Island Profile: A couple of city lawyers find refuge on the Island

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Phyllis Gangel-Jacob with her husband Bernie outside their home on Great Circle Drive in Hay Beach.

Phyllis Gangel-Jacob is many things. At the age of 81, she’s a retired justice of the New York Supreme Court, a former Criminal Court judge, grandmother of four, mother of Jamie Gangel, the national reporter for the Today Show, a judicial hearing officer for the New York Supreme Court, the mother-in-law of Daniel Silva, the celebrated author of the Gabriel Allon spy series with a new book out this month. She’s also the wife of retired lawyer and law professor Bernie Jacob.
Phyllis was born and grew up in Brooklyn, the oldest of three sisters, in a first-generation Jewish-American family. She went to Erasmus Hall High School and Brooklyn College, all of which she found to be “wonderful.”
Her father, in a fashion unusual for the times, was ambitious for all his daughters. Laughing, she related, “My father wanted us to be home at 9 o’clock every night, but! But! We must go to college, we must become professionals, we should be lawyers, we should be doctors, but home at 9 every night!” He died at 58 and never knew that she would go to law school.
Phyllis married at 18, and graduated from in 1951 while her husband was away in the Korean War.  She worked from 1951 to 1955 as an administrative assistant to Norman Thomas, the many-times presidential candidate on the Socialist ticket. Asked if she’d actually been a Socialist at the time, her answer was a resounding “yes, a ‘Young Socialist.’”
She gave birth to her daughter in 1955 after her husband’s return and was divorced 11 months later. She was a stay-at-home mom, with a lot of help from her mother, until Jamie was four. She went to work for the Board of Education from 1959 to 1963 as an attendance teacher, otherwise known as a truant officer. The job involved her spending a good deal of time in Family Court because she was assigned to the younger grade levels. If children were absent, they weren’t playing hooky, they were part of a dysfunctional family.
“That  was my entrée into the world of law and then I thought maybe I would try to go to law school,” she said.
She applied to Brooklyn Law School, was accepted in 1963 when her daughter was eight, did well, and after a year transferred to NYU, from which she graduated in 1966. For almost 20 years, she practiced law, beginning at a small firm, Tucker, Kalman and Starr.
“I was sent to court that first day,” she recalled. “I was handed a file by the receptionist and she said, ‘Answer this calendar,’ so I did that and I did things like that for eight years and it was the most extraordinary experience, very diverse. I learned about finance, foreclosures, real estate, and if there was a matrimonial case, since I was the only woman among eight lawyers, I got it and soon I got to be known as a matrimonial lawyer.”
She left that firm and went into practice on her own, a solo practitioner with a small staff.
In 1977, she married Bernard Jacob, a tenured professor of law at Hofstra University School of Law in Hempstead, recently retired as a partner from Fried Frank Harris Shriver and Jacobson in New York City. He had been married previously and had one child, a son, Matthew. Raised in Baltimore, his father was a baker. “My early memories are of the Depression,” said Bernie. “I was born in ‘32. The banks had just failed but I never knew there was a problem.”
With his college degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis and his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, he went on to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from the New School for Social Research in New York City.
“And he’s a Catholic,” Phyllis chimed in. “Can you believe a New York lawyer named Bernie Jacob is a Catholic?”
When her practice continued to grow to the point where it was beginning to feel unwieldy, she was faced with the choice of expanding significantly or, as Bernie suggested, trying for a judicial appointment. He helped her make the decision and she retired from private practice in 1984. After some false starts, in that same year she was elected from New York County to a Civil Court judgeship. In 1989, she became an acting justice of the New York Supreme Court of New York County. In 1993, she was elected a justice. In 2001, she was appointed to the Appellate Term of the court.
She was required by law to retire at age 76  but she has been working ever since as a judicial hearing officer and referee, going to work every day.  “I’m kind of retired but I work and I’m paid but modestly. And that’s the way I like it.”
Phyllis saw Shelter Island for the first time when her daughter was five, while she was staying with friends in Wainscott. She returned with her husband 25 years later. Coming by way of the New London ferry, it was a case of love, if not at first then at second sight. “It was halcyon,” Bernie remembered. They looked for a house, found one, and bought it. “Phyllis furnished the place in 40 days,” he remembered. That was 1988.
Bernie has been active in the Hay Beach Association and served as president during the years when Section Nine was preserved. He is still a trustee and attends all the meetings. He is also a member of Ducks Unlimited and was involved with the Shelter Island Association.
The couple comes to the Island from the city less frequently now than they once did, beginning to find the commute a little more arduous, but they are still faithful Islanders, glad to be here, glad to remain connected.