Island Profile: Mike Bebon, always a man with a plan
by Charity Robey
Mike Bebon was deputy director of operations at the Brookhaven National Lab and a weekend Islander for 20-plus years when he got a call from someone at the Shelter Island Public Library asking if he would come take a look at the boiler.
In the midst of a renovation, a contractor was saying the Library needed a new one, so when somebody heard Mike was an engineer, they thought it can’t hurt to ask. He came, did an analysis of the whole building, told them the contractor was right, and gave them a list of ways they could reduce their energy requirements and save some money.
“They wanted me for the board after that,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the last time Mike was asked for his advice on Island matters. In addition to the Library board, the Community Housing Board and the Water Advisory Committee, he’s Second Vice Commander for the American Legion, and risk manager for Our Lady of the Isle.
Now he’s running for Town Council, his first try at elected office.
Mike was adopted by Joseph and Estelle Bebon in 1953 and grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in Maspeth, Queens. His father, of German descent, served in World War II, worked as an auto mechanic and could fix or build anything.
Mike’s mother, who was of Polish descent, worked during the war and stayed home to care for Mike afterwards.
She was an avid fan of the Lawrence Welk Show, and her admiration for Myron Floren, Lawrence Welk’s virtuosic accordion player, was the reason Mike took up the squeeze box.
At 16 he joined a band and during a practice session at the home of the saxophone player, he met Trish, a 15-year-old who lived two blocks away, and was the sax player’s cousin.
Mike and Trish grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same elementary school, but if not for the accordion, they might never have fallen in love. They married five years later.
When they started getting serious, Trish’s mother and father invited Mike’s parents over, and discovered that they already knew each other from the elementary school bus stop.
“It was a lovely neighborhood,” Mike remembered. “My mother’s best friend lived next door. Everyone had kids, and very traditional values. They didn’t go out much. They had a lot of parties, a lot of fun.”
Mike attended Newtown High School, showing an early interest in engineering. He signed up for ROTC and graduated from NYU in 1972 with a degree in mechanical engineering. After Air Force active duty, he went into the National Guard and served with the 106th Rescue Wing, stationed at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton.
He worked at Brooklyn Union, a New York utility company, and joined LILCO in 1976. “It was the worst,” he said. “Run like a 1940s utility with rigid rules and silliness. When I first started work, the manager said he really didn’t have anything for me to do, so please file those papers. I filed for two weeks.” (He should have asked Mike to look at the boiler.)
In 1977, he went to work at Plum Island Animal Disease Center and stayed for three-and-a-half years as chief engineer, a fascinating job that had the additional benefit of introducing him to Shelter Island. “Trish and I decided it would be cool to visit some islands, so we started with Block Island and then went to Shelter Island. We fell in love.”
From Plum Island, he went to work doing facility management at Brookhaven, working his way steadily up to deputy director of operations, which he did for more than 10 years.
Mike has been at Brookhaven for 39 years and is transitioning to half-time. Trish worked as a nurse at Stony Brook for 30 years. Shelter Island is now their year-round home.
The grandparent business has been good for them. Their oldest daughter Christy, born in 1974, lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband and two children and works as a nurse practitioner. Their daughter Karen, born in 1976, is a schoolteacher, who taught in New York, and is moving to Charleston with her husband and two children. Michelle, their third child, born in 1979, works as a literacy coach and lives in Sarasota, Florida with her husband and two children.
Although Rocky Point, in Suffolk County, was the family home for many years, Mike and Trish’s Island home is now the venue for grandparenting, especially in the month of July, when there is always a gathering of the clan.
One of Mike’s responsibilities at Brookhaven was managing issues around groundwater and surface water clean-up, and this experience made him want to better understand the science of the water issues that Shelter Island faces, especially the aquifer system, which is our sole source of fresh water.
“As I started to learn more, it was shocking,” he said.
The rest of Long Island has three aquifer formations from which fresh water can be drawn. He was disturbed to learn that although the Island has its own set of aquifers, two of them are already contaminated with salt water.
“We need to look hard at the traditional model — build a house, sink a well and put in a septic system,” he said. “We could look at regional supply wells instead of having a well in everyone’s back yard. We’re working on an integrated strategy proposal that the Water Advisory Committee will bring forward.”
Serving on the Community Housing Board has focused his attention on the lack of affordable housing, which translates into a slow slide of school enrollments and the erosion of a volunteer Fire Department.
“Do you think a paid fire department is going to put on a chicken barbecue? Do you go to the school play? You won’t see it happening,” he said. “And where are these young people going to work? The town needs to look at economic development.”
It took a couple of tries, but Mike now has a suitable boat for a grandfather of six. When his daughters were growing up, he sailed a Catalina 25, but once the nest was empty, it was a lot of work to sail single-handed.
He moved on to a 16-foot Tanzer, but it was too fast and unstable with grandkids aboard. He got a 19-foot Compac with a cabin three years ago, and took his 8-year-old grandson, Dylan, out.
“The wind was good, and I let him sail the boat. I didn’t touch the tiller and he was beaming,” Mike said.
What do you always have with you? A pen and a pad.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? The American Legion on a Friday night in the winter.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? San Francisco.
The last time you were elated? When our last grandchild, Josephine, was born.
What exasperates you? People who cannot make decisions.
The last time you were afraid? I had problems with my hearing and a benign tumor was the possible cause. It was ruled out.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The Chicken Barbecue.
Favorite movie? “A Christmas Carol,” the 1938 version. My dad was fanatical about watching it.