PITA NewsLetter

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Spring  2018    

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Sheila Russo:

PI Loses an Island Mainstay

by Dirk Messelaar, PITA

“Do you know the movie ‘On Golden Pond’?” Dr. Russo asked me quietly as he lifted his black-framed glasses onto his forehead. “Well, this Plum Island cottage was our Golden Pond,” he continued as his eyes filled with tears,” a place where we could be ourselves with our family and leave our busy lives behind.” It was apparent that Vince was still raw from his wife Sheila’s accidental death a few weeks ago. And they would not be celebrating 55 years of happy marriage this June.

Sheila Russo, a nurse and homemaker, and her husband Vince, a well-known local surgeon, had spent their summers in a small, beach-front summer cottage on Northern Boulevard since 1973 when they were in their early 30’s. Married in 1963, they lived in Newburyport in a house within walking distance of Anna Jaques Hospital where Vince practiced. In the 1970’s, many of the other doctors and colleagues had summer houses on Cape Cod. But Sheila and Vince shuddered at the thought of the long commute to a summer retreat, and also realized that Plum Island offered a much quieter refuge. They bought the three-bedroom, unheated cottage and began a journey on “Golden Pond” with their four children and fifteen grandchildren.

In the first few years at the PI cottage, they began to notice all of the broken glass, especially broken bottles, on the beach in front of the cottage.  Some of the bottles and glass had been left behind by beachgoers and many bottles had washed up on shore after being thrown over board. Sheila and all four of her children began to routinely police the shoreline and pick up the glass. Vince also became acutely aware of the glass shard’s danger on PI’s beach: ever-increasing first aid and surgery on the cut feet of unsuspecting tourists. Opposed by a local bottling company, Sheila and Vince took a small, but important, role in making the public aware of the environmental and health dangers inherent in the wanton disposal of glass bottles. The Massachusetts Bottle Bill was passed in 1976, and the dramatic decline in the number of glass bottles on our beaches is still apparent today.

The family’s focus on environmental issues resurfaced in subsequent years. Sheila and her husband became strong advocates for municipal water and sewer on Plum Island. They recognized its importance in improving and preserving the island’s fragile ecosystem. But, at the same time, they understood that many of the objections came from a few PI residents hoping to buy out frustrated property owners so that those purchasing could develop larger parcels. In addition, later some of the Russo kids worked for the Youth Conservation Corps, and son Joe worked for the Parker River Refuge. 

Sheila’s “homemaker” years were sandwiched between her nursing at Boston City Hospital, B.U. Medical Center, and Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital. After 12 years in the field, she became a full-time homemaker for Vince and her four children — Teresa,

Joseph, Katrina, and Anita — for the next 24 years. Then, after the kids flew the nest, she returned to work at a rehab hospital. Earning certification as a rehabilitation nurse (CRRN), she became a case manager leading the pulmonary group

— retiring in 1999.

It was evident to everyone who met Sheila that she was a highly intelligent, remarkably well organized but humble and practical person.(Vince is proud to recall that she was, indeed, valedictorian of her high school class.) Before they were married, Vince tried to convince her to attend medical school:  she had the temperament, knowledge and judgment of a very good physician. When, independently, I asked her last year if she hadn’t gone to medical school because of some gender bias, she said “No, I really didn’t want that.  I was so happy as a nurse.”

Sheila’s 24 years as a “homemaker” and many years as a nurse were intertwined with many, many volunteer activities  — something many of her friends and acquaintances only realized after she passed away. For example, beginning in the early 1970’s, she was a Red Cross blood drive volunteer for 16 years and, during most of those years, served as Treasurer of the Anna Jaques Hospital Aid Association. Also, since 2004, Sheila kept the books and added warmth and common sense to Board meetings as PITA’s Treasurer for many of those years.

But the summers at their PI cottage had earned center stage in their rich, family-cantered lives.

As Vince was still working at the hospital, Sheila taught the children how to swim at The Basin. But they had to wait for their father to come home from work before they could jump in. “When’s dad coming home?” became a constant refrain. Later, the swimming lessons continued at Newburyport’s YWCA. One of Sheila’s daughters became a head lifeguard on Newbury Beach. Some days, Sheila could see her daughter in the distance on the beach, guiding the other lifeguards through their training exercises.

Sheila and the children would occasionally use the 16-foot skiff moored in The Basin. Once, she took her four children fishing for flounder in the Merrimack River. They ran out of gas,

but floated past some eel fisherman. One of them lifted an eel toward Sheila’s and said “How would you like to have one of these?” — with the double entendre not lost on Sheila. After a little chuckle, the wise-guys towed Sheila’s boat back to The Basin. The family had 12 lobster pots for a few years, and although they caught only a few, Sheila always enjoyed preparing the local delicacy for others. In other years, the family sailed a 20-foot Lightning at the American Yacht Club, but Sheila especially enjoyed watching the four children, with Joe at the helm, race informally against other Lightning class sailboats.

The family watched as Harry O’s island parades walked by their cottage. The kids would ask the parents for $1 for cotton candy, but Vince would tease them and give them only 25 cents. “What

happened,” Vince asked the kids,” when you offered only 25 cents?” The four children replied together with glee ”We got the same cotton candy as the other kids.”

Sheila encouraged her children to take on various jobs on the island. As the girls got older, they began babysitting for neighbors and family friends on Plum Island. Sheila provided the guidance needed for them to become trusted sitters. She used this experience to develop and teach a babysitting certification program at the Newburyport YWCA. Often Sheila walked the family’s golden retriever Rusty on the beach (when that was permitted),or along Northern Boulevard. Or she would tend to her garden of wild flowers in the many containers in front of the cottage.

The Russo’s cottage was near the island’s Catholic Church St. James Mission (before the church was closed about 15 years ago). As practicing Catholics, Sheila and her family were actively — and passively — involved in church activities. The Russo’s attended either Saturday or Sunday Mass and befriended many of the priests there over the years, including Father Leonard and

Father Sears. The Russo girls were regular “readers” during Masses. Some of her children would become attendants at the church’s parking lot. And Sheila even made curtains for the confessional upon Father Sears’ request. But the family was also passively engaged with the nearby church. Dr. Russo once the told Father Leonard,” It’s so nice that I can often hear your homily from across the street when the church windows are open.”  Father Leonard quickly replied with a wry smirk, “Then I would expect to see the contribution envelope full when it’s passed forward!”

Sheila Russo was a patient, kind, practical, intelligent hardworking mother, wife, grandmother, nurse, and community volunteer who will be missed.

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Inside This Issue

-Sheila Russo

-Renew PITA membership!

-Jane McNeal

-PITA Townsend Propane discount

-PlumFest May 19th

-MRBA REPORT: Plum Island Dredge

-PI Beautification 7pm 1st Tues

- Join PITA at plumislandtaxpayers.org

- Rent PITA Hall inexpensively as a Member

- Find PITA now on FaceBook to Contribute photos, comments and listen to @PitaTwita for local up to date happenings.

Renew PITA Membership for 2018 Annual Membership  Drive

$20/year individual membership

$30/year family membership

If you have not already done so, please renew your membership now and support PITA.

Send dues and donations to PITA  at 8 Plum Island Blvd.  Newbury, MA 01951

Or, Contact Susan at sailpi@comcast.net