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Bill Akin, Rooting for the Wild World

Mon, 09/11/2023 - 16:43
Among the memorabilia from Bill Akin's time on the water are a large reel he used to catch his last swordfish around 1965, a photograph of the 700-plus pound tuna whose head used to adorn the Akins' living room wall, and a surfboard.
Mark Segal

Bill Akin has stories, and to hear him tell them, or to read them, is to be captivated. Some are fiction, many are fact, and together they form a portrait of a place -- Montauk -- and a well-lived life, his own.

Integral to both is sportfishing. The Akin family business, Hudson Wire, was in Westchester County, and they lived in North Tarrytown, N.Y., but a vacation house in Westhampton had been their hideaway since the 1940s.

"My earliest memories," Mr. Akin said during a conversation at his Montauk home, "are driving from Westhampton out to Montauk on 27, having dinner at the Shagwong after fishing, and then falling asleep in the car as we drove back to Westhampton, past the duck farms and the ice houses."

By the time he was 8, his parents rented in Montauk for three years before buying Carl Fisher's own house from his widow, Margaret Fisher, in 1956. It stayed in the Akin family until 2021, when East Hampton Town bought it, using the community preservation fund. It is now run by the Montauk Historical Society.

Summers in Montauk meant fishing. "I'd fish on the boat; when they were cleaning up I'd fish on the dock, then when I came home I'd ask my parents to drive me down to Fort Pond, and I'd fish in the lake, the pond, in the evening, until it got dark and they'd pick me up. When I was older, I'd sleep on the boat, and I'd fish off the dock at night for striped bass. I did a helluva lot of fishing." 

In 1993, Mr. Akin joined three friends on a trip to Australia to fish for black marlin. "Fishing on the Great Barrier Reef is as good as it gets. It was a weeklong charter, a 40-foot boat with a captain, two mates, and a 100-foot mothership for meals and a private cabin to sleep in. That was the end of my big-game fishing days."

He still takes a rod down to the beach to cast for bass, "but I'm not very good at it." The cost of owning and maintaining a big-game fishing boat -- his father sold the family's in the 1970s -- was one reason Mr. Akin no longer goes to sea, but a more important one can be found in "The Golden Age of Montauk Sportfishing," which he published in 2021.

"Today I find it impossible to separate what's happening out on the ocean from the blind obliteration of wild creatures happening every day on dry land. And just like there are far fewer fish, I am aware that there are far fewer songbirds each summer dawn . . . I find myself rooting for the wild world to hang in there."

His book emerged from conversations he and Joe Gaviola had back in 1994 at the Tipperary Inn, with six Montauk charter boat captains. They recorded two more old sea dogs later on, but it was only 25 years later, when a 91-page transcript of the tapes turned up, that he and Mr. Gaviola, now the president of the Montauk Historical Society, realized their importance. 

Mr. Akin went to Colgate University, where he majored in economics. "I probably didn't take full advantage of college, although I learned a lot about hi-low poker," he said with a smile.

After a stint in the Navy and 13 years in the city as an advertising Mad Man, he left to work with his father and brother in the family business, but eventually, he said, told himself, "I've had enough of this. I have things I want to do in Montauk."

In 1978, Mr. Akin was living in a caretaker's cottage on the Carl Fisher property. One day, a friend from Manhattan, a classical musician, came to visit, and he showed him around the old Fisher house.

"There's a very beautiful big room there, and I said, 'This would be a wonderful place to have a concert.' My friend, who was chair cello of the American Ballet and teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, said, 'Let's do that.' So for three or four years, starting in 1978, we held an invitation-only concert in the Great Room."

Those were the seeds of what has grown into Music for Montauk. Years passed and the concert series, incorporated by Mr. Akin as the Montauk Chamber Music Society, had languished, when, at a dinner party, Ruth Widder -- a Montauk homeowner with multiple connections to the New York classical music world -- urged him to resume it, and offered to help.

"I said four things: We're going to change the name to Music for Montauk. We're going to do free concerts at the Montauk gym. We will not restrict ourselves to classical only. And, we will do all of our concerts in the off-season, because it's intended for the local people. She said, 'Yeah, why not?' "

After Ms. Widder's unexpected death in 2013, Mr. Akin was preparing to close down the program. Then a friend told him Lilah Gosman was planning to establish a 501(c)(3) and start producing concerts in Montauk during the summer. "I said, tell her not to, because I've got one. It's called the Montauk Chamber Music Society." Ms. Gosman and her husband, Milos Repicky, relaunched Music for Montauk in the spring of 2015.

Working with the architect Frank Hollenbeck, Mr. Akin and his wife, Monika, built their current house in 1991, a few hundred yards down an old driveway from the Carl Fisher House. While it was taking shape and he was spending more time in Montauk, friends convinced him to join the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. He was its president from 1999 to 2010. 

The primary focus of the environmental movement in Montauk and East Hampton, from the 1970s into the current century, was on open-space preservation, Mr. Akin said. His tenure covered years when Shadmoor State Park and several other large parcels were saved. 

"But by 2010 that had begun to change," he said by email. "New issues such as shoreline management, water quality, and hamlet planning emerged as higher priorities," which meant dealing with agencies at every level of government as well as coordinating with biologists and other professionals. The complexities led him to step down from his voluntary post in favor of hiring a professional, though he has remained on C.C.O.M.'s honorary board. 

Mr. Akin is working on a new collection of writings, tentatively titled "The Equanimity of Fishes: Short Stories, Poems, and Reflections From Seven Decades in Montauk." Some pieces are fictional, some autobiographical, and some, like the essay "Summer's for Sale," are ruminations on Montauk's transformation into a place where "Down in the nightclubs, out at the beach resorts, and everywhere in the village shops, summer is for sale. But up on this hill [where he lives], wrapped in a familiar mist of present and past, I'm not buying."

Another piece, "The Equanimity of Fishes," is about a father's decision to take his 13-year-old son fishing in Bimini, in the Bahamas. While Mr. Akin has been to Bimini many times, this story is fiction, and fascinating fiction as well, about the boy's exposure on the trip to some less-than-savory adult behavior.

In addition to Montauk and the environment, the material has "some introspection on the broader human condition," said the author, but he's not yet sure if the book will ever see light. "I'll have to decide if I think it's good enough to go ahead," he said. "I'm an old man, and I hate the technical hassles that go with self-publishing."

But who knows. "I've given up fishing, my golf game sucks, I surfed for 50 years," but a shoulder injury put an end to that. He also played the guitar, wrote songs, and performed with a woman who sang with him but, unlike him, had a great voice and could remember the lyrics. Not a bad life.

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