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Island Profile: Jean Dickerson — You can go home again

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO
Jean Dickerson.

Sometimes heaven is called “a better place” and by that definition, Jean Dickerson is in heaven.

She was born on Shelter Island in the house on Midway Road that she lives in today. “I sleep in the same bed,” Jean said. But she left as soon as she graduated from high school in 1959, and was a visitor until 1998, when she moved back for good.

She and her twin sister Jane were born, one before and one after midnight on December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There was a lot going on that day, and Jean says no one is sure who arrived before, and who was born after, midnight.

Her parents were H. Otis Dickerson and Nina Louise, known as Lou. In addition to Jane, Jean grew up with an older brother, Ted, and three older half siblings from her father’s first marriage.

A framed document in the Dickerson home attested to their mother’s membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and their father traced his ancestors back to the Revolution.

Jean remembers the hard times that came to Shelter Island with the end of World War II. The shipyard in Greenport, which had held up the local economy, shrank in peacetime, and many Islanders, including Jean’s family, moved into temporary quarters in the summer to rent out their homes, to make ends meet.

The land all around the Dickersons’ home on Midway Road was planted in lima beans in the 1950s. With so few trees, she could look out over the fields and see Bridgehampton.

Jean and Jane were much in demand as babysitters, and used to take care of their cousin, Steven Dickerson, as a baby, and his two sisters. “We didn’t have a problem with them. We were a team,” she remembered. “Steve later told me that another babysitter had to call her mother and help her, Steven was so bad. We didn’t have to call our mother.”

The neighborhood was an easy walk to school, and the kids who lived in the houses along Midway played together, and went to school together. Jean was always a strong athlete; better than any of the other girls, and even some of the boys. When teams were chosen for dodge ball, or basketball, she was picked early if not first.

But these were the days before Title IX, and once she got to school, intramural sports were the only way for her to develop her abilities. Not only were there no teams for girls’ sports, there was no gym teacher for girls.

A band teacher named Scott Hamer was an important influence on her in high school. “He just got the best out of us,” she said.

Jean was one of three students Mr. Hamer chose to play the French horn, a notoriously difficult instrument that she grew to love, and continued to play in college.

“I heard another band leader ask Mr. Hamer how he picked the French horn players, and he said, ‘You pick the smartest ones,’” she proudly remembers.

Jean’s senior year was marked by an incident that would change her life, but contribute to her resolve not to return to live here for many years. Salutatorian of the class of 1959, Jean and Jane had been admitted to Lincoln Memorial University, a small liberal arts college, when they learned that the principal of the Shelter Island School wrote to the school and gave a bad report of their behavior.

“He said we were juvenile delinquents,” Jean said. “He did it because we wouldn’t sit on his lap.”

Their offer of admission was rescinded. According to Jean, she and her sister weren’t the only high school girls asked to sit in his lap, but when Jean and Jane refused, he punished them.

Jean’s parents stood up for their twins, and eventually the principal left. Jean and Jane went to SUNY Geneseo, to study library science. They were both recruited by the Queens library system, where Jean worked for 33 years, eventually completing a Masters in Library Science at Queens College.

Jean and Jane looked alike, and dressed alike well into adulthood. Jane was working at a branch of the Queens library at North Hills and Jean was at a branch on the other side of the expressway in Douglaston, when a group of young women came in to Jane’s library, looked at her with fear in their eyes and asked, “How did you get here?”

Jean had thrown them out of the Douglaston branch minutes before, and when they saw Jane, they were convinced she had employed dark arts to get to North Hills so fast.

Jean loved being a reference librarian, and rose to regional manager, where part of her job was visiting struggling branch libraries. Savvy librarians learned to read their manager’s mood in her earrings.

“I loved scaring the living daylights out of them,” Jean said. “They’d say, ‘What earrings does Miss Dickerson have on today?” If she planned to transfer the branch manager, she might wear the shark earrings with a body hanging down, a gift from one of the senior clerks. When she wore her rat earrings, it meant she was annoyed at administration.

“Every branch I went into, I doubled their circulation,” she said.

Jean and her partner Flo Hosp met when Flo was a UPS driver in Freeport, Long Island. Flo had been making regular deliveries of wine and cigarettes to Jean (who was rarely home) for years, but since someone else always had to sign for them, this mysterious customer was a pain in the neck. One day Jean was finally home to sign for her package, they met and have been together for over 20 years.

In 1997, she retired from the Queens library, and came back to live on Shelter Island in her childhood home. “I came back not expecting to be as happy as I am,” she said. “I’m gay, and at that time I wasn’t sure what the Island was like.”

It turns out Shelter Island had changed in the four decades since Jean and her sister left for college. She was accepted immediately, getting involved with the Historical Society, reconnecting with classmates and getting to know new people.

Shortly after moving back to the Island, Peggy Dickerson, who was then the head of the archives at the Historical Society, sought Jean out and asked for help. The archive and vault — located in a tiny back room of the Havens House — needed a volunteer to document and catalog an ever-expanding collection of papers and objects. Jean went to work filling out forms and making reference cards.

The Society’s collection had outgrown the archive at the Havens House. Visiting researchers had to wedge a chair between a bookcase and a filing cabinet to work.

The house lacked modern safety devices and the risk of a fire was a constant worry.

“The house needed to expand and we needed to help the house,” Jean said.

She joined the Society’s board in 2001, and has participated in the enormous fundraising and logistical undertaking that has resulted in the recently-opened renovation of Havens House and creation of a large and secure archival space.

Five years ago, Flo joined Jean in the house on Midway Road, where they spend the warmer months and then head for Florida before the cold sets in.

In 2015, Jean was inducted into the Shelter Island School Athletic Hall of Fame for her participation in intramural basketball, volleyball, bowling, cheerleading and golf.

She learned at the induction ceremony that she had inspired some of Shelter Island’s female athletes to compete and excel many years later.

Lightning Round- Jean Dickerson

What do you always have with you? Chapstick.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? My backyard.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? The Resort on Carefree Boulevard in North Fort Myers, Florida.

What exasperates you? Bad grammar.

Favorite movie or book?  “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

Favorite food? Blue claw crab.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Elizabeth Pederson —tenacious and optimistic.

Most respected elected official? Otis Pike, a Democratic Congressman from Riverhead.

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