I became involved with the Shelter Island Reporter in the fall of 1980.
I had taken a break from teaching at public and private schools and was bartending for the summer at the Cook restaurant in the Heights, where Isola is now. It was mostly a service bar but had about six or eight stools for regulars who would drop in. The regulars included those who lived and worked nearby— Phil and French from the Chequit, Bobby Langbein, Mike Williams, Richard Kirtland, Bob Dunne and others.
Bob Dunne, publisher and editor of the paper, lived a few doors down from the Cook and would walk down the alley and enter through the back door into the bar. He had spent the day putting the paper together and was about to begin his weekend saloon tour, as he called it, to gather news. Islanders would soon realize that parts of conversations with him might very well appear in the paper. It was summer and there was plenty of night life here.
During quiet times Bob told me about his background — growing up in Apalachicola, Fla.; service in the army in World War II; going to college at Notre Dame; and then coming to New York where he cut quite a path in the news business. He worked at the New York Times and the Daily News, among other papers.
After a serious medical event, he and his wife Barbara moved to the East End and lived in Amagansett. Bob worked for the Southampton Press. It was during that time, around 1973, he said, that he found out that Walter Schumann had put the Reporter up for sale. Schumann was the founder of the paper in the late ‘50s.
So Bob and Barbara came over to the Island for a look. They had lunch at the Dory, and as Bob recalled for me, he told proprietor Dick Edwards that he was in recovery. Dick said that the Island was a great place to deal with that. And we know that he fell off the wagon shortly after. But he always put out a paper. As I understand it, that was part of the sale agreement — that the paper not miss an issue or it would go back to Schumann.
Toward the end of that summer, Bob asked me to join the paper as associate editor. The pay was pitiful and I was always on call to cover events. But the idea of writing for the paper was exciting. My wife told me to go for it, at least for a year — like going to graduate school with Bob as my tutor. So I did it and started in early September. I did everything from answering the phone to laying out the classifieds and picking up the printed papers in Riverhead on Thursday morning and delivering them to the post offices. As Bob said,“You have to learn all aspects of the business.”
But my goal was to learn how to write a good news story and that came with my first story. I had to cover a Planning Board meeting. Bob came with me and introduced me to the chairman Gunnard Bergman and then left. Before we went to the meeting, he said it’s always good to wear a jacket and tie to cover news.
“It gives you a professional appearance,” he said.
How times have changed.
So I spent most of the night working on my news story — all about plats, and drainage, and setbacks and other subdivision topics.
I showed it to him the next day and he ran his red pen all over my typed copy.
“You are not writing for a bunch of educators. You want to make this interesting for the average guy sitting at the Harbor Inn,” Bob emphatically told me.
And I stayed with the Reporter for a little more than two years. I extended my graduate education with a master wordsmith, a very colorful one at that.
Bob spent plenty of time jousting with then Supervisor Barbara Keyser. Their sparks made Town Board meetings entertaining events. It was so well known that as a prank, one night someone took his car from the Inn Between parking lot and parked it in her driveway. She was furious. I went and picked up the car in the morning.
Another night, Bob, Augie Piccozzi and Stan the Man gave their rendition of the Andrews Sisters’ “Apalachicola, Fla.” with a performance at the Chequit. Wes Smith played the piano.
He tried to add a bit of “Page Six” to the “Overheard in an Osprey Nest” with his “Bistro Babes,” profiling the young women he’d meet. Bob also put in plenty of gossip in this section.
Bob had a fit one afternoon when his big green Pontiac was parked on Bridge Street for more than the posted time. He had press license plates but received a ticket anyway. He complained loudly to Chief George Ferrer, noting that he was in the bar as a member of the working press. I believe that the ticket was canceled.
And the great clam opening contest also received plenty of press. Larry the Clam vs. Rod the Cod. And Bob covered it all with all the attendant fanfare at the Dory. I recall that the event was held on July 14, Bastille Day, and also Bob’s birthday. He turned 60 on his 1983 birthday and died shortly thereafter.
He was a colorful and memorable guy banging out a story on his typewriter, glasses on the end of his nose and cigarette hanging from his mouth. He never missed a deadline. And I finished my graduate work and moved upstate.