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Profile: A Southerner plants roots on Shelter Island

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Kimberlea Rea on her back deck at Bass Creek.
Kimberlea Rea on her back deck at Bass Creek.

You know there’s a good story behind an attorney who keeps prints of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the wall behind her desk in the Shelter Island office she shares with her law partner, Town Justice Mary-Faith Westervelt.

Kimberlea Rea, 60, has been litigating environmental cases for both corporate and government clients for decades, from California to the Hudson Valley and lately on the East End. A former corporate and municipal attorney who set up her own Westchester County practice in 2003, she considers herself a Southerner but no closet waver of the Stars and Bars.

Her ancestors fought on both sides in the Civil War and, as a curious little girl growing up in Missouri, back when Jim Crow laws still applied, she wondered what could be the reason for telling black people they couldn’t use public bathrooms.

“I was a very logical little girl. It just didn’t make sense to me,” she said during a talk on the back deck of her Bass Creek cottage, where she has been living full time since 2013, after having grown tired of keeping two homes and offices and “deciding to take the plunge” to move here. She still travels upstate regularly to work with her clients in the Hudson Valley.
The prints behind her desk are fond reminders of the family dinner table when she was a child, and the “common conversation,” she explained, was Civil War battle tactics.

Her father was a research and development chemist in the petrochemical industry. He “was always very defensive about the fact that I sued chemical companies” over the environmental messes they made, she said. Her mother was a nurse and medical administrator. Both of their families were from Virginia and North Carolina, including men who fought in the Revolution and moved west early in the 19th century. It’s a story that fascinates Kimberlea, who has been hoping that her application for membership in the Shelter Island Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is accepted.

A trustee of the Shelter Island Historical Society, she’s also a member of the vestry at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

The grandmother of five was born in Joplin, Missouri — she pronounces it “Missourah,” of course — and lived there through her adolescence. The family, which included two younger brothers, moved a lot, depending on her father’s career.

She spent her high school years in Verona, New Jersey, where she performed in the Verona High School marching band’s color guard, twirling toy rifles. “I grew up with rifles,” she said, so “I just couldn’t quite bring myself to be a baton twirler.”

She links the right to bear arms to the success of her ancestors in throwing off British oppression. “In that regard, I’m really, really conservative,” she said. But she doesn’t radiate the pugnacious passion of a political zealot. She comes from a family of “very independent people,” believes most Americans have moderate views and decries “radical elements that have hijacked both parties.” She calls “the villainy that goes on in the broadcast media just appalling.”

She went to the University of Missouri at Columbia, where her family had lived on campus while her father was getting his Ph.D. An English major, she earned a bachelor of journalism degree in 1975 and thanks to her father’s corporate connections and golfing foursome, she landed “a made-up job” writing technical manuals for a natural gas company in Houston.

About three years later, sitting at a corporate meeting, “It hit me. It’s time to go to law school.”

She’s not sure why that notion entered her head, except the influence of an uncle who was a famous Kansas trial lawyer and district attorney. “My mother used to drop me off in his office. He liked me,” Kimberlea said. “I think in the back of my mind I always knew I’d be a lawyer.”

She went to South Texas College of Law in Houston, which had a trial advocacy program, and worked full time helping to prepare cases at a law firm during the day while she went to classes at night. She also did some modeling to make ends meet.

She graduated in 1980, married for a year to attorney Jack Cowley and pregnant with her first child, Katy. Her second, Caroline, was born the next year.

The family lived in Dallas, where Kimberlea worked for her husband’s law firm, Baron & Cowley. “Jack and I tried cases together,” she said. “It was a very volatile combination. We did very well” but “we’d get into it during trials … The judge would say, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Cowley, would you like to take a recess so you can settle your differences?’ and that made the jury howl with laughter.”

After their divorce, she moved with her daughters to Virginia, where her parents were living. She went to work for a firm that defended medical malpractice suits and worked trials “back to back” until her mother told her she ought to get another job “or abandon the goal of not having servants raise your children.”

So she took a job in 1986 as the assistant attorney of Norfolk, a city surrounded by wetlands. The prosecutions she handled introduced her to environmental law and won her credit for the decision to litigate in federal court under the Clean Water Act, which carried much larger penalties than local ordinances.

She was recruited to come aboard as a trial attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, litigating cases all over the country.

A short-lived second marriage to a banker led her to Bronxville, where her daughters went to high school and Kimberlea — a single mom again after a year — went to work as assistant Westchester County attorney in the litigation bureau. Then in 1992, she joined the firm of Bleakley, Platt & Schmidt, where she became partner in charge of the firm’s environmental practice group.

Kimberlea started her own practice in Westchester in 2003, handling environmental cases up and down the Hudson Valley from the Adirondacks to the New York suburbs. She discovered Shelter Island with her third husband, a doctor whom she married in 2000, after trying Block Island on weekends for a while and looking for someplace closer to home. They visited the Island for a day, loved it and rented a Victorian house near Union Chapel for summer weekends through 2005.

At that point, her husband tired of the Island and told her “enough,” Kimberlea said. But she’d been hooked, even helping Hap Bowditch — whom she had met when he came with his tow truck “to fix a flat and ended up telling me about his vision for the Island” — in his 2005 campaign for town supervisor.

So she could establish residency here and vote in that election, Fannie Clark rented her “The Scallop Shop,” a converted garage that Fannie told her was “a magical place that all the fun people have lived in during rough patches in their lives.”

After a divorce, a move up the creek to a larger Clark-owned house called “The Cottage,” and her two girls graduating from college and starting families of their own, “I decided I’m not ever leaving Shelter Island. That’s it. I’m here.”

Busy with her law practice, which focuses on planning and zoning, land use and environmental enforcement, Kimberlea thinks of herself “as the old woman in the shoe” when her daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren and her step-children and their families come to visit.

Otherwise, it’s just Kimberlea, her two cats and a sleepy, aging springer spaniel enjoying a spectacular view and a quiet place among the Bass Creek Clark clan. She can’t think of a better place to be.