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Patricia Shillingburg, author and Shelter Island historian, dies

JULIE LANE PHOTO | PATRICIA SHILLINGBURG

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Patricia Shillingburg

It was a sad week on Shelter Island with the loss two of its finest, most active residents.

In the wake of the passing of Ben Jones on Thursday January 14, word came that Patricia Shillingburg, author and historian, had died early that morning as well.

Many were unaware she was ill. When the Reporter called for an interview last week to discuss the latest book she and husband Edward had just released — this one on the nine Shelter Island sites that are listed on both the state and federal Registers of Historic Places  — Ms. Shillingburg revealed she was in hospice care. But she still welcomed an in-person interview.

Ms. Shillingburg had been a member of the Island’s Zoning Board of Appeals and also served on the Deer & Tick Committee, for a period as its chairwoman. She resigned both of those posts, but continued to serve on the town’s Ferry Study Committee.

When she left the ZBA last July after 15 years of service, she cited health reasons, but never spoke about it, other than to say she wanted to concentrate her energies on other projects.

In her last interview, Ms. Shillingburg said she wanted people to know that she had a life before settling on Shelter Island with her husband in 1999.

She provided insights from something she wrote a year ago in connection with a Wheaton College alumni event.

After 32 years of marriage raising three children, one of whom is severely disabled, Patricia (Moser) Shillingburg and her husband Edward moved into their five-room, 2,000 square foot summer home on the Island in 1999. Mr. Shillingburg continued his law practice and Ms. Shillingburg left her volunteer career in the field of developmental disabilities to take up the challenge of uncovering long-forgotten local history.

It began as a hobby for them. They joked that at lunch they always had something to talk about and the gossiping was harmless since subjects were dead a long time ago. Together they did research, and Ms. Shillingburg did the writing.

At first they published their work in the Reporter and online, finally self-publishing their books, raising money for the Shelter Island Historical Society.

Constructing stories around letters became one of their specialties. They began with the 50 or so letters written by Johnny Case, a Civil War doctor with the Union Army of the Potomac to his parents in Peconic.

Then came the 150 Nicoll family letters, which resulted in two books, one the transcribed letters and the other a revelation of the characters and lives of the 19th Century Nicoll family, which at the time owned one-third of the Island. That project took two years and culminated with the publication of “The Nicolls of Sachem’s Neck.”

One of the most personal and startling discoveries was that 12-year-old Frances Dering in 1807-1808 attended Newark Academy, the same private high school two of their children — Donald and Emily — had attended 200 years later.

At home on the Island, Ms. Shillingburg grew tomatoes and string beans for family consumption; as a member of the Garden Club, she often won awards in flower shows for her designs, including, in 2014, the Best in Show.

In 2012, she was chair of the House Tour and Flower Show, and previously, she was chair of three house tours to benefit the Historical Society.

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