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Island Profile: Mary Fran Gleason, a Shelter Island life of sadness and joy

When Mary Fran Gleason came to live on Shelter Island in 1969, she was the 13-year old daughter of a family in crisis. Her mother, Marion Gleason, had sold their home in Virginia, moved the family of six to Shelter Island, and found work teaching second grade. At the center of the crisis was Mary Fran’s father Harold, whose mental and physical deterioration left him unable to work. His increasing debilitation, they would later learn, was caused by Huntington’s Disease, an incurable brain disease that strikes in mid-life.

After her father’s death in 1989, Mary Fran learned that his condition was actually a hereditary disease, and that she and her siblings, Thomas, Kathleen and Patrick were at risk of developing it too.  

“You have a life to live, and you have to find happiness wherever you can.”

Mary Fran Gleason

One of the ways the Gleason kids coped with their father’s situation was to work. At 14, Mary Fran got her first waitress job at the Ram’s Head Inn.

“I took an order and the customer said, I’ll have the filet, and I thought they meant fish because I’d never heard of filet mignon, never seen it before. So, I brought a fillet of fish.”  

Mary Fran graduated from the Shelter Island High School in the enormous 32-member class of 1972, and says she would not like to repeat her teenage years: “We were hellions.”  She graduated from the College of St. Elizabeth and after an unsuccessful attempt to spend the ski season working in Colorado (there was no snow) returned to Shelter Island. She waitressed for awhile, and in the early 80s answered an ad for a reporter working for Bob and Barbara Dunne, owners of The Shelter Island Reporter.

Bob Dunne ran the paper.

“Bob Dunne was exasperating, and I learned a lot from him,” she said. “Short. Simple. Declarative. Sentences. That was his style.” 

When Barbara Dunne ran the paper after her husband died, Mary Fran, who was managing editor, learned even more about the newspaper editing from her, but it soon became obvious that Barbara Dunne was ready to sell the paper. 

In her early thirties Mary Fran decided to get a master’s degree in public affairs journalism at Columbia College Chicago on a full scholarship. 

“It was the best experience. We (students) went out and covered stories. I was there when Mayor Washington died, and when alderman were chucking ashtrays at each other…I loved Chicago.”

In 1989, she went to Syracuse Newspapers, working for morning and afternoon editions that were bitter rivals within the same newspaper company, and becoming their first female sports editor. In 2002 she moved to the Albany Times Union, where she was a managing editor. In 2008, seeing the decline of the newspaper business everywhere, she decided to take a job as communication manager for the New York State Teachers union.

Mary Fran’s family and friends were still on Shelter Island and even though she had married and lived upstate, she never was far enough away that she couldn’t get back.

“But sometimes coming back I didn’t have good feelings about it. There was just too much sadness.”

All three of Mary Fran’s siblings developed Huntington’s Disease. In 2009, her brother Thomas died; her younger brother Patrick, who served with the Shelter Island Police in the 80s died in 2015; and her sister, Kathleen, who was a teacher at the Shelter Island School, now lives in a nursing home in upstate New York. Mary Fran is still at risk of developing the disease.

In 2000, Mary Fran decided to attend her Shelter Island High School class reunion, persuaded by her best friend Vivienne and her sister, who mentioned that an old high school boyfriend, Tom Bliss, had been asking about her. He was also married, and living in Florida. At the reunion they reconnected and did a lot of talking.

“I cried all the way home, for what could have been, for different decisions I could have made,” she said. “I emailed him and said how wonderful it was to see him again.”

Mary Fran was six years into a childless marriage, and her husband seemed to know that their breakup was inevitable. But Tom’s wife of 25 years was told about Mary Fran by a friend, and although Tom and his wife had no children, their split was difficult. Tom moved to Albany, and he and Mary Fran were married in 2002.

In 2017, Tom retired, and a year later Mary Fran retired, two years after being diagnosed with an inoperable Stage 3 lung cancer.  Treated with chemotherapy and radiation, the tumor is gone, and four years out from treatment, she feels and looks great.

She and Tom split their time between Florida and Shelter Island where she is on the board at Shelter Island Country Club, and chair of the 120th anniversary of the nine-hole course known as Goat Hill. She’s working with the Shelter Island Historical Society to create an exhibit on the history of golf on the Island. “That story needs to be told, so I’m going to tell it,” she said. “It’s a huge project, which will include a vintage tournament with hickory clubs.” 

She says the Shelter Island she grew up in has largely been absorbed by a newer, more suburban lifestyle.

“There were all these characters,” she said. “Like Dudley Griffing who ran a bulldozer off Bridge Street into Chase Creek because he wanted to go clamming, and liked to shoot squirrels out of his bedroom window. When there was a big fight over replacing First Bridge, somebody erected a toll booth down there.  We’ve become a little too decorous,” she said. “Maybe that’s what happens to rural places when development moves in.”

In 2017, Mary Fran moved back into the house on Baldwin Road that her mother bought after she moved the family to Shelter Island. Mary Fran tells her sister Kathleen’s children, who are at risk of Huntington’s, the same thing she has told herself: “You have a life to live, and you have to find happiness wherever you can. Don’t let it take over.  Don’t shrivel up and die.  If we all knew the day we were going to die and how, we wouldn’t leave the house.”

Mary Fran Gleason waves goodbye as golfers drive off into the darkness for last Friday’s Midnight Madness Tournament at Goat Hill. (Courtesy Photo)

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?

A little note that my husband wrote me. It says, “I love you.”

Favorite place on Shelter Island?

Shell Beach.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?

Wrigley Field.

When was the last time you were elated? 

Just now, I chipped a birdie on #5.  I have a witness.

What exasperates you?

Small-mindedness.

When was the last time you were afraid?

At my friend Vivienne’s birthday party I rode a roller coaster on top of New York, New York in Las Vegas that went completely upside down. 

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island?

The day after Labor Day.

Favorite movie or book?

‘Seabiscuit’ by Lauren Hillenbrand.

Favorite food?

Baby lima beans.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? 

Barbara Dunne. 

Most respected elected official?

Robert Kennedy.