Volume 18, Number 3 | JUNE10 -16, 2005

Home sweet… Governors Isle:
Army ‘brats’ recall island living

Downtown Express photo by Talisman Brolin
Trinity Parish’s Episcopal church.

By Ellen Keohane

Many New Yorkers look at Governors Island, just 800 yards off the coast of Lower Manhattan, and see prime real estate that would be perfect for a conference center, hotel, college or theater. Few look at it and see home.

“They were the most beautiful years of my life,” said Donald Havenick, 69, who first moved to Governors Island in 1947 when he was 12. Havenick, his brother, stepmother and father, who was a major and the post adjutant in the U.S. Army, lived on the island until early 1951.

Havenick’s family lived in an apartment in Fort Jay, a star-shaped fort surrounded by a dry moat, which was used for military purposes before the Revolutionary War. Now, the apartments in the center of the landmark fort are empty and many have fallen into disrepair.

No one has lived on Governors Island since 1996, when the Coast Guard base on the island closed. Before the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army occupied the island from 1800 until 1966.

In early 2003, the federal government gave the island back to New York – the historic 22 acres is managed by the National Park Service and 150 acres by the Governors Island Education and Preservation Corporation, a state-city authority. GIEPEC is looking for ideas on how to develop parts of the island for public use. The deadline for submissions is June 20.

“I know every inch of that island. It was my playground for four years,” Havenick said. During the summers Havenick worked as a caddy on the island’s golf course, which is now overgrown, and shined shoes for extra money on the Governors Island ferry. He was also the island’s paperboy. Havenick personally delivered the paper to Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, the commanding general at that time, he said. “His wife sometimes invited me in for cookies and milk.”

Havenick, who now lives on E 25th St., continues to keep in touch with six of his school buddies from the island, who are now scattered all over the country, he said. With permission from the Coast Guard, Havenick visited the island 15 years ago, when he gave his daughter Dona Marie a tour of the island. He hasn’t been back since, but is helping to organize a Governors Island reunion for next summer with other former Governors Island Army brats. More than 300 people have expressed interest in the reunion, including Coast Guard people, who are also invited, he said.

Edith Bartley, 65, is reminded of the years she spent on the island whenever she looks out her apartment windows in Brooklyn Heights, where she can see the Governors Island ferry travel back and forth, she said.

Bartley lived on Governors Island with her brother, two sisters, mother and father, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army at the time. The family lived on the island from November 1951 until January 1954. Before moving to Governors Island, her family had moved almost every year. “It was the longest I’d lived anywhere since kindergarten,” she said.

On a visit to the island last week, Bartley pointed to where her former home once stood. It was torn down by the Coast Guard and replaced with more modern and denser apartment buildings. The Coast Guard called her old neighborhood “Liberty Village,” most likely because of its view of the Statue of Liberty, said Michael Shaver, the chief ranger for Governors Island.

Bartley finished seventh grade and completed eighth grade on the island. Because Governors Island didn’t have a high school, she went to Curtis High School on Staten Island. Every morning she would take the Governors Island ferry to Lower Manhattan, where she would switch ferries with her classmates to go to Staten Island.

There were around 40 teenagers who used to run around together on the island, said Bartley. Because of the island’s size, the community that lived there became very close. As a result, there were no distinctions between officers’ and enlisted men’s kids, she said. Everyone hung out with each other.

Bartley remembered dances on Saturday nights at the YMCA, which is now boarded up with its pool drained. They also had parties in the Officer’s Club, which is now stripped of furniture. One day all of the kids cut school to go sledding, and everyone came in for cocoa afterwards, she said. “It was a lot of fun.”

After living on Governors Island, Bartley’s family moved to Iowa, where she met her husband in high school. She later moved back to New York City when her husband was offered a job as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Bartley always kept her “toe in the water” when it came to Governors Island, she said. When her three daughters were young, Barkley arranged Brownie exchanges with Coast Guard children on Governors Island. Bartley plans to go to the reunion — if it works out, she said.

Children’s book author and two-time Newbery Medal winner, Lois Lowry, 68, also lived on the island with her parents, brother and sister from January 1952 until June 1954 when she was in her teens. Her father was the chief of dental services in the Army at the time.

“It was like living in a small village from an earlier time, but with the larger, more sophisticated world at my fingertips,” Lowry, author of “The Giver” and “Number the Stars,” said. “What I most enjoyed was what was typical on Army posts: the immediate camaraderie with the other teenagers; there was never any awkwardness, being the new kid, trying to fit in, because we had all grown up that way.”

Hank Dresch, 60, lived on the island with wife and daughter off and on from 1981 until the Coast Guard base was closed in 1996. “Living on an island, you get to know people and families better because you work and live together,” Dresch said. While living on the island, he developed friendships that have lasted for more than 20 years.

As a Coast Guard commanding officer, Dresch’s last assignment on Governors Island was to coordinate the move of families off the island. “We were stunned, shocked at the orders [to close the base],” Dresch said. “It was very sad to have to give up such a good place to live and work.”

Many of Governors Island’s former residents have their own ideas about the island’s future. Bartley would like to see a military museum on the island, while Havenick thinks having a school of higher education on the island would be great. As for Lowry, “I would love to see some kind of school or college on the island, providing kids with that same wonderful mix that I once enjoyed.”

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