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Faces of the Oyster Festival: September 10, 2010

Who’s That Woman Shucking Oysters? C’mon, You Know Her!

The first of a series on the people who make the Oyster Festival happen.

For many returning visitors to the Oyster Festival, the feast has a face.

The face belongs to the woman shucking and serving oysters at the Oyster Bay Rotary Club’s booth near the Food Court entrance. She smiles through a stream of conversations, shucking bivalves, passing plates of briny oysters across the counter.

C’mon. You know her.

The face belongs to Donna Lee. Serving oysters from behind the counter for a decade makes her a kind of Oyster Festival icon - a face everyone seems to know, though she doesn’t seek publicity.

People spot her in Oyster Bay, Locust Valley and Bayville. People know her face across the tri-state area. Folks even recognize her in Japan, thanks to Japanese TV news crews.

“I look forward to the third weekend in October and everyone knows where they will find me,” says Ms. Lee, a 15-year Rotarian. “I meet people I haven’t seen in 40 years on the oyster booth line. I meet people from all over the world on that line.”

She looks forward to seeing them, too. During this stretch she has learned to appreciate the lengths to which oyster enthusiasts will go to indulge their taste buds.

“Many people arrive prepared with their own brands of dipping sauces,” Ms. Lee points out. “People even ask for un-shucked oysters to take home.”

Hers isn’t a solo act. Helping out at the booth are Dave Relyea (of Frank M. Flowers & Sons Inc., who grows, harvests and delivers the oysters fresh from the pristine Oyster Bay Harbor); husband Scott and various family members and friends.

Debra Goyena, Ms. Lee’s sister and fellow Rotarian, handles the club’s car raffle and information booth nearby, often drops by to lend a hand at the oyster booth.

The assistance provides some breathing room - the pace can be frantic, and oyster shucking and selling is done standing up. Lunch comes on the run, of samples of food from nearby not-for-profit booths.

“What motivates me is knowing this is all for a good cause,” Ms. Lee says. Proceeds from the booth fund community projects, nonprofit causes and human services for local residents given through the Oyster Festival Charitable Foundation run by Rotary. Sales at other booths in the Food Court go directly to the nonprofits that staff them, providing those organizations with operating funds.

“We sell about 45,000 oysters over the weekend,” weather permitting, said Ms. Lee. “We are so busy the time really flies!”

Fond Memories

Born 51 years ago in Queens, Ms. Lee remembers taking the Long Island Rail Road with her mother to Bayville to visit her uncle at his home near the beach. Her mother bought a home nearby and in 1966 the family relocated to the Gold Coast. After graduating from college, Ms. Lee went on to obtain a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia. She returned to Bayville and opened Green Apple Mortgage, a home finance brokerage, and began a family.

She hasn’t strayed far from her roots.

“I was brought into the Oyster Bay Rotary Club by my stepfather and mentor, Harry Pinkerton,” Ms. Lee recalls. “He was a past district governor and celebrated more than 50 years in Rotary.”

Ms. Lee got involved in 1995, when the festival was on Audrey Avenue. Ms. Lee sold fried clam strips in front of the Oyster Bay Post Office where the double Rotary booth was located.

About five years later, she got a call from Tom Reardon. The longtime Oyster Festival chairman wanted her support should the Rotary assume supervision of the Festival.

“Support?

“I was - in the moment I answered the phone,” she recalls with enthusiasm. “How I miss Tom,” she added. Reardon died last year.

Ms. Lee became a charter member of the Rotary’s Festival Committee. Over the years she has also served as Oyster Bay Rotary Club president and Rotary district governor. This year she helped start a new service program, Rotary Rides!, providing bus transportation for disabled residents to and from medical appointments – an initiative that replaces the services of the MTA Able Rides that were discontinued locally.

Besides her Rotary activities, Ms. Lee participates in various community causes throughout the year including Girl Scouts, the Bayville PTA and the Locust Valley Middle School Parents Council. She is also a parent member of the Locust Valley School District. Additionally, she teaches Sunday school at the Village Church in Bayville.

This year, she has been asked by the Democratic Party to run for a seat on the Oyster Bay Town Council.

The experience of working with fellow Rotarians in all circumstances - in good weather and, like last year, in terrible weather - has reinforced the importance of collegiality and shared mission.

“Somehow everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets the job done,” Ms. Lee says. “The funniest thing is that while you’re cleaning up and paying the last bill you are thinking of ways to make it better next year.”

(The above was submitted by ImageQuest Communications.)