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Island profile: Frank Emmett, no translation needed

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Frank Emmett and his wife, Colleen with one of the many creatures, great and small, sharing their home on Baldwin Road.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Frank Emmett and his wife, Colleen with one of the many creatures, great and small, sharing their home on Baldwin Road.

Frank Emmett has lived on Shelter Island with his wife, Colleen Smith, for 24 years. But when he speaks, you’re reminded that although Frank is every inch an Islander, he learned to talk elsewhere.

A much-loved teacher for 23 years at the Shelter Island School, Frank was president of the teachers union for seven years, has worked summers as a purser for the North Ferry since 2004, currently teaches 10th grade English at Ross School and is general manager of the Bucks, Shelter Island’s Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League team. If he hasn’t already, he may soon ask you to consider housing a shortstop or pitcher in your spare bedroom this summer.
Frank was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, England, an area known for beautiful moorland and the textile manufacturing industry that is now mostly gone. His parents both left school at 15 to work.

Frank attended Keighley Boys Grammar School and then became the first person in his family to attend college when he went to the University of Exeter in 1969 to study English and American Studies.

“The faculty thought I was insular in my attitudes,” he said. “They said, ‘You need to see the world and go to America.’”

In 1972, Frank left England to get a doctorate in English at SUNY Buffalo with the help of a Fulbright grant. He did enough coursework to be granted a master’s degree years later and it took him until 2009 to get the Ph.D, but he helped start a Buffalo institution called Everyone’s Bookstore. Still independent, it is now called Talking Leaves and owned by one of Frank’s co-founders.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1975, Frank met a Buffalo nursing student named Colleen Smith, when her date stood her up. A mutual friend said, “Frank’s not doing anything, why don’t you ask him?” Although neither owned a car, somehow they ended up at Niagara Falls. “Love at first sight,” Frank said.

A year later the couple moved to Bar Harbor, Maine and got married. But Frank’s student visa was about to expire, so they moved to England and settled in York, where Colleen worked as a nurse. Frank got involved with the York Community Council disability rights action group, working on an award-winning initiative to provide access to theaters for disabled people, an effort that pioneered handicapped-access improvements across Britain.

After a few years in England, Colleen had enough of the weather; they moved to the Virgin Islands, where Frank began to think of teaching. He worked as a hotel manager while he got his teacher’s certification at the University of the Virgin Islands and began teaching kindergarten.

In 1986, during their time in the Caribbean, their son Joseph was born. The family lived in “a Puerto Rican prefab house,” Frank said. Joey was about 3 years old when Hurricane Hugo, a category 4 storm, struck the Virgin Islands. The family took shelter for 10 hours with friends who lived on a nearby hill.

“I used my machete to hack my way back to the house,” Frank said. “It was perfect. Colleen had complained before the storm that the door would stick. It didn’t stick anymore.”

In 1992, they decided it was time for their young family to live closer to grandparents. Colleen’s parents lived in Southold and when Frank was offered a job teaching at the Shelter Island School, he jumped at it.

The transition from life in the Virgin Islands — populous, busy, and warm all year round — to Shelter Island was a shock for the whole family.
Frank said that he himself was a bit of a shock for the Shelter Island School community. His first kindergarten class included Jimbo Theinert, who went home after the first day, impressed with Frank’s thick, Yorkshire accent and reportedly said, “Mom, I don’t think my teacher speaks English.”

Joey Emmett’s first grade class included Jimbo’s brother, Joey Theinert, and the two Joeys formed a friendship so enduring that they later vowed to be the best man at each other’s weddings. When Joey was killed serving in the Army in Afghanistan, his family kept his promise, traveling to England to stand up at Joey Emmett’s wedding in Joey Theinert’s place.

Although Frank had taught in the Virgin Islands for six years before coming to Shelter Island, he found deeper satisfaction teaching here. “You see the kids growing and they are always yours,” he said. “That’s a Shelter Island thing.”

Frank taught kindergarten for 11 years and then moved to 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade English language arts and social studies. He employed an unusual approach to teaching the American Revolution, “from the British perspective,” and enjoyed telling his classes: “Oh please, let’s call it the rebellion of King George’s ungrateful children.”

During the years Frank taught kindergarten, he collected and stored items the children brought in for “sharing time.” An eclectic assortment that included numerous seashells and a bloody duck’s wing from a bird shot by a proud child’s father, Frank began to package the items and present them to the children along with a short speech at their high school graduation years later, a practice that became a graduation tradition.

“When I came to the end of the kindergarten stuff, I had to retire,” Frank said. “It just felt like the right time.”

In 2004, Frank began working for the North Ferry as a purser in the summer, as a complement to teaching, and work he continues to enjoy after his retirement from the Shelter Island School. “You see humanity at its worst and its finest, but you only have to see them for seven minutes,” he said.

In Frank’s latest foray into community involvement he’s inherited the mantle of Bucks GM from Dave Gurney. “I’ve been following him around like the sorcerer’s apprentice,” Frank said. “There’s a lot of skepticism that someone who was raised on cricket and rugby can do anything about baseball.”

Empty-nesters, Frank and Colleen have been Bucks host parents for the past two seasons. They’ve had a very good experience, becoming more and more involved as fans and supporters of the summer team.

Located a stone’s throw from school, Frank and Colleen’s house was often a thoroughfare for Island schoolchildren. “Kids actually used to walk through our house,” he said. “Soon after we moved in, kids would open the door and ask, ‘Are you the new teacher? Do you have a kid we can play with?’”