One of the pleasures of life for Nanette Breiner Lawrenson, executive director of the Shelter Island Historical Society, is to ride by the Ram Island Road property where her family spent summers starting in 1956. When she makes the turn onto Cartwright Road, the sight of the steep downhill ahead triggers a childhood memory.
“I remember flying down on my bicycle to get to Coecles Harbor. No helmet, no shoes,” she said. “My dad’s boat was there and I was going to see him.”
Nanette and her brothers, Emory and Laurence, grew up in a family that was somehow both “artsy and outdoorsy.” Her father, William Breiner, worked for W.R. Keating, an art broker. Her mother Anamarie was a teacher who pioneered an innovative technique of teaching math through the arts long before it became an accepted educational method. On Shelter Island, the kids were outside all day, every day, in a place Nanette remembers as paradise.
The family lived in Queens and started spending weekends and summers on the Island when Nanette was 3 years old. “Queens was never that important to me,” she said. “My friends were here.”
The cottage the Breiner family rented until they moved to Hilo Shores in the mid 1960s was on the Sinkiewicz property. It was “Pop Sinkie” who made Nanette a lifelong gardener. “He tilled a little plot of land for me and gave me a handful of bush bean seeds,” she remembered. Only 4 at the time, her planting was haphazard, but bush beans proved to be a tolerant crop. “I was so excited when I could pick my beans and bring them to dinner,” she said.
Nanette’s first job was folding T-shirts at Bliss’ Department Store. She also worked for the Reporter, photographing Yacht Club races. Getting the action shots could be perilous. She said, “I was a lot younger then and didn’t mind hanging off the side of a boat.”
After graduating from Stony Brook University the late 1970s, Nanette went to work in the display department at Tiffany & Co., the start of almost three decades at “a fabulous company.” She moved up steadily, working as a buyer and executive in New York, New Jersey, Boston and finally as vice president in Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1980, Nanette married Kenneth Lawrenson, whose family lived in Hay Beach. The couple lived in Scituate, Massachusetts and in 1986, their daughter, Courtney, was born. Nanette and Kenny separated when Courtney was 3 and Nanette moved with her daughter to Palm Beach. By 1992 Nanette and Kenny were divorced.
Difficult as it was to be a single mother, Nanette cherished the independence. She and Courtney traveled where and when they wanted. Nanette said, “I didn’t have to check in with anyone.”
Courtney grew up in Florida, studied intercultural communications at Florida Atlantic University and now works as a legal assistant for the Palm Beach Benevolent Association.
“She loves Shelter Island,” said Nanette. “She’s here at least three times a year.”
A Tiffany vice president in the 1990s, Nanette was also serving on the board of the Palm Beach Zoo when she took Courtney on a three-week safari in Tanzania and Kenya. She realized during the trip that she was ready to make a change. “Something pulls at your heart and it’s a wake-up,” Nanette said. Soon after returning home, Tiffany offered to relocate her to New York. She not only declined, she left the company.
“My parents did think I was nuts,” she said. “They probably thought that about a number of things I did.”
Excited by her work with the Palm Beach Zoo, Nanette decided to take the business and marketing skills she had acquired at
Tiffany and apply them to nonprofits, working on things that she really cared about.
She began to consult for a variety of nonprofits in Florida, but it was her work on the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach, Florida that made her most proud, and qualified her as a rock star in the world of marine reptiles.
When Nanette began consulting with the center, it consisted of a single wooden building that had been a beachside motel in the 1950s. “It was about saving loggerhead sea turtles and they called themselves ‘a hidden gem.’” She told them, “Don’t say you are a hidden gem. That’s not a good thing.”
In seven years, with Nanette’s guidance, the center raised $6 million and built a fully operational veterinary facility, sea turtle tanks, visitor education services and a store.
While riding her bike one day in 1998 in her Palm Beach neighborhood, Nanette met John Jacupke, who lived down the street.
He became her friend and companion for 17 years. A financial planner, originally from Nebraska, John was also an accomplished artist. According to Nanette, he looked a lot like George Clooney.
Nanette happened to be in New York on 9/11 and spent the night volunteering at a senior citizens center. Although she was unharmed and was able to get out by train the next morning, “I always felt like I gave up on New York,” she said. “So I started exploring ways I might be a consultant for nonprofits up here.”
When she heard the Shelter Island Historical Society needed help with strategic planning, she volunteered to take the board through the process. Later she was asked to become a trustee.
In March 2012, Nanette relocated from Florida to the Island and was hired as executive director of the society. She became one of two salaried staff at a lean organization that on an average day needs at least 10 people — currently all volunteers — to run the various programs, a lesson she learned in her first minutes on the job.
“My first day, I got here at 9 o’clock in the morning, so excited,” she said. “Nobody was here and I didn’t have a key.”
Nanette says she was hired in large part to launch the capital campaign that is now “within inches” of completion. It’s an ambitious $1.7 million project to create expanded archive, research and education spaces. “The Society has been talking about the need for a new building for 15 years. It’s changed multiple times,” she said. “My job is get it done.”
This year has been the height of the Shelter Island Historical Society’s capital campaign, but it was also a year of personal testing and trial for Nanette. Her ex-husband Kenneth and her longtime companion John both passed away within a few months of each other, both of natural causes. John was a year younger than Nanette, and Kenny a year older, and she could not help sensing a reminder of her own mortality.
“That was pretty tough,” she said. “Some of the dark things, you can’t fix them. You just have to work through it.”
Facing mortality was part of an experience that Nanette had in 2003 when she and Courtney returned from the remote Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica during a storm that had closed airports all over Costa Rica and as far away as Miami. Their local travel organizer insisted he would get them out, a favor Nanette declined. But he would not be denied.
She found herself and her only child waiting in a remote field in pouring rain for hours, only to board a tiny, poorly-maintained aircraft with a pilot too young, and too tethered to his cell phone to inspire confidence. They flew for hours through fierce conditions and finally landed in an airport that Nanette described as “a grass strip next to a graveyard” that had been closed due to weather. Seemingly inches from the side of a mountain, passing through lightning and wind gusts, “I thought we were all going to die.”
Nanette is a firm believer in the notion that if you get through your day and nothing makes you laugh out loud, something’s wrong.
The speed with which she and Courtney were processed when they finally arrived in Miami, covered in mud and smelling terrible, was their reward for a harrowing trip.
“The customs people held their noses and let us go right through.”