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Profile: Hap Bowditch, Shelter Island’s ‘man of steel’

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO An image of Shelter Island in steel takes shape in Hap Bowditch’s studio.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO An image of Shelter Island in steel takes shape in Hap Bowditch’s studio.

When Shelter Island became a town in 1730, George Washington was not yet born, and two of the 20 town fathers were named Bowditch.

“They’re here,” Harry Dawson Bowditch said. “My ancestors follow me around.”

Known to all as Hap, even his family nickname goes back generations from his great grandfather, John Bowditch, who was the commander of a Pacific Mail Steamer and lived in a house that still stands on North Ferry Road.

Hap’s parents, Harry ‘Hap’ Bowditch, and Isabel Johnston have passed away, but he speaks of them as if they might walk in at any moment. His mother was, “a beautiful and artistic woman, who talked like a truck driver.” His father, a mechanic “was God to me, a great man, always the practical one.”

Although Hap Sr. fished and clammed, he did not eat seafood, with one exception, “If he caught a Peconic bay scallop, then he would eat it,” said Hap Jr.

Hap’s oldest sister, Joyce Bowditch Bausman, still lives on the Island. His middle sister, June Isabel Bowditch, died in 2002.

Born in 1953, Hap went to the Shelter Island School, but by the time he hit his teens, he wanted more. “I wanted out of here,” he said. “I knew every stone, every stick.”

He went to Admiral Farragut Naval Academy in New Jersey. “It was military, it was strict,” he said. “It was my idea and it turned out to be the best damn thing that ever happened to me.”

The practical, hands-on curriculum suited Hap. He discovered he could learn by doing, better than by reading, which had always been painful and slow for him due to dyslexia.
Hap Sr. owned an engine repair shop on the Island, and when Hap was 12, his dad taught him to weld.

After high school, he returned to the Island and went to work for his father. “I loved the business,” he said. “Making an engine run, it’s like dancing with a piece of equipment.”

Although he’d wanted a car for a graduation gift, his parents gave him land, something he came to appreciate much later, when he built a home and married his first wife, Kathy Speeches, in 1978. They had four children: Brandi Bowditch, now living in Southampton, Hap III, who lives in Chicago, Catherine Bowditch in Riverhead, and his youngest, Emma, on the Island.

After his first marriage ended, he married Diane Clifford, adding three of Diane’s children to his family: Jackie, Frankie, and Nick. Hap’s crop of grandchildren stands at five.

Visiting his daughter’s kindergarten classroom at the Shelter Island School, he noticed that a steel sand table in teacher Marion Gleason’s room was in a state of disrepair, with buckets positioned under holes that leaked sand onto the floor.

He realized it was the same device that stood in his own kindergarten classroom, and learned from his former teacher, Mrs. Griffing, that she had purchased it for the school in 1956. He decided immediately to repair the antique.

“I put the initials of all the kids in the class around the rim of the sand box,” he said.” It was much more than a repair, and Hap realized he enjoyed the creative part of the work.

Later, when Wendy Clark, a first-grade teacher, asked Hap to build a reading loft for her class, he accepted the assignment at once. “I’ve always had difficulty reading so if I can make one kid read because of a reading loft, I’m interested,” he said.

But what was a reading loft? Working from a sketch provided by Mrs. Clark, Hap constructed a kind of indoor treehouse, with seats and shelves that students could climb into to read where the teacher could see them. He used the spokes and the wheel from an old hay rake and other found materials, built it in pieces to get it into the classroom, and erected the 8-foot tall loft against a wall.

Working with steel as an artistic outlet, Hap began using his skills as a welder and metal-worker to express himself. He didn’t think of himself as an artist. “I just worked in steel,” he remembered. “I didn’t take credit for being a sculptor.”

By the time he was 40, Hap had worked as a mechanic and run a towing business for decades.

He began to feel the pressure of having to solve an endless stream of other people’s problems.

His first marriage was in trouble, he had serious health problems and he knew he had to make a change. “I went to work on steel,” he said. “I called it my art therapy.” Finally he began to consider himself a full-time artist, or as he put it “a starving artist.”

That flowing seagrass and cattail sculpture in front of the barber shop? It is Hap’s creation.

The whale and longboat surging through the berm at the corner of Midway and Smith streets? Hap’s handiwork. He exhibits and sells work at the annual Shelter Island Art Fair & Craft Show, at shows and galleries on the South Fork, and at the Williamsburg Art Gallery in Virginia. He also has works on view at the shop, adjacent to his studio on Midway Road. He’s sold hundreds of works.

When Hap exhibits in art shows, his work is often classified as “outsider art” meaning he is self-taught, and not an art school graduate. His style can be representational or abstract, but it usually involves images of nature and animal life. His work has brought him awards, including first place in the 2011 Mary O. Fritchie Fine Art Show, Westhampton Beach.

When Hap tells a story about his life, he often tells it backwards; a vivid description of the event, followed by, “Now I’ve got to back up….” as he relates the births, deaths, marriages and confrontations that led to the ending, a back-to-front style, and evidence that centuries of Bowditch family history are part of his present.

There are memories of attending cracker-barrel-style meetings of the Shelter Island Town Board in the 1950s, down at what is now the Island Boatyard, when Everett Tuthill was the supervisor, and Hap Sr. was the superintendent of highways. “My father would point me to a corner and say ‘Boy, go sit over there.’ Back then, when someone was thinking, they didn’t say anything. They talked slower.”

Back in the day, the ferries were a real obstacle to outside visitors, “It was a moat,” said Hap. “They’d shut the ferry down at 6 p.m. with one last passenger boat at 9. Now I think the ferry actually attracts people.” He pointed out that the days of more limited ferry service gave rise to the term, “hareleggers,” referring to Islanders who ran like rabbits through the streets of Greenport to make it to the ferry in time to get home for the night.

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  My father had the first nickel he ever earned, a Buffalo nickel, and now I wear it around my neck.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  My shop.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  St. John, the U.S. Virgin Islands.

When was the last time you were afraid?  I am not afraid. I believe in God. I think when you are born it’s more stressful than when you die.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island?  My birthday. I believe the day of birth is your special day.  Eat whatever you want, drink whatever you want. Other holidays are all made up by somebody else.

Favorite food?  Steak, potatoes and gravy.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Ronald Reagan. I liked his style.