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Dan McCarthy is a smiling steward of history

03/18/2016 9:00 AM |

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Deep among towering file cabinets filled with historic documents and letters at Southold Historical Society, assistant archivist Dan McCarthy was hard at work, photocopying files to help a man working on his doctoral dissertation. 

Mr. McCarthy pressed a rubber stamp with the historical society’s logo against the photocopies before handing them to the man with a smile and a quip.

“This will ‘make an impression!’ ” he said, bursting into laughter at his own joke.

For nearly a decade, Mr. McCarthy — always present and always laughing — has tended the historic collections at Southold Town Hall, the historical society and Southold Free Library.

He also has published nearly 30 history articles in the Peconic Bay Shopper and even dressed up as Benjamin Franklin for last year’s “Mile Marker Day” as part of the town’s 375th anniversary celebration.

Along the way, the Southold resident has become a beloved friend among the North Fork’s historians and preservationists.

“He just creates an aura of cooperation,” said Town Clerk Elizabeth Neville. “It’s a pleasure to see people that are happy with what they’re doing. In this day’s workforce, in general, I don’t think there are too many [like that].”

“He’s passionate about what he does,” agreed Karen Lund-Rooney, executive director of the Southold Historical Society.

Mr. McCarthy, now 56, moved to the North Fork from Jamaica, Queens, in 1988 and began working as a columnist and arts critic at the now-defunct Traveler Watchman newspaper. A lover of the theater, he is quick to brag about his roles in North Fork Community Theatre productions and his extensive collection of celebrity autographs.

Though he studied acting in college, Mr. McCarthy’s love of history didn’t bloom until his days at the Traveler Watchman, where he also helped manage the newspaper’s archive. He jokes that his columns are now part of history, since they’ll be included in local library archives among the rest of the historic newspaper’s old editions.

When the paper folded in 2005, Mr. McCarthy turned that experience into a job at the Southold library helping to coordinate its historic collections. Two years later he joined the historical society; a year after that, he was working at Southold Town Hall as well.

He spends his week shuttling between the locations, a different job each day. At the historical society, Mr. McCarthy is the first interaction many have with the organization’s historical collection.

“Dan takes our files and sifts through to find out what is accurate whenever we have a research question,” said Amy Folk, the society’s collections manager. Most times, that means a person doing genealogy research or trying to learn more about a historic home.

Mr. McCarthy proudly said he has connected “at least 26” descendants of Barnabas Horton, one of Southold’s founding fathers. Sadly, Mr. McCarthy still hasn’t found any connection to the North Fork in his own lineage — he was born in Lake Ronkonkoma — but he remains hopeful. He loves digging deeper into local history.

“It never ends,” he said. “There’s always a beginning, but it never ends.”

Thankfully for the historical society and the library, Mr. McCarthy is a stickler for detail. He becomes infuriated when he sees that someone has posted historical information online without citing their source.

“We’re supposed to make sure it is accurate,” Ms. Folk explained. “Any historian should be telling accurate stories.”

Mr. McCarthy values his work with the Peconic Bay Shopper, too. Last November, while his mother was in the hospital, he put the finishing touches on an article about the area’s whaling history. As she lay in hospice, Mr. McCarthy passed along the news that his latest article had been published. Ms. McCarthy smiled “as best she could,” he said.

A few days later, she died. Mr. McCarthy said he was glad she was able to know her son had accomplished one more thing before she passed.

“I’ll never forget that,” he said, his friendly demeanor quickly fading to abject sorrow. “But I’m carrying on.”

In the months since, Mr. McCarthy has dived even deeper into his jobs. His coworkers have noticed.

“He’s been going through a hard time lately, but he’s just a very kind, generous, giving person,” Ms. Neville said. “He’s a pleasure.”

Mr. McCarthy said he simply wants to help his neighbors learn more about the town they call home.

“Half the time, I end up learning, too,” he admitted.

Photo Caption: Dan McCarthy has been Southold Historical Society’s assistant archivist for nearly a decade. He also helps run the collections at Southold Town Hall and Southold Free Library. (Credit: Paul Squire)

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