find it’ or ‘Come back later.’ The whole Island uses it now.”
But as is often the case, success breeds new problems. “The demands are outpacing our ability to pay for it all. The generosity of the donors has been phenomenal and we’ve answered the Island’s problems but now we’re operating at more than capacity and everything costs money. Unlike other Island resources,” she pointed out, “taxpayer dollars don’t cover all the expenses. Fifteen percent of operating costs has to be raised every year so it’s like walking a tightrope. Buying fewer books, hosting fewer programs wouldn’t help,” she continued. “We would have to curtail hours and staff.”
She hopes the Island will turn out and vote “yes” for the new library budget. The vote will be at the library on Saturday, October 27.