A Walk Down Memory Lane with Marge Winski — Keeper of the Light

Valerie Bando-Meinken

Although Marge Winski has never imaged herself as a princess in a tower, she has spent almost every night since 1987 living in the second-floor apartment of the Montauk Lighthouse. As caretaker of the lighthouse, Winski has watched over the tower since the Coast Guard automated its beacon in February 1987.

Two months later, when the Montauk Historical Society leased the lighthouse, turning it into a museum, Winski submitted a proposal to become its next keeper. Her proposal was accepted, and she has been there ever since.

“I always wanted to live in a lighthouse!” Winski exclaimed. “You’re very isolated up here, but I like the solitude. I’m a naturalist and enjoy the wonders of all the nature around me. This is still a pristine area. It’s a wonderfully beautiful place. It’s where the ocean and the land meet. It’s almost magical, in a way.”

“Over the years, I learned to tell time from the migration patterns of the many species of fish, whales, and birds and knew that on every tax day, April 15, the sun would move on the horizon to a point where my bedroom would be filled with the golden glowing light from the sunrise. I’ve seen every sunrise from this tower,” she said as we sat on the front steps of the iconic lighthouse.

Sitting atop the Montauk Point bluff, the lighthouse has no protection against hurricanes, Nor’easters, and the squalls that regularly engulf it. “I was here during hurricane Sandy,” she recalled. “The winds were over 100 mph, and the tower was actually vibrating.”

She acknowledged that she loves snowstorms here, too. “I like to go up to the lens room. It’s a full 360-degree panoramic view. I love to watch the snow swirling all around me,” said Winski. She chuckled and added, “It’s like being in a snow globe. Lightning storms are also amazing.”

The Point has its own micro-climate, she said, “and things can change very rapidly. That’s why the lighthouse needs a keeper. Someone needs to make sure that it isn’t damaged by the weather or any other type of catastrophe, and that it isn’t vandalized, since it is in such an isolated area.”

Living in Montauk most of her life, she attended the Montauk School and went to high school in East Hampton. Southampton College of Long Island University followed, where she studied biology, specifically, wildlife biology. After graduation in 1978, she took a position with the Puffin Project in Maine, whose goal was to bring puffins and other types of seabirds back to the Maine coast.

In 1979, she joined the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, dedicated to the preservation of cranes and the ecosystems that these birds depend upon. Two years later, she traveled back to New York to join the Peregrine Falcon Foundation, which sought to re-introduce these falcons to New York City.

“Our work area, where we kept the falcons, was on top of the Con Edison building in Manhattan and I was living in the Gramercy Park Hotel during the time,” Winski said. “When I left there, I came back to Montauk and took a position in the post office and later submitted my proposal to be the lighthouse keeper. The rest is history!”

Winski has met a lot of interesting people as keeper of the light, including celebrity couple Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban. “I gave them a tour of the lighthouse. Another time, Admiral Robert Kramek, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, showed up for a tour.” It seems everyone is fascinated by the lighthouse. “They always ask me what it’s like living here. They always think of a princess being in a tower, like Rapunzel,” she said with a laugh.

Kate, Winski’s huge Newfoundland puppy, lay nearby as the lighthouse keeper reminisced about the two times she found a message-in-a-bottle along the beach.

One, she said, “had a very poetic message and turned out to be an English professor. For about seven years we wrote back and forth to each other. The second bottle came from a man in a religious group that travels all over the world. We communicated for a long time and his daughter actually came to Montauk to meet me.”

Winski has also seen a few shipwrecks in her time. “The craziest was when a houseboat washed up in Turtle Cove,” she said. “It was a houseboat! I don’t know what they were doing out in the ocean. The man, who only spoke German, had his mother on board, and she was so upset she started to have heart problems.” According to Winski, “even when the rescue workers were taking the guy’s mother in the ambulance, he wouldn’t go because he didn’t want to leave the boat.”

On the verge of retirement now, at 62, Winski feels she is ready to start a new chapter in her life. She plans on writing a book to answer the question everyone always asks her, “What’s it like to live in a lighthouse?”

Winski admits that she will miss meeting the incredible people who are drawn to the lighthouse. But she looks forward to moving into her new home on the coast of Maine.

“I found my dream house,” she said. “One room has shelving for my 5000 books. I love to read and keep all the books I’ve read. The house is on the beach and when you look across the water, you can see the lighthouse, which is owned by the artist Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie. I feel the need to always be near the water and I have the added bonus of the view of the lighthouse.”

“Odd things happen in the universe. When the house went on the market, I just knew I was meant to live there,” she concluded.

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