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Shelter Island loses one of its best:Ric Gurney defined service to community

Shelter Island lost two giants in recent weeks — Fredric “Ric” Gurney and Frederick “Freddy” Ogar. Some might have thought them “frenemies.” But those in the know realized that while they were on opposite sides of a bitter debate about whether the Center and Heights Fire departments should be merged, they enjoyed a warm friendship through the years.

What both Dave Gurney and Meredith Gurney Page, Ric’s children, recall is being frequently invited to Freddy and Dottie Ogar’s home. The Ogars had a pool, and Dave and Meredith recalled many happy outings there.

“He always saw the future of Shelter Island,” Dave Gurney said about his father, who passed away in May. “I joined the department because of him,” Dave said.

Ric was involved in an expansion of the Heights Firehouse in his more than 50-year career in firefighting.

Dave put in 20 years with the department before working to launch the Shelter Island Bucks baseball team. Similarly, Meredith credits her dad with inspiring a dedication to community service in her and her brother.

Taking it a step further, she credits her dad for sharing his love of hunting and other outdoor activities with the family. She believes that led to her oldest daughter, Camryn, 22, who graduated from Unity College in Maine, seeking to become a fish and game warden. This year, Camryn is working as a park ranger, a step toward her ultimate goal. Ric had set up college funds for each of his grandchildren, Meredith said.

To merge or not to merge?

Ric Gurney was also an important player unifying the two Island Fire departments, which made the fire service here stronger. On what was a third attempt, in October 1997 to combine the two departments, it wasn’t just Ric and Freddy who argued over the decision.

The feud among members of each department had resulted in two previous failures, one in the mid-1970s and again in 1986. The merger failed in 1986 by a single vote from the Center commissioners, said former Heights chief and later long-time Shelter Island Fire Department Commissioner Larry Lechmanski.

Recalling the tension that lasted even after the merger for those “new” to the Island who have known only a single Fire Department, Mr. Lechmanski said each department had reasons for pride in what it could bring to the Island. For the Heights, it was training and equipment and a history of more than 100 years.

The Center, launched in 1932, had more money thanks to the different levels of taxes that were allotted to each department.

Despite the reverence Ric, as a former chief and fire commissioner, had for the Heights Fire Department, he believed there was solid value in the merger. Mr. Lechmanski was chief in the Heights at the time, but agreed with Ric on combining the two units.

But Freddy Ogar, who had served in the same capacities in the Center, was adamant about not wanting a merger, given his pride in the Center Fire Department.

Mr. Lechmanski recalls getting to know Freddy when they worked together on a truck  that was the main vehicle used to access sources of accessible water. With hydrants only in the Heights and Dering Harbor, the water had to come from surrounding bays and creeks.

“I was the captain, and Freddy became the lieutenant on the truck,” Mr. Lechmanski said. “We never had any problems when we were working. As soon as the whistle sounded, and we got together, we began figuring out the best places to get water.

The rivalry had to be suppressed for the good of Shelter Island and that’s what Freddy and I did. I think we probably had the best officer-to-officer relationship in the whole department.”

A life of service

Ric Gurney’s contributions to his hometown were many and varied. He spent many years deeply involved in the Island community.

A tribute honoring the passing of Ric Gurney by the Fire Department at the hardware store in the Heights that he owned and operated for more than half a century. (Courtesy photo)

He was actively involved as a Boy Scout leader for many years; was one of the founding members of the Shelter Island Chapter of the American Red Cross; was a hunter’s safety course instructor; a founding member of the Shelter Island chapter of Ducks Unlimited; a Shelter Island Person of the year; a founding member of the Heights Property Owners Corporation; and a founding member of the Shelter Island Menantic Yacht Club; among many acts of service to the Island.

Looking back on Ric’s life, Meredith remembers him racing out of the family-operated Ace Hardware store to answer every emergency call.

“Dad made a lot of good decisions along the way,” Meredith said. “He knew how to do life.”