Column: Cleo Sellers, personality of the year

The first time I saw Southold resident Cleo Sellers, he was picking up an upright piano in the back of a truck. All by himself.

It didn’t compute. How could this diminutive man — I’d estimate he weighed about 145 pounds, soaking wet — pick up a piano (all by himself)? And then I noticed his muscles, lots and lots of muscles. In my lifetime, the only other person I saw up close with that many muscles, pound for pound, was world middleweight boxing champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

For me, at least, The Legend of Cleo had taken flight. And it continues to soar today, some 30 years later, thanks to the diminutive “worker” everyone east of Southold seems to know. Although at the same time it would be safe to say that Mr. Sellers has managed to fly under society’s radar. It’s also fair to say that he’s no candidate for sainthood. The second time I remember hearing his name was in connection with a incident in which he and an itinerant worker at a Greenport carnival had a disagreement that ended up in the police report. But that was a long time ago.

Cleo Sellers is the same man who formerly could be seen, at any hour of the day or night, riding his bike on the Main or North roads between Greenport and his home on Horton’s Lane in Southold. That was back in the days before he had access to a car, although at first there apparently was some question as to whether or not he actually was licensed to drive.

There are lots of mysteries like that surrounding Cleo Sellers, which is one of the reasons why I nominated him to be The Suffolk Times’ Person of the Year. (Yes, I know it is a somewhat unorthodox nomination, but please wait until you’ve finished reading this before deciding how unorthodox.) The editors have given me reason to believe that he was not selected in the end, but still I’d like to sing his praises because, well, they deserve to be sung.

Here, the words of Jaap Hilbrand, co-owner of The Doofpot, the Greenport pottery and ceramics shop: “There is nobody else remotely like Cleo. His work ethic and his honesty are beyond compare. He does things that nobody else will do. He is challenged by the impossible. If someone else says they won’t do it, Cleo makes it a point to do it.”

The things Mr. Sellers does include, but are not limited to, lifting heavy things and handling various chores for area business owners like Mr. Hilbrand and his partner, Maryann Zovko; Aldo Maiorana of Aldo’s coffee shop in Greenport; Arline Marvin of The Cookery Dock in Greenport; David Markel of Markel Estate Liquidator in Southold; and Lori Feilen, who used to own the outdoor furniture shop just east of the 7-Eleven in Southold and continues to employ Mr. Sellers in a variety of capacities.

He also has been known to rake leaves and mow lawns in the Hellenic community of East Marion (using a push lawn mower!), work on a delivery truck between the North Fork and New York City and plant shrubs for an art dealer in Greenport.

He’ll take on just about any job, according to Mr. Hilbrand, and he’ll do it fast and he’ll do it right. Take, for example, those shrubs. It seems Ms. Zovko and her friend had decided to move a very large azalea bush from one side of the yard to another, and they asked Mr. Sellers to give them a hand. Less than an hour later, they asked him when he would be ready to help, and he replied that he’d already done the job, single-handedly. “And he did it perfectly,” Mr. Hilbrand recalls.

Oh, yes, he also has been known to make his own clothes, like the white tuxedo and red cummerbund he once sported when he was tending bar at a local party — even though he eschews alcohol himself.

It was as a driver and messenger for very well-connected individuals in New York that Mr. Sellers first discovered the North Fork some 40 years ago. Today, at an age somewhere in the vicinity of 70, he still lives on Horton’s Lane, where he has life tenancy on property that eventually will go to the Peconic Land Trust.

He grew up in Texas in a family with “at least seven brothers and sisters,” according to Mr. Hilbrand, and he inherited his exemplary work ethic from his father.

“When Cleo does something, he does it right the first time,” the Greenport shop owner said. And as proof, he offers the recording on Mr. Seller’s phone answering machine, which states: “I’ll get back to you when I get back to you… if it is necessary.”

Among Cleo Sellers’ other exemplary qualities, Mr. Hilbrand says, are generosity, discipline and loyalty. And it is this latter quality that perhaps best defines his friend. “The rule Cleo lives by,” Mr. Hilbrand says, “is that if you believe in somebody or something, you stand by that person or that thing until the very end. And that’s what Cleo does.”

Ms. Feilen seconds the motion regarding Cleo Sellers’ loyalty, adding, “Cleo also is disarming, gentle and generous. He will have my support until the day we both pass away.”

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