Island profile: Cathy Driscoll, a go-to person

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Cathy Driscoll at home on Smith Street.

Bronx native Cathy Driscoll is the right-hand woman at the Shelter Island Heights Property Owners Corporation and its subsidiary, the North Ferry Company, handling payroll and pop-up staffing problems, taking Heights residents’ questions and complaints, and doing whatever else comes up at the office by the ferry terminal.

She got the job 12 years ago answering a help-wanted ad in the Reporter and still loves it, she said during a recent interview, because “nothing’s ever the same. One day it could be a Beach Club problem — somebody needs a locker — or somebody’s leaves haven’t been picked up or, gee, there’s water running down New York Avenue. You know. Assorted things.”

Mother of two and grandmother of two, Cathy, 68, lost her husband Harold “Buzzy” Driscoll in 1999 to cancer. She’s been working ever since she graduated from high school, except for the years she was raising her kids.

Most of her career was spent in the development offices of two private high schools in New York City run by the Christian Brothers, Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan and Rice High School in Harlem, where she became director of development. She organized reunions and the annual fundraising appeal at the schools and handled anything that required computer skills, from progress reports and report cards to scheduling and getting out the bills.

While at Rice, she started a program called “Adopt a Student,” in which she’d seek out alumni benefactors to contribute to the tuition of a freshman and “hopefully get them to stay until graduation.”

Cathy was the daughter of a roofing contractor and a stay-at-home mom. She went to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan because she had a talent for drawing. Always interested in biology, she hoped to become a medical illustrator “but for that I discovered you really had to become a doctor so I decided not to.”

She went to work as a telephone operator after graduating in 1962. By then she was dating Buzzy, who lived down the block. They were married in 1963 and moved into their own Bronx apartment in the Wakefield area. Their son Michael was born the next year and their daughter Debbie in 1966. Eventually they moved to a house in Throgs Neck, right on the water in a cozy neighborhood where everyone knew each other.

Right from the start, Shelter Island was important to the family. In the early 1960s, Buzzy’s parents had bought a place on Midway Road after a colleague at Con Edison introduced his father to the place. Buzzy and his father’s work shifts often allowed the two families to have the place to themselves.

“We came out here every chance we’d get,” Cathy said, and the kids grew up fishing and waterskiing from the family boat and going to Crescent Beach and Wades Beach.

Like a lot of second homeowners, the family didn’t have time to get involved in Island life other than its summer pleasures. “But I remember the Chicken Barbecue and the kids went to the terrific summer programs they had at the school,” Cathy said. “Getting more involved than that was not on the horizon. This was a retreat from work.”

After the kids had gone off to school, she worked as a paraprofessional at P.S. 68 in the Bronx, assisting teachers with whatever came up in the classroom. The city fiscal crisis of the 1970s ended that job but a priest told her about the position at Power Memorial. She landed it and remained there until the church closed the school in 1984, moving her to Rice.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s father-in-law had retired and moved out to Shelter Island full-time so she and Buzzy bought their own place, the cozy house she lives in now on Smith Street, complete with an indoor goldfish tank in the sunroom that the uninitiated might mistake for a hot tub. Her son built it for her.

In the early 1980s, after his own retirement as a New York City Police officer, Buzzy moved out full-time to care for his ailing father while Cathy and the kids remained in Throgs Neck except on weekends and vacations. Buzzy eventually got a job working full-time as Shelter Island’s bay constable.

In 1999, Buzzy was diagnosed with lung cancer. Cathy gave up her job, sold the house in Throgs Neck, enrolled the kids at Shelter Island High School and moved out with them to care for her husband. He died within a year.

Her first job here was managing classifieds for the Reporter, where she got to know Community News Editor Archer Brown and Office Manager Ethel Michalak, who recruited her for the ladies bowling team Ethel had organized, the Guttersnipes. Cathy is now captain of the team. Ethel gave all the players nicknames: Cathy is known as Chatty. She is now the only original player still on the team.

Cathy’s reputation as a highly organized, detail-oriented, no-nonsense, can-do person prompted Shelter Island 10K co-founder Cliff Clark to ask her this year to help Mary Ellen Adipietro and Jackie Tuttle organize the run. There are so many details to stay on top of, Cathy said she couldn’t believe how those two and the other volunteers pulled it off.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to work with these wonderful people,” she said.

She’s also chairman of the Finance Council at Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church and a member of the church’s “Caring Council.”

After they graduated from Shelter Island High School, Cathy’s son went on to become a New York City police officer like his dad, and is now retired, living with his wife Lisa near Oneonta, an area his in-laws, Bill and Pat Barton (formerly of St. Mary’s Road) introduced him to. Debbie went on to nursing school in Albany, worked at St. Margaret’s School there and now works for San Simeon on the Sound near Greenport. She has two boys, Shane, 17, and Christopher, 13, and lives on the Island.

Amazingly, Cathy finds time to travel a lot — something she’s loved ever since she and Buzzy took the kids places including Colorado and the Caribbean. More recently, she’s taken the grandkids on a rafting trip to the Grand Canyon, an “ice hotel” in Quebec and to Yellowstone in the winter.

She’s been all over Europe, including bike tours of the Rhine and Danube valleys; set foot on Antarctica on the eve of the Millennium  in 1999; and recently took a river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel with Charlotte Hannabury as her cabin mate. Last year she and Charlotte sailed through the fjords of Norway.

This year they’ll be spending New Year’s Eve in Prague. “It doesn’t get better than that if you’ve got Mozart and fireworks,” said Cathy.