Island profile: A Bass Creek Clark, Heather Reylek

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Heather Reylek at home with her poodles Jezebel and Abbie.

With Christmas just days away, scores of Bass Creek Clarks and some of their closest family friends are thinking not just of sugarplums but the individual omelets that Grandma Lulu — better known to Shelter Island postal patrons as Heather Reylek — will be whipping up for each of them Christmas Day.

Among the company will be Heather’s 90-year-old mother, Barbara Lee “Buzzy” Clark, and her uncle, Albertus “Toots” Clark. “They’ll be bringing him in a wheelchair and I hope the ground stays frozen so they can bring the car right around to the deck and lift him up right there,” Heather said, nodding toward a sliding glass door last week as she sat at the kitchen counter of her North Ferry Road house.

The house was all done up for Christmas, with her nutcracker collection on display through several rooms. Her three finches, raised from hatchlings, chattered happily in a nearby cage while her two poodles — Jezebel and the puppy Abbie Rose — lay in a patch of sun at Heather’s feet.

Her husband Bob, a former president of the Shelter Island School Board, who ran for a Town Board seat in November, has had his own construction firm since the 1970s and was out on a job. He built their house and, over the years, renovated and expanded it so now it’s “just the way we want it,” Heather said.

When you know people only from their public roles, it can be startling to discover how much more there is to them. The former postmaster at the Heights, Sag Harbor and Center post offices and the longtime chair of the town’s Democratic Committee, Heather is a passionate, mostly self-taught musician and vocalist — not unlike her late father, Robert Albert “Bucky” Clark, who as a teenager impressed the girls because he could sing, ice skate, play the button box and the harmonica all at the same time, more or less.

Her Uncle Walt Clark was a local bandleader in the 1930s and 1940s. Her Aunt Hannah played honky-tonk piano. Her mother — a former New York City career woman who still goes to work one day a week or so as a broker for the Amaden Gay insurance agency — brought her piano out from Richmond Hills after she met Bucky at a retreat at what is now Camp Quinipet and married him.

A founder of a local folk group called Homespun, which evolved into today’s Island Folk, Heather and her musical partner Peter Mikochik are spending a lot of time these days working to define a new kind of folk-rock sound with their duo, Catbird Band. Reminiscent of the best and edgiest folk performers of the early 1960s, their sound can be sampled on line at catbirdband.com.

She also keeps busy at the Presbyterian Church, where she sings in the choir, runs the children’s music program and is helping with the search for a permanent pastor. And aside from her birds, dogs and a cat named Bad Louie, she tends 30 chickens and sells their eggs. In spring and summer, there’s her garden and her 18-and-a-half-foot Scout Dorado with the big Yamaha engine. Then there are the their three children, Zach, Tim and Rachel, and three grandkids. She’s in big demand as a babysitter.

Besides her family, though, “My biggest love is my current band,” she said. Generally Heather plays banjo and Pete plays guitar. They’ve been working together for three years, performing at the American Legion and the Volunteer Park gazebo and are hoping for gigs at Canio’s and the Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor.

Both sing in voices that are reminiscent of the mid-century glory days of the American folk era. No wonder. Earl Robinson, a colleague of Pete Seeger and the composer of the classic union song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” was a frequent visitor to the Island and taught her mother guitar.

She’s a Democrat because her father and grandfather were Democrats at a time when the Island’s non-Republican population could fit in the North Ferry waiting room. Bert Clark, an ace boat and auto mechanic on Long Island’s Gold Coast, came here from Centerport in 1924 to take a job managing Otto Kahn’s game preserve, now Mashomack Preserve.

One of his sons, Heather’s father Robert “Bucky” Clark, eventually took over the preserve job. Heather, born in 1952 and known as Lulu until she started school, was one of seven children, almost all of whom live on the Island.

She has fond memories of life “in the woods,” as she refers to it, at a house on property Otto Kahn gave her grandfather “next to Taylor’s Island,” and later at “the Big House,” known today as the Manor House. Teachers and administrators understood the Clark kids might be late for school because of the soggy state of the preserve’s unpaved road, which her father graded and plowed. “They were used to seeing us traipse in late with mud up to our knees because we’d all have to get out and push,” Heather said.

Growing up here “was great. It was wonderful. Everyone wanted to come down and stay with us. There was no electricity. We had a generator when we could afford to buy gas. We were quite poor but could eat fish and game … There was no TV unless we had the generator running. My father watched Jackie Gleason and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’”

“We cooked on a wood stove,” Heather added, remembering how they’d take “chunks of bread smothered in butter and put them right on top of stove and press them down. It was just incredibly delicious. No one was too concerned with cleaning up; it was chaos, with our mother and father always busy doing something else. We had free run of 2,000 acres.”

Heather’s mother pushed her kids to get scholarships and go to college. Heather went to SUNY New Paltz to study anthropology, working at first in the library for minimum wage but finding a better job as a letter carrier for a post office just outside Newburgh.

By then, she and Bob were a couple. A close friend of the White family, he had come out to the Island from Centereach after both his parents had died within a couple of years of each other while he was a student at NYU. They were married in 1972. He worked in construction upstate until he and Heather returned to the Island, where she started her 35-year East End postal career at the Riverhead post office.

“It really bothered me that I never got my degree,” she said, so after her retirement she enrolled at Southampton College. “I love going to school. I wouldn’t mind going back for my master’s,” she said.

Her postal career is what led her into politics as she got involved in NAPUS, the National Association of Postmasters United States, which lobbies Congress to protect services for postal consumers. “I’m a political advocate,” she said. “I started going down to Washington with prior legislative chairs and got to see what a difference you can make by making personal contact with congressmen.”

But the issues ultimately are all local. “That’s where it’s all at,” said the veteran strategist of many a town campaign.