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Island Profile: Finding the real deal on Shelter Island

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Tracy McCarthy at home on Fred’s Lane.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Tracy McCarthy at home on Fred’s Lane.

Tracy McCarthy was 40 when she moved permanently to Shelter Island. But in all the ways that count, she lived here all her life.

Her recurring childhood ear infections? Doctor Grunwaldt treated them. First job? Bussing tables at the Ram’s Head Inn. Name a milestone — first boyfriend, learning to parallel park, the moment she spotted her future husband. She can tell you exactly where on this Island it happened.

She moved here in 2011. Seven years later she’s the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, a member of the Shelter Island School Board and the new director of operations at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. “Shelter Island has been a constant in my life whether or not I have physically been here.” Tracy said. “It all comes back to Shelter Island.”

Tracy’s parents, David and Donna Perrson, raised their family in Port Washington, .

Her father worked in the city and her mother as an administrative and teaching assistant in their local high school. Four summers in row the family, including Tracy’s older brother, Scott, made a two-week trip to Shelter Island on a 28-foot motorboat named Personality.

Tracy remembers swimming with Scott in the Coecles Harbor Marina pool and taking the van to the grocery store in the Center. Every year, she got an ear infection and a visit to Dr. Grunwaldt, the Island’s beloved medical practitioner.

In 1980, Tracy was at summer camp when she got a postcard from her parents, staying at Kraus’s Motel (now known as Sunset Beach) announcing they had bought a house on the Island.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Tracy and Scott were summer kids, working hard and avoiding adult supervision. “My parents would leave us during the week and we had the house to ourselves,” she said. “In the back of my head, I always thought I would either marry someone from Shelter Island or end up on Shelter Island.”

She majored in recreation management at the University of Vermont and during her time in Burlington, got involved with community service, participating in building projects with Habitat for Humanity in Burlington, the Lower East Side of Manhattan and rural Mississippi.

Vermont college students with money to travel went to warm places for spring break, but Tracy participated in an alternative spring break, a service trip to work in soup kitchens. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and went to Guatemala where she built latrines, planted seeds and helped mitigate the negative impacts of development on the environment in a rural town where indoor plumbing was scarce.

Tracy’s father bought a publishing company in Connecticut called Media Ventures, whose core business was producing local content for telephone books in the aftermath of the breakup of AT&T. In 1995 at a crossroads in her own career, Tracy asked if he had something she could do while she sorted herself out. In the days before smartphones and GPS-powered apps, the company made local maps for their publications.

Tracy had map-making experience from a GPS class she’d taken in college, and spent most of the first two years at Media Ventures keying in street names.

Eventually she did just about every job in the company from production to editorial, to managing the entire company when her father retired in 2009. She stayed for 23 years.

“Working with my dad, I got to know him as an adult,” Tracy said. “We have a very special relationship.”

In October 2007 Tracy was on the Island for the wedding of a friend, when she spotted a guy standing at the end of the bar at Planet Bliss. She asked her friends who he was. Advised that his name was Bryan, he worked at the ferry and was “a good guy,” Tracy decided to say hello. “I went over and said, ‘What’s your deal?’”

Although she admits it wasn’t the greatest conversation-opener, they talked long enough to exchange numbers. By Thanksgiving weekend they had their first date.

Tracy and Bryan McCarthy were married in 2009 in Florida, and later had a reception at the Ram’s Head Inn. Married to an Island guy, she was still living and working in Connecticut. Their honeymoon in January 2010, Tracy said, was the longest period of time they had ever spent together.

Finally, in August 2011, three weeks before their daughter, Eliza, was born, Tracy moved to the Island full-time, and began a once-a-week commute across the Sound to Connecticut to Media Ventures. Last summer, she closed her family business and accepted a position as director of operations at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

In 2014, Tracy’s father was seriously injured when he fell down a flight of stairs while visiting her brother in Connecticut. Tracy’s mother was on the Island when she got the call at 3 a.m..

Tracy and her mother got the first boat in the morning and went straight to Bridgeport, Connecticut where her father was hospitalized with a brain injury. After a lengthy hospitalization and rehab, he managed to recover, an experience that Tracy said taught her something.

“I learned to appreciate the really important people in your life, and to make sure they know that,” she said.

A few years back, Tracy wasn’t happy with the direction she saw the Shelter Island School going, and with Eliza entering elementary school, decided to help by serving on the School Board. She was elected, and is very encouraged by the recent changes, especially the selection of Christine Finn as superintendent, a decision that predates her role.

For Tracy, home is a place to cherish the good times and learn from the tough ones in a place with a small, hometown feel. “I don’t know if that is the best thing all the time, but it is a good thing,” she said. “I can’t get off this Island without someone saying, ‘Hey Bryan, I saw Tracy on the ferry.’ I have such good feelings and connections to this place. Even when there are bad times, the good overcomes. I feel happy to be here.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  An old ferry token. A good friend Johanna Johnson gave it to me when I left for the Peace Corps with a note, “So you know you can always come back.”  I’ve had it in my wallet for 25 years.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? The round table under the awning at the Ram’s Head Inn. Our wedding reception was there, and every Mother’s Day since I became a mother.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Kauai.

When was the last time you were elated?  This morning when over the sound of my hairdryer I could hear Eliza singing, “Santa Claus is coming to town…”.
She was in her room, singing Christmas carols.

What exasperates you? People not following through.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The first day I see that floating Christmas tree in Chase Creek.

Favorite movie or book? The Black Stallion.

Favorite food? Lasagna.