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Profile: Catherine Becker, six decades of Shelter Island life

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Catherine Becker has seen more than a half a century of Shelter Island history from her home on Little Ram Island.
Catherine Becker has seen more than a half a century of Shelter Island history from her home on Little Ram Island.

Catherine Becker has lived at the top of the hill on Little Ram Island for the past 55 years.

Born in 1917, Catherine is a living witness to much of 20th century history. From her vantage in a modest home on that high point of land on Shelter Island, she’s spread her unforgettable brand of humor, warmth and serene confidence. The poet Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Catherine has the rare gift of making the people around her feel good.

Born Catherine Kupsh in the Bronx, she grew up in Queens near the present-day Belmont Racetrack.

“There was a cornfield in front and a beanfield in back,” she remembered.

She was an infant when her mother died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Catherine, her brother Henry and their father moved in with her maternal grandparents. Her mother’s sister — a woman she called “Auntie” — became a mother to her.

Auntie was beautiful, fun and loved adventure. She loved to take Catherine out on lively outings, saying, ‘Let’s go gallivanting.’” Catherine’s father proposed marriage to Auntie but was turned down.

When Catherine applied for a job at the Eberhard-Faber Pencil Company, Auntie bought her a silk blouse for $2.98 at Lerner’s for the interview, and waited protectively outside the factory while Catherine was inside, ready to storm in and fetch her. Over an hour later, Catherine emerged from the factory in time to prevent an intervention, announcing she had a job as an export accountant at a salary of $15 a week.

The Depression was “a worrisome time,” she said. Her father had a butcher shop, but his business dropped off, and in 1931, “We were told that he had retired.” He found work as a butcher at the A & P where “he was paid in meat.” The family was able to get by, although times were very tough. “We would add fabric to our dresses, called it a ‘false hem’ to make them longer so we could get more wear out of a dress before outgrowing it,” Catherine said.

She attended P.S. 34, Queens Village Elementary School. After high school she enrolled at Pace University to study accounting and business administration, the only woman in her class. It was in an accounting class in 1938 where she met Milton Becker, who would be her husband for 67 years.

Milton went to work at Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company as a cost accountant and stayed until his retirement in 1979. Catherine is proud of Milton and Pfizer’s role during the World War II years, making the new penicillin drugs that saved the lives of countless men and women from fatal infections. And, she added gratefully, “Pfizer is still taking care of me.”

After the war, their daughter Carol and son Donald were born. All their friends were having babies and all the babies seemed to come in pairs of the same sex. When a friend asked how they had managed to have one of each, Milton said, “You don’t think I work for a chemical company for nothing.” Catherine said, “I was so sure Donald was going to be a girl, I sent Milton back to check.”

Catherine has two grandchildren, Yasmin and Richard, and two great-grandchildren.

When her phone rings nowadays, it sounds like a playlist on shuffle. She’s got a ringtone song for every child and grandchild. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” announces a call from her son Donald, “Ee-yi-ee-yi-oh” means Yasmin is calling from her farm full of horses and dogs, and the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner” indicate lawyer and grandson Richard is on the line.

Catherine and Milton first came to Shelter Island in the 1950s when friends in their East Hills neighborhood invited them out for the day. They bought land and built the house Catherine lives in to this day. Typical of their relationship, they divided responsibilities amicably. “Milton got to choose where to put the house and I got to choose the boat,” she said.

After Milton’s retirement they lived on Shelter Island full-time. They were regular lunch customers at Orient by the Sea, where they would arrive on their 23-foot Chris Craft, but not before phoning owner Bob Haase to warn him they were coming. “Milton was the worst yachtsman and he couldn’t swim,” Catherine recalled. “Bob would have one of the dock boys come out to meet us.”

Once, Catherine was trying to tie up the boat herself when Milton caused the boat to lurch, dumping her in the water, although “I kept my hat on.”

Catherine’s brother, Father Henry Kupsh, also lived on Shelter Island, and was guest minister during the summer at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where Catherine and Milton had been members since 1955. In 1998 Catherine and Milton designed and donated a lovely stained-glass window for the parish hall. The window celebrates the joys of life on Shelter Island, with a scene of a sunset, sailboats, seabirds and a scallop.

St. Mary’s is where Catherine met Alice Fiske, who until her death at 88 in 2006 was the legendary lady of Sylvester Manor. “Allie was a character,” Catherine said in tribute.

Once Catherine told Alice that she had admired a silver-topped cane while in her daughter Carol’s company. “I said to Carol, ‘I’d like one of those when I get old.’” Carol responded, “You are old.” When Alice heard this, Catherine said, she tartly remarked, “‘Write her out of the will!’ That was so typical of Alice.”

For many years, Catherine was a member of the ‘9-holers” a loosely-affiliated group of golf-loving women who played every Tuesday at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club; but waited until the more ambitious golfers had finished their 18 holes. The “9-holers” — surviving members include Jeanne Farnan, Hermine Gladstone, Doris Schultz and Marianna Tarpinian — waited until the course was clear to play because, as Catherine said, “9 holes was enough.”

And although she does not exercise the right to use it, Catherine did recently renew her driver’s license, a development that sent a wave of disbelief through her children. “I can legally drive until I’m 100,” Catherine said.

She is prepared to stay put in her house on the hill. Recent hurricanes have not intimidated her, “They tried to put me up in the firehouse, but I wouldn’t go.”

She is in complete possession of her sense of fun, as well as her sense of irony, warning James Eklund, owner of the Ram’s Head Inn, where she is a regular lunch customer, that she plans to celebrate at the Inn, “If I make it to my 100th birthday. I may not know I’m there, but I’ll have a party.”