One morning last week, Jose Montalvo and his wife Maggie welcomed a visitor into their light-filled house near Klenawicus Airfield for some conversation and coffee. A contractor with his own business, J&M Home Repair, LLC, he upgraded and reconstructed the interior after buying the house, taking down walls and creating a bright, welcoming open-plan space.
After taking a sip from the cup brewed by Ms. Montalvo, the visitor decided he’d never tasted anything better. Looking up, husband and wife were smiling at his expression. “I see you’ve never had Dominican coffee,” Mr. Montalvo said, still smiling, and then Ms. Montalvo presented him with a pound of the coffee to take home.
As a boy growing up amid the noise, crowds and bustle of his home, Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, the young Jose, like city kids the world over, looked forward to times he and his family would head for the countryside.
There he treasured the lush landscapes, the farms of rice, sugar cane and coffee, the peace of animals grazing in the fields, but most of all, the quiet.
Living in Santo Domingo until the age of 26, he immediately knew he had found a place to call home more than 30 years ago, when he arrived on Shelter Island.
With the exception of several years back in the Dominican Republic, he’s been here ever since, with a host of family and friends whom he refers to as his brothers and sisters. He’s an essential member of the Building and Maintenance Department team at Shelter Island School, and a resident who is actively involved in his community.
In 2010, Mr. Montalvo became a citizen of the United States.
The Shelter Island Board of Education recently named him Employee of the Month. It’s a new honor instituted by the School District, and everyone attending the ceremony agreed the inaugural nominee was a perfect choice. Board President Kathleen Lynch called him “one of the finest people I know.” Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., called him “a blessing and an integral part of the School District.” Director of Personnel Todd Gulluscio noted that Mr. Montalvo “brings great discipline to his responsibilities,” and was a positive presence at the school for the staff, teachers and students.
“I do it all for the kids,” he said, accepting his award.
ISLAND TO ISLAND
When he was 9 years old, his mother died of cancer and he, along with his siblings, was raised by his father, a man he describes as “a pillar, a strong pillar to us. He had a beautiful heart.”
As a boy, basketball was a passion, and the sport eventually provided him with an education. After high school, the young Jose was playing in a tournament when a college coach saw the shooting guard with a sweet stroke and recognized his talent, grit and determination on the court.
He was offered a scholarship, a free ride to play ball for Univresida Dominican O&M, where he graduated with a degree in accounting.
He then went to work as an auditor in a manufacturing firm. But determined to make a change when his former wife had an opportunity to come to Shelter Island, Mr. Montalvo got a visa as well, and arrived — he’ll quickly tell you the precise date — on March 22, 1991.
His Uncle Luis owned a few bodegas in New York City, and the new arrival thought he might go to work for him on the business side as an accountant or bookkeeper. But when they met, his uncle dissuaded him. “There had been some robberies, probably due to drugs and gangs, and my uncle said, ‘I don’t want to expose you to this.’”
Back on Shelter Island he found himself with the same challenges so many immigrants to America have faced over the past two centuries, of looking for work and trying to navigate a new language and culture.
“It was tough,” he said. “Really tough at times.” In addition, he experienced bigotry. “Some people just don’t like you,” he said with a shrug.
One example of his participation in the community was his appearance on a panel at an event sponsored by the Library in 2020 on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There he spoke of times when it was “a difficult transition” coming to the Island due to the color of his skin and his ethnicity.
His son, Jose Jr. was a member of the town’s Police Reform Committee in 2021, which explored police policies; officer training; transparency in how police do their jobs; use of force; and ways in which officers interact with the community.
But if there were occasions of bigotry, he was welcomed by almost everyone he encountered, he said, and “met the best people, people who are now my family.”
“Everyone you meet — and this is something I tell young Latinos — give a strong handshake, look them right in the eye, and smile,” he said.
He’s sought out for his counsel, and proud to mentor young people, adding, “I also tell them, ‘Don’t be a hypocrite. Be genuine. And work hard.’”
Family includes his son Jose Jr. married to Karina Montalvo, who serves on the Board of Education; Maggie’s son Michael Martinez; his nephew, Tony Montalvo Jr., who is married to Stephanie Tybaert; daughter Abigail Montalvo Savoye and son-in-law Scott Savoye; and daughter Paola Romero.
HOOPS TO THE RESCUE, AGAIN
Just as basketball secured an education, so the sport put him almost immediately at the heart of the small town.
“I heard about the Men’s Basketball League at the school gym and went over to play,” he said.
At the night games, he quickly met and made friends with, among others, the late Garth Griffin, Darren Binder, Chuck and Kenny Kraus and Ron Anderson. He learned English quickly through studying and interacting with the players. “Ron hired me as an assistant carpenter, which was great,” he said, and he worked for Jamie Cogan “in the kitchen. But my best teacher, friend and brother, is Mike Dunning. I worked for Mike. He was strict and talented, letting me know there is a right way of doing things. Mike has been the key to my life here.”
His return to the Dominican Republic was difficult, he said. “I was going through a divorce, and I missed Shelter Island so much.”
When he came back in 2012, one of the first people he ran into was Mike Dunning, building and grounds supervisor for the school district. “Mike said to me, ‘What are you doing here, Joe-see?’ That’s his nickname for me,” Mr. Montalvo said. “I told him I was looking for work and Mike took me right into the superintendent’s office and said to Mike Hynes, the superintendent then, ‘We have the guy right here that we need.’”
Sitting back on his couch at home last week, he said he and Ms. Montalvo always count their blessings as Shelter Islanders. “It’s such a beautiful place,” he said. “So many beautiful people.”