Sandra Waldner’s was a familiar face on Shelter Island even before she landed her job as full-time cashier at the new Schmidt’s Market this year.
She’s been here since age five, grew up working at the Ram’s Head Inn, Gardiners Bay Country Club and the Dory, among other gigs, and graduated from Shelter Island High School.
For 20 years, she worked at the Heights post office. Then in 2006, she and her new husband Peter Waldner — the Island artist and Reporter cartoonist — opened Wish Rock Studio, where they sold Peter’s works and those of other Islanders and where Sandra started a custom framing service.
They were so busy Sandra decided to quit the post office job — something she felt compelled to do also because her mother was ailing and so was her sister Kris, who had cancer. Her mom died just a few days before Sandra’s last scheduled day at the post office. Kris, who worked on South Ferry, died in 2010. Most of that time she lived in her own apartment at Sandra’s Greenport house.
“I was able to spend the last three years of my sister’s life with her, going to Riverhead to see doctors. We shopped, we laughed. She was just incredible,” Sandra said.
Meanwhile, all had gone well at the gallery until the crash of 2008. After that, sales took a nosedive, forcing Sandra and Peter to finally close at the end of 2010. Peter returned to house painting and Sandra found jobs as a pet watcher, aide and driver, even as demand for her framing services remained strong. But she needed something solid.
When she read in the paper that Schmidt’s would be hiring local people, she went in to apply and ran into landlord Danny Calabro, a classmate from her Shelter Island School days.
“I asked him to put in a good word for me with Dennis,” Sandra said, referring to the proprietor of Schmidt’s, “and he said ‘Oh sure.’ And I got the job.”
“I love seeing so many people” at the market — “people I haven’t seen because I’ve been down here all the time,” she said during a long talk at her framing studio on Worthy Way. “I saw more people there in my first three days on the job than I’d seen in the past three years.”
“I was so sure the gallery was the right thing for us to do,” Sandra said. “I felt it was going to work out. I had complete faith. I was so tired of being afraid.”
A conversation with Sandra reveals a warm, thoughtful and generous person, a member of the poetry group at the library (at least before work complicated her schedule) and the kind who never talks about the little things she does for people. Someone else told us that she was the one who made sure a 90-something-year-old customer got a cake on his birthday because she knew no one else would think of it.
Sandra was born in Washington, D.C. in 1954, the youngest of Kathryn Waddington’s three kids. Her brother Glenn is a former town councilman and supervisor candidate and a veteran captain at South Ferry.
Kathryn Hawkins had gone to live in Washington with three girlfriends after graduation from Shelter Island High School and met serviceman Robert Waddington there at a USO dance. He later took the family to Ohio when he got a job with the postal service near Dayton.
He and Kathryn divorced when Sandra was five. She brought the kids back to the Island to live with her mother, Mary Conrad Hawkins, and eventually went to work for the postal service herself as a clerk at the Center post office.
When she was 14, Sandra started her first of many jobs, working as a waitress and chambermaid at the Ram’s Head. She continued to work summers through school and her two-and-a-half years at SUNY Oneonta. A Regents scholar, she nevertheless needed student loans. She left because she felt as if the economy were in free-fall at the time.
“I was really affected by that,” she said. “What am I doing here, I asked myself, accruing debt with no real plan?”
Thinking maybe she’d picked up some great stories for a writing career, she went to work tending bar outside Oneonta at a place called the Evening Inn, where she learned how to play pool and eventually realized — much to the amusement of the working-class bar crowd — that she wasn’t supposed to stay open until the last patron stumbled out the door after 3 a.m.
As for good stories, “You realize when people are drunk you wind up hearing the same stories over and over,” she said.
After a trip west with a boyfriend, she wound up living with her sister Kris and Kris’s boyfriend in a no-water cabin outside Fayetteville, Arkansas working at a fast-food restaurant.
“I found out on that trip I wasn’t a pioneer woman,” Sandra said.
Back on Shelter Island, Len Bliss gave her work at his department store. Playing pool at the Pub, where La Maison Blanche is today, she met Thomas Corcoran, the son of a Heights summer family who’d been going to college in Ithaca but was finishing his degree at Southampton College.
They were married in 1979 at Union Chapel. After some false starts in businesses in Manchester, New Hampshire and Jersey City that his father had steered him into, they settled in Greenport “for the diversity,” Sandra explained.
Thomas worked as a house painter with Jim Brewer for years. Sandra had various jobs until her mother alerted her that a position was opening at the Heights post office. Sandra took the Civil Service test and got the job in 1985, the same year she had her firstborn, Christopher.
Eight years later, after their daughter Alexandra had been born and a few years after Thomas launched his own investment advisory firm, he died at age 39 following a horrible ordeal brought on by severe alcoholism.
On New Year’s Eve at the end of 1998, Sandra was throwing a “kid-friendly” buffet at her home in Greenport and asked Peter Waldner, an old friend of Tom’s, to come over because she knew he’d be alone that night. Peter’s daughter Lindsay was a close friend of Alexandra. His ex-wife Kathy had been Sandra’s best friend.
“It was a sparkling night,” Sandra said, remembering their stroll down to the First Night celebration going on in town.
When they were married in 2006, “It was a banner year,” Sandra said: they opened the gallery, bought their Worthy Way house, and their youngest kids both graduated from college. Alexandra, who went to Boston College, now lives in San Francisco, where she is a barista. Son Chris, who went to Green Mountain College in Vermont, is a captain on North Ferry.
It’s hard to work seven days a week — five at Schmidt’s and two at her studio, Sandra said. “My choices led me to where I am financially,” she added. “I can’t blame this on anybody … I would never regret the time I spent with my sister; I wouldn’t regret what I learned by opening the gallery and also what we learned about what we believe, Peter and I,” about the value of art, no matter what the market may say.