Dan Rattiner's Stories

Meet the New Montauk Lighthouse Keeper: Former Businessman Joe Gaviola

Gavolia has a long relationship with the historic structure where he'll now live.

The Montauk Lighthouse was ordered built by George Washington in 1796. The war was over by that time and he was President. He felt that a light at the tip of Long Island needed to be built to warn mariners off the shore. It’s still there.

The first Lighthouse Keeper was Jacob Hand of East Hampton. It was a lonely business. But somebody had to be there to aid any mariners in distress, provide shelter, food and water for them and get help. He also had to replenish the whale oil that lit the lens of the light in the tower when the time came and every week he needed to wind the mechanism that turned the light around. There was also the foghorn to maintain and sound when necessary.

Jacob Hand was reprimanded by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. Jacob had wanted to turn the job over to his son, Jared, without his son taking any competitive exam. Eventually, Jared did take the test and passed it. He took over in 1812.

It’s 120 steps up the octagon stone tower to the top. And that’s where most of the keeper’s business has to be done. Living quarters for the keeper and his family are in a separate building attached to the tower. There are two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. Supplies in those early days came out by horse and wagon. Being the Lighthouse Keeper was a government position.

I may have met the last person actually born in the Lighthouse. When I bought my house in East Hampton in 1977, it was one of two fishing camps side-by-side on two separate pieces of property. No one seemed to be living in the other fishing camp, but one day I spotted a man mowing the lawn there. I waved to him to say hello and we met at the hedge.

He was Jonathan Miller, about 50 years old at that time. I found him very quiet and mild mannered. But he told me about himself. His father, Captain John E. Miller, had been the Lighthouse Keeper, and his mother gave birth to him out there in 1921.

He’d grown up there, was home-schooled by his mom and went off to college to study engineering. He worked for GE in Syracuse when I met him, which is why I hadn’t seen him around. He only came down to this fishing camp for two weeks in the summer, his summer vacation. Then maybe another weekend toward the end of summer. He lived alone. But he had had a son, now grown.

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Mr. Miller continued to come out to the camp for his vacation for about 10 more years. But then he stopped. I was told he had retired from GE and was living in Stuart, Florida. Since he was no longer using the camp, I thought I’d like to buy it and make the two properties one. I wrote him letters, but he never answered any of them. I did finally get a letter from his son, who told me his dad had become a recluse and was out of contact with everyone. And no, the property was not for sale.

This month, a new Lighthouse Keeper is taking over the job out there. A woman named Marge Winski has been the Lighthouse Keeper, living on that second floor, for the last 31 years, but she is now moving to Maine.

The new Lighthouse Keeper, who will be living out there alone, is 61-year-old Joe Gaviola, an ardent fisherman and businessman. He is retiring from the corporate world, where he was an investment advisor and corporate executive. For the past six years he has been the Chairman of the Board of Suffolk Bancorp in Riverhead. And before that he ran Inspiration Resources, a company with interests in the mining business. Offices were at 250 Park Avenue in Manhattan.

“The job just came up when Marge left,” he told me. “I will be living there full-time. You can’t leave the lighthouse unattended. Though it is all automated now, at night when no one is around, someone has to be there. There are valuable historic documents at the Lighthouse. There could be boat owners in distress. Sometimes people come on the grounds who have no business there.

“I’m divorced. My two daughters are grown. This will be a dream for me, living at the lighthouse. I get a thrill every time I go up the hill to it. I know its history, was active in the effort of the Montauk Historical Society in buying it from the Coast Guard in 1987. My time is my own since my divorce, and especially since Suffolk Bancorp was taken over by People’s United Bank last year.”

“Is there WiFi?” I asked. “A phone? Cable?”

“Yup.”

“Are there fireplaces there?”

Montauk Lighthouse Keeper Joe Gaviola at his new home
Montauk Lighthouse Keeper Joe Gaviola at his new home, Photo: Dan Rattiner

“Two. They heated the living quarters. It hasn’t been much modified since about 1850. There is old electric wiring, which we have to replace. AT&T will be doing work there and also the Coast Guard, which, by contract, now maintains the light. They come here occasionally from their headquarters on Star Island, about six miles away.”

“Could I come up and visit you? Maybe we could have dinner sometime.”

I was thinking of the view up there. The hill upon which it sits is 100 feet above the rocks. The lighthouse is a further 80 feet up. You can see all the way to the horizon in every direction—three ways out across the ocean and the fourth to the road leading to downtown Montauk and the Hamptons. The sunrises must be incredible. And with the Historical Society owning the property, no real estate taxes.

“You’d be amazed how many of my friends have called me asking if I’d like some company since I agreed to take on this job.”

“I’d be another,” I said.

Joe Gaviola, the new lighthouse keeper, is not only a Wall Street investor and a lifelong fisherman, but is moving to the lighthouse as the culmination of a long life experience.

Born and raised in Dix Hills, he threw his first surfcasting line into the Atlantic Ocean off the boulders at Montauk in 1960, when he was six years old. His parents had been coming out to vacation at the Snug Harbor Motel in Montauk. Soon afterwards, they bought property and built a vacation home on the shore of Lake Montauk. Both his parents loved Montauk in the summertime.

But Joe found he loved coming out here all year round. And he loved fishing, both surfcasting and offshore. He came out every summer when he was in college in Rhode Island to work as a mate on the fishing boats.

There were tragedies in his life in the late 1980s. His eldest daughter became critically ill. Although she completely recovered, he resigned from the corporate world when she became ill, and his wife, an attorney, also resigned, so the two could live with her in Montauk full time during her recovery.

As a result, the pair decided to make a life for themselves in Montauk. He joined the Board of Suffolk Bancorp in 1992, and became its chairman in 2012.

He also started numerous businesses in Montauk. He opened Gaviola’s Market at the fishing village. He opened Finest Kind Wine & Liquors. He started up a business called Chris-Nic, named for his daughters. And he opened Atlantic East Realty. He also became a leader out at the fishing village, and together with John Gosman spearheaded the formation of the Montauk Harbor Association, which cleaned up the jumble of the fishing village signs, installed rustic street lights, put in sidewalks and worked to remove trash and junked boats, making it attractive for visitors.

“Montauk now runs the biggest striped bass contest in the country,” he told me.

He also took positions in the East Hampton Town government, which is the township that Montauk is in.

Gaviola was chairman of the town finance board after the McGintee years, when the Town nearly went bankrupt. And he has served for six years on the Planning Board.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

It’s me, Joe. Dan. Wondered if I could come in and watch the Yankee game on TV with you tonight?

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