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Island Profile: Richie Surozenski, Shelter Island Lions Club Citizen of the Year

Richard (Richie) and Sharon Surozenski were getting ready to watch Jeopardy when the phone rang a few weeks back.

They were in Kissimmee, Florida for a two-week vacation, but their household routine down there is about the same as here. “Sharon was doing the dishes, and I was getting the ice cream ready,” Richie said.

Sharon’s doctor was on the phone. Richie braced himself, hoping it wasn’t bad news about her back condition. When Dr. Frank Adipietro said, “I don’t know if you are going to like this or not,” he listened, as Frank informed him that the Lions Club had named him Citizen of the Year.

Richie said, “Couldn’t you find anyone else?”

He grew up in a house near Chase Creek, the only child of Stanley and Clara Surozenski. His was one of the first kindergarten classes at the Shelter Island School. He still remembers the teacher, Mrs. Kroll, and the ease of his elementary school days in the 1950s. “There would be ten dogs laying around in the schoolyard waiting for their kids to come out,” he said.

It was an adventure-filled, outdoors childhood. Chase Creek was full of blue crabs, clams, oysters and some years there were even scallops. “We caught snappers off the bridge and picked cattails at the end of the creek,” Richie said. “We’d stick the cattail in our mouth and pretend it was a cigar.”

When he was 10 he learned to fry a pork chop and has cooked for family and friends ever since. His clam chowder, which requires at least a half-bushel of clams, is legendary. His father taught him how to produce a real clambake — the kind that is buried —a dying art that he has kept alive.

Graduating from Shelter Island High School in 1965, Richie was one of almost 30 graduates, about a third of whom made lives here.

Before going into the Army a year later, Richie worked at the Saltaire Nursery, which later became The Shelter Island Nursery. He liked it so much he went back to work there years later. In the late 1960s, he worked at Kraus’s, a restaurant and scallop shack that was located at the end of what was then known as Louis’ Beach. He also worked for Jernick Moving and Storage, and was a mechanic at the auto shop known as B&D.

Shortly after getting out of the service, Richie was with a group of friends at a hangout called the Southold Inn, when he stopped in his tracks as he was heading for the last ferry back to Shelter Island. “I saw this blond girl and I flashed her a wink and she winked back and I said, ‘Boys, we aren’t going to get the last boat.’”

Sharon Jablonski, from Cutchogue, stopped at Southold Inn with her cousin to get something to eat and show off a new haircut called “the lumberjack.” Richie was felled.

In those days it was called “going around the horn” to drive from the North Fork around to the South Ferry, where they would come and get you for $5.

They married on September 12, 1971.

Their first child Richie II (Richard) was born in 1972, followed by Sherri in 1976. Richie II works for J.M. Piccozzi, and his three children, Michael, 15, Joseph, 13, and Caitlin ,10, attend Catholic schools. Sherri is a captain on the South Ferry.

In 1981, Richie went to work for the Village of Dering Harbor. “The first day I walked in, unlocked the shop, and asked myself, what am I going to do today?” he said. “I decided to treat the entire village like one big estate, plowing snow, trimming bushes and keeping the streets clear.”

The aftermath of Hurricane Bob was a little tougher. That cleanup, which he and an assistant completed, left him with a concussion from a snapped tree branch, but the village was cleared in two days.

Every year a long section of the 10K course brought thousands of runners through the Village, prompting Richie to fill every pothole the week before the race. When late afternoon storms turned the low spot along a section of Shore Road into a lake a foot deep, Richie was there with a pump so the race could go through, prompting long-time race organizer Cliff Clark to comment: “There should be more Surozenskis on Shelter Island.”

In 1984 Richie and Sharon moved in with his parents long enough to demolish their house next door and build themselves a new one. “My friends came on a Saturday morning after Thanksgiving and we tore it down,” Richie said. “Frankie Klenawicus, God bless his soul, came down here with his backhoe, and he wouldn’t take a dime. I had to put a basket of clams in the back of the backhoe.”

Richie II was in third grade at the time, and told an adult who asked what happened to his house, “My dad took it to the dump.”

Richie was on the receiving end of so much help because he spent so much time helping other Islanders. He joined the Fire Department as soon as he was old enough, and celebrated 50 years of service a few years back. He served close to 25 years on the Board of Fire Commissioners, was fire chief for three years and Fireman of the Year three times.

When he was a kid, his uncle Gene Lechmanski took him out to Taylor’s Island, a rustic cabin that became town property in the 1970s. Richie was there to mow the lawn, but he fell in love with the place at once. “Where do you find an island on an island?” he said.

In 2005 the town considered tearing down the cabin. Richie joined neighbor P.A.T. Hunt in a successful fight to preserve and restore the place, and make it easier for people to visit. “People treat it with respect,” he said.

At the annual Taylor’s Island fundraiser, Richie does the clambake, as his father did before him. In 2015, he joined with Steve Lenox and Keith Clark to replace a ship’s wheel that had hung in the cabin for years, and then had gone missing during the renovation. Finding and restoring a working ship’s wheel of the correct vintage was a labor of love. They dedicated it to the memory of their fathers.

When Brian Kavanagh, who was the chef at the Dory, got the idea to put a Christmas tree on a tiny island in Chase Creek and the rising tide shorted out the lights, Richie stepped up to build a floating platform for the tree in 1982, making it one of the Island’s most-beloved Christmas traditions. Richie made multiple trips by rowboat every year to position a fully decorated tree in the middle of the Creek, securing the 150 lights with twist-ties.

It’s a lucky man who can enjoy a spring afternoon with three generations of his family a stone’s throw from the house where four generations of this family have lived. Around the beginning of the baseball season, Richie asked his grandson if he’d like a new bat for his birthday and they went to the old softball field beside Chase Creek to try it out.

Soon the whole family, Sharon, Richie II, Sherri, Michael, Joseph, Caitlin and dog Roxy were there. Caitlin went after the ball hard, slid and would have earned the muddiest uniform award had she been wearing one.

“It was neat to see everyone there,” said Richie. “Being with the family to me is great.”