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Island profile: Albert Dickson

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Mary and Albert Dickson at home on Shelter Island.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Mary and Albert Dickson at home on Shelter Island.

Albert Dickson’s family history includes a number of people about whom you could say, “They did good.”

His great uncle got the idea that places for public access to the water should be designated by the town, and not just rely on the friendly and tolerant owners of near-shore property. He helped establish the town landings we use today. Albert’s grandmother once risked her life to rescue a swimmer in trouble near Second Bridge, and was rewarded when the woman she saved gave her a set of gold spoons. And his parents, Anton and Mary Dickson, in spite of their own very modest means, somehow managed to give food and support to people in the community who needed it.

With this family tradition of doing good in mind, Albert, who has just retired, decided the time is right to go beyond his involvement with the Water Advisory Committee. He’s running as a Democrat for a seat on the Town Board in the upcoming election.

“There are a lot of people who have been here for 30 or 40 years and don’t know who this Albert Dickson is,” he said. “People who do know me are the people I grew up with. I’m anxious to meet people, let them get to know me, and I get to learn their hopes and concerns for the Island.”

The Dickson’s family home was a tiny cottage on Grand Avenue in the Heights, bursting with six children, three boys and three girls. Albert mowed lawns, worked at the pharmacy and summers on the North Ferry. The Heights Post Office was practically a family agency, with Mary, Albert’s grandmother, and Mary, Albert’s mother, serving as postmistress, although not at the same time.

One of the lawns Albert mowed was at the home of his great-uncle, Joe Mack, who lived in a bungalow on Oxford and New York avenues. Uncle Joe served as superintendent of highways from 1938 to 1957, and Albert said when he decided to establish town landings, many people at the time thought it was a crazy idea. “He told me that people said things like, ‘Who goes out to Hay Beach?  You go to the water wherever you want,’” Albert remembered. “It was extremely progressive.”

His was a childhood of total freedom. “It seemed like we always had boats, we were always on the water,” Albert said.

Graduating from the Shelter Island High School in 1971 in a class of 25 — four or five of whom are still living on the Island — he left to study education at SUNY Fredonia and become a teacher.

By the time Albert left the Island, he had already endured many losses. His older sister Sandra died in a car crash caused by a drunk driver in 1963, and his father died in 1968, when Albert was 15. But no loss was more wrenching than the death of his brother Owen.

Owen was 29, married to his childhood sweetheart, with an infant and a toddler, when he developed an incurable blood cancer. At the time bone marrow transplants were experimental, but Albert was a good match for his brother, and so he left college in his senior year and went to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle with Owen and Owen’s wife, Susan.

After some initial success, Owen’s body began to reject the transplant. After four and a half months of struggle, Owen died.

Albert went back to Seattle and married a woman who worked at the research center where Owen had been treated. “I had to stay out in Seattle to try and hang on to Owen,” Albert said. “Maybe there was a degree of survivor guilt, thinking I could have done more. It wasn’t easy to accept. It was a devastating loss. It still is.”

Albert worked as a residential contractor in Seattle and continued that work after he and his wife moved from Seattle to New Jersey, bought a house and had a child. Their marriage ended shortly after their daughter, Kirsten, was born. When he had moved on to New Jersey “I happened to meet this terrific woman.”

Early in their relationship, Albert brought Mary, who loves to fish, to the Island for the first time on the weekend of the Snapper Derby. Mary recalls saying, “I’m in” when she spotted the first sign announcing the baby-bluefish competition.

By the end of the day, “I had a bucket of fish, and I was hot to trot,” she said. “I went to the weigh-in and the woman said, ‘This is for children.’”

Mary was crushed. “He knew the whole time! And I had a snapper that would have won.”

Albert readily admits he set her up, “I was testing her mettle.”

They married in 1985.

Their blended family included Mary’s daughters, Susan and Elizabeth, and Albert’s daughter, Kirsten. Elizabeth, then a teenager, was the oldest, but “the girls” were within a few years of each other and readily became a family. “All three of them are my daughters,” Albert said.

“The girls” are now married and have six children, two each, and a standing Thanksgiving weekend reservation with the Dickson grandparents on the Island. Susan lives in Connecticut, Elizabeth in New Jersey, and Kirsten in Chicago.

A few years after Mary and Albert married, he got involved in the environmental field, employed by a national company that did remediation, working on an oil spill in the Chesapeake and asbestos removal. For years he’s worked for a demolition company, which he described as similar to taking down a house, except the house is, say, Giants Stadium or the Delta Terminal at JFK. His swan song was (safely) taking down the Gansevoort Sanitation Facility on the West Side of Manhattan.

He officially retires on June 30.

Throughout the years that Albert and Mary lived in New Jersey, they continued to spend time on the Island whenever they could. “That this is a special place,” Albert said, “It was always my hope and my plan to come back here and to give back to this community.”

During the “second home” phase of his relationship with the Island, Albert served on the Shelter Island Heights Property Owners Corporation Board and later was involved in the Menantic Peninsula Association as a trustee. In November of 2012, Mary and Albert left New Jersey to live full time here.

Shortly after moving back, Albert saw that the Water Advisory Committee was looking for a volunteer. He thought this might be an area where he could be helpful, and was appointed. Later, when the opportunity to run for Town Board came up, he pursued it. “I feel very fortunate to be a candidate,” he said.

Albert’s not ready to lay out his platform just yet, but said about the question of water quality and supply, “I hope to bring some clarity to things and to start to mitigate issues we have developing on the Island. I think everyone expresses a concern, but we need to start to break the inertia to address it and start to plan.”

At the end of Albert’s favorite movie, is a scene where an elderly man is standing over the grave of a man who died young, and asks his wife if he’s done good. Albert said he often asks himself, “Could I look at my family and say I did good?”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  I wear a Miraculous Medal my parents gave me when I was 14.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Second bridge. I used to go with my father and brothers and clam and crab there.  We’d go with the girls, now we go with the grandkids.

Last time you were elated?  When our one and half year-old grandchild Juliet came for Memorial Day.
What exasperates you?  People who lack empathy.

Last time you were afraid?  When Juliet was going to have surgery. (She’s fine.)

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  Thanksgiving. The family comes and they spend a chunk of time, at least 20 for dinner.

Favorite movie?  Saving Private Ryan.

Favorite food?  Mary is a wonderful chef. I like everything — except mint jelly.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Abraham Lincoln.