Following cancer scare, former Greenport principal finds solace in music

JULIE LANE PHOTO Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik finds music relaxes him. Over his shoulder is a picture of the World Trade Center towers where he helped with iron work on the pile at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks.
Shelter Island Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik finds music relaxes him. Over his shoulder is a picture of the World Trade Center towers where he worked on the pile at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks. (Credit: Julie Lane)

If Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik has been under pressure in the past couple of months preparing his first-time budget for the Shelter Island School District, it’s nothing compared to what he’s been through. And as with past pressures, music is his escape.The former Greenport High School principal describes his falling in love with playing music as “a long progressive start” that began in high school with writing lyrics.

“I’d hear those lyrics in my head” and transcribe them to paper, but when the process was done, what he had was poetry.

“Poetry wasn’t cool in high school,” he said, explaining why he tossed away those early efforts.

But a poet he met later advised him to keep his work. He began a book of lyrics, still with no thought about putting them to music. In college, he even signed up for a poetry course — but still, no music.

Then seven years ago, he had a stop-in-your-tracks moment when doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering discovered a tumor,diagnosed cancer  and outlined a course of treatment that would begin with surgery. The prognosis wasn’t promising.

That’s when one of his aunts, thinking it would help distract him, bought him a guitar and told him it was time he learned to play. He grabbed the instrument and started to learn some chords and found that it did, indeed, provide the escape from the frightening medical journey ahead of him.

He tried matching some of the songs he strummed to lyrics he had written earlier, but it just wasn’t coming together.

Instead, with his new-found strumming ability, he began writing lyrics to the music he was producing.

He took some teasing from his wife, Jenellen, about early songs he’d written when she told him he had never written a song just for her.

“I wrote all of them for you,” he responded. “I just didn’t know it at the time,”

“Smooth talker,” she said. But she finally got her husband to write a lovely ballad just for her.

Ultimately, surgeons removed a sizable tumor and Mr. Skuggevik waited, growing increasingly anxious about his health, but still taking solace in his music.

Finally, his doctor called, apologizing for what had been a long delay and brought some strange but great news. Doctors had sent the tumor to 11 of the best laboratories in the nation. All returned the same results: Mr. Skuggevik never had cancer.

What did he have? No one knows.

Months later, a friend asked him if he had ever disclosed to the doctors that he had worked at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers.

Despite Jenellen’s objections, he was determined, as a former military man, that the moment the towers fellto either join the army or go  to Ground Zero and help with the clean up  She relented and he spent time as an ironworker on the pile.

On a shelf in his office, he still has the hard hat, gloves and mask he wore, but admitted that the mask would become stifling and he took it off.

Had he known facts since revealed about the air quality at Ground Zero, he would not have been so brazen, he said.

Was that what led to the tumor? He’ll likely never know.

The entire experience left him with the knowledge that music is the one means to help reduce tension.

Prior to meetings with the Shelter Island Board of Education to work out the budget, he can often be heard in his office strumming his guitar and singing.

He’s also left with a guiding principal that informs everything he does: “Life is too short. Make it count.”

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