Island profile: Mary Kanarvogel, the school’s go-to lady

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Nurse Mary Kanarvogel at the door of her office in the school.

Nurse Mary Kanarvogel at the door of her office in the school.

Just about everybody who lives, works or has raised a family on Shelter Island knows Nurse Mary Kanarvogel. She’s been the school nurse for 12 years and her office on the second floor is a magnet for anyone with anything on their minds.

Boyfriend troubles? Cold coming on? Need glasses but there’s no money for them right now? Toothache? Want to play baseball but you don’t have a mitt?

Nurse Mary is the conduit through which the Lions Club as well as individual donors learn what the children of hard-working Island families need.

“People from other school districts hear I’m from Shelter Island and say, ‘Oh, you’re from a rich district. I wish we had your problems,” Nurse Mary said a couple of weeks ago, when she escaped her office and its steady stream of calls and visitors to sit in the back of the school auditorium and talk about her career.

“They just don’t understand that a lot of the people whose kids go to this school are not rich at all. Their families work very hard doing whatever they can to make ends meet. They often don’t have health coverage.”

Mary, who was New York State School Nurse of the Year in 2008 and shared the Shelter Island Lions Club Citizens of the Year Award with her husband Mark a few years ago, has been a registered nurse since 1981.

Born in 1957 with an identical twin Jane, she grew up in Kearny, New Jersey with three older brothers and an older sister. Her father, Thomas Fikslin, was head of maintenance for a chemical company. Her mother, Mary, a secretary, had wanted to be a nurse but her own mother discouraged her.

Maybe that explains why Mary’s older sister is also a nurse, her twin is a physical therapist and a brother is a respiratory therapist.

“Behind every successful man there’s a good secretary,” Mary’s mother told her, urging her in that direction. “And I said, ‘I’m not spending my life making some man look good,’” Mary recalled.

As a kid, “I was the all-around popular girl. I was the head of student council, the captain of the cheerleaders. Kearny was a mostly Scottish and Irish town. We’re all very short there but even at 4-foot-10, I was the ninth tallest out of 18.”

She got a full scholarship to study pre-med at Upsala College but after two years transferred to Rutgers in Newark to study nursing. “I realized I didn’t want to be 35 before I had a life,” she said. After graduating with her RN and a bachelor’s degree, she went to work at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, just across the George Washington Bridge.

“I loved it,” she said, working in an 18-bed orthopedics ward that attracted patients from all over the country. It was headed by Dr. Alex Garcia, a longtime Shelter Island resident, but she only knew he was a delight to work for.

Eventually Mary became head nurse so naturally she kept an eye on the workers converting the ward into semi-private rooms in 1983. One of them was “tin knocker” Mark Kanarvogel, a union sheet-metal man from Long Island.

They started going out and married two years later at his place in Centerport. Mary lived there for a decade, driving to New Jersey to drop off her first child, Ian, at her sister’s in Mahwah, New Jersey before heading into the city for her 12-hour shift.

She also went back to school to become a nurse practitioner, something her growing family eventually made impossible to continue. But she managed to handle a part-time job doing “phone triage” for an HMO out of New Hyde Park, winnowing out callers who just needed a little advice from those who really needed a doctor.

Ian, a graduate of Texas A&M, is now a part-time aide at the Shelter Island School and also heads the town’s Youth Center. Daughter Hope, a graduate of Unity College in Maine, is a hunting educator for the state of Vermont. “I don’t know where she came from with that” interest in animals, Mary said, “other than hanging out with Clarks all her life.”

Shelter Island was a part of Mary’s life as a Kanarvogel from the start. Mark had attended Camp Quinipet as a teenager and “really liked it,” Mary said. “We had a little trailer on Jaspa we summered in for 10 years and I worked part-time as a nurse for Quinipet” so the kids could go for free.

They put a bid on a house on Cartwright in 1992 but Mary got cold feet. “It was too far from my family” in New Jersey “and I was a very busy city person. I really didn’t think I’d have enough to do out here,” she said.

That idea seems laughable now.

When Ian was in fourth grade, it didn’t make sense anymore to divide his life between Centerport and Shelter Island. That’s when Mary agreed to make the move. “It was the best thing I ever did in my life, for everyone,” Mary said.

A little burned out from her life as a nurse, she went to work at the newly opened Pat & Steve’s in 1998 as a waitress. “It was fabulous because I really met everybody,” she said.

She worked per diem at Eastern Long Island Hospital and also ran a business using a sewing machine in her basement to assemble quilts for people who had made the components, something that grew out of the quilting hobby she had cultivated in Centerport.

When school nurse Ruth Mattson retired in 2002, the Board of Education chose Mary — who had substituted for her a few times — to replace her. People warned Mary the job would bore someone as energetic as she. That’s another laughable concept.

Someone gave her a novel to read at her desk in the basement. She still hasn’t read it.

One of Mary’s first moves was to have the office moved upstairs to a more central location.

“Nooooo, it is not a boring job,” she said. “It’s morphed into a lot of things. I’m the go-to person when people need help or money. I have an amazing number of people I can call on when someone needs dental work or glasses.”

Last May she earned her master’s degree in education at Cambridge College. The other students there “loved my stories about Shelter Island because they all work at big schools,” where they don’t see much variety. “They loved hearing I had to give a horse a shot, that I get calls to help with the elderly, or a young couple trying to get pregnant, all this crazy stuff.”

Mary has cut back on some of her volunteer work but she’s still an EMT with the town ambulance, for which she serves as board secretary; a board member of the Lions Club, and a volunteer with the Fire Department Auxiliary.

“I don’t work all the time,” she protested. “I do have a lot of fun,” especially traveling with friends whenever she gets the chance.

She got her master’s degree so she can fully understand “the big picture” of how the school works, she said. At 57, she says her office at the school “is a busy place but I love it. And I don’t see myself retiring even in the long, long future.”