“You never get away from that thing in your hometown that it has over you. You don’t outgrow where you come from.” -Brian Fallon
I guess you could say that I ‘knew Fred Thiele when…’ I grew up in a rustic Sag Harbor with dozens of cousins who ran about freely over marsh grass, wooded paths and back roads-on bikes and skateboards, wearing Keds that we bought at Ivan’s Shoe Store. My cousin, Mike Remkus, was a bit older than I, and I knew his best friend was Fred Thiele who lived over on Burke Street. Fred graduated from Pierson High School and went on to have his name about town on bumper stickers and political campaign posters. There’s been a pride in saying ‘I knew him when’ and watching his career flourish into 12 terms as State Assemblyman.
I think of Fred when I’m hiking in Long Pond Green Belt and sitting on the bench dedicated to the work he’s done to preserve this precious stretch of land. Though he frequently travels to Albany, when returning to the village each time, Fred drives the loop around the flagpole on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, always happy to be home.
“I got choked up when I spoke at the lighting of the Sag Harbor movie theater’s sign,” he tells me. “There is something amazing about the theater. It’s where visitors take their pictures. When I was a kid, it’s where I’d go to the Saturday matinee for 35 cents. The building is like an anchor. It’s nice to know it’s on its way back. Seeing the sign lit was a big deal.”
Fred’s ancestors on his mother’s side arrived to the North Fork of Long Island from Poland in the 1890’s. “Most of them were potato farmers,” said Fred. “But my grandfather John Mysliborski was an electrician. He helped to build the Panama Canal, and when he came home, he was the original Long Island Lighting Company. His nickname was Johnny Jump-Up because he would jump up the telephone poles and fix the wires.” Fred’s father’s family immigrated from Germany and came to Sag Harbor via Lindenhurst. One relative on his father’s side was from the Azores and came to Sag Harbor to work in the whaling industry.
Growing up beside his sister, Laurie, and his mom and dad, Fred lived in a house on Burke Street that once belonged to a whaling captain. Since the age of seven or eight, Fred was interested in public service. “No one in my family was involved in politics, but around our house and at the dinner table, my father always talked about current events: the civil rights movement and the Kennedys. I loved it, and I was always interested in it. I was class president in Pierson High School and went to college for Political Science; then I went to Law School. I used to think like George Bailey in the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. He had said, ‘I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world.’ But George stayed and did great things. You get out and travel, and then you realize that there’s no better place to live and raise your family than Sag Harbor.”
Fred went on to have three children and three grandchildren and still lives in the home in the village that his family moved into when he was fifteen. “Growing up in Sag Harbor was great. The community was so close, and we always felt safe. We’d go out all day on our bikes and come home in time for dinner. There would be a game of ‘sponge-ball’ in St. Andrew’s parking lot or a game of wiffle-ball in someone’s backyard. Activities were less structured, and parents didn’t have to worry. I remember stopping by Harry Youngs’ Bike Shop on Main Street to get a new tire or fix a chain. My father worked for Bohack’s Grocery Store in Sag Harbor and East Hampton for over 30 years. I can still see the butcher shop there with the sawdust on the floor. Sometimes I wish I could walk into a Bohack’s just once more. There’s something special about walking on Main Street. There’s a memory around every corner.”
When discussing all of the changes on Main Street, Fred mused, “It’s changed a lot. Some changes have been good; some we all lament. Everything changes — life, community, nothing is static. What’s important is how we manage that change. In the 1970’s we went through a period that basically every third storefront was closed, many of the historic homes were in disrepair. People couldn’t afford to keep them up. Not all of the good old days were good. Main Street is thriving now. Some of the changes are good; some of them haven’t been. We need more affordable housing to help young families live here. It’s hard for our children and our grandchildren to stay. Real estate has gotten so expensive. But the soul of our community is strong. We come together in difficult times.”
When asked about some of Fred’s favorite Sag Harbor memories, he recalled, “One of the things I love about Sag Harbor that hasn’t really changed is the Memorial Day Parade. Basically, it’s a Norman Rockwell painting. It is just about the same today as it was when I was young. I would march with the Cub Scouts or Little League, along with my father who was a charter member of the American Legion. It’s timeless. We never forget those who have given their lives for our country. I remember Bob Beyer playing taps and then his son Brad Beyer — it’s continuity. It says something about our village, and what’s important. That’s what I love about Sag Harbor.”
One of the things that Fred most enjoys is walking at Long Beach; “I try to walk six miles a day and more on the weekends. Other than the physical activity and calorie burn, it is time to think, and contemplate and exhale a little bit. My greatest memory of my mom, that has stuck with me, is spending the day with her there on the beach. It’s a special place. It’s so nice to see all the people enjoying the sunsets.”
As State Assemblyman, Fred is busy taking care of the area from Montauk to the William Floyd Parkway — a 60-to-70 mile stretch including many towns and villages. “It’s like being a parent. You try to love all of your children equally, but Sag Harbor always holds a special place in my heart. I think of the things I’ve been involved in — helping secure the Sag Harbor Golf Club, acquiring state grants for the movie theater, overseeing acquisition of some of the Long Pond Greenbelt, the community preservation act, the Long Wharf renovation, resources for the YARD program. I’m glad I was in office and could help with these things. I love what I’m doing, and I want to keep doing it. I don’t take it for granted. I still think it’s an honor to represent in state government the people I grew up with and the place I love. I still have a passion for it. I can’t wait to get to the office in the morning.”
It is hopeful that each one of us picks our path, follows our passion and somehow come together to form a community. Fred has followed his dream, and we are grateful that he represents us in Albany and helps take care of HOME.