A Lobster Man’s Calming Touch

Perry Duryea III will be honored as the Montauk Chamber of Commerce’s man of the year tomorrow in a season’s end party at Gurney’s Inn. Janis Hewitt

       If it weren’t for the lure of Montauk, his hometown, Perry (Chip) Duryea III might have become a man of the cloth. Instead, he’s a man who is often seen in fishing waders and sometimes smells of lobster juice. Tomorrow night, he will be the man of the year at the Montauk Chamber of Commerce’s end-of-season party at Gurney’s Inn.

       Born and raised in Montauk, Mr. Duryea left to attend Colgate University and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in philosophy and religion. He considered attending divinity school. “I thought seriously about it, quite seriously. But I always thought I’d come home,” he said Saturday from his office at Duryea’s Lobster Deck, which he owns.

       As an elder of the Montauk Community Church, he offers sermons when a minister is away or when the church is in between ministers. “Religion is just something that always interested me,” he said.

       While attending Colgate, he did chores around the campus, like mowing the grass, and in return was provided with free flying lessons. He eventually became a licensed, twin-engine-rated pilot, which was handy, as his family owns the small Montauk Airport on East Lake Drive. He loved flying, he said, but after going through chemotherapy treatments for cancer he developed cataracts in both eyes and was forced to give it up.

       The airport is now listed for sale, Mr. Duryea said. “There is no revenue from a small airport, and the liability insurance is huge!”

       After graduating from Colgate in 1971, he went to business school at Columbia University and graduated in 1974 with a master’s degree in business administration. It was the same year he returned to his hometown to help run the seafood business, Perry Duryea & Son Inc., owned by his grandfather Perry Duryea Sr. with E.B. Tuthill, whom he eventually bought out.

       He and his wife, Wendy, happily settled in and had two daughters, Amy and Erica. He is a lifetime director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, a director of Fighting Chance, a cancer resource center in Sag Harbor, and president of the Montauk Airport, among other posts. He continues his education with online classes through which he would like to become a certified mental health counselor.

       When Mr. Duryea learned he had cancer in 2007, he started a support group for Montauk residents, who meet monthly at the lobster restaurant or in his office, which has a large sitting area with vintage Montauk photographs decorating the walls. He said people with cancer like to talk to others about what they are going through. But it’s not always their illness that they discuss. “They can talk about whatever they want. We even talk about football sometimes,” he said with a laugh.

       “It gives people with a shared experience an opportunity to get together and talk about it. It’s important for them to talk,” he said, adding that a New York City doctor, who obviously recognized Mr. Duryea’s ability to soothe people, has referred to him more than 60 cancer patients who call him on the phone just to talk.

       “I try to relate to them, to their situation. I’ve had radiation, I’ve had chemo, I’ve had doubts and fears. I can relate to what they’re going through and they know that.”

       After his grandfather died, the business on Tuthill Road was passed down to Mr. Duryea’s father, Perry Duryea Jr., who rose through the political ranks and was elected as a New York State assemblyman, going on to become Republican minority leader and then speaker. He ran for governor in 1978 but lost to Hugh Carey.

       The elder Mr. Duryea had a state office building in Hauppauge named after him, and a huge framed picture of him hangs in the lobby entrance of the Montauk Post Office. He died in 2004.

       His father, Mr. Duryea said, never failed to do something he said he would do, whether it was at a meeting or returning a phone call. “That was his example that I follow.”

       His own political aspirations were not quite as ambitious as his father’s. He said he had been asked to run for every type of political office from Congress to East Hampton Town Board, but preferred to stay behind the scenes. “I really enjoyed the organizational part of it.”

       It was his father, he said, who added the wholesale lobster business. But one day, father and son were standing on the dock that overlooks Fort Pond Bay and wondered what else they could do to enhance the property. They decided on an informal dining area where you could bring your own beer or wine and sit outside to enjoy some of Montauk’s freshest lobsters and most beautiful sunsets.

       Years ago, Duryea’s Lobster House was known as a wholesale business, but in recent years the retail end of it has overshadowed that. Of course, they still sell from the fish house, but it’s mostly the restaurant that has become the lucrative portion of the business. Mr. Duryea, his wife, and two Irish girls ran the restaurant the first year it opened. “Oh boy, this is going to be tough,” he remembers thinking. But it worked. “People love it because they come back year after year and it’s always the same.”

       But that, too, might soon change, as the entire site is listed for sale. He said he has an emotional attachment to the business but if it sells it will be time to go. He and his wife already own property on the eastern shore of Maryland, where they will probably settle. “Cancer taught me that change can be good,” he said.

       Besides working the family business, Mr. Duryea is a published writer. He writes poems and maintains a journal, which, with his life stories, must be quite interesting. He said he has lived through 12 to 15 hurricanes in Montauk. Hurricane Bob stands out, as it broke up a large part of his building. “That was a bad one. It was even worse than Sandy.”

       He has vivid memories of Hurricane Carol in 1954, too. At the time he lived in a house up near the Montauk School that had a wide picture window through which he had a good view of the ocean. He was home from school that day and screamed for his mother, Betty Duryea, and they watched as a wave rolled over the dunes near the Montauk I.G.A. and broke over the supermarket, flooding the entire area.

       Living his whole life in Montauk has given him a clear view of its changes. He said when he graduated from the eighth grade at the Montauk School, he was one of 12 graduates, four of whom were from the Air Force base at Camp Hero. Generally speaking, Mr. Duryea thinks the most recent changes in Montauk have been a good thing. “I like it. An area has to stay viable to survive. It needs change and it needs capital. Some of it, though, has to be monitored.”

       It’s almost ironic that once again Mr. Duryea is following in the footsteps of this father, who was the chamber’s man of the year in 2003.

       This year’s party starts at 6:30 p.m. and tickets, which can be purchased at the door or in advance at the chamber office, cost $80 per person.