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Island Profile: P.A.T. Hunt, keeping her mind and options open

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO P.A.T. Hunt outside her Chase Creek home, a place where she finds ‘a sort of cosmic energy.’
P.A.T. Hunt outside her Chase Creek home, a place where she finds ‘a sort of cosmic energy.’

Well-adjusted people are said to be comfortable in their own skins. P.A.T. Hunt wears hers with enviable freedom and confidence.

Since she came to Shelter Island in 1980 with her husband Bridg, Patricia Ann Thomas Hunt, who prefers to be called P.A.T., begot, reared and educated two Hareleggers. She also provided the spirit, determination and zeal behind the preservation and restoration of Taylor’s Island’s Smith-Taylor cabin, one of the Island’s most beautiful and quirky treasures.

P.A.T. was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, a place she remembers as an ethnically diverse industrial town, on the Naugatuck River. “There was a lot of tumult in my family,” said P.A.T. “My parents were wonderful as far as not holding me back.”

She left after high school and was living in Boston in 1969 when she and her friend DeeDee decided to drive up to a music and art fair called Woodstock. “Music, peace and love, it sounded good to me,” P.A.T. said.

When the young women encountered abandoned vehicles lining the road, they decided they were close enough and walked, leaving their food and camping equipment in the car. Slowly realizing they were nowhere near their destination, they accepted a ride from a farmer who drove them part way. They arrived to find a mass of muddy, blissed-out humanity, were befriended by strangers and were able to spend the night outdoors comfortably. “I hadn’t ‘turned on’ yet,” P.A.T. said. “Not everybody can say they were straight at Woodstock.”

In her early 20s, P.A.T. acted on a dream to go to California. She found transportation through a Boston radio station’s ride board and set off cross-country in a van with a man named Dino, a conscientious objector named Wally and a couple who were only going as far as Wyoming.

P.A.T. and Wally made it to Northern California, where she discovered she’d need to hitchhike for two days to get to Huntington Beach where she planned to meet some friends. In retrospect, she admitted it was a poor decision.

“I thought life was about taking risks, but I hadn’t figured out yet that there are death-defying risks and life-affirming risks,” she said. “A woman hitch-hiking for two days alone is a little death-defying.”

The landscape of the California coast made a deep impression on her. “When I came back East, I really appreciated the beauty,” she said. “It was a contrast and it made me appreciate where I came from.”

In January of 1974, P.A.T. moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where she worked at the Hospital of St. Raphael in the Children’s Psychiatric Emergency Service.

At the Oxford Ale House in New Haven, P.A.T. met Bridg Hunt, a boat-builder from a place she had never heard of — Shelter Island. Their first date went well, but on the second date, “he wasn’t charming me,” she said. “My crazy roommate said, ‘Well you have to go out with him a third time because of the ‘finite entity theory.’” P.A.T. was pretty sure there was no such thing as the finite entity theory, but she went out with him one more time and that was the charm.

They married in Newport, Rhode Island and were soon living on a boat that Bridg had built at Tuthills Boatyard (now the Island Boatyard), a vessel that was their home for 11 years, even after the births of Selina and Martin in 1981 and 1985.

When Selina came along, the plan was to give birth on their boat at a neighbor’s dock. But when P.A.T. began labor at 6 o’clock on a falling tide, she and Bridg didn’t get away from their mooring fast enough to make it to the dock. Bridg attempted to dislodge the grounded boat by circling in a Whaler to churn up a wake, to no avail.

Finally, P.A.T. went ashore and Selina arrived at 1 o’clock in a room Bridg’s mother, Esther, had prepared in her Dering Harbor home.

P.A.T. said Helen Loper, Dering Harbor Village Clerk, stationed herself in front of the IGA heralding the news that a baby girl had been born in her village. Later, New York State officials balked at issuing a birth certificate, saying the proud parents had failed to answer all the questions on the form.

“We thought some of those questions were valid, but some of them were too Big Brotherish,” P.A.T. said. Helen intervened, telling the state bureaucrats, “They had their baby the old fashioned way, and they filled out their form the old fashioned way.”

During P.A.T.’s first autumn on the Island, she rode her bike to the A-frames that stood across from the Sylvester Manor Windmill Field to help open the mounds of scallops brought in by baymen. It was 1980, before algal blooms caused by water pollution clobbered the scallop population. “Bill Wilcox taught me how to open,” she said. “I had never been so connected to life. I knew this food would be on people’s plates that night. That’s real.”

A few years later she recalled, all that had changed. “People who were baymen, now they’re in the service industry,” P.A.T. said. “We lost a lot, our identity, our connection to the water.”

After home-birthing both children and raising them on a boat, home schooling seemed a natural choice. “Some people really narrow their children’s lives with home schooling,” said P.A.T. “Our aim was to blow it wide open.

People had different comfort levels with our lifestyle.”

To celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, P.A.T. and Bridg went back to Newport and stayed inside the Rose Island Light House. “When the lighthouse went on, a light went on for me,” she said. “I said, ‘Imagine doing something like this with Taylor’s Island.’”

In 2005, Shelter Islanders had been debating the future of Taylor’s Island. This spit of land is a tombolo, or land accessible by foot only at low tide. Its derelict cabin and 360-degree views had been given to the town decades prior. The cabin was a historic jewel or a dangerous eyesore depending who you asked.

When P.A.T. was asked to co-chair the Taylor’s Island Preservation and Management Committee with Rich Surozenski, it became clear which way the tide around the tombolo would turn.

With her children launched, P.A.T. was looking for her next job. “There were a lot of things I could do, but the bar was set really high,” she said. “I felt like going from my nuclear family to my extended family, my community.”

Since then, P.A.T. has worked tirelessly to raise the community support and money to restore the cabin and make Taylor’s Island accessible to the public. “My work now is Taylor’s Island. If that had been torn down we’d have a spit of land with something fake on it,” she said. “The cabin is lovely, and it’s getting lovelier all the time.”

P.A.T. eagerly anticipates grandmother-hood come September when Selina and her husband expect their first child. Mother and daughter are not the only female members of the Hunt clan on tenterhooks to welcome this child.

“When Selina was planning her wedding, Esther reportedly told her granddaughter “If your wedding dress is a maternity dress, that would be O.K. with me.”

“Becoming a grandmother,” P.A.T. said. “That’s a whole new chapter.