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Island profile: Susan Cincotta, the role of a lifetime

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Susan Cincotta in her Shelter Island home.
Susan Cincotta in her Shelter Island home.

Susan Cincotta came to Shelter Island from New York City in the 1980s, pretty, adept at putting on accents, fresh from the roles of waitress and starving actor. She did not wear blue jeans.

Through three decades of Island life she married, built a home, raised two children, established herself as an outstanding real estate professional and learned to fish. She wore jeans.

In life, as in trousers, Susan believed in moving forward.

Raised on Long Island in a big Italian family, Susan’s father, Giu­seppe Cincotta came to the United States from Italy and married Susan’s mother, Fortunata. The couple — known as Flo and Joe — had five children: Angela, Angelo, Salvatore, Giuseppe and Susan.

Susan was supposed to be Josephina, until her parents laid eyes on her and decided it didn’t fit. “They said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve done the impossible. We’ve given birth to an American,’” Susan said. They named her for the most American song they could think of, “Oh Susanna.”

In October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy shut down the East Coast, Susan and her family went ahead with her father Joseph’s funeral on Long Island amid downed trees, battered umbrellas and wind-scattered flowers.

Afterward they gathered at her mother’s house without electricity or cellphones to mourn their patriarch and celebrate a life well lived. More than one family member observed that he picked a heck of a time to pass away. “It wasn’t Hurricane Sandy,” Susan said, “It was Hurricane Joe.”

Susan went in her own direction from an early age, the only one in the family who wanted to be an actor. She studied theater at Stony Brook University and finished her college credits at the Manhattan Theater Club.

The life of an aspiring actor in New York in the 1980s was tough. “I starved,” Susan said. “No two ways about it.”

She worked for a theatrical publisher updating the “Producers Masterguide,” a reference book for filmmakers, and found she was good at running the telephone gauntlet of assistants and secretaries to get to the producers and directors with the information she needed for the publication.

It was in her East Side neighborhood that Susan met Gregory Fehrm, a transplanted New Yorker from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, who was working in the garment district. They fell in love and she brought him out to Shelter Island for a summertime visit. “He didn’t want to leave,” Susan said. “He loved the fishing and the lifestyle, he wanted to be a lobsterman. He embraced Shelter Island year round.”

By May of 1985, they were married and living on the Island. In addition to lobstering out of Montauk, Greg was a volunteer fireman and Emergency Medical Technician with a strong belief in giving back to the community he loved. Susan and Greg bought land on Midway Road and built their home.

She worked as a real estate broker on the East End, starting shortly after she settled here. A top salesperson, she credits her mother’s example. “My mother has a 100 percent sales ratio,” Susan said.

“Her product is food. Even if you come to her house having just eaten a 12-course meal, you will not leave without eating something.”

Real estate paid the bills, but acting has always been an important part of life for Susan on Shelter Island, as a performer and as a volunteer. Shortly after she and Greg settled here, she auditioned for the Shelter Island Players’ production of “Dial M for Murder,” thinking she’d be lucky to land a bit part. “I came home and said, ‘I got the lead!’ and Greg said, ‘Are you crazy? Did you tell them you are pregnant?’”

She had not.

Her condition was revealed, and a solution was found; “They borrowed a couch, so I could walk behind it, and my obstetrician choreographed the scene of the murder so I wouldn’t get hurt,” said Susan.

Their daughter, Rachel, and son, Victor, were born and raised on Shelter Island. Rachel and her daughter, Juliana, also settled here. Victor is a finance manager in Florida.

Susan faced significant challenges over the years, coping as a single mother when Greg became seriously ill. With her nearest relatives 65 miles away, she relied heavily on the Shelter Island community — and the hardware store. Susan said, “Once the washing machine broke, the phone rang, and it was a friend. I told her, ‘I need a man.’ And she said, ‘you don’t need a man, you need WD-40. And go turn the damn water main off.’”

Susan credits Greg with teaching her the importance of community before he passed away in 2005. “Living on an island you have to get to know your neighbors,” Susan said. “You are all drinking from the same glass of water.” She is on the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, a regular volunteer for the Mashomack Dinner Dance and volunteers as an acting coach for Shelter Island School productions.

In 2012, Susan performed in a staged reading of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” to a standing ovation at the Shelter Island Library. That production, directed by Terry Brockbank and also featuring Linda Betjeman, Kathy Brockbank, Jenifer Maxson and Sara Mundy, will be reprised at the North Fork Community Theatre on February 14 and 15.

Susan’s next stage appearance will be in “Mom, It’s My Wedding!” — a play for which she was also a muse. “I found out the hysterical monologue playwright Ilene Beckerman wrote was with me in mind,” she said,  Susan will perform in the Southampton Cultural Center Stage production from January 15 to February 1.

She treasures the pace and texture of life on Shelter Island, even if moving forward sometimes takes patience.

Here, she said, the rules of the road are different: “In the traffic circle, you don’t just yield to the left, you yield first to your mother’s friends, then to your father’s friends. Turtles, deer, birds, raccoons all have right of way. Never stop for turkeys, they will part. Two cars stopped going opposite directions? That’s a Shelter Island conversation. Does anyone beep? No, you stop and wait.”