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Island profile: Steve and Pat, wedded to water and each other

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Pat and Steve Lenox on their deck overlooking Congdon Creek and Steve’s boat.
Pat and Steve Lenox on their deck overlooking Congdon Creek and Steve’s boat.

Steve Lenox has fished, crabbed and scalloped on the waters around Shelter Island all his life; one reason why his affection for the boat docked at his Congdon Creek home is profound.

So when his 23-year-old grandson Daniel asked to take the boat out by himself to fish, everyone in the family knew it was a big deal when Steve said “yes.” “For me to see him going out of the crick, I felt very, very happy,” Steve said. “That boat has never left without me on it.”

In seven decades on Shelter Island, Steve has worked on fishing boats, owned a landscaping business, spent 28 years on the North Ferry and with his wife Pat, ran one of the best-loved local restaurants on the Island for 13 years. A gifted and compelling storyteller, his attachment to the people, the land and the waters of this Island come through in every tale he tells.

Steve is one of an increasingly rare breed — people who grew up on Shelter Island within a tradition of fishing that was small scale and profitable enough to support a family. “I still scallop,” he said. “That’s part of your heritage.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, 30 bushels of scallops a day was a good haul. “It was a family thing,” Steve said. “We spent time together, we listened to the World Series. Our kids all opened.” But algal blooms fueled by nitrogen pollution of bay waters destroyed the scallop harvest in 1985 and they haven’t yet come back to what they were.

As soon as Steve graduated from Shelter Island High School he went to work for the legendary Frank Mundus, a charter boat captain out of Montauk who fished for sharks from his boat, the Cricket II. At the time, Mundus was a rough and flamboyant sport fisherman, whose personality and shark-fishing practices became the model for Captain Quint in Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel, “Jaws.” Steve worked with Mundus for three years, chumming up enormous sharks for clients to land with rod and reel. If that didn’t work, they harpooned the shark.

“I chummed up this 2,500 pounder,” Steve said. “When we pulled him up, he grabbed a corner of the transom, teeth two inches long, and shook it and he broke two teeth off. The teeth were sunk in the wood.”

Pat grew up in Greenport. One of the guys in her high school class had a band called “Jacob’s Ladder.”

The band was playing the night Pat and Steve’s romance — now in its fifth decade — began. At a recent high school reunion, Pat’s classmate performed again and she told him, “You realize, of course, you are the reason Stevie and I got married.” He said, “Yes, and I wondered if you were ever going to thank me for it.”

When Pat and Steve married in 1969, she was 21 and he was 22. Today their oldest child, Tammy, is 46, their son Stevie is almost 42 and Beth is 36. “I wanted three children, she wanted two,” said Steve. “One day she walked in and said ‘well, you got your wish.’”

Tammy was born on a Friday, the day Steve always mowed the property of Granville Carrel in the Heights. The lawn went unmowed that Friday but when Steve got there the next day, he found a bottle of Seagram’s 7 in the middle of the yard, a gift from Carrel who, when he heard the good news, had gotten over his annoyance at the unruly lawn.

The oldest of their six grandchildren are Tammy’s boys, Daniel Rose and Shane Rose. Stevie’s children are Alex and Matthew, and Beth’s are Nicholas and McKenna. Since the family believed that Steve’s father’s middle name was Alexander, Tammy named her first born Daniel Alexander and Stevie named his son, Alexander. When his father passed away, Steve discovered that the “A” of his father’s middle name stood for Anthony, but the kids’ names were working well and no one felt the need to change them.

Steve’s years working for the North Ferry generated a Grimm’s-worth of ferry tales, many involving Ed Clark. “I worked with Eddie for 28 years,” Steve said. “He knew what I was going to do and I knew what he was going to do.”

Steve told of one winter crossing he and Ed made to Greenport that was so rough the vessel took on over a foot of icy, green water, washing through the gates and onto the deck. Ed had to open the rear gate to allow the water to drain and was nearly washed overboard in the waist-high water rushing off the deck.

Two friends on the Greenport side informed Steve upon landing that both propellers — bow and stern — were clearly visible as the boat rode one wave after another on the crossing. A week later, Steve saw one of the passengers, an elderly woman who lived on the Island and had made the trip six days a week for many years.

“Mrs. Wallace, how was that trip last Saturday?” he asked.

“Last Saturday?” she said. “It wasn’t bad.”

Steve said, “Have you had any other trips that bad?”

“Might have had one,” she said.

For years Pat worked in the Shelter Island School cafeteria and Steve on the ferry, but they both had a second act in mind. “Patty and I knew that Shelter Island needed a breakfast and lunch place,” he said. “We both knew it would work and we did it together.”

Pat had learned the art of the short-order cooking at Drossos in Greenport and Steve had some cooking chops from a stint as second mate on a fishing boat. On land bought from Fred and Dorothy Ogar, they designed and built a new spot with a name that said it all. Pat and Steve’s became a beloved Island institution.

Side by side they worked seven days a week for over a decade, until one day, their daughter Tammy walked in and said,“Hey guys, which day are you going to take off? Because you’re not doing seven days a week anymore.”

They admitted that Tammy had a point. In 2011, they turned the spatula (and Pat’s recipe trove) over to Chris Chobor and Ashley Knight who renamed it The Islander.

“Me and my family,” said Steve. “We’ve had a great life, we are blessed.”

Today, Steve and Pat live on the lovely and peaceful Congdon Creek property that Steve’s father bought in 1956 from a relative. Steve said, “One night when I was about 10, my dad and mom and I were in this crick crabbing and he looked up here and said, ‘Flo, we’re going to buy that piece of property.’” At the time, the property was a cow pasture, Steve said. “So Dad went to see Uncle Harold, and brought him some clams and they bought it.”