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Reporter profile: Jean Ely | Cooking, caring, and finding the right bolt

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Jean Ely at The Islander.

Jean Ely at The Islander.

Sometimes irony makes a nickname stick like glue, and so it is with “Mean Jean.”

Five years ago, Jean Ely was an unfailingly friendly and generous presence at the Shelter Island IGA, so when fellow worker Billie Howland Mulcahey came up with the nickname, Jean responded in kind. “She was ‘Bad Billie,’ Jean said, “and I was ‘Mean Jean.’ I put it on my badge.”

Born in New York City, Jean and her family, including brother Hugh, lived in Greenwich Village. Her household was full of books and music; her parents were open-minded and well-educated. Jean’s father, Hugh, worked as a management consultant and her mother, Jean Ely, was an editor of science textbooks, including a very influential biology textbook written in the 1960s by Helena Curtis that is still popular today.

In the mid-1960s when Jean was a little girl, her family rented a carriage house on Shelter Island in the old Artemas Ward property for two or three weeks every summer. “I was fascinated by those lion heads in the formal gardens,” she remembered.

Jean’s mother became sick with cancer and died at age 47 when Jean was 11 years old. In 1973, shortly after her mother’s death, the family moved to East Hampton. In 2012, Jean wrote an essay, “Waiting for the Ferry,” about that difficult time of her life.

Her piece won second place in Dan’s Papers Literary Contest, and earned her a $500 prize.

Jean graduated from East Hampton High School in 1979 and went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, a small college with a curriculum based on the so-called Great Books of Western Civilization. Success at St. John’s demanded a strongly motivated and scholarly kind of student. Jean stayed only a couple of years. “I’m not sure it was really for me,” she said. “I needed a little more whipping.”

She had met a guy and followed him to Maine, and then to Nepal where they studied Buddhist philosophy and practice for six months in 1981 and 1982 — without her family’s blessing. “I’m sure they weren’t too happy about it,” she said. “I didn’t talk to them about it much.” Her interest in Buddhism continues today.

She came back to the East End at age 21 and moved in with her father and stepmother, Sandra Ferguson, in 1983. Jean began working as a gardener and then as an aide and cook in a rest home. She enjoyed the work, although she had to cope with a staff dietician who did the meal planning, and had a disgusting way of letting nutrition and budget overrule all other considerations.

“There was a dish she called Patio Salad, a revolting concoction of cottage cheese with chunks of Spam and Italian dressing,” Jean recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not going to feed them this [expletive].’” Instead, she made apple pancakes.

Jean waitressed at the Newtown Café for a few years. One day a man named Omar Theodore (Teddy) Dottin came in. “He was a brilliant, brilliant man,” Jean said. They married in 1991 and lived together in a house that was always full of monitors and other techno paraphernalia from his work building computers. He passed away in 2003.

For over a decade, starting in 1999, Jean worked at the Romany Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor, a space that carries an eclectic curation of folk art, decorative objects, music and books. Located next door to The American Hotel, it drew many celebrity customers.
Jean was working at the gallery one evening when a fabulous woman wearing an over-the-top white creation walked in and said, “You don’t have any of my CDs.”

Jean apologized and said, “Tell me who you are and I’ll get them in.”

“Aretha, honey!” said Ms. Franklin.

The Queen of Soul completed her shopping and as soon as she left, Jean called her boss and several of her friends to tell them who had been in the store. Suddenly the door opened again and in walked Julie Andrews. “The same night,” said Jean. “I recognized her because I knew she lived in Sag Harbor.”

Jean used to go to Murf’s Backstreet Tavern in Sag Harbor to have a cocktail. In 2007 she met Robert Jacobs one day after work. After Jean and Robert married, they thought they’d like to live on Shelter Island where Jean’s brother Hugh was living, so when they saw a rental listing for an apartment above the barber shop of Louis and Anita Cicero, they raced over from the South Fork.

“Robert had a look like Jerry Garcia,” Jean said. “I was amazed they would rent to him. The first thing Louie said to Robert was, ‘Son, you need a haircut.’”

A lifetime writer and reader, Jean has been active with a writer’s group, a book club and also with 2Rs4Fun, the organization run by Mary Dwyer that helps encourage writing in elementary-age Island school children.

After Jean left the IGA, she brought her practical intelligence and unflappability to bear on the world of coupling nuts and carriage bolts at the Shelter Island Hardware Store, where some of her fans still insist on calling her Mean Jean.

“When I began working at the hardware store I knew absolutely nothing about hardware. I didn’t even know what a Phillips screwdriver was,” she said. “They are so patient over there.”

Jean’s brother Hugh died in 2013, another loss for a woman who has endured so many. “Most of the crises I’ve had were people I love dying. The thing about people dying is it is something you just muddle through. You can’t consult a book and say, ‘I did this, I did that, now it is resolved.’ You recognize it as a demarcation in your life.”

Jean Ely — Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  After my Dad died, my stepmother gave me his two-dollar bill. I carry it with me, along with my brother Hugh’s ID.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Home with my two cats.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Height of Land in Maine. It’s an overlook up in the mountains, a beautiful lake.

When was the last time you were elated?  When you told me you wanted to put me in the paper.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island?  I’m very fond of Christmas. I have an open house and Louie and Anita come and my stepmother, Sandi. How many people get to invite their landlord for Christmas dinner?

Favorite movie or book?  ‘A Passage to India’ by E.M. Forster. I was in India when I read it for the first time.

Favorite food?  Cheese.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Vivian Abuelo. We have been friends since we were 16. She lives in New York city.

Most respected elected official?  Bernie Sanders