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Island profile: award-winning author Robert Lipsyte

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Robert Lipsyte and wife Lois B. Morris with Milo at their West Neck Road home.
Robert Lipsyte and wife Lois B. Morris with Milo at their West Neck Road home.

In some ways, Robert Lipsyte is unremarkable. Born in the Bronx in 1938, he grew up in Rego Park, Queens and went to Forest Hills High School. And after many years living in New Jersey and the Upper West Side, raising two children, and working very hard, he now lives on West Neck Road with his wife, Lois B. Morris, and a handsome, elderly spaniel named Milo.

Unremarkable until you read his remarks.

Because for over 50 years, in novels for young adults and as a journalist, Robert has been writing about the American experience — mainly through the lens of sports — with humanity, wit and acumen. He’s the smart kid in the back of the classroom, armed with a peashooter.

Seated at the dining table in a bright room, Robert is speaking frankly. When Lois suggests a modicum of restraint, he responds, “The dog is here. I can’t lie.”

Prize-winning sports reporter and columnist at the New York Times, winner of the 2001 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for lifetime contribution to Young Adult Literature, and runner-up for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary, Robert is currently working for ESPN as ombudsman, where he has recused himself from Twitter in part because “I have a tendency to pop off.”

To hear Robert tell it, his start in journalism was typical of the time. “At the Times in 1957 if you were a white guy with a tie and no tics you could find a job and work your way up … I’ve been really lucky about accidentally falling into great jobs without the kind of career planning I would advise for young kids.”

Luck, or is it an uncanny ability to show up at events just as all hell breaks loose? Like the time he was sent to cover a fight between Sonny Liston and a kid named Cassius Clay, because the regular Times sports writer was too busy and Liston was obviously going to whip Clay. Or the time he was sent to cover his first NASCAR race and realized that Dale Earnhardt had been killed when, “Someone ran out and threw a blue tarp over his car and everyone in the press box started to cry.”

Or when Robert went to work for the New York Post in 1977, shortly after Rupert Murdoch took over … and lasted seven months.

About that he said, “Rupert finally read me.” Hired as the city columnist, Robert found he could write whatever he wanted as long as it did not conflict with the Murdoch political agenda; anything that did would be cut out.

One night, after learning his column had been altered in this way, Robert had enough. He left his resignation letter on Murdoch’s desk and went over to Channel 2 where his friend Dave Marash was an anchorman for the CBS 11 o’clock news. “I guess I whined to him,” Robert said. “Marash said, ‘If you ever want to quit, how would you like to quit on the 11 o’clock news?’ It was a slow news night. I found out that more people heard me announce my resignation that night than had ever read me in my life, books, magazines and newspapers. It was a revelation.”

Robert first came to Shelter Island with his family in the 70s. “We visited and guested and rented and in the early 90s bought a house.” He and Lois live in “her house” on West Neck Road, adding a room in the basement where Robert works and some woods in the back for Milo to defend. “So I’m guesting once again.”

Robert’s daughter, Susannah, is an attorney, married, living in Brooklyn and the mother of a two-year-old. His son Sam lives on the Upper West Side and is chairman of the graduate writing program at Columbia University. “My son is a famous writer. The dynamic in the family has shifted,” he said. “A few years back he would show me stuff before he sent it in, now I show him stuff. I love it. I think vicarious pleasures are the best pleasures.”

Vicarious pleasures are what Robert has given to countless parents, as they’ve seen their children — especially sons — pick up his books and start reading like doctoral candidates. Before there was Harry Potter, there was “The Contender” and “One Fat Summer”; compelling stories that acknowledge the dark and troubling moral challenges in sports and growing up in a way young readers can understand.

His latest work, “The Twin Powers,” is science fiction for middle-school- age kids, coming out in October. “I wanted to see if I could write a book without sex or drugs — something that my grandchildren could read. And I wanted to try different voices and have a woman character. It was written on Shelter Island in a wonderful bubble of quietude.”

In his fiction and non-fiction writing, Robert examines the American obsession with boys and sports, a phenomenon he calls “jock culture.” He said, “Kids really should play sports. But parents have to figure out how they can understand, that even though sports heroes seem to be live and in color, they are movie stars.”

Lance Armstrong is one of many such heroes that Robert met over his career. He described Armstrong with characteristic humanity, saying, “I thought from the beginning that Lance was doping and I didn’t care. To go up the Pyrenees without chemical help is crazy … He lied of course. But he was a hard case and I kind of respected him. He’s a tough guy, even looking at you across the table, there was nothing soft or sweet or ingratiating about him. But his foundation was spectacular. He helped an awful lot of people.

When they stripped him of his seven titles, it became impossible to replace him because everyone all the way down were dopers themselves.”

Robert sees two levels of sports; one is the Yankees or Mets, the Tour de France, the World Cup (“they are not such good guys”) and the other is “the Bucks on down. Positive values.”

He celebrates sports that involve real human accomplishment, not mixed up with entertainment and big money. “What could be better than the Shelter Island girls volleyball team? That’s kind of a human treasure. And that’s sports … a great coach … look how hard they worked. That didn’t just happen.” he said, “They’ve gotten something out of that experience that will serve them the rest of their lives.”

“When we hold athletic heroes up as models we should hold them up as models for work ethic, for dedication to goals, for collective play, and not some delusional fantasy we have of their character.”

Robert’s current job as ombudsman for ESPN puts him in the thick of the moral issues he’s been commenting on for his entire career, such as the controversy over brain damage among NFL players as a result of repeated concussions. Pro football generates more income for ESPN than any other sport, so how does ESPN go about covering a story that threatens the very identity of the sport?

“That’s an ombudsman issue, and that’s why an outside critic is a good thing,” he said. “And I have been critical.”

The view of the Island as merely a charming paradise does not make sense to Robert. He sees much more complexity here. “Shelter Island is special but it is also a microcosm of the world … There are a lot of different communities, wonderful and enriching and sometimes they interact,” he said. “It’s Peyton Place with plovers. It’s people whose kids go to school here, who work here, it’s a thriving artistic community, retirees and writers.”

He also includes the people who come for the summer and “leave their money here.”

“I love this place. I love it for the physical beauty. There are interesting people here. You get to talking to somebody semi-retired, some guy who comes along and it turns out he was an underwater demolition expert in WWII and he blew up the world!”

Robert loves the Shelter Island “gems,” like the Perlman Music Program, Project FIT, Sylvester Manor, the Mashomack Preserve, the Bucks, and the fireworks. “Anything that’s a community campfire, that brings people together in a glad moment is really a great positive,” he said. “My job is to eat the marshmallows.”

“I love it for the quietude. I love it for a sense of sanctuary here for me,” he added. “At my age and for how I live it’s almost perfect. I say almost perfect, because if I said that Shelter Island is perfect, a tree would fall down on the house tonight.”