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Island profile: Summer kid returns to paradise

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Art Williams in his backyard, in front of a shed that was once the office of Shelter Island Town Clerk Captain Edwin Baldwin.
Art Williams in his backyard, in front of a shed that was once the office of Shelter Island Town Clerk Captain Edwin Baldwin.

Art Williams, who would become Shelter Island Town Supervisor in 2002, was not born in 1953 when his father bought the property on Baldwin Road that would become his home.

The family lived in Mount Vernon, New York at the time, but Art’s father purchased the place for his Manhattan-based parents, thinking they would like to retire here, and that the growing Williams family — three young boys and Art soon to join them — could visit. It came with a modest house, a couple of sheds and 500 chickens.

Art’s grandparents moved to Shelter Island at the end of the summer and by the time he was born in October, they returned to Manhattan. “Too rural,” was their verdict.

“When my grandparents abandoned this place it really did not bother my parents,” Art said. “It was paradise, especially for city kids.”

The family, which eventually included a younger sister, came out for summers, boating, swimming and exploring, “a wild and wonderful place,” Art remembered.

In the days before a Police Department, his parents had occasion to call the constable. One call had to do with birds of prey. “We had a nest of owls in our water tower,” Art said. “My parents got nervous about it because we used to climb up there.”

Surrounded by farm fields, the Shelter Island cooperative lima bean factory was also nearby. “You could hit it with a good drive from our backyard,” said Art, with a grin that suggested it had been dinged at least once.

He went to school at P.S. 6 and McBurney in New York City and Peddie School in New Jersey, but one spring his mother, Pat, brought the kids out early to spend two months at the Shelter Island School where he made friends and solidified his bond to the Island.

“I have always loved Shelter Island very deeply,” he said.

After college, Art worked for a while in Chicago at a company called Embossagraph, which made display advertising signs and then came back to New York to get an M.B.A. in accounting at New York University, finishing in 1978.

He joined the accounting firm that became Deloitte Touche, where, for more than a decade, he specialized in financial services, including issuers of collateralized mortgage obligations and asset-backed securities. In 1991 he went to Deutsche Bank and was a vice-president in the investment advisor branch.

Art met Amber Brach at Deloitte in 1985 when they were sent to recruit together at Binghamton University where Amber had recently graduated. “All the firms recruited aggressively at Binghamton, because they had a great accounting program,” he said. “She greeted the students and I interviewed them.” They married in 1989.

Married, living in Manhattan, working long hours and still childless, they were career-driven and moving up until an event that forced them to examine the definition of success. A friend of Art’s who had started with him at Deloitte and had made partner, died one day in his sleep at the age of 34. Art, who was 40 at the time, realized that “life was going down a path that didn’t seem worth it.”

In 1993 Art and Amber left Manhattan, moved to the Island and started their own accounting firm. It was a complete lifestyle change.

Their daughters, Ivy and Felicity, were born and attended the Shelter Island School from kindergarten through middle school, finishing high school at Peddie. Ivy has just completed her junior year at Binghamton. Felicity will be a freshman at Furman University next fall. Art and Amber are now separated.

He became involved in community service, working for 15 years on the board of the local Red Cross, which ran the Island ambulance service at the time. “We were very successful,” Art said. When the local Red Cross chapter closed, all of the ambulance assets went to the town, including an endowment of $100,000 for maintaining the vehicles.

A life-long sailor, he was active in the Shelter Island Yacht Club and became commodore. In June-July of 2000, Art and four other men made a 19-day transatlantic voyage in a boat called North Star, a Crealock Pacific Seacraft 44 owned by skipper Mike Rouzee.

Art described the voyage as a bonding experience, although, “We had our Captain Queeg moments.” Consulting his trip journal for Day 18, he found an entry, “I miss my beancakes,” referring to daughters Ivy and Felicity.

When they arrived in Cascais, Portugal on July 12 there was much celebration.

Art served on the board of the Shelter Island Educational Foundation, on Friends of the Library, and is currently a member of the Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board and is president of the Chamber of Commerce.

He had not seriously considered local politics until the day that “Charlie Gulluscio came into my office and said, ‘Art I think you ought to run for supervisor, the current guy is going to sink the town into a sandpit.’”

Mr. Gulluscio was referring to the controversy at the time over the town’s purchase of three or four acres of open sand pit with a building adjacent to the Town Recycling Center. Some people thought it was a prudent purchase and a good investment in sand for town roads in winter. Others saw it as an expensive property with a depleted pit that could be shut down by state officials.

It didn’t sound like a good deal to Art so he ran and defeated incumbent Gerry Siller, taking office as supervisor in January 2002. He was elected to a second term, but lost by 17 votes in a tight three-way election in a bid for a third term.

“I was disappointed and upset,” Art said. “But I realized my time was supposed to end and I moved on.”

A decade later, Art has decided to run for supervisor again, and like the first time, there was a catalyst. Democrat Jim Dougherty was unopposed.

Approached by the Republican Committee, Art said, “He ran unopposed last time. That can’t happen,” he added. “The community has to have a choice, if for no other reason than to have a debate about what’s going on.”

Art is grateful for his decision to leave the city in mid-career to live on the Island and what it’s given him, including “the transatlantic voyage and the experience of being town supervisor,” he said. “I would never have had those experiences if I had stayed in New York. If you want to contribute your time, you can do anything on Shelter Island.”