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Island Profile: Pat Sulahian, The Tuck Shop, and the healing power of fun

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Pat Sulahian at the Tuck Shop, an Island institution that she has run since 1980.
Pat Sulahian at the Tuck Shop, an Island institution that she has run since 1980.

Pat Sulahian was a 48-year-old mother of five when she got out of a rehab program in Minnesota, returned to her husband and children and began to turn her life around.

Part of the change was to stop going out to bars and parties, but equally important was The Tuck Shop, Shelter Island’s ice cream parlor, which she has run for 38 years.

“It was a focus that was very helpful and a lot of fun, or I wouldn’t have kept to it.” Pat said. “I traded rum for rum raisin and hash for heavenly hash.”

Pat and her husband Bill, who practiced law on Long Island and Shelter Island for many years, had five children. Greg, Billy and Susie still live on the Island; Marie lives in Colorado; and Carol lives in Rockville Centre. Thirteen grandchildren and five great-grandchildren have come along since then. Many grew up on Shelter Island and two grandkids, Walter and Jane, are still here.

As Pat tells it, drinking brought her perilously close to losing her family.

Born in Inglewood, California, she had never been out of the state until she was 19. She put herself through San Jose State working in food service in Yosemite National Park, taught school for a couple of years and was selected for a teaching stint in an overseas program in Germany.

“I was so provincial,” she said. “I came back with a brand new Volkswagen Beetle and some money in my pocket.”

Marooned in New York on the way back to California from Germany, Pat had a wisdom tooth extraction done by Army dentists that resulted in an infection. She had to stay and have it treated. During this time she met Bill Sulahian, a student at Brooklyn Law School.

They were at a party and in spite of her first impression — “He was bonkers!” — they began dating.

Bill proposed, but Pat wanted to drive the Beetle back home to California and think about it. He came out to get her, they married in July of 1961 and he persuaded her to drive the Volkswagen back east, where they settled in Rockville Centre.

For years Bill considered her a flight risk. “He used to say he slept with my car keys under his pillow,” she said.

In the 1960s, Pat and Bill had five children in short order and were introduced to Shelter Island by Joe and Nancy King and George Hickey, friends from Queens. Soon they had a second home here, complete with a lively social life.

They became members of the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club and went to a lot of parties. “We were living a very fast life with little children,” she remembered. “The Tuck Shop? I never gave it a thought. I wasn’t paying much attention to ice cream in the bad old days.”

Pat rejects the idea that going to rehab was her own determination. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “It was the disruption of the family. I was no hero. And we were lucky the insurance we had paid for it.”

The Tuck Shop was part of a franchise named for entrepreneurial sellers of snacks in England. Pat stuck with the name and the store flourished in her hands. During the busiest time of year, The Tuck Shop goes through 50 gallon-sized tubs of ice cream a week. These days the most popular flavors include dulce de leche, moose tracks and mint chocolate chip.

“We are not skimpy,” she said, referring to scoop size, but when her employees get too heavy handed, Pat admits, “I give them a nudge on the ankle.”

Pat’s business strategy has long-rested on a policy of drawing her workers from Island families. Some, like Lance Willumsen, went on to father future Tuck Shop employees Shelby and Haley. “I went through the whole Corbett family. Lisa, Danielle, Michelle and Jennifer,” Pat said. “One would start and then the next.”

Recruits from the Joe Read family were Jacki, Annie and Caitlin. The Kaasik ice-cream team included Katrina, Lisa and Serina. Melissa, Nicolette and Francesca Frasco are still scooping this summer, alongside seniors Sarah Lewis, Phoebe Starzee and Pat’s granddaughter Jane.

Ten years after Pat got out of the rehab center in Minnesota, a new center called Stuyvesant Square Chemical Dependency Treatment opened in New York with the same type of family program that had done so much for her. She was invited to work there.

Her counselor in Minnesota had been June Qualey, a tough and compassionate person and Pat took her as a model. “I wanted to be that kind of counselor. Not let anyone off the hook.”

She worked at Stuyvesant for three years — while daughter Carol ran the store — work that Pat described as “very satisfying to the patients and to me.”

At The Tuck Shop, Pat said she’s always been very up front about her problem with her workers. “The kids know that this is no secret,” she said.

If alcohol or drugs were used outside the shop and her kids spotted it, Pat stepped in as necessary, a fact that did not always make her popular. “I’d always let the parents know and sometimes the response was denial — ‘Not my kid.’ Any kid is welcome to be here, but if their behavior is not appropriate they will not be here. And that goes for the parents too,” she said.

Pat has mixed feelings about her decision to seek a buyer for The Tuck Shop so she can retire. “Working is good for you, it makes my head feel totally engaged,” she said. “I take one day at a time and look forward to the fun that is still out there. It has to be fun.

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you? My car. I love my car.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? My home and my deck.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? The mountains of Colorado. My daughter Marie lives in Gypsum.

When was the last time you were elated? I recently got a visit from two of my great-grandchildren, Weston and Ford. They call me GG-ma.

What exasperates you? When too many things happen at one time that are not on the schedule.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The day I close the shop for the season.

Favorite movie or book? ‘Winter Prey’ by John Sandford.

Favorite food? Tacos

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  When I got sober, my counselor, June Qualey.