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Island profile: Cathy Ann Kenny, Islander, lawyer and volunteer

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Cathy Ann Kenny at her Silver Beach home.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Cathy Ann Kenny at her Silver Beach home.

Cathy Ann Kenny made a home improvement last year, installing a gas fireplace to replace the standard wood-burning hearth that came with her Silver Beach home. It changed her life.

“Now, it’s super easy — there’s a remote for the damn thing,” she said. “But when I had to use wood, I had a fire every weekend. Now I rarely turn it on.”

It’s just not in this woman’s nature to take a shortcut.

In her career as an attorney for government and corporate clients in education, housing and the oil industry, Cathy made sure she was the expert in the room, getting results by doing the hard work necessary to have all the facts at hand.

She grew up in Staten Island in a working-class neighborhood, the middle child in a family with six brothers and sisters, including three younger brothers who she helped look after. “I don’t know how my mother survived,” she said

Once the kids were out of the house, her mother finished college, working at an A.&P. to earn money for tuition. “She was a go-getter,” Cathy said. “Being out of that house after so many years rejuvenated her.”

“My dad was a cop,” she said, describing him as a dominant force in the household. “When I was younger I tried to stay out of his way and to protect my mother. He was very overbearing. When I got older I fought back.”

She attended St. Peter’s High School for Girls, where she was “the wise guy in the back of the room.” The punishment for disrupting class was to write a composition while in detention, but it was no punishment for Cathy, who liked to write.

After graduating from Fordham University, in 1971 she went to Saint Louis University (SLU) to get a Masters in English. At SLU she worked as a teaching assistant for freshman English, the most dreaded of college teaching assignments. (She saw one of her fellow T.A.s put his head down on his desk and cry in despair.)

Cathy’s class seemed surprised to have a teacher barely older than they were, to which she responded, “This is what you got.” She went on to graduate from St. John’s University School of Law, and then to work as an attorney for New York State in education. In the early 1980s she was counsel to the Housing Division, working with rent control and building codes, and interacting with the legal division of the City Council and the office of then-mayor Ed Koch.

“He had smart people,” Cathy said.

Real estate was as important in New York then as now, but in those days Leona Helmsley, who infamously left millions to a tiny dog who survived her, was the real estate figure that tabloids obsessed over and Donald Trump was still on his first wife. Cathy admitted feeling smug when Ms. Helmsley’s high-priced lawyers had to negotiate with her as the attorney for the Housing and Buildings Committee if they wanted their projects approved.

Along the way she became expert in the arcane world of New York City construction and building codes. “I don’t know how anybody builds anything in New York,” she said.

Cathy went to Washington as a legislative assistant to Congressman Tom Manton, the Queens county leader. Her work took her on a trip by helicopter to a deep-sea oil rig, a high-rise city in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, where workers spent three-month shifts.

Recruited by Brooklyn Union Gas, Cathy moved back to New York to work for four years as legislative counsel, and in 1990 went to work for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for the major oil manufacturers.

Fracking, the Clean Air Act, and the Exxon Valdez spill with new requirements for safety in its wake were the issues of the day and became her areas of expertise.

Based in New York City, she lobbied 34 congressmen on oil-related issues and was on the job for 24 years, until her retirement in 2014.

“I know everyone hates big oil, but I worked with some of the brightest, most professional people,” she said. “They didn’t want to spill oil any more than we wanted them to. The public doesn’t realize that oil companies give more to environmental concerns than all of government combined.”

Cathy’s father had a breakdown when she was in 4th grade, but had been able to function with medication for his bipolar disease for decades, until Cathy’s mother died in her 60s. “It became a nightmare when he stopped taking his meds.” He lived to 91, and Cathy, in spite of her demanding career, took responsibility for him for the last 12 years of his life.

In 1996, visiting the North Fork with the idea of renting a place for the summer, she made a wrong turn in Greenport, saw a ferry to Shelter Island and decided to take a ride. “I think everybody remembers their first time on the ferry,” she said. “There is an otherness about it. It was a dark March day — the remoteness, the thrill of discovery.”

She found a rental and three years later bought her Silver Beach house. She’s lived full time on the Island since 2014.

Cathy serves on the board of the Shelter Island Country Club, a position she sought because of her determination to bring a new plan for the restaurant and to turn around the difficult financial situation the club faces.

“We’re trying to get it back, to take a new look at what’s been done and bring it around,” she said.

She is also an active member of the Shelter Island League of Women Voters, where she served as president.

When she was managing her father’s affairs, Cathy got interested in estate and trust law, went back to school for additional training, and started her own law practice, which she runs out of the pleasant office she created in a garage space adjacent to that now-neglected gas-powered brick hearth in her home.

Lightning round

What do you always have with you? Something to read.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  I decided to find a place to watch the sun set and I found Bootlegger’s Alley.

Best day of the year on the Island?  Right after Labor Day, when the garden starts to fade, there are no more guests, and you have more control of your life.

Favorite movie or book?  The Graduate

Favorite food?  Pasta, with lots of fish in it. Pasta pesce-something.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Winston Churchill. He was considered a failure and a problem growing up. I think he saved England.
Most respected elected official?  Truman. Another underdog guy who wound up successful.