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Profile: Janalyn Travis-Messer, ready for the perfect place
Everybody on the Island knows Janalyn Travis-Messer. Whether it’s fighting for the 4-poster tick-killing device; serving as a top local, county and state official in the League of Women Voters; running the Chamber of Commerce Arts & Crafts fair; or selling real estate, she’s everywhere at once.
A lot of people may know she has some kind of Hawaii connection. Among the clues are her little pick-up truck, which bears “Live Aloha” Hawaiian license plate holders and her house on Baldwin Road, which has a lot of Hawaiian notes: pale pink interior trim, a beachy, airy island feel, and lots of art and framed photos of old Hawaiian scenes.
What people don’t know is she lived in 63 places — not just Hawaii, where she graduated from high school — by the time she moved to Shelter Island with her late husband, Jim Messer, in 1985.
“This is the longest time I’ve ever lived in one location and residence in my life,” Janalyn said at her kitchen table last week.
Janalyn’s mother Lynn, a top morse code operator for the Navy during World War II, had married a Dutch naval officer in Indonesia. When he was killed in a plane crash after the Korean War, his best friend, a U.S. Army officer, followed her back to Australia, where they were married. They soon moved to Pasadena, California, where Janalyn was born in 1954. Lynn, who landed a job as a personal assistant for the Gallo family of wine fame, divorced Janalyn’s father two months later.
Lynn soon married Don Travis, a New Jersey-born liquor and wine salesman whose territory covered five western states. They moved around a lot, first to northern California, then Oklahoma, and then Indiana, where they lived for four years. Along the way, Janalyn acquired a step-brother and step-sister.
After divorcing Don in 1964, Lynn took her kids to Perth, where she’d grown up. They later moved to Melbourne. “I don’t remember what she did for a living,” Janalyn said. “All I remember was we had a good time. I was 10 1/2.”
They’d been in Australia only a year when Lynn decided it was time to move back to the U.S., but she wanted to get there on a cruise ship, the Canberra, which made stops all across the Pacific. “We’d always sneak into first class,” Janalyn remembered, and enjoyed it until they’d inevitably get caught.
One of the stops was Hawaii, where her mother announced, “We’re staying.”
“I think she just fell in love with the whole place,” Janalyn said.
They stayed there for 14 years but hopped around the islands in different homes. Janalyn, though, found some stability attending a private prep school, Punahou, where President Obama was in fifth grade the year she graduated in 1972.
The apples don’t fall far from the tree: After two years of studying theatre at the University of Hawaii, she and her boyfriend took off on a long-planned trip to Europe. When they got to London, Janalyn loved it so much she proclaimed, “I’m staying.” She had $100 in her pocket, a return plane ticket, and told her boyfriend she’d be fine.
She enrolled in a theatre program and paid her tuition “working in a pub, as an au pair, whatever I could find,” and overstaying her visa — which in those days prompted only a wave goodbye from the customs people in 1976, when she went home and landed a job as a theatrical electrician.
She was married in 1977 to the technical director of a community theatre group; they were divorced in 1980. Meanwhile, she joined the electrician’s union and worked on jobs all over Hawaii, operating the spotlight that tracked one of the Jackson Five in a concert and setting up the scaffolding for the Eagles’ Hotel California tour.
She was working on the first road company production of “A Chorus Line” when the head electrician from the Broadway show came to Hawaii to make sure everything was up to New York standards. He was so impressed he asked Janalyn to come work on the Great White Way, where she wound up as the head electrician of “Death Trap” at the Music Box Theatre.
She moved from Manhattan to Long Island when the theatre’s house carpenter bought a place in Amityville and wanted roommates to help pay the mortgage. Later, she found her own rental in Bellmore. She had Monday nights off and didn’t own a TV, so when her favorites, the Denver Broncos, were going to be in a televised game, she went out to the first decent-looking bar she spotted, the Smithville Café. Jim Messer, a tall, handsome, divorced fellow who ran a vinyl siding business, was a regular with his own seat at the bar — but he’d never before come in on a Monday night.
He and Janalyn got talking, hit it off, and got married twice: once in Australia for her mother’s family and once more in West Hempstead for Jim’s family.
When Jim told her she didn’t have to ask before putting a nail in the wall to hang one of her own pictures in his Wantagh house, “That felt really good … That was pretty powerful for me,” Janalyn said.
His grandparents had owned a place in South Jamesport on the North Fork and, as he grew up, he passed through Shelter Island every summer on the way out, pressing his nose to the window, enchanted by what he saw.
He and Janalyn wasted no time looking for a house here but it took six months before Janalyn saw the place on Baldwin and declared, “That’s the one.”
That was in 1985. They sold the place in Wantagh and moved here full time, Jim commuting to work, Janalyn learning interior decorating and window dressing at Curtains & Home in Riverhead and later Curtain Barn in Seldon.
She was gone all day, six and seven days a week, and “in 1997, Jim started really missing me.” So she took a job on Shelter Island, replacing the retiring Pat Binder as ad director at the Reporter.
Three year later, she earned her real estate license and went to work for Griffing & Collins, the oldest real estate firm on Shelter Island, founded in 1947. She’s still there, one of the principal brokers. She owns a rental property in Hawaii, which she and Jim bought in 2002, and she visits regularly, doing a lot of the decorating and painting herself; and with a partner, she formed DJTM Enterprises and has built two houses, one for a client and one on spec in the Poconos.
As most Islanders know, Jim went on to win two terms on the Town Board; Janalyn went on to do volunteer work for the Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters, for which she served as local president as well as chairman of the Suffolk County chapter, which gave her a major role in the state organization as well.
Jim died in 2005, beating lung cancer, it seemed, until he had to go on doxycycline because of a tick bite and the threat of Lyme disease. After all the chemo, his immune system couldn’t take it. That’s what prompted Janalyn to join the town’s Deer & Tick Committee almost a decade ago. She believes her experience doing careful, thorough and unbiased research for the League of Women Voters on candidates and major issues helped the committee draft an authoritative report that convinced the Town Board to endorse a 4-poster program to kill ticks on deer.