Eye on the Ball: A quiet champion among us

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO | Garth Griffin in his FIT Center office.

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO | Garth Griffin in his FIT Center office.

I have always been impressed with people who knew what they wanted in life and went after it.

For many of these folks, it isn’t particularly about money, but much more about how to live. Deciding to live on Shelter Island and make a living out here is one of these life-changing decisions. Garth Griffin is one of those people who knew what he wanted and figured out a way to make enough money to make it work.

Since his presence is everywhere on the Island, most of you know Garth. But also, like me, you know nothing about some awe-inspiring things that have happened in his past. I have known him for 40 years, spent a lot of time with him, and just found out on an 8-hour car trip that he was both a national and international rowing champion.

Now, let’s see what else we didn’t know about Garth Griffin.

Did you know his dad was a thoracic surgeon in Brooklyn? He has a brother, Gregg, and they grew up in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn on Third Street. In 1972, the family purchased a summer home on the Island that immediately became a full time home for both Garth and Gregg.

As a youth in Brooklyn, Garth was into both bicycling and excelled at speed skating, becoming a member of the Brooklyn Blades Skating Club.

From 1968 until 1972 Garth attended the Kent School in Connecticut. Although a big guy, playing football didn’t interest him, even though he was a manager of the football team for three years. Since Kent School had a rule that you had to play something, Garth felt that rule motivated him to play sports, and he chose rowing club and squash.

Rowing became his calling and his senior year at Kent he was commodore of the Kent School Boat Club, a port oarsman and stroked second boat in an 8-man crew boat with a coxswain. With Garth leading this crew, they went on to Henley on the Thames Royal Regatta in England, a world-renowned center for rowing, winning the Princess Elizabeth Cup in the School Boy Eights Division. In 1972, the Kent School became international champions. So good was this team during those years that a book titled “Men of Kent” was written about them.

The following year Garth attended Marietta College in Ohio. He joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity, became a social butterfly and was a national college rowing champion.

Marietta College had an undefeated all-freshman team. They went to the finals in Philadelphia at the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest regatta in the United States, and became national champions. Garth was now both a national and international champion. Again, like many young men, having a good time was much more important to a 19-year-old boy than grades. So while burning that candle at both ends, he could no longer maintain a 2.5 average in order to continue rowing, so he decided to quit school.

After a year off, he came out to Shelter Island and finished magna cum laude at Southampton College with a business and public management degree. Not too bad for a guy who was not going to row at Marietta College because of his grades.

Still in college, he started getting involved in his new hometown. He joined the fire department, became chief in a few years and is still very much involved. In 1977 he was an EMT and joined the ambulance crew, started the school volleyball program and was the high school varsity golf coach for 10 years. In other words, he wasted no time becoming a true Islander.

We now mostly know him as the town’s  Recreation Director and the guy running the FIT Center, which he helped establish more than 15 years ago. Garth has no doubt he made the right decision to come out east to live, and feels he is close to living the ideal lifestyle. According to him, life should not be measured in dollars and cents; self-fulfillment has to be important.
If he has regret, it would be that he gave up rowing. He wishes he were more like his fellow Islander, Woody Fischer, who continues to row competitively in a masters division.

If he had a fantasy job, his number one choice would have been to be a manager of a major sports team, probably the Rangers.

He would have been willing to take over the Knicks for quite a bit less than they offered Phil Jackson, but didn’t get the call.
One thing I know for sure, he can keep a secret better than I can. It took him 40 years to tell me he was both a national and international rowing champion, while it only took me 40 seconds to let everyone else know it.