A Community Lends a Hand for Former Ferry Captain

A fundraiser is under way for Mary Boeklen, right, who lost her husband Bill Boeklen, left, to cancer last summer. Peter Boody photo
A fundraiser is under way for Mary Boeklen, right, who lost her husband Bill Boeklen, left, to cancer last summer. Peter Boody photo

By Peter Boody

A community fund drive is underway to help the widow of Bill Boeklen, a famously cheerful South Ferry captain and former cook at The Corner Bar and the Sag Harbor Golf Club, pay off the mortgage on their house on Shelter Island.

Bill grew up in Sag Harbor, where his mother, sister and two half-brothers live. He was a favorite among ferry riders for his distinctive style of directing drivers aboard: a little two-step, with a dip and disco-style, pistol-fingered, two-handed point, followed by a hearty thumbs up.

“Everyone says I should be at Piccadilly Circus directing traffic or working at an airport,” Mr. Boeklen said in a 2014 interview for The Shelter Island Reporter.

As for his constant good cheer, he said then, “I’ve always been like that. People all my life have always been asking me, ‘Why are you smiling?’”

Mary Boeklen lost him to cancer last summer, 19 years after their whirlwind marriage and 22 days after his diagnosis. A former special education aide at the Shelter Island School, she is a professionally trained hairdresser who works at Cicero’s Barbershop on Shelter Island. She also is a substitute teacher at the Shelter Island School who makes ends meet as a nanny, by selling cosmetics and gold-based savings plans and by helping people manage their bills.

Her son Billy, a varsity basketball star at Shelter Island School, is in his second semester at SUNY Brockport; his younger brother Danny is a junior at the Shelter Island School who drew rave reviews for his performance as Daddy Warbucks in the school’s 2015 production of “Annie Warbucks.”

Bill and Mary bought their house in 2011 for $385,000. The mortgage payment is $2,600 a month. “That was Bill’s paycheck, not my paycheck,” Ms. Boeklen said in a phone interview last week.

She is humbled by the fund drive, she said in an interview last week. “It just shows we’re a family community here,” she said, “and it shows the impact Bill had on the lives of so many people. He was the gatekeeper for so many people. ‘I’ll hold the boat for you,’ he’d say. People come into the barbershop and tell me how much they loved him.”

Spearheaded by South Ferry President Clifford Clark, an elder at the East End Church of Christ on Route 114 where the Boeklens worshipped, the drive’s goal is to raise about $319,000 over three years to pay off the mortgage. Bridgehampton National Bank “is partnering with us in a very aggressive way,” Mr. Clark said, to buy out the Boeklens’ Wells Fargo mortgage and give the fund the time to pay off the balance.

By early February, the fund had passed the $100,000 mark, Mr. Clark said. Donations are being channeled through the church, which allows for them to be tax deductible because it is a 501c3 organization.

The Island Gift of Life Foundation paid $5,400 toward the Boeklens’ medically related expenses not covered by Bill’s insurance, according to Mr. Clark, and a “GoFundMe” campaign soon after his father’s death “got Billy off to college,” Ms. Boeklen said.

Bill was a confirmed bachelor into his 40s. He astounded his friends in 1997 when he called them from Guerney’s Inn to report that he had just tied the knot, four days after seeing Mary again for the first time in years. She had been raised by Bill’s aunt and later his step-mother and father. Bill and Mary had thought of themselves as “foster cousins.”

At 18, she had gone off to Florida, where Bill’s aunt had moved and where her biological grandfather lived. There she trained as a hairdresser, started her career and joined the local Church of Christ. She did not see Bill again until 1997, when she returned to Long Island for a Christmas visit. Town Justice Eddie Burke married them in his office.

In 1998, after Billy was born, Bill began to wonder about his life and all the beer he was peddling at the golf club. Suddenly, he “saw the light,” he recalled in 2014, and had himself baptized at the Church of Christ on Route 114. After getting to know Bill, Mr. Clark offered him a job working the deck on the ferry with the promise of a promotion to captain if he could make the grade, which he did in 2005.

Attorney Eddie Burke Jr., a lifelong family friend from Sag Harbor, said he always looked forward to seeing Bill whenever he headed to the North Fork or Shelter Island on a court date. “We were always happy to see each other. He was such as wonderful presence on the ferry. He was just a wonderful soul and a happy guy, so well respected in his community,” Mr. Burke said.

Life growing up for Bill and his young sister Michelle wasn’t always easy, she remembered last week. “He was very protective of me. The humor and the love he had were just incredible,” she said. “He would do something silly or crazy and never let me feel bad.” He did the same for Michelle’s daughters Melissa, Chelsea and Sydney.

To make a donation to the mortgage fundraiser for Mary and her sons, send a check made out to the East End Church of Christ with “Boeklen” on the memo line to South Ferry, P.O. Box 2024, Shelter Island, NY 11964. Mr. Clark said 100 percent of the proceeds will be applied directly to the mortgage payoff.