South Ferry Captain Bill Boeklen is a happy man and everyone who sees him working the deck knows it.
“He’s the one who’s always smiling, always happy,” said his wife Mary, a special education aide at the Shelter Island School.
“I’ve always been like that,” said Bill. “People all my life have always been asking me, ‘Why are you smiling?’”
Not only does he smile a lot, he also does a little two-step, with a dip and disco-style, pistol-fingered, two-handed point as he directs traffic on and off the boat.
“Everyone says I should be at Piccadilly Circus directing traffic or working at an airport,” Bill said.
His work on the ferry, his marriage and his religion all came to him in mid-life. While all three are among his joys — as are sons Danny and Billy — he was a pretty happy guy all along.
Born in Brooklyn in 1959, he grew up in Sag Harbor. That’s where his mother Carol was from and she wanted out of Brooklyn, where her new husband Bill — an Air Force man stationed at Camp Hero in Montauk — had taken her to live above his parents’ candy store. They’d met in Sag Harbor and to Sag Harbor they returned, only to split up after their second child, Bill’s sister Michelle, was born.
Sag Harbor “was a wild town” well known for its bars. Carol was a waitress who worked all over, from Sherry’s in Bridgehampton and Shippy’s in Southampton to Ridgeley’s in Water Mill and the Porterhouse out on North Highway, where she got Bill a job washing dishes when he was a teenager.
Later, Bill went to live with his father and step-mother in Farmingville and, after quitting high school in 12th grade, he worked with his dad at Roscoe Tools in Smithtown. But he eventually returned to Sag Harbor.
Because he’d gotten to know bartenders, cooks and restaurant owners all over the South Fork, “Everybody kind of took me under their wing,” he said, and for years his was a well-known face at restaurants in Bridgehampton, Southampton and Sag Harbor, especially the Corner Bar and J. W. Ryerson’s.
Most recently, he worked the kitchen at the Sag Harbor Golf Club for 13 years, cooking burgers and serving beers to the twosomes and foursomes that came in.
A carefree and confirmed bachelor, he and his pals took golf outings to Hilton Head every year and scuba diving expeditions to Hawaii and the Caribbean. One day in 1997, they were astonished when Bill called them from Gurney’s Inn to report that he had just tied the knot.
It happened four days after he and Mary had laid eyes on each other for the first time after a long separation.
Mary was Bill’s “foster cousin,” she explained, having been taken in by Bill’s aunt as a child. When Mary’s aunt moved to Florida, state law barred Mary from going too. “Bill’s father and step-mother became my foster parents so I could stay in the same family,” Mary explained.
By then, Bill and Mary had been dating for a while. An 18-year-old in a blue tux with white piping, he took her to the Comsewogue High School prom, much of his face obscured by wild hair “like John Lennon’s,” Mary said.
When she was old enough, Mary went off to Florida because she had always wanted to live with her biological grandfather, who had not been allowed to adopt her when she was a child because he had been a widower. “It’s a real Heidi story,” she said.
He died only months after her arrival but Mary remained there, building a career as a hairdresser and, five years later, getting involved in missionary work for the local Church of Christ.
On a Christmas visit to Long Island in 1997 to see her foster parents, she saw Bill again for the first time in years. She didn’t know he’d be there with candy, a teddy bear and flowers because it was her birthday.
“As soon as he walked in … It was like ahhhh! I’m going to marry him,” Mary said. Her heart melted at the sight of “my prince growing old in front of me,” with short, silvery and thinning hair instead of the wild Lennon mop.
As Mary tells the story, he asked out of the blue that night, “Why don’t you just stay here?”
“I said I can’t stay here,” Mary said. “My whole life is in Florida.”
“What would it take to keep you here?” he asked.
“I guess if I got married I’d stay here.”
“OK,” he said, “let’s get married. I mean it. I’ve always loved you; I’m always thinking about you and what you’re doing.”
They were married by Southampton Town Justice Eddie Burke in his Sag Harbor office and took off on a three-month-long honeymoon, with Gurney’s the first stop. Settling down and living in apartments around Sag Harbor, they had their first child in 1998, Billy, now a basketball and baseball star at Shelter Island High School.
Around that time, Bill began to wonder about his life and all that beer he was peddling. In 1998, “I just saw the light,” he said, and decided to take the plunge, literally — having himself baptized at the Church of Christ on Route 114 near Sag Harbor, where South Ferry President Cliff Clark is an elder.
Deciding in 2001 “I can’t work at the golf course again,” he accepted Cliff’s offer of a job at the ferry “at the bottom of the totem pole,” Bill said. He made captain in 2005.
When the Boeklens sat down to talk for this story last weekend, Billy had taken the Jitney to New York City to play basketball with friends. Danny, who is in eighth grade, was playing with his XBox downstairs. Grandpa Bill Krapf, Mary’s widowed step-father, was in and out getting coffee.
Bill’s mother and sister Michelle are both home health aides in Sag Harbor. Bill’s older half-brothers, Jeff and Greg, live in the Harbor too. Jeff’s a house painter and Greg is a landscaper-caretaker.
In what they call a “miracle,” they found a great rental in the former Kast family house on Hedges Road and in 2011 bought it at a bargain price from Fred Kast. Their extended family calls it “The Resort” because of the pool they put in as well as the three kayaks, the fishing gear, the skiff, the motorcycle and all the other recreational gear around the cozy place.
“I have no time to use anything but I have everything,” Bill said, admitting he does find time to take his skiff out to Cedar Point after fluke. He’ll also take a cast or two off the ferry when the stripers are running, hooking some big ones right off the slip.
Mary pointed to a case of New Testaments in a corner, explaining that she and Bill hope to launch a Bible study group at the house. “We’re trying to start with the young kids coming here … Maybe in summer, once a week, just to have them know what the Bible says.”
It may be part of a thank-you process Bill feels he owes the community. “I’d like to thank everyone for letting us come here,” he said. “So many people have helped me out along the way.”