Profile: Helen Rosenblum, a passion for the law and service

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Helen Rosenblum at home on West Neck Creek.

Helen Rosenblum’s father, a lawyer who worked in the U.S. attorney’s office for many years before starting his own firm, didn’t want her to follow in his footsteps.

“He didn’t believe in woman lawyers,” she explained the other day, “not because he didn’t believe in their abilities” but because they were always relegated to research and office chores.

It was 1971. The future Shelter Island town attorney, fire district attorney and town justice was working as a secretary for a movie distributor in Manhattan and helping her mother take care of her aged father. She decided to wait no longer, applied to Fordham Law School and was accepted.

When she told him about it, her father was in the hospital. It turned out to be the day he died. As she remembers it, “He made some gesture with his arm that my mother understood. ‘You’re proud of her, aren’t you?’ she asked him. And he said yes.”

Helen inherited a passion for the law, justice and public service from her father, whom she adored. A lawn sign reads “J. J. (for Jacob Joseph) Rosenblum” at the edge of her driveway. It’s not there because the modest ranch house on West Neck Creek was once his; Helen and the late Harry Buxbaum bought it in 1981 as a weekend retreat from New York. The sign is a memento from her family’s home in Wilton, Connecticut, where the Rosenblums spent the part of their summers when they weren’t traveling in Europe.

She was close to both parents but found her mother Evelyn “difficult,” she said. When she visited Helen on Shelter Island, she’d stay at the Dering Harbor Inn and would say she’d had a good time watching the “rats” outside her window climbing the trees.

Her mother was referring to squirrels. She was not “an animal person,” Helen said, as she describes herself. Her cats run the show in her house. One of them, Iggy, is disabled with spine damage he’s had since kitten-hood but Helen just could not allow him to be put down.

Helen and her sibling, older brother Michael, who is now a retired attorney living in Chicago, grew up on the East Side. She went to a private day school in Manhattan from kindergarten through 12th grade. Then she was off to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

She enjoyed it there but left after the school put her on probation in her junior year because “I’d met a young man and didn’t come back one night” to her dorm. It was a platonic relationship, she said, but “they didn’t care.” Fed up, she transferred to George Washington University and got her B.A. degree in American studies.

Her father knew the president of Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, which had offices in New York, and helped her find a job. During her years in the film business, she met Harry, an older man — just as her father was considerably older than her mother — who was a branch manager for the firm. They would remain together until his death in their Westmoreland house on May 21, 1994.

Harry was well known on Shelter Island, which he’d discovered before World War II because he was a sailor. “He landed on Mashomack and fell in love with it,” Helen said. As a younger man, Harry stayed at the Yacht Club and showed Hollywood films at the American Legion Hall and later the Beach Club — still fond memories for older Islanders today. He also shot 16mm movies of the Island during the hurricane of 1938, which Helen donated to the Historical Society.

They were living together at 1 Lincoln Plaza in the late 1970s when they decided to try Shelter Island as a weekend place. They rented a tiny house on the creek off Winthrop Road for a couple of years. Broker Fred Dinkel soon found them the Westmoreland house, which they rented for a year before buying.

Helen had her law degree by then, having earned it by attending classes at night and working by day, but she hadn’t worked as an attorney. When she realized she loved Shelter Island too much to leave for the city every Sunday, she told Harry she was going to live at the house and study for the bar exam. He was all for it and soon joined her full-time here after his retirement.

Her first job as an attorney was working for John J. Munzel in Riverhead, focusing on probate, real estate and matrimonial cases. But because she became known for her “animal work,” she said — for reasons she now can’t recall — the

ASPCA turned to her when it was working to close down a notorious animal collector’s shelter near Sag Harbor. She obtained the orders that allowed the ASPCA to conduct a raid and Judge Lester Gerard later named her its receiver when the ASPCA and the county Department of Health moved to shut the shelter down.

The demand of that work “raised havoc with my practice,” Helen said, “so I went out on my own.”

Helen’s municipal work and public service are well known on Shelter Island. Supervisor Jeff Simes asked her to take the job as town attorney in 1986 at a fixed salary for the so-called part-time work. She remained on the job for 16 years, handling a major rewrite of the master plan and the zoning code, until both she and

Supervisor Art Williams agreed the job had become “just too much” for an attorney with her own thriving practice.

By then, Helen was the attorney for the Shelter Island Fire District and also deeply involved as a Red Cross volunteer. She became a certified “critical care” EMT and often responded in the middle of the night to ambulance calls.

Supervisor Williams and the Town Board turned to her when Town Justice Edward “Pete” Hannabury died at the end of 2003. They appointed her to the job and she’s been elected to three four-year terms, most recently in 2012 when she ran unopposed.

On October 10, 2010, Helen suffered a severe stroke at her Riverhead law office, the result of clots caused by atrial fibrillation, a common arrhythmia that has since then been corrected in Helen’s case by a fairly simple procedure called ablation. “I recovered. I was very, very fortunate,” she said. “Now my limp is on the other side and it’s because of arthritis in my hip.”

She remembers how “so many people came to see me in Stony Brook, probably to say good-bye.” Her significant other, Southold attorney and former Greenport Village Justice Ed Boyd, was with her at the hospital every day and helped her in her recovery.

“It’s unbelievable how fast I was back” at work, she said, but “I was very, very concerned about my practice.”

She did scale back her work for the ambulance squad but is now hand–ling  a bigger caseload than she’s ever had in her practice.