06/06/13 3:00pm
06/06/2013 3:00 PM

It was love at first sight.

Well, actually, second sight, because I first set eyes on Greenport in the late ’60s, when I served as a summertime mate on a motorsailer that spent the off-season in one of the huge metal sheds at Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 1977 that the former Joan Giger Walker and I spent any appreciable time in the village, as we investigated the possibility of purchasing The Suffolk Times and The News-Review.

So now it’s been a 35-year love affair with El Greeno, as she is affectionately known in some circles. And we join in celebrating the 175th anniversary of the village’s incorporation, as is currently being chronicled in a multi-part series running in The Times.

Said series would be the official version of Greenport’s history, noteworthy businesses and memorable personalities, and what follows is a highly unofficial version, compiled by me and a few friends who have lived and worked in the village since before Joan and I settled on the North Fork.

The list has been heavily redacted and some names have been changed to protect the reputations of the innocent and not-so-innocent, both living and dead, and I sincerely hope other students of Greenport’s past will share their recollections and anecdotes via email to [email protected]

So, in no particular order:

Lilac, the shoemaker: Pretty much where the ATM machine is located on the side of the Harbourfront Deli, at the northeast corner of Front and First streets, there used to be a sliding glass window inside of which could be found Lilac, the shoemaker. He was a character for sure, and one of his best-known characteristics was never having shoe repairs ready when promised. Legend had it that a Greenport lad dropped his shoes off to be resoled just before being drafted into the Army at the beginning of World War II. And when he returned to the village after the war, he went to Lilac’s to pick up his shoes. Said the shoemaker: “I was just working on them. Come back tomorrow.”

“Frisky,” the film buff: This one I witnessed with my own eyes, so I know it’s true. For a number of holiday seasons, a group of merrymakers and their children would ride around the village in The Suffolk Times delivery van to serenade nursing homes residents, hospital patients and shut-ins with Christmas carols. When we arrived at the home of one such shut-in, an octogenarian widower who lived alone just outside the village boundary, I rushed ahead of the others to make certain he was home to receive us. And what did I espy but “Frisky” glued to his television set, watching an, ahem, adult film. Fortunately, I was able to divert the kids before they made it up onto his porch. And when he greeted us at the door, after having turned off the TV, “Frisky” said simply: “The children didn’t see my program, did they?” Thankfully, they did not. Not to mention ho, ho, ho, “Frisky.”

Mayberry, R.F.D.: Before Southold Town police cars patrolled the village, Greenport had its own police department, which was disbanded at the urging of then-mayor David Kapell. His arguments were mostly financial in nature, but I suspect these three incidents may have contributed to the department’s eventual demise.

1. Officer “Dub” was piloting his cruiser down a narrow stretch of lower Main Street when he ripped off a car door just opened by a woman driver. And when he backed up to check on the damage, he ran over (and killed) the woman’s poodle, which had jumped out of the missing door.

And that’s not all. According to informed sources, “Dub” then tossed the door and the dead dog into the back seat of her car and said: “Get out of town, lady.”

2. During a “stake-out” outside a lady friend’s home, the catalytic converter on a village policeman’s car set a pile of leaves on fire, badly damaging the vehicle in the process.

3. Last but not least, a uniformed patrolman was discovered doing the horizontal bop with yet another lady friend on top of a desk at headquarters. Sayonara, village police.

Businesses least likely to succeed: The bungee jumping operation at Kokomo’s, the club that succeeded Mitchell’s. (See Mitchell’s fire, below.) The clown store. The Eskimo arts store. The X-rated theater at what is today the Greenport Village Cinema. Victoria Village, developer Don King’s (no, not that Don King) well-before-its-time interpretation of an indoor shopping mall (on Front Street!).

Businesses most likely to be missed: Martocchia’s Cigar Store. Rouse’s Deli. Myer’s Bar. The Rhumbline, when owner Bob Copas was still entertaining and/or terrorizing his customers. And speaking of well before its time: The Old Oyster Factory, where sunny, reggae-fueled Sunday afternoons in the early ’80s were as idyllic as any of my personal experience.

Greenport mysteries: What caused the Mitchell’s fire? (Could it have been the anonymous caller who rang my house in Orient before fire trucks even showed up at the scene?) Whatever happened to Luddy, who owned another dubious business, the conch fritter joint on Front Street? (Did he really fall off a boat in Florida or is he still alive and kicking today in the DEA’s witness protection program?) Who trashed Heidi’s ice cream parlor? (Was it really, as many of us suspected at the time, a cabal of village power brokers upset with Heide’s public condemnation of the bid to evict beloved Paul, the blacksmith?) Who killed Carlos DeJesus? (That mystery remains very much alive today, some 47 years after the murder of the Greenport man, thanks in large part to the curiosity of investigative reporter Reynolds Dodson, who died last year. Hopefully, the investigation did not die with him.)

‘Only in Greenport’ moments: How about the time Kofi Annan called the man who bought his Greenport home, Tom Leopold, to ask how he liked the house? Leopold, a comedy writer responsible for some of the classic episodes of “Seinfeld,” thought it was his buddy Harry Shearer trying to imitate Kofi, and almost blurted out something most unfortunate. But he hesitated just long enough to realize that it really was the Secretary General of the United Nations calling to see how he was doing.

Then there was a Major Drug Bust in which dozens of bales of marijuana were off-loaded from a freighter docked by law enforcement officials at Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding. Off-loaded by a team of dreadlocked Rastafarians (!), who most have thought something like: “One bale for Uncle Sam, one bail for me.”

Finally — and, again, I personally witnessed this one — there was the time the al fresco Bastille Day celebration (including a beret-wearing accordionist) at Ile de Beaute, the long-since-defunct French restaurant, was silenced by the passage of about 100 straight-piped Harley-Davidsons roaring down Main Street to Claudio’s.

Only in Greenport, I would maintain. Which is why I will always love this little village so.

[email protected]

04/28/13 6:00am
04/28/2013 6:00 AM

John Miller

My mother, borrowing some folk wisdom from the Disney film “Bambi,” routinely told me when I was a lad that if I couldn’t say anything nice, then I shouldn’t say anything at all. Obviously, at some point over the years, I stopped taking Mom’s (and Bambi’s) advice.

And yet I have something nice to say this week about a man who I had something not so nice to say about in this space not so long ago. The man in question is CBS News correspondent and part-time Shelter Island resident John Miller, who took some grief from me here for a televised report he did on Plum Island that I thought suffered from a rehashing of some oft-told but dubious tales about the island being the birthplace of Lyme disease and the Montauk monster.

After I criticized him here, however, we kissed and made up, after a fashion, and I have admired his work for CBS ever since.

And never have I admired it more than this past Friday night, when he and CBS anchorman Scott Pelley did an outstanding job reporting on the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers implicated in the Boston Marathon bombing.

The former Joan Giger Walker and I had just returned from dinner with friends in Greenport when we turned on our television to scenes of celebration in the streets of Watertown, Mass. The headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen informed us that there had been an arrest in the case, but all we were seeing were flag-waving crowd scenes and policemen honking the horns of their patrol cars. We were desperate to know the who, what, where, when and how, and all we were getting, as we surfed from channel to channel, was more of the same: crowd shots from Watertown.

Until we switched to CBS, that is. In the space of less than 10 minutes, Scott Pelley and John Miller did a superb job of summarizing the story and the situation. Mr. Miller’s reportage, in particular, was most informative, as he called on his insider’s knowledge of law enforcement gained from his years of experience as a police reporter, as an aide to New York City and Los Angeles police commissioner William Bratton and as assistant director for public affairs with the FBI in Washington, D.C.

In other words, the dude has paid his dues. And never was that more apparent than Friday night on national television, when he and Scott Pelley helped make sense of as complex a news story as we’ve seen in this country since 9/11.

I’d never done this before, but I was so impressed with his reporting that at 9:23 p.m. I fired off the following email to the address I had saved after our tête–à–tête over Plum Island: “John: Great job tonight. Your coverage was very best, by far. (We channel surfed for a while before getting the real story from you and Scott.) Well done, sir.”

And now for the truly amazing part of this tale, remembering that this was a man sitting in a CBS-TV network studio in New York City, having just reported what probably will be the story of the year.

At 9:27 p.m., just four minutes after my original email, I get this back from John Miller:

 “Hey! They blocked the road from the Orient Ferry because they thought he might have made it on to the Cross Sound [Ferry]. Do we know if that is true? Thanks for the kind words. ”

Does this guy have sources, or what? Yes, the road had been blocked earlier in the day, and I was astounded that he knew about it at all, given everything that had been going on in Boston that day. And when I responded by sending him a link to Times/Review’s detailed online coverage of the false alarm at Orient Point, he responded again with a simple “Wow.”

Wow is right. I think I have a new favorite television newsman. And his name is no longer Brian Williams.

When I first met Steve Rosin, some 25 years ago, he was working as an apprentice to electrician Sal Prato. Steve would have been about 30 then, and what I remember most was that he was precise in his workmanship and soft spoken in his bearing. What I didn’t know then, but what I came to learn over the next 2 1/2 decades, as he continued to be our electrician of choice both at home and at work, was that he was kind and funny and incredibly reliable. And, by all accounts, he was a loving and devoted husband to Aileen and father to Sascha.

So it is with great sadness that I acknowledge Steve’s untimely passing this week at the age of 55. That is way too soon for a man of his vigor and lust for life, and it’s going to take me some time to make sense of his death. If I ever do.

[email protected]

12/22/12 7:58am
12/22/2012 7:58 AM

A Bushmaster M-4 semi-automatic, similar to the one allegedly used in the Newtown school shootings last week.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

— Second Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution 

“I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

—National Rifle Association
bumper sticker 

So the Bushmaster M-4 semi-automatic carbine that fired 11 lethal bullets into the body of a 6-year-old last Friday in Newtown, Conn. was legally purchased and licensed by the killer’s mother. Oh, isn’t that reassuring.

And where will it happen next time — and there will be a next time, there’s always a next time — a nursing home? Or the halls of Congress? It’s not a question of when, only of where.

This madness must stop, and it’s perfectly clear to me where we must start. And it’s not with better mental health screening or with better security in schools or, as some idiots have suggested, with arming school principals.

We must start by banning the ownership of semi-automatic (and automatic) weapons by private citizens. Period.

Screw the Second Amendment. We no longer have a “well regulated Militia.” Nowhere is it written that we have a right to own weapons of mass destruction. The guns Adam Lanza wielded last week — and I’m talking about both the rifle and the two semi-automatic pistols — should be available only to military and law enforcement personnel. And the ones already in circulation should be subject to a buyback program like the one that worked so successfully in Australia after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

And that’s not all we should do. No one who walks into a gun show should be able to walk out with a new gun. Anyone who purchases a new gun should be subject to a reasonable waiting period — during which his or her background should be properly vetted — before taking possession of that gun. And the vetting doesn’t have to be that complex. In Canada, they require gun purchasers to provide two personal references, which probably would have stopped the obviously troubled Adam Lanza in his tracks … if his mother hadn’t purchased those assault weapons legally. Which is exactly my point. Those guns never should have been available to her.

To do what I’m suggesting will, of course, involve a direct confrontation with those defenders of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association. Bring it on. In the wake of this epidemic of mass killings in America, the NRA can no longer be considered viable or relevant. If it doesn’t moderate its position, these treacherous assault weapons must be pried from the organization’s cold, dead hands.

The U.S. Constitution is not, and was never intended to be, inviolate. It has, and it must, change with the times. Government must have the power to regulate assault weapons — just as it has the power to ban smoking in public places or require the use of seat belts — neither of which could have been foreseen by our founding fathers. (Also, see suffrage for women and the abolition of slavery.)

I had hoped President Obama would address the gun control issue when he spoke in Newtown Sunday night. His remarks were sensitive and consoling, but I think he missed, once again, an opportunity to say what must be said. I kept thinking to myself, “OK, Mr. President, but what are you going to DO? Specifically, what are you going to DO?”

If Barack Obama is the man I think he is, the man I hope he is, the man I’ve voted for two times now, he ultimately will be remembered as the president who led the fight to bring some sanity to the issue of gun ownership in America.

[email protected]

05/31/12 2:00am
05/31/2012 2:00 AM

It could well have been a riff from the late, great Gilda Radner’s “Saturday Night Live” days and her classic character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Only this time it wasn’t Mr. Richard Feder from Fort Lee, N.J., who had written in, it was his possibly very-distant relative Ms. Jenny Feder of Greenport, N.Y. (“Ka-ching,” May 24.)

And I quote: “I am dismayed by the Suffolk Times’ willingness to repeatedly publish lunatic rantings on its letters page.

“It must sell papers for them. (Why publish otherwise?)

“On the upside, these embarrassing spewfests are also magic fundraising tools.

“Every time J.C. of East Marion writes another letter, ka-ching, money for the Democrats …”

Busted, again. Why, of course, that’s obviously why The Suffolk Times regularly publishes the pointed offerings of East Marion’s man of letters, John Copertino — to sell newspapers and to not-so-secretly attempt to help its favorite political party.


Let me say that I have the utmost respect for the artistic talents of Ms. Feder, whose marvelous, whimsical constructions of miniature houses are on display in our home and the homes of both of our daughters. But I do have a substantive problem with her conclusions in this instance.

For the record, we publish J.C.’s letters because one of our primary responsibilities as a news organization is to provide a public forum for the dissemination of opinions, no matter how objectionable others may find them. And then, of course, there is something known as the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the right of Americans to freely express their opinions. And traditionally, newspapers have been a forum for the public expression of those opinions.

Having said that, however, I think it probably is time to revisit our policy on the allowable length of letters to the editor and the frequency with which individual letter writers can expect to have their letters published. There is a danger, and obviously Ms. Feder agrees, that certain letter writers, including the aforementioned J.C., have tended to dominate our letters pages in recent times. And the fault is entirely ours, not theirs, because we set and enforce the policy.

There have been times over the years when our policy has been quite different from what it currently is. For instance, there was a time when letters commenting on national or international issues weren’t published. We intended the letters pages, like all other content in the paper, to be strictly local. But over time, that policy seemed unreasonably restrictive, and we changed it to the point that in some weeks now the letters page could be mistaken for the International Herald Tribune’s.

We also have imposed limits on the length of letters. And although no such limits are cited in the letters policy published periodically — but not consistently — on the letters page, the Times/Review website states the following policy:

“All letters addressed and written exclusively to the editors of The Suffolk Times, the Riverhead News-Review & the Shelter Island Reporter will be published, space permitting, except assertions judged to be libelous; letters about private, personal disputes, unless they are judged to be of significant community interest; and thank-you letters, which may be held to allow opinion letters to appear.

“Third-party letters, such as copies of letters sent to town officials or other parties, will not be published unless they are revised as letters to the editor. Letters should be brief and to the point and must not exceed a maximum of 350 words. Letters are subject to editing for length and clarity. All letters must bear the name of the writer. Use of a pseudonym is not permitted. A mailing address and phone number are required for verification, but will not be published.

“Submission by email with an attached text file is preferred. Letters may also be hand-delivered to our office at 7785 Main Road, Mattituck, N.Y.

“There is no deadline for letters; they will be published in the next available edition as space allows.”

A 350-word limit, huh? Tell that to the gent whose 456-word letter on the 2012 presidential race was published in last week’s Suffolk Times.

Accordingly, and in no small part due to Jenny Feder’s prompting, our letters to the editor policy will be reviewed, revised and hopefully applied consistently, so help me James Madison.

05/03/12 5:00pm
05/03/2012 5:00 PM

Suffolk Times editor Tim Kelly jokingly refers to it as “The People’s Republic of Oysterponds.” His point, I think, is that the residents of Orient, in particular, and East Marion, almost as often, have their own unique way of thinking and of doing things — whether it relates to issues as far ranging as ferry traffic, access to Long Beach, new age health spas, public water supplies or, most recently, freedom of educational choice.

Full disclosure: The former Joan Giger Walker and I are 34-year residents of said People’s Republic. We sent both of our daughters to Oysterponds Elementary School and later to Greenport High School. (In fact, we decided to settle in Orient primarily because of the excellence of the little public school.) And two of our grandchildren currently attend Oysterponds.

So it was with a certain degree of self-interest that we agreed recently to place a “Please vote YES on the School Budget” sign in the front yard of our home in Orient. And a certain degree of anger when someone took it upon themselves to remove the sign. (Hey, Bozo, that’s trespassing!)

To date, I have refrained from expressing an opinion on the current controversy, but that trespasser has got my dander up, as they say. So here goes:

Pass the budget, stupid. The kids currently attending Oysterponds will suffer the most if the budget goes down. And any attempt to link it (the budget) to the upcoming referendum on high school choice only obfuscates matters.

And you can forget the idea of closing Oysterponds and consolidating elementary districts with Greenport. Oysterponds has been historically, and continues to be, an amazing little haven for turning out well-educated, well-rounded 12-year-olds. And if you doubt that, just track Oysterponds graduates’ levels of achievement and advancement through Greenport High School and beyond.

Now are you ready for a big surprise? I’ve changed my mind over the years on the question of giving Oysterponds students a choice of attending a high school other than Greenport. I used to think it was a no-brainer: choice, of course. But now I’m not so certain. And that’s not only because of the obvious reason — that the removal of Oysterponds students would undo generations of tradition and simply devastate Greenport High School.

As much of a concern is the impact it would have on the communities of Orient and East Marion. It’s bound to have a deleterious affect if kids who grow up next door to each other, and attend elementary school together, end up taking buses to different high schools. And to ask district taxpayers to underwrite that bisection of the community is unfair and unwarranted.

No, if you live in Orient or East Marion and want your child to attend high school elsewhere, you must be prepared to do one of four things: accept the status quo, home school your child, pony up the tuition for the private or public school of your child’s choice or pick up stakes and move your family to the school district that best meets your child’s needs.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but it does seem the most equitable resolution for all concerned.

[email protected]

03/29/12 7:00am
03/29/2012 7:00 AM

I have decided to get my Obama birth certificate T-shirt back out of the drawer, where it has been tucked away for the last year or so, and start wearing it again in public.

You know, now that the weather has turned from winter into spring, the recent temporary cold snap not withstanding. Think I’ll work on my tan, stir things up a little now that the Republican presidential candidates have taken a break in the ritual of eviscerating one another.

You know the T-shirt I’m taking about, right? The one with an image of the president’s birth certificate on the back and the words

“Made in the USA” emblazoned on the front.

I wore it proudly for a while during the B.S. controversy over his citizenship, then tucked it away in a drawer when the electricity, hope and optimism of election night 2008 began to fade. It turned out he wasn’t really our knight in shining armor.

Like all politicians, he made compromises. He stumbled out of the blocks, reneging on some of his promises. (And if they weren’t promises, they were certainly intimations. As with Afghanistan, offshore drilling, alternative energy and Cuba.)

So the T-shirt got packed away. But now it’s time to get it out again because I’ve heard what the Republicans have been saying during the primaries and I’m not buying it.

In the end, it comes down to this: three and one-half years into Obama’s presidency, America is decidedly and demonstrably in better shape than when he entered office.

Let us count the ways.

The Republicans tell us the Detroit bailout was unfair to car company shareholders. Reality tells us the bailout was integral to the current economic recovery (lower unemployment, rallying markets, renewed confidence across the board). And can you imagine what kind of shape our national economy would be in today if the feds had allowed Chrysler to fail? Let us shudder at the thought.

The banking and housing industries were in a state of free fall. Both have been stabilized and continue trending upward.

Osama bin Laden was pacing the grounds of his walled compound in Pakistan. Now he’s not.

The war in Iraq still was raging. Now it’s not.

In Afghanistan, there was no end in sight. Now our troops are being withdrawn methodically and should be out entirely by the end of next year.

Our national health care system — or, more accurately, the lack of one — was a global embarrassment. Now, unless the Supreme Court screws things up, Obamacare can begin bringing affordable, comprehensive health care to all levels of society.

Almost everywhere you look, we as a people are in better shape than when George W. Bush was in office. And speaking of the 43rd president, can anyone really argue successfully that the office of the presidency and the perception of our nation around the world have suffered with Obama having replaced Bush at the helm? No, I didn’t think so.

And do you really, truly believe things will be better under President Romney, President Santorum or President Gingrich? No, I didn’t think so.

As it turns out, Barack Obama is not the answer to all our prayers. But he’s done a solid job under extremely difficult circumstances, and he’s earned another four years to finish the job.

Now where’s that T-shirt?

[email protected]

02/15/12 5:00am
02/15/2012 5:00 AM

If things go as planned Wednesday night, this is the last column I will ever write about Robert Waterhouse.

I say that mostly for those readers who believe The Suffolk Times has devoted too much ink over the years to the two-time convicted murderer from Greenport, and also because his life story is scheduled to come to a conclusive end at 6 p.m. Wednesday, when a representative of the State of Florida is scheduled to inject a lethal cocktail into his veins until he stops breathing.

As this is written earlier in the week, there still exists the remote possibility that the execution at the Florida State Prison in Raiford will be halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, but don’t count on it. Robert Waterhouse has danced with his own death since 1980, when he was convicted of murder for the second time and, in one sense, he’ll be getting his own wish, albeit 27 years late.

And that’s because when I interviewed Mr. Waterhouse on Florida’s death row in 1985 he had this to say: “If they overturn the [death] sentence, I’m not really crazy about that. I’d just as soon go out like I’m sitting here now; in other words, let them execute me. If they force 25 years to life on me, I’d be 58 years old before I saw the parole board, and still owe New York life parole. No way.

I’d just as soon get it over with.”

He continued: “If they did force [a life sentence] on me, and then threw me out in the general [prison] population, just give me a couple of days. I’ll be at the fence and they’ll have to kill me.”

(Food for thought: 65-year-old Robert Waterhouse has been on death row for nearly 32 years — at a cost to Florida taxpayers in excess of $3 million, not including the state’s legal expenses. Also, as widely reported in Florida earlier this month, he will have lingered on death row longer than any of the previous 276 people executed by the state; and just 18 of the 395 people currently on death row have been there longer.)

I had hoped to interview Mr. Waterhouse again earlier this month, but he canceled at the last minute, and now I know why, as detailed in his letter of Feb. 4. It was because he was mad about the column I wrote on Jan. 19, which said, among other things, that imagining myself in the place of the father of the 29-year-old woman he was convicted of murdering in Florida in 1980, I could see myself “embracing the Biblical concept of an eye for an eye.”

And that wasn’t his only problem with the column. He also cited a factual error — wherein I referenced a retrial that was, in fact, a resentencing — and he complained about my quoting from his Jan. 10 letter to me about witnessing the execution, as follows:

“Nothing very exciting about watching someone go to sleep, but whatever. Now if they were still using the electric chair you might get a real show … I would surely think the hometown paper should get an automatic seat [at the execution], of course.”

There is no “automatic seat,” but I have applied for and received approval to attend the execution as a “media witness.”

And this is why I will attend:

When Robert Waterhouse murdered 77-year-old Greenport resident Ella Mae Carter in 1966, it was news. When he was convicted of that murder, it was news. When he was paroled in 1975, it was news. When he murdered again in Florida, it was news. When he was convicted and sentenced to death, it was news. And when he’s put to death Wednesday night, it will be news. First and foremost, The Suffolk Times is a newspaper, and we cover the news — even when it ultimately leads to a windowless room in north central Florida.

And there’s something else. When I met him for the first and only time in 1985, Mr. Waterhouse, for whatever reason, asked me, as a representative of his hometown newspaper, to witness his execution, which was scheduled to take place within weeks of the interview. I remember hesitating for a moment, then saying I would attend. On Wednesday night, 27 years later, I plan to keep my word.

This, too, from Robert Waterhouse’s last letter to  me: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to answer the lengthy list of questions you sent to me. Now that I’m down to two weeks, the process requires more of my time. So in the time I have to myself I intend to write my wife, listen to some music and watch a little TV.”

[email protected]

05/19/11 5:43am
05/19/2011 5:43 AM

I sometimes get the feeling that I’ve written the same column before — it’s a combination of advanced age and the act of having penned about a thousand of these things since 1977 — and this is one such occasion.

With a twist: I did, in fact, pen the following column last year, and I’ve chosen to reprint it now because its subject, Orient sculptor Robert Berks, died this week at the age of 89.

So, then, as previously reported in the April 15, 2010, edition of The Suffolk Times:

When I think of people with big brains, our Orient neighbor, Bob Berks, inevitably comes to mind. I’m pretty sure he’s a member of the Mensa Society, the organization for those with off-the-charts IQs. To spend five minutes talking to him (or, more accurately, being talked to by him) at a cocktail party is to appreciate the fact that his intellect operates on a totally different, and higher, plane than the intellects of the rest of us.

And his brain isn’t the only thing that’s big about Bob. He’s also got huge talent, and qualifies as one of the premiere American sculptors of his generation. His monumental pieces of historical figures from JFK to Einstein to Mr. Rogers are at once humane and eminently accessible, and he has remained active and productive well into his ninth decade. (Bob celebrates his 88th birthday on April 26.)

Perhaps his most ambitious project called for installing 1,000 life-size, copper bison on a 370-acre parcel of land owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management near Lander, Wyoming. The project eventually was scrubbed due to environmental concerns. But if you require proof that I’m not making this up, just drive by Bob’s studio on Halyoke Avenue in Orient. There you will see, facing into the wind, just as Bob intended, a prototype of the buffalo he envisioned installing in the back country of west-central Wyoming. All that’s missing in the yard immediately east of his studio are the solitary bison’s 999 compatriots.

And if that particular artistic endeavor isn’t grand enough for you, Bob had a companion vision for the Wyoming project — placing the herd of a thousand bison within the outline of a line drawing of a buffalo carved into a field of grain by harvesting machines — and all on a scale large enough to be visible from outer space. (I kid you not.) Just further proof that Bob Berks thinks big. Very big.

And why have I chosen to write at this particular juncture about Bob Berks and his oversize intellect and talent? One obvious reason is Joyce Beckenstein’s profile of Bob that appears on Page 1A of today’s Suffolk Times. Another has to do with the fact that the month of April has special significance insofar as Bob’s relationship with another North Fork genius, Albert Einstein, is concerned. According to Tod Berks, Einstein first “sat” for Berks on April 18, 1953, and Berks’ statue of Einstein in Washington, D.C., was dedicated 15 years later, on April 20, 1978.

But there’s a third reason, and it has to do with the fact that Bob has “put away his clay,” in Tod’s words, to concentrate on putting in proper order the archives and innumerable documents of his life’s work. And, quite simply, I wanted to say something nice about the man while he’s still around to read it.

So, happy birthday and many thanks for the memories, neighbor.

[email protected]

10/13/10 5:31pm
10/13/2010 5:31 PM

I love Mitchell Park, I really do. It is the centerpiece of the Village of Greenport. Its heart and soul.
And at no time was this more self-apparent than during the recent Maritime Festival, when the park bustled from dawn to dusk with activities, from the marina to the carousel, from the boardwalk to the pirates’ temporary playhouse.
I’m old enough to remember the fire that destroyed the original Mitchell’s, and the years of confusion and inactivity that followed. And the relief and appreciation that followed the international design competition that resulted in the park we all know (and most of us love).
And that is why I’m concerned about a series of changes, some of them small, made to the park over the last few years, changes that could be at odds with the original design by the firm now known as SHoP Architects.
As you may recall, the awarding of the bid to the firm then known as Sharples did not come easily. It followed months of intense debate within the village and, in fact, the contract went to the firm ranked third by the competition judges. And because the Sharples design was contemporary ­— not the Mystic Seaport-inspired theme many people favored — the park remained somewhat controversial after it was finished.
But is it finished? Not really, judging by the aforementioned changes, including, but not limited to, the addition of restrooms, the installation of the Rotary clock and George Hubbard memorial tree, and the extension of the harbor walk to link up with the Chowder Pot Pub. (There also are some lingering concerns about upkeep and maintenance of the park facilities themselves, the boardwalk light boxes in particular.)
(Disclosure: At the west end of the harbor walk, the storage of two traditional rowing dories, one of them sponsored by The Suffolk Times, is one of the small changes that has taken place on an impromptu basis.)
Although none of these changes is, in and of itself, a Big Problem, collectively they add up to a pattern that suggests that nobody — including SHoP Architects — is overseeing future development of the park to ensure that it is consistent with the original design and vision. And that’s most ironic because almost exactly two years ago village attorney Joseph Prokop created a nonprofit entity presumedly designed for that purpose.
So far, Mr. Prokop has not returned several of my phone calls, but Friends of Mitchell Park was registered with the New York Department of State on Oct. 8, 2008, and I’m told, by an informed source, was funded with a $600,000 bequest from the will of Richard Mitchell, an heir of the family that operated the restaurant/motel/marina before the aforementioned 1978 fire.
But as far as I can tell, the Friends have never convened nor spent a dime, and nobody (except, presumably, Mr. Prokop) seems to know why — including Mayor David Nyce, who referred me to Mr. Prokop when I inquired this week about the Friends.
I am not suggesting that anything untoward has transpired, only that it’s far past time to appoint an independent board to oversee the future and the fortunes of Mitchell Park. That way, perhaps the restroom building would have been sited where Sharples originally wanted it, behind the post office, not obscuring the harbor view; the style of the Rotary clock would have complemented, not clashed with, the contemporary design of the carousel; the Hubbard tree would not have been placed in such a way that it will, presumably, grow to block the view of the carousel from Front Street; and the Chowder Pot boardwalk would be consistent with the overall vision, not an ad hoc addition approved only by the Village Board. At a minimum, this extension should have been designed to complement the park.
Architect Bill Sharples did return my call this week, and he is not alarmed that his firm has not been consulted about changes and additions to the park. That’s not unusual, he says, particularly when there has been a change in administrations.
But he does add these cautionary words: “Mitchell Park is built out. One more building would compromise it.”
Calling all friends of Mitchell Park.
[email protected]