Island profile: Paul Speeches, and stories of Island life

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Paul Speeches and his springer Sadie on his back deck by his pond filled with koi. He loves to hear its flowing water through his bedroom window.

Paul Speeches is a friendly but quiet gentleman of 81 who doesn’t like to talk all that much.

A true Harelegger born in the family farmhouse on Manwaring Road in 1932, he’s a crackerjack mechanic who prefers these days to putter in his workshop tweaking small engines. He also likes to take out his riding mower to do his and neighbors’ lawns and, at night, he loves to hear the sound of the burbling water that cascades into the backyard pond he built a few years ago just under his bedroom window.

He delights in the secluded yard at the house he built about 20 years ago off Baldwin Road. “I just love it back here,” he said from the deck he put in behind the modest house a few years ago.

He’s no taciturn American gothic. If you ask the right questions, he’ll tell some good stories with a warm smile. He joined the Navy after leaving Shelter Island School in his senior year so there’s always the one about rounding the Horn on the Navy carrier USS Oriskany through monster waves 40 feet high.

“We loved it,” he said of himself and his best friend from the Navy, Jimmy Profetta of Lindenhurst, with whom he still keeps in touch.

“Everybody was sick but me and him.”

There’s also the one every old-time Islander knows about Paul and three other Island boys, Tut Tuttle, Larry Griffin and Tom Young, driving out on the ice in Coecles Harbor in Tom’s Model A Ford, breaking through near Taylor’s Island. All survived but it was a close call for Paul, who had to kick out the back window to escape. Amazingly, the car was running that night after he and his friends hauled it out of the water, took the engine apart, cleaned it up and put it back together.

When he was a kid working at the farm and a little airplane flew low overhead, he’d drop all his chores and run over to the Klenawicus potato patch off Burns Road to watch it land.

He was never a licensed pilot but that didn’t keep him later in life from buying a derelict Aeronca Champ that he’d found on the North Fork, taking the wings off and trucking it over to the Island, where Frankie Klen helped him restore the two-seater to mint condition.

“I used to fly the living daylights out of it. At 4 o’clock I’d get off work and pull it out and just go up for a ride and relax, even if I only went around the Island. I loved it. I had so much fun.”

He sold it some years ago but keeps two pictures of it in desk frames. Now it’s based in Westhampton and the owner has offered to let him take it up but “I wouldn’t dare,” Paul said.

He still has the Model T he bought from a Southampton farmer who let his chickens live in it . He restored it with help from Fred Ogar and Frankie Klen. “I think I paid $15 or $20 for it but it cost an awful lot to restore.”

Paul has had a lot of jobs. “I always had work,” he said. “I never was out of work. I didn’t even have to look for work” because someone would always tell him there was a job waiting for him.

In addition to working for Fair­child Aviation and later Grumman, helping to build parts of the Lunar Excursion Module at the Sag Harbor factory, he was a town cop in the 1960s but only briefly. That’s because he quit when the town judge ripped up a ticket he’d given the elder James Rowe, proprietor of Westmoreland Farm, for drunk driving.

“He told me, ‘You can’t give me a ticket!’” Paul remembers. “He was bombed.”

When the judge ripped up the ticket, Paul quit. What was the point of the law and the police department, he said.

He worked for McGayhey plumbing for a decade until around 1970 and as a deckhand aboard South Ferry and later he became a maintenance man for the Highway Department, the job from which he retired in the 1990s after 20 years. Since then, he’s worked for himself as an all-around handyman and caretaker.

He’s always lived on the Island except for his four-year Navy hitch and his four-year stay in Mineola right after that, when he went to work as a machinist for Fairchild, a job he took when his Navy pal Jimmy “took me by the hand and said, ‘Here Paul. We have to do this now.’”

He met his future wife Eileen on a blind date in 1951 that was set up by Robbie Clark, whose girlfriend Sue came from up the Island. As soon as he could, he took Eileen back to Shelter Island. “Oh, I knew I was coming back one way or three,” Paul said. “Country boy. It’s in your blood.”

They raised three kids here, son Tom and daughters Kathy Sullivan, who works in Town Hall, and Debbie Speeches, who works for the Highway Department. Eileen passed away about a decade ago.

Five of his six siblings are gone, too. “I beat them all,” he said. “I beat everybody in my family … I’m the last survivor. Haven’t got long to go.”

He loves all the seasons and still gets his boat out on the water now and then to go clamming. “I rake up a dozen or so for chowder or half shell.” He remembers scalloping too, when everyone on the Island went out in the fall and came back with a bushel.

Even after hearing the story about his frustration as a police officer, it’s hard to imagine Paul Speeches getting mad. But back in 1971, working as a deckhand on South Ferry, he told off somebody in a Cadillac who’d complained out loud that the boat’s skipper was about to blow a third attempt to land on a rough, windy day.

“You think it’s easy? You better shut the hell up,” he told the driver, according to Glenn Waddington. He heard it all from the wheelhouse.

He was the neophyte captain on his first solo day and he’d been worried that the older man would give the young greenhorn in command a hard time.

Instead, Paul Speeches had his back.

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