“I do these things because somebody has to do them,” former Town Justice Patricia Quigley said of her two years of service as president of the PTSA right after she retired from the bench after one term three years ago.
That only partly explains why she said yes when the local Democratic Committee surprised her by asking if she’d run for Town Justice in 2006.
“Basically I’m a very shy person,” she said during an interview in the North Menantic Road home she shares with husband Mike Dunning, superintendent of building and grounds at the Shelter Island School, and her sons Lucas and Bazzy, students here in sixth and third grade, respectively.
A lawyer with her own practice since 1999, Patricia spent some time figuring out what she wanted to do in life.
Born in Queens in 1965 and raised in Seaford, the daughter of a New York City policeman, she competed in gymnastics, played piano and joined the high school band as a percussionist. In 1983, the year she graduated from Seaford High School, her parents — John and Fannie Quigley — announced they were moving to Shelter Island.
“I’d never heard of it,” Patricia recalled. “I had no idea it existed.”
She attended Hofstra but soon decided college was not for her. “I left and ended up here” on Shelter Island with her parents, who would go on to run Griffing & Collins real estate for 30 years, “because I had nowhere else to go.”
She waitressed at Kraus’s at Louis Beach in the summer and the Inn Between in the winter, making enough money to find an apartment and a job in Westbury, where she worked for Seaman’s Furniture doing credit checks. It was a bleak way to spend her days but the job motivated her.
“It got me back in school,” Patricia said.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Queens College and went on to NYU to earn her master’s degree in social work.
Her first job was in Queens Village providing therapy to parents who were “at risk of having their children taken away.”
Why did she choose social work? “My parents became active in the Roman Catholic Church when I was seven, in that movement to liberalize the church,” she said. “That might have helped. It … kind of gave you a viewpoint of the world, a viewpoint that says you’re supposed to do good works.”
Her job “was really hard … I’d be working with these families and we’d shore them up and we’d get them services but there was so much against them. If a kid got sick, the mom couldn’t go to work, so she lost her job. And then if she lost her job, she didn’t have money to do basic stuff.”
In that world, when there is any kind of crisis, “You lose everything,” Patricia said.
“Then I thought … I wasn’t really helping them. It seemed like I needed to work more on a structural level.”
The public schools in Queens “were horrible,” she recalled, and “it seemed to me against the law” that her clients’ children weren’t entitled to decent schooling.
She won a full scholarship to law school at Hofstra, which she attended while still working in Queens Village for a year and a half and living in Long Beach with her friend from Seaford, Kathy Lynch — now her neighbor on Shelter Island.
“I liked law school,” Patricia said. “I like learning things and thinking about things and law school really makes you think about everything. It’s almost like a brain exercise.”
By then, she was again seeing Mike Dunning, another Seaford friend she’d dated in high school whose parents, Don and Corinne, like hers, also came out to Shelter Island to live.
Her first job after law school was handling agency personnel cases for the IRS in the World Trade Center. “It was a good job,” she said, but after a year or so she “had to commit to three more years” and the commute from Long Beach was too long. Also, Mike was doing construction on Shelter Island.
Deciding it would make sense to move east where it would be easier to start a law practice, they bought an historic farmhouse in East Quogue and Patricia set up a law office there. It went surprisingly well, with her caseload ranging from divorces to closings to DWI charges. But within four months, the place burned down.
Mike rebuilt a nearly exact replica of the house with help from the East Quogue community, which staged a fundraiser for them. “It was an amazing experience. The community really poured out their hearts and took us in,” Patricia said.
Mike and Patricia remained in the new house for two years, during which she had her first child, Lucas. “I was nursing the baby in criminal court and Mike was commuting here every day building a house … It was a crazy time so I decided to downsize.”
That meant moving to Shelter Island and settling down to a life of closings, raising kids and investing in some building and real estate projects on the side.
When the market crashed about five years later, the trades fell off and so did Patricia’s caseload. But she was a busy Town Justice by then. As her term neared its end, Mike took the job at the school, the two got formally hitched at a surprise wedding at their own home three years ago, and now her practice is thriving again, the phone ringing repeatedly during her interview.
Of her service on the bench, she said ,“it was a really hard job.”
“You’re trying to help people but in the courts you see a lot [that’s] addiction driven … [and] we don’t have addiction services” on the Island. “So you couldn’t help. You weren’t allowed. As a judge, you couldn’t say or do anything. You could only interpret the law and do your judgments.”
She recalled a DWI defendant who hired the state’s top DWI defense lawyer and demanded a jury trial.
To “try to pull a jury” together from the community, “we had the whole courtroom filled. The attorney asked me to ask everyone, ‘How many people here have been negatively affected either themselves or someone they love by alcohol?’
“Almost the entire courtroom had a story to tell. Each came back to chambers to tell their story: people dying, people getting beat up. It was an amazing thing to see. And then we couldn’t get a jury.”
She decided not to seek re-election because “it was too much” being a judge, trying to run her practice as it bounced back and raising her kids.
Patricia remains active in the community, serving as a board member of the PTSA now that she is a past president and on the board of the Communities That Care, an anti-addiction organization.
The family just got back from a snowboarding vacation in Colorado. The snow was terrific. “I would have preferred the tropics this year,” she joked. “It’s been a rough winter.”