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Island profile: Keith Clark and ‘the sweetest place you’d ever want to live’

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Keith Clark, out back at home by his woodpile.
Keith Clark, out back at home by his woodpile.

For Keith Clark, a carpenter and fisherman who has spent most of his life on Shelter Island, autumn reminds him that life here has changed since he was working the waters in his 20s.

The first Monday in November — this coming Monday — is opening day in state waters for scalloping. But since water pollution and its symptoms, algal blooms and dead eel grass, killed off much of the scallop population, some years are terrible, some are just O.K., but none rival the hauls of 40 years ago.

“I’ll try to go out opening day,” Keith said. “I’ve got to go look. You never know until you throw a dredge overboard.”

As Keith, and any other bayman over the age of 65 can tell you, once there was no question that scallops would be plentiful on opening day, and every day. In fact he recalled, plenty of folks went for scallops whenever they got hungry. “My grandparents Burt and Belle used to go in August, for ‘a mess to eat,’” Keith said,

In early spring, live scallops would wash up on the beach after a storm in knee-high heaps. “We’d go over there to fill garbage pails,” he remembered. “You’d be opening them for days.”

Born in 1950 to Robert Clark and Barbara Clark, known to all as Buck and Buzz, Keith was one of seven children. The family came to Shelter Island in 1923 when his grandfather began work as a caretaker for Otto Kahn, who owned much of the south end of the Island, including what would become the Mashomack Preserve. Buck grew up in the Manor House at Mashomack and he and Buzz later spent eight years raising their seven kids there.

Growing up at the Manor House, surrounded by miles of woods and beaches, Keith and his siblings became known as the Bass Creek Brats, “pronounced ‘crick’,” Keith said, “and yes, I know how it’s spelled.”

They did without electricity, relying on a generator running a couple of times a day. When the generator went off for the night, everyone went to bed. The remote and rustic life was difficult in some ways, but he loved it. The family’s primary activities were hunting and fishing.

“I had the whole world,” Keith said. “My sisters were not as impressed. It was three miles into town.”

He remembers his father as a master at making every activity fun, even work. “We never had a lot of money but we always had some means of having a really good time,” Keith said. “We were fishmongers. We’d catch a couple bushel baskets of flounder, go into town, bang on doors, and sell it all.”

Weakfish was an important catch in the 1950s and 1960s and shore seining was a sociable way to catch them. “The Clark family always had a shore seine somewhere,” Keith said, remembering days when 30 people would show up on the beach to help haul in nets and take a share of the catch home for dinner. “They’d usually haul in the evening. Row it out so as not to disturb the fish. The kids got in trouble if they threw rocks in the water or made noise.”

Keith’s father passed away in 2000. His mother, 93, is still living in her home near Taylor’s Island. Keith said her presence keeps the family together. “She’s the glue.”

Except for some college classes at Farmingdale State College and SUNY New Paltz, Keith’s education mainly took place at the Shelter Island School, graduating in a class of 14. About half of his classmates are still here. He has especially fond memories of his math teacher Irene Simes. “I was forced to learn math,” Keith said. “Irene Simes would not let you sit in the back of the room and fail.”

Keith’s first job at 14 was as a boat captain. Once, running his father’s 38-footer, he was coming into Piccozzi’s dock when Fred Kelsch, who owned the hardware store, saw him. “The next day I had a job,” he said. “I was captain. We fished and cruised; I thought I knew everything.”

In the early 1970s, Keith and Kathleen Sanwald, who had graduated from school a year behind him, eloped. They lived in New Paltz, New York for a couple of years, and had a daughter, Kate. Keith and Kathleen later divorced. She remarried and still lives nearby.

Keith served as fire chief in the 1980s and is still an active fire department member with a 40-year service pin. He’s been a fire commissioner for 10 years, and also served with the volunteer ambulance corps for a decade, rising to advanced emergency medical technician.

In the early 1990s, Keith cultivated a friendship with Louise O’Regan, a graphic artist from Dublin who had been working summers on the Island. “Louise was starting to hang out with me quite a bit, so her family sent her brother Paul over to see if she was all right, but then he didn’t come back. So then they sent her mom and brother, Kevin, to see if Paul was all right,” Keith said. “The last to come was her dad because he didn’t see where Long Island was of any interest to him. Once we got him out here he loved it.” Louise and Keith married in 1996.

Keith’s daughter, Kate, lives on the Island with her husband, Peter Topliff, and their five children, Elijah, 16, Isabelle, 14, Noah, 12, Rosemary, 5 and Charlotte, a three-month-old who is a Harelegger, born in July.

“It’s great having them down the street. Once in a while they come by,” Keith joked. Keith said his next big project is helping the rest of the family with a house–raising for Kate’s growing family on property next to Sachem’s Woods.

Keith remembers a Shelter Island that was less developed. “This time of year you’d take your shotgun out in an open field that had just been plowed, and you’d shoot some quail. Nowadays, you fire a shot and someone is going to call the police. It’s not a country mentality anymore.”

Keith’s carpentry business has sustained him for over 30 years. “I make a few dollars scalloping but carpentry is my trade, as long as Louise is here to help me,” he said. “Shelter Island is still one of the sweetest places you’d ever want to live.”

When Keith and Louise were renovating the bathroom of their Island bungalow, they found a letter written in 1928 underneath the floorboards, the same year the house was built. It was addressed to Roger Walther the original owner of the house, and written by his wife Esther P. Walther a Shelter Island schoolteacher who had traveled upstate to her old family doctor in Poughkeepsie because she wasn’t feeling well. Esther had good news for her husband — she wasn’t sick, she was pregnant, and she urged him not to stay up too late playing cards with the guys while she was away.

The child the Walthers were expecting was Roger B., who died many years ago, as have his parents. Keith is related to the Walthers himself, and he returned the letter to a Walther relative who lives on the Island.

“In our trade, restoration and renovation, when we take a wall apart, we look,” Keith said. “There are treasures, and they are not necessarily monetary.”

Lightning Round, Keith Clark

What do you always have with you?  I always have some type of knife. Right now, I’ve got two. One is a snap tip and one is a sheetrock knife.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Miss Annie’s Creek, under the old cedar tree growing right in the sand. We used to have picnics down there when I was a kid.

Last time you were elated?  At the 5K — that feeling of community.

What exasperates you?  Narrow-minded people.

Favorite movie?  To Kill a Mockingbird.

Favorite food?  The first panful of fresh scallops.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Bud Dennis. A good friend. He was able to teach you something before you knew you had learned it.