Island profile: Chris Lewis, a can-do, plain-talking style

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Chris Lewis at home on South Ferry Road.

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Chris Lewis at home on South Ferry Road.

As a Town Board member for the past 12 years, Chris Lewis’s supporters say she has a knack for the perfect slam-dunk comment, the kind that takes a complex issue, applies common sense, and makes the solution seem obvious to everyone.

That talent extends way back to her first years living full-time on Shelter Island. At a School Board meeting around 1970, she said something about a “complete stink” that had overcome the district because parents were offended by a book in the school library that gave advice on how to convince administrators to put condom dispensers in public schools.

“When it was my turn to speak,” she recalled the other day, “I said, ‘It strikes me that there are limited resources to buy books for this library. So rather than focusing on this one book and whether it’s good or bad, we should be focusing on whether this is the best use of the money we have. What are the best books we can get for the school library with the funds we have?’

“And this apparently sounded very sane.”

Soon after that meeting, the principal and the president of the School Board asked her to run for the board. She agreed, lost the election but was appointed the following year to fill a vacancy.

By then, Chris, her two school-age daughters from a previous marriage and her husband Ken had been here full-time only a year or two. A registered nurse, she’d been living on Staten Island working in the cardiac unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan when she met Ken at a funeral of a close friend’s relative.

Ken and his brothers ran a fish wholesale business in the South Bronx. He was also deeply involved in raising thoroughbred horses and Shelter Island, where he’d gone for summers all his life. After their marriage in 1966, Ken started buying property here and took Chris and her girls to the Island for weekends.

“It was ironic,” Chris said. “I was a country girl who wanted to be in the big city and I’d married a man who always wanted to be in the country.”

“He said, ‘You’ll love it’,” Chris added. “I had my doubts.”

She was born in 1935 at a family farmhouse in Indiana and grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, where her father, Lewis Hildenbrand, was the only one of five brothers who wasn’t a farmer. He worked for International Harvester.

“I think that growing up in the Midwest in the years when I did was a great time,” Chris said. “It was like ‘Happy Days’ … There was a soda shop …You know, football games on Friday night under the lights. I got to be in a marching band. I was in the color guard. I did play alto horn but I wasn’t very good at it. The important thing was to get the uniform and get to the football game.”

She had always wanted two things: to go to New York and to become a nurse. Why the city beckoned she couldn’t say but she remembered telling an aunt who’d given her $5 that she’d be saving it to help fund the trip.

After high school, Chris went off to a major Chicago hospital and earned her R.N. in 1955. She started work in an orthopedics unit, helping polio victims. Two years later, she and her three nursing roommates decided to get their B.A. degrees. Chris didn’t land the scholarship she needed but when she learned the government was offering scholarships to nurses who agreed to work for a time in a U.S. Public Health Service hospital, she took the bait. One of the hospitals was on Staten Island, as close as she figured she could get to the Big Apple.

“I loved my work,” Chris said.

On a blind date, she met Bob McKee, a cocoa broker. After their marriage, they lived on Staten Island and she left work to have her two daughters, Kate and Elizabeth. Bob died of a heart attack in 1965. When the girls were old enough for school, Chris went back to nursing at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. Within a year, she met Ken Lewis and married him on a hot July day at the family farm where she was born in Indiana.

Despite her doubts, Chris felt good about Shelter Island soon after they moved here, with Ken commuting to the South Bronx to help run the business. “I loved it here. I liked the feel of the place. It was beautiful. I loved the beach. I met great people and I had lots of fun with them.”

They lived on Ginny Lane but Ken kept his horses on the 14 acres and barn he had acquired by then on South Ferry Road. In 1972, they put up the house that Chris still lives in today, a year after their son Ken was born. Around that time, Chris was already serving on the School Board, eventually serving as president. A decade later, Ken was elected a town councilman and served until 1992.

Chris worked for a time at Ken’s friend Blaise Laspia’s nursery on St. Mary’s Road and free-lanced as a nurse and health aide, working seven years for the elderly Claire and Lewis Southwick of Paard Hill in the 1970s. Beginning in the 1980s, she and a friend commuted to work at Central Suffolk Hospital. In their spare time, they ran a gift shop in Greenport called Present Perfect. Chris eventually sold her share of the business to her partner.

She retired from nursing in 2001 when it became obvious she needed to be home to help Ken, who was developing health problems. He passed away in 2008. By then, she was into her second term on the Town Board.

“Somebody asked me to run,” she explained, when Sharon Kast vacated her seat around. The Town Board didn’t chose her for the seat but — cheered on by her family, “who thought I could do anything” — she ran the following year and was elected. She is now the longest serving female member of the Town Board in its history.

A supporter of the library and the Historical Society, Chris is also a fan of theatre and co-founded the Shelter Island Players, producing two of its earliest shows. Her two daughters and five of six grandkids live the Midwest; her son Ken now shares the South Ferry Road house with Chris; his son Cal is there half of each week.

When she served on the School Board, it was an era of angst and controversy. To end all the acrimony, “We had to start functioning as a community,” she said, “and I think we really have that now … We need each other.”

A few months ago, she got the news from her granddaughter Emily that she’s going to be a great-grandmother. “I said to her, ‘Emily, I’ve always been a great grandmother.”

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