Over 50 years ago, when John Kaasik first set eyes on Shelter Island, he was 11 years old, riding in his family’s Chevy Suburban on their way to visit a friend. After the visit, his Estonian immigrant parents, Evi and Joannes, were heading back to their West Islip home with six children in the car when the axle broke coming down the Ram Island hill. It turned out the repair would take a while, so the Kaasiks stayed.
The large family included four daughters, Marian, Marika, Veronica and Alice, and three sons, John, Karl and Marcus. Today, every living member of the family (Alice passed away in 2016) is still here, running businesses, building houses, in our school, our library and town government. Thursday, May 24, John Kaasik and his wife Anu will be honored as the Shelter Island Lions Club’s 2018 Citizens of the Year for their 12 years of organizing, directing and producing the annual school play, a centerpiece of Island life.
John’s parents took to Shelter Island immediately, but he adapted slowly to the change from suburban West Islip to rural Shelter Island. “It took a few years,” he said. “Here it was lonely and I missed home so it was a little rough.”
At the Shelter Island School, John was cast in “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Allan Poe. It was an important experience for him, “I was just O.K. at a lot of things, but this was one thing I did that was good,” he remembered. “I got a lot of positive attention — something I carry around with me now. I can give that feeling to another kid, give them a moment to shine.”
For the generation of Kaasiks who came over in the Chevy, going to the University of Helsinki was a family tradition and one that John embraced wholeheartedly. “Living in a foreign culture is big,” he said. “Growing up in the U.S. we are so isolated from the rest of the world.”
He spent six years, from 1975 to 1982 studying and traveling around Western Europe, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “I got a lot of education just living in those places,” he said.
On Ladies Night at a disco in Helsinki in 1981, Anu spotted John and asked him to dance. Anu had grown up on a dairy farm in Finland. Although she loved the natural world she experienced on her family’s farm, she had no intention of staying there to make a living, and was in Helsinki to see if nursing was a better fit.
When she heard John was from New York, she assumed he meant the city and wasn’t sure she wanted that sort of life. But when she came to Shelter Island, “It was an amazing place,” she said. “Nature and water are very important to me.”
In 1986 Anu and John married and together they built the house on Thomas Lane they still live in. “She was pretty good with a hammer,” John said. “That’s why I married her.”
They were self-employed, with initiatives on a number of fronts. John had a painting business and together they started a taxi business. They also run the Azalea House B&B and rent out part of their own home during the season.
Their four children, Nicholas 29, Katrina, 27, Lisa, 22, and Serina, 20, grew up bilingual, deep in the love of their large Estonian and Finnish family. Anu still speaks only Finnish to them. “Our kids were very fortunate not only to have their grandfather nearby, but also their aunts and they were showered with love,” John said.
Since his early experience in “The Black Cat,” John maintained his interest in theater, writing plays and working on theatrical projects with his brother Karl. One of John’s plays, “Murder by Mistake” was published and produced here and picked up by schools and community theatres all over the country. John and Karl’s play, “The Servant’s Last Serve” has been produced several times, including a 2016 production at All An Act Theatre in Erie, Pennsylvania.
In 2008 he helped direct the Shelter Island School’s production of “Grease,” directed “Les Misérables” the following year and has directed the school musical every year since. Anu’s skill with a hammer continued to pay off as she did whatever needed to be done to make the shows go on. Scheduling, logistics, rehearsals — Anu handled everything from playing rehearsal music to managing costumes for the entire casts of the shows.
Anyone who’s participated in one of the Shelter Island School’s spring musicals, whether in the audience or on stage, knows that each one is much more than a performance. The shows celebrate the talent and creativity of the community, with powers that many of the singers, dancers, stage hands and set-constructors (and their parents) may not have realized they possess.
“It’s so much more than the fact that he includes everyone,” Anu said. “The kids are so helpful to each other, so supportive. They pull each other up. “The teenage years are hard ones for everyone,” she added. “John goes after every one and it’s amazing how good they are during those difficult years. The cutie pies when they are small, of course, are loveable. With the older ones you just have to look and the goodness is there.”
A year ago, Anu and John’s daughter Lisa was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Her treatment is ongoing. “Right from the beginning she talked about it and that made it easier to get through it,” Anu said. “We have tried to follow her lead. Once it happens, you just do what needs to be done and that’s it.”
It’s an ongoing crisis for their family. John said how grateful they are for the support of friends and neighbors on Shelter Island. “The beauty of this community comes through,” he said. “People pour their compassion out. It makes me love this Island more.”
John says he worries about the decline of the school-age population on the Island. “I would be very depressed if this became one of those gated communities. People go to the high school games, they go to the plays, he said. “The school is one of the pillars of culture.”
He also has some advice for grown-ups who may be contemplating an upcoming speech: “People at commencement speak of big dreamy worlds. Don’t do that. The world is so much better when you break it down to communities. Start from there. Make a little change and the world will become better.”
In John and Anu, the Shelter Island Lions club has continued its streak of naming the very best Islanders as their Citizens of the Year.
Favorite place on Shelter Island?
John: The causeway between Big and Little Ram. A view you never get tired of.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island?
Anu: Lake Kolkonjärvi.
John: Otaniemi, near Helsinki. I had my college years there.
John: ‘Death Trap.’
Anu: Karjalanpiirakka, a savory Finnish pastry. The crust is made with rye flour and filled with rice porridge.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?
Anu: Pastor Bill Grimbol. He had a big youth program at the Presbyterian Church that emphasized morality and kindness.
Most respected elected official?
John: Jimmy Carter.