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Profile: Minding his business and Shelter Island’s

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO |  Jim Dougherty with his dog, K.J. — the white bit of fur wedged next to his left hip — at home on Shelter Island.
Jim Dougherty with his dog, K.J. — the white bit of fur wedged next to his left hip — at home on Shelter Island.

There is a difference between getting into other people’s business, and seeing to the People’s business, a distinction that Jim Dougherty appreciates.

In his years as a litigator, mergers and acquisitions professional, community leader and now as Shelter Island Town Supervisor, Jim has inserted himself into the heart of controversy like a seafood fork in a split lobster and pulled out the prize.

“I was always doing deals,” he said.” I like to get from A to B.”

He is a son of 1940s Long Island, reared in the suburban yards, streets and ball fields of Nassau County, the middle boy of a three-brother family, with a homemaking mom and the rare dad who did not jump on the train for the City every day.

Jim’s father was a lawyer in Baldwin and a Democrat in the days when Republicans usually won local elections. In 1946, he ran for Surrogate of Nassau County against the incumbent Republican and lost 3 to 1, followed by an unsuccessful run for State Supreme Court in 1952. “I was young and doing my own thing, but I certainly got involved and I think the bug may have bitten me,” Jim said.

At Dartmouth College, Jim joined the Young Democrats, “a very lonely club at that time.” He invited an obscure new governor from Maine named Edmund Muskie — “an easygoing, open guy” — to drive over in his station wagon to speak. “Muskie gave a nice talk at Dartmouth during the Stevenson/Eisenhower campaign,” Jim remembered. “We somehow scraped money together and put him up at the Hanover Inn for the night. I don’t think he could afford it himself. ”

Jim was a senior at Dartmouth in 1958 and president of Delta Upsilon, when “we took a deep breath and pledged a black fellow, Ray Johnson.” The fraternity’s national headquarters responded immediately, organizing an “alumni blackball” to encourage brothers from Southern colleges to try and prevent the Dartmouth chapter from pledging Johnson.

“We received six blackballs from people who did not know us from Adam,” Jim said. “A couple of us went to see these people, asked them to stay out of our business and got the blackballs removed.”
Back at Dartmouth, they pledged Ray Johnson at 3 a.m., hours before Western Union delivered another blackball.

After graduating from Columbia Law School, Jim joined the white shoe law firm of Hughes, Hubbard, Blair, and Reed. During his seven years there, he made several trips South to help litigate civil rights cases. He met with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, “a segregationist, but a talented and charming fellow, who said ‘Jim, there are a whole lot of problems in New York City. Why don’t you go back there? I think we can handle things here.‘”

“I went back on my promise to stay out of their affairs,” he said, referring to his visit to overturn Southern alumni blackballs from his Dartmouth fraternity days.

Jim went to the law firm Shea and Gould for two years. “Bill Shea was the head of the firm, it was no democracy like Hughes,” Dougherty said. “They teamed up with Branch Rickey to bring the Mets back to New York.”

He left Shea and Gould in 1971 to become general counsel at Supermarkets General, owner of Pathmark, worked his way up to president and retired in 1989.

In the late 1960s, with a weekend plans to get out of the city for snow sports, Jim came within a ski pole of missing out on the blind date that would change his life. Bad weather nixed his travel plans.

When he arrived instead at the apartment of a friend who had arranged the date, there was Nancy Decker, a California-based writer in New York to interview United Nations officials for a biography of Dag Hammarskjöld. “I fell right away,” Jim said, but Nancy took some convincing. “I had to court her for quite a while. She finally said ‘you’ve worn me out. I’ll do it.’” Four years later they were married on Jim’s 35th birthday and settled in New York.

Just as Mother Nature had sent ice to ensure that Jim Dougherty and Nancy Decker would meet each other, in the summer of 1972 she sent fire to ensure they would meet Shelter Island — a 16-day wave of heat and humidity. In the grip of a steaming New York City weekend, Jim recounted, “Like The Animals said, ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.’ I started calling and got a room on Shelter Island. What a spot! We fell in love with Shelter Island and the Peconic Lodge helped us fall in love.”

Today, Shelter Island’s grocery aisles and post offices are full of homeowners besotted by their first view of the Island from the Peconic Lodge’s tiny bungalows. In 2000, the Lodge became the Perlman Music Program.

In 1976, with the aid of a bonus from his work with Pathmark, Jim and Nancy bought a house that had stood on Ram Island Road since 1852, built by John Tuthill. “It was scary, but boy were we happy we did it,” he said. “We came out summers and vacations. Nancy spent most of the summers out here writing.”

In the 1990s the couple began to live on Shelter Island full time. Her father had passed away from Alzheimer’s disease, and Nancy was beginning to understand that she would also develop this disease. “Nancy’s Alzheimer’s curse was beyond comprehension at first, but Nancy and I just got through it,” Jim said. She lived with the disease for 13 years until she passed away in 2013 at 73.

Jim’s decades of mergers and acquisition work, his skill at doing deals and his longtime interest in local politics came together when he spearheaded the effort to pass a 2 percent tax on real estate transfers and create the Community Preservation Fund in 1998. The measure passed in a five-town referendum with a 78 percent favorable vote. Jim was asked to head the committee to identify and preserve land.

“I was a junkyard dog,” he said. “You could see prices were rising. I don’t think we made a single mistake when you look back.”

In 2007, Jim decided to run for town supervisor. The Democratic Committee had approached him before, but since that first contact, his life had changed. “ I was caring for Nancy,” Jim said. “But from a human standpoint, it seemed very important to not have my entire life inside our house. So when they approached me in 2007, I agreed to run.”

Jim considers himself fortunate in life and even in health, in spite of serious illness. “I’ve had surgery for malignancies but seem to be fully a survivor,” he said,  speaking about his treatment with chemotherapy for lymphoma. “I feel like I am coping with it,” he said. “Keep that in mind the next time you go to the polls.”

Jim has served as supervisor for over seven years, reelected three times, but credits all accomplishments to the Town Board, working together. “I’m the executive branch but only one fifth of the legislative branch,” he said. “I have to build consensus.”

Jim sees the Island’s geography as a gift of nature that defines a state of mind as well as a physical place.

“There is hardly a Shelter Islander who is not willing to give back in some way,” he said. “We are the only town in New York State totally surrounded by water. It gives us a sense of pride and identity.”