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Profile: Gary Gerth, finding the way forward in politics and life

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Gary Gerth at home on Shelter Island.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Gary Gerth at home on Shelter Island.

On a quiet evening a few years after he moved to Shelter Island, Gary Gerth’s phone rang. The caller, who identified himself as Leon, had misdialed. This was in the days before apps, when people made a local phone call to a friend to find out the weather, but Leon got Gary instead, so Gary stuck his head out to check the cloud cover, came back to report, and 45 minutes of conversation later he asked Leon his last name.


“Leon Uris? You wrote ‘Exodus!’”

“I know. I did!”

Gary had an extensive career helping Long Islanders solve problems, whether issues of development and land use, veterans denied their benefits or Leon Uris wondering if it would rain. Now in his first run at elected office, Gary is the Republican candidate for Shelter Island Town Supervisor, running against Democrat Jim Dougherty in the November election.

The first time Gary saw Shelter Island he was in an Army helicopter flying over the East End in the late 1970s on his way from the Naval War College to a base on Long Island. He grew up in Wantagh and went to college at Hofstra, but until that day he had never seen the Island, and the view from above of the emerald-green land was unforgettable. He came to learn more about the Island when he served on the Long Island Regional Planning Board, and in 1979 he bought a home here.

Gary’s father was in the army medical corps during World War II and his mother worked at Grumman inspecting airplanes. Gary and his brother, Grant, were born at either end of the war, Gary in 1942 and his brother four and a half years later.

Gary went to elementary and high school in Wantagh and was a senior at Hofstra in 1965, one credit-hour short of qualifying for a student deferment, when he opened a letter informing him he’d been drafted to serve in Vietnam.

He enlisted in the Navy, went through boot camp and ended up in Communications Intelligence School, serving at Homestead Air Force Base and in Southeast Asia, but never in Vietnam, although he is a veteran of that war. He completed his degree from Hofstra in 1971.

Before he joined the Navy, Gary married his high school sweetheart, but the years of separation during his service took a toll and the marriage ended. “I have nothing but blessings from that marriage,” Gary said. “I think we both could have worked a little harder.”

In 1972, a friend introduced Gary to Joseph Margiotta, the longtime chairman of the Nassau Republican Party, who selected him as Republican Party press secretary, a job Gary held until 1974. Mr. Margiotta continued to wield great power as head of the Nassau GOP until 1983, when he resigned after being convicted of federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges more than a decade after Gary had moved out of doing PR for Republican candidates.

In 1974 he became executive assistant to the Hempstead presiding supervisor, Francis Purcell. Mr. Purcell assigned Gary to constituent services, a kind of ombudsman, and he loved the work. When people called with complaints or questions, Gary’s office was there to solve the problem by interceding between the citizens and departments and agencies.

When Al D’Amato succeeded Mr. Purcell as Hempstead presiding supervisor in 1977, the nature of Gary’s job changed.

“I was no longer ombudsman,” he remembered. “There was a blizzard, right after D’Amato came in, and I was sleeping in his office for a week, helping to direct the highway department. He came in one night and threw a blanket over me.”

When Tom Gulotta became the Hempstead presiding supervisor in 1981, he made Gary the principal legislative advisor to Nassau County, expanding his role.

During his time working in Hempstead and Nassau County, Gary was on several governmental boards and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Association. “I saw how regional government works,” he said.

From 1996 until he retired in 2001, Gary was director of the Veterans Service Agency, working with a team to resolve cases for people who had been denied benefits, sometimes because of missing records. His agency was able to reconstitute many of those records and get benefits to veterans and their families.

He grew up in the Lutheran church and converted to Catholicism when he married, but his work in local government convinced him that the only permanent way to help people is to change their hearts, and for this he would need training.

Over a period of years studying part-time, he earned a Master of Divinity in 1998 from New Brunswick Seminary at St. John’s University and subsequently worked part-time as a preacher at First Congregational Church of Bay Shore from 2005 until this year.

He is currently a member of Our Lady of the Isle Church.

Gary joined a group that started meeting a year and a half ago to discuss local political issues in the hope they could identify candidates for office. His involvement with this group, which includes former councilman and one-time supervisor candidate Glenn Waddington, and Town Board candidate Marcus Kaasik, spurred him to begin attending as many board meetings as possible. Since March, Gary said he’s been a regular fixture at the Tuesday work sessions.

“When I worked for the Town of Hempstead, I was at every town council meeting, and every board of supervisors meeting,” he said. “It brought back a familiar feel, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

When the local issues group asked Gary to run for supervisor he declined, mentioning that he is 75. His colleagues pointed out that Jim Dougherty is even older. When they asked again, he agreed to run.

“I love the Island and I understand the issues,” he said. “It seemed like a natural thing.”

His decision is not motivated, Gary said, by any dislike of Mr. Dougherty. “I’m not outraged at anything that Jim has done,” he added. “I don’t comment on other people’s values or morals or sense of humor. I have no enmity toward him. I would just do things a little better.”

Compared to Mr. Dougherty, Gary described his approach on issues such as water and the aquifer as “more prudent” and on control of the deer and tick problem, more aggressive. He feels the short-term rental regulations were hastily crafted and should be reviewed from the perspective of enforcement, constitutionality and the effect on young homeowners. He asked, “Is it really what we need on Shelter Island?”

The failure of the town to preserve the St. Gabriel’s site from development is a sore spot with him. “I was hoping the town would come out to save the place,” Gary said. “I felt like this was a rare parcel and it was such a blessing. Eleven million [dollars] could have saved it.”

Gary sees a big difference between politics on Shelter Island and the rest of Long Island. “Nassau and Suffolk County are much more partisan,” he said. “Here, we all seem to work together. Someone wins, and someone loses and then they get down to work.”

In his eyes, public service is a process of working toward consensus and it’s more important to accomplish something than to worry about getting credit. Public service is also consistent with Gary’s faith, he said, adding,

“We are all on a journey, part of something so much bigger than ourselves.”

Lightning Round — Gary Gerth

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  St. Gabriel’s. A wonderful, spiritual, uplifting place.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  The Peconic Estuary.

Last time you were elated?  I’m satisfied with little elations.

What exasperates you? If I hit a block, I regroup, and try to work through it.

Last time you were afraid?  I was on a military transport plane, a C-141 out of Vietnam when we lost part of the right wing, the fuel poured out and we were going down. We had to land on the foam.

Favorite movie?  ‘The Quiet Man.’

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Father Peter DeSanctis. He’s twice a citizen — volunteer fireman and a veteran.

Most respected elected official?  Ronald Reagan.