By Kathryn G. Menu
Dee Dee O’Connell first met Nada Barry 40 years ago when O’Connell’s mother decided it was time for her daughter to get a summer job. Dragged into Sag Harbor’s The Wharf Shop, O’Connell was hired by Barry, and has spent the better part of her life employed at the iconic toy store and gift shop.
“Nada has been my mentor, a good friend and a great teacher,” said O’Connell in an interview last week. “Everyone thinks she is my mother and you know what, she is my second mom.”
O’Connell is by no means alone.
In many ways, whether through her work as the proprietor of The Wharf Shop, as the founder of The Sag Harbor Youth Committee and co-founder of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Barry has become a mother to Sag Harbor Village. Her civic pride is evidenced in Barry’s attendance at virtually every board meeting in the village and beyond, from the board of trustees to the John Jermain Memorial Library to the school board and the Noyac Civic Council.
“I grew up with Nada’s daughters, so I have known her since I was about 10 years old,” said Sag Harbor resident and New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. “She has a singular dedication to the welfare of the Village of Sag Harbor that I doubt anyone could top. She obviously loves the village and her business and being a part of the downtown, but if you look at all of the things she has been involved with it has all been for the public good and for the good of the community. I have never seen her ask for anything for just herself. She exemplifies what being a good citizen is all about.”
Originally from England, but raised in New York, Barry started coming to Sag Harbor as a teenager and throughout college after her mother built a modern home in North Haven.
In 1962, after living in Aruba and in Rockland County, Barry brought her three children — a fourth was later born when Barry married Bob Barry — to Sag Harbor shortly after her mother passed away.
In 1968, Barry and a partner opened The Wharf Shop next to Bob Barry’s mother’s dry goods store, hoping to give Sag Harbor residents a place to shop for quality gift items.
“Up until that point, in Sag Harbor we felt like everything was geared towards old people, people in their 50s or 60s,” laughed Barry in an interview last week. “And here I am in my 80s now. But really, nothing contemporary was available. I was a child developmental psychology major, and my mother started the first educational nursery school in England in 1928, so I was brought up in that vein. I wanted to offer creative toys, wooden blocks, things that lasted and there was nothing like that.”
While Sag Harbor has become known for its art galleries, it was in Barry’s Wharf Shop that the first art gallery was mounted, in the rear of the store.
“We served coffee in the morning, and tea with crackers and good cheese in the afternoon,” remembered Barry. “Local artists would come by and at that point there was really no other place to show.”
Gwen Waddington, one of Barry’s four children and a manager of The Wharf Shop, said the store was geared towards local crafts, but it being the 1960s and 1970s also towards “groovy gifts and mod gifts.”
“Their motto was, it was ‘The shop with the flair for the unusual’,” said Waddington.
“Through the shop and her other work, Mom, over the years has mentored and helped out so many young adults,” said Waddington. “If they needed housing or loans, she would find a way and provide jobs for kids from the high school who were struggling. It didn’t always work out, but she always did it.”
Barry’s commitment to the children and teens of Sag Harbor also manifested itself in the creation of The Hampton Day School.
At the time, remembered Barry, the Pierson School — it housed the elementary through high school grades — didn’t provide the programming she wanted for her own children, Natasha, Derek, Gwen and Trebor. After talking with the then superintendent of all public schools on the East End, Barry was told school district voters would never spend the money needed for the progressive education she thought students should have. So she, and a group of others, started The Hampton Day School in Bridgehampton with just 30 pupils hailing from Montauk to Hampton Bays.
Eventually, the school became the lower campus of the Ross School, but Barry continued her work trying to create a better community for the children of Sag Harbor and beyond, founding the Sag Harbor Youth Committee.
About 13 years ago, Barry said many teens in Sag Harbor seemed to have little to do after school, save for the district’s athletic program.
“There just wasn’t enough going on besides sports,” she said.
Barry and Linley Whelan started the committee after discovering all of the light bulbs from the Christmas trees lining Main Street had been unscrewed and smashed on the streets. The duo sent surveys out to the children of the public schools, as well as Stella Maris Regional School and the Hampton Day School to find out what teens were interested in. It also held two “speak outs,” where students were invited to share their concerns and desires with community leaders in an effort to effect change.
The youth committee then looked for sponsors to create arts, drama and music programming in the area and developed a brochure to inform parents, and kids, about what local programming was available.
This year, the youth committee launched www.sagharborkids.org, an online portal that provides much of the same information, but updated on a weekly basis and is interactive.
“We wanted to come into the 21st Century,” Barry said in a November interview. Acknowledging there “are certain people who only go on to the Internet,” she felt strongly the committee could benefit from having a presence there and could better serve the community’s young people.
It took the better part of the year to complete — Barry said they began work on the research for the new site last winter — but there is now a digital resource, with current information and links for Sag Harbor’s youth to learn more about activities and events across the East End.
The Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) program, led by Debbie Skinner, grew out of the youth committee and continues to provide programming for children and teens in Sag Harbor.
“It was a real time in Sag Harbor when children felt there was little to do and Nada heard that and tried to communicate to children and their families all the wonderful things for children to do out here,” said Skinner.
Barry’s focus has not just been on the children of Sag Harbor, but the community as a whole.
“She is passionate about civic involvement and education,” said Waddington. In addition to having a mother that was an educator and activist, Barry’s father was a politician in England in the Parliament’s House of Commons.
“It’s innate in her personality and character to be involved and her parents were role models,” said Waddington. “I think it has pushed her to go to meetings and be socially active in the community.”
After being denied a seat at The Round Table, an organization of business leaders in the village, for being a woman, Barry teamed up with Dave Lee and Jack Taggliasacchi to found the Mercants Association of Sag Harbor, which would eventually become the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
However, her involvement does not stop with the business community. From the Mashashimuet Park Board to the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees and the John Jermain Memorial Library Board of Trustees, Barry is a constant presence at virtually every public meeting she can get to.
Barry said she was concerned seeing the secrecy that existed among several public boards, and decided to crack that veil by paying attention, attending meetings and speaking up.
“And now, I’m just nosy,” she joked. “I like knowing what is going on, but also that I can be helpful in networking. I can tell the library board what is happening in the village or call the chamber on an issue, or tell the youth committee about a new program at the library. There is so much intersection between these groups and I have the freedom to really pay attention to what is going on.”
“Part of it is just giving back to the community,” Barry continued. “Believe me, it is not sanity.”
“Sag Harbor has been her mission in all aspects of her life and she has really given me a boost into it,” said O’Connell, who is a board member of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “She is a real teacher and very concerned citizen, and not just because she has a business. Even if she didn’t have The Wharf Shop, she would still be very involved, trying to help where she can and voice her opinions.
“Nada is a regular fixture at the village board meetings,” said Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride. “She is involved in the community as a whole as well. While sometimes she and I are on different sides of an issue, I cannot say enough good things about that woman. Everything she does is for the benefit of the community at large.
“Her contribution to the library is a piece of her commitment to Sag Harbor and her commitment to all of us – people, families businesses,” said John Jermain Memorial Library Director Catherine Creedon. “The library has certainly benefited from her input, and her willingness to state the truth as a form of support. I see her doing that at all the other village meetings too. Her very presence forces us all to be more accountable and more mindful of our actions.”
Creedon is a mother to two children who she shopped regularly for at The Wharf Shop, and she credits the care Barry, Waddington and O’Connell have taken in selecting the items available to the children of Sag Harbor as inspiring her sons.
“My oldest son is now an architect and my younger son works with computers and I know both of them were influenced by the Lego sets we got at The Wharf Shop,” said Creedon. “The educational toys we were able to find there helped inspire creativity in both of my kids.”