Michael Coles: Easy choice to be Lions Club Citizen of the Year

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Michael Coles reflects on his career, community involvement on Shelter Island and his selection as the Lions Club Man of the Year.

Michael Coles isn’t a man who just throws money at a project and then turns his back. His long involvement supporting projects on Shelter Island, especially those that benefit children, comes from an unshakable belief: “You can have a house in a place, but you don’t really live there until you get involved.”

Because he has lived that creed on Shelter Island, he has been chosen the Lions Club Citizen of the Year and will be honored at a dinner on Thursday, May 23 at a place to be determined.

“Michael Coles’ contributions bridge the gap between those in financial need and organizations in need of his relentless diplomacy,” said Dr. Frank Adipietro, Lions Club president.

A modest man, Mr. Coles is loathe to talk about his efforts that have benefitted Shelter Island. In response to being asked about the honor the Lions are bestowing, he said the organization is an organization known for its many good works and if his selection can boost their work, he was willing to accept the honor.

He credits his late wife, Joan Collins, with spurring him to do good works on the Island, and his second wife, Edie Landeck, with demonstrating the same commitment to supporting important activities here. When Mike Laspia at Mashomack Preserve first asked Mr. Coles to serve on that organization’s Board of Directors, he was quick to recommend his wife Joan for the post, saying her commitment to the preserve would make her right for the board. Later, Mr. Coles did serve nine years on that board, including six as its president.

He acknowledged Edie, who he married in 2000, for the work she’s doing to restore Sylvester Manor. She, in turn, thanks him for help in making her fund raising efforts on behalf of the Manor smoother and more effective.

Born in Britain, Mr. Coles joined the Royal Navy at 18 where he piloted single-engine fighter bombers from an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. But when he left the service after eight years, he lacked a college education and thought his job prospects in England were bleak. That prompted him to seek a graduate degree from Harvard University, despite his lack of an undergraduate degree.

When Harvard said “yes,” he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he met and married his first wife, Joan.

Upon graduation in 1961, he got a job with Goldman Sachs, working in the firm’s corporate finance department. Named a partner in 1968, he took over the company’s international business department, spending 18 years opening offices in, among other places, London, Zurich, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

By the mid 1980s, Mr. Coles decided it was time to leave that part of his business career behind and, at 55, became a limited partner while he pursued further education.

Fascinated by and wanting to write about history, he applied to Columbia University, hoping to enroll in a master’s degree program in history.

“I needed an education,” he said simply about his desire to earn a second master’s degree.

But his passage wasn’t so easy without that undergraduate degree, despite his success at Harvard.

“Even Harvard makes mistakes,” a Columbia admissions officer told him. Eventually, he did win a place in the Columbia University history graduate program, securing a second master’s degree in the early 1990s. He has subsequently sold a number of magazine articles, primarily dealing with naval history.

It was his first marriage that brought him to Shelter Island, first as a part-timer, and eventually as a resident. Joan, who was from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was related to the Scudder family on the Island. The Coles’ initial rental here back in 1962 was in a Scudder cottage. In 1978, the couple purchased a house on Gardiners Bay Drive and in 1992, built a residence, also on Gardiners Bay Drive.

Mr. Coles is quick to say his involvement here is “not so much,” but despite his protestations, he has had a long commitment to Mashomack Preserve; been a member of the Maritime Committee for the Shelter Island Yacht Club and was instrumental in building a link between the club and Shelter Island School; is a past chairman of the Shelter Island Preservation Committee; has been involved with the Peconic Land Trust in preservation decisions for the Shelter Island nursery property; chaired the fund raising effort for the FIT Center; worked with Judy Card to create the Island Climbers Tot Lot playground; and guided various fund raising efforts to benefit the Island.

He also played a significant role in the effort to move the town’s youth center away from the recycling center where it was operating temporarily and to bring about an agreement for use of the American Legion Post for youth activities. If that’s not enough, he’s been a significant donor to the Shelter Island Public Library and Shelter Island Friends of Music.

Now in his 80s, he hasn’t slowed, and forges ahead with community involvement. Mr. Coles said he’s following the advice of a Goldman Sachs mentor: “If you get involved, you can’t get uninvolved.”